U.S. Air Force sidelines 17 launch officers at nuclear missile base

Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel demanded more information Wednesday after the Air Force disciplined 17 launch officers at a nuclear missile base in the state of North Dakota over what a commander called “rot” in the force. The Air Force struggled to explain, acknowledging concern about an “attitude problem” but telling Congress the weapons were secure.

WASHINGTON — Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel demanded more information Wednesday after the Air Force disciplined 17 launch officers at a nuclear missile base in the state of North Dakota over what a commander called “rot” in the force. The Air Force struggled to explain, acknowledging concern about an “attitude problem” but telling Congress the weapons were secure.

Hagel reacted strongly after The Associated Press reported the unprecedented sidelining of the officers at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota,, where one of their commanders complained of “such rot” that even the wilful violation of safety rules — including a possible compromise of launch codes — was tolerated.

The AP quoted from an internal email written by Lt. Col. Jay Folds, deputy commander of the 91st Operations Group, which is responsible for all Minuteman 3 missile launch crews at Minot. He lamented the remarkably poor reviews they received in a March inspection. Their missile launch skills were rated “marginal,” which the Air Force told the AP was the equivalent of a “D” grade.

“We are, in fact, in a crisis right now,” Folds wrote in the email to his subordinates.

In response, the Air Force said the problem does not suggest a lack of proper control over the nuclear missiles but rather was a symptom of turmoil in the ranks.

“The idea that we have people not performing to the standard we expect will never be good and we won’t tolerate it,” Gen. Mark Welsh, the service’s top general, said when questioned about the problem at a congressional hearing on budget issues.

Underlying the Minot situation is a sense among some that the Air Force’s nuclear mission is a dying field, as the government considers further reducing the size of the U.S. arsenal.

Welsh noted that because there are a limited number of command positions to which missile launch officers can aspire within the nuclear force, those officers tend to believe they have no future.

“That’s actually not the case, but that’s the view when you’re in the operational force,” Welsh said. “We have to deal with that.”

Hagel himself, before he was defence secretary, signed a plan put forward a year ago by the private group Global Zero to eliminate the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles and to eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons.

At his Senate confirmation hearing he said he supports President Barack Obama’s goal of zero nuclear weapons but only through negotiations.

Hagel’s spokesman, George Little, said the defence secretary was briefed on the Minot situation as reported by the AP on Wednesday and demanded that he be provided more details.

Welsh’s civilian boss, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, suggested a silver lining to the trouble at Minot. The fact that Minot commanders identified 17 underperformers was evidence that the Air Force has strengthened its monitoring of the nuclear force, he said. And he stressed that launch crew members typically are relatively junior officers — lieutenants and captains — with limited service experience.

It is the duty of commanders, Donley said, to “ride herd” on those young officers with “this awesome responsibility” of controlling missiles capable of destroying entire countries.

Donley noted that he is particularly sensitive to any indication of weakness in the nuclear force because he took over as Air Force secretary in October 2008 after his predecessor, Michael Wynne, was fired by then-Defence Secretary Robert Gates for a series of nuclear embarrassments. Donley was charged with cleaning up the problem.

It appeared the Minot force, which is one of three responsible for controlling — and, if necessary, launching — the Air Force’s 450 strategic nuclear missiles, is an exception.

The Air Force told the AP on Wednesday that the two other missile wings — at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, and at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, — earned scores of “excellent” in the most recent inspection of their ICBM launch skills. That is two notches above the “marginal” rating at Minot and one notch below the highest rating of “outstanding.” Each of the three wings operates 150 Minuteman 3 missiles.

The Malmstrom unit was inspected in December 2012, the F.E. Warren unit in May 2012.

Michael Corgan, a nuclear weapons officer in the Navy in the 1960s, said the Air Force cannot afford to let its launch control crews lose focus on their mission.

“The kinds of things that caused those Air Force officers to be rated ’marginal’ could well be what seem like trivial errors,” Corgan said. “But in the nuke business you are not supposed to get anything wrong — anything.” Corgan is a professor of international relations at Boston University.

Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Appropriations defence subcommittee, expressed outrage, telling Welsh and Donley that the AP report revealed a problem that “could not be more troubling.”

The tip-off to trouble was the March inspection that earned the equivalent of a “D” grade when the unit was tested on its mastery of Minuteman 3 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, on an immediate crackdown.

