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U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
News Transcript

Presenter: Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne, Director for Operations, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lt. Gen. Carter Ham and Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Ryan Henry March 25, 2008

DoD News Briefing on Mistaken Shipment to Taiwan with Secretary of Air Force Wynne, Lt. Gen. Ham and Principal Deputy Undersecretary Henry

SEC. WYNNE: Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. My name is Michael Wynne, and I'm the secretary of the Air Force.

Last week, the Department of Defense learned that four non- nuclear nose cone assemblies and their associated electrical components for a ballistic missile where mistakenly shipped to Taiwan in the fall of 2006. These items were originally shipped in March 2005 from F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming to the Defense Logistics Agency warehouse at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. There are no nuclear or fissile materials associated with these items.

Upon learning of the error, the U.S. government took immediate action to acquire positive control of the components and arranged for their safe and secure recovery to the United States. These items have now been safely returned to the United States.

(To staff.) Please bring up the slides, so I can offer a visual perspective. Okay. The graphic on the slide indicates approximately the size of the device in the shipping container. It's about 22 inches long. And I brought with me a little plastic model -- this is not to scale -- but to tell you that this is what is on there. And it's a -- fuse assembly is a battery-powered electrical fuse. I'd like to point out that the assembly is classified, when it's real, but it does not contain any nuclear or fissile material.

The DOD has initiated an investigation to determine what happened and how. Preliminary information indicates that a shipment took place in response to a Foreign Military Sales Order from Taiwan for helicopter batteries. The Defense Logistics Agency mistakenly shipped these items instead of the requested batteries. It is our understanding that the shipment was placed in storage upon receipt.

The investigation will determine the integrity of the shipping containers and their contents during the foreign military sales process.

The United States is making all appropriate notifications in the spirit of candor and openness in an effort to avoid any misunderstanding. Lieutenant General Carter Ham will talk you through the procedures followed during recovery.


GEN. HAM: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

As the secretary indicated, when we became fully aware of the circumstances of these misshipped items, U.S. personnel took action to first secure and then to regain custody of the items. This was accomplished within a few hours of our becoming aware, fully aware, of the circumstances.

U.S. Pacific Command then initiated actions to recover the items, maintaining U.S. custody, and then to transport the items back to U.S. control. The items are now back under positive control at a U.S. base. I'll be followed by the principal deputy undersecretary of Defense, Mr. Ryan Henry.

MR. HENRY: I'm here on behalf of Secretary Gates, who has made it a personal priority to effectively deal with this matter. The department will determine the facts and take appropriate corrective action regarding this regrettable incident.

When informed this past Friday morning, the secretary directed the immediate return of the equipment to U.S. custody and to its positive control. The president was subsequently notified that day.

Secretary Gates further ordered the equipment to be expeditiously returned to a secure facility in the United States. And as Carter has let you know, that has now been accomplished.

Additionally the department has initiated a complete physical inventory of all of these devices. The secretary is further directing the secretary of the Air Force and the secretary of the Navy to conduct a comprehensive review of all policies, procedures as well as a physical site inventory of all nuclear and nuclear-associated material equipment across their respective programs.

Finally the secretary signed out, this morning, a memorandum directing Admiral Kirkland Donald, director, Navy Nuclear Propulsion, with the support of the undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, to conduct a comprehensive investigation, to determine the facts, into how this error occurred and who is accountable throughout the chain of command.

This tasking memo will be available at the conclusion of this briefing.

Admiral Donald will be assisted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and elements of the intelligence community. Subject to his statutory obligation, this will be his principal tasking for the duration of the investigation.

The appropriate congressional oversight authorities have been notified, beginning yesterday. The government of China and the authorities in Taiwan have also been notified. This intended shipment to Taiwan of batteries for a utility helicopter was consistent with our one China policy, the three joint U.S.-China communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act. Our security assistance to Taiwan is defensive in character and makes available defensive articles and services as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self- defense capability. Our policy on Taiwan arms sales have not changed. This specific incident was an error in process only, and is not indicative of our policies, which remain unchanged.

Lastly, I cannot emphasize forcefully enough how strong the secretary feels about this matter and how disconcerting it is to him. In an organization as large as DOD, the largest and most complex in the world, there will be mistakes. But they cannot be tolerated in the arena of strategic systems, whether they are nuclear or only associated equipment, as was in this case.

