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Stratcom Chief: Minot AFB case shows integrity of nuclear enterprise

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- The Air Force's aggressive response when missile-launch crews at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., fell short of established standards during an inspection in March underscores the integrity of the nuclear weapons program, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command told Congress May 9.

"I do think they reacted very aggressively to the mistakes they saw," Gen. C. Robert Kehler told the House Armed Services Committee, adding that Air Force officials are working to deal not only with mistakes revealed during the inspection, but also the root causes.

"They don't accept those mistakes," Kehler said. "At some level, I think we what we are seeing here is a product of the increased scrutiny and the increased diligence that is going into these inspections, and the responses to them."

Kehler said he is delving into problems revealed at Minot AFB, but assured the panel that he remains confident in the nuclear weapons enterprise and the ability of the unit to conduct its mission.

The inspection involved crew members who man the underground launch control centers, typically junior officers, he reported. Based on the results, Air Force officials removed 17 officers from their duties associated with Minuteman missile operations.

As the overseer of the Defense Department's entire nuclear enterprise, Kehler told Congress he personally reviews all inspection results and has tasked his inspector general to look into the March inspection report and responses to it in collaboration with the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command.

"I will continue to watch this very carefully," he said. "I know the Air Force is digging into this very deliberately. But at this point, I remain confident in that unit's ability to perform its mission."

The general emphasized the stringent standards for these inspections.

"The nuclear-capable units have the highest standards," Kehler said, noting that he personally has undergone the demanding inspection procedures that generally consist of written tests and operations within simulators.

"They are extremely difficult (inspection procedures) and filled with scenarios that you typically would not see in the real world," he told the House panel.

Kehler said he actually would be concerned if every unit received a 100-percent passing grade during the inspections.

"It would suggest to me that they weren't being tough enough in inspections," he said.

As the review continues, Kehler told the panel, he remains confident in Minot AFB's nuclear operations.

"To date, I don't see any reason to have less than full confidence in this unit," he said. "I don't see anything that would cause me to lose confidence in the ability (of the) unit to perform the missions safely and effectively."