US Air Force disciplines at least 16 nuclear officers

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected soon to announce the results of an independent review of problems in the nuclear force.

Robert Burns/AP
This photo, taken Jan. 9, 2014, shows a mockup of a Minuteman 3 nuclear missile used for training by missile maintenance crews at F. E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo.

The Air Force has fired or disciplined at least 16 nuclear missile commanders or senior officers for misconduct and other failings over the past year and a half, reflecting turmoil in arguably the military's most sensitive mission.

Another who quit of his own accord lamented upon leaving, "We let the American people down on my watch."

The latest to be dismissed this week: a colonel accused of "cruelty and maltreatment" of a subordinate and a missile squadron commander found to have illegally discriminated against women under his command. In addition to those actions Monday, another senior officer was administratively disciplined but not removed from command.

This string of leadership lapses has beset a force that remains central to American defense strategy but in some respects has been neglected. The force of 450 Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles is primed to unleash nuclear devastation on a moment's notice.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected soon to announce the results of an independent review of problems in the nuclear force. In ordering the review last winter, Hagel said, "Personnel failures within this force threaten to jeopardize the trust the American people have placed in us to keep our nuclear weapons safe and secure."

On Monday the Air Force confirmed to The Associated Press that it had removed Col. Carl Jones as vice commander of the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, in charge of 150 Minuteman 3 missiles. He was dismissed "for a loss of trust and confidence in his leadership abilities," and has been reassigned as a special assistant to the wing commander.

The actions were disclosed in response to an AP inquiry about an internal Air Force investigation of two commanders at the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, which also is responsible for 150 Minuteman 3 missiles.

Lt. Col. John Sheets, spokesman for Air Force Global Strike Command, said that as a result of the Minot investigation a missile squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jimmy "Keith" Brown, was relieved of command Monday "because of a loss of confidence in Brown's ability to lead his squadron."

Sheets said the investigation was directed by Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, commander of the 20th Air Force, and "substantiated that Brown engaged in unlawful discrimination or harassment." The probe found that Brown "made statements to subordinates that created a perception within his squadron that pregnancy would negatively affect a woman's career."

The probe also said Brown had failed to ensure the well-being of his troops. In March a two-person crew operating a Minuteman 3 launch control center at Minot felt ill from fumes created by a refurbishment project, but the crew remained at their post because they believed Brown would have taken action against them had they left. They later were hospitalized, Sheets said.

Col. Richard Pagliuco, commander of the 91st Operations Group, in charge of the three missile squadrons at Minot, including Brown's, "failed to promote and safeguard the morale, well-being and welfare of the airmen under his command," Sheets said. Pagliuco received a letter in his personnel file, but Sheets said he could not be more specific about the punishment.

The complaints against Jones, the vice commander of the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren, were the most extensive, according to Sheets.

Sheets said Jones' immediate superior, Col. Tracey Hayes, commander of the 90th, removed him following an internal investigation that substantiated allegations of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, and cruelty and maltreatment of a subordinate.

The most recent incident was one in which Jones went to a thrift store operated on F.E. Warren by volunteers — Airman's Attic — to discuss the store's hours.

"He hit the sign on the Airman's Attic door and repeatedly hit the shop's front counter while raising his voice, using profanity" and threatening to shut down the place, Sheets said.

Three other incidents of allegedly inappropriate behavior on base by Jones were substantiated in the investigation, including one in May in which Jones berated a first lieutenant in front of others at the Trail's End Club, a dining and lounge facility on F.E. Warren. The lieutenant and another witness "found the interaction inappropriate and were in disbelief and shocked by Jones' behavior," Sheets said.

These were the latest in a string of at least 16 firings or disciplinary actions against senior nuclear officers.

They began with the dismissal in June 2013 of Lt. Col. Randy Olson as commander of the 91st Operations Support Squadron, in charge of the training and proficiency of missile launch control officers at Minot. His firing followed an AP story disclosing that 19 launch officers had been taken off the job after a poor inspection result and attitude problems.

In August 2013, just days after the 341st Missile Wing failed a nuclear inspection, the commander of security forces there, Col. David Lynch, was fired.

Last March nine officers were fired at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, home of the 341st Missile Wing, in response to an exam-cheating scandal. The wing commander, Col. Robert Stanley, resigned and wrote in a goodbye message that he regretted having let down the American people. On the same day, the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren disclosed that it had fired Col. David Holloway, the officer in charge of the three missile squadrons there. It has never fully explained that action.

Last year, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, commander of the entire ICBM force, was fired after an investigation into a drinking binge and other misconduct while he was visiting Russia.

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