Cold Comfort

May 10, 2013—The Air Force attracted the ire of some lawmakers this week after news reports that it relieved 17 ICBM launch control officers at Minot AFB, N.D., last month of their authority to control and, if necessary, launch Minuteman III nuclear missiles.

The decision to sideline the officers for at least two months came following a March inspection in which Minot’s 91st Missile Wing received a poor, yet passing grade—the equivalent of a “D”—in missile crew operations.

Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told members of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense panel on May 9 that Air Force inspectors gave the wing an “excellent” rating in 14 of 22 total categories, “satisfactory” in seven categories, and “marginal” in one.

“That one area [where they were] rated marginal was missile crew operations. It is unusual for a missile wing to be graded marginal in that area. It does not happen very often,” said Welsh. “Now, to be clear, marginal is passing. It meets the minimum standards for getting the job done, but it is not the level [wing leadership] would expect from their crew performance.”

Welsh said the wing commander and the group commander at Minot “immediately started an investigation into what had caused the lower-than-expected performance by their crew members.” That review included a “comprehensive, top-to-bottom assessment of training, performance on routine testing, simulations, et cetera,” he said.

The headline on Minot’s March 18 release called the consolidated unit inspection a “success,” noting that the 91st MW received a “satisfactory” score.

In an internal e-mail obtained by the Associated Press, Lt. Col. Jay Folds, deputy commander of Minot’s 91st Operations Group, wrote, “We’re discovering such rot in the crew force” that airmen are accepting failings while on alert “all in the name of not inconveniencing” themselves. Folds also wrote that the nuclear missile community is “in a crisis right now.”

During the May 9 HAC-D hearing, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said the term “rot” is one “I think he and everyone else regret.”

“He was talking about this attitude among a few of the crew members . . . who he didn’t think were committed enough to staying fully aware of all the responsibilities of their job all the time and getting better continuously in the performance of their mission,” explained Donley. “They can do the job, but they didn’t have the attitude and the drive that he expected to see from his missile crew members. That’s what he was referring to. Nothing—nothing else.”

US Strategic Command chief Gen. Robert Kehler told members of the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces panel on May 9 that he has reviewed the wing’s inspections for the last three or four years—all of which he noted have been satisfactory. In addition, he has ordered the STRATCOM inspector general to review the issue further.

“I think the [wing] is moving aggressively. I think you saw that in some of the press reporting,” said Kehler. “I believe they’re working on getting to root cause and as I sit here today, I don’t see anything that could cause me to lose confidence in [that unit’s ability] to perform the mission safely and effectively.”

On the previous day, May 8, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense panel, told Donley and Welsh that the issue with the launch control officers “could not be more troubling.”

Durbin emphasized that “this isn’t the first time” the Air Force’s nuclear-readiness capabilities have come under question. Former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and former Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley lost their jobs in 2008 in part due to two nuclear-related incidents: the accidental shipment of non-nuclear Minuteman III components to Taiwan and the mistaken transfer of cruise missiles with nuclear warheads across the US heartland.

“Heads rolled as a result of that, and there were dramatic changes made. There was an official review of it and a new resolve that this would never happen again. And, here we are today with this situation,” said Durbin.

Donley told the SASC panel that the nuclear mission remains the Air Force’s “No. 1 responsibility” and is one “we take very, very seriously.” He blamed the latest incident on the inexperience of the launch control officers, saying “we need to remember that these are lieutenants by and large.” As such, the training standards must be “reinforced continually—every day, every week, every month.”

“So, the command responsibility to maintain visibility on this and to ride herd on young officers with this awesome responsibility is something that we support,” said Donley. “And, in this instance, the commander stepped in and said these people need refresher training. And, so he took them offline to do that . . . that is an appropriate command response.”

Durbin said the low ranking of such officers is a “cold comfort” and may even be more “troubling” than the inspection rating.

Donley said he was “confident in the Air Force’s ability to maintain a safe and secure nuclear deterrent.”

Air Force Global Strike Command spokeswoman Lt. Col. Angie Blair, told the Daily Report on May 8 that Folds’ e-mail was not intended to be made public and was meant to “re-emphasize the high standards expected in the nuclear mission area.”

“A marginal grade in one area, although passing, is less than desired to airmen who are entrusted with the most powerful weapons in our nation’s arsenal,” wrote Blair in an e-mail response to a query.

“Nuclear weapons are a special trust and responsibility and as a result we strive for perfection in all we do. The mission demands the highest standards and we routinely assess our performance to ensure uncompromising adherence to all directives.”