WASHINGTON Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Friday called on the Air Force to establish clear and unified control over the nation's nuclear arsenal, after a new report by a Pentagon task force concluded that the service had neglected its stewardship of such weapons for more than a decade.
"Today no senior leader in the Air Force 'owns' the nuclear mission," concluded the eight-member task force, appointed by Gates and chaired by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. "The current organization is not properly structured."
The task force recommended Friday that the Air Force designate a new Air Force Strategic Command, which would replace the current Air Force Space Command, and make it accountable for the nuclear mission. It also called for all Air Force bombers to be placed under a single command.
Gates, speaking at a Pentagon news conference where Schlesinger outlined the report, stressed that unity of command over nuclear weapons and materials is vital, adding that "the task force ... makes a strong case in this respect for a new command." He said no decision had been made on the command proposal.
The push to centralize Air Force management of the nuclear force weapons follows two serious mishaps involving U.S. nuclear weapons an August 2007 incident when the Air Force unknowingly flew nuclear warheads between North Dakota and Louisiana, and the mistaken shipment in 2006 of ballistic missile fuses to Taiwan.
Subsequent investigations led Gates to fire the Air Force's two top civilian and military leaders in June. Gates also established the task force to examine nuclear weapons management in two reports the first focused on the Air Force and the second on the Defense Department.
On Friday, Gates said he considers nuclear weapons management the military's "most sensitive mission" and one critical to maintaining the confidence of foreign allies in the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
Schlesinger said some of the roughly 30 nations that rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella including NATO allies as well as Australia and New Zealand have "expressed misgivings about whether or not they feel comfortable under the umbrella." That could lead them to acquire their own nuclear weapons, he said. The Air Force and Pentagon must "resuscitate their confidence in the credibility of the nuclear umbrella," he said.
The Schlesinger task force found that the Air Force, the main steward of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, has neglected that mission, starting with the 1991 dissolution of the Strategic Air Command.
"There has been an unambiguous, dramatic, and unacceptable decline in the Air Force's commitment to perform the nuclear mission and, until very recently, little has been done to reverse it," the report said. Nuclear deterrence is no longer taught at the War College, it noted.
"There is a shortage of security personnel," Schlesinger said. "There is a shortage of maintenance people. There is a shortage of those who supervise the nuclear establishment."
For example, one B-52 wing commander said he was short 300 maintenance personnel, while another lacked 100, and one wing had only 66 percent of its assigned crew chiefs, the report said. Intelligence support to nuclear wings is "weak (bombers) or nonexistent (ICBMs)," it said, while inspections have suffered "serious flaws."
To fill the voids in the short term, the Air Force should move between 1,500 and 2,000 airmen into nuclear-related jobs, and it is budgeting roughly $1.5 billion for 2010 to shore up the mission, Schlesinger said.
But the report concluded that although the Air Force is currently tracking "more than 180 corrective actions" to fix immediate problems, "it will take a concerted and sustained commitment by the Air Force leadership at all levels to restore the culture and ethos of nuclear excellence."
Asked if other top Air Force officers would face reprimands, Gates said acting Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz are "reviewing the recommendations" for disciplinary action.
Gates said he was confident the nuclear lapses would not recur. "Clearly I think we have the attention of the Air Force," he said.