MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. (AP) — The top civilian leader in the Air Force said Wednesday she has "picked up on morale issues" among airmen and officers in charge of the nation's nuclear force but remains confident in its mission.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James visited Minot Air Force Base, the latest in a string of stops from high-level officials in response to various blunders at the military installations that care for the nation's nuclear arsenal. She visited F.E. Warren Air Force Base at Cheyenne, Wyo., Tuesday and Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont., Tuesday and earlier Wednesday.
The fact-finding tour, in response to cheating and drug scandals the Air Force announced last week as well as a string of other missteps The Associated Press revealed in 2013, is aimed at finding the breadth of problems within the force that operates the nation's Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles.
"I certainly wish that this would not have happened, but it did happen and it's a problem," she said of the cheating and drugs.
But despite the problems, James told reporters that she has "full confidence in the nuclear mission."
She made her comments after meeting with 1,700 officers and airmen away from the media.
James has been on the job for a month. Last week, she said the Air Force is investigating 11 officers suspected of illegal drug possession. Three of the 11 are in nuclear missile units.
She said that drug probe led to a separate investigation of dozens of nuclear missile launch officers for cheating on tests of their knowledge of the procedures required to launch nuclear missiles.
At least 34 launch officers, all at Malmstrom, have had their security clearances suspended and are not allowed to perform launch duties pending the outcome of the cheating investigation.
During her visit to Malmstrom, she said she believes the airmen are motivated and committed to their work, but there are unique stressors that affect morale among nuclear force, The Great Falls Tribune reported.
In Cheyenne, James addressed a large crowd at the F.E. Warren base and met with airmen in smaller sessions, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported. She said she heard concerns about the career implications of missing an answer or two on the command's monthly tests.
Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, who accompanied James on her base visits, said last week that while he is confident in the security of the nuclear missiles, the drug and cheating probes show that "the integrity issue clearly has got to be a concern."
Minot has one of the nation's two B-52 bomber bases and is home to the 91st Missile Wing, which operates 150 of the Air Force's 450 Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles.
Crew members who oversee those missiles, so-called missileers, spend 24-hour shifts underground in a 12-by-20 foot steel-and-concrete capsule, designed to withstand a nuclear attack. Each missile carries up to three warheads, capable of reaching a target 6,000 miles away in about 20 minutes should a presidential order come down. Missiles travel at 15,000 mph.
In June, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told hundreds of Minot airmen that nuclear weapons missteps at the base would be corrected, but he didn't elaborate on the "failures of leadership" he blamed for causing the problems.
The trip came just days after the commander in charge of training and proficiency at the base's 91st Missile Wing was ousted due to "a loss of confidence." The AP revealed in May that the 91st Missile Wing had scored the equivalent of a "D'' grade for its mastery of missile launch operations during a test in March that led to 19 launch crew members being taken off duty for remedial training.
The bomber wing at the Minot base also has been under scrutiny for years, following a 2007 mishap in which a B-52 bomber was mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles in Minot and flown to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
Other lapses at the base followed the 2007 bomber flight, including two crashes of vehicles carrying missile parts in a little more than a year, the theft of a launch code device, the discovery of missile crew members sleeping on the job and failed inspections.