In April the Air Force quietly removed the 17 officers.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Marcus Golczyk, with Taco Monster, hands food to a customer during Food Truck Drive and Dash in the Westerner Park parking lot in Red Deer Friday afternoon. The drive-thru event will run every Thursday from 4-7 p.m. and Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. through June. Photo by SEAN MCINTOSH/Advocate staff
Food Truck Fridays, Food Truck Drive and Dash return in Red Deer

Red Deerians are able to take in a drive-thru food truck experience… Continue reading

Don and Gloria Moore, of Red Deer, are set to celebrate their 70th anniversary later this month. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer couple to celebrate 70th anniversary

Red Deer couple Don and Gloria Moore are set to celebrate their… Continue reading

Chris Scott, owner of The Whistle Stop Cafe, was put in handcuffs after an anti-restriction protest Saturday in the parking lot of the business. (Screenshot via The Whistle Stop Facebook page)
UPDATE: Central Alberta cafe owner arrested after anti-restriction protest

The owner of a central Alberta cafe, which was the site of… Continue reading

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer now has 911 active COVID-19 cases

Central zone has 2,917 active cases

FILE - A firefighter wears a mask as he drives his truck. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward, File
VIDEO: Flames rip through Edmonton-area seniors complex, but no fatalities

ST. ALBERT, Alta. — Fire has destroyed part of a retirement complex… Continue reading

Quebec Premier Francois Legault chairs a premiers virtual news conference as premiers John Horgan, B.C., Jason Kenney, Alberta, and Scott Moe, Saskatchewan, are seen onscreen, Thursday, March 4, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Several provinces bring in new restrictions as high COVID-19 case numbers persist

Several provinces are gearing up to tighten public health measures once again… Continue reading

Members of the RCAF take part in a Royal Canadian Air Force change of command ceremony in Ottawa on Friday, May 4, 2018. The Royal Canadian Air Force is hoping Canada will open its doors to military pilots from other countries as it seeks to address a longstanding shortage of experienced aviators. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
RCAF turns to foreign pilots to help with shortage as commercial aviators stay away

OTTAWA — The Royal Canadian Air Force is hoping Canada will open… Continue reading

An arrivals and departures information screen is seen at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport in Halifax on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. The chief executive of Atlantic Canada's largest airport is hoping for COVID-19 testing for arriving passengers "sooner rather than later," as an added measure to combat the province's third wave of the virus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Halifax airport CEO hopes for more on-site COVID testing ‘sooner rather than later’

HALIFAX — The chief executive of Atlantic Canada’s largest airport is hoping… Continue reading

Shoppers wear mask as they shop at a nursery & garden shop on Mother's Day weekend during COVID-19 pandemic in Wilmette, Ill., Saturday, May 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Tearful reunions mark second Mother’s Day under pandemic

Last Mother’s Day, they celebrated with bacon and eggs over FaceTime. This… Continue reading

Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet, standing, watches the game during the second period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. The Wild won 5-2. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig)
Tocchet won’t return as coach of Coyotes after 4 seasons

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes and coach Rick Tocchet have mutually… Continue reading

Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella shouts at an official after a fight between Columbus Blue Jackets' s Gavin Bayreuther and Florida Panthers' Sam Bennett during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Monday, April 19, 2021, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Tortorella out after 6 years as Columbus Blue Jackets coach

COLUMBUS, Ohio — John Tortorella is out as coach of the Columbus… Continue reading

A caribou grazes on Baffin Island in a 2008 file photo. A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada's vanishing caribou herds is a step closer after a scientific review panel's approval of a plan to permanently pen some animals and breed them to repopulate other herds. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kike Calvo via AP Images
Parks Canada captive caribou breeding proposal gets OK from scientific review panel

JASPER, Alta. — A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada’s vanishing… Continue reading

The smouldering remains of houses in Slave Lake, Alta., are seen in a May 16, 2011, file photo. The wildfire that is devastating large swaths of the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray comes just five years after another blaze destroyed 400 buildings and left 2,000 people homeless in Slave Lake, Alberta. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ian Jackson
Ten years later: Five things to know about the Slave Lake wildfire

A wildfire burned about one-third of Slave Lake in northern Alberta in… Continue reading

Most Read