Air Force Leaders Fired Over Nuke Handling

Stephen Bunnell

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley and Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne on June 5 after a report by Navy Adm. Kirkland Donald highlighted significant oversights in the Air Force’s nuclear security practices.

The ousting of Moseley and Wynne followed several incidents in the past year that have heightened concerns over the Air Force’s ability to properly maintain and secure its arsenal of land-based ICBMs and nuclear-armed bombers.

Last August, a B-52 bomber flew from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barskdale Air Force Base in Louisiana wrongly and unknowingly armed with nuclear cruise missiles. (See ACT, October 2007.) In March of this year, it was reported that the Air Force had accidentally shipped four nosecone fuses for nuclear missiles to Taiwan in 2006, drawing complaints from China. (See ACT, May 2008.)

Gates’ action came after another such incident in late May when the 5th Bomb Wing, which is stationed at Minot, received a grade of “unsatisfactory” in nuclear security during a weeklong, highly anticipated inspection by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).

According to Air Force Times, the DTRA report, which is not publicly available, catalogs a number of startling failures in the security process. In one case, an airman was caught on tape playing video games on a cell phone. In another incident, inspectors managed to “kill” three security forces members who had failed to clear a building upon entering it. “Security forces’ level of knowledge, understanding of assigned duties, and response to unusual situations reflected a lack of adequate supervision,” said the DTRA team chief.

Gates acknowledged that this chain of events may represent a deeper problem within the Air Force in general and the nuclear forces for which it is responsible in particular. In a June 5 press conference, he characterized the Minot cruise missile incident and the Taiwan nosecone fuses incident as sharing a “common origin” and said both are symptomatic of “a degradation of the authority, standards of excellence, and technical competence within the nation’s ICBM force.” Citing a “lack of a critical self-assessment culture in the Air Force nuclear program,” Gates appointed a task force headed by former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger to review nuclear security and stewardship. The task force will offer two rounds of recommendations, one in 60 days, the other in 90 days.

Similarly, a February 2008 Defense Science Board task force reported a widespread perception throughout the Air Force that “the nuclear forces and the nuclear deterrent mission are increasingly devalued.” The task force report catalogs a noticeable decline in attention paid to the nuclear mission by senior-level commanders by citing older Department of Defense reports. For example, a Joint Advisory Committee report from 1995 warns, “There is reason for concern about the long-term quality and quantity of nuclear weapons expertise within the [Defense Department] as the size of the [Defense Department] nuclear community shrinks and the interest level declines.”

Despite Gates’ actions, other reports pointed to ongoing problems. On June 19, a partially declassified internal “blue ribbon” investigation, triggered by the earlier Minot incident, revealed that “most sites” for the deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe have failed to meet U.S. security requirements.

In addition to the erroneous shipment of fuses to Taiwan, a June 19 article in the Financial Times reports that hundreds of missile components have apparently gone missing from U.S. stockpiles. According to the article, anonymous government officials have claimed that the number of components unaccounted for is “more than 1,000.”

This has prompted renewed criticism of the Bush administration from lawmakers who had supported Gates’ firings of Moseley and Wynne. In a June 20 letter to Gates, Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, demanded an explanation for how 1,000 sensitive nuclear missile components could have simply vanished from U.S. stockpiles. “While George Bush and John McCain were preoccupied with the misguided war in Iraq, they lost sight of the real danger—terrorists getting their hands on the world’s most dangerous weapons,” said Kerry in a press release.