updated 1/7/2009 9:49:10 PM ET 2009-01-08T02:49:10

A Pentagon advisory group plans to release a report Thursday criticizing the Defense Department for lack of focus on its nuclear mission and recommending more oversight, a senior defense official said, after a series of embarrassing incidents that called into question the Air Force's ability to keep track of its nuclear weapons and related materials.

The task force will recommend that the Pentagon create a new assistant secretary position to oversee its nuclear management.

The report is the second part of a broad review that in September condemned the Air Force for a dramatic deterioration in managing the nation's nuclear arsenal. It is one of several studies triggered by the Air Force blunders, most notably the mistaken shipment to Taiwan of four electrical fuses for ballistic missile warheads and the flight across the U.S. by an Air Force bomber mistakenly armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

Top leaders fired last year
The missteps prompted Defense Secretary Robert Gates to sack the top civilian and military leaders of the Air Force last year.

The defense official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the report ahead of its release.

James Schlesinger, a former defense secretary, chaired the advisory panel, and is expected to brief reporters Thursday on its latest recommendations. While the initial report focused mainly on the Air Force, this second part looked at the Defense Department as a whole, and found many of the same failings.

According to the defense official, the panel concluded that the Pentagon's failure to give the nuclear mission its proper attention has led to the downgrading of personnel in that field.

The one exception noted by the panel, the official said, is the Navy's nuclear weapons. The group found no degradation in that mission.

A key concern, according to the panel, is that the nuclear decline has eroded international confidence in the United States' ability to provide a protective nuclear umbrella.

In the latest report, the group recommends that the Defense Department create the new assistant secretary position to enhance oversight and allow the Pentagon to maintain its commitment to U.S. allies.

Larger role for Joint Chiefs
In addition, the report also suggests that the Joint Chiefs of Staff play a larger role in the oversight and management of the nuclear arsenal. And it repeats the panel's earlier recommendation 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 a new entity that would be held accountable for the efficacy of the nuclear mission.

The Air Force already has made a series of changes to improve its oversight and management of the nuclear mission, particularly control of its inventory. 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 enhance intelligence and surveillance.

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 the service's nuclear-related mishaps: the mistaken shipment of the ballistic missile fuses to Taiwan and the August 2007 incident when an Air Force B-52 bomber armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles flew 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 weapons aboard.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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