We will now be glad to take your questions.

SEC. WYNNE: Please.

Q Bottom line is that this sounds like a, for lack of a better way to put it, a real screw-up in the nation's nuclear program, of course, coming after the incident with the missiles that flew on the B-52s. How confident should we be in the security of our nuclear- related technology?

SEC. WYNNE: Well, actually, the Air Force shipped this device in March of 2005, well before the other nuclear incident. But as Secretary Ryan Henry indicated, the secretary of Defense is taking this very seriously. We are all taking this very seriously. And it -- and though this was not in -- could not be construed as being nuclear material, it is a component for a -- you know, the fuse in the nose cone for a nuclear system.

And so I would tell you that we are very concerned about it. It was a different supply chain that was involved in that whole procedural analysis. So we are going to conduct now a review of all -- under the guidance of the secretary of Defense, both the secretary of the Air Force and the secretary of the Navy, among all non-nuclear componentry that goes into the nuclear weapons characterization.

Yes, ma'am.

Q Was there anything about this component that is -- that they could glean any information out of? And could they take it and then build one on their own? And how can you be certain it was kept in storage and not at some point analyzed?

SEC. WYNNE: That'll come out, I think, as a part of the investigation. We feel like the authorities inside Taiwan acted very responsibly. I would leave that to Secretary Ryan Henry to dispose of, but right now there's no indication.


Q How did they act responsibly? Can you expand on that?

MR. HENRY: Yes. We have no indications from a site inspection of the item that it has in any way been tampered with, but that will be part of the further investigation. That's one of the reasons for bringing the intelligence services in, to be able to determine that. But again, all our dealings with the Taiwan authorities have been up front and they have in no way tried to be uncooperative in any sort of way.

Additionally, these are first indications, but our communication with experts indicate that this is a system that was built and designed in the '60s, and so therefore the technology that is in there is quite dated. But nonetheless, we're taking this extremely seriously and we feel quite confident we'll be able to determine if there has been any tampering or exploitation.

Q Yes, two quick questions. A, why isn't the DLA director here? This doesn't seem like an Air Force issue; it's a DLA shipping issue. And B, why did it take two years to find out that these things were shipped improperly?

MR. HENRY: The purpose of the investigation Admiral Donald will be conducting is to determine where the accountability is. We've had a team of people who since Friday morning have been working very hard on this, worked through the weekend to try to determine things. We are in the process of being able to piece together different elements and trying to gain an understanding of what happened. There are multiple players. There are multiple parties involved.

And we are -- we'll do a thorough investigation, and those who are responsible will be held accountable. The secretary is quite forceful in this.

And the different players involved, the director of DLA and other people that are in the supply chain, both the Air Force and the regular Defense Department, they are working and trying to understand the details. This was not meant to be a detailed brief; it was to give you the facts as we know them for sure today. Everything else, we're trying to gather facts. Many times they don't -- they don't indicate the same outcome. And so we're trying to eliminate that confusion with the investigation.

SEC. WYNNE: Second row.

Q Yeah, thank you very much. A small question, then a bigger question. What missile was this warhead designed for?

SEC. WYNNE: The component was aimed at a Minuteman.

Q And a larger question. Even if this was an error, even if it wasn't intentional, has the United States by this shipment violated international law, treaty obligations or such vehicles as the Missile Technology Control Regime?

MR. HENRY: That's under analysis now. The Missile Technology Control Regime is self-enforcing, as you're aware. We are looking at the different items of that. If there was a violation, we are coming forth with it as soon as we became aware of it. We are being totally transparent. We have corrected the situation. And if there was something that was amiss, it clearly was not intentional. The United States stands up to its treaty obligations. And we're dealing with this in the most straightforward manner we can.

SEC. WYNNE: Yes, ma'am?

Q Can you say what -- how this came to light? How did the United States find out that this happened? Did the Taiwanese government come forward? And can you also say what reaction China has had to this?

SEC. WYNNE: I can tell you that it was very responsible on the part of the Taiwanese that when they realized what they had, they notified the right authorities and started the recovery process.

MR. HENRY: Yeah, I would say -- and these are just initial gathering of information -- it appears from the -- fairly early on the Chinese indicated to us that they did not have in receipt what they had asked for. We still thought --

Q (Off mike.)

