WASHINGTON (AP) — It began with his brief mention last fall of "troubling lapses" in the nuclear force. Weeks later Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel turned up the heat a notch by paying a rare visit to a nuclear missile base. And on Thursday he dropped his bombshell: a demand for quick answers to what ails this most sensitive of military missions.
"Personnel failures within this force threaten to jeopardize the trust the American people have placed in us to keep our nuclear weapons safe and secure," Hagel wrote in unusually pointed language to a dozen top officials.
Hagel ordered immediate actions to define the depth of trouble inside the nuclear force, particularly the Air Force's intercontinental ballistic missile force, which has been rocked by disclosures about security lapses, poor discipline, weak morale and other problems that raise questions about nuclear security.
It amounted to the most significant expression of high-level Pentagon concern about the nuclear force since 2008, when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired the top uniformed and civilian officials in the Air Force following a series of mistakes that included a cross-country flight by a B-52 bomber that mistakenly had been armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
The U.S. is reducing the size, and seeking to limit the role, of its nuclear arsenal, but it remains a central feature of national security policy. The weapons are an enormous responsibility for the military, not just to operate them properly but also to ensure they are safe and secure. Critics question whether it is worth the cost.
Hagel had said recently he was considering what may lie behind problems in the nuclear Air Force — many revealed by The Associated Press — but his chief spokesman said Thursday that the defense secretary concluded urgent remedies were needed.
"To the degree there are systemic problems in the training and professional standards of the nuclear career field, the secretary wants them solved," the spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said. "To the degree there are gaps in our understanding or implementation of those standards, he wants them closed. And to the degree leaders have failed in their duties, he wants them held to account."