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US air force chiefs sacked in robot-armada brouhaha

Bigwigs also fingered in mislaid atom bomb bungle

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The civilian and uniformed heads of the US Air Force have been fired, according to reports. The two men's reluctance to unleash armadas of drone aircraft into the skies of Afghanistan and Iraq was apparently a major factor in the decision. However, there was also some unpleasantness regarding mislaid nuclear weapons, and ballistic-missile parts mistakenly shipped to Taiwan.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates announced that General "Buzz" Moseley and Secretary Michael Wynne would resign yesterday.

"Mike Wynne is a dedicated and honorable public servant, and Buzz Moseley has given decades of courageous and devoted service," said Gates. "I deeply regret that the issues before us require the actions that I have taken. I have the highest respect for both men, but I felt the change was needed."

The decision by Gates followed the publication of a damning review into recent Air Force blunders involving nuclear weapons. In one well-known case, six cruise missiles with live nuclear warheads were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52 bomber and flown across the USA without the crew being aware of their deadly cargo. Then it was discovered that the Taiwanese forces, having requested some spare helicopter batteries, had instead been sent replacement nose-cone assemblies for Minuteman ballistic missiles.

Gates sought to suggest that the nuclear-bomb mishaps had prompted the Air Force purge. However, he was known to have been engaged in a long-running bureaucratic battle with the service's upper echelons.

Specific incidents had included a senior airforce general publicly contradicting Gates on how many F-22 Raptor superfighters would be purchased (with the general specifying a much larger number). The Defence Secretary had also said that the air force suffered from "next war itis", in which it was mainly interested in buying and manning equipment which would only be useful in some future battle against Russia or China. He felt it would be more appropriate to focus on the wars going on right now.

In particular, Gates apparently had to overcome stiff Air Force resistance to an increase in the number of Predator and Reaper robot aircraft operating over Iraq and Afghanistan. The unmanned planes are in constant demand by hard-pressed ground troops, but are unpopular among the flyboys. This is the more so as ramping up the remotely-operated planes' use means drafting pilots away from sexy fighters. Gates described the process of getting more pilots into the ground stations and more Predators into the air as "like pulling teeth".

"I think the honorable thing to do is to step aside," said General Moseley in a statement. "I love the Air Force and remain proud of America's Airmen."

"It has been an honor and pleasure to serve ... side-by-side with General Moseley and the magnificent patriots serving in the Department of Defense and the United States government," added ex-secretary Wynne. ®

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