US Defense Secretary: important to maintain nuclear deterrentDefense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday the importance of the US nuclear arsenal was likely to grow in importance in coming years as Russia moves to strengthen its nuclear forces.
Gates said he made the comment in a closed door question-and-answer session with rank-and-file airmen in explaining his decision to replace the air force leadership over two major nuclear blunders.
In a speech earlier, Gates told airmen he regretted having to remove General T. Michael Moseley as chief of staff and Michael Wynne as air force secretary.
"But there is no room for error in this mission. Nor is there, unfortunately, any room for second chances -- especially when serious questions about the safety and security of our nuclear arsenal have been raised in the minds of the American people and international partners," he said.
"When systemic problems are found, I believe that accountability must reached beyond NCOs and even colonels," he said.
Reporters were made to leave the room when Gates opened the floor to questions from the airmen at this headquarters for US air combat forces.
However, Gates told reporters later on a flight to Colorado Springs, Colorado that among the points he made is that the US nuclear deterrent was likely to grow in importance, not diminish.
He said that was in part because of the risk of nuclear proliferation, but also because Russia has shifted its efforts from a traditional focus on conventional forces to strengthening its nuclear forces.
"It seems clear that the Russians are focused, as they look at the future, more on strengthening their nuclear capabilities," he said.
"So to the extent that they rely more and more on their nuclear capabilities, ... it underscores the importance of our sustaining a valid ...nuclear deterrent," he said.
An investigation led by Admiral Kirkland Donald found that a 10-year decline in standards, performance and oversight led to fuses for nuclear weapons being shipped by mistake to Taiwan in 2006.
Discovery of that error came just six months after a B-52 bomber inadvertently flew across the United States with nuclear armed cruise missiles on its wings.
The Pentagon announced earlier that General Norton Schwartz had been tapped to replace Moseley as chief of staff, and that Michael Donley, a Pentagon director of administration, would replace Michael Wynne as secretary.
The choice broke precedent in a service that has been dominated by fighter and bomber pilots. Schwartz is a former C-130 pilot who flew some of the last missions to evacuate Saigon in 1975.
Schwartz, currently the head of the US Transportation Command, has previously served as the director of the Joint Staff and as deputy commander of the US Special Operations Command.
Gates said Schwartz' military-wide experience and his knowledge of special operations were what made him stand out.
He said a top priority for him should be to find the right balance in the air force's modernization programs and to get them moving. Delays and cost overruns have plagued air forces weapons procurement programs.
Gates, however, denied his actions were related to broader differences with the air force leadership over some of those issues, including the acquisition of the fifth generation F-22 fighter.
Moseley had lobbied for funding to buy more than double the number of F-22s than the 183 approved by the administration.
Gates said that he was asked about China several times during the question and answer session, in the context of the tension between current requirements and future military needs.
"I basically said I'm the last person to dismiss the possibility of a near-peer conflict at some future date, but I thought that date was well into the future if it ever came.
"And therefore we would not starve the forces that are actually at war today to prepare for a war that may or may not ever come," he said.
In his speech, he acknowledged that the air force, like the other services, also is under stress and said he was working on ways to ease the burden.
"For example, I intend immediately to stop further reductions in air force personnel," he said.
To free up funds for its modernization programs, the air force began cutting its strength in 2006 from 356,000 to about 316,000 in 2010.
Halting the cuts would leave the air force with about 330,000, air force officials said.