New Air Force Leaders Acknowledge Tough Road Ahead After Missteps

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The new leaders of the Air Force acknowledged Tuesday that the service lost its focus and must work to mend fences after a slew of contracting and nuclear-related missteps.

Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz, the new chief of staff, told Pentagon reporters that he plans to use the reinstatement of about 14,000 jobs in the service to bolster its nuclear staffing and beef up intelligence and surveillance.

"I think the bottom line is we lost focus. We did. And that focus is coming back," said Schwartz, who was formally sworn in during a ceremony Tuesday morning. "I think fundamentally our service is sound. It doesn't mean we're perfect, and we certainly have work to do, things to fix, fences to mend."

In June, Defense Secretary Robert Gates sacked the Air Force secretary and the chief of staff, blaming them for failing to fully address a series of nuclear-related mishaps.

His decisions were triggered largely by two major nuclear-related blunders by the Air Force. The first was the mistaken shipment to Taiwan of four electrical fuses for ballistic missile warheads. Then last August, an Air Force B-52 bomber was mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and flown from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. At the time, the pilot and crew were unaware they had nuclear arms aboard.

During their first joint press conference in their new roles Tuesday, Schwartz and Acting Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said their top priority will be to restore the highest standards to the nuclear mission.

The Air Force had been moving to reduce its active duty force to 316,000. But Gates recently agreed to reverse the cut and approved a total of 330,000 airmen. Those 14,000 new posts, said Schwartz, will likely be shifted around and concentrated in nuclear, intelligence, reconnaissance and aircraft maintenance jobs.

Donley, who has not yet been confirmed by the Senate, said he has begun a review to determine if other Air Force officers should be disciplined in connection with the Taiwan mistake. He said he expects a report in the next few weeks.

As many as a half dozen officers could be considered for some type of punishment.

The oversight and handling of the nation's nuclear arsenal is too important to not be performed at 100 percent, said Donley.

Separately, the service has been stumbling to correct and rebid a botched $35 billion tanker contract.

Boeing protested the original award to the team of Northrop and Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. earlier this year, saying it was unfairly penalized for pitching a smaller plane. A Government Accountability Office review found the Air Force made several errors in the selection process, and the Pentagon decided to reopen the bidding.