US nuclear woes: Pentagon chief orders a shakeup

Chuck Hagel, Cecil Haney, Michelle Howard
Chuck Hagel, Cecil Haney, Michelle Howard (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. (AP) — The Pentagon will spend an additional $10 billion to correct deep problems of neglect and mismanagement within the nation’s nuclear forces, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared Friday, pledging firm action to support the men and women who handle the world’s most powerful and deadly weapons.

Hagel ordered top-to-bottom changes in the nuclear arsenal’s management, which he said had been allowed over the years to backslide, afflicted by broken and missing equipment, poor leadership and inadequate training and staffing.

Hagel told a Pentagon news conference Friday morning — before flying to Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota where many of the nuclear force troubles began — that the Defense Department will boost spending on the nuclear forces by about 10 percent a year for the next five years, saying there is no problem on this issue the Pentagon can’t fix. That would be a total increase of about $10 billion over the five years. Currently the Pentagon spends about $15 billion a year on the nuclear mission.

“The internal and external reviews I ordered show that a consistent lack of investment and support for our nuclear forces over far too many years has left us with too little margin to cope with mounting stresses,” said Hagel, who was flanked by senior Air Force and Navy officers. “The root cause has been a lack of sustained focus, attention and resources, resulting in a pervasive sense that a career in the nuclear enterprise offers too few opportunities for growth and advancement.”

Hagel, who was getting briefings at Minot on Friday and then planning to speak to airmen there, ordered two reviews in February — one by Pentagon officials and a second by outside experts — as a result of a series of Associated Press stories that revealed lapses in leadership, morale, safety and security at the nation’s three nuclear Air Force bases.

The good news, Hagel said, “is there has been no nuclear exchange in the world.” The head of his Strategic Command, Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, also noted the nuclear force has been operating securely.

“You don’t see the mushroom cloud or that sort of thing. We must continue that,” he told reporters.

Hagel acknowledged years of neglect since the Cold War’s end rendered America’s nuclear mission less relevant in a world of drones and counterterrorism. And he vowed renewed accountability.

One of Hagel’s predecessors, Robert Gates, fired his top military and civilian Air Force leaders in 2008 because of similar problems. But Hagel said, “Previous reviews of our nuclear enterprise lacked clear follow-up mechanisms.”

The new reviews concluded that the management structure of U.S. nuclear forces is so incoherent that top-level officials often are unaware of trouble below them. The reviews also found a “disconnect” between what nuclear force leaders say and what they provide to troops in the field.

To illustrate the degree of decay in the intercontinental ballistic missile force, the reviews found that maintenance crews had access to only one tool set required to tighten bolts on the warhead end of the Minuteman 3 missile, and that this single tool set was being used by crews at all three ICBM bases, in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. When one crew needed it, it was sent by another — by Federal Express.

That “was a metaphor for how far things had fallen,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, adding that eventually crew members stopped reporting the problem. “They had reported it over and over, and they just worked around it.”

Hagel said Friday the crews now have tool kits at each of the three bases and will soon get two each.

The reviews also noted the poor morale across the force, saying that that culture debilitates people who might otherwise flourish. Missile crews in Launch Control Centers complained that equipment remained broken for months or years, and launch centers were even forced to shut down because of problems that persisted for a decade.

Among his more significant moves, Hagel authorized the Air Force to put a four-star general in charge of its nuclear forces, according to officials.

The top Air Force nuclear commander currently is a three-star. Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson is responsible not only for the 450 Minuteman ICBMs but also the nuclear bomber force. Hagel has concluded that a four-star would be able to exert more influence within the Air Force and the appointment would send a signal to the entire force that the mission is taken seriously, the defense officials said.

Hagel also OK’d a proposal to upgrade the top nuclear force official at Air Force headquarters in the Pentagon from a two-star general to a three-star.

The review’s authors, retired Air Force Gen. Larry D. Welch and retired Navy Adm. John C. Harvey Jr., found fault with one of the unique features of life in the nuclear forces. It is called the Personnel Reliability Program, designed to monitor the mental fitness of people entrusted with the world’s deadliest weapons.

