The nation's nuclear forces lack resources, support and effective leadership, a legacy of neglect that could impact America's security, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday.
Hagel announced plans to invest billions of dollars into the program and realign the leadership of the force after two reviews — one by Pentagon officials and a second by outside experts — revealed a "consistent lack of investment and support" in the nuclear program, in spite of the fact that "no other capability we have is as important."
Hagel outlined problems plaguing the force that included "micro-management" and "inadequate communication," which he said stemmed from dwindling attention paid to nuclear forces. The reviews followed after a series of scandals first reported by The Associated Press, which found breakdowns in leadership, security, safety and morale across the nuclear force. Among the missteps:
- Twice in 2013, officers entrusted with the keys to nuclear-tipped missiles were caught leaving blast doors open while an officer inside was asleep, according to the AP. These doors are intended to keep terrorists or other intruders from entering the underground posts.
- The end of 2013 brought the firing of the top nuclear commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, for drinking too much, having “associations” with foreign women and making rude comments to his hosts during a visit to Russia for military exercises.
- Two launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, responsible for launching nuclear-armed Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles, were investigated for illegal drug possession in early 2014, which involved eight other air force officers across six bases. The drugs in question were synthetic marijuana (often called Spice) and Ecstasy.
- The drug investigation led to the discovery of a cheating scandal involving 92 Air Force nuclear missile officers. About half of the officers were caught getting answers before a proficiency test, or texting answers to each other.
- And just two weeks ago, two nuclear commanders were fired and a third was disciplined because of "a loss of confidence." An investigation into one of the fired commanders found that he "engaged in unlawful discrimination or harassment."
The nuclear program has been hampered by a national "a sense of just taking it for granted,” Hagel said. "We just have kind of taken our eye off the ball here."
One particular gap involving a single tool kit being shipped via Federal Express among the three intercontinental ballistic missile bases in three states is "indicative of the depth and width of what has happened over the last few years," Hagel said.
In order to "restore the prestige that attracted the brightest minds of the Cold War era," Hagel authorized the Air Force to place a four-star general in charge of nuclear forces instead of a three-star. The top nuclear force official at Air Force headquarters in the Pentagon will also be upgraded from a two-star to a three-star general, Hagel said. "They will no longer be outranked by their non-nuclear counterparts," Hagel said.
The "cultural change must permeate down to the individual," Hagel said. A reallocation of funds is already underway in an effort to assure airmen that they are valued and have an opportunity to grow in their field. "We need our best people in this enterprise," Hagel said.
The next five years will see about a 10 percent increase in nuclear program funds each year, Hagel said. Currently, about $15 billion is allowed for the program, but $160 million has already been reallocated to the force in fiscal year 2014, Hagel said.
None of the issues found in the reviews is something "we can't fix," Hagel said, but he added that if the problems aren't addressed, "there will be some questions about our security."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.