MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates traveled here today to emphasize the importance of the Air Force’s nuclear mission — and in maintaining its long tradition of excellence — to the men and women entrusted with carrying it out.

Gates became the first defense secretary in memory to visit the home of the 91st Missile Wing, one of the Air Force’s three operational intercontinental units, and the 5th Bomb Wing, which flies the aging B-52 aircraft he said remain critical to the nuclear deterrent.

“As stewards of America’s nuclear arsenal, your work is vital to the security of our nation,” Gates told the airmen.

“Handling nuclear weapons — the most powerful and destructive instruments in the arsenal of freedom — is a tremendous responsibility,” he continued. “We owe you the attention, the people and the resources to do your job right.”

Gates reminded the airmen that their job is the most sensitive in the entire U.S. military, demanding constant vigilance and leaving no room for error.

America’s security depends on a reliable and credible nuclear deterrent, Gates said, even as the country continues to reduce its nuclear arsenal. While few argue that abolishing nuclear weapons is a worthy long-term goal, he said, the grim reality is that day hasn’t yet come.

“As long as others have nuclear weapons, we must maintain some level of these weapons ourselves to deter potential adversaries and to reassure over two dozen allies and partners who rely on our nuclear umbrella for their own security, making it unnecessary for them to develop their own,” he said.

Gates cited threats posed by rising and resurgent powers, rogue nations pursuing nuclear weapons, proliferation and international terrorism. These challenges make it necessary for the United States to maintain a hedge that makes clear its ability to provide an “overwhelming, devastating” response to attack, if necessary.

“Try as we might, and hope as we will, the power of nuclear weapons and their strategic impact is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle, at least for a long time,” Gates said.

But possessing nuclear weapons means accepting the responsibilities involved, he said citing “serious lapses of last year” over the Air Force’s handling of nuclear weapons and related material.

Those involved a mistaken shipment of sensitive missile parts to Taiwan in 2006, and — even more troublesome to airmen here — an unauthorized transfer of munitions from Minot Air Force Base to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., in August 2007.

Severe consequences followed, starting at the unit level and reaching into the highest levels of the Air Force. Gates ordered 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.

The problems, an investigation determined, resulted from “a long-standing slide in the service’s nuclear stewardship, where this critical mission — and the career field associated with it — did not receive the attention, funding or personnel it deserved,” Gates said.

But Gates told the Minot airmen he’s confident the Air Force is now on the right track.

“Based on everything I have seen, heard and learned in recent months, I strongly believe that the Air Force is now moving in the right direction to reclaim the standards of excellence for which it was known throughout the Cold War,” Gates told the Minot airmen.

Gates cited initiatives in place or under way:

— A new office within the Air Staff that focuses exclusively on nuclear policy and oversight and reports directly to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz;

— A new Global Strike Command to be stood up that will bring the nuclear-capable bombers and intercontinental ballistic missile under one entity;

— Revitalization and expansion of the Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.;

— A top-to-bottom review that is determining which nuclear components need to be taken out of the supply chain and placed under control of the Nuclear Weapons Center; and

— The Air Force’s development of a stronger, more centralized inspection process to ensure that nuclear material is handled properly.

In addition, Gates noted that he awaits recommendations from a task force he formed to review nuclear enterprise oversight within the Air Force and Defense Department overall. Former Energy and Defense Secretary James Schlesinger is heading that effort.

Gates closed by reminding the airmen of his own Air Force background, when he served as a second lieutenant at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., as part of Strategic Air Command.

“Your mission at Minot Air Force Base is as important as ever in the demanding security environment that our nation faces today – and will undoubtedly face tomorrow,” he told them. “I have every confidence in you and in the Air Force that has served this nation so well for over six decades.”

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