MR. HENRY: Excuse me, I apologize. The Taiwan authorities indicated that they didn't have in possession what they anticipated getting. We on our side thought we were talking about different sorts of batteries. There was an effort to resolve and to reimburse them. It wasn't until this past week that we became aware that they had something akin to a nose cone assembly, at which time elements in the field worked that for a couple days to get resolution.

Once we thought we understood what the part number was, the Pentagon became aware of that, on Thursday. And again I've taken you through the sequence of events since then.

So there were early communications, but we thought we were hearing one thing. In reality, they were saying something different.

Q And China's reaction?

MR. HENRY: We have spoken to the Chinese authorities and we will continue to have dialogue with them. Again we've been very clear that we think that this is -- that our policy has not changed, that there was an error. There was a mistake in execution, and we've notified them as soon as we became aware of it.

Q When was that notification from Taiwan, that they had the wrong package?

MR. HENRY: Those dates and specific dates will be part of the investigation. And --

Q Are we talking 2006 or are we talking 2008?

MR. HENRY: Again we have different pieces of information. And as far as when people became aware of them, that will be part of the job of Admiral Donald. Again you'll be able to see his tasking memo when he'll be reporting back to the secretary. And as soon as we have definitive answers on those things, we will make them available.

(Cross talk.)

Q Can I just crawl through that timeline again? I mean, things were shipped in March of 2005. What's the fall 2006?

SEC. WYNNE: In fall 2006 is when DLA picked them out of the warehouse, in fulfillment of the FMS order, and shipped them to the Republic of China, Taiwan.

Q Okay.

So Taiwan was in, well, had these all the way --

SEC. WYNNE: They put them right into storage, right.

Q In storage until Friday.

SEC. WYNNE: Until they came out with it.

And I think the rest of the timeline has to be done by Admiral Donald. But I would say that late last week was when we realized that they were in fact fuses from nose cone assemblies.

Q But a period before that was when there was ongoing discussion that they had the wrong part. So at least for some period of time before last week, there were ongoing discussions between the United States and Taiwan about them not having the right part.

SEC. WYNNE: I believe so but I'd like for that to come out during Admiral Donald's investigation.

(Cross talk.)

Q You may have already covered this.

Does the fuse, are you able to explain, does the fuse assembly that you're talking about involve a firing circuit, a trigger, an igniter? What exactly are the components of this assembly?

SEC. WYNNE: Well, there you have it.

This is the warhead. This is the electrical component that is the fuse. And that's what's on here.

Q Right, but -- I'm so sorry -- was only the fuse shipped, or was the whole --

SEC. WYNNE: Just this.

Q So only the electrical component was shipped. And is that a firing mechanism in and of itself -- not in and of itself, but is that an actual firing --

SEC. WYNNE: Well, the fuse is a -- a fuse is a -- it has a small battery in it, and so it is the firing mechanism. But it does not -- obviously, separated, it has no nuclear material associated with it.

MR. HENRY: So for total accuracy, it sends a simple electrical signal to the weapons package, which has its own triggering mechanism. So this is just to tell the triggering mechanism within the weapons package to start its sequence of events. But it's a very simple electrical signal. This is similar to what we find in artillery shells. It's in many, many conventional weapons. It has to do with sensing proximity to the ground and saying when you get within a certain distance to the ground, it sends out the simple single -- signal.

Q And is there anything about this that is similar in physical appearance to the helicopter batteries that Taiwan thought it was buying?

SEC. WYNNE: I would say once you set them side by side, no.

Q And are these inventoried items? In other words, are you --

SEC. WYNNE: Yes. We have these in inventory both at the bases where they're in use and at DLA.

Yes, sir.

Q How were they recovered?

SEC. WYNNE: How were they recovered?

GEN. HAM: Thanks, Mr. Secretary.

When we became aware of this, of the misshipment and the Taiwanese had these items under their control, U.S. military personnel serving a liaison function were able to coordinate at the warehouse which these items were stored, to -- first, again, to establish security for those items and then later to transport them to a site where they could be under U.S. control until such time as air transportation could be arranged to move them on further.

Q And so this was all coordinated with the Taiwanese?

