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Top Air Force Officials Ousted After Series of Missteps

June 5, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates asked for the resignations Thursday of two senior Air Force leaders, a civilian official and the highest-ranking general. The move came in response to mishandling of nuclear delivery vehicle parts and a nuclear armed B-52 flight over the continental U.S.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The ousting of the top civilian and military leadership of the Air Force. Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: And with me is Mark Thompson, Time magazine’s Pentagon correspondent.

And today, Mark, General Moseley, Secretary Wynne both out. Were they fired or did they resign?

MARK THOMPSON, Time Magazine: I think technically they resigned, Ray, but they were fired. They were walked to the end of the plank and said, “You’re not coming back on this ship.” Secretary Gates made that clear.

RAY SUAREZ: Why? Was there any one thing or was it accumulation of things?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, there’s been a lot going on between the civilian leaders and the Pentagon and the Air Force.

But the precipitating event, as Secretary Gates made clear today, was just the nuclear husbandry that the Air Force has been dealing with, both in the B-52 incident of August of last year, when an airplane flew off from North Dakota down to Louisiana with live nuclear weapons under its wing, and the case in 2006 that was only discovered in March of ’08, when the Air Force basically shipped components of Minuteman nuclear missiles to Taiwan by mistake instead of helicopter batteries.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, Secretary Gates went before reporters and told them of the results of an investigation into this incident.

MARK THOMPSON: Right. I mean, he had asked a Navy admiral to investigate this. And this had been — this wasn’t really a surprise to people paying attention.

Back in February, the Defense Science Board, a very august body of gray beards, after the B-52 case, wrote a devastating report that basically said, since the end of the Cold War, the United States is not paying attention to its nuclear arsenal anymore.

It used to be run by generals and by admirals. Now it’s being run by colonels and captains. And they basically went after the Air Force, the Navy, and the civilian leadership in the Pentagon, and said, “Guys, these are nuclear weapons we’re talking about. You can’t deal with them in this sloppy way.”

Then, of course, the Taiwan episode happened, and Secretary Gates’ key thing seemed to be that the Air Force just wasn’t getting it, that they did not initiate a broad review of the snafus in the wake of them happening. And, indeed, he had to order it.

And when the report came back last week from the Navy admiral, it was devastating, and it really zinged the Air Force.

RAY SUAREZ: So, after this fact-finding, was General Moseley directly blamed? Or is he just at the top of the chain of command and taking the hit for it?

MARK THOMPSON: I mean, I think Secretary Gates, who has demanded accountability at this Pentagon, both from the Army, when the Walter Reed snafu occurred last year, and this case, where we’re talking about nuclear weapons, if you’re the top guy, your underlings had better be doing the job properly.

Plainly General Moseley’s fingers were not on the nuclear weapons or the nuclear weapons components, in the case of Taiwan, and neither was Secretary Wynne.

But Secretary Gates was an Air Force officer. He wore the uniform 42 years ago. And you can just tell by watching him that he feels really fervently about this. And as he said today, the Air Force’s most sensitive, most important mission is keeping track and taking care of these nuclear weapons.

RAY SUAREZ: It is unusual to replace the top civilian and the top uniformed officer at the same time?

MARK THOMPSON: Yes. A quick search suggests it’s unprecedented. I mean, Gates is really making it clear this is unacceptable and there’s no better way to do it than with a double-barreled shotgun.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier this year, wasn’t he very critical of the Air Force specifically in some of his public statements?

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, he gave a speech in April at Maxwell Air Force Base, the home of Air University. And after he gave the speech, in which he was critical of the Air Force, his aides try to say, “Well, he meant it for everybody.”

But when he was there, he spoke of Colonel John Boyd, Colonel John Boyd, the late Colonel John Boyd, the father of the F-16 fighter, the sort of godfather of the Fighter Mafia, was an officer that most Air Force officers, if they didn’t detest, they really didn’t care for him.

He liked smaller, cheaper airplanes and was forever dogfighting with the senior Air Force leadership. Gates went to the heart of the beast, the belly of the Air Force, the Air University, and said, “This is the guy you young Air Force officers should be emulating.” And that just sent chills through the senior ranks of the Air Force.

Performance in Iraq, Afghanistan

RAY SUAREZ: Why is it so important to make a change like this, with so few months to go in a presidential administration?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, it's obviously going to be tough to get someone to come in for six months for the civilian job, but that won't be the case for the uniformed slot.

I think Gates really has made it clear that there are certain things that are unacceptable. And he doesn't feel like he can tolerate anything less than top-notch performance, in terms of dealing with our wounded soldiers, in the case of the Army, and dealing with nuclear weapons, in the case of the Air Force. It's that simple.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned dealing with wounded service people. He also has fired the secretary of the Army, hasn't he?

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, in the wake of the Walter Reed, precisely. After the problems at Walter Reed were uncovered, he felt that Frank Harvey, the secretary of the Army at the time, and the medical leaders in the Army were not reacting quickly enough to what he took to be a great scandal involving the young men and women who had been in uniform and had been wounded.

And within weeks of that story breaking, they were gone. It's the same way here.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, other things have popped up since this news first broke about skirmishing over the use of unmanned drones, about the generals' involvement in a particular Air Force contract. How involved were they in these top-level firings?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, there's a lot of white noise -- you're right, Ray -- in terms of the Air Force and the civilian leadership of the Pentagon. The Air Force desperately believes it needs 350 F-22 fighters, which so far are costing $350 million a copy.

Gates has basically said, "Guys, you're only getting 180. That's how many we've ordered. Let's end the program now." And basically, the Air Force has succeeded in kicking that decision into the next administration, where they hope they can reverse it.

But Secretary Gates has a feeling that the Air Force and the other services are engaged in next-war-itis. I mean, the Air Force makes it clear. Their dream enemy is China, with lots of airplanes, with lots of dogfights, and bombing missions, whereas Secretary Gates is saying to the Air Force, "Guys, we need these unmanned drones that can loiter over Afghanistan and find bad guys for us with their full-motion video, or it can do the same over Iraq, and then we can call on air strikes or have our infantry go in on the ground."

The Air Force insists that they are really trying to do that, but Gates and his colleagues in the civilian leadership, as well as some members in the other services, do not believe the Air Force has done all it can do to win these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Bob Thompson, thanks a lot. Good to see you.

MARK THOMPSON: Thank you, Ray.