WASHINGTON — In an unprecedented action in a time of war, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates simultaneously fired the civilian and military leaders of the Air Force on Thursday, saying that oversight standards for the U.S. nuclear arsenal had deteriorated on their watch.
The immediate reason for the requested resignations of Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, and Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne was a report on the accidental shipment of nuclear triggers to Taiwan. However, the dismissals came amid a long-brewing dispute between Gates and the Air Force leadership.
The nuclear-trigger investigation -- led by Adm. Kirkland H. Donald, the military's senior official on nuclear safety matters -- found that the Air Force had failed to focus on its nuclear mission even after last year's high-profile incident in which a B-52 bomber crew unknowingly flew six nuclear warheads from North Dakota to Louisiana.
"The stewardship of our nuclear deterrent is the most sensitive mission that we have," Gates said at a Pentagon news conference. "The declining standards . . . in my view required strong action."
Gates was particularly disappointed that the Air Force had not taken significant steps to shore up its nuclear controls after the B-52 incident, said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell. The nuclear weapons, on cruise missiles attached to the plane's wings, were not discovered missing from their repository at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota for about 36 hours.
"If the Air Force had rectified this widespread cultural problem and taken the necessary corrective action after Minot, we would not be talking to you today," Morrell said. "A change in leadership would not have been necessary."
Gates said the dismissals were necessary because the Air Force began focusing on its nuclear problems only after the shipment to Taiwan was disclosed this year. In addition, he said, the Air Force had not been sufficiently critical of its past performance.
He acknowledged that problems in securing the nuclear arsenal go back more than a decade, but he added that the current leadership should have recognized and corrected them. He appointed a task force led by James R. Schlesinger, Defense secretary under President Ford, to recommend improvements in the oversight of nuclear weapons.
Gates said the dismissals of Wynne and Moseley were based solely on Donald's report, which he received last week. The report is classified, but officials briefed on the findings said it was highly critical of Air Force handling of nuclear technology.
The parts shipped to Taiwan included four electrical fuses used to trigger a nuclear weapon aboard U.S. missiles. The fuses were shipped to Taiwan by the Defense Logistics Agency, but the Air Force provided the fuses.
The fuses were sent to Taiwan in 2006. The mistake went undetected until March of this year.
A senior defense official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss personnel moves, said the Air Force's failures in nuclear oversight were sufficient to merit the dismissals. He also acknowledged that the report was just the latest in a series of incidents that have raised questions about Air Force leadership.
Gates has been critical of Air Force officials' calls to build more F-22 fighter jets, an advanced but expensive plane. He also has been frustrated over what he sees as insufficient deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles over Iraq and Afghanistan.
Loren Thompson, a defense policy analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said although the "formal reason" for Moseley's and Wynne's departure was the Taiwan shipment, the forced resignations were actually the result of a growing "accumulation of grievances."
"In the end, what it came down to is the feeling of the secretary of the Defense that the Air Force just wasn't on the policy page he was on, that it was pursuing its own policies," said Thompson, who is close to Air Force officials.
Officers have watched with frustration as Gates has delivered a series of speeches seen as critical of the Air Force. In their view, the service has made valuable contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including technology that allows ground troops to see full-motion videos shot from Predator drones.
Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Harbin, who has worked closely with Moseley and Wynne, said the two men were very much focused on Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We have not done a good job telling our story," Harbin said. "But there should be no doubt these men were focused on the wars."
The senior defense official said Gates had replacements for the two men in mind, but wanted to take a few days to consider the candidates.