WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel demanded more information Wednesday after the Air Force removed 17 launch officers from duty at a nuclear missile base in North Dakota over what a commander called ‘‘rot’’ in the force. The Air Force struggled to explain, acknowledging concern about an ‘‘attitude problem’’ but telling Congress the weapons were secure.
Hagel reacted strongly after the Associated Press reported the unprecedented sidelining of the officers at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., where one of their commanders complained of ‘‘such rot’’ that even the willful violation of safety rules, including a possible compromise of launch codes, was tolerated.
The AP quoted from an internal e-mail written by Lieutenant Colonel Jay Folds, deputy commander of the 91st Operations Group, which is responsible for all Minuteman 3 missile launch crews at Minot. He lamented the remarkably poor reviews they received in a March inspection. Their missile launch skills were rated ‘‘marginal,’’ which the Air Force told the AP was the equivalent of a ‘‘D’’ grade.
‘‘We are, in fact, in a crisis right now,’’ Folds wrote in the e-mail to his subordinates.
In response, the Air Force said the problem does not suggest a lack of proper control over the nuclear missiles but rather was a symptom of turmoil in the ranks.
‘‘The idea that we have people not performing to the standard we expect will never be good and we won’t tolerate it,’’ General Mark Welsh, the service’s top general, said when questioned about the problem at a congressional hearing on budget issues.
Underlying the Minot situation is a sense among some that the Air Force’s nuclear mission is a dying field, as the government considers further reducing the size of the US arsenal.
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Welsh noted that because there are a limited number of command positions to which missile launch officers can aspire within the nuclear force, those officers tend to believe they have no future.
‘‘That’s actually not the case, but that’s the view when you’re in the operational force,’’ Welsh said. ‘‘We have to deal with that.’’
Hagel himself, before he was defense secretary, signed a plan put forward a year ago by the private group Global Zero to eliminate the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles and to eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons. At his Senate confirmation hearing he said he supports President Obama’s goal of zero nuclear weapons but only through negotiations.
Hagel’s spokesman, George Little, said the defense secretary was briefed on the Minot situation on Wednesday and demanded more details.
Welsh’s civilian boss, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, suggested a silver lining to the trouble at Minot. The fact that Minot commanders identified 17 underperformers was evidence that the Air Force has strengthened its monitoring of the nuclear force, he said. And he stressed that launch crew members typically are relatively junior officers — lieutenants and captains — with limited service experience.
It is the duty of commanders, Donley said, to ‘‘ride herd’’ on those young officers with ‘‘this awesome responsibility’’ of controlling missiles capable of destroying entire countries.
Donley noted that he is particularly sensitive to any indication of weakness in the nuclear force because he took over as Air Force secretary in October 2008 after his predecessor, Michael Wynne, was fired by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates for a series of nuclear embarrassments. Donley was charged with cleaning up the problem.
It appeared the Minot force, which is one of three responsible for controlling — and, if necessary, launching — the Air Force’s 450 strategic nuclear missiles, is an outlier.
The Air Force said on Wednesday that the two other missile wings — at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., and at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. — earned scores of ‘‘excellent’’ in the most recent inspection of their ICBM launch skills. That is two notches above the ‘‘marginal’’ rating at Minot and one notch below the highest rating of ‘‘outstanding.’’ Each of the three wings operates 150 Minuteman 3 missiles.