May 8, 2013

Air Force strips 17 officers of authority to launch ICBMs

Robert Burns / The Associated Press

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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

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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

Folds is deputy commander of the 91st Operations Group, whose three squadrons are responsible for manning the wing's 15 Minuteman III launch control centers.

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 an underwhelming inspection in March that he said amounted to a failure, even though the unit's overall performance technically was rated "satisfactory." That is two notches below the highest rating.

"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.

"We are breaking you down, and we will build from the ground up," Folds added. He later wrote, "It takes real leaders to lead through a crisis and we are, in fact, in a crisis right now."

He told his subordinates, "You must continue to turn over the rocks and find the rot."

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. The wing is one of three that operate the nation's fleet of 450 Minuteman III missiles; the two others are at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., and F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo.

"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 among launch control officers.

"There was a problem," Vercher said. "And we will fix it."

Vercher said Folds was expressing frustration.

"That is a very passionate leader embarrassed by a performance below our expectation," Vercher said, adding that Folds was disappointed by the inspection, which was by the inspector general of the Air Force Global Strike Command.

Vercher said Folds was telling his officers, in effect, "Quite frankly, you guys should all be embarrassed that in an area that's important, you passed but you were rated as very close to not passing, and that's not acceptable."

The inspection area to which Vercher referred was proficiency at operating the missile launch simulator and responses to written questions about procedures. Their performance was rated "marginal," which Vercher said is the equivalent of a "D'' grade. The inspector's office told the AP that "marginal" is a passing rating, "but attention is needed from leadership to address issues before they become unsatisfactory."

"Nobody is comfortable with that," Vercher said.

The launch simulator is used in testing for inspection because, for obvious reasons, they can't perform an actual missile launch.

Exposure of shortcomings within Vercher's unit recalls an earlier series of stunning mistakes by other elements of the nuclear force, including the August 2007 incident in which an Air Force B-52 bomber flew from Minot to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., without the crew realizing it was armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. One outcome of the incident was the creation of Global Strike Command in January 2009 as a way of improving management of the nuclear enterprise.

Bruce Blair, who served as an Air Force ICBM launch control officer in the 1970s and is now a research scholar at Princeton University, said the Folds email points to a broader problem within the nuclear weapons force.

"The nuclear air force is suffering from a deep malaise caused by the declining relevance of their mission since the Cold War's end over 20 years ago," Blair said in an interview. "Minuteman launch crews have long been marginalized and demoralized by the fact that the Air Force's culture and fast-track careers revolve around flying planes, not sitting in underground bunkers baby-sitting nuclear-armed missiles."

Blair is co-founder of Global Zero, an international group that advocates the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

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