An Air Force unit that oversees one-third of America's land-based nuclear missiles failed a safety and security inspection, constituting the second serious Minuteman 3 mission readiness problem this year, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday.
Lt. General James M. Kowalski, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command -- an organization created in 2009 as part of a broad effort to alleviate problems in the service's nuclear mission -- told AP that a team of "relatively low-ranking" airmen stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., "did not demonstrate the right procedures" in a single exercise. The drill was part of a more expansive inspection that started last week and ended on Tuesday.
A written statement posted on the command's website said the 341st Missile Wing received an unsatisfactory rating after making "tactical level errors -- not related to command and control of nuclear weapons -- during one of several exercises conducted during the inspection. This failure resulted in the entire inspection being rated 'unsatisfactory.'"
The wing is one of three that control 450 Minuteman 3 ICBMs, according to AP.
The Air Force is "looking into" the possibility of disciplinary action against the 341st, Kowalski told the wire service. He noted, though, that the wing did well overall, scoring excellent or outstanding in most of the 13 areas being tested.
In March, the deputy commander of the 91st Missile Wing -- stationed at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. -- complained of "rot" in the group after an inspection gave its missile crews the equivalent of a "D" grade on Minuteman 3 launch operations, according to AP. Although the 91st passed that inspection, the failed simulation of ICBM launch operations resulted in the temporary removal and retraining of 19 personnel.
In 2008, the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot failed the nuclear security component of an inspection.
Eric Fanning, acting secretary of the Air Force, will travel to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., on Wednesday to meet with Kowalski and discuss specifics of the Malmstrom case, as well as aspects of the overall nuclear mission, top Air Force spokesman Brig. Gen. Les Kodlick told AP. The trip was planned prior to the latest incident.
The Air Force nuclear mission has hit a number of bumps since 2008, including a B-52 bomber flight over several U.S. states during which the crew was unaware that actual weapons were onboard.
In an interview on Tuesday, Kowalski said that the number of problems at the nuclear wings has decreased since his command was established in 2009, AP reported. The occasional failures do not point to a wide-reaching failure to follow safety and security protocols, the general asserted.