WASHINGTON – A Pentagon advisory group recommended Friday that the Air Force, which has been embarrassed by a series of nuclear-related mishaps, should consolidate under a single organization the now-divided responsibilities for its nuclear weapons management.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the group made a strong argument for that action, but he was not sure how it would be implemented.
"One of the concerns that I had" based on previous revelations about shortcomings in the Air Force's stewardship of its nuclear arsenal "is the lack of unity of command and not having one person or organization accountable for the overall mission," Gates said. "I'm not sure what the right answer is."
Gates spoke at a Pentagon news conference before James Schlesinger, who was secretary of defense in the 1970s, unveiled the recommendations of an advisory panel that he led in a study of the Air Force's nuclear weapons management.
Schlesinger said a central recommendation by his group was that the Air Force convert its existing Air Force Space Command — which now has responsibility for the service's land-based nuclear missiles but not other nuclear weapons — into an organization called Air Force Strategic Command. The new organization would "be held accountable for the efficacy of the nuclear mission."
Under the existing Air Force structure, responsibility for the bombers and fighters that can deliver nuclear weapons is held by Air Combat Command, and Air Mobility Command has responsibility for the refueling aircraft that are used to operate with the nuclear bombers and fighters.
Copies of the Schlesinger report were not immediately available, but he told reporters it concluded that over the years the division of Air Force nuclear responsibility had led to an erosion of control and a lack of proper resourcing for the mission.
Schlesinger, who also is a former CIA director and former secretary of energy, headed the Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Management, established by Gates in June to conduct a broad review triggered by a series of Air Force blunders in its handling of nuclear-related materials.
An internal report released in early June was sharply critical of the Air Force, focusing on the mistaken shipment to Taiwan of four Air Force electrical fuses for ballistic missile warheads.
The findings prompted Gates to sack the top civilian and military leaders of the Air Force, and he also linked the action to another startling blunder: the flight last August of a B-52 bomber that was mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.