After firing the two top Air Force leaders last year for a series of embarrassing nuclear weapons mishaps, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was told yesterday that the same problems of inexperience, poor training and splintered authority over the nuclear mission affect the entire Pentagon, including its top leadership.
A task force headed by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger painted a dismal picture of a Pentagon that has drifted away from the mission of nuclear deterrence during the nearly two decades since the Cold War ended. Among the Pentagon's senior military and civilian leaders, the panel found "a distressing degree of inattention" to the role nuclear weapons play in deterring attacks on the United States.
Education in nuclear deterrence theory and practice at the nation's top military schools has largely ended, senior-level exercises have stopped and the number of senior officials familiar with deterrence is rapidly dwindling and will soon become an "acute" problem, Schlesinger reported.
Many senior leaders "lack the foundation for understanding nuclear deterrence, its psychological content, its political nature and its military role - which is to avoid the use of nuclear weapons," the report concluded.
Among his recommendations: Send senior leaders back to school, ramp up training, consolidate responsibility for nuclear missions within the Pentagon bureaucracy, and encourage the incoming administration to construct a new strategic framework to define the role that nuclear weapons should play.
Gates issued a short statement yesterday insisting that the nation's force of intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers and submarine-launched missiles "remains safe, secure and reliable. No one should doubt our capabilities or our resolve to defend U.S. and allied interests by deterring aggression."
Schlesinger said Gates had reviewed all his panel's recommendations and told reporters that "so far we have gotten no push-back" on any of them.
Underlying the Pentagon's loss of focus on the nuclear mission, officials said, is uncertainty and confusion over how deterrence - the threat of certain nuclear retaliation - works in an age when many of the potential U.S. adversaries are not states but terrorists who hold no territory and are clearly willing to engage in suicide attacks.
Within senior military and civilian circles, there have been prolonged debates about whether the leadership of al-Qaida, for instance, would buy into the kind of mutual strategic deterrent rationale that governed the U.S-Soviet confrontation during the Cold War.
Without a clear answer, many officials have simply turned to other issues, Schlesinger indicated.
In an interview last fall, Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, the four-star chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, said he was "concerned" at the declining expertise on nuclear deterrence. "We have maybe taken our eye off that ball over the past 15 years," he said.
The Schlesinger report released by the Pentagon yesterday is the second of two reports commissioned last year by Gates after he abruptly fired the Air Force secretary, Michael Wynne, and its chief of staff, Gen. Michael "Buzz" Moseley in June.
Gates took that unprecedented step after receiving a classified Pentagon briefing on two incidents in which the Air Force lost track of nuclear weapons and components.
In one case, the Air Force mistakenly loaded live nuclear missiles onto a B-52 bomber and unwittingly flew it from North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, a major violation of strict weapons accountability procedures. In the other incident, the Air Force shipped nuclear bomb fuses, or triggers, to Taiwan in boxes labeled "helicopter parts." The error wasn't discovered for two years.
Those may have been sensational examples but were evidence of a "serious erosion" of training, expertise and accountability within the Air Force missile and bomber force and the bureaucracy that oversees them, Schlesinger concluded in his first report, published in September.
The Air Force has moved to fix those problems, officials say. On Monday, the Air Force will open the first provisional headquarters of a new Global Strike Command, where all nuclear weapons responsibility will be consolidated, Maj. Gen. C. Donald Alston, the service's senior nuclear officer, said in an interview yesterday.
The command will be housed temporarily at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., until a permanent home is determined.
The Air Force also will maintain a squadron of B-52 bombers, about a dozen aircraft, for the nuclear weapons mission at all times. At present, most bombers train and operate on conventional, non-nuclear missions and nuclear training is done, if at all, as an afterthought, officials said.