Leaders Ousted From Air
Force in Atomic Errors
By THOM SHANKER
New York Times
June 6, 2008
WASHINGTON — The Air Force’s senior civilian official and its highest-ranking general were ousted by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Thursday after an inquiry into the mishandling of nuclear weapons and components found systemic problems in the Air Force.
The Air Force secretary, Michael W. Wynne, and the service’s chief of staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, were forced to resign after the inquiry found that the latest in a series of incidents reflected “a pattern of poor performance” in securing sensitive military components, Mr. Gates said at a Pentagon briefing.
So deep and serious are the problems, Mr. Gates said, that he has asked a former secretary of defense and of energy, James R. Schlesinger, to head “a senior-level task force” to recommend improvements in the safekeeping of nuclear weapons, delivery vehicles and other sensitive items.
In office 18 months, Mr. Gates has made accountability a central theme, firing senior Army officials after disclosures of shoddy conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and pushing into retirement other generals closely associated with a faltering strategy in Iraq.
But never before has a defense secretary simultaneously ousted a service secretary and a service chief. Mr. Gates said he had taken the action because the investigation identified “a lack of effective Air Force leadership oversight” and found that “the Air Force has not been sufficiently critical of its past performance.”
“Mistakes are not acceptable when shipping and controlling sensitive, classified parts” of the United States’ nuclear arsenal, Mr. Gates said. “Our policy is clear. We will ensure the complete physical control of nuclear weapons, and we will properly handle the associated components at all times. It is a tremendous responsibility, and one we must not, and will never, take lightly.”
Mr. Wynne’s only comment was a statement issued Thursday, in which he said, “Recent events convince me that it is now time for a new leader to take the stick and for me to move on.”
The inquiry involving the Air Force was an effort to determine how four high-tech electrical nose cone fuses for Minuteman nuclear warheads were sent to Taiwan in place of helicopter batteries. The mistake was discovered in March — a year and a half after the mistaken shipment.
Mr. Gates made clear that most troubling was that the inquiry showed how little the Air Force had done to improve the security of the nuclear weapons infrastructure even after it was disclosed last year that a B-52 bomber had flown across the United States without anyone’s realizing that it was carrying six armed nuclear cruise missiles.
Mr. Gates, whose military service includes a year as an intelligence officer within the Air Force’s nuclear program, emphasized that neither incident posed a danger of a nuclear mishap.
Nevertheless, he said, the inquiry made it clear that the Air Force had suffered for years from a loss of expertise in handling nuclear materials. He acknowledged that the Air Force had taken steps to improve the situation, but he said that more must be done to fix “structural, procedural and cultural problems.”
Mr. Gates, 64, served as deputy national security adviser and director of central intelligence under the first President George Bush. He has repeatedly said that he plans to retire from government service at the end of the Bush administration, but there has been speculation that he may be asked to stay on by either a President McCain or a President Obama after January, to help guide the Pentagon while the country is at war.
Pentagon officials said General Moseley, in his role as a member of the Joint Chiefs, met Thursday with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman, who supported the decisions for both officials to retire.
The errors in handling nuclear weapons components constituted more than just an indication that the cold-war-era focus on these powerful weapons had become fuzzy. They have also put the Bush administration in a difficult position, as the United States is struggling to prevent nuclear technology from spreading to nations that do not have it and has criticized North Korea and Iran for their nuclear ambitions. American officials have even spoken strongly to Russia for not sufficiently safeguarding its stockpile.
After the incident with the nose cone fuses was discovered, Mr. Gates told the Air Force and Navy secretaries to conduct a comprehensive review and a physical site inventory of all nuclear and nuclear-associated material equipment across their respective programs. Adm. Kirkland H. Donald, director of Navy Nuclear Propulsion, led the investigation, and gave his report to Mr. Gates last week.
Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, applauded Mr. Gates’s move.
“Secretary Gates’s focus on accountability is essential and had been absent from the office of the secretary of defense for too long,” Mr. Levin said in a statement. “The safety and security of America’s nuclear weapons must receive the highest priority, just as it must in other countries.”
Mr. Gates said his actions Thursday had been wholly driven by Admiral Donald’s inquiry, and were not related to other embarrassments that have plagued the Air Force over recent months.
Among the troubles has been an inquiry into contracts for the Air Force’s flying stunt team, the Thunderbirds, which found that a $50 million contract to promote the Thunderbirds had been tainted by improper influence and preferential treatment. No criminal conduct was found, but three officials were subjected to administrative penalties.
Mr. Gates has also expressed frustration about some Air Force actions on weapons procurement, budgets and execution of the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan, his aides said.
The Air Force has more than doubled the number of armed Predator and Reaper hunter-killer aircraft over Iraq and Afghanistan since early last year, but aides to Mr. Gates say he is still not satisfied with the number of surveillance aircraft in the war zone.
The ouster of the top Air Force officials is similar to Mr. Gates’s moves in March 2007 after disclosures of shoddy conditions at Walter Reed, when he forced Francis J. Harvey to resign as Army secretary, a day after a decision that the two-star general in charge of Walter Reed would be relieved of command.
Mr. Gates also decided last year not to recommend either the reappointment of Gen. Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs or that of Gen. John P. Abizaid as commander of American forces in the Middle East. Both men were closely associated with early military policy for Iraq.
David Stout contributed reporting.