WASHINGTON — A Pentagon advisory group condemned the Air Force for a dramatic deterioration in managing the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and recommended Friday that it consolidate nuclear responsibilities under one command.
The decline has eroded international confidence in the United States’ ability to provide a nuclear umbrella of protection, the task force said in rolling out more than 30 recommended changes in the structure, funding, inspections and staffing of the Air Force’s nuclear responsibilities.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Pentagon reporters Friday that the advisory group made a strong argument for unifying its nuclear management.
‘‘One of the concerns that I had,’’ based on previous revelations about shortcomings in the Air Force’s stewardship of its nuclear arsenal,’’ is the lack of unity of command and not having one person or organization accountable for the overall mission,’’ Gates said.
He added that while he isn’t sure what the right answer is, the Air Force is considering the idea.
The latest review is one of several studies and reports triggered by a series of Air Force blunders in its handling of nuclear-related materials — missteps that prompted Gates to sack the top civilian and military leaders of the service earlier this year.
After Gates spoke, James Schlesinger, a former defense secretary who chaired the advisory panel, told reporters that the Air Force’s division of command over nuclear matters had led to a deterioration in control, staffing and resources.
The panel’s report concluded that there has been ‘‘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.’’
Panel members, said Schlesinger, were surprised that the situation had declined more than they had anticipated.
Schlesinger said a central recommendation of his group was that the Air Force convert its existing Air Force Space Command — which now has responsibility for the service’s land-based nuclear missiles but not other nuclear weapons — into an organization called Air Force Strategic Command. The new entity would ‘‘be held accountable for the efficacy of the nuclear mission,’’ he said.
Under the existing Air Force structure, responsibility for the bombers and fighters that can deliver nuclear weapons is held by Air Combat Command, and Air Mobility Command has responsibility for the refueling aircraft used to operate with the nuclear bombers and fighters.
The new plan, said Schlesinger, would also shift control of the supply chain from the Defense Logistics Agency to the Air Force — addressing a key issue in one of the foul-ups that triggered the review and recommended overhaul.
In early June, Gates sacked then Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, blaming them for failing to fully address several nuclear-related mishaps, including the mistaken shipment to Taiwan of four electrical fuses for ballistic missile warheads.
The report endorsed plans for the Air Force to take over control of its inventory. Air Force officials have already begun that shift.
Also, in August 2007, an Air Force B-52 bomber was mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and flown from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. At the time, the pilot and crew were unaware they had nuclear arms aboard.
Gates brought in new leaders who immediately vowed to restore confidence in the battered service.
So far they have made a number of adjustments, including an increase in high-level staff, a reorganization of its missile units, revised maintenance procedures and an ongoing review of the inspection process. Schlesinger also said the Air Force is budgeting about $1.5 billion in the fiscal year 2010 budget to address some of the problems.
Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz, the new chief of staff, has said he plans to use the reinstatement of about 14,000 jobs in the service to bolster its nuclear staffing and beef up intelligence and surveillance.
Asked Friday if his confidence has been restored, Gates said he believes the new Air Force leaders are putting a high priority on the nuclear mission and have begun taking corrective actions.
He said he is confident the short-term problems that led to the Taiwan shipment and the Minot flight have been addressed and won’t be repeated. But, he said he wants to be sure that longer-term issues, such as staffing and funding boosts, have been addressed.
‘‘I won’t be completely assured until all of the corrective measures have been taken,’’ Gates said.