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Top Two US Air Force Officials Resign

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has accepted the resignations of the Air Force's top two officials after incidents that raised questions about the security of America's nuclear weapons and related sensitive materials. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has details from Washington.

Secretary Gates told reporters at the Pentagon that Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff General Michael Moseley have resigned following two embarrassing incidents involving the nation's nuclear program.

"I believe that we needed a change of leadership to bring a new perspective and to especially underscore the importance of accountability in dealing with these kinds of problems," said Robert Gates.

The resignations followed an investigation of the Air Force's mistaken shipment to Taiwan of four cone-shaped, electrical fuses used to trigger nuclear warheads for intercontinental ballistic missiles. The shipment, made in 2006 but revealed earlier this year, was supposed to contain helicopter batteries ordered by the Taiwanese government.

In another incident last year, a B-52 bomber was, by mistake, armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and flown across the United States. The pilot and crew were not aware they had nuclear arms on board.

That error was considered so grave that President Bush was quickly informed.

Secretary Gates says the incidents show a lack of leadership and oversight within the top ranks of the Air Force.

"The stewardship of our nuclear deterrent is the most sensitive mission that we have," he said. "Therefore, I think the problems that have been identified, despite the fact there was no compromise of the technology, despite the fact there was no danger involved, the fact that the stewardship itself and the declining standards raised questions in the minds of the public as well as internationally, in my view, required strong action."

In a reflection of his concern about nuclear security, Gates asked former defense secretary James Schlesinger to lead a task force to develop recommendations to ensure that the highest levels of accountability and control are maintained for nuclear weapons, delivery vehicles and sensitive components.

"Our policy is clear," said Gates. "We will ensure the complete physical control of nuclear weapons and we will properly handle their associated components at all times. It is a tremendous responsibility and one we must and will never take lightly."

The defense secretary did not say who would replace the two officials who have resigned. He says he will recommend replacements at a later time.

Gates has fired senior officials at the Pentagon in the past when they appear to deflect or dismiss responsibility for problems.

Last year he fired U.S. Army Secretary Francis Harvey after reports of inadequate housing conditions and other problems for troops recovering from war wounds at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.