Nuclear Fallout at the Air Force

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Chip Somodevilla (2) / Getty

General T. Michael Moseley, left, and Secretary Michael Wynne of the U.S. Air Force

Nuclear fallout brought the careers of the Air Force's top two officials to an inglorious end Thursday, as they were ousted by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. In response to the service's lackadaisical approach to atomic-weapons security, Gates fired Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and General T. Michael Moseley, the chief of staff. "The focus of the Air Force leadership has drifted with respect to perhaps its most sensitive mission," Gates told reporters at a hastily called, late-afternoon press conference.

Gates said the "trigger" for the double-barreled firing — both men officially resigned, although they were given no choice, Pentagon officials said — was the discovery in March that the Air Force had mistakenly shipped parts for nuclear missiles to Taiwan, wrongly believing the equipment to be helicopter batteries. That embarrassment followed the August 2007 flight of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles under the wing of a B-52 bomber from North Dakota to Louisiana without anyone knowing the warheads were aboard the plane, or even that they had gone missing from their base. The Taiwan mistake involved four non-nuclear nose-cone elements vital to detonating nuclear warheads atop Minuteman missiles.

Gates made it clear that while these violations of sacrosanct nuclear-security protocol were bad enough, they were made worse by the Air Force's foot-dragging over getting to the root of the problem. "Action to ensure a thorough investigation of what went wrong was not initiated by the Air Force leadership," Gates said, "but required my intervention." The simultaneous firing of both the civilian and uniformed leaders of a military service is apparently unprecedented in U.S. history. Gates took the step after a Navy admiral completed a review of the Taiwan snafu that Pentagon officials said had been "devastating" in terms of the lack of rigor the Air Force has applied to nuclear security.

Gates's verdict was no surprise. In February, the Defense Science Board released a highly critical report concluding that not only the Air Force but the Pentagon itself had allowed the security of its nuclear arsenal to wane following the Cold War's end. There is a "perception at all levels in the nuclear enterprise that the nation and its leadership do not value the nuclear mission and the people who perform that mission," retired general Larry Welch, himself a former Air Force chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a March 25 hearing.

"The Defense Department has received authoritative and credible reports of declining focus and an eroding nuclear enterprise environment for at least a decade with little in the way of effective and lasting response," said the DSB report, whose authors were led by Welch. Pentagon officials interviewed by Welch's panel "believe that the decline in focus has been more pronounced than realized, and too extreme to be acceptable."

While full-time nuclear-weapons work used to be done by generals, admirals and senior civilians, today it is being performed by colonels, captains and "mid-level civil servants," the report said. Welch told the Senators that more senior officers need to be put in charge of the nation's nuclear forces. "If you restore that level of focus, then you have gone a long ways towards having a long-term reliable fix on this discipline issue," he said.

Gates echoed these sentiments on Thursday. "Years ago the career path for Air Force personnel in the nuclear field was well established and prestigious," said Gates, who served as an Air Force intelligence officer in the late 1960s before spending most of his working life at the CIA. "However, the overall mission focus of the Air Force has shifted away from this nuclear mission, making it difficult to retain sufficient expertise. The Air Force has not effectively compensated for this diminished expertise through training and active career management."

Gates and the Air Force have clashed on other issues, although officials insisted those had no bearing on the decision to force the pair from their expansive E-ring Pentagon offices. The Defense Secretary has previously complained that the Air Force is too eager to spend billions of dollars on additional F-22 fighters — for the possibility for a future war with China — while neglecting the requirements of the conflicts currently under way in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both men fired Thursday had pressed for more F-22s.

Thursday's purge echoes Gates' decision last year to fire the Army secretary and senior Army medical officers who, in Gates' eyes, had failed to respond appropriately to the shoddy living conditions for wounded soldiers at Walter Reed hospital that had been exposed by the Washington Post.

Earlier Thursday, Gates had in fact attended a dedication ceremony at Bethesda Naval Hospital for a new facility for troops suffering brain wounds and mental illness caused by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He emphasized the debt the nation owes its wounded young troops. "After the wars themselves," he said, "I have no higher priority." Three hours later he strode to the Pentagon podium and made clear that his third-highest priority — after the wars, and their casualties — is upgrading the security of the most fearsome weapons ever created.