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Pentagon chief in rare visit to nuke missile base

By Robert Burns

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 9 2014 11:12 a.m. MST

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks to soldiers, veterans and staff at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio on Wednesday, Jan. 8, the day before he made a rare visit to an Air Force nuclear missile base. Hagel hoped to boost morale among the men and women who operate, maintain and safeguard the nation's Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles.

Lisa Krantz, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is making a rare visit to an Air Force nuclear missile base, hoping to boost morale among the men and women who operate, maintain and safeguard the nation's Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles.

Officials have said those service members are increasingly tired of working in what can seem like oblivion. They win no battles, earn no combat pay and only rarely are given public credit of any kind.

That changes Thursday, if only for a day and for a small number of them.

Hagel said Wednesday he realized the ICBM workforce has morale issues, and his visit Thursday was intended to show that their efforts were appreciated.

"It is lonely work," he said. "They do feel unappreciated many times."

He said he spoke to a small group of nuclear weapons officers in November.

"I asked about their futures, and they were very honest, and most of them said they were unsure," he said. "Well, morale is a huge part of that."

F.E. Warren Air Force Base, which is headquarters for the organization in charge of all 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles, has about 3,100 enlisted airmen and officers and saw 12 courts-martial in 2013, compared with nine the year before, 12 in 2011 and eight in 2010, according to Air Force statistics provided to The Associated Press last week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

In each of the past four years, the courts-martial rate at F.E. Warren was higher than in the Air Force as a whole

The AP documented problems that go well beyond low morale in a series of stories in 2013, including one that disclosed that an ICMB operations officer had complained of "rot" infesting his missile force. Since then it has tried to improve nuclear operations, but problems remain, including attitude issues, leadership lapses and, far more perilously, security lapses such as taking naps during a 24-hour shift with the blast door open, which could leave the missiles and airmen vulnerable and violates Air Force rules. A RAND study done for the Pentagon also found signs of burnout and behavioral problems like domestic violence.

Hagel was to fly by helicopter to a Minuteman 3 missile launch control center in Nebraska. Besides Nebraska, the missiles are in underground silos in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and North Dakota.

Each launch center, buried 60 feet or deeper underground, controls 10 Minuteman 3 missiles, each in its own silo.

The last Pentagon chief to visit an ICBM base was Robert Gates, who in December 2008 spent a day at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., home of the 91st Missile Wing responsible for 150 Minuteman 3 missiles, although he did not go down into a missile launch control center as Hagel planned to do. Gates earlier that year fired the Air Force's top uniform and civilian officials for what he considered to be weak responses to serious lapses, including an unauthorized transfer of six nuclear weapons from Minot in August 2007.

Noting that he was the first defense secretary ever to visit Minot, Gates said, "We owe you the attention" and the resources needed to properly perform the nuclear mission — "the most sensitive mission in the entire U.S. military."

Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said publicity about these missteps has made the ICBM force a "hot potato," causing Pentagon officials to "scratch their heads about how to manage this program. You cannot reassure the public about this when you are having these failures all the time."

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