MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. – The trouble began here, trouble that has torn at the core of the nuclear Air Force and compelled two of the last three secretaries of defense — first Robert Gates and now Chuck Hagel — to ask: Who is minding the store?
Minot Air Force Base has had its share, and then some, of bad publicity about nuclear weapons foul-ups, followed by hard questions from Washington about why it and other nuclear bases are caught in a recurring cycle of trouble and recovery.
Buried in the grasslands north and west of this small North Dakota city are 150 Minuteman 3 ballistic missiles, each tipped with a single nuclear warhead capable of destroying people and places halfway across the globe. Each is on "alert," ready to be launched at a moment's notice at all hours. No holidays here.
Another 300 Minuteman missiles are in launch silos in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska.
The trouble is not so much the Minuteman, although it passed its intended life span decades ago.
The trouble is the creaky equipment and facilities that keep the missiles armed, secure and ready for a launch order from the president.
The trouble also is the sagging morale of the men and women entrusted to operate the weapons.
The problems have accumulated: drug use, exam cheating, domestic abuse, security violations, training lapses and inspection failures. Last year one senior officer at Minot summed it up by lamenting "rot" at the heart of the force.
It's not just the Minuteman force, either.
The Air Force's nuclear bomber force has not been immune from the morale, disciplinary, equipment and management problems suffered by the ICBM force.
The B-52 bombers are so old — and so expensive to replace — that they could be nearly a century old before they are retired. The bomber force includes the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot, a second B-52 wing in Louisiana and a B-2 contingent in Missouri.
These problems are not new, but they have stirred officials to promise new solutions.
Hagel flew to Minot on Friday immediately after he issued reviews of the nuclear force as a result of a series of Associated Press stories outlined the problems at Minot and other nuclear bases and ordered sweeping changes.
"The internal and external reviews I ordered show that a consistent lack of investment and support for our nuclear forces over far too many years has left us with too little margin to cope with mounting stresses," Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday.
The independent review called Minot "a special case." It noted that Minot is the only base in either the Navy or the Air Force to host two legs of the nuclear force — ICBMs and bombers. It also has some of the coldest weather conditions encountered anywhere in the continental United States, creating special problems.
"Hydraulic seals leak, equipment breaks, transport vehicles fail more frequently, and aircraft are cycled into limited hangars for maintenance," the report said.
Not only does the Air Force not give its Minot forces and their families extra support, "there are important instances where the opposite has occurred," it said.
Retired Air Force Gen. Larry Welch, a co-author of the nuclear review, told reporters that during the Cold War heyday for ICBMs a Minot assignment was seen as a badge of honor. But that pride and attention to Minot gradually disappeared.
"When you look at Minot today you find some of the oldest maintenance facilities in the Air Force. You find an extreme reluctance to accept an assignment to Minot," he said
One could say the trouble started in Minot in August 2007.
Jaws dropped at news that six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were flown across the country by mistake aboard a B-52 bomber. The air crew was oblivious and the people accountable for the weapons at their starting point at Minot did not know they were missing.
Arriving at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, the B-52 and its weapons sat on the tarmac for nine hours, unguarded, according to an account by Eric Schlosser in his 2013 book, "Command and Control."
An independent investigation found that the foul-up was symptomatic of a deeper problem — "an unambiguous, dramatic and unacceptable decline in the Air Force's commitment to perform the nuclear mission."
The following June, after yet another embarrassing nuclear foul-up, then-Pentagon chief Gates simultaneously fired the civilian and military leaders of the Air Force, a rare act during a time of war.
Several months later he traveled to Minot to remind the nuclear warriors — both the missileers and the bomber crews — that the destructive power of their weapons "rightfully brings much scrutiny on how they are handled."
Gates said he believed the Air Force was finally fixing its problems, and public attention to the issue quickly faded.
But the trouble had not ended.
It again burst into public view in May 2013 when the AP revealed an internal email by a senior Air Force officer at Minot decrying "rot" in the 91st Missile Wing. He said it was "in a crisis right now" with lax discipline and a failure by some to take their nuclear duties seriously.
Nineteen launch officers were taken off duty for bad attitudes and weak performances in an inspection.
The AP published a series of additional stories documenting signs of weak morale, training gaps, security violations and leadership lapses, including the firing in October 2013 of Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, commander of the entire ICBM force.
Two months later an investigation report was released detailing the case against Carey. It said he had engaged in inappropriate behavior, including heavy drinking, rudeness to his hosts and associating with "suspect" women, while traveling in Russia as head of a U.S. government delegation.
That report also gave the lie to official Air Force assurances throughout 2013 that morale was fine. The report quoted a member of Carey's delegation as saying he had complained loudly that the ICBM force had the worst morale in the Air Force. Ironically, it was Carey who had been trying behind the scenes to launch a fresh program to improve professionalism, discipline and morale within the missile force, but he won little support from higher-ups.
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