© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pentagon Plans To Spend Billions Upgrading Nuclear Program


The Pentagon today released the results of investigations into the nation's nuclear forces, and the findings show low morale, understaffing and equipment shortages. Things have gotten so bad that according to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, maintenance crews at three nuclear bases had only one special wrench that's needed to put nuclear warheads on missiles. At a news conference today, Secretary Hagel described how the crews shared that wrench.


CHUCK HAGEL: They did it by Federal Expressing the one wrench around to each base. They were creative and innovative and they made it work, but that's not the way to do it.

SIEGEL: Joining me to discuss what the Pentagon plans to do about it is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. And Geoff, let's begin with the story of the wrench, which just seems unbelievable. Have they fixed that? Have they gotten some more wrenches?

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Yes, Hagel says each base now has its own wrench, and soon they're going to have two wrenches, you know, just in case they drop one behind the missile and they can't get to it. But this is part of a much bigger problem. The systems were designed in the '60s and the '70s and it shows. I was out at a missile base earlier this summer, and they were showing me an eight-inch floppy disk they used in their system. I mean, that's the sort of thing you don't see around anymore, except maybe in a museum. Now, the Air Force has invested over 160 million to start fixing things at the missile bases. But there are two other legs to the triad. There are submarines and there are nuclear-armed bombers. And today, the Pentagon says it's going to invest billions of dollars over the next five years to fix problems in all three of these systems.

SIEGEL: The triad being this three-legged nuclear strategy the U.S. has had for many decades - different ways of delivering nuclear weapons. This isn't just about money though. The investigations found cultural problems within the units that are responsible for these missiles.

BRUMFIEL: That's right, what started this all off was a cheating scandal. Missile officers were texting each other answers to test questions about their weapons. And there's been some really embarrassing slip-ups in the leadership as well. In 2013, the Air Force General in charge of these missiles was caught drinking heavily during a trip to Russia and hanging out with two women at a hotel bar. Another senior official was fired because he used fake poker chips at a casino.

I think the broader picture you're seeing here is that a lot of people felt this was a dead-end job, you know? Being in the missile forces, you really weren't going anywhere with your career, and that just created huge morale problems.

SIEGEL: So how is the Pentagon intending to fix all this?

BRUMFIEL: Well, there's been a huge amount of housecleaning in the leadership of the nuclear forces. As recently as this month, two more commanders were relieved of duty for lesser infractions. And today, Hagel announced they're elevating the top ranks of the Air Force's nuclear forces to a four-star command.

In terms of the men and women who are actually manning these weapons day-to-day, the Air Force is making a lot of changes to their jobs as well. They're trying to give them more authority so they have more responsibility out in the field. They're also changing the testing to pass - fail. They still have to get 90 percent to pass, but the hope is that that's going to put an end to the cheating we've been hearing about.

SIEGEL: But the cheating wasn't the first problematic incident here. There've been several slips over the years, including the case of nuclear missiles being accidentally flown from one base to another across the U.S. Are today's measures likely to fix the problems in the nuclear forces?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the changes we're seeing today are pretty dramatic. And experts I've been speaking with say that this is probably going to clean things up for now. But there's this bigger problem, which is the mission itself. These weapons have to be constantly on alert, but it's very unlikely they'll ever be used. Frankly, it's easy for the leadership to forget about the missiles and the people responsible for them. And it's easy for those people to sort of get bored and get themselves into trouble. On top of all this, we have a much bigger problem coming down the road. The weapons themselves are aging. The submarines, the bombers, the missiles - they're all going to have to be replaced. And one estimate out there says it could cost up to a trillion dollars by 2030.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.