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
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
"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
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
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
"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
Durbin said the low ranking of such officers is a "cold
comfort" and may even be more "troubling" than the inspection
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
"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.
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Memorial Day is a time to remember all those who died fighting for their country, just like A1C William Pitsenbarger, an Air Force pararescueman who took part in more than 250 rescue missions before he was killed at the age of 21. His selflessness and valor in the Vietnam War earned him an Air Force Cross and, eventually, a Medal of Honor.
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