MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. — Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who inherited a tangled web of problems in the Air Force nuclear missile corps when he took over the Pentagon in 2015, says he sees reason to believe that a push for improvement is beginning to show results.
After visiting Monday with officers and airmen who operate, maintain and secure Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles on this base in the northern reaches of North Dakota, Carter said they told him they are encouraged by changes that have been made since the problems were highlighted in a series of stories in 2013-14.
“That tells me,” he said, that what the Air Force calls its force improvement plan is “bearing fruit.”
In addition to the changes pursued by the Air Force, the Pentagon ordered a broader set of reforms at the recommendation of a nuclear review group organized by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in early 2014.
Carter has been overseeing the reforms and until Monday had said little publicly about them. His Minot visit was his first to a nuclear weapons base since he assumed command at the Pentagon in February 2015. Although he said he saw reason for optimism, the nuclear missile corps continues to encounter embarrassing problems.
In January, the AP disclosed that mistakes by a Minuteman maintenance crew led to a 2014 accident involving a nuclear-armed missile in its silo. The Air Force has refused an AP Freedom of Information Act request for the accident investigation report, arguing it contains information too sensitive to be made public.
In March, the Air Force disclosed that 14 airmen responsible for securing the F.E. Warren nuclear missile base in Wyoming had been removed from their duties pending an investigation of alleged illegal drug use. It refused to disclose what drugs were involved. In June, the investigation widened to include five more airmen.
In August, the Air Force released documents to the Associated Press showing that LSD was among the drugs allegedly used by the airmen at F.E. Warren.
In response to an AP request under the Freedom of Information Act, the Air Force released the transcript of the court martial of one of the 19 accused security force airmen at F.E. Warren, Kyle S. Morrison, who pleaded guilty to using and distributing LSD, the hallucinogenic drug.
Morrison told the military judge at his June 2 court martial that he knew his use of LSD was wrong and it rendered him incapable of performing his work if recalled to duty in an emergency. A security airman can be excused from recall if he or she has overindulged in alcohol, he said, but cannot use that excuse with an illegal drug like LSD. He said he first used the hallucinogen in high school and had used it three times while stationed at F.E. Warren. He acknowledged participating in an illicit video demonstrating how to use LSD.
“It wasn’t worth it because I ruined my career, put my health at risk and betrayed Air Force values,” he is quoted as telling the military judge, who sentenced him to five months confinement, 15 days of hard labor without confinement and forfeiture of $1,040 in pay per month for five months. Under a pretrial deal, the Air Force agreed not to give him a punitive discharge from the service.
In his comments Monday, Carter made no explicit mention of the various problems that have arisen at Minot and other nuclear bases in recent years, although he did say the reform efforts that were started during Hagel’s tenure were “an essential thing for us to embark on” because “we had some force management issues here.”
Minot was the origin of an internal Air Force email, first reported by the AP in May 2013, which decried “rot” in the ICBM ranks, including what a supervising officer called a disregard for safety and security rules and a lack of professional pride. Seventeen missile launch officers were stripped of their authority after an ICBM unit earned the equivalent of a “D” grade when tested on its mastery of launch operations.
The AP subsequently reported on other problems at Minot and elsewhere in the nuclear missile corps. That led to the Hagel actions, including an in-depth review of the entire nuclear force.
The review found cracks in the foundation of what the Pentagon calls its nuclear “enterprise” — not just the weapons themselves but also the troops who operate them, their supervising officers and the support that keeps the system functioning day by day while minimizing the risk of accidents.
The problems are deep-seated. The Government Accountability Office, in a July report to Congress on progress in implementing the Hagel moves, said Pentagon officials believe it will take about three years to see measureable improvements in the nuclear force and 15 years to determine whether the changes had the intended effect.