GEN. HAM: This was with the -- U.S. Pacific Command, at our end, had the lead for this, to coordinate through the liaison offices that exist there, yes.

Q Could I -- I'm still confused on this fuse. This fuse has no nuclear components, but it could detonate a nuclear warhead, correct?

SEC. WYNNE: Well, it is the electrical firing mechanism that allows the rest of the system to detonate.

So I mean, that's what it's used as, just like a fuse on a piece of dynamite.

Q (Off mike) -- nuclear weapon?

SEC. WYNNE: It has no nuclear material associated with it. It is an electrical component called a fuse.

MR. HENRY: It could set off -- (off mike) -- a separate component inside the weapons package. This sends the electrical signal to that trigger to say that it can start its sequence.

Q This tells the trigger it's time to start firing. So it's part of the triggering mechanism.

SEC. WYNNE: Yes, ma'am?

(Cross talk.)

Q (Off mike.)

SEC. WYNNE: Not for me.

Q Is it a yes or -- Mr. Henry? Is it part of the triggering mechanism?

MR. HENRY: It is a fuse, the same sort of fuse that you would have in a conventional artillery shell, that would send a signal to the explosive charge. So it is a generic sensing proximity fuse for the ground with the battery to help send that electrical signal out.

The weapons package itself is a -- it's a very complex sequence of events, and that is contained in the weapons package, which is immediately behind the fuse assembly.

SEC. WYNNE: That was this one.

Q That's a yes, right?

Q Is this fuse unique to nuclear weapons?

MR. HENRY: The specific manufacturing of this is done to be made specifically with this weapons package. So you would not be able to use this in any other weapons system, nuclear or non-nuclear. But the mechanism itself is common to many, many different weapons.

Q But it would only work on that nuclear warhead.

MR. HENRY: This specific one will only work on this weapons package, the Mark-12, and no other weapons package.

Q And Mark-12 is a nuclear warhead?

MR. HENRY: And this is -- yes.

Q But the simple question was if it's part of the triggering mechanism, and the answer is yes, it is part of the triggering --

MR. HENRY: It's a matter of how you use your definitions, and it depends -- triggering, to us, and in the nuclear arena means something very specific. Okay. This does say that the weapons package can become active. So it depends. If you're defining it in layman's terms, the specific way we define it, the triggering mechanism is confined within the -- in the weapons package. But it's a matter of whether you're using our military definitions or if you're using a layman's definition.

SEC. WYNNE: Yes, ma'am?

Q (Off mike) -- can you work out the timeline again? First you mentioned is March 2005. Is that the day Taiwan was notified to --

SEC. WYNNE: No, that was when we declared it excess at FE-1, and if you have excess in your storehouse, then you ship it to a central location, which was the Defense Logistics Agency warehouse at Hill Air Force Base.

They maintain the larger stock, and they have control over it. So we maintain what we would call on-site stock, which is a smaller set. And the larger buffer, if you will, in a supply sense, is at Hill.

Q So Taiwan actually received that in 2006 --

SEC. WYNNE: So then in 2006, then the Defense Logistics Agency picked up this shipping container, four of them, and shipped it to Taiwan in response to a foreign military sales case for helicopter batteries.

Q Well, since there's -- you know, there is no nuclear material associated, what -- can you tell us the impact, you know, why this becomes so sensitive?

SEC. WYNNE: Well, I would say, first of all, as was indicated before, this is a part and parcel of our strategic weapons systems. We had an incident. We want to be very sensitive to that nuclear incident. We did control all of the nuclear aspects, and here we have something that is, as you say, non-nuclear component. And the question before the secretary, which he'd like answers to, is, should we and do we monitor and proctor this side of the nuclear components? And there's a lot of different components that would, if you will, comprise our totals. And that's why he's asked not just the Air Force but also the Navy to follow through.

Yes, ma'am?

Q So you say there were four of those together?

SEC. WYNNE: There were four batteries asked for and there were four containers shipped.

Q And all four had this in them?

SEC. WYNNE: All four had the same device in them.

Q Can you say at this point whether -- first of all, they were sent to this other facility because they were in excess where they were. So was it -- was it these nose cones that were in excess, or was it helicopter batteries that were in excess and the mistake was made there?

SEC. WYNNE: That's for the -- for Admiral Donald to discern.

