by Robert Burns
May 8, 2013
AP - This file photo provided by the National Park
Service shows the inside of the deactivated Delta
Nine Launch Facility near Wall, S.D.,
that is now open to the public.
The Air Force stripped an unprecedented 17 officers
of their authority to control - and if necessary
launch - nuclear missiles after a string of
unpublicized and unacceptable failings, including a
potential compromise of missile launch codes.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel demanded
more information Wednesday after the Air Force removed 17 launch officers
from duty at a nuclear missile base in North Dakota over what a commander
called “rot” in the force.
The Air Force struggled to explain,
acknowledging concern about an “attitude problem” but telling Congress the
weapons were secure.
Hagel reacted strongly after The Associated Press reported the unprecedented
sidelining of the officers at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., where one of their
commanders complained of “such rot” that even the willful violation of
safety rules - including a possible compromise of launch codes - was
The AP quoted from an internal email written by Lt. Col. Jay Folds,
deputy commander of the 91st Operations Group, which is
responsible for all Minuteman 3 missile launch crews at Minot. He lamented
the remarkably poor reviews they received in a March inspection.
Their missile launch skills were rated
“marginal,” which the Air Force told the AP was the equivalent of a “D’’
“We are, in fact, in a crisis right now,”
Folds wrote in the email to his subordinates.
In response, the Air Force said the problem does
not suggest a lack of proper control over the nuclear missiles but rather
was a symptom of turmoil in the ranks.
“The idea that we have people not performing
to the standard we expect will never be good and we won’t tolerate it,”
Gen. Mark Welsh, the service’s top general, said when questioned about
the problem at a congressional hearing on budget issues.
Underlying the Minot situation is a sense among
some that the Air Force’s nuclear mission is a dying field, as the
government considers further reducing the size of the U.S. arsenal.
Welsh noted that because there are a limited number of command positions to
which missile launch officers can aspire within the nuclear force, those
officers tend to believe they have no future.
“That’s actually not the case, but that’s
the view when you’re in the operational force,” Welsh said. “We have to
deal with that.”
Hagel himself, before he was defense secretary,
signed a plan put forward a year ago by the private group Global Zero to
eliminate the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles and to
eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons.
At his Senate confirmation hearing he said he
Barack Obama’s goal of zero nuclear
weapons but only through negotiations.
Hagel’s spokesman, George Little, said the defense secretary was
briefed on the Minot situation as reported by the AP on Wednesday and
demanded that he be provided more details.
Welsh’s civilian boss, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, suggested
a silver lining to the trouble at Minot.
The fact that Minot commanders identified 17
underperformers was evidence that the Air Force has strengthened its
monitoring of the nuclear force, he said. And he stressed that launch crew
members typically are relatively junior officers - lieutenants and captains
- with limited service experience.
It is the duty of commanders, Donley said, to “ride herd” on those young
officers with “this awesome responsibility” of controlling missiles capable
of destroying entire countries.
Donley noted that he is particularly sensitive to any indication of weakness
in the nuclear force because he took over as Air Force secretary in October
2008 after his predecessor, Michael Wynne, was fired by then-Defense
Secretary Robert Gates for a series of nuclear embarrassments. Donley
was charged with cleaning up the problem.
It appeared the Minot force, which is one of three responsible for
controlling - and, if necessary, launching - the Air Force’s 450 strategic
nuclear missiles, is an outlier.
The Air Force told the AP on Wednesday that the two other missile wings - at
Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., and at
F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. - earned
scores of “excellent” in the most recent inspection of their ICBM launch
That is two notches above the “marginal” rating
at Minot and one notch below the highest rating of “outstanding.” Each of
the three wings operates 150 Minuteman 3 missiles.
The Malmstrom unit was inspected in December 2012, the F.E. Warren unit in
Michael Corgan, a nuclear weapons officer in the Navy in the 1960s,
said the Air Force cannot afford to let its launch control crews lose focus
on their mission.
“The kinds of things that caused those Air
Force officers to be rated ‘marginal’ could well be what seem like
trivial errors,” Corgan said. “But in the nuke business you are not
supposed to get anything wrong - anything.”
Corgan is a professor of international relations
at Boston University.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the
Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, expressed outrage, telling Welsh
and Donley that the AP report revealed a problem that “could not be more
The tip-off to trouble was the March inspection that earned the equivalent
of a “D’’ grade when the unit was tested on its mastery of Minuteman 3
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, on an immediate crackdown.
In April the Air Force quietly removed the 17 officers.
“You will be a bench warmer for at least 60
days,” Folds told them in his email.
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 91st Missile Wing has 150
officers assigned to launch control duty.
In his congressional testimony, Welsh said Folds and other senior commanders
determined that the problematic launch officers had,
“more of an attitude problem than a
He said he wished Folds had “used different
language” in his email.
“The word ‘rot’ didn’t excite me, but it got
my attention,” Welsh said, adding that he does not believe “rot” is the
“I don’t believe we have a nuclear surety
risk at Minot Air Force Base,” referring to the danger of an accident or
The email obtained by the AP describes a culture
of indifference at Minot, 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. It said the officers who lost their
certification to operate ICBMs are now getting more training with the
expectation that they will return to normal duty within about two months.
The missiles remain on their normal war footing,
In addition to the 17, possible disciplinary action is pending against one
other officer at Minot who investigators found had intentionally broken a
safety rule in an unspecified act that could have compromised the secret
codes that enable the launching of missiles that stand on high alert in
underground silos in the nation’s midsection.
Officials said there was no compromise of
missile safety or security.
Advising his troops on April 12 that they had “fallen,” Folds wrote that
drastic corrective action was required because “we didn’t wake up” after the
March inspection that he said amounted to a failure, even though the unit’s
overall performance technically was rated “satisfactory.”
“And now we’re discovering such rot in the
crew force that your behavior while on alert is accepting of” weapons
safety rule violations, possible code compromises and other failings,
“all in the name of not inconveniencing yourselves,” Folds wrote.
Folds also complained about unwarranted
questioning of orders from superior officers by launch crews and failure to
address superiors with the proper respect.
“It takes real leaders to lead through a
crisis and we are, in fact, in a crisis right now,” he wrote.
When the AP inquired about the Folds email, the
Air Force arranged a telephone interview with one of Folds’ superiors, Col.
Robert Vercher, commander of the 91st Missile Wing.
“We are frustrated anytime we’re performing
less than we expect of ourselves,” Vercher said, adding that he and
other senior officers are implementing an aggressive and innovative plan
to restore a record of high performance.
“There was a problem,” Vercher said. “And we will fix it.”