Bungling Army Air Corps engineers posted a live Apache helicopter missile back to the UK from Afghanistan – sparking a mass evacuation, it emerged today.
British engineers based at Camp Bastion failed to spot the deadly warhead in a launcher on at least four occassions.
The live missile was posted 3,500 miles using regular military mail back to Wattisham Airfield , in Suffolk, without any warnings of its deadly contents.
It was only when stunned workers at the airbase opened the package that they discovered the 70mm Flechette rocket and evacuated the hanger.
The fearsome rocket, fired by Apache attack helicopters, splits into hundreds of razor sharp metal pieces on impact.
Embarrassed military chiefs have admitted the blunder was ”wholly avoidable and potentially dangerous” and blamed staff at Camp Bastion for taking ”short-cuts”.
Findings of an investigation released following a Freedom of Information request revealed engineers failed to spot the missile on four occasions.
A military report said: ”It is unfeasible to imagine that a rocket could have been left in the launcher following a download in accordance with the relevant procedures.
”A high operational demand for the Apache and in particular the high expenditure of munitions may have lead to over-familiarity of procedures and short-cuts taking place.”
The first blunder occurred when engineers removed the helicopter’s missile launcher following a mission against the Taliban with the ”misguided belief” it was empty.
The rocket was missed a second time when Army Air Corps engineers did not bother to look inside the pod to see if any missiles were left inside.
The third and fourth opportunities to remove the live explosive occurred when engineers bypassed a safety check then failed to clean or inspect the launcher after it was classified unserviceable.
Flechette missiles split into hundreds of deadly metal fragments on impact or detonation.
Technicians admitted to MoD investigators that ”short-cuts” routinely occurred on such operations.
As a result air crew did not check the launcher before it was packaged up as non-hazardous or subjected to explosives checks.
It was posted 3,500 miles back through the supply chain to 132 Aviation Supply Squadron, 7 Air Assault Battalion REME at Wattisham.
Potentially the warhead could have exploded on board the aircraft killing everyone on board or when it was being handled as non-explosive cargo.
When the package was opened inside a hanger at Wattisham Airfield at 11.20am on Monday October 27 2008 stunned technicians found the live warhead.
Around 70 workers were forced to evacuate the hanger while bomb disposal experts were drafted in to make the explosive safe.
A spokesman for the MoD said following the error all launchers posted back to UK gain a Free From Explosives certificate and more inventory forms supplied.
The spokesman added: ”We have taken this incident very seriously.
”We have made every effort to address certain procedural shortfalls highlighted by the incident and there has been no repeat of the incident to date.”
No one has been disciplined due to the lack of evidence against any Army Air Corps individual.