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.
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.
A number of investigations have looked at the issues. Gates cited numerous deficiencies in a report he had directed done by a Navy admiral; Gates also appointed former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to lead a task force that will recommend improvements "necessary to ensure that the highest levels of accountability and control are maintained" in nuclear stewardship that will provide an initial assessment in coming weeks.
Mr. Donley, who is serving as acting Air Force Secretary for now, has created a task force to implement new recommendations from the Schlesinger group and to oversee other changes, an Air Force official says.
And last week, the Air Force released an internal investigation that showed major improvements must be made to its nuclear weapon sites in Europe, where weak security and poorly trained personnel threaten the integrity of some of the most dangerous weapons in the world.
The two services primarily responsible for the care and handling of nuclear weapons are the Air Force and the Navy, with the latter overseeing the crown jewel of American nuclear capability in submarine-based missiles. In contrast to the Air Force, the "nuclear Navy" lives by a code of "rigorous self-assessment" that prevents many problems, says a Navy official.
But regardless of what the Air Force and Pentagon do to address the problems, the US runs the risk of losing focus again as nuclear weapons become less and less relevant, says one analyst.
"Notwithstanding the best efforts of the Air Force, over time, you wouldn't be surprised to see that things sag again, simply because it has become an area of endeavor that the US military knows this is not where the future is," says Philip Coyle III, a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.
Such sentiments may drive a broader debate on the role nuclear weapons should play in the American military's arsenal.
Baker Spring, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says the atrophy of the US nuclear arsenal began under President Clinton as part of the effort to make such weapons irrelevant. Now without that focus, the US has begun to lose a generation of nuclear know-how.
"The people who are most intimately familiar with building these weapons in terms of the demographics are reaching retirement age," he says. "New, smart people are not being drawn into that line of work." Mr. Spring calls for a new assessment of what nuclear capabilities are needed.
Meanwhile, Donley recently told airmen at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., that the Air Force's credibility has been "tarnished" and that the service needs to develop a "road map for the nuclear enterprise" to put the service back on track. "There is no quicker route to recovery than the power of tens of thousands of airmen and civilians rededicating themselves to the high standards of excellence that have always been the hallmark of the world's best Air Force," he said.