17 Air Force Officers Stripped Of Authority To Launch ICBMs

A big shakeup in the Air Force:

The Air Force stripped an unprecedented 17 officers of their authority to control — and, if necessary, launch — nuclear missiles after a string of unpublicized failings, including a remarkably dim review of their unit’s launch skills. The group’s deputy commander said it is suffering “rot” within its ranks.

“We are, in fact, in a crisis right now,” the commander, Lt. Col. Jay Folds, wrote in an internal email obtained by The Associated Press and confirmed by the Air Force.

The tip-off to trouble was a March inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., which earned the equivalent of a “D” grade when tested on its mastery of Minuteman III missile launch operations. In other areas, the officers tested much better, but the group’s overall fitness was deemed so tenuous that senior officers at Minot decided, after probing further, that an immediate crackdown was called for.

The Air Force publicly called the inspection a “success.”

But in April, it quietly removed 17 officers at Minot from the highly sensitive duty of 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.

“You will be a bench warmer for at least 60 days,” Folds wrote.

The 17 cases mark the Air Force’s most extensive sidelining ever of launch crew members, according to Lt. Col. Angie Blair, a spokeswoman for Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the missile units as well as nuclear-capable bombers. The wing has 150 officers assigned to missile launch control duty.

The trouble at Minot is the latest in a series of setbacks for the Air Force’s nuclear mission, highlighted by a 2008 Pentagon advisory group report that found a “dramatic and unacceptable decline” in the Air Force’s commitment to the mission, which has its origins in a Cold War standoff with the former Soviet Union.

In 2008, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates sacked the top civilian and military leaders of the Air Force after a series of blunders, including a bomber’s mistaken flight across the country armed with nuclear-tipped missiles. Since then, the Air Force has taken numerous steps designed to improve its nuclear performance.

The email obtained by the AP describes a 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.

One has to wonder if this aspect of the Air Force’s service has been impacted by the fact that, since the end of the Cold War, the urgency of the nation’s nuclear deterrent has declined significantly. Are they, basically, becoming complacent?

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, National Security, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed for too young in July 2021.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    I met a guy who was one of the two men in the old key-controlled ICBM control room. This was back before computer networks, and they sat there waiting for a phone call to tell them to turn their keys in unison and participate in the end of the world.

    He told me that it was a scary experience, because even after battery after battery of psychological testing, when he got down there he started thinking “I could do it … I could just launch.” Of course, he and his buddy were supposed to shoot each other if they tried.

    Anyway, it’s freaky stuff, and I hope they are still keeping an eye on it in these slower days … including setting much more controlled and slower systems in place than we needed back when we really thought the Soviets could launch on any night.

  2. john personna says:

    Shorter: We certainly need much less launch authority than we needed in the past.

  3. Mr. Prosser says:

    Quite frankly, I think this is more important than just posting a short aside. The damned things are still armed and not taken seriously anymore. It also makes me think, if our system is becoming lax, what’s going on in Russia and China?

  4. Scott says:

    The Air Force is in a tough spot. How do you make a critical position where it is important to do it right work in mission that over time has become less critical and important? How do you incentivize the work? How do you keep morale up?Missile officers know their career field is a dead end and so it doesn’t attract (voluntarily) the best and the brightest.

  5. Franklin says:

    @john personna: Interesting, so those two guys had the power to launch? For some reason I thought they needed a code from some higher-up, not just two keys. Or was the code just to confirm that the higher-up was legitimate? Anyway, that’s crazy and would drive you crazy.

  6. DC Loser says:

    I worked in the 91st SMW during the Cold War, and back then missileers still had somewhat of a cachet since they were the ‘tip of the spear’ if the balloon went up. But since the end of the Cold War they’ve been abused by their leadership as the Air Force once again became the playground for pilots and missileers were relegated once again to their Red Headed Stepchild status in the officer corps. They are essentially living fossils of a bygone era when our security absolutely depended on them perforning their mission without fail.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    In Drift Rachel Maddow tells the story of how in 2007 six nuclear armed cruise missiles were inadvertently loaded on a B-52 and flown from Minot AFB to Louisiana without clearance and without the knowledge of the aircrew or the personnel at Barksdale AFB who received them. The incident involved multiple failures to follow procedures and checklists. The subsequent investigations found “…a general web of sloth and anxiety within our nation’s nuclear mission.” It was attributed to “Lack of self esteem…a debilitating lack of pride.” They were determined to need better pay, better managers, upgraded systems and equipment, and better training. In other words, their foe, and therefore their purpose had gone away and the A team, and the big bucks, were in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Doesn’t look like they followed they’re own recommendations.

  8. DC Loser says:

    The command and control system in the Minuteman system in the mid 1980s was pretty complicated and effective. Even if both officers in a launch control center colluded to conduct an illegal launch, their launch order could be countermanded by one of 4 adjancent LCCs in their squadron. It would take a vast conspiracy of at least 10 officers or more to even get an illegal launch off. Even then, something else in the system may cancel their launch order. The codes were only to authenticate the launch order received from their command and control network. I do not believe the system had any mechanical locks for which the crews did not have the combinations to unlock in their capsule.

  9. Barry says:

    @Scott: Seconding this – the mental + physical elites probably become pilots; the mental elites but physically sound have a lot of places where the Air Force needs them.

  10. john personna says:

    @Franklin:

    I’ve got to admit that makes more sense, but you know, 60’s technology, and they were trying to keep the sites autonomous enough to launch a second strike … don’t know.

  11. Barry says:

    @gVOR08: “Doesn’t look like they followed they’re own recommendations. ”

    The system really can’t; the whole point was that the nuclear mission was no longer the ‘tip of the spear’.