I can't -- I can't go into that right now because I'm -- we're looking at it.

Q Was it one fuse in each container, or there's more than one in each container?

SEC. WYNNE: No. There's one fuse in each container.

(Cross talk.)

Yes, sir.

Q How closely are these normally monitored, these assemblies? And what were they -- what was supposed to happen to them at DLA once they were shipped?

SEC. WYNNE: I'm going from memory now because I'm not Defense Logistics Agency.

But when they arrive at a shipping dock, there's a classified storage and an unclassified storage. And these went to the unclassified storage. They should have gone to the classified storage. There is a classified storage there.

Q And how carefully are they normally monitored?

SEC. WYNNE: We reconcile quarterly to, and each location is reconciled quarterly, to make sure that there's been no pilferage or loss. So that's what the secretary is very concerned about, is that this clearly is an escape from that process.

MR. HENRY: I might add that we have had the opportunity to have a team working this through the weekend, giving up their Easter holiday to try to understand this.

We -- it was not crystal clear exactly what happened. We took this to the secretary, let him know that there were some differences in understanding what the records mean. There were some differences in understanding what the sequence of events are. And therefore we suggested, and he readily took the -- went forward with the idea that we do a real investigation into this.

And so as you start to ask all these logistics questions and what went where when, there are bits and piece of information indicate it might have happened one way. But we really don't know and we really think it's too early to start to speculate exactly what the sequence of events were, what the interactions were between multiple agencies. That's the purpose of the investigation.

The secretary has tasked Admiral Donald to move with alacrity, to get back to him with an interim report very quickly. And as we understand these things, and we can come to you with rather than what may have been, what actually is, then we'll come forward, those things. But to continue to dig into the little bits and pieces we know right now, we really don't think is helpful, because many of them could be proved wrong as we gather more facts.

Q Just to be clear about what has been said today already, I think what I've heard is that March 2005, they were shipped to the DLA and put in unclassified storage when they should have been put in classified storage. Is that correct? And who made that error?

SEC. WYNNE: That actually is some speculation on my part as to what their transit was. And as to your second part of your question, that's what Admiral Donald is empowered for.

Q So we don't know who's doing that shipment, who's moving them at that point in 2005?

SEC. WYNNE: What we do know is they were shipped from F.E. Warren to Hill Air Force Base. And as I said, that was some speculation on my part that they -- they have classified storage, I'm aware of that, but remember, I was going from some distant memory. And this was picked from unclassified storage for processing to the -- for the FMS case. As to what happened between arrival and departure is for Admiral Donald to surmise.

STAFF: We have time for just one or two more.

SEC. WYNNE: Yes, sir.

Q Going back on the timeline a bit, can you tell us when the secretary was told about this and when, then, he informed -- I would assume he informed the White House, when --

MR. HENRY: As I mentioned in my statement, he was informed this last Friday morning, at which time he directed the steps to secure the material, put it under positive control and return it to the United States to a secure facility, all of which has been done. That day, the president was notified.

Q Initially, though, it was Thursday, you said, that the Pentagon kind of figured out what --

MR. HENRY: Thursday afternoon, different elements here in the Pentagon, the Air Force and on the secretary's staff, learned of this. They verified what they were getting. This, as you can imagine, was somewhat unusual to come forward. So they wanted to make sure they were coming forward with accurate information. That happened over a matter of hours. After the close of business Friday (sic) afternoon, different senior officials were notified. They gathered more facts and then notified the secretary Friday morning as he came into work.

SEC. WYNNE: One more question.

Q Mr. Secretary, you just said that they reconcile the inventory quarterly. Is that correct?

SEC. WYNNE: That's their normal procedure.

Q So there were arguably six to eight different inventories at which time these four fuses were never -- it was never realized that these fuses were missed?

SEC. WYNNE: That's the concern.

Q I mean, is that -- is there a larger concern at this point? I know you guys are -- you're going to undergo this large investigation, but is there a larger concern that there's other potentially dangerous material --

SEC. WYNNE: Well, the secretary's actually asked the secretary of the Air Force and the Navy to essentially arrive at that comprehensive review and I think we will leave it to that comprehensive review.

But suffice it to say here that we have done a real scrub, for this particular part, and have identified and found all of the ones that we are aware of.

(Cross talk.)

Thank you very much.

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