MINOT AIR FORCE BASE N.D. (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told troops responsible for U.S. nuclear bombers and missiles on Friday he was committed to revitalizing their force with millions of dollars in new funding after years of neglect.
Hagel, visiting Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota hours after announcing an overhaul of U.S. nuclear forces, promised additional money to improve their jobs and work conditions, including curbing an excess focus on perfection that helped spark a cheating scandal at a sister base this year.
“You are an indispensable element of our national security,” Hagel told the airmen and missileers. “You are the main deterrent for the security of this country.”
The review released by the Pentagon on Friday found a nuclear force “understaffed, under-resourced and reliant on an aging and fragile supporting infrastructure in an over-inspected and overly risk-averse environment.”
At the announcement earlier in Washington, Hagel referred to a situation in which a single wrench needed to attach warheads to missiles had to be sent by Federal Express from one base to another.
“We now have a wrench for each location. We’re going to have two wrenches for each location soon,” Hagel said.
He said the Pentagon needed to increase its current $15 billion to $16 billion budget by about 10 percent over the next five years and improve the career paths for airmen in the nuclear field, many of whom find it difficult to advance.
Some defense analysts welcomed the results of the review, saying it would renew focus on nuclear arms after years of neglect, but others said simply spending more money on a Cold War-era atomic weapons structure that increasingly plays a limited role in U.S. security policy would not improve things.
Hagel ordered the reviews to try to identify the causes of a series of scandals that have plagued the nuclear weapons force over the past few years, including cheating on proficiency tests by missile launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
The cheating incident at Malmstrom, which involved dozens of personnel, was uncovered earlier this year during an investigation of a drug ring involving 10 of the officers.
That investigation came months after the head of U.S. nuclear forces was fired for drunkenness and other inappropriate behavior while on an official nuclear security visit to Moscow. There also have been concerns raised about morale problems in the force.
Reporting by David Alexander, Bill Trott and David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by David Storey and Eric Beech