Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, told troops responsible for US nuclear bombers and missiles that he was committed to revitalising their forces with millions of dollars in new funding after years of neglect.
Hagel, visiting Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota on Friday hours after announcing an overhaul of US nuclear forces, promised additional money to improve their jobs and work conditions.
Hagel unveiled an “action plan” that calls for making the nuclear force a higher priority, reorganising the command, reassuring troops of the importance of the mission and boosting funding and personnel.
The Pentagon chief cited sobering results from two reviews and said the military had neglected the nuclear arsenal as it had been preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.
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.”
Reflecting the troubled state of the force, the reviews pointed to a wrench needed to install a nuclear warhead on the tip of a Minuteman missile.
The wrench was in a toolkit shared by all three bases in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. And when one crew needed the wrench, it was shipped from another base by Federal Express, a US-based global courier service.
The crews were “creative” in solving the problem, “but that’s not the way to do it,” said Hagel, adding each base now had their own sets of tools.
Cheating, drugs and drunkenness
He said the Pentagon needed to increase its current $15bn to $16bn 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.
Hagel ordered the reviews to try to identify the causes of a series of scandals that have plagued the nuclear weapons forces 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 US 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 ranks.