Yes, the U.S. military is missing nuclear weapons and has been for a long time. You probably would not be surprised to know that the U.S. military has lost a number of small arms over the years – rifles, pistols, bayonets, and the like. These losses are a big deal that includes tedious investigations, substantial paperwork, and long searches when these items go missing.
Imagine if I told you the United States has lost six nuclear weapons and they have been missing for decades.
Americans have endured numerous mishaps and accidents involving nuclear weapons – incidents known as “Broken Arrow” events. Sometimes weapons were launched accidentally, or radioactive materials were released. Other times, the atomic devices just went missing.
There have been 32 Broken Arrow situations in U.S. history.
Ratchet that down to a handful of mysterious incidents with one device that could have resulted in a nuclear explosion. The other five did not include the “pit” or container that starts the nuclear reaction leading to detonation. Even without the pit, they are still classified as nuclear weapons.
The Palomares Incident
One of the most serious incidents happened in January of 1966 when a B-52 bomber and KC-135 stratotanker crashed into each other over southern Spain. The KC-135 blew apart, killing four on board. Four Mark 28 hydrogen bombs fell out of the B-52 as it broke apart. They spiraled down near the coastal town of Palomares. Two of the devices exploded conventionally without triggering the nuclear components, although radioactive material was released. One that did not explode fell on land. Another fell into the water. The military assigned troops to find the one on land and to pick up the remains of the exploded weapons. They tasked a mini-submarine to locate the one off the coast and the crew was able to find it even though the sub almost was lost when it became stuck in the parachute that carried the bomb.
One Broken Arrow Mishap Resulted in Another Conventional Explosion
Other accidents were just as harrowing with dangerous close calls. In February 1950, another bomber, this one a gargantuan B-36, was on its way to Texas from Alaska. The airplane was practicing a mock nuclear bombing run against the Soviet Union. It had issues with one of its engines. The pilot thought that returning to Alaska would involve an impossible landing with a nuclear device on board, so he elected to drop the Mark 4 atomic bomb into the Pacific Ocean. Since the bomb was not a “real” nuclear weapon, it was considered a mock-up for training purposes without plutonium and only included uranium and TNT. But it still created an explosion when dropped. The uranium in the device has never been located.
In March of 1956, a mysterious incident happened with a B-47 bomber that was flying to Morocco from Florida with two nuclear devices on board. The jet made one aerial re-fueling but never made its second. Somehow and somewhere the airplane went down in the Mediterranean Sea and the crew and nuclear bombs were never found.
The Tybee Island Incident
In February of 1958, another B-47 was flying a mission with a 7,500-pound Mark 15 nuclear bomb. An F-86 Sabre fighter jet was engaging in a practice combat maneuver and it collided with the bomber. The B-47 did everything it could to land, but the situation was hopeless, so it dropped the Mark 15 into the Savannah River off Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia. Thankfully, the bomb did not detonate, but it is still considered lost.
B-52 Loses Two
In January 1961, a B-52 flew on alert over Goldsboro, North Carolina. The bomber had two nuclear bombs on board, but its wing was damaged, and this created a situation where the nuclear bombs fell out of the B-52. One was able to deploy its emergency parachute and was later recovered. The other one had no parachute and it landed in the ground. Luckily this did not detonate, but the military never found it.
One Airplane Carrying a Nuke Fell Off a Carrier
In December 1965, the USS Ticonderoga carrier was steaming in the Philippine Sea off the coast of Japan. An A-4E Skyhawk was getting ready to launch with a nuclear weapon on board, but it fell from the aft deck of the carrier. The Navy never recovered the airplane or the bomb. The Navy thinks it is lodged in the seabed 80 miles from a tiny Japanese Island.
The astonishing aspect of these incidents is the seemingly nonchalant manner in which the U.S. military reacted to the Broken Arrow mishaps. You would think there would be more alarm when a nuclear device goes missing, but the ones located deep in the sea are likely impossible to be found, while the one in North Carolina should have been located by now, though it is thought to be buried deep into the earth. These incidents are scary and point back to the days when nuclear Armageddon was a distinct possibility.
Fortunately, the Broken Arrows did not create a tragic situation that triggered a broader nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.