WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon announced yesterday that the United States mistakenly shipped to Taiwan four electrical fuses designed for use on intercontinental ballistic missiles, but has since recovered them.
The error is particularly disturbing, officials said, because of its indirect link to nuclear weaponry and because of the sensitivity of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which China regularly denounces as provocative. The Defense Department said an investigation of the incident is under way.
At a news conference, Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said the misshipped items were four electrical fuses for nose cone assemblies for ICBMs. He also said they were delivered to Taiwan in 2006 and had been sent instead of helicopter batteries that had been ordered by Taiwan.
Wynne said the investigation is meant to sort out what happened and how.
The fuses were manufactured for use on a Minuteman strategic nuclear missile but contained no nuclear materials.
It is the second nuclear-related mistake involving the Air Force in recent months. Last August an Air Force B-52 bomber was mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and flown from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. At the time, the pilot and crew were unaware they had nuclear arms aboard.
Wynne emphasized that the mistaken shipment to Taiwan did not include nuclear materials, although the fuses are linked to the triggering mechanism in the nose cone of a Minuteman nuclear missile.
"This could not be construed as being nuclear material. It is a component for the fuse in the nosecone for a nuclear system," Wynne said. "We are very concerned about it."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered the investigation, putting Navy Adm. Kirkland H. Donald in charge and asking that he report an initial assessment by April 15.
Wynne said that Taiwanese authorities notified U.S. officials of the mistake, but it was not clear when the notification was made. He said the fuses had been in four shipping containers sent in March 2005 from F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., to a Defense Logisitics Agency warehouse at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. It was then in the logistics agency's control and was shipped to Taiwan "on or around" August 2006, according to a Gates memo ordering Donald to investigate.
The Chinese Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A Taiwan official said Tuesday that the island's diplomats in Washington typically do not comment on Defense Department matters.
Ryan Henry, the No. 2 policy official in Gates' office, said President Bush was notified of the mistake and the actions to recover the items. Henry called the mistake "disconcerting" and intolerable. He said the Chinese government has been notified of the error.
Henry said an examination of the site in Taiwan where the components had been stored after delivery indicated that they had not been tampered with. He said the components were "quite dated," as part of a system designed in the 1960s.
Henry said the exact sequence of events that led to the mistake and the recovery of the items was unclear.
U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are especially sensitive because China vehemently objects to U.S. defense assistance to the island that Beijing deems to be part of China.
Taiwan, which split from China amid civil war in 1949, potentially is the most sensitive issue in U.S.-China relations. Beijing claims Taiwan as its own and has threatened to attack should the self-governing island make its de facto independence formal. Washington has hinted that it would go to war to protect Taiwan.
While Washington switched its recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, it remains the island's most important foreign backer, providing it with the means to defend itself against a possible Chinese attack.