Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

AP Exclusive: Air Force Sidelines 17 Nuke Officers

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

AP Exclusive: Air Force Sidelines 17 Nuke Officers

Article excerpt

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 launching skills. The group's deputy commander said it was 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 were relatively junior in rank lieutenants and captains and needed 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 a recent report about Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota showed that the Air Force had strengthened its inspection system. He said he was confident the nuclear missile force was secure.

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

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was briefed on the Minot matter by his senior staff and asked for more information, according to his spokesman, George Little.

The tipoff to trouble was a March inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot in which the wing's officers earned the equivalent of a "D" grade when tested on their 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 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. …

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