ARLINGTON, Va. — Defense Secretary Robert Gates forced the resignations of the Air Force secretary and its top general for reasons much deeper than nuclear accountability, ones that reflected his increasing displeasure with the direction the two were taking the service, according to reported comments from one military analyst and a senior military official.

Gates said his decision to demand the resignations Thursday of Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley was based entirely on a classified Pentagon finding that cited what he called "a chain of failures" in the Air Force’s safeguarding of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The decision marked the first time any secretary of defense had fired both the service secretary and top officer of any branch of the military at the same time.

"The focus of the Air Force leadership has drifted with respect to perhaps its most sensitive mission," Gates told reporters.

A senior Air Force official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not an official spokesman, said because of the finding officers at major Air Force commands and staff headquarters had for months expected the quick departure of one of the two top leaders.

"It was a death watch," said the official.

Gates’ decision to sack the service’s two top leaders simultaneously, especially at a time when the country was in hot conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, sent a clear and wider message to the top echelons of the Air Force, said the senior official who added that the service’s top brass believes the purge was more than just a statement that "when it comes to nukes, we suck."

Loren Thompson, a defense policy analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., told the Los Angeles Times on Friday that although the formal reason was the nuclear weapons mistakes, the forced resignations were actually the result of what he called a growing accumulation of grievances.

"In the end, what it came down to is the feeling of the Secretary of Defense that the Air Force just wasn’t on the policy page he was on, that it was pursuing its own policies," Thompson told the Times.

In one key difference on policy issues, Wynne and Moseley championed a "force shaping" program to use the savings of reducing the size of the force by 40,000 personnel by next year to modernize an aging air fleet.

But Gates wanted military services to put all their energies and focus into winning the current wars, not what he criticized in April as "Next War-itis."

In their public speeches, Wynne and Moseley often seemed to characterize Iraq and Afghanistan almost in terms of a passing distraction for the Air Force to cope with while striving for its future goals.

They touted supersophisticated "fifth generation" technology as a way to defeat adversaries. But Gates believes in manpower-intensive, multiagency approach to conflict and counterinsurgency. The Pentagon chief is also wary of too much dependence on technology.

Wynne and Moseley reportedly irritated Gates with their campaign to drastically expand the Air Force budget at a time when the service is playing a supporting role in Iraq and Afghanistan and when it is shrinking in size while the Army and Marine Corps expand.

Beginning in 2007, Wynne said that starting with the upcoming 2009 budget, the Air Force is going to need at least $20 billion extra every year in order to meet its modernization needs.

After Gates denied an Air Force request to program the extra $20 billion into its 2009 base budget request to Congress, in early April, Moseley and Wynne approached Congress directly, with an $18 billion "unfunded requirements" list.

The Air Force leaders used the list to ask Congress for advanced funding to buy 380 F-22 jet fighters. Neither would budge off the position the service needed that many jets. Gates, meanwhile, vigorously and pointedly supported the Bush administration’s 2009 budget request funding just 20 aircraft.

Gates made his strongest public criticism of Air Force leadership in an April speech when he said he had been "wrestling for months to get more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets" into Iraq and Afghanistan. "Because people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it’s been like pulling teeth," he said.

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