October 24, 2008 / 8:11 PM / in 9 years

Air Force plans nuclear command after blunders

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force said on Friday it would create a separate command for nuclear missiles and bombers after blunders undermined confidence in its nuclear mission and led to the dismissal of top officials.

The Air Force announced the plan for Global Strike Command, to be headed by a three-star general, as part of a broader revamp to sharpen the focus on its nuclear mission.

“This is a critical milestone for us. It’s a new starting point for reinvigoration of this enterprise,” said Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, the service’s top civilian.

“It is an extremely important mission for the United States Air Force,” he told reporters.

The changes come after an Air Force bomber mistakenly flew six nuclear weapons across the United States last year and the Air Force was discovered this year to have inadvertently exported fuses for nuclear missiles to Taiwan in 2006.

Those errors prompted Defense Secretary Robert Gates in June to take the unprecedented step of firing both the Air Force’s top general and its senior civilian.

Gates also ordered a review into the Pentagon’s management of nuclear weapons, headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, which found a “dramatic and unacceptable” decline in the Air Force’s commitment to its nuclear mission.

Schlesinger’s report recommended redesignating the Air Force’s Space Command as Air Force Strategic Command and giving it responsibility for the service’s nuclear mission.

But Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, said officials had been concerned the space and nuclear missions could be too much for one command and decided instead to create a separate command dedicated to nuclear issues.

“Our road map reflects a back to basics approach,” Schwartz said.

Currently, the Air Force’s Space Command oversees nuclear missiles, while Air Combat Command oversees nuclear bombers.

The new command should start operating by next September and be responsible for nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles, Donley said.

Its location and its first commander are yet to be determined, he said.

The Air Force also plans to have an office at its headquarters dedicated to nuclear issues.

Air Force officials could not provide a cost estimate for the proposed changes.

Reporting by Andrew Gray; Editing by Peter Cooney

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