The Defense Department mistakenly shipped nuclear-missile fuses to Taiwan more than 18 months ago and did not learn the items were missing...

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WASHINGTON — The Defense Department mistakenly shipped nuclear-missile fuses to Taiwan more than 18 months ago and did not learn the items were missing until last week, Pentagon officials said Tuesday, deepening concerns about the security of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

While the shipment did not include nuclear materials, the error is particularly sensitive because China opposes U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a breakaway province.

Officials with the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) sent four nose-cone fuse assemblies to Taiwan in August 2006 instead of four replacement battery packs for use in its UH-1 Huey helicopters. The fuses help trigger nuclear warheads on Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles as they near their point of impact.

It was unclear Tuesday how the two items were mixed up at a warehouse at Hill Air Force Base in Utah and how they were shipped without notice.

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Once the error was discovered, the military quickly recovered the four fuses. How it happened, and whether the incident constitutes a violation of any treaty or agreement governing international sales of missile technology, were lingering questions.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered an investigation, the second such probe in the past year to examine serious lapses in the care of U.S. nuclear weapons and accessories. Gates learned of the erroneous shipment Friday and informed President Bush, but officials waited until Tuesday — after Saturday’s elections in Taiwan — to disclose the incident. Pentagon and State Department officials have conferred with Taiwanese and Chinese diplomats over the past three days.

In August, the Air Force lost track of six nuclear warheads for 36 hours when they were inadvertently flown on a B-52 bomber between bases in North Dakota and Louisiana.

Air Force officials were concerned the fuses were placed in an unclassified area of a DLA warehouse and not properly tracked. Quarterly inventory checks over the past 18 months did not show the fuses were missing.

A DLA spokesman did not respond to questions.

Since 2003, the Air Force had made 139 separate transfers of classified parts between F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming and the base in Utah — mainly to store excess parts in a DLA warehouse — and only the March 2005 transfer of four nose cones was misplaced, two defense officials said.

Taiwan received four drum-shape packages from the United States in August 2006 and placed them, unopened, into storage. Taiwanese officials realized only recently that the packages contained the nose cones when they went looking for the helicopter batteries, U.S. defense officials said.

Ryan Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said the nose cones would not have been dangerous on their own because they work only with U.S. missile technology. Of greater concern to senior U.S. officials is that classified nuclear-related items left U.S. control, reached the hands of a foreign military and went without notice for so long.

Joseph Cirincione — president of the Ploughshares Fund, which backs the prevention of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of war — said the incident illustrates how the United States has “too many nuclear weapons with too little control over them.”

He said he worries the incident will raise Chinese suspicions that Taiwan is restarting its nuclear program.

“Imagine how we would feel if the Russians accidentally shipped warhead fuses to Tehran,” Cirincione said. “We’d be going nuts right now.”

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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