Over time, that program has devolved into a burdensome administrative exercise that detracts from the mission, the authors found. Hagel ordered an overhaul.

Hagel concluded that despite tight Pentagon budgets, billions of dollars more will be needed over the next five years to upgrade equipment. That will include a proposal to replace the Vietnam-era UH-1 Huey helicopter fleet that is part of the security forces at ICBM bases. The Air Force declared them out-of-date years ago but put available resources into other priorities.

The Navy, which operates nuclear-armed submarines, has had its own problems, including an exam-cheating scandal this year among nuclear reactor training instructors and has suffered from a shortage of personnel.

When he ordered the reviews, shortly after the Air Force announced it was investigating an exam-cheating ring at one ICBM base and a related drug investigation implicating missile crew members, Hagel was said to be flabbergasted that such misbehavior could be infecting the force.

“He said, ‘What is going on here?'” said one senior defense official. Like the other officials, that official was not authorized to comment publicly by name and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Hans Kristensen, a nuclear expert with the Federation of American Scientists, said Thursday that while he had not seen the Hagel reviews or heard what actions Hagel was ordering, he was skeptical that they would make much difference.

“Throwing money after problems may fix some technical issues but it is unlikely to resolve the dissolution that must come from sitting in a silo hole in the Midwest with missiles on high alert to respond to a nuclear attack that is unlikely to ever come,” Kristensen said.

Over the past year and a half, The Associated Press has documented evidence of security problems, low morale and other troubles in the nation’s nuclear missile corps.

  • In April 2013, 19 launch officers in the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, were taken off duty and given weeks of remedial training after being found unfit to perform. The wing’s deputy commander of operations complained of “rot” in the force. The officer in charge of crew training and proficiency was fired.
  • The 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, failed a safety-and-security inspection. Nine days later, the officer in charge of security forces was relieved of duty. The unit passed a do-over in October.
  • An internal Air Force review of the Malmstrom inspection, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that the inspection failed because security forces did not respond adequately to a simulated hostile takeover of a silo housing a nuclear missile. The Air Force implemented numerous corrective measures, mainly designed to increase and improve security forces training.
  • Twice, the Air Force punished officers involved in separate incidents of opening the blast door of their underground launch control center while one of the two launch officers was asleep, in violation of Air Force rules.
  • A Rand Corp. research study obtained by the AP found that missile corps members felt “burnout” from what they saw as exhausting, unrewarding and stressful work. The report also cited heightened levels of misconduct such as spousal abuse.
  • In October 2013 the Air Force removed Maj. Gen. Michael Carey from command of the 20th Air Force, which is responsible for the entire Minuteman 3 missile force, for embarrassing, drunken behavior in Russia.
  • In January 2014 dozens of missile launch officers were implicated in a cheating scandal at Malmstrom and were stripped of their certification in what the Air Force called the largest such breach of integrity in the nuclear force. The cheating involved the monthly test on their knowledge of how to operate the missiles. That scandal was revealed as part of a drug-use investigation that involved three ICBM launch officers.
  • In late January, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered an independent review of the nuclear force and summoned the most senior Pentagon leaders to discuss its missteps, leadership lapses and personnel problems.
  • In March the Air Force fired nine midlevel nuclear commanders and supervisors, allowed a senior commander to resign and said it would discipline dozens of junior officers in response to the exam-cheating scandal at Malmstrom.
  • On Monday, Nov. 3, the Air Force fired a missile squadron commander at Minot and reassigned the vice commander of the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming to a non-command staff job. Also, a colonel in charge of all three missile squadrons at Minot was given administrative punishment but not removed from command.
  • On Friday, Nov. 14, Defense Secretary Hagel ordered top-to-bottom changes in how the U.S. nuclear force is operated and managed. The changes came after a series of stories from the AP that revealed problems in the nuclear force’s management and morale.

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