WASHINGTON– Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates pointed yesterday to broad initiatives within the Air Force he said are helping to return its nuclear mission to “the standards of excellence for which it was known throughout the entire Cold War.” Speaking at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, Gates credited airmen with helping the Air Force recover from problems that came to light over the past year regarding its handling of nuclear weapons and related material.

Those issues involved a mistaken shipment of sensitive missions parts to Taiwan in 2006, and an unauthorized transfer of munitions from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., in August 2007.

Gates responded by ordering the resignations of then-Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and then-Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley. Another 15 officers, including six generals, received disciplinary action in connection with the nose-cone shipment.
Gates said yesterday he’s confident in measures the new leadership — Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz — is taking to turn the situation around. “The Air Force is now moving in the right direction,” Gates said, expressing confidence that headway will continue in what he said “will undoubtedly be a long-term process.”

Gates noted several measures that aim to, in Donley’s words, “refocus the nuclear enterprise.”

That effort, described in the Air Force’s recently released “Nuclear Enterprise Roadmap” calls for a new Global Strike Command and a Headquarters Air Force staff agency to handle nuclear assets, a nuclear weapons center and a single process for inspections.

“This roadmap will enable the Air Force to effectively secure, maintain, operate and sustain our nation’s nuclear capabilities and expertise,” Donley said last week in releasing the plan. “It is the foundation for reinvigorating the Air Force nuclear enterprise to reestablish the confidence in our ability to provide nuclear deterrence to our nation and our allies.”

Donley told airmen at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., the roadmap “will provide focus to the nuclear mission so that it will not get confused with other business, missions and functions across the Air Force.”

Gates said the standup of a new agency within the Air Staff focused exclusively on nuclear policy and oversight is a positive step in that direction.

He said the proposed Global Strike Command, which will bring all the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-coded bombers together under one organizational chain, also will help to bring better focus to the nuclear enterprise.

This command will include 8th Air Force, with headquarters at Barksdale and now under Air Combat Command; and 20th Air Force at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., currently under Air Force Space Command.

Gates cited other signs that the Air Force is taking action. The Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., has been “revitalized and expanded, with clearly understood chains of command to prevent repeats of pass problems,” he said.

In addition, he said the Air Force is undergoing a top-to-bottom review of what items to place under the Nuclear Weapons Center’s control. Gates explained that many nuclear-related components – including the nose cones that inadvertently were shipped to Taiwan – had been migrated into the regular Air Force supply chain during the 1990s as a streamlining measure.

Gates also pointed to efforts within the Air Force to develop “a stronger, more centralized inspection process to ensure that nuclear material is handled properly.” This measure, he said will be bolstered by expanded training and career development for security personnel assigned to nuclear duties.

Meanwhile, Gates said, he looks forward to recommendations from a task force he formed to review the way the Air Force, and the Defense Department overall, ensure proper leadership and oversight of the nuclear enterprise. The so-called Schlesinger Panel, named because it is chaired by former Energy and Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, is expected to report its findings in December.

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