An Air Force commander has temporarily stripped 17 officers of their authority to control and launch nuclear-armed Minuteman III missiles after he found their performance lacking during a recent inspection. The unprecedented move highlights the Air Force's continuing effort to make up for missteps involving its nuclear weapons arsenal that came to light in 2008.
In mid-April Lt. Col. Jay Folds, the deputy commander of the 91st Operations Group, based at Minot AFB in North Dakota, ordered that 17 of his officers be decertified from their responsibilities and undergo refresher training in the wake of their poor performance during a recent inspection.
One of the officers was investigated for potentially compromising nuclear launch codes, a decision on disciplinary action is pending. News of the decertification was first reported by the Associated Press.
The news comes five years after the Air Force refocused on attention to details for its nuclear mission following a series of missteps involving the handling of nuclear weapons under their care. In one case a B-52 bomber crew flew a mission over several Midwestern states while unknowing carrying nuclear-armed cruise missiles.
In response to those incidents Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired the Air Force's top two senior officials and the Air Force integrated control of its nuclear inventory under the newly created Global Strike Command.
The 17 officers sent to retraining work in underground launch control centers for Minuteman III missiles housed in silos dotting the North Dakota countryside. The Air Force maintains 450 of the missiles that can each carry multiple nuclear warheads.
Folds' unit had recently passed a comprehensive inspection with a "satisfactory" rating, the mid-range of five levels with "unsatisfactory" being the lowest.
The unit received an excellent rating in 14 of 22 categories listed for inspection and a "satisfactory" in all but one of the others which was listed as "marginal," one step above an unsatisfactory rating.
This '"marginal" rating for "crew operations" prompted Folds to decertify 17 of his officers. He announced his move in an unusually blunt internal email he sent to his airmen on April 12 entitled "Did You Know?" A copy of the e-mail was obtained by ABC News.
"Did you know that we, as an operations group, have fallen " asked Folds, "and it is time to stand ourselves back up?" "We are in fact in a crisis right now," he added.
"We're discovering such rot in the crew force that your behavior while on alert is accepting" of missteps in launch security protocols "all in the name of not inconveniencing yourselves."
"We need to hit the reset button and restructure the crew force to take you out of your comfort zones (which are rotten comfort zones), and rebuild from the ground up," wrote Folds. He urged his airmen to "get back to the basics and crush any rules violators."
"You have yourselves to thank … if you're a violator, you did this to us. If you're a hater, you did this to us. If you actually follow the rules, but don't challenge the violators and haters, you did this to us. We are breaking you down, and we will build from the ground up.
At a budget hearing on Capitol Hill, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told senators there "was nothing good about the incident" at Minot but said he did not believe "we have a nuclear surety risk" there.
"I believe we have commanders who are taking very aggressive action to ensure that never occurs. And in that respect, this is a good thing," he said. "The idea that we have people not performing to the standard we expect will never be good, and we won't tolerate it."
Though he liked the way Minot commanders responded to the rating Welsh also wished "they'd used different language in the email they sent. The word 'rot' didn't excite me, but it got my attention."
Air Force Secretary Mike Donley said he was "confident in the Air Force's ability to maintain a safe and secure nuclear deterrent." He noted the Minot incident reflects the "stronger inspection process that has been put in place" following the 2008 mishaps.
He said the Air Force supports commanders who follow up on inspections "with those actions that they think are necessary to maintain the highest professional standards for this work."
Air Force officials say it is not uncommon for commanders to decertify airmen for anything ranging from a disciplinary issue to underperformance, but that it is unusual to have so many officers decertified in one unit.
Lt. Col. Angie Blair, a spokesperson for Global Strike Command, said commanders working the nuclear mission "have a serious job that demands very high standards. There is a lot of pressure to maintain the highest proficiency," said Blair.
Other crews in the 150 person unit have been working extra hours and officers from other units are being brought in to make up the personnel shortfall until the 17 are recertified.