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General Orders Extra Review of Nuke Crew Failings


May 10, 2013
Robert Burns / Associated Press

The general who commands the nation's nuclear forces said Thursday he has ordered further review of failings discovered among Air Force officers who operate nuclear missiles. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that a March inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot gave the missile crews the equivalent of a "D" grade in missile operations, leading to the removal from duty of an unprecedented 17 officers.

http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_NUCLEAR_MISSTEPS?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME

General Orders Extra Review of Nuke Crew Failings
Robert Burns / Associated Press

WASHINGTON (May 9, 2014) -- The general who commands the nation's nuclear forces said Thursday he has ordered further review of failings discovered among Air Force officers who operate nuclear missiles. But he told Congress he was not alarmed by their shortcomings.

Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of US Strategic Command, told a House Armed Services panel that the Air Force assured him it is searching for root causes of the problem among missile launch officers at Minot Air Force Base, N.D.

"As I sit here today, I don't see anything that would cause me to lose confidence" in their ability to perform their mission, Kehler said.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that a March inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot gave the missile crews the equivalent of a "D" grade in missile operations, leading to the removal from duty of an unprecedented 17 officers.

Kehler said he has told the Strategic Command's inspector general to review the results of the Minot inspection, which was performed by the Air Force Global Strike Command. That command is responsible for the missile unit's training and readiness but would cede responsibility for them to Strategic Command in time of war.

Kehler said "the Air Force is digging into this," and that his command's inspector general will review the previous inspection's results as well as the responses to it by commanders at Minot.

"This has my personal attention," Kehler said.

At a separate House Appropriations Commiteee hearing Thursday, the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, found himself on the defensive over the Minot issue.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., told Welsh that if the Minot problem had happened in the Navy's nuclear force, the individuals involved would have been dismissed. Welsh said Minot commanders were "concerned they were not taking the job seriously enough."

Kehler's comments stood in contrast to the tone of a confidential email obtained by the AP in which a senior officer at Minot sketched a picture of a troubled nuclear unit.

"We are, in fact, in a crisis right now," Lt. Col. Jay Folds, a deputy commander at Minot, told subordinates in the April 12 email. His group is responsible for all Minuteman 3 missile launch crews at Minot.

In his email, Folds lamented the remarkably poor reviews the launch officers received in the March inspection. Their missile launch skills were rated "marginal," which the Air Force told the AP was the equivalent of a "D" grade.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel responded to the AP report on Wednesday by demanding more information from the Air Force.

Welsh said on Wednesday that 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," Welsh 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 US 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 defense 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 defense 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-Defense 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 outlier.

The Air Force told the AP on Wednesday that the two other missile wings -- at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., and at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. -- 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, D-Ill., chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, expressed outrage, telling Welsh and Donley that the AP report revealed a problem that "could not be more troubling."

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 91st Missile Wing has 150 officers assigned to launch control duty.

In his congressional testimony, Welsh said Folds and other senior commanders determined that the problematic launch officers had "more of an attitude problem than a proficiency problem."

He said he wished Folds had "used different language" in his email.

"The word `rot' didn't excite me, but it got my attention," Welsh said, adding that he does not believe "rot" is the problem. "I don't believe we have a nuclear surety risk at Minot Air Force Base," referring to the danger of an accident or unauthorized launch.

In addition to the 17, possible disciplinary action is pending against one other officer at Minot whom investigators found had intentionally broken a safety rule in an unspecified act that could have compromised the secret codes that enable the launching of missiles that stand on high alert in underground silos in the nation's midsection. Officials said there was no compromise of missile safety or security.

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 the March inspection that he said amounted to a failure, even though the unit's overall performance technically was rated "satisfactory."

"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.

Follow Robert Burns on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP

(c) 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.



Intercontinental Nuclear Missile Base Earns 'D' Report Card, 17 Air Force Officers Demoted
Associated Press

(May 8, 2013) -- 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.

"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.

Asked about this at a Senate hearing Wednesday, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, the service's top official, explained the problem by stressing that launch control officers are relatively junior in rank -- lieutenants and captains -- and need to be reminded continually of the importance of "this awesome responsibility" for which they have been trained.

Donley said commanders must "ride herd" on the launch crews, and he said the Minot revelation shows that the Air Force has strengthened its inspection system. He said he is confident that the nuclear missile force is secure.

Sen. Richard Durbin, chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, expressed outrage, saying the AP report revealed a problem that "could not be more troubling."

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.


Air Force Strips 17 Officers of Power to Launch Intercontinental Nuclear Missiles
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (May 8, 2013) -- 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.

"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.

Asked about this at a Senate hearing Wednesday, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, the service's top official, explained the problem by stressing that launch control officers are relatively junior in rank -- lieutenants and captains -- and need to be reminded continually of the importance of "this awesome responsibility" for which they have been trained.

Donley said commanders must "ride herd" on the launch crews, and he said the Minot revelation shows that the Air Force has strengthened its inspection system. He said he is confident that the nuclear missile force is secure.

Sen. Richard Durbin, chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, expressed outrage, saying the AP report revealed a problem that "could not be more troubling."

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.

Appearing with Donley at Wednesday's Senate hearing, the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, said Folds and other senior commanders at Minot removed the 17 launch crew members after determining that they had "more of an attitude problem than a proficiency problem." He said he endorsed their handling of the problem.

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.

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.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.


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