Two top officials at the US Air Force, Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Michael Moseley, were fired today by the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The Air Force leadership has been involved in numerous recent controversies including an incident in which live nuclear bombs were flown over US airspace and for steering a contract to a retired general. The "last straw" however, according to one defense official, was a screw-up that resulted in nuclear fuses accidentally being sent to Taiwan.
Gates decided to ask for the resignations of the two officials in the wake of a blistering, and still classified, report on the Taiwan screw-up, in which four MK-12 fuses were accidentally shipped earlier this year.
"This incident represents a significant failure to ensure the security of sensitive military components," Gates said today. "More troubling, it depicts a pattern of poor performance that was highlighted to us following last year's incident involving the improper movement of nuclear weapons between Minot AFB and Barksdale AFB."
Gates also made it clear that Wynne and Moseley may be only the first heads to roll.
"A substantial number of Air Force general officers and colonels have been identified as potentially subject to disciplinary measures, ranging from removal from command to letters of reprimand."
One senior defense official pointed to a "pattern of leadership decisions" that had haunted Wynne and Moseley.
That official pointed to the 2006 incident in which the live nuclear bombs were flown over US airspace aboard a B-52 and the controversy over a $50 million public relations contract to promote the aerial demonstration team, known as the Thunderbirds. That contract was given to a recently retired Air Force general. The official also pointed to statements of a top Air Force general that directly contradicted what Secretary Gates has said about spending on Air Force F-22s.
"This is about holding senior officers to high standards of accountability," the official tells ABC News. "It's one of the most important things for the United States military."
In his resignation letter, Wynne said he has been "a long-time proponent of accepting responsibility and being accountable for actins and activities within our Air Force." Earlier this year, however, Wynne and Moseley escaped punishment after a Pentagon Inspector General report concluded that Air Force officials did improperly steer the Thunderbird contract to Strategic Message Solutions (SMS), a company connected to a retired general. A two-star Air Force General and four other airmen were disciplined, but Moseley and Wynne didn't face any administrative action.
"I am deeply disappointed that our high standards were not adhered to in this case," Wynne said at the time. "This is not how the Air Force does business, and we are taking steps to ensure this doesn't happen again."
Moseley said in a statement today that he takes "full responsibility for events which have hurt the Air Force's reputation or raised a question of every Airman's commitment to our core values."
Today, the fallout reached the very top. Wynne is the second service secretary to be fired by Gates. Last year, he fired Army Secretary Francis Harvey.
"The White House has not played any role," in the firings said press secretary Dana Perino today.
The firings were first reported earlier today in The Air Force Times.
Luis Martinez contributed to this report