WASHINGTON — 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.
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.