WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel demanded more information Wednesday after the Air Force removed from duty 17 launch officers at a North Dakota nuclear missile base over what a commander called "rot" in the force. The Air Force struggled to explain, acknowledging concern about an "attitude problem" but telling Congress the weapons were secure.
Mr. Hagel reacted strongly after The Associated Press reported the unprecedented sidelining of the officers at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., where one of their commanders complained of "such rot" that even the willful violation of safety rules -- including a possible compromise of launch codes -- was tolerated.
The report quoted from an internal email written by Lt. Col. Jay Folds, deputy commander of the 91st Operations Group, responsible for all Minuteman 3 missile launch crews at Minot. He lamented the remarkably poor reviews they received in a March inspection.
Their missile launch skills were rated "marginal," which the Air Force said was the equivalent of a "D" grade. "We are, in fact, in a crisis right now," Col. Folds said in his email to subordinates.
In response, the Air Force 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," Gen. Mark Welsh, the service's top general, 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.
Gen. 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 that they have no future. "That's actually not the case, but that's the view when you're in the operational force," he said. "We have to deal with that."
Mr. 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 eventually eliminate all nuclear arms. At his Senate confirmation hearing, he said he supports President Barack Obama's goal of zero nuclear weapons -- but only through negotiations.
Hagel spokesman George Little said the defense secretary was briefed on the Minot situation as reported Wednesday and demanded that he be provided more details.
Gen. Welsh's civilian boss, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, suggested a silver lining to the trouble at Minot. He said the fact that Minot commanders identified 17 underperformers was evidence that the Air Force has strengthened its monitoring of the nuclear force.
He stressed that launch crew members typically are relatively junior officers -- lieutenants and captains -- with limited service experience. It is the duty of commanders, Mr. Donley said, to "ride herd" on those young officers with "this awesome responsibility" of controlling missiles capable of destroying entire countries.
Mr. 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. Mr. Donley was charged with cleaning up the problem.
It appeared that the Minot force, one of three responsible for controlling -- and, if necessary, launching -- the Air Force's 450 strategic nuclear missiles, is an outlier. The Air Force said 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 Minot's "marginal" rating and one notch below "outstanding," the highest rating. 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.
Boston University international relations professor Michael Corgan, who was a Navy nuclear weapons officer in the 1960s, said the Air Force cannot afford to let its launch control crews lose focus on their mission. "The kinds of things that caused those Air Force officers to be rated 'marginal' could well be what seem like trivial errors," he said. "But in the nuke business, you are not supposed to get anything wrong -- anything."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee chairman, expressed outrage, telling Gen. Welsh and Mr. Donley that the AP report revealed a problem that "could not be more troubling."
The tip-off to trouble was the March inspection that earned the equivalent of a "D" grade when the unit was tested on its mastery of Minuteman 3 missile launch operations. In other areas, the officers tested much better, but the group's overall fitness was deemed so tenuous that Minot senior officers decided, after probing further, on an immediate crackdown. In April, the Air Force removed the 17 officers.
"You will be a bench warmer for at least 60 days," Col. Folds told them in his email.
The 17 cases mark the Air Force's most extensive sidelining ever of launch crew members, according to Lt. Col. Angie Blair, spokeswoman for Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the missile units as well as nuclear-capable bombers. The 91st Missile Wing has 150 officers assigned to launch control duty.
In his congressional testimony, Gen. Welsh said Col. Folds and other senior commanders determined that the problematic launch officers had "more of an attitude problem than a proficiency problem."
He said he wished Col. Folds had "used different language" in his email. "The word 'rot' didn't excite me, but it got my attention," Gen. Welsh said, adding that he does not believe "rot" is the problem. "I don't believe we have a nuclear surety risk at Minot Air Force Base," referring to the danger of an accident or unauthorized launch.
The email the AP obtained describes a Minot culture of indifference, with at least one intentional violation of missile safety rules and an apparent unwillingness among some to challenge or report those who violate rules.
In response to inquiries, the Air Force said the lapses never put the security of the nuclear force at risk. It said the officers who lost their certification to operate ICBMs are now getting more training, with the expectation that they'll return to normal duty within about two months. The missiles remain on their normal war footing, officials said.
In addition to the 17, possible disciplinary action is pending against one other Minot officer who investigators found had intentionally broken a safety rule in an unspecified act that could have compromised the secret codes that enable the launch of missiles that stand on high alert in underground silos in the nation's midsection. Officials said there was no compromise of missile safety or security.