Initial assessment of Defense nuclear review nearing completion

A panel of former Defense Department executives and national security specialists reviewing nuclear weapons management will make recommendations soon to Defense Secretary Robert Gates regarding Air Force failures in nuclear stewardship.

The panel's full report covering all the military services is expected later this fall.

In June, Gates tapped former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations, to lead the Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Management, following an internal investigation into Air Force lapses that led pilots to fly nuclear weapons unknowingly from North Dakota to Louisiana last August and accidentally ship ballistic missile fuses to Taiwan in 2006, a mistake that was discovered only earlier this year.

As a result of that initial Defense Department investigation, Gates fired the Air Force's top civilian and military leaders, Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Mosley, explaining in a June 5 press briefing that "the focus of the Air Force leadership has drifted with respect to perhaps its most sensitive mission."

The investigation that led to the firings was conducted by Adm. Kirkland Donald, director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion and the senior military official responsible for nuclear weapons safety. According to Gates, Donald identified "a substantial number of Air Force general officers and colonels potentially subject to disciplinary measures, ranging from removal from command to letters of reprimand."

One senior Air Force official told Government Executive that as many as 20 officers could be disciplined as a result of the lapses.

"Individuals in command and leadership positions not only fell short in terms of specific actions, they failed to recognize systemic problems, to address those problems, or where, beyond their authority to act, to call the attention of superiors to those problems. Each had the leadership responsibility to identify and correct or flag for others the structural, procedural and performance deficiencies identified in just a few weeks by Adm. Donald," Gates said.

Gates said he would ask the Schlesinger task force, the members of which he named on June 12, to consider the findings and recommendations of the Donald investigation and to suggest changes in Air Force policies, procedures and organization within 60 days. A broader Defense-wide review by the task force was to be completed in 120 days.

On Monday, Defense spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. Todd Vician said the task force still was working on the first stage of its review regarding service matters. The 60-day time frame did not specify work days or calendar days, he said. The assessment and recommendations will be released at Gates' discretion after he is briefed, Vician said.

Gates made clear that the roots of Air Force stewardship failures have been in the making for more than a decade. "Years ago the career path for Air Force personnel in the nuclear field was well-established and prestigious. However, the overall mission focus of the Air Force has shifted away from this nuclear mission, making it difficult to retain sufficient expertise," he said, noting that the service has not compensated for the diminished expertise through training and active career management.

Action was required on two fronts, Gates said: "First, fixing the structural, procedural and cultural problems; and second, ensuring accountability." He has made accountability a central theme of his leadership.

Gates said he would ask the new Air Force secretary and chief of staff, once confirmed, "to evaluate each of the individuals identified by Adm. Donald as bearing responsibility in the recent incidents and systemic problems, to determine whether and what disciplinary measures are warranted, and whether or not they can be part of the solution to the problems identified by the investigation."

The Senate confirmed Gen. Norton Schwartz as chief of staff on July 31, but Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., put a hold on the nomination of Michael Donley to become Air Force secretary. Cantwell told Gates in a letter she was doing this in part because she was frustrated with the Air Force's handling of a $35 billion contract to buy new refueling tankers. Boeing Co., based in Washington state, lost a bid for the deal earlier this year when the Air Force awarded the contract to a team led by Northrop Grumman Corp. and the European aerospace firm EADS. After a critical review of the contracting process by the Government Accountability Office, the contract was reopened and Gates put Defense in charge of the new bidding process instead of the Air Force.

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