WASHINGTON: Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today announced the resignations of Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley following an investigation revealing a decline in the Air Force’s nuclear program focus, performance and effective leadership.
Gates announced the resignations in the wake of a report detailing the accidental shipment of four non-nuclear ballistic missile nose-cone assembly components rather than the intended helicopter batteries to Taiwan in August 2006.
The report, prepared by Navy Adm. Kirkland H. Donald, director of naval nuclear propulsion, detailed what Gates called a shift of the Air Force leadership’s focus from, and degraded performance related to, its most sensitive mission.
Air Force leaders focused on the problem only after two internationally sensitive incidents — one involving Taiwan and another in which an Air Force B-52 bomber flew across the United States carrying six armed nuclear cruise missiles, Gates said.
Both incidents could have been prevented if the Air Force had applied proper inspection and oversight, he said. He blamed a “lack of a critical self-assessment culture” within the Air Force nuclear program that might have identified and fixed systemic weaknesses.
Gates noted that he had to intervene personally to ensure a thorough investigation of what went wrong and how.
In the nose-cone incident, the secretary blamed the Air Force and Defense Logistics Agency for using supply system procedures designed to move large amounts of low-value material for shipping the sensitive classified parts.
“The specific cause of this event was the Air Force and Defense Logistics Agency’s sole reliance on, and lack of compliance with, existing supply system procedures to provide positive control of the four forward-section assemblies,” he said.
But Gates said the incident signals far deeper problems. “During the course of the investigation, other issues indicating a decline in the Air Force’s nuclear mission focus and performance became apparent,” he said. “Rather than an isolated occurrence, the shipment… was a symptom of a degradation of the authority, standards of excellence and technical competence within the nation’s ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) force.”
At a broader level, Gates cited declining expertise in the entire Air Force nuclear program – the result, he said, of lack of top-level focus and emphasis.
None of these problems happened overnight and some have root problems dating back a decade, he said. But Gates cited “contemporary failures and lack of effective oversight.”
In addition to removal of the top Air Force leadership, Gates announced a senior-level task force to recommend improvements needed to ensure accountability and control of nuclear weapons, delivery vehicles and components.
James Schlesinger, a former Defense Department and Energy Department secretary and CIA director, will lead the task force, Gates said. The task force will recommend organizational, procedural and policy changes needed within 60 days. Within 120 days, it will address defense-wide management and oversight of nuclear weapons and related materials and systems.
Gates said he plans to recommend a new Air Force secretary and chief of staff soon. Once they are confirmed, he said he will leave it to them to determine proper disciplinary actions for others identified in the Donald report.
The secretary expressed personal sadness about today’s decision, calling Wynne “a dedicated and honorable public servant” and noting Moseley’s decades of “courageous and devoted service.”
“They both deserve their gratitude for their service,” he said. “I have enjoyed serving with them and deeply regret that the issues before us require the actions I have taken.”
In his resignation letter, Wynne took accountability for the incidents and said he must live up to the same standards he expects of his airmen. Moseley said he takes “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.”
Gates called today a sad day for the Air Force, the Defense Department and him personally, but said it also marks a return to the Air Force’s standards of excellence and accomplishment.
Noting his own Air Force roots, Gates said he stands in solid support of all airmen. “They have my respect, my support and my commitment to do everything I can in my remaining time to work with them and to sustain the tradition of service and excellence that has been the hallmark of the United States Air Force since its inception,” he said.