WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, alarmed by a rash of embarrassing disclosures about officers in charge of nuclear missiles, on Thursday ordered two broad reviews of the personnel who handle the military’s most dangerous weapons.
“We’re confident in the security of the nuclear arsenal of this country,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters in announcing Hagel’s moves. “That said, clearly we’ve got some issues here.”
The Air Force this month uncovered an exam cheating scandal involving dozens of officers responsible for launching nuclear-armed missiles. Leaders said they stumbled upon the cheating on nuclear proficiency tests while conducting a separate investigation into drug abuse at several different bases.
High-ranking nuclear commanders have also been getting into trouble. In December, the Air Force revealed that a two-star general in charge of nuclear missiles went on a drinking binge during an official visit to Moscow last summer. And a vice admiral who oversaw nuclear forces as the deputy chief of the U.S. Strategic Command was fired in October after authorities said he was caught using counterfeit gambling chips at a casino.
In response, the Pentagon said Hagel would convene a special meeting of nuclear commanders and other officials to examine “the health of the culture” of the nuclear force and come up with “an action plan” within 60 days. Hagel will also appoint an independent board of former officials to conduct a similar, but separate review.
Hagel’s intervention comes just eight days after the Air Force’s top general and civilian leader revealed details of the cheating scandal but sought to reassure the public that the nuclear arsenal was in safe hands.
Hagel had previously said he was monitoring news reports about poor performance and low morale among Air Force officers responsible for maintaining and safeguarding nuclear missiles. On Jan. 9, he visited a hub of the nuclear arsenal at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, where he said he was trying to lift morale.
But the steps announced Thursday by the Pentagon indicate that the defense secretary has become more concerned about the issue.
“To the degree there are systemic problems in the training and professional standards of the nuclear career field, the secretary wants them solved,” Kirby said. “And to the degree leaders have failed in their duties, he wants them held to account.”
The guardianship of nuclear arms has been a persistent concern for the Air Force. In 2008, Robert Gates, then the secretary of defense, fired the Air Force’s top general and its civilian leader after a series of nuclear-related gaffes occurred on their watch, including an episode in which a B-52 bomber crew flew across the country without realizing that six cruise missiles on board had been armed with nuclear warheads.
In a recently released memoir, Gates said he was furious when he learned about the incident. “I was incredulous at such a monumental screw-up,” he wrote. In interviews as part of his book tour this month, Gates said the fresh reports of problems in the nuclear commands were “extremely troubling.”