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Pentagon officials keeping an eye on morale at nuclear bases

The Defense Department is asking for tens of billions of dollars this year to maintain and modernize U.S. nuclear capabilities, while at the same time checking in with personnel at the remote bases maintainers and operators call home.

In recent years, issues like cheating on exams and marijuana use have plagued Air Force bases in Montana, North Dakota and Nebraska, calling into question whether the quality of life in those areas was taking a toll on troops.

“I’m very confident that the chain of command will deal with it,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Wednesday during a visit to Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. “And I had the chance today to talk with a couple of the commanders about how do we make sure that we address quality of life issues for the airmen; how do we address stress; how do we address the things that ― that sometimes underlie the issue that you’re mentioning.”

Esper also visited U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, as part of a familiarization tour with nuclear weapons installations.

The overall goal is to replace the outdated systems one by one, so as to not inflame any tensions, a senior DoD official said Friday, briefing reporters on background at the Pentagon.

“My message is that this is a sensible approach because it addresses the threat, it’s a reasonable approach because it doesn’t precipitate an arms race with the Russians and it’s affordable,” he said.

As the U.S. gets plans underway to upgrade aircraft, missiles, submarines and other systems to deter nuclear threats from countries like China, Russia and North Korea, the people who will take responsibility for them are also a consideration.

“This is one of the things that the secretary wanted to find out,” a senior DoD official said Friday, briefing reporters on background at the Pentagon. “He spoke a lot with the airman and the officers … at STRATCOM and Minot. You know, about 10 years ago, we had a terrible morale problem."

Senior leader attention addressed a lot of those issues, he added. Airmen serving at those bases have seen upgraded sports facilities for their after-hours time, more flexible hours for on-base childcare facilities and new equipment to help them do their jobs, he said.

“I don’t think there’s a problem with recruitment in this area,” the official said.

Ultimately, the official said, the modernization plan gives DoD a chance to take a broader look at the needs of the personnel who man the systems as well.

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