WASHINGTON - 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 U.S. 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 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 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.