WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired the Air Force's top two officials on Thursday after mistakes involving their most sensitive mission -- the safety and security of America's nuclear weapons.
Gates said two incidents -- the shipment of nuclear missile fuses to Taiwan and the cross-country flight by an Air Force bomber wrongly armed with nuclear weapons -- exposed a systemic problem in the Air Force and an erosion of nuclear standards.
"Both the ... nuclear weapons transfer incident and the Taiwan misshipment, while different in specifics, have a common origin -- the gradual erosion of nuclear standards and a lack of effective oversight by Air Force leadership," he told reporters.
"A credible nuclear deterrent has been essential to our security as a nation, and it remains so today. The safety, security and reliability of our nuclear weapons and associated components are of paramount importance."
U.S. officials said Gates requested the resignation of Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley, the top civilian and military leaders. Both submitted those resignations on Thursday.
Gates said he would recommend replacements for Wynne and Moseley to President George W. Bush.
Gates asked former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to lead a group to determine the organizational and policy changes needed to improve control over the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The resignations follow a string of embarrassing incidents for the Air Force, which were compounded by strain between Air Force officials and the Pentagon over spending priorities.
In August 2007, an Air Force bomber carrying six nuclear warheads flew across the United States. The Air Force fired a commander in response, but lawmakers criticized what they saw as a lack of accountability.
Senior Pentagon officials raised concerns about the issue as recently as last week, said one source familiar with the discussions.
Concern about the security of nuclear and nuclear-related equipment escalated in March when the Pentagon admitted the erroneous fuse shipment to Taiwan in 2006. The U.S. military never caught that error, which was brought to light by Taiwanese authorities.
Gates pinned his decision to replace Air Force leadership squarely on the Taiwan fuse shipment.
"It was the second incident that prompted me to believe that there were serious, systemic problems here," he said.
The Pentagon and Air Force have been at odds over other issues as well, including the Air Force's handling of a $50 million marketing contract for its Thunderbirds air show and its efforts to secure additional purchases of Boeing Co's C-17 transport planes, against the Pentagon's wishes.
Gates has also disagreed with the Air Force's focus on expensive weapons that have little, if any, use in Iraq and Afghanistan. The top-of-the-range F-22 fighter jet has not flown a single mission in either war, but remains a top priority among some Air Force leaders.
Gates, who replaced Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon in 2006, has fired senior officials when they appear to deflect or dismiss responsibility for problems.
He fired U.S. Army Secretary Francis Harvey in March 2007 after reports of poor conditions facing troops at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In announcing Harvey's resignation, Gates criticized the Army's response to the scandal as defensive and said the Army wasn't focused on fixing problems.
He struck a similar chord on Thursday.
"Overall, the Air Force has not been sufficiently critical of its past performance, and that has led to recurring problems of a similar nature," Gates said.