Hagel Questions Air Force’s Ability to Oversee Nukes

“Recent allegations regarding our ICBM force raise legitimate questions about this Department’s stewardship of one of our most sensitive and important missions."

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed concern Friday that feelings of neglect and boredom may have led to the cheating and drug scandals among the young officers in charge of the nation’s nuclear missiles.

“We know that something’s wrong,” Hagel said, but it was difficult to pin down a cause. “There’s no single issue here,” he said.

Hagel wondered: “Do they get bored? Are we doing enough” to convince the Air Force’s young officers who sit in the Minuteman III silos that their jobs are valued?

Hagel speculated on the problems in the Air Force at a Pentagon briefing with French Defense Minister Jean Yves Le Drian that was mostly devoted to mutual pledges of increased U.S. and French cooperation in combating terrorism in northern Africa.

“Recent allegations regarding our ICBM force raise legitimate questions about this Department’s stewardship of one of our most sensitive and important missions,” Hagel said.

The U.S. defense secretary said he had just come from an hour-long phone call with Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who was visiting missile and bomber bases as part of the overall review on the status of the nation’s nuclear deterrent ordered up Thursday by Hagel.

Earlier at the Pentagon, Hagel presided at the swearing-in ceremony for James. In his remarks, Hagel praised the Air Force’ mission but said that “at the same time, I am deeply concerned… about the overall health, professionalism, and discipline of our strategic forces.”

Hagel ordered the status review following charges that 34 lieutenants and captains in the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana had cheated on a monthly proficiency test. Separately, a total of 11 Air Force officers at several bases are suspects in a drug possession investigation.

Hagel said the cheating and the drug allegations did not compromise the safety and security of the nuclear deterrent “but that doesn’t dismiss the issues in front of us” involving officers who may have violated their oaths.

The nation has been involved in two major land wars for nearly the past 13 years, Hagel said, and “I think there’s been a sense of, well — just take for granted the nuclear component,” Hagel said.

“Over the years I do think we have taken some focus off of the responsibilities of these very dedicated, very bright young officers,” Hagel said.

“Standards must not be eroded,” Hagel said, but he pointed to the stress in taking a proficiency test every month. If scores of 100 percent are not maintained, “that will probably minimize your chances for advancement,” Hagel said.

In addition to the internal review, Hagel has also announced that he will consult with a small group of outside nuclear experts to study the personnel problems in the nuclear force and to come up with remedies. Hagel has yet to name the panel.

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Richard Sisk
Richard Sisk is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.