AP National Security Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- It was an attitude problem, Air Force commanders insisted, not a matter of competence. And besides, they contended, security was never at risk in spite of what one commander called "rot" in the crew force.
Assurances aside, the crew's failings appear unusually worrisome given its assignment: manning a nuclear missile base and being prepared at a moment's notice to launch a Minuteman 3 if ordered by the president.
An investigation had revealed a force in disarray and resulted in the unprecedented removal of 17 launch officers from their duty at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., The Associated Press found.
Weapons safety rules were being violated and codes for the Air Force's most powerful nuclear missiles may have been compromised, among other failings cited in a report. Even the orders of superiors were being questioned, and they were not being shown the proper respect.
"We are, in fact, in a crisis right now," Lt. Col. Jay Folds, deputy commander of the 91st Operations Group, told subordinates in an email obtained by the AP. The group is responsible for all Minuteman 3 missile launch crews at Minot.
In his email, Folds lamented the remarkably poor reviews the launch officers received in a March inspection. Their missile launch skills were rated "marginal," which the Air Force told the AP was the equivalent of a "D'' grade.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel responded to the AP report on Wednesday by demanding more information from the Air Force. The service's top general, Gen. Mark Welsh, said the problem does not suggest a lack of proper control over the nuclear missiles but rather was a symptom of turmoil in the ranks.
"The idea that we have people not performing to the standard we expect will never be good and we won't tolerate it," Welsh said when questioned about the problem at a congressional hearing on budget issues.
Underlying the Minot situation is a sense among some that the Air Force's nuclear mission is a dying field, as the government considers further reducing the size of the U.S. arsenal.
Welsh noted that because there are a limited number of command positions to which missile launch officers can aspire within the nuclear force, those officers tend to believe they have no future.
"That's actually not the case, but that's the view when you're in the operational force," Welsh said. "We have to deal with that."
Hagel himself, before he was defense secretary, signed a plan put forward a year ago by the private group Global Zero to eliminate the Air Force's intercontinental ballistic missiles and to eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons. At his Senate confirmation hearing he said he supports President Barack Obama's goal of zero nuclear weapons but only through negotiations.
Hagel's spokesman, George Little, said the defense secretary was briefed on the Minot situation as reported by the AP on Wednesday and demanded that he be provided more details.
Welsh's civilian boss, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, suggested a silver lining to the trouble at Minot. The fact that Minot commanders identified 17 underperformers was evidence that the Air Force has strengthened its monitoring of the nuclear force, he said. And he stressed that launch crew members typically are relatively junior officers -- lieutenants and captains -- with limited service experience.
It is the duty of commanders, Donley said, to "ride herd" on those young officers with "this awesome responsibility" of controlling missiles capable of destroying entire countries.
Donley noted that he is particularly sensitive to any indication of weakness in the nuclear force because he took over as Air Force secretary in October 2008 after his predecessor, Michael Wynne, was fired by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates for a series of nuclear embarrassments. Donley was charged with cleaning up the problem.
It appeared the Minot force, which is one of three responsible for controlling -- and, if necessary, launching -- the Air Force's 450 strategic nuclear missiles, is an outlier.
The Air Force told the AP on Wednesday that the two other missile wings -- at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., and at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. -- earned scores of "excellent" in the most recent inspection of their ICBM launch skills. That is two notches above the "marginal" rating at Minot and one notch below the highest rating of "outstanding." Each of the three wings operates 150 Minuteman 3 missiles.
The Malmstrom unit was inspected in December 2012, the F.E. Warren unit in May 2012.
Michael Corgan, a nuclear weapons officer in the Navy in the 1960s, said the Air Force cannot afford to let its launch control crews lose focus on their mission.