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Aug. 5, 2008—Two months ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates sacked the Air Force’s leadership over what he decried as the service’s unsatisfactory stewardship of the nuclear weapons and related materials under its oversight. This action came after the unauthorized transfer of unarmed cruise missile nuclear warheads from North Dakota to Louisiana last year and the mistaken shipment of Minuteman III ICBM components to Taiwan in 2006.

“Only after two internationally sensitive incidents did Air Force leadership apply increased attention to the problem,” Gates said in explaining his rationale during a press briefing on June 5 in the Pentagon. “Even then, action to ensure a thorough investigation of what went wrong was not initiated by the Air Force leadership, but required my intervention.”

Gates was saying two things: First, that the Air Force leaders failed to act appropriately to remedy oversight shortcomings after learning of the first of these two incidents; and second, that their initial response after a second incident was lacking. However, former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne says there were deeper tensions between Gates and him that led to Wynne’s dismissal.

During the June 5 press briefing, Gates left no doubt that, in his view, Wynne and retired Gen. Michael Moseley, then-Chief of Staff, did not do enough. But Wynne, in an interview on July 28, said he thought the Air Force had responded appropriately after the first incident and was moving out to act after the second when Gates took over that issue.

There's a key disconnect in this debate, namely which incident was first: The movement of the cruise missile warheads or the shipment to Taiwan? The answer depends on whom one asks.

In the interview, Wynne indicated he regards the August 2007 unauthorized transfer of six cruise missile nuclear warheads on a B-52 bomber from Minot AFB, N.D., to Barksdale AFB, La., as the first incident. It is the first one that came both to his attention and public light.

Not so, according to Gates’ spokesman Geoff Morrell, who considers the Defense Logistics Agency’s August 2006 shipment of four Minuteman III re-entry vehicle assemblies to Taiwan that took place as the first case, despite the fact that it was not brought to the attention of the Air Force or Office of the Secretary of Defense leadership until March 20, 2008.

“The fact is chronologically, the Taiwan incident happened first, followed by the Minot incident,” Morrell told the Daily Report. “So there were two incidents that took place before the Air Force realized that there was a problem and began to deal with this.”

However, Morrell’s comments appear to contradict what Gates himself said on June 5. Asked then what the catalyst was in prompting him to remove Wynne and Moseley, Gates said it was “the second incident” that “went well beyond the incident involving Minot and Barksdale.” He went on to say “the Taiwan incident was clearly the trigger.”

Even though, with that statement, Gates appeared clear on the order of events, it would seem to be contradicted by his earlier statement at the briefing that it took two incidents for the Air Force leaders to act.    

In fact, the Air Force acted immediately after the first "known" event. The question then becomes whether Air Force actions after the Minot incident meet the litmus test for “increased attention.”

Subsequent to the errant transfer of warheads on Aug. 30, 2007, Air Combat Command launched a commander directed investigation. Wynne and Moseley initiated the verification of all nuclear weapons in the Air Force’s stockpile, a standdown of USAF nuclear units for extra training, and surety inspections of all nuclear-capable units.

Further, Moseley sent out messages to all major commands and each individual airman on standards, discipline, and attention to detail. Wynne made visits to Barksdale and Minot. And Moseley directed the senior-level Blue Ribbon Review of USAF’s nuclear policies and procedures. (At around the same time, Gates tasked the Defense Science Board task force on nuclear weapons surety to investigate the incident.)

By mid February 2008, all three of the investigations had concluded and reported their recommendations and the Air Force was acting upon them. Already discipline had been meted out at Minot and Barksdale, including the sacking of the 5th Bomb Wing commander at Minot and the temporary decertification of that unit for the nuclear mission.

Moseley told reporters in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 28 that there were about 128 recommendations from the three investigations, of which four were outside of the service’s authority. But of the 124, he said the Air Force had already instituted 53 of them, and the remaining 71 “were coming to closure.” Mosley added that he took the issue of nuclear surety very seriously. Remember, this is still three weeks before the Taiwan shipment came to either the attention of USAF’s leadership or even that of Gates.

The post-cruise missile transfer actions included the establishment of a position on the Air Staff to oversee nuclear operations, plans, and requirements, the creation of a new nuclear-only rotation for its B-52 units, and, according to Wynne, the movement of about $1 billion to nuclear-related operations and maintenance accounts.

Do these actions constitute the “increased attention to the problem” that Gates wanted? Well, Wynne, for one, thought the Air Force was moving properly to address the issues. “We put very big attention to that issue,” he said of the Minot case. “We felt like we had taken the actions necessary.”

At the same time, he acknowledged Gates’ prerogative as Defense Secretary to render judgment. "He is a senior leader and he could always assess, even months later, that we didn’t do enough,” Wynne said. “That is his right.”

And, there are still questions over the criticism levied by Gates at USAF’s implied lack of action after learning of the Taiwan incident, which he declared prompted his personal intervention.

On March 21, the day after USAF’s leadership learned of the incident, Headquarters Air Force began an assessment to identify the facts surrounding the mistaken shipment.

“It was a DLA shipment,” Wynne said. Because of this, he explained, USAF faced the difficulty of ironing out who should lead the investigation.

“The debate was whether DLA should be [in charge] ... or whether we [the Air Force] should go investigate DLA,” Wynne said. The Air Force decided that it would be improper for it to investigate the DLA, so it offered support.

But, at that point, Wynne said, those plans got called off as Gates announced that he had appointed Navy. Adm. Kirkland Donald to lead an investigation into the incident.

Wynne said he learned that Gates had brought Donald in “when I was asked to come to the press briefing” that was held on March 25. During it, Wynne and Ryan Henry, OSD’s principal deputy under secretary for policy, and Army Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, director for operations on the Joint Staff, disclosed the issue to the public.

No DLA official was on the podium that day.

In effect, Gate appeared to have already decided that fault lay with the Air Force.