Air Force Nuclear Missile Launch Officers Stripped of Launch Power

Call me crazy but, if there is one group of people in the United States you want to be competent, it is those who hold the launch codes to the nation’s nuclear missiles.

At the very least, you wouldn’t want those individuals to be described as “rot.” That is exactly how 17 Air Force officers were described by the group’s deputy commander who stripped them of their authority to control and launch nuclear missiles. If that doesn’t sound like a good thing, that’s because it’s not. 

A Senate hearing on Wednesday produced testimony that said the officers in charge of launch control were junior in rank and that they must continually be reminded of the awesome responsibility they have. For me, the fact that they were called “nuclear launch codes” would be enough of a reminder, but I don’t know maybe that kind of thing loses its luster over time? 

The public probably wouldn’t have even known about this if it wasn’t for a terrible series of inspections that began in March with the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. The group received a “D” grade when tested on missile launch operations. That sounds bad enough right? It got worse. According to the Washington Post, “The group’s overall fitness was deemed so tenuous that senior officers at Minot decided that an immediate crackdown was called for.”

The Associated Press, through a Freedom of Information Act request, obtained an internal email from Lt. Col. Jay Folds suggested just how serious the problem is, “We are breaking you down, and we will build from the ground up. It takes real leaders to lead through a crisis and we are, in fact, in a crisis right now.”

Later in the email, “And now we’re discovering such rot in the crew force that your behavior while on alert is accepting of” weapons safety rule violations, possible code compromises and other failings, “all in the name of not inconveniencing yourselves.”

Far from being an isolated incident it is part of a worrisome problem that the Air Force is facing. A 2008 Pentagon report said that there had been an unacceptable decline in the Air Force’s commitment its nuclear mission. That would seem to hold true considering the group at Minot accidentally loaded a B-52 with six nuclear weapons back in 2007. This team is responsible for standing 24-hour watch over the countries most powerful nuclear missiles known as Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

Can the government really be that surprised by these failures? This is a job for which these men can never hope to get out of. There is no opportunity for advancement, they are in the middle of nowhere and are seen as relics of the Cold War, and they are. We don’t see calls for increased reliance on nuclear missiles, we see calls for their destruction. Still, there is no excuse of this level of failure. The stripping of these 17 officers power to launch nuclear missiles represents the most drastic and widespread action of its kind. The 17 officers will receive 60-90 days additional extensive training on how to do their jobs.