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Top task for Air Force: rebuild credibility

New leaders must better secure nuclear weapons after snafus led to firing of their predecessors.

By Gordon Lubold / July 9, 2008

A US Air Force B-52 bomber. like the one pictured here, flew across the United States carrying six nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Such problems led to the firing of top Air Force officials.

Newscom/File

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Washington - The US Air Force has developed a cultural indifference toward the proper care and handling of nuclear weapons, and analysts say the two men slated to take over the top civilian and uniformed positions will have to make fundamental changes to restore its credibility in the nuclear realm.

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When Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced last month that he would replace Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and the chief of staff, Gen. Michael Moseley, Mr. Gates cited their failure to properly safeguard nuclear weapons.

But whatever failures are attributed to Mr. Wynne or General Moseley, analysts say the firings capped more than a decade of negligence by the US military and the Air Force in protecting the American nuclear arsenal.

"It doesn't receive the kind of attention that it did 20 years ago," says Chris Hellman, a policy fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a policy group in Washington. "[Missile silo] duty in Minot, N.D., if it ever had a sexy aspect, doesn't have it any longer."

The new Air Force leadership – Michael Donley and Gen. Norton Schwartz, neither confirmed by Congress yet – must lead an Air Force stumbling through a gantlet of woes, from improper contract management to criticism that the service, while requesting billions of dollars more for new air platforms, is not relevant in today's ground wars.

But the most pressing concern will be reversing the erosion of nuclear stewardship that allowed it to become seen as a peripheral tasking.

Gates took the unprecedented action against the two after two highly publicized incidents called their leadership into question: the accidental shipment of nuclear missile nose cone fuses, instead of helicopter batteries, to Taiwan, and a separate incident in which a B-52 bomber flew from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana mistakenly armed with nuclear cruise missiles.

That occurred after ground crew pulled missiles from the wrong area of a storage facility that housed both conventional and nuclear weapons.