WASHINGTON (AP) - The nation's nuclear mission is suffering from a widespread, distressing lack of attention and interest from the Defense Department, a failing that worries allies who depend on America's nuclear protection, an independent panel has concluded.
The task force, which released its report Thursday, issued 82 recommendations, largely centered on the need to beef up resources, staffing and training to restore credibility to the nation's management of its nuclear arsenal.
James Schlesinger, a former defense secretary who chaired the task force on nuclear weapons management, told reporters Thursday that he believes "there is a willingness" among the Pentagon leadership to go along with one of the key suggestions - that a new assistant secretary position be created to oversee the nuclear mission.
The recommendations have been forwarded to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He issued a statement saying that "no one should doubt our capabilities or our resolve to defend U.S. and allies' interests by deterring aggression."
Gates said the report identifies numerous short and long term trends that may warrant correction.
The report is the second part of a broad review that in September condemned the Air Force for a dramatic deterioration in managing the nation's nuclear arsenal. It is one of several studies triggered by Air Force blunders, most notably the mistaken shipment to Taiwan of four electrical fuses for ballistic missile warheads and the flight across the U.S. by an Air Force bomber mistakenly armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
The missteps prompted Gates to sack the top civilian and military leaders of the Air Force last year.
In early June, Gates sacked then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, blaming them for failing to fully address the service's nuclear-related mishaps: The mistaken shipment of the ballistic missile fuses to Taiwan and the August 2007 incident when an Air Force B-52 bomber armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles flew 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 weapons aboard.
Schlesinger and other panel members praised the Air Force for implementing a series of changes to address the problems.
At the same time, however, Schlesinger said the panel noted that many of the gaps found in the Air Force oversight of its nuclear arsenal were also evident across the Defense Department. He said there has been a downgrading in the personnel, a dilution of authority, a lack of training and a failure to understand the unique role deterrence must play in the world.
He said the Air Force gaffes prompted allies such as Japan and eastern European nations to worry about how well protected they were under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
The one exception noted by the panel was the Navy's nuclear weapons. The group found no degradation in that mission.
The Air Force already has made a series of changes to improve its oversight and management of the nuclear mission, particularly control of its inventory. Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz, the new chief of staff, has said he plans to use the reinstatement of about 14,000 jobs in the service to use some of those posts to bolster its nuclear staffing and enhance intelligence and surveillance.
On the Net:
Defense Department: http://www.defenselink.mil
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)