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Air Force nuke crew failings worse than reported

Friday - 3/14/2014, 4:14am  ET

FILE - This 2002 file photo provided by the National Park Service shows the launch key mechanism at the deactivated Delta Nine Launch Facility near Wall, S.D. Failings exposed last spring at an Air Force nuclear missile base, described by one officer as “rot” in the ranks, were even worse than originally reported, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. All the staff involved with missile operation at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., passed an inspection with a “marginal” rating, the equivalent of a D in school _ and that was only because of good marks received by people like cooks or facilities managers. The men and women entrusted with launch keys to 150 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles would have flunked. (AP Photo/Minuteman Missile NHS)

ROBERT BURNS
AP National Security Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Failings exposed last spring at a U.S. nuclear missile base, reflecting what one officer called "rot" in the ranks, were worse than originally reported, according to Air Force documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Airmen responsible for missile operations at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., would have failed their portion of a major inspection in March 2013 but managed a "marginal" rating because their poor marks were blended with the better performance of support staff -- like cooks and facilities managers -- and they got a boost from the base's highly rated training program. The "marginal" rating, the equivalent of a "D'' in school, was reported previously. Now revealed are details of the low performance by the launch officers, or missileers, entrusted with the keys to missiles.

"Missileer technical proficiency substandard," one briefing slide says. "Remainder (of missile operations team) raised grade to marginal."

The documents also hint at an exam-cheating problem in the making among launch crews at Minot, almost a full year before allegations of widespread cheating erupted this January at a companion nuclear base in Montana.

An official inquiry into the troubled inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot in March 2013 concluded that one root cause was poor use of routine testing and other means of measuring the proficiency of launch crews in their assigned tasks. For example, commanders at Minot did not ensure that monthly written tests were supervised. The analysis also said Minot senior leaders failed to foster a "culture of accountability."

In a more direct hint at fudging on exams, one document said, "'Group testing' was viewed as 'taking care of each other,'" while adding that the missileers felt pressure to score 100 percent on every test. Those are echoes of explanations Air Force leaders have recounted from launch officers in the aftermath of the cheating scandal that surfaced in early January at the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. At least 92 officers at Malmstrom have been removed from launch duty for allegedly cheating or tolerating cheating by others, pending an investigation whose results may be released by the end of this month.

The allegation at Malmstrom is that information on "emergency war orders" exams, which test how a launch crew would handle classified messages related to missile targeting and launch, was shared in advance among launch officers. It's not clear whether this or other forms of cheating have taken place at the Air Force's two other ICBM bases, but numerous former missileers have said in recent weeks that cheating does occur.

The Air Force operates a total of 450 Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles, divided evenly among the three bases.

An ICBM base has many interconnected pieces, including security forces that provide protection for the missiles and for the underground launch control centers, as well as commanders and others who work from a headquarters base. But at the mission's core are the missileers and their mastery of "emergency war orders," the secret messages that would authorize a launch. They are supported in the missile field by personnel known as facility managers, who run above-ground support buildings where security forces and others sleep and where cooks prepare meals for the full team.

The Air Force initially called the overall March inspection outcome at Minot a "success," reflecting the fact that the 91st Missile Wing as a whole was rated "satisfactory." But after The Associated Press learned in May about the "marginal" performance in the missile operations sector of the inspection, the service disclosed that 19 officers had been forced to surrender their launch authority in April because of performance and attitude problems. That was an unprecedented mass sidelining of launch control officers, reflecting what the 91st's deputy operations commander at the time, Lt. Col. Jay Folds, called "rot" in the force.

Until now, however, it was not publicly known that of 11 crews tested on a launch simulator for the inspection, three were rated Q3, or "unqualified," which the Air Force defines as demonstrating "an unacceptable level of safety, performance or knowledge." Five of the 11 earned a top rating and three got a second-tier rating.

The Minot crews performed much better in a September re-assessment. Eleven of 12 launch crews received top qualification ratings, although one was rated unqualified with "one critical and one major error." In back-to-back inspections this January, the 91st as a whole was given outstanding marks.

The newly available Air Force documents were released to a private group in Philadelphia called Speaking Truth to Power after the group filed a lawsuit asserting that U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees all U.S. nuclear forces, had not provided documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act. Speaking Truth to Power, headed by lawyer Jules Zacher, advocates for the elimination of nuclear weapons. He shared the documents with the AP.

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