The U.S. Air Force has reinstated four of the 19 crew members who were suspended from overseeing the service's most powerful nuclear missiles after an unsatisfactory inspection in March, the service's top officer said.
A total of 19 personnel with the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., were temporarily stripped of their authority to launch Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles as a result, according to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh. The original number reported was 17 crew members, all officers.
"Four of those 19 as of today were reinstated," Welsh said during a May 24 press conference at the Defense Department. "The others are progressing very well in the retraining program, they just haven't completed it yet."
The incident drew criticism from lawmakers and was the latest setback for the service’s nuclear force. In 2007, a B-52 bomber was mistakenly loaded with six nuclear warheads and flew from Minot Air Force Base to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., triggering a widespread investigation and reorganization.
One of the commanders with the 91st Missile Wing, Lt. Col. Jay Folds, in an internal e-mail that was the basis for the Associated Press report that broke the recent story, complained of "rot" within the unit.
Welsh in congressional testimony earlier this month said the unit actually passed the overall inspection with a rating of excellent or satisfactory in 21 out of 22 areas. It received a marginal rating in just one category: crew operations, which raised the red flag, he said.
At the Pentagon briefing, Welsh said Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, commander of Global Strike Command, which oversees the wing, and other leaders were pleased with the effort the crews are putting into retraining. Inspectors general within the service helped to coordinate a surprise, command-wide inspection last week of all missile units, Welsh said. The reviews "all went very well," he said.
Members of the wing also participated in the May 22 test launch of an unarmed Minuteman III missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Welsh said. The exercise is part of a series of periodic launches designed to ensure that the weapon system is reliable and accurate.
Welsh appeared alongside Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, the service's top civilian, who was giving his last "State of the Air Force" briefing before retiring from the position next month.