In his memoir, former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates details the turmoil following a US Air Force 'Bent Spear' incident in 2007. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
In a chapter aptly titled “One Damn Thing After Another,” former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates recalls in his memoir how the Air Force was “one of my biggest headaches” during his tenure under President George W. Bush.
In his typical dry humor, Gates writes in “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” about a “Bent Spear” incident in August 2007, when a B-52 bomber flew from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., accidentally carrying six nuclear weapons.
“I was incredulous at such a monumental screw-up,” Gates writes in the book, which was provided to Air Force Times. “I immediately called [National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley] and the president to inform them. With a justified edge to his voice, Bush told me to get to the bottom of the mistake and to keep him informed. The incident report from the NMCC [National Military Command Center] stated, ‘No press interest anticipated.’ Wrong.”
The Air Force relieved three colonels and four senior noncommissioned officers afterward, but Gates wondered if the ultimate responsibility for the mistake rested much higher in the chain of command. He asked retired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Welch to lead a panel looking into the incident and how the Air Force handles nuclear weapons.
The panel found wide-ranging problems with the nuclear enterprise. Five weeks after Welch testified before Congress about the panel’s findings, Gates learned that nuclear missile parts had accidentally been sent to Taiwan. The parts had been shipped nearly two years before after the Taiwanese military had placed an order with the U.S. military for helicopter batteries.
“Coming on the heels of the Bent Spear incident, it was clear that all hell was going to break loose,” Gates writes, adding that the Pentagon worked hard to let the Chinese know this was a mistake, not a covert plan to provide Taiwan with nuclear weapons.
“I had not pursued General Welch’s concerns aggressively enough initially, and I would not make that mistake a second time,” Gates writes.
When an investigation led by Adm. Kirkland Donald found that the Air Force had allowed standards in the nuclear enterprise to become lax, Gates decided to fire Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley in June 2008.
“I took no pleasure from the dismissals,” Gates writes. “I enjoyed working with both men, but I didn’t believe they really understood the magnitude of the problem or how dangerous it could be.
“The simultaneous firing of both the service secretary and the service chief predictably stunned the Air Force, the rest of the [Defense] department and Washington. But there were no dire repercussions. There would later be allegations that I fired the two of them because of their foot-dragging on ISR, or more commonly, because we disagreed on whether to build more F-22 combat aircraft, or on other modernization issues. But it was the Donald report that sealed their fate.”
Later, Wynne invited Gates to attend his farewell ceremony, which Gates calls, “one of the most awkward moments in my life,” noting that both Wynne’s and Moseley’s wives were respectful at the ceremony, “but if looks could kill, I’d have been a goner.”
“There was a lot of quiet murmuring about what the hell I was doing there, and I could feel the daggers pointed in my direction,” Gates writes. “As the ceremony went on, I kept waiting for a child to come up to me and give me a good kick in the shin and ask if I was the jerk who had fired his grandpa.”