Air Force Strips 17 Officers of Missile Launch Duty After Test Failings

Mike O'Brien

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Air Force has stripped 17 officers of their authority to control and launch nuclear missiles because of alleged incompetence and code violations.

The secret sidelining happened in April, a month after an inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota.

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The unit earned a "D" in a test of Minuteman III missile launch operations. The Air Force publicly called the inspection a "success," but senior officers at Minot decided that an immediate crackdown was needed.

In an internal email, which was obtained by the Associated Press, the Wing’s deputy commander, Lt. Col. Jay Folds, wrote: "We are, in fact, in a crisis right now." Addressing the sidelined officers, he said: "You will be a bench warmer for at least 60 days."

The 17 people are among a group of 150 assigned to missile launch control duty. Their highly-sensitive tasks include standing 24-hour watch over the Air Force's most powerful nuclear missiles, the intercontinental ballistic missiles that can strike targets across the globe. Inside each underground launch control capsule, two officers stand "alert" at all times, ready to launch an ICBM upon presidential order.

A culture of indifference is described in the email obtained by the AP, along with at least one violation of missile safety rules and what appears to be an unwillingness among some to report those who break the rules.

The Air Force has since said the violations did not actually put the security of the nuclear force at risk. It said the officers who lost their certification to operate ICBMs will return to their normal duties once they complete further training.

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Lt. Col. Folds told his troops on April 12 that they had "fallen," and that immediate corrective action was needed. He said the inspection in March amounted to a failure.

He wrote: "And now we're discovering such rot in the crew force," adding that violations and other failings were "all in the name of not inconveniencing yourselves."

Col. Robert Vercher, commander of the 91st Missile Wing, gave his support during an interview with the AP to Lt. Col. Folds.

He said: "That is a very passionate leader embarrassed by a performance below our expectation.

"We are frustrated anytime we're performing less than we expect of ourselves," Col. Vercher said, adding: "There was a problem. And we will fix it."

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