WASHINGTON – The Air Force stripped an unprecedented 17 officers of their authority to control – and, if necessary, launch – nuclear missiles after a string of unpublicized failings, including a remarkably dim review of their unit’s launch skills. The group’s deputy commander said it is suffering “rot” within its ranks.
“We are, in fact, in a crisis right now,” the commander, Lt. Col. Jay Folds, wrote in an internal email obtained by the Associated Press and confirmed by the Air Force.
Asked about this at a Senate hearing Wednesday, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, the service’s top official, explained the problem by stressing that launch control officers are relatively junior in rank – lieutenants and captains – and need to be reminded continually of the importance of “this awesome responsibility” for which they have been trained.
Donley said commanders must “ride herd” on the launch crews, and he said the Minot revelation shows that the Air Force has strengthened its inspection system. He said he is confident that the nuclear missile force is secure.
Sen. Richard Durbin, chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, expressed outrage, saying the AP report revealed a problem that “could not be more troubling.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel responded to the AP report on Wednesday by demanding more information from the Air Force.
The tipoff to trouble was a March inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., which earned the equivalent of a “D” grade when tested on its mastery of Minuteman III missile launch operations. In other areas, the officers tested much better, but the group’s overall fitness was deemed so tenuous that senior officers at Minot decided, after probing further, that an immediate crackdown was called for.
The Air Force publicly called the inspection a “success.”
But in April it quietly removed 17 officers at Minot from the highly sensitive duty of standing 24-hour watch over the Air Force’s most powerful nuclear missiles, the intercontinental ballistic missiles that can strike targets across the globe. Inside each underground launch control capsule, two officers stand “alert” at all times, ready to launch an ICBM upon presidential order.
“You will be a bench warmer for at least 60 days,” Folds wrote.
The 17 cases mark the Air Force’s most extensive sidelining ever of launch crew members, according to Lt. Col. Angie Blair, a spokeswoman for Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the missile units as well as nuclear-capable bombers. The wing has 150 officers assigned to missile launch control duty.
Appearing with Donley at Wednesday’s Senate hearing, the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, said Folds and other senior commanders at Minot removed the 17 launch crew members after determining that they had “more of an attitude problem than a proficiency problem.” He said he endorsed their handling of the problem.
The trouble at Minot is the latest in a series of setbacks for the Air Force’s nuclear mission, highlighted by a 2008 Pentagon advisory group report that found a “dramatic and unacceptable decline” in the Air Force’s commitment to the mission, which has its origins in a Cold War standoff with the former Soviet Union.
In 2008, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates sacked the top civilian and military leaders of the Air Force after a series of blunders, including a bomber’s mistaken flight across the country armed with nuclear-tipped missiles. Since then the Air Force has taken numerous steps designed to improve its nuclear performance.
The email obtained by the AP describes a culture of indifference, with at least one intentional violation of missile safety rules and an apparent unwillingness among some to challenge or report those who violate rules.
In response to AP inquiries, the Air Force said the lapses never put the security of the nuclear force at risk.