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US Air Force to Overhaul Handling of Nuclear Material

A special task force of the U.S. Defense Department has recommended a major overhaul of how the Air Force handles nuclear warheads and related material. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says following the recommendations will ensure effective control of those most dangerous of weapons. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Secretary Gates created the task force after two recent incidents of mishandling nuclear material that led him to fire top Air Force officials. In one incident, nuclear triggers were mistakenly shipped to Taiwan. The other was an unauthorized flight of nuclear weapons across the United States.

The task force chairman, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, says he and his colleagues did not expect the depth and extent of problems they found.

"We were surprised, as a matter of reality," he said. "The erosion [of oversight] had gone much further than we anticipated."

Schlesinger says, in recent decades, particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Air Force has lowered the priority and prestige it once attached to its nuclear weapons program. He says funding and staffing fell, and the result was dissatisfaction and poor performance by troops assigned to work in that field.

Among other things, the task force recommends putting all Air Force nuclear-related work under one new command, and holding commanders and ordinary airmen to a very high standard. Schlesinger says the Air Force also must add people to the effort, and make nuclear operations an attractive career option.

The former defense secretary, who led the department in the mid-1970s, says the problems with the Air Force's handling of its part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal has caused concern among countries that depend on what is called the American "Nuclear Umbrella."

"Once others see that we are well on the road to restoring the Air Force nuclear mission, and that the leadership of the Air Force is engaged with that problem, and they begin to see the results with regard to the shifting of personnel into the nuclear mission, the expansion of training of people in the nuclear mission, whatever doubts they may have had in the past will be resolved," he added.

Secretary Gates stopped short of endorsing all the task force's recommendations, but said some changes need to be made. He says the Air Force has already taken steps to ensure that the kind of mistakes that resulted in the two recent incidents will not happen again, but he agrees with the task force that more needs to be done to address systemic problems.

"Clearly, I think, we have the attention of the Air Force," he said. "Dealing with this is a very high priority, not just for the secretary [of the Air Force] and the chief of staff [of the Air Force], but for all senior Air Force officers. There already have been steps taken to provide the kind of confidence that we expect, in terms of the handling of nuclear weapons and nuclear related materials. I won't be completely assured, until all of the corrective measures have been taken."

Secretary Gates has asked the Schlesinger task force to write a second report, this one covering the entire defense department's handling of nuclear material. That report is expected in November.