A different type of inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., in March of this year led the deputy commander of the wing's operations group to complain of "rot" in the force. Technically, the wing passed that inspection, but its missile crews earned the equivalent of a "D'' grade when tested on their mastery of Minuteman 3 launch operations using a simulator. The following month the 91st temporarily removed 17 officers from launch control duty — the first time such a large number had been pulled from duty.
In April the Pentagon reissued a public directive on responsibilities for ensuring nuclear weapons security. "Standards, plans, procedures, and other positive measures will be developed and maintained to ensure the (Pentagon) can accomplish its nuclear mission in a safe, secure, and reliable manner," the directive said.
In June, the commander in charge of training and proficiency of missile crews at Minot, Lt. Col. Randy Olson, was relieved of duty. The Air Force cited a "loss of confidence" in his leadership.
Launch operations were not part of the Malmstrom inspection failure, Kowalski said.
The trouble at Minot was the latest in a longer series of setbacks for the Air Force's nuclear mission, highlighted by a 2008 Pentagon advisory group report that found a "dramatic and unacceptable decline" in the Air Force's commitment to the mission, which has its origins in a Cold War standoff with the former Soviet Union.
Following a series of nuclear embarrassments in 2008 — including the inadvertent transport of six nuclear-tipped missiles on a B-52 bomber, whose pilot did not know they were aboard when he flew from Minot to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. — then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired the top two Air Force officials.
Kowalski's command was created in late 2009 as part of an effort to fix what was broken in the nuclear force. In Tuesday's interview, he said he is encouraged that inspections after 2009 began finding an increasing number of problems at the ICBM wings, followed by a decrease since 2011. He said this tells him that the Air Force has come up with more rigorous, effective means of inspecting, and that they are spurring change.
"This is a difficult inspection," he said, so occasional failures do not point to a systemic failure to adhere to safety and security regulations.
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