Robert Gates</I>

Routine communications between Hill Air Force Base and news reporters have been shut down while the Defense Department investigates why a shipment of helicopter batteries to Taiwan ended up being a shipment of ballistic missile parts.

A spokesman for the defense contractor involved, EG&G, a division of San Francisco-based URS Corp., also said Thursday that the company is making no statements about what happened.

Defense Distribution Depot Hill, one of 26 supply depots operated by the Defense Logistics Agency, keeps 218,000 unique items in inventory for distribution to U.S. military units throughout the world and to a number of foreign countries that buy military hardware from the United States, said spokeswoman Dawn Dearden.

The Hill depot shipped 1.4 million items during fiscal 2007 in an operation that involves 170 military, civil service and contract personnel at the base. Shipments to foreign countries are a routine part of the operation, Dearden said.

How it happened that four fuses for the aging Minuteman ballistic missile were shipped to Taiwan in late 2006 instead of the helicopter batteries is the focus of a multi-faceted investigation that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered Navy Adm. Kirkland H. Donald to conduct. His initial assessment is due April 15.

It was the second nuclear-related mistake involving the military that has been revealed in recent months. In 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.

Details of the depot system's inventory-control processes "are the really large question" and something, during the investigation, Dearden said the DLA has very little it can talk about.

According to Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, the fuses, contained in four large shipping containers, had been sent from F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming to a depot warehouse at HAFB.

At some point in 2007 — exactly when is not clear — Wynne said that Taiwanese authorities notified U.S. officials that they did not get the batteries they had ordered. Discussions ensued for months, during which, "we, on our side, thought we were talking about different sorts of batteries. There was an effort to resolve and to reimburse them," said Henry.

Finally, late last week, U.S. military officials realized what had been shipped to Taiwan and worked immediately to get the fuses back. They have now been recovered.

The incident sparked sharp protests from China and forced President Bush to acknowledge the error in a phone call Wednesday with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

While the shipment did not contain nuclear materials, the error is particularly sensitive because China vehemently opposes U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. U.S. officials were quick to say that the incident did not suggest any change in policies toward Taiwan arms sales. Defense Distribution Depot Hill supports the two fighter wings on base and supplies parts for maintenance operations performed by the Ogden Air Logistics Center. The primary role of the depot is to supply materials for the Minuteman and Peacekeeper missiles and the Emergency Rocket Communication System; the F-16, A-10 and C-130 aircraft and a broad spectrum of parts to facilitate the overhaul and repair of landing gear, wheels, brakes and tires.

Contributing: Associated Press