SEVENTEEN American air force officers have been stripped of authority to control and launch nuclear missiles after an inspection brought to light a litany of failings.
One commander, in a leaked e-mail, wrote: “We are in a crisis right now.” Lieutenant-Colonel Jay Folds also attributed the unit’s poor showing to “rot” within the ranks.
The revelations came after an inspection in March of the United States Air Force (USAF) 91st Missile Wing at Minot, North Dakota, earned the unit the equivalent of a “D” grade when tested on its mastery of Minuteman III launch operations.
In other areas, the officers performed better, but the unit’s overall fitness was deemed so weak that senior personnel decided, after probing further, that an immediate crackdown was required. The air force publicly said the inspection was a success.
In April, 17 officers at Minot were quietly removed from the highly sensitive duty of standing 24-hour watch over America’s most powerful nuclear weapons, 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 on the president’s order.
The 17 cases mark the USAF’s most extensive suspension of launch crew members, according to Lt-Col Angie Blair, spokeswoman for USAF 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.
The trouble at Minot is the latest in a series of setbacks for the USAF’s nuclear mission, highlighted by a 2008 Pentagon advisory group report that found a “dramatic and unacceptable decline” in its commitment to its role, which has its origins in the Cold War stand-off with the Soviet Union. In 2008, then-defence secretary Robert Gates sacked USAF’s top civilian and military leaders after a series of blunders, including a B-52 bomber’s mistaken flight across America armed with nuclear-tipped missiles.
The leaked e-mail describes a culture of indifference, with at least one intentional violation of safety rules and an apparent unwillingness to challenge or report the rule breakers.
USAF yesterday said the officers who lost their certification were now getting more training with the expectation that they will return to normal duty within 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 purposefully broken a missile safety rule in a way that could have compromised the secret codes that enable the launching of missiles, which stand on high alert in underground silos spread across the US Midwest. The 91st Missile Wing is one of three that operate a fleet of 450 Minuteman III missiles; the two others are at Malmstrom, Montana, and FE Warren, Wyoming.
Lt-Col Folds is deputy commander of the 91st Operations Group, whose three squadrons are responsible for manning the wing’s 15 Minuteman III launch-control centres. Advising his troops on 12 April that they had “fallen”, he wrote that drastic corrective action was required because “we didn’t wake up” after a poor report in March.
“And now we’re discovering such rot in the crew force that your behaviour while on alert is accepting of [weapons safety rule violations, possible code compromises and other failings] all in the name of not inconveniencing yourselves,” he wrote.
Lt-Col Folds also complained about unwarranted questioning of orders by launch crews and a lack of respect. “We are breaking you down, and we will build from the ground up,” Lt-Col Folds added. He later wrote: “It takes real leaders to lead through a crisis and we are, in fact, in a crisis right now.”
AMERICA’s nuclear force has previously misfired.
In August 2007, a B-52H bomber flew from Minot airbase, North Dakota, to Barksdale airbase in Louisiana without the crew realising it was armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. This led to the creation of Global Strike Command in January 2009.
Bruce Blair, a launch control officer in the 1970s and now a research scholar at Princeton University, said: “The nuclear air force is suffering a deep malaise caused by the declining relevance of their mission since the Cold War’s end over 20 years ago. Launch crews have long been demoralised by the air force’s culture and fast-track careers that revolve around flying planes, not sitting in bunkers baby-sitting nuclear missiles.