Gates Moves to Improve Nuclear Oversight

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, dissatisfied with the “systemic” decline in the Air Force’s nuclear stewardship, told reporters June 5 he is creating a senior-level task force headed by James Schlesinger to recommend improvements in accountability and control. Schlesinger, a former Secretary of Defense and Energy and CIA director, will report back within 60 days with recommendations dealing with USAF; within 120 days, he will return with suggestions that address the Pentagon’s entire nuclear weapons enterprise. Impetus for the task force was the disturbing findings of the report from Adm. Kirkland Donald, whom Gates tasked in late March to investigate the mistaken shipment by the Defense Logistics Agency of four Minuteman III reentry vehicle assemblies. While this case itself was a “significant failure” in ensuring the security of sensitive components, even more disturbing is that it “depicts a pattern of poor performance” already highlighted last year by the unintentional transfer of nuclear armed cruise missiles aboard a B-52 bomber, Gates said, citing Donald’s findings. The report concluded that these shortcomings resulted from an erosion of performance standards within the involved commands and “a lack of effective Air Force leadership oversight.” It was this latter point that led Gates to accept the resignations of the Air Force’s top civilian and uniformed leaders (see above). Indeed, Gates said, the Air Force “has not been sufficiently critical of its past performance,” which has led to these problems recurring. A “substantial number” of USAF general officers and colonels has been identified for potential disciplinary measures, Gates said. After the B-52 incident, the Air Force issued new weapons guidance and made organizational changes to beef oversight. But apparently this didn’t go far enough. Gates noted that the Donald report found that the Air Force still lacks “a clear, dedicated authority” responsible for the nuclear enterprise and who oversees consistent, rigorous standards of operation.