Fourteen junior enlisted airmen assigned to security at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, where 150 Minuteman III nuclear missiles are on 24-hour alert, were under investigation Friday for alleged drug activity off base in the latest scandal to hit the nuclear force.
The seriousness of the charges was underlined by the presence at F.E. Warren of Gen. Robin Rand, commander of the Global Strike Command at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, to announce that the Office of Special Investigations had implicated 14 airmen in the "open and ongoing" investigation of drug activity in nearby Cheyenne, Wyoming.
"These 14 airmen are assigned to the 90th Security Forces Group and their duties include protecting the base and the surrounding missile complex at F.E. Warren," Rand said in a phone briefing to the Pentagon.
Rand said the investigation had taken on a "high priority" for the Air Force and added that, "This is very important to me that we get to the bottom of this. We have a special trust with our nation, with our public, with the mission that we do in Air Force Global Strike Command."
The base a few miles north of Cheyenne is home to the 90th Missile Wing, which controls a network of launch officers who work out of underground silos for the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that are spread throughout the countryside.
Rand said that the investigation was "still in the preliminary stages," indicating that others might be charged. He declined to state whether the 14 airmen were suspected of being involved in the use or sale of drugs. Rand also declined to say what type of illegal drug was involved, but the Associated Press reported that it was believed to be cocaine.
The 14 suspects were all airmen, airmen first class, or senior airmen (E-2 to E-4), Rand said, and all have been suspended from their security duties while the investigation continues.
Rand said the alleged drug activity "came to light because of one airman who had suspected drug activity by another" and reported his suspicions through the chain of command. Rand said the security duties of the 14 carried major responsibilities and required intensive training for the work at a nuclear missile base.
Last month, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work was on hand at F.E. Warren to observe a training exercise in which the security forces were tasked with recapturing a missile silo that had been taken over by intruders.
"The drug allegations involving these 14 airmen are credible," Rand said. "Each of these 14 airmen, who are presumed innocent unless proven guilty, have been removed from their duties pending the investigation's outcome," but their suspension "has not had an operational impact on the 90th Missile Wing," Rand said.
The 90th Security Forces Group, commanded by Col. Christopher L. Corley, has 1,300 personnel at the base, and about 1,000 of them are enlisted. Rand stressed repeatedly that the drug investigation did not indicate a systemic problem in the nuclear force. He said he commands 31,000 airmen nationwide and "the vast majority" meet or exceed Air Force standards.
In 2014, during a visit to F.E. Warren by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, officials disclosed that an investigation was underway into alleged drug use on and off base.
That investigation then led to the discovery of a cheating scandal involving "missileers" who work in the launch silos at F.E. Warren, Malmstrom and Minot and passed test answers among themselves.
Hagel ordered a broad review of the entire nuclear force that led to major changes in training and testing aimed at improving morale. At the time, he said, "Personnel failures within this force threaten to jeopardize the trust the American people have placed in us to keep our nuclear weapons safe and secure."
Hagel's review also turned up problems in the maintenance of the nuclear force. At a Pentagon news conference in 2014, Hagel disclosed that a maintenance backlog had forced airmen to Federal Express a single wrench between bases to tighten screws on warheads.
"It is true," Hagel said of the special wrench fiasco involving Minot AFB, Malmstrom AFB and F.E. Warren. "I think it's an indication of the depth and width of what has happened over the last few years" to undermine confidence in the deterrent, Hagel said.
"They did it by Federal Express with one wrench," Hagel said. By way of assurance, Hagel added that, "We now have a wrench at each location."
One of the changes Hagel ordered involved elevating the rank of the commander of the Global Strike Command from three-star to four-star rank. Rand is the first four-star general to hold the post.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com.