WASHINGTON — The head of U.S. Strategic Command told Congress Thursday morning that he is keeping a close eye on the performance issues that resulted in the Air Force stripping an unprecedented 17 officers of their authority to control nuclear missiles.
“This has my personal attention,” Gen. Robert Kehler testified before the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.
U.S. Strategic Command, the unified command that ultimately oversees the nation’s nuclear deterrence forces, is headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha.
The Air Force’s move to strip the officers of their authority came 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. Signs of trouble came from 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.
The group’s overall fitness was deemed so tenuous that senior officers decided an immediate crackdown was called for and in April 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.
“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 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.
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., Thursday asked Kehler for an explanation of what exactly is going on at Minot.
Kehler noted that nuclear-capable units undergo regular, rigorous inspections that include reviews of the missile operations crews that typically are made up of younger officers.
“There were some performance issues with that piece of the overall inspection that dealt with the missile crew members themselves,” Kehler said.
Crew members are put through their paces both on written tests and simulation exercises.
“I’ve taken many of those myself over the years,” Kehler said. “They are extremely difficult and filled with scenarios that you typically would not see in the real world.”
He said he reviews the inspection results from all nuclear units within the Air Force and Navy.
“Each of these gets my personal attention,” he said. “This one, in particular, has my personal attention.”
Kehler said he has spoken with the commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command and reviewed the past three or four years worth of nuclear inspection results for the unit in question. He said all of those were satisfactory.
Kehler said he also has asked StratCom’s inspector general to review the inspection results and the Air Force’s response, but he added that the unit already seems to be responding aggressively to the situation.
“I remain confident in that unit’s ability to perform its mission,” Kehler said.
He suggested the situation is the result of increased scrutiny and diligence by the military.
“I would be concerned if every unit had 100 percent passing,” Kehler said. “I think that would suggest to me that we weren’t being tough enough in inspections.”
This report contains material from the Associated Press.
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