WASHINGTON — In an extraordinary indication of concern about the handling of the nation's nuclear arsenal, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Thursday forced the top civilian and military leaders of the Air Force to resign and appointed a former secretary of defense to devise new ways to better guard nuclear weapons.
Gates said he took the action after a Pentagon report last month found that the Air Force had systematic problems in the way it guards and transports U.S. nuclear weapons and their components.
"The Air Force leadership has drifted with respect to perhaps its most sensitive mission," Gates said.
Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne, a civilian, noted in his letter of resignation that he had read the report "with regret" and said he felt it was his duty to resign. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the top uniformed Air Force leader, made no mention of the report, but asked to retire Aug. 1.
Wynne had served as secretary since November 2005. Moseley was named to his post in September 2005.
The resignations were the culmination of nearly a year of bad news for the Air Force that began last August, when an Air Force B-52 bomber flew across the country loaded with six armed nuclear warheads.
That incident was compounded by revelations this year that the Air Force accidentally sent Taiwan nuclear fuses instead of helicopter batteries — and only learned of the error when Taiwan told the Pentagon — and improperly awarded a $50 million contract to promote the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's aerial stunt team.
The Pentagon did not release the report, which was compiled by Adm. Kirkland Donald, the Navy's director of nuclear propulsion. But Gates said he found it sufficiently alarming that he lost confidence in the Air Force's leadership.
"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.
Gates said the report indicated not only that the Air Force's handling of nuclear weapons had been declining for the last decade, but that there were current problems.
No replacements were named. Instead, Gates said that former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger will lead a task force to examine how the Air Force can better guard U.S. nuclear weapons. He called on Schlesinger to complete recommendations in the next four months.
The decision appears to have come about hastily. Throughout the morning, top leaders at the Pentagon canceled meetings and Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England made an unexpected visit to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, to ask for Wynne's resignation.
Gates said "a substantial number of Air Force general officers and colonels" could face disciplinary action for their role in past incidents.
This was not the first time Gates, who was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force in 1967, has been critical of his former military branch. Earlier this year, he said the Air Force has not adjusted to the world the U.S. now faces and in speeches to Air Force audiences he regularly calls for airmen to come up with creative ways to support counterinsurgency.
In an April speech at the Air War College in Maxwell, Ala., Gates told airmen: "As this new era continues to unfold before us, the challenge I pose to you today is to become a forward-thinking officer who helps the Air Force adapt to a constantly changing strategic environment characterized by persistent conflict."
Gates insisted his decision Thursday was based exclusively on Donald's report, which he received two weeks ago.
Donald had been asked to investigate how the Air Force mistakenly shipped fuses for missiles to Taiwan earlier this year. The Taiwanese had ordered helicopter batteries.
After receiving the internal report, the secretary left for a week-long trip throughout Asia. Some here speculated the decision came Thursday because it was one of Gates' first days back at the Pentagon.
It was the second time Gates has forced the resignation of senior leaders since he took over from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2007.
Last year, Gates fired the secretary of the Army and several military commanders after revelations of miserable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.