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James MacPherson, Associated Press, Published October 15 2009

Missile commander ousted at Minot Air Force Base

BISMARCK – The missile wing commander at North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base was relieved of his command Wednesday after a series of missteps at the unit, including two crashes of vehicles carrying missile parts in just more than a year.

Col. Christopher Ayres was not ousted for any misconduct or wrongdoing, but the Air Force said it had lost confidence in his ability to command the base’s 91st Missile Wing given recent incidents, which also included three ballistic missile crew members falling asleep while holding classified launch code devices.

The 91st Missile Wing oversees 150 Minuteman III missiles, sunk in hardened silos in central and western North Dakota.

“It comes down to performance and accountability,” said Air Force spokeswoman Laurie A. Arellano. “With nuclear weapons, our nation expects no less than perfection.”

A Wednesday call to the base to reach Ayres was not returned.

Maj. Gen. Roger Burg, commander of the 20th Air Force in Air Force Space Command, made the decision to oust Ayres, according to the military. The 20th Air Force maintains and operates land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles based in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota.

Ayres “will be moved to another position within the Air Force,” Arellano said. She did not elaborate. Col. Ferdinand Stoss, former vice commander of the 90th Missile Wing at Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo., will take over as commander of the 91st Missile Wing.

Ayres has been in the Air Force since 1985, and had been the base missile wing commander since May 2008.

During his tenure, three ballistic missile crew members fell asleep holding launch codes in July 2008 and were discharged a year later.

Also in July 2008, a vehicle carrying a rocket booster for an unarmed Minuteman III ballistic missile overturned while being transported from the base to a launch facility in northwestern North Dakota. The military estimated it spent about $5.6 million to recover the rocket from a ditch. And this August, a semitrailer carrying rocket engine parts from the base overturned when the driver became distracted by an insect that flew in a window and landed on the driver’s back, the military said.

A court-martial also is pending for a Minot officer accused of stealing a missile launch control device, allegedly because he wanted a souvenir.

Minot Air Force Base’s 5th Bomb Wing was recertified in the handling of nuclear weapons last year after months of retraining in the wake of a 2007 mix-up in which a bomber mistakenly flew to Louisiana armed with nuclear missiles. Base commander Col. Bruce Emig was ousted following B-52’s flight to Barksdale Air Force Base and replaced by Col. Joel Westa.

The Air Force in August created a new Global Strike Command at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to better manage the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The new command will consolidate control of long-range ballistic missiles and bomb wings that carry nuclear weapons.