Donley is likely pick for AF chief

Former soldier is aide to Gates, who ousted top leaders

June 07, 2008|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, moving quickly to replace top Air Force leaders for sloppy handling of nuclear weapons and components, is expected to name a top aide, Michael B. Donley, to become Air Force secretary, defense officials said yesterday.

Donley is a former Special Forces soldier and paratrooper who has held senior Air Force and national security positions at the Defense Department and White House.

He currently serves as the defense secretary's chief administrative troubleshooter at the Pentagon.

Gates, who abruptly ousted the Air Force's top military and civilian leaders Thursday, will travel to two major Air Force bases Monday to underscore his demand for tight accountability in the handling of nuclear components, aides said.

If confirmed by the Senate, Donley would replace Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, whose resignation Gates obtained Thursday.

No top contender has emerged as the new Air Force chief of staff to replace Gen. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, who also announced his intention "to step aside."

Within the ranks, the reaction to Gates' crackdown has been, "What took you so long" to hold senior officers accountable for the recent embarrassing blunders, said an Air Force officer who asked not to be identified.

"The feeling is, phew!" the officer said.

Gates will hammer home his message in visits Monday and Tuesday to Langley Air Force base in Virginia, the headquarters of the Air Combat Command, and to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., headquarters of the Air Force Space Command.

He will also visit Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, home of the Air Mobility Command.

He will "reinforce the message of the supreme importance of safeguarding the nation's nuclear arsenal," said Geoff Morrell, Gates' spokesman. Gates will tell assembled airmen that the Air Force "has to do a much better job in that area," Morrell told reporters yesterday.

Gates took the unprecedented step of removing the Air Force's senior leadership after he received a classified Pentagon report on two recent incidents involving the Air Force losing track of nuclear weapons and components.

The report detailed the results of an investigation by Adm. Kirkland H. Donald, head of Navy nuclear programs, into an incident last August in which the Air Force mistakenly loaded four nuclear-tipped missiles on a B-52 bomber and flew them unwittingly from Minot Air Force base in North Dakota to Louisiana's Barksdale Air Force base.

Underscoring what Gates said Thursday was a continuing problem, the same Air Force unit involved in that incident, the 5th Bomb Wing, failed its nuclear safety inspection last month.

Donald's report also detailed an Air Force shipment of nuclear bomb fuses, or triggers, to Taiwan in March 2006.

Taiwan had requested helicopter batteries, but the fuses were sent in a mix-up by the Air Force and Defense Logistics Agency. The error was discovered only two months ago.

The fuses are essentially electronic devices that do not contain any nuclear material, but their design is highly classified. The fuses were not tampered with and have been returned, Gates said.

Both incidents "represent a significant failure to ensure the security of sensitive military components," he told a hastily assembled news briefing Thursday.

Visibly angry, Gates said the two incidents reflect "a decline in the Air Force's nuclear mission focus and performance ... a degradation of authority, standards of excellence and technical competence."

Wynne and Moseley will stay on until new leaders are named, but Morrell said Gates wants to put new leaders in place "very soon," possibly as early as Monday.

The fates of "several" Air Force generals and some lower-ranking officers singled out for criticism in the report will be determined by the new Air Force leadership, Morrell said. He declined to identify the officers publicly.

Morrell said Gates had already spoken about his choices to President Bush, who would make the nominations and send them to the Senate for confirmation.

Donley served as comptroller of the Air Force under President George H.W. Bush and was acting Air Force secretary for seven months during that time.

He served on the National Security Council in the White House during the Reagan administration.

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