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Top U.S. Nuclear Brass Reserves Judgment on Errant ICBM Launch Officers

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

A Minuteman 3 ICBM lifts off in a 2010 test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Seventeen officers who control the missile's launch operations were temporarily pulled off duty for marginal performance (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force). A Minuteman 3 ICBM lifts off in a 2010 test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Seventeen officers who control the missile's launch operations were temporarily pulled off duty for marginal performance (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force).

WASHINGTON -- The nation’s highest-ranking nuclear arms commander on Thursday sought to reassure lawmakers alarmed at the revelation that 17 ICBM launch-control officers at a North Dakota base have been temporarily pulled off alert duty after performing poorly on an inspection.

“This has my personal attention,” Gen. Robert Kehler, who heads U.S. Strategic Command, testified at a morning House hearing. The Air Force four-star officer said he has asked his organization’s inspector general to review the Minot Air Force Base unit’s performance and the chain of command’s response to the lapses.

“I think the unit is moving aggressively,” in terms of decertifying last month those with insufficient performance in a mix of written tests and launch-control simulations, Kehler told members of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee. “I believe they’re working on getting [insight as] to root cause.”

He said he had not seen any details thus far that would “cause me to lose confidence in that [unit’s ability] to perform the mission safely and effectively.”

The affected organization is the Air Force 91st Operations Group, which oversees three squadrons responsible for the Minot wing’s 15 Minuteman 3 ICBM launch-control centers. Roughly 1,500 military personnel operate in the missile wing.

The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that the officers -- described as relatively junior first lieutenants and captains -- had shown disregard for security procedures and orders from superior officers. Following remedial training, the personnel are expected to return to their jobs in 60 days.

The Air Force had publicly characterized the March inspection as a “success” and said the unit’s missiles have remained safe and ready for use. However, AP obtained an internal e-mail from the deputy commander of the operations group voicing outrage at shoddy -- and just barely passable -- performance.

“We're discovering such rot in the crew force that your behavior while on alert is accepting of" violations in weapons safety directives, possible compromises in launch codes and other shortcomings, "all in the name of not inconveniencing yourselves," AP cited Lt. Col. Jay Folds as writing.

Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, on Wednesday said the apparent problems "could not be more troubling." The House subcommittee chairman, Representative Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), said on Thursday he would not comment publicly on the matter until the Air Force and Defense Department have issued investigative findings.

In a brief interview after the House hearing, Kehler said he was unaware of “what the specifics were of the individual performance here that caused the unit to aggressively take this approach” in dealing with the 17 officers.

While the general lays out military requirements for ICBMs to be ready for use, if ever necessary, it is up to a different organization -- the Air Force Global Strike Command -- to manage day-to-day issues of this kind.

However, as the first top Strategic Command leader with experience as an ICBM commander, Kehler noted that temporary decertification is a tool sometimes used to ensure that proper procedures and good judgment are maintained in the custody of these dangerous weapons. Their launch would require a presidential order.

“From what I know about the inspection, I think that the steps they are taking appear to be prudent,” he told Global Security Newswire. “From my experience, you gain judgment through a lot of ways. Certainly the more training you get contributes to your judgment bag. Experience -- in that job in particular -- contributes much to your judgment.”

He said the 17 benched officers -- described as an unprecedented high in Air Force history -- would have to pass new inspections before returning to their launch-control positions.

During inspections, Air Force missile-launch units are rated at one of five levels, according to former officers: outstanding, excellent, satisfactory, marginal or unsatisfactory. Scores are issued on a bell-shaped curve, meaning it is unusual -- but not unheard of -- for personnel to be rated either outstanding or unsatisfactory.

Though few details have been released about the specific nature of the transgressions, the description of marginal-but-passing performance by so many launch officers at once could raise doubts about whether the test parameters are inappropriate or too demanding, according to some military sources.

“In all likelihood, the crews made a mistake in terms of not following their checklists or weapon system technical orders,” said one former ICBM squadron commander, who requested anonymity in discussing a delicate security issue. “So the question needs to be asked: Were the technical orders correct, properly written, and current?”

In testimony, Kehler said the concerns about performance and the significant reaction at the unit’s upper echelons reflect high standards for nuclear operations safeguards and oversight.

The Air Force moved in recent years to strengthen nuclear training and operations following an accidental 2006 shipment of warhead fuses to Taiwan and a mistaken bomber transport of six atomic-armed cruise missiles across several U.S. states the following year.

One result was the creation of Global Strike Command in 2008 to oversee bomber and ICBM units.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this week received a staff briefing on the Minot lapses and requested further information, spokesman George Little told reporters.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley on Wednesday called it the duty of commanders to "ride herd" on young officers charged with "this awesome responsibility" of controlling weapons capable of such vast destructive power, AP reported.

The former ICBM commander took issue with this terminology, though, saying the Air Force must be careful to exert prudent direction.

“You need to lead crew members, not ‘ride herd’ on them,” this source said. “If the squadron commander sets the standard of performance, the crew members will follow good leadership.”

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