The U.S. Air Force took the extraordinary step Thursday of firing nine midlevel nuclear commanders and announcing it will discipline dozens of junior officers at a nuclear missile base, responding firmly to an exam-cheating scandal that spanned a far longer period than originally reported.
A tenth commander, the senior officer at the base, resigned and will retire from the Air Force.
Air Force officials called the discipline unprecedented in the history of America’s intercontinental ballistic missile force. The Associated Press last year revealed a series of security and other problems in the ICBM force, including a failed safety and security inspection at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, where the cheating occurred.
Separately, another of the Air Force’s nuclear missile units — the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming — announced that it had fired the officer overseeing its missile squadrons. It said Col. Donald Holloway, the operations group commander, was sacked “because of a loss of confidence in his ability to lead.”
The 90th Missile Wing offered no further explanation for Holloway’s removal and said it “has nothing to do” with the firings announced by the Air Force in Washington.
Together, the moves reflect turmoil in a force that remains central to American defense strategy but in some ways has been neglected. The force of 450 Minuteman 3 missiles is primed to unleash nuclear devastation at a moment’s notice, capable of obliterating people and places halfway around the globe.
In a bid to correct root causes of the missile corps’ failings — including low morale and weak management — the Air Force also announced Thursday a series of new or expanded programs to improve leadership development, to modernize the three ICBM bases and to reinforce “core values” including integrity.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, the service’s top civilian official, told a Pentagon news conference that a thorough review of how testing and training are conducted in the ICBM force has produced numerous avenues for improvements.
“We will be changing rather dramatically how we conduct testing and training going forward,” while ensuring that performance standards are kept high, James said.