WASHINGTON - The US Air Force on Friday launches a new Global Strike Command responsible for nuclear forces after two major mishaps raised doubts about the supervision of the country's atomic weapons.
The opening of the command marks a shake-up that followed the botched handling of nuclear weapons and the subsequent sacking of the air force's top civilian and military leaders last year.
The command, located at Barksdale Air Force base in the southern state of Louisiana, will combine nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers as well as the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force -- which had previously been under the Air Force Space Command in Colorado.
"We needed to refocus on the nuclear mission and not lose sight of that," Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley told reporters ahead of Friday's ceremony.
He said there had been some "painful lessons" but the new command would "reinvigorate our nuclear enterprise."
An outside panel headed by former defense secretary James Schlesinger concluded that the US Air Force had for years given the nuclear forces a lower priority and failed to manage the mission with rigor.
The panel found "an unambiguous, dramatic and unacceptable decline in the air force's commitment to perform the nuclear mission and, until very recently, little has been done to reverse it."
Two widely-publicized incidents raised questions over the air force's handling of its nuclear mission.
First came the inadvertent transfer from one US base to another of nuclear-armed cruise missiles under the wing of a B-52 bomber in September 2007.
Then the Pentagon discovered that nuclear weapons components had been inadvertently shipped to Taiwan in 2006.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates soon fired the air force's top civilian and military leaders in June 2008.
The ICBMs in the 20th Air Force, part of Air Force Space Command, are due to shift to the new command in early December and bombers from the 8th Air Force are scheduled to move to the command in February, officials said.
Three-star General Frank Klotz will lead the new command, which comprises 23,000 airmen.
While the nuclear role would take the top priority, the command would also be ready to employ conventional weapons, including a giant "bunker buster" bomb due to be ready next year, said air force chief of staff, General Norton Schwartz.
The general said the new command included an elaborate inspections regime with regular outside oversight.
"We have made a special effort to make the inspections more demanding, more invasive, more challenging," Schwartz told reporters.
"My judgment was that perhaps the inspections had not been as rigorous as we needed in the past. So we adjusted that," the general said.
He also said setting up a command would ensure the nuclear forces received equal status with other missions in the air force and would help develop a cadre of airmen with relevant skills.
The nuclear forces previously were perceived as a secondary mission, especially after the end of the Cold War.
"The key thing here is we ended up focusing on other things and understandably perhaps, but we are now wiser," Schwartz said.
Arms control talks with Russia and a major nuclear strategy review underway at the Pentagon had highlighted the importance of the nuclear forces, Donley said.
Donley and Schwartz discussed the command at a briefing Wednesday at the Pentagon. But the air force barred the release of their remarks until Friday as officers wanted to avoid the announcement coinciding with Thursday's anniversary of the United States dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.
The attack killed some 140,000 people, either instantly or in the days and weeks that followed.