WASHINGTON — In taking a deep look at trouble inside U.S. nuclear forces, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is searching for the root causes of recent Air Force missteps but also for ways to make the nuclear warrior's job more attractive at a time when the military has turned its attention away from such weapons.
Nuclear missile duty has lost its luster in an era dominated by other security threats. It's rarely the career path of first choice for young officers. And yet Hagel and others say it remains important to U.S. national security.
On Friday he put the magnitude of the Air Force's nuclear responsibilities in stark terms, quoting President John F. Kennedy who said in 1963 that nuclear airmen "hold in their hands the most awesome destructive power that any nation or any man has ever conceived." And so it is worrisome, Hagel said, to realize that some of those same airmen may use drugs, cheat on their proficiency tests and have engaged in other dangerous misbehaviors.
The Associated Press in 2013 exposed a number of serious missteps in the nuclear missile force, including training gaps, leadership lapses, inspection failures, deliberate violations of security rules and elevated levels of domestic violence and other misconduct.
Hagel now wants to know what ails the force.
"We know that something is wrong," he said, and it includes what some call an attitude problem inside the force.
Dissatisfaction among the officers responsible for operating intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, is not new, but it appears to be grabbing the attention of more senior Pentagon leaders, including Hagel and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who was sworn in Friday as the service's top civilian official.
"Recent allegations regarding our ICBM force raise legitimate questions about (the Pentagon's) stewardship of one of our most sensitive and important missions," Hagel said Friday at the swearing-in ceremony for James, who has been on the job for four weeks and is only the second woman to lead the Air Force.
"Restoring confidence in the nuclear mission will be a top priority," he added.
One repair tool that James and Hagel might choose is incentive pay or other extra benefits for the young officers who do as many as eight 24-hour shifts per month in the underground command bunkers from which they would execute any presidential order to launch a nuclear-tipped Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM.
The ICBM force has shrunk by about half since its Cold War peak, with 450 Minuteman 3 missiles now stationed in underground silos spread across vast expanses of Montana, North Dakota and portions of Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. It's not a growing business. The Obama administration is considering reducing to 400 missiles as it prepares to adhere by 2018 to limitations under the New START treaty with Russia.
Hagel wondered out loud Friday whether the remoteness of these ICBM locations might be a factor in dampening morale among missile operators.
"Do they get bored?" he asked.
More broadly, Hagel is searching for the underlying reason for the failures in the Air Force ICBM force that prompted him Thursday to order an "action plan" from military leaders to identify remedies. He also said he would convene a nuclear summit at the Pentagon to address nuclear personnel problems.
The incentives idea has bounced around the Air Force for at least several years but gained little traction, likely because it does not address the root cause of weak morale in the unheralded ICBM force.
"I'm not sure that simply throwing money at the problem is going to cure all the issues," said Dana E. Struckman, a retired Air Force colonel who served as a Minuteman 3 missile squadron commander in 2003-05.
"What the young men and women on the crew force would like to see is, this is a viable career path for me even if I'm not the star of the squadron," he said in an interview Friday. Struckman, who retired in 2010 after 22 years in the Air Force, is an associate professor in national security at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
ICBM duty may never have been glamorous, but in the years after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 it appears to have become less attractive as the Air Force shifted some of its focus to wars in the Mideast and emerging threats like cyberwarfare. Hagel's review is likely to tackle this aspect of the problem, although solutions seem elusive.
The challenge of keeping reliable and experienced people in the ICBM field was highlighted in a little-noticed report published last year by the RAND Corp., a federally funded think tank that has long studied nuclear issues.
"As the role of the nuclear mission is perceived to be less important to the country, it may be more difficult to attract and retain the high-quality workforce needed," the report said, referring not only to the ICBM force but also segments of the defense industry that support the nuclear mission.
Air Force leaders have been aware for some time that its missile crews feel high levels of stress. Last September the Air Force said the commander of its ICBM forces, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, had fashioned a "Professional Actions" campaign that it said was designed to "mitigate stressors" on the troops. The campaign's details were not made public, and Carey was fired in October for what investigators called inapproporiate behavior overseas.
The nuclear mission has faded so far into the consciousness of the American public over the past decade or two that 20-something Air Force officers who are pulled into duty at ICBM bases sometimes know little of its purpose.
Col. Robert W. Stanley II, commander of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., which has responsibility for 150 of the Air Force's 450 Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles, recalled in an interview his astonishment at hearing one security troop's response when Stanley asked him what is the ICBM mission.
"He said, 'Sir, I think probably to guard the frontier,'" Stanley recalled. "And I thought to myself, 'Oh, my God.'"
Air Force leaders say some of the problems that have surfaced recently can be attributed at least in part to the fact that the ICBM force is populated with some of the youngest people in the Air Force. The men and women who operate the missiles, for example, are generally lieutenants and captains, the youngest of the Air Force officer corps.
In recent years the ICBM force has recorded higher levels of courts martial and administrative punishments than the overall Air Force, according to statistics obtained by the AP through the Freedom of Information Act.
Last year, for example, there were 28 courts martial in the ICBM force, which is comprised of the 90th, 91st and 341st missile wings. That is about 3.5 for each 1,000 members of the force, compared to 2.27 per 1,000 in the overall Air force. There were 19.9 cases of administrative punishment, known in military parlance as Article 15 actions, per 1,000 ICBM members last year, compared to 18.4 per 1,000 in the overall Air Force.