AP National Security Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Service leaders took an assessment last year of the nuclear Air Force as an encouraging thumbs-up. Yet, in the months that followed, signs emerged that the nuclear missile corps was suffering from breakdowns in discipline, morale, training and leadership.
The former Air Force chief of staff who signed off on the 2013 report is now being asked to dig for root causes of problems that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says threaten to undermine public trust in the nation's nuclear arsenal.
The Air Force may have taken an overly rosy view of the report -- it was not uniformly positive -- by a Pentagon advisory group headed by retired Gen. Larry Welch. The study described the nuclear Air Force as "thoroughly professional, disciplined" and performing effectively.
The inquiry itself may have missed signs of the kinds of trouble documented in recent months in a series of Associated Press reports. In April 2013, the month the Welch report came out, an Air Force officer wrote that the nuclear missile unit at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., was suffering from "rot," including lax attitudes and a poor performance by launch officers on a March 2013 inspection.
An exam-cheating scandal at a nuclear missile base prompted the Air Force to remove nine midlevel commanders and accept the resignation of the base's top commander. Dozens of officers implicated in the cheating face disciplinary action, and some might be kicked out, the Air Force said last week.
Welch began the new Hagel-directed review in early March, teaming with retired Navy Adm. John C. Harvey, who was not involved in the earlier reviews but has extensive nuclear experience. Much rides on what they find, not least because Hagel and the White House want to remove any doubt about the safety and security of the U.S. arsenal and the men and women entrusted with it.
Hagel's written instruction to Welch and Harvey in February said they should examine the nuclear mission in both the Air Force and the Navy, focusing on "personnel, training, testing, command oversight, mission performance and investment" and recommend ways to address any deficiencies they identify.
A fighter pilot by training and a former top nuclear commander, Welch also is known for integrity and honesty. Hagel "believes there is no one better suited to examine these issues than General Welch," Hagel's press secretary, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Friday. "Like his partner Admiral Harvey, he's tough and pragmatic. And he flat out knows his stuff."
Welch led the initial outside review of arguably the most startling nuclear failure of recent years, the unauthorized movement in August 2007 of six nuclear-armed cruise missiles from an air base in North Dakota to Louisiana. Welch led that inquiry as chairman of a special task force of the Defense Science Board, which is a group of outside experts who advise the secretary of defense on a wide range of technical issues. The panel's report was published in February 2008.
The same task force, again under Welch's direction, published follow-up assessments in April 2011 and April 2013. Each of those examined both sides of the nuclear Air Force -- strategic bombers as well as the intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, forces whose problems have gained wide attention over the past year.
The April 2011 study cited morale issues among missile crews.
"They perceive a lack of knowledge of and respect for their mission from within the larger Air Force," it said.
The April 2013 report ticked off numerous significant improvements. It found that senior leaders were paying more attention, with more clarity of responsibility for the nuclear mission than in the years leading up to the 2007 mishap. The system of inspections and the support for nuclear personnel, logistics and facilities had improved. Yet at that point the first signs of new trouble had begun to emerge, including the mass suspension of 19 launch officers at Minot in April 2013, followed by a failed inspection in August at another nuclear missile base in Montana.
Welch's report also cited "enduring issues that require more responsive attention." And he said the Air Force needed to prove that the nuclear mission is the No. 1 priority it claims it to be. He also found that ground water intrusion in nuclear missile silos and the underground launch control posts to which they are connected had done major damage, including collapsing electrical conduits.
The bottom-line conclusion, however, was this:
"The nuclear force is professional, disciplined, committed and attentive to the special demands of the mission."