WASHINGTON– Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today praised the “comprehensive” conclusions of a task force he set up to look into the Air Force’s management of nuclear weapons.

Gates told Pentagon reporters that the recommendations of the Secretary of Defense Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Management “will help ensure the excellence of Air Force stewardship of our most important mission.”

In June, Gates asked former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger – who also has served as energy secretary – to lead the task force. He asked for the assessment following revelations that the service mistakenly had sent nuclear missile components to Taiwan in 2006, and inadvertently had flown nuclear weapons from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., in 2007.

Gates said the task force reinforced the idea that the problems were caused in part by a lack of unity of command and a cultural change that de-emphasized the nuclear mission. No single Air Force organization is responsible or accountable for the overall nuclear mission. The Schlesinger Panel recommends Air Force nuclear assets merge and come under an Air Force Strategic Command.

“I’m not sure what the right answer is, … but I think that … one of the principal actions that needs to be taken is to address this question of unity of command,” Gates said. Whether that ends up being a new kind of command is something that acting Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz will have to address, he said, but “I think that the task force … makes a strong case in this respect for a new command,” he added.

In the short term, the secretary said, he is confident that similar nuclear problems will not recur. “Where I need greater assurance is that some of the longer-term issues that have been identified … have been addressed, and that we are on the way to resolving those problems in terms of resourcing the mission, both human and financially,” Gates said.

Protection and safety of our nuclear arsenal may be the armed forces’ most sensitive mission, Gates said. “That arsenal was vital to winning the Cold War, and remains a vital deterrent,” he said. “Furthermore, ensuring complete physical control and proper handling of nuclear weapons at all times is critical to maintain the confidence of our friends and allies around the world who rely on U.S. nuclear deterrence, as well.”

Gates said the Air Force already has begun to restore its nuclear mission and is implementing more than 180 corrective actions. The service will take additional measures as required, he said.

Gates asked for the resignations of Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley in June due to these incidents. “Clearly, I think we have the attention of the Air Force,” the secretary said. “Dealing with this is a very high priority, not just for the secretary and the chief of staff, but for all senior Air Force officers.”

The Air Force will have a senior leader meeting on the nuclear mission beginning Sept. 18 here. The Schlesinger Panel will issue a second report in December on nuclear weapons management throughout the Defense Department.

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