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US Air Force chiefs resign over nuclear blunder

Latest update : 2008-06-06

The US Air Force's chief of staff, General T. Michael Moseley and Secretary Michael Wynne resigned following a "scathing" report on the service's handling of nuclear weapons components.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates demanded the resignation of the air force's civilian secretary and chief of staff, blaming them for two major blunders that shook confidence in US control over its nuclear arsenal.

Gates said "a substantial number" of generals and colonels also face possible disciplinary action as a result of an investigation into a mistaken shipment of fuses for nuclear weapons to Taiwan.

Gates asked for and received the resignations of General T. Michael Moseley, the air force chief of staff, and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne.

"In summary I believe these actions are required because the focus of the air force's leadership has drifted with respect to perhaps its most sensitive mission," Gates said.

The Taiwan incident, as well as the accidental transfer of nuclear armed cruise missiles from one US air base to another last year, were symptoms of a decline in the air force's standards and focus on the nuclear mission, Gates told reporters.

Four fuses used to trigger nuclear warheads were inadvertently shipped to Taiwan in August 2006 as helicopter batteries.

The loss went undetected until March 2007 when nose cone assemblies containing the fuses were recovered.

The United States had to notify China of the blunder and give assurances that its arms sales policies to Taiwan had not changed.

Admiral Kirkland Donald, who led the investigation, found no evidence that the integrity of the US nuclear deterrent had been placed at risk or that nuclear technology had been lost as a result of the misshipment.

"Having said that, this incident represents a significant failure to ensure the security of sensitive military components," Gates said.

"And, more troubling, it depicts a pattern of poor performance that was highlighted to us following last year's incident involving the improper transfer of nuclear weapons between Minot Air Force Base and Barksdale Air Force Base."

While different in specifics, he said the incidents had a common origin -- "the gradual erosion of nuclear standards and a lack of effective oversight by air force leadership."

He said the air force had allowed performance standards to degrade over the past decade, and it took two major incidents for air force leaders to apply increased focus on 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 said.

He announced the creation of a task force led by former defense secretary James Schlesinger to recommend changes in the air force.

The sacking of the top civilian and military leaders of a military service in one fell swoop is rare if not unprecedented.

But Gates has moved swiftly in the past to hold top officials accountable for failures, firing the secretary of the army last year following disclosures of neglect of wounded soldiers at the service's premier military hospital.

His decision to hold Wynne and Moseley accountable drew praise in Congress.

"The safety and security of America’s nuclear weapons must receive the highest priority, just as it must in other countries," said Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said Gates "took appropriate action."

In a statement, Moseley said he took "full responsibility for events which have hurt the Air Force's reputation or raised a question of every Airman's commitment to our core values."

Wynne said in his resignation letter that he had read the investigation report "with regret."

"Control of this strategic area is a firm commitment by our air force to America," he wrote.

Gates has had strained relations with the air force leadership.

He has faulted the service for not adapting more readily to the kinds of irregular wars that the United States is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, complaining that getting more unmanned aircraft to commanders in the field was "like pulling teeth."

For his part, Moseley, a former fighter pilot, lobbied publicly for more F-22 fighter jets in defiance of Gates' insistence that 183 of the expensive stealthy aircraft were sufficient.

Date created : 2008-06-06