F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. — Hoping to boost sagging morale, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a rare visit Thursday to an Air Force nuclear missile base and the men and women who operate and safeguard the nation's Minuteman 3 missiles. But his attempt to cheer the troops was tempered by news that launch officers at another base had been implicated in an illegal-narcotics investigation.
Two officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana are being investigated for allegations of drug possession, said a service spokesman in Washington, Lt. Col. Brett Ashworth. Both of those being investigated are ICBM launch officers with responsibility for operating intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The launch officers' access to classified information has been suspended, and they have been prohibited from serving on missile launch control duty while the Air Force is investigating, another defense official said. That official provided no further details and spoke only on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly by name.
At the Wyoming nuclear missile base, meanwhile, Hagel addressed officers and airmen after a series of security lapses and discipline problems that were revealed in Associated Press news stories in 2013. Officials have said the 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.
"You are doing something of great importance to the world," Hagel told the group. Lest they sometimes doubt that importance, he said, "You have chosen a profession where there is no room for error — none."
He made no direct reference to the problems revealed in the past year but declared, "How you do the job is really as important as the job itself. We depend on your professionalism."
A day earlier, he said he realized the ICBM workforce has morale issues.
"It is lonely work," he said. "They do feel unappreciated many times."
F.E. Warren Air Force Base, which is headquarters for the organization in charge of all 450 U.S. 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 AP 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 the service has tried to improve nuclear operations, but problems remain, including attitude issues, leadership lapses and, far more perilously, security lapses such as troops taking naps during 24-hour shifts with the blast door of their launch control center open. That could leave the missiles and airmen vulnerable and violates Air Force rules. A RAND Corp. study done for the Pentagon also found signs of burnout and behavioral problems such as domestic violence.
Before his Wyoming stop, Hagel flew 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 weak responses to serious lapses, including an unauthorized transfer of six nuclear weapons from Minot in August 2007.
Gates noted that he was the first defense secretary to visit Minot and said — much as Hagel did on Thursday in Wyoming — "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 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."
The ICBM force is less than half the size it was during its Cold War heyday, but the missiles remain on high alert, with pairs of officers on duty in the launch control centers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's a job that relatively few volunteer for, and the RAND study last year found signs of burnout.
In another disconcerting development, just last month, the Air Force released an investigation report chronicling inappropriate behavior by Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, who was commander of the ICBM force until he was fired in October. Investigators said that while leading a U.S. government delegation to a nuclear security exercise in Russia last summer, Carey drank heavily, was rude to his hosts, cavorted with "suspect" local women and complained in public about a lack of support from his Air Force bosses.
Carey also said the men and women in the ICBM force had "the worst morale of any airmen in the Air Force," according to a member of his travel delegation quoted in the report.
Carey was given a "letter of counseling" as punishment, in addition to being relieved of command, but he remains in the service as a special assistant to the commander of Air Force Space Command. He was replaced as ICBM commander by Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein.