Very few people have access to a lengthy report on the Air Force's mistaken delivery of missile fuses to Taiwan or other handling of nuclear-related materials. So it's impossible to know if the ouster of the Air Force's top military and civilian leaders by Defense Secretary Robert Gates was just and appropriate or if Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Mosley were scapegoats for the grave errors of others.
Gates has sent a strong message that military leaders are ultimately accountable for problems that arise under their command. He should be commended for taking this tough stand.
One of the two events detailed in the report involved Utah's Hill Air Force Base. Four electrical fuses used in intercontinental ballistic missile warheads were shipped to Taiwan instead of the helicopter batteries the country had ordered. The error was discovered after several months of discussion with Taiwanese about the missing batteries. The military quickly recovered the four fuses once the problem was detected.
The second nuclear-related error involved arming an Air Force B-52 bomber with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. The heavy bomber was flown from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. The pilot and crew were not aware the plane was carrying nuclear weapons.
The two incidents represent "a decline in the Air Force's nuclear mission focus and performance," Gates said. The events also suggest a failure by Air Force leaders to respond effectively.
Just as Hill Air Force Base officials learned of the highly unusual double firings Thursday, base commanders were attempting to locate 12 missing assault rifles, which apparently fell off a truck on last Tuesday. The box of M-16s with a note of apology were recovered Friday near horse stables on the base after officials received a tip from an anonymous caller. All of the rifles were recovered.
While this ordeal was but a footnote to the nuclear-related incidents that prompted the internal investigation, it was yet another reminder how service members must exercise extreme care in safeguarding armaments and other military resources.