The investigation comes in response to the revelation that the missile parts - which are supposed to be inventoried every three months - went unaccounted for over a period of nearly three years before turning up in Taiwan, which received the fuses in response to an order for helicopter batteries.
China has long objected to military sales to Taiwan and reacted angrily on Wednesday to news that parts intended for U.S. nuclear missiles had wound up on the island, which it considers a renegade province. Hoping to calm tensions, Pentagon officials have pledged full transparency in the matter.
But military and civilian officials alike were bunkered down at Hill on Wednesday, refusing to answer any questions about the contractual relationship between EG&G and the Air Force. A manager at EG&G's Hill office referred all questions to Col. Sarah Smith, commander of Hill's Defense Logistics Agency office, which has oversight over the EG&G contract. Smith refused to comment, as did officials at the company's Maryland headquarters. There, spokeswoman Dawn Holbrook said that only EG&G's New York-based parent company, URL Corp., could speak about the missing missile parts case. Calls to URL were not returned Wednesday.
But Pentagon officials said the investigation, led by Navy Adm. Kirkland Donald, will try to uncover how the Minuteman missile parts were initially placed in an unclassified storage area at Hill, how the parts managed to be missed during multiple quarterly inventories and how the parts ultimately wound up in Taiwan.
The entire sequence of errors appears to have occurred at Hill, which received the missile parts in 2005 and shipped them in 2006. EG&G was in charge of receiving and shipping parts of the Minuteman during that period, having been handed those duties in a privatization agreement three years earlier. The 2002 shift from military to civilian control cost Hill more than 400 jobs, though many employees were hired by EG&G.
The federal General Accountability Office has long been critical of the privatization of military duties. In one recent letter to Congress, GAO investigator William Solis wrote that contracting out jobs formerly held by military employees makes it "more difficult for DOD to ensure that contractors are meeting contract requirements efficiently, effectively, and at a reasonable price."
Meanwhile, Defense Department spokesman Stewart Upton said the entire military is in the process of inventorying about 700 Minuteman fuses and hundreds of other similar components in order to ensure that the Taiwan shipment was an isolated case.
It is unclear how extensive that effort has been at Hill. Base spokesman Charles Freeman, after initially refusing to answer any questions about efforts to secure Hill's missile inventory, later e-mailed The Salt Lake Tribune to say that he had been permitted to report that "unit-level maintenance personnel have completed all required forward section inventories." Freeman did not further elaborate.
The silence coming from Hill may reflect the gravity of the situation. Consequences for any Hill employees could be severe - and swift. After a B-52 was mistakenly armed with nuclear missiles in a flight from North Dakota to Louisiana last year, the squadron commander in charge of Minot's munitions crews was relieved of duty within a week. Within months, three other commanders had been relieved and numerous other Air Force personnel had been disciplined. It is unclear, however, how the Air Force would mete out discipline in a case involving a contracted company.
* EG&G wins an Air Force contract in 2002 to take over the shipping and receiving of aircraft and missile parts at Hill Air Force Base.
* Several Minuteman III fuses, declared surplus at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, are shipped in 2005 to Hill Air Force Base, where the parts are wrongly placed into an unclassified storage facility.
* Taiwan, a frequent customer of U.S. military arms, in 2006 requests helicopter batteries. Hill sends it four fuses instead.
* Taiwanese officials inform the U.S. military in 2007 that they have the wrong parts. The U.S. moves to "reimburse" Taiwan for sending the wrong parts, but does not seek to collect the fuses.
* In 2008, the Air Force finally realizes its mistake and requests the parts back from Taiwan. President Bush is informed of the debacle, as is China, which has long protested arms shipments to Taiwan.