Gates fires Air Force leaders

Defense Secretary Robert Gates ousted the Air Force’s top military and civilian leaders Thursday, holding them to account in a historic Pentagon shake-up after nuclear missile warhead fuses were mistakenly shipped to Taiwan.

Gates announced at a news conference that he had accepted the resignations of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne — a highly unusual double firing.

Gates cited two embarrassing incidents in the past year. In one, a B-52 bomber was mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and flown across the country without anyone realizing nuclear weapons were aboard.

In the other, four electrical fuses for ballistic missile warheads were mistakenly sent to Taiwan in the place of helicopter batteries. Gates said an internal investigation found a common theme in the B-52 and Taiwan incidents: “a decline in the Air Force’s nuclear mission focus and performance.”

In somber tones, Gates said his decision to remove Wynne and Moseley was based on the findings of an investigation of the Taiwan debacle by Adm. Kirkland Donald. The admiral found a “lack of a critical self-assessment culture” in the Air Force, making it unlikely that weaknesses in the way critical materials such as nuclear weapons are handled could be corrected, Gates said.

The Donald report is classified; Gates provided an oral summary.

“The Taiwan incident clearly was the trigger,” Gates said when asked whether Moseley and Wynne would have retained their positions in the absence of the mistaken shipment of fuses. He also said that Donald found a “lack of effective Air Force leadership oversight” of its nuclear mission.

Gates said he would make recommendations to President Bush shortly on a new Air Force chief of staff and civilian secretary.