As the reasons come out behind Defense secretary Robert Gates’ shakeup of the top Air Force command, the questions comes to mind: What took him so long?
A classified report to Gates found that the Air Force’s lax stewardship of our land-based and airborne nuclear arsenal is “a problem that has been identified but not effectively addressed for over a decade.”
In an act apparently without precedent at the Pentagon, Gates fired the top civilian official, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne, and top uniformed officer, Air Force chief of staff Gen. Michael Moseley. Both have held their posts since the fall of 2005.
The problem was not with the individuals. Both officials seem capable and well respected. Rather, Gates was faced with a grave institutional problem, “a lack of critical self-assessment culture,” leading to a decline in the Air Force’s “nuclear mission focus and performance.” Even when the service identified problems they weren’t addressed.
This is alarming because managing the nuclear arsenal is one of the government’s gravest responsibilities. It would be nice to think that with the Cold War over the nuclear deterrent doesn’t really matter anymore. But with belligerent and irresponsible regimes like North Korea and Iran, either having or about to get nuclear weapons, it does matter.
And then there’s the matter of moral standing. We can hardly preach about the importance of securing the weapons or complain about the spread of nuclear technology when we are so careless with our own.
The instant cause of the firings was the Air Force shipping to Taiwan, under the impression that they were helicopter batteries, four electrical fuses for Minuteman ballistic missile warheads. The classified devices were out of U.S. possession for 17 months. That followed the disclosure last year that a B-52 had been mistakenly loaded with nuclear missiles and its unwitting crew sent off on a cross-country flight.
There are other signs of trouble within the Air Force. A $50 million contract involving the Air Force’s stunt flying team, the Thunderbirds, was found to have been corruptly awarded and there is an ongoing controversy over whether a $40 billion contract for aerial refueling tankers was fairly awarded.
And, the public may ask, what else don’t we know?
Gates said he has asked former Defense secretary James Schlesinger to head a task force to overhaul the service’s nuclear accountability. And he reportedly has names in hand to quickly fill those two top jobs.
If there is one bright spot in this mess, it is the decisiveness with which Gates acted.