Nuclear Lapses Trigger Ouster of Top U.S. Air Force Officials

After reviewing two embarrassing lapses in controlling U.S. nuclear weapons and components, Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday announced the resignations of the U.S. Air Force's two top officials (see GSN, May 29).

Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley lost their jobs after the March revelation that the Air Force had shipped nuclear missile components to Taiwan in 2006 (see GSN, March 25) and an August incident in which Air Force personnel mistakenly flew six nuclear weapons between air bases (see GSN, May 30).

The Taiwanese "incident represents a significant failure to ensure the security of sensitive military components. And more troubling, it depicts a pattern of poor performance that was highlighted to us following last year's incident involving the improper movement of nuclear weapons between Minot Air Force Base and Barksdale Air Force Base," Gates told reporters yesterday.

The lapses indicated that "the Air Force does not have a clear, dedicated authority responsible for the nuclear enterprise and who sets and maintains consistent, rigorous standards of operation," Gates added.  "The investigation concluded that these shortcomings resulted from an erosion of performance standards within the involved commands and a lack of effective Air Force leadership oversight."

He said the removal of the Air Force's top civilian and military officials was necessary to refocus the service's attention on "the stewardship of our nuclear deterrent."

"These actions are required because, first, the focus of the Air Force leadership has drifted with respect to perhaps its most sensitive mission."

Gates expressed annoyance with the Air Force leaders' response to the security lapses.

"Only after two internationally sensitive incidents did Air Force leadership apply increased attention to the problem," he said.  "Even then, action to ensure a thorough investigation of what went wrong was not initiated by the Air Force leadership but required my intervention."

Gates did not name replacements yesterday, but did announce the creation of a task force to be chaired by James Schlesinger, a former secretary of defense, secretary of energy and CIA director.

The panel would "recommend improvements necessary to ensure that the highest levels of accountability and control are maintained in the stewardship and operation of nuclear weapons, delivery vehicles and sensitive components," Gates said.

Within 60 days, the task force would recommend improvements on organizational and procedural issues, and 60 days after that would offer guidance on broader nuclear management concerns across the Pentagon, Gates said (Defense Department release, June 5).

While the nuclear security errors have drawn great attention, other issues also contributed to the Air Force shake-up, according to several media outlets.

In particular, the Air Force had publicly advocated a desire to purchase more F-22 fighter aircraft than the Bush administration had requested, and the service had clashed with Gates over providing enough unpiloted aircraft to support U.S. ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Forth Worth Star-Telegram reported today.

"The proximate cause of the forced resignations was stewardship of nuclear weapons, but the rift between the Air Force and Secretary Gates' inner circle covered many more issues, from the way the Air Force provided intelligence to troops in Iraq to the way it selected its weapons priorities," said analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute (Cox/Vaughn, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 6).

Some U.S. lawmakers praised the dismissals.

"Secretary Gates' focus on accountability is essential and had been absent from the office of the secretary of defense for too long," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).  "The safety and security of America's nuclear weapons must receive the highest priority" (Levin release, June 5).

"The Air Force's care of nuclear weapons has obviously been negligent," added Representative Ed Markey (D-Mass.), co-chairman of the House Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation.  "The magnitude and frequency of these errors indicate a deep-seated problem within Air Force culture, practice, and training. The entire Department of Defense should immediately recommit itself to ensuring the safety and security of our nuclear stockpile before one of these mistakes has lethal consequences" (Markey release, June 5).

June 6, 2008
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After reviewing two embarrassing lapses in controlling U.S. nuclear weapons and components, Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday announced the resignations of the U.S. Air Force's two top officials (see GSN, May 29).