Air Force sidelines 17 nuclear missile officers

photo Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff, gestures as he testifies during the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing, Wednesday on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Air Force stripped an unprecedented 17 officers of their authority to control and, if necessary, launch nuclear missiles after a string of unpublicized failings, including a remarkably dim review of their unit's launch skills.

WASHINGTON - It was an attitude problem, Air Force commanders insisted, not a matter of competence. And besides, they contended, security was never at risk in spite of what one commander called "rot" in the crew force.

Assurances aside, the crew's failings appear unusually worrisome given its assignment: manning a nuclear missile base and being prepared at a moment's notice to launch a Minuteman 3 if ordered by the president.