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Pentagon removes 17 officers from duty to launch its most powerful nuclear missiles

Published time: May 08, 2013 16:31
An intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). (Reuters)

An intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). (Reuters)

In an unprecedented action, the Air Force has removed 17 of its officers from a base at which they had the authority to control and launch nuclear missiles at the president’s command, thereby leaving the mission significantly understaffed.

The move comes after the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota performed poorly on an inspection, the Associated Press reports. The 91st Operations Group, which is the unit that oversees the nuclear missile launches, was deemed unprepared for its mission, and received the equivalent of a “D” grade on launch proficiency in March.

The unit almost failed the inspection completely, and was accused of safety violations, showing disrespect to superiors, questioning orders, and intentionally violating a rule that could have compromised the launch codes that allow missiles to be fired.

The group’s deputy commander said the group is suffering “rot” within the ranks, and quietly removed 17 officers to undergo 60 to 90 days of intensive training to refresh their knowledge of the job.

Lt. Col. Jay Folds announced the action in an e-mail sent to the unit, in which he pledged to “crush any rules violators” and said that “we are, in fact, in a crisis right now.”

“We are breaking you down, and we will build from the ground up,” Folds added.

These officers were responsible for 24-hour watch over the nuclear force, standing ready to launch intercontinental ballistic missile at any moment if the president orders them to do so. The unit is made up of a total of 150 workers, 11 percent of which are now absent, leaving the nuclear launch site significantly understaffed.

The order to strip 17 officers from their duties is unprecedented and the most extensive action the base has taken, Lt. Col. John Dorrian, an Air Force spokesman, told CNN.  The base sidelines a small number of launch officers every year, but has never before released this many.

Additionally, an 18thofficer is facing possible disciplinary action for purposefully breaking a missile safety rule that could have compromised the missile launch codes. It remains unclear what duties, if any, this officer will have if he is penalized.

Bruce Blair, who served as an Air Force ICBM launch control officer and now works as a researcher at Princeton University, told AP that the problems at the Minot Air Force Base – including the poor inspection – are likely a result of the decreased importance of the nuclear mission since the Cold War.

“The nuclear air force is suffering from a deep malaise caused by the declining relevance of their mission since the Cold War’s end over 20 years ago,” he said. “Minuteman launch crews have long been marginalized and demoralized by the fact that the Air Force’s culture and fast-track careers revolve around flying planes, not sitting in underground bunkers baby-sitting nuclear-armed missiles.”

And this malaise appears to have affected the quality of work at the Minot base for years. In 2008, a Pentagon advisory group report found a “dramatic and unacceptable decline” in the Air Force’s commitment to the nuclear mission. That same year, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired a number of top civilian and military leaders for grave errors, including a bomber’s accidental flight across the US while armed with nuclear-tipped missiles.

After marginally passing the March inspection, the Air Force publicly called it a “success”, but stripped the 17 officers from their duties behind closed doors, in an attempt to address its latest dangerous slip-ups.