"We are, in fact, in a crisis right now," the commander, Lt. Col. Jay Folds, wrote in an internal email confirmed by the Air Force.
The tip to trouble was a March inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, which earned the equivalent of a "D" grade when tested on its mastery of Minuteman III missile launch operations. In other areas, the officers tested much better.
The Air Force publicly called the inspection a "success."
But in April it quietly removed 17 officers from the highly sensitive duty of standing 24-hour watch over the Air Force's most powerful nuclear missiles, the intercontinental ballistic missiles that can strike targets across the globe. Inside each underground launch control capsule, two officers stand "alert" at all times, ready to launch upon presidential order.
The 17 cases mark the Air Force's most extensive sidelining ever of launch crew members, according to Lt. Col. Angie Blair, a spokeswoman for Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the missile units as well as nuclear-capable bombers. The wing has 150 officers assigned to missile launch control duty.
The trouble at Minot is the latest in a series of setbacks for the Air Force's nuclear mission, highlighted by a 2008 Pentagon advisory group report that found a "dramatic and unacceptable decline" in the Air Force's commitment to the mission, which has its origins in a Cold War standoff with the former Soviet Union.
In 2008, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates sacked the top civilian and military leaders of the Air Force after a series of blunders, including a bomber's mistaken flight across the country armed with nuclear-tipped missiles.
Voice of Russia, CBS News, IF