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Cooks saved nuke missile crews from test failure

Friday - 3/14/2014, 5:18pm  ET

FILE - This undated handout photo provided by the National Park Service shows the inside of the deactivated Delta Nine Launch Facility near Wall, S.D., that is now open to the public. 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/National Park Service, File)

ROBERT BURNS
AP National Security Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Failings last spring by nuclear missile operators at an Air Force base in North Dakota were worse than first reported, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Airmen responsible for missile operations at Minot Air Force Base 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, details of the low performance by the launch officers, or missileers, entrusted with the keys to missiles have been revealed.

"Missileer technical proficiency substandard," one Air Force 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" and that mid-level leadership posts were left unfilled.

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.

Without specifically mentioning the cheating scandal, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon said Friday that while the vast majority of airmen in the nuclear missile corps are reliable and committed, he worries about the impact of reported shortcomings.

"A few bad eggs put at risk the mission and taint the record of the rest of the Air Force," McKeon said at a hearing where Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, were testifying on the 2015 defense budget. "That cannot be allowed to happen."

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.

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