May 8, 2013

Air Force strips 17 officers of authority to launch ICBMs

Robert Burns / The Associated Press

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.

click image to enlarge

This 2002 file photo provided by the National Park Service shows the launch key mechanism at the deactivated Delta Nine Launch Facility near Wall, S.D.

AP

click image to enlarge

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.

AP

"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.

The tip-off 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.

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. 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, officials said.

Although sidelining 17 launch officers at once is unprecedented, the Air Force said stripping officers of their authority to control nuclear missiles happens to "a small number" of officers every year for a variety of reasons.

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 an unspecified act that could have compromised the secret codes that enable the launching of missiles, which stand on high alert in underground silos in the nation's midsection. Officials said there was no compromise of missile safety or security.

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