Defense Secretary Robert Gates Monday urged Air Force personnel at a troubled military base to step up their care over the installation's nuclear weapons. He spoke on the day that President-elect Barack Obama announced that Gates would remain in his job when the new administration takes office in January.
"I wanted to tell you in person that, as stewards of America's nuclear arsenal, your work is vital to the security of our nation. Handling nuclear weapons -- the most powerful and destructive instruments in the arsenal of freedom -- is a tremendous responsibility," Gates said in a speech at Minot Air Force Base, N.D.
In August 2007, Minot air crews mistakenly loaded six nuclear-armed cruise missiles onto a B-52 bomber that then flew to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. The weapons were not identified as missing for about 36 hours, when Barksdale personnel unloaded the cruise missiles from the bomber. The mishandling spurred an extensive investigation that ultimately resulted in scores of disciplinary actions and the resignations of the Air Force's top officials.
"The serious lapses of last year were unacceptable, and resulted in severe consequences starting at the unit level and reaching up to the senior leadership of the Air Force," Gates said Monday. "The problems were the result of a long-standing slide in the Service's nuclear stewardship, where this critical mission -- and the career field associated with it -- did not receive the attention, funding, or personnel it deserved."
"We owe you the attention, the people, and the resources you need to do the job right," he added. "For your part, you must never take your duties lightly. There is simply no room for error. Yours is the most sensitive mission in the entire U.S. military."
Gates reaffirmed his support for the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons, but suggested it was a distant ambition.
"Abolishing nuclear weapons once and for all is a worthy long-term goal," he said, but there is a "grim reality that, as long as others have nuclear weapons, we must maintain some level of these weapons ourselves: to deter potential adversaries and to reassure over two dozen allies and partners who rely on our nuclear umbrella for their security -- making it unnecessary for them to develop their own."