Durbin: Problems with nuclear-launch officers ‘troubling’

The officers received a “D” grade when tested in March on its Minuteman III missile launch operations, even as the Air Force called the inspection a “success," according to the AP.

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The officers were then quietly removed in April from 24-hour nuclear watch duty.

Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, asked the Air Force secretary and chief of staff at a hearing Wednesday how the situation could have degraded to the point where 17 officers were stripped of their duties.

“The fact that an unprecedented 17 officers have, at least temporarily, if not more, been removed from their responsibility of monitoring this nuclear weapons, nuclear missile launch, strikes at the core of the responsibility of our chain of command,” Durbin said.

The Air Force has run into problems with its nuclear arsenal before.

In 2008, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates sacked former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley in the wake of a series of scandals involving the Air Force's management of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The accidental deployment of live nuclear weapons into a B-52 bomber during a 2007 cross-country flight from Minot to Barksdale Air Base in Louisiana prompted Gates' decision to fire Wynne and Moseley.

Current Air Force Secretary Michael Donley was appointed after Wynne's dismissal, a fact he noted at Wednesday’s hearing. Donley is planning to retire in June.

Moseley’s successor, Gen. Norton Schwartz, retired from the Air Force in 2012, and was replaced by current Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welch.

Donley said at the hearing that the officers involved were junior and relatively new to the Air Force. He said there was “no compromise of missile safety or security.”

“In this instance, the commander stepped in and said these people need refresher training,” Donley said. “And so, he took them offline to do that. And that is an appropriate command response.”

Welsh said the decision to remove the officers from their nuclear duties was “more of an attitude problem than a proficiency problem.”

— Carlo Muñoz contributed.