WASHINGTON — U.S. nuclear forces were allowed to go downhill amid the distractions of two ground wars and now need infusions of cash and prestige to keep them safe and effective, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Friday.
Those were among the broad conclusions of two reports — one conducted within the Department of Defense and one by outside experts — Hagel ordered in February after troubling incidents in the nuclear force, including a test-cheating scandal and drug arrests.
In all, the reports recommended more than 100 changes officials say will overhaul management of the U.S. nuclear force from top to bottom.
Just after announcing the findings Friday, Hagel boarded a plane to Minot Air Force Base, N.D., with Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James to visit nuclear missile and bomber personnel there.
Before he left, with top officials from the Defense Department and the U.S. nuclear enterprise alongside him, Hagel said high-ranking leaders had failed to pay enough attention to what he called DOD’s most important mission.
“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,” he said. “The reviews found evidence of systematic problems that if not addressed could undermine the safety, security and effectiveness of the elements of the force in the future.”
Problems range from maintenance and skill deficiencies to a culture of micromanagement and overzealous inspections that did more harm than good, the officials said.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, who oversaw the internal report, said one bizarre incident uncovered in the studies serves as a metaphor for much of what’s wrong.
In that case, nuclear missile maintainers at three bases had only one crucial tool kit among them. Amid mismanagement from above, the best solution they could devise was to FedEx the tools from base to base as needed, he said.
“They had reported it over and over, and they just worked around it,” he said.
Each base now has its own set of tools and will soon have a backup set as well, he added.
The leaders praised the quality of the airmen and sailors who man the nuclear enterprise but said many members, particularly in the Air Force, have been allowed to get the impression they’ve been routed into a dead-end career field.
“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 said.
To improve morale, the Pentagon is working to eliminate parts of the inspection regime that burden troops without paying off in better operations. The Air Force has also changed missile crew manning procedures, implemented an incentive pay plan for nuclear officers and enlisted troops and began awarding the Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service Medal for exceptional performance.
To signify the importance of the nuclear forces, the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command will become a four-star position, while the service’s Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration commander’s billet is being boosted to three stars.
“We must restore the prestige that attracted the brightest minds of the Cold War era,” Hagel said. “They will no longer be outranked by their non-nuclear counterparts.”
Billions in funding
The bill for improving nuclear operations will not be small, officials admitted.
“Over the next five years … we’re probably looking at a 10 percent increase in the nuclear enterprise over each of those years,” Hagel said. “Right now we spend about $15 to $16 billion on our nuclear enterprise.”
At about $1.5 billion a year, that works out to at least $7.5 billion over five years to improve maintenance at missile silos with doors that investigators found could not fully close, upgrade weapons storage, replace outdated Huey helicopters used for Air Force nuclear base security and to hire thousands more personnel at Navy shipyards.
But, Work said, a 2016 return of automatic budget cuts known sequestration — the cuts have been blunted for two years thanks to a budget deal — could dash hopes for a nuclear force renovation.
The new initiatives must have follow-through, which officials said was lacking in previous reviews of the nuclear enterprise, including one instigated by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2008 after troubling security incidents involving nuclear weapons.
Previous reviews didn’t have clear mechanisms to make sure they were being implemented effectively, Hagel said. The current recommendations will be tracked by both a group of top nuclear warfare officials and by the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, Hagel said.
Reports on progress will be delivered monthly, he said.
“Accountability is key to everything, it’s critical. You can have the structure, you can have the process, you can have the resources,” he said. “But if you don’t have the accountability, it will unwind.”
Hagel visits the nuclear rank and file
The situation at Minot when Hagel arrived Friday represented some of the neglect that the nuclear force has experienced recently as well as some of the steps that the Air Force is taking to deal with the problem.
The installation is the home of the 91st Missile Wing, which is responsible for one-third of the nation’s 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles. It’s also where the 5th Bomb Wing and some of the nation’s iconic B-52 nuclear bombers are based.
Both units stand ready to unleash atomic warheads against America’s enemies if ordered to do so by the commander-in-chief.
But Tech Sgt. Forest Porter, who helps maintain the missiles, told reporters that the force is still using technology from the 1960s, including a circuit breaker that the original manufacturer, GE, doesn’t make anymore.
He said mechanics sometimes struggle to repair or replace parts that are older than their parents, and it’s time to “update the system.”
The Air Force is now throwing money and people at the problem. The service has redirected almost $10 million to address maintenance parts and equipment at Minot. More than 300 new billets are being funded at the installation, and Porter is slated to have six additional airmen working under him in his maintenance shop.
He’s glad the nuclear force is getting more attention from DOD officials.
“We’re the bright shiny object right now,” he said.
Hagel used the visit to deliver a pep talk to the troops.
“I know sometimes it seems that you [and] your families are taken for granted. [But] you're not,” he told airmen during a town hall meeting.
DOD leaders “are absolutely committed to turn some of this around and provide to you the resources that you need [and] you will get,” he said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Jon Harper contributed to this article from Minot Air Force Base, N.D.