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WASHINGTON — Senators questioned top Air Force officials on whether the service can handle the responsibilities of safeguarding America’s nuclear arsenal, following the reassignment of 17 officers who would launch warheads upon presidential order.
The revelations “could not be more disturbing,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the chair of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, said during a May 8 hearing.
Durbin was one of several senators to raise concerns over a Wednesday Associated Press story that revealed that 17 officers were stripped of their responsibilities to watch over nuclear weapons maintained at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. The report cited a commanding officer at the site who said “rot” had entered the ranks of the servicemen, who will be retrained to meet a higher qualification.
“We are, in fact, in a crisis right now,” Lt. Col. Jay Folds, the commander at Minot, wrote in an internal email obtained by the AP.
Durbin said the story reminded him of the 2007 incident when a B-52 bomber accidentally transported armed nuclear weapons from Minot to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana, and wondered how such an incident could have occurred.
“Heads rolled as a result of that [incident], and there were dramatic changes made,” Durbin said. “But here we are today, with this situation. “
Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, making what is potentially his last hearing in front of the committee before retiring in June, said the service has made “substantial” progress since that incident, while acknowledging that the flight of armed nuclear weapons over several states played a role in the removal of former Secretary Michael Wynne.
“The circumstances you refer to are very much personally known to me, as it was the approximate cause of my arrival at the Air Force in 2008,” Donley said “I am confident in the Air Force’s ability to maintain a safe and secure nuclear deterrent.”
“It is the number one responsibility for our Air Force that we take very, very seriously.”
The AP’s report found that officers at Minot received the equivalent of a “D” grade during a test on their control of the Minuteman III missile launch system. Donley pointed to the improved inspection process as an example of how the Air Force has increased its vigilance over the nuclear arsenal.
Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said the issue was “more an attitude problem than a proficiency problem” and praised the actions taken by the commanding officers.
The inspection had 22 rated areas, Welsh said. Fourteen sections received an “excellent” grade and seven were rated “satisfactory,” with only this one area receiving a poor grade, but one that still rated as passing. That the commanders took “aggressive action” to improve that one area shows they are on top of the situation, he said.
“I like the way [the commanding officers] responded,” Welsh said. “They’re not willing to accept that, which is what I pay them for.”