F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. — Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s two-day tour of U.S. nuclear facilities ended Thursday amid revelations that two nuclear missile launch officers have been implicated in an illegal narcotics investigation.
The officers are part of the 341st Missile Wing based at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. Their access to classified information has been suspended while the Air Force conducts an investigation, a defense official said on condition of anonymity.
This is just the latest in a string of embarrassments for the Air Force’s inter-continental ballistic missile enterprise, which includes failed inspections, the sidelining of incompetent launch officers, the firing of commanders, and reports of low morale within the ranks.
Hagel flew Wednesday to Albuquerque, N.M., and visited Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia National Laboratories. Kirtland helps maintain the U.S. nuclear weapons inventory and supports nuclear safety activities. It also reportedly stores nuclear weapons from the nation’s reserve stockpile.
Sandia is owned by the Department of Energy but is operated by a subsidiary of the Lockheed Martin Corporation. Its mission is ensuring the reliability of the nation’s atomic arsenal without detonating any warheads. Scientists and engineers test non-nuclear components, such as semiconductors and other microsystems, and simulate nuclear explosions using computers and the 'Z machine'; the Z machine uses pulsed power to create controlled high-temperature, high-pressure and high-radiation environments similar those created by nuclear detonations.
On Thursday, Hagel traveled to F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo., where the 90th Missile Wing is in charge of 150 ICBMs. He met with airmen and toured a missile launch facility in Nebraska.
Warren’s ICBM’s and launch facilities are spread out over three states — Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado — to enhance the force’s survivability in the event of a nuclear attack. Hagel was informed of the narcotics scandal while en route to the launch center, according to an aide.
Hagel told reporters that one purpose of his trip was to promote nuclear technological development. The Defense Department and the Energy Department have ambitious plans to upgrade and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal to ensure its reliability.
Current DOD plans call for building new ICBMS, bombers and submarines, with the Congressional Budget Office estimating the cost at $136 billion over the next decade. It estimates $105 billion would be spent on nuclear weapons activities — including nuclear warhead life-extension programs and other work being done at Sandia — over that period.
“We’re going to invest in the modernization that we need to invest in to keep that [nuclear] deterrent stronger than it’s ever been, and you have my commitment to that,” Hagel said. “The commitment of resources that are going to be required and continue to be required…will be there.”
However, some experts question whether current plans are necessary or practical.
“We simply don’t believe that the Pentagon has reconciled the procurement plans [and] the modernization plans with the reduced requirements for nuclear weapons and the budget realities that are facing the Pentagon and every other federal agency,” Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, told Stars and Stripes.
“The plans that are on the books right now are clearly unsustainable given the appropriations levels that Congress is about to adopt in the next years and future years,” Kimball said. “It is foolhardy to be spending tens of billions on nuclear weapon systems that are not necessary for our deterrence requirements and that essentially rob resources from other much more urgent and usable military assets.”
Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, agreed that DOD’s plans should be scaled back.
“It is completely unrealistic under the current budget climate in the out years to plan for the enormous increases in warhead costs that we see now. In our conversations with government officials, if you meet with them privately, they’ll certainly say that this is financially not a sustainable plan, but in public they are still sticking to the guns and sort of pretending that this is the only way forward.”
In 2012, before President Barack Obama nominated him as secretary of defense, Hagel co-authored a report published by an advocacy group called Global Zero which criticized costly nuclear modernization efforts and proposed a force posture that would eliminate ICBMs from America’s arsenal.
In Albuquerque, Hagel told reporters that his visit also was designed to boost the morale of service members involved in the ICBM enterprise and “tell them how important their work is.”
In November, The Associated Press published preliminary results of an independent study for the Air Force that suggested widespread “burnout” among nuclear launch officers. The study was conducted by the RAND Corporation, a federally funded think tank.
“Sometimes I suspect you feel that maybe no one cares or no one is paying attention to you, but we are [paying attention],” Hagel told missile wing members at a town hall meeting following his tour of Warren.
He obliquely referred to the various personnel problems that have plagued the ICBM force recently.
“I want to talk also about continuing to hone our skills – our personal skills, our institutional skills, on focusing on our professionalism and how we handle our day-to-day responsibilities,” he said. “You’ve…chosen a profession where there’s no room for error. In what you do every day, there is no room for error. None.”