Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, visits an Air Force munitions storage facility at Sandia National Laboratories, N.M., Jan. 8. The service's nuclear community has has suffered problems and scandals. (Glenn Fawcett/Defense Department)
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F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, WYO. — Buried here deep under the flat, frozen and farm-covered landscape lie some of the world’s most catastrophic weapons — and one of the U.S. military’s most troubling morale problems.
The daily life for the thousands of airmen who work in isolation manning the launch sites for the Air Force’s 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles is not the stuff of recruitment ads. They don’t fight wars. They rarely get any attention. And they work 24-hour shifts waiting for a doomsday order from the president that has never come.
A morale problem afflicting one of the most sensitive missions in military history is a growing concern at the Pentagon — so much so that it prompted a rare visit from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who flew out to this far-flung base to give the troops here a pep talk.
“We may not go to war every day, but we have to always remember that every day we help prevent [war],” Hagel told dozens of officers and enlisted airmen here at the headquarters of the 20th Air Force, which oversees the Pentagon’s ballistic missile arsenal.
“There is no more noble profession in the world than your profession, to keep the peace in the world,” Hagel said. “What you do every day, there is no room for error. None. You know that. The American people expect that. They have great confidence in you.”
Hagel’s troop talk was at the end of an unusual two-day trip to visit several nuclear weapons facilities and the people who operate them. The trip comes at a time of mounting criticism of the Air Force’s management of nuclear weapons and concern about morale.
Even during Hagel’s trip, the Air Force faced new revelations of misconduct. An illegal narcotics investigation ensnared two missile combat crew officers — those who help turn the launch keys on ICBMs — from Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., a defense official said Jan. 9.
The two officers from the 341st Missile Wing were stripped of their access to classified information, the defense official said.
While in Wyoming, Hagel rode a helicopter out to a missile control center, where small teams of officers stand ready to punch in launch codes and turn ignition keys that launch the Minuteman III ICBMs.
Hagel also visited Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., touring a nuclear weapons vault, visiting Sandia National Laboratories and meeting with commanders of the 898th Munitions Squadron, which operates an underground depot-level weapons maintenance and storage facility.
While Hagel hopes his trip will help improve morale among missileers, he has no immediate plans to provide them a pay raise.
For years, missileers have hoped for some form of incentive pay, similar to those granted to pilots and troops with special language skills.
But Hagel said he’s not looking at that right now.
“I think it’s not so much a pay and compensation issue,” Hagel told reporters during his stop in New Mexico on Jan. 8. “I just think it’s these young, smart people are wondering if what I’m doing with my life, is it important? Does it make a difference?
“It is lonely work,” Hagel told reporters. “I think they do feel underappreciated many times.”
The drug investigation at Malmstrom is just the latest in a spate of reports about problems inside the ICBM community.
In October, the Air Force fired Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, commander of 20th Air Force. Officials said Carey drank too much and behaved inappropriately during a recent trip to Russia.
Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, told reporters in November that the service must “add more vigor” to its screening of candidates for senior nuclear commands.
Earlier this year, The Associated Press reported that four ICBM launch officers were disciplined for napping while the blast door to their underground command post was left open, posing risks that an intruder could tamper with equipment or compromise launch codes.
Some officials in Washington are talking about reducing the size of the launch-ready ICBM force. A defense bill that became law in July authorizes the Defense Department to study the potential closure of some missile silos and reduce the ICBM force to fewer than 450 in accordance with a new treaty with Russia. Some lawmakers oppose those closures.
Hagel signaled to the missileers that the Pentagon is committed to sustaining the ICBM community, telling the troops that officials will soon make decisions about potentially purchasing replacement missiles for the Minuteman III.
“He wanted to assure them that their leg of the triad will endure” said one defense official.