WASHINGTON– Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today announced a new task force to recommend improvements needed to ensure top-level accountability and control of U.S. nuclear weapons, delivery vehicles and sensitive components.

Gates announced the task force after removing Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley over the accidental shipment of four non-nuclear ballistic missile nose-cone assembly components to Taiwan in August 2006.

While citing efforts under way in the Air Force, Navy and Defense Logistics Agency, Gates said he believes “an outside perspective is required to ensure sufficiently far-reaching and comprehensive measures are taken.”

James Schlesinger, former Defense Department and Energy Department secretary and CIA director, will head up the task force. The task force itself will be made up of experts from the Defense Policy Board and Defense Science Board.

The task force will operate under tight deadlines. Within the first 60 days, it will recommend organizational, procedural and policy improvements involving the Defense Department and Air Force, Gates said. For its second phase, it will report within 120 days on management and oversight of nuclear weapons and related materials and systems across the entire department.

Citing a report on the nose-cone mishandling incident, Gates said no one was put in danger and the integrity of the nation’s nuclear deterrent force was not risked. The investigation showed no evidence that the parts were compromised while out of U.S. custody, and no nuclear materials were ever compromised.

“Having said that, this incident represents a significant failure to ensure the security of sensitive military components, and, more troubling, it depicts a pattern of poor performance,” he said.

While holding the Air Force leadership accountable, Gates called on the task force to support other initiatives under way to identify and and fix the structural, procedural and cultural problems that led to the incident.

In a memo to Schlesinger, Gates said he urges the entire department to cooperate with and provide any relevant documents and information the task force needs to do its job.

“Your advice should focus on enhancing the department’s ability to sustain public confidence in the safe handling of Department of Defense nuclear assets and bolster a clear international understanding of the continuing role and credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent,” he wrote.

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