Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered a full review of the Pentagon’s nuclear mission — the second in six years — in response to the alleged cheating and drug rings inside the Air Force’s ballistic missile units.
By PHILIP EWING
Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Thursday that Hagel had talked with the top leaders of the Air Force and Strategic Command following their recent visits to the Air Force’s missile bases and concluded that the Department of Defense needed to take another close look, with a focus on the units’ personnel.
Hagel is confident in the safety and security of the strategic arsenal, Kirby said, as well as most of the airmen serving in it, but “not all of them live up to the same high standards required by that work.”
The new review, Kirby said, would identify “gaps and problems” and be due in 60 days. It must recommend an “action plan” for improvements, and Hagel has asked for another independent review to confirm the recommendations of the first.
Kirby said he did not know whether the visits of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James to the ICBM bases in the remote Midwest had uncovered more people involved in the alleged cheating and drugs beyond those officials have announced.
Kirby did say that about 95 percent of the Air Force missile officers who have been re-tested after the initial cheating discovery have passed; 22 officers failed. They’ll be retrained and retested, he said.
During a press briefing at the Pentagon, Kirby was asked by reporters why that failure rate itself wasn’t evidence of negligence in the nuclear force and why the commanders of the missile units hadn’t been disciplined or fired.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to understand the scope of the problem before we get to firing people,” he said. Hagel’s “bar” for success, Kirby said, is not how many people — or how senior — lose their jobs. The goal is to fix the morale and performance problems in the ICBM units.
Hagel’s reviews are a play for time in order to determine how to solve a problem the Pentagon already understands well. Former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger’s 2008 nuclear study, ordered by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates after the Air Force’s last round of public nuclear weapons embarrassments, documented plummeting esprit within the ICBM force and a sense of abandonment compared to the Air Force’s fighter and bomber units.
Gates responded by firing the chief and secretary of the Air Force, and other lower-level commanders also lost their jobs. The service created Global Strike Command to take the place of the legendary former Strategic Air Command and has tried to restore missileers’ sense of importance, but Kirby acknowledged the Air Force appears to have fallen short.
Kirby described the “many professional, talented people” whom Hagel met at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. But even Hagel, Kirby said, acknowledged to the airmen that manning the isolated missiles “can be lonely work … and it can be unheralded work.”
In an earlier briefing, Kirby said Hagel talked with the missile officers about potential additional incentives, either monetary bonuses or other perks that might sweeten the deal, and such ideas may play a big role in the defense agency’s forthcoming “action plan.”
What Hagel’s review apparently will not do is question the overall wisdom of maintaining the current nuclear triad of Air Force missiles, bombers and Navy ballistic missile submarines. Kirby has said that Hagel is committed to the triad, although as a longtime nuclear opponent, he would probably welcome some eventual reduction in the total number of U.S. nuclear weapons.
What Hagel wants, Kirby said, is to get all the facts before he and the Air Force determine how they can reform the ICBM units.
“Clearly, we’ve got some issues here,” Kirby said. The idea, he said, is to find out “What else don’t I know about what I don’t know?”
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