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Troubled US nuclear force needs reform, funds: Hagel
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Nov 14, 2014

The US 'triad' of nuclear weapons
Washington (AFP) Nov 14, 2014 - The Pentagon vowed Friday to reform how it manages the US military's vast nuclear arsenal after government reviews found low morale among missile crews, manpower shortfalls and poor leadership.

Nuclear-armed submarines, intercontinental missiles and strategic bombers make up the US atomic "triad" created during the Cold War, with an annual budget of about $16 billion. Here are the main elements of the force:

Land-based missiles:

The United States has 450 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles in silos at three bases in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming.

Each missile contains a warhead of 300 kilotons, equivalent to 300,000 tons of TNT, or 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Ballistic missile submarines:

The US Navy has 14 Ohio-class submarines, or SSBNs, armed with ballistic missiles. Each sub carries 24 Trident II missiles, and each missile can carry up to eight nuclear warheads, according to the Navy.

The firepower of each warhead is estimated at 100 to 450 kilotons.

The fleet of nuclear-powered Ohio-class submarines is due to be replaced around 2030 by a new generation of subs at an estimated cost of $350 billion.

Strategic bomber aircraft:

The military has two bombers designed to carry out a nuclear attack: the venerable B-52, which has been in service since the 1960s, and the B-2 stealth bomber with its distinctive flying wing design, designed to penetrate air defenses.

The United States has 78 B-52s at two bases. The planes also can carry Tomahawk missiles fitted with nuclear warheads ranging from five to 150 kilotons.

There are also 20 B-2 stealth bombers, which have been in service since 1989. The B-2s can be armed with two types of atomic bombs, one with a maximum yield of 340 kilotons and another with 1.2 megatons.

The Pentagon is pursuing plans to build a new long-range bomber to replace the B-52 and B-2 aircraft.

In total, the United States currently has 1,642 deployed warheads and 912 missile launchers and bomber aircraft, while Russia has 1,643 warheads and 911 launchers, according to the State Department. The START treaty signed with Russia imposes a ceiling of 1,550 warheads and 700 launchers for each country by 2018.

The US nuclear force is plagued by declining morale, manpower shortages and mismanagement that could jeopardize its safety and effectiveness, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday.

The Pentagon chief cited sobering results from two reviews and said the military had neglected the nuclear arsenal as it had been preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

Reviews ordered by the Pentagon "found evidence of systematic problems that if not addressed could undermine the safety, security and effectiveness of elements of the force in the future," Hagel told reporters.

The findings showed "a consistent lack of investment and support for our nuclear forces over far too many years has left us with too little margin to cope with mounting stresses," he said.

The inquiries urged an end to excessive bureaucracy and "a culture of micromanagement" marked by petty inspections, officials said.

Hagel unveiled an "action plan" that calls for making the nuclear force a higher priority, reorganizing the command, reassuring troops of the importance of the mission and boosting funding and personnel.

The moves came after a series of embarrassing revelations about the state of the nuclear force and land-based missiles in particular, with dozens of airmen caught cheating on a proficiency test for overseeing intercontinental ballistic missiles.

A number of senior nuclear commanders also were disciplined for personal misconduct, with the general in charge of the ICBM force sacked after he went on a drunken bender during a trip to Russia.

- Only one wrench -

Hagel said troops who work with nuclear weapons are worried they have no career prospects in a military that often seems indifferent to their mission.

"The root cause has been a lack of sustained focus, attention and resources resulting in a pervasive sense that a career in the nuclear enterprise offers too few opportunities for growth and advancement," he said.

To boost morale, the US Air Force is giving a raise to ICBM crews and issuing a new medal to recognize excellence in "nuclear deterrence operations," officials said.

Reflecting the troubled state of the force, the reviews pointed to a wrench needed to install a nuclear warhead on the tip of a Minuteman missile. The wrench was in a toolkit shared by all three ICBM bases in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. And when one crew needed the wrench, it was shipped from another base by Federal Express.

The crews were "creative" in solving the problem, "but that's not the way to do it," said Hagel, adding each base now had their own sets of tools.

The Pentagon planned to ask for a ten percent annual increase in funding for the nuclear force over the next five years, which would come to about $1.5 billion a year, Hagel said.

"We will need to make billions of dollars of additional investments in the nuclear enterprise over the next five years," he said.

Most of the recent scandals have been centered on the land-based missiles maintained by Air Force crews, though the Navy also had a cheating scandal among sailors who work on submarines armed with nuclear missiles.

Hagel has granted permission to the Navy to hire more civilians to help maintain its nuclear-armed submarines and the Air Force planned to add about 1,100 troops and civilians to its nuclear command to fill manpower gaps, the Pentagon said.

- 'Taking it for granted' -

Concerns about slipping standards in the nuclear force since the end of the Cold War are not new, and Hagel's predecessor, Robert Gates, ordered a review in 2008 that came to similar conclusions.

Asked why the problems had been allowed to fester, Hagel said the Pentagon had been focused on "two large ground wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan and the country had become complacent about the role of the destructive weapons.

"I think there's been, nationally, a sense of just taking it for granted. So what? There's not going to be a nuclear exchange," he said. "We just have kind of taken our eye off the ball here."

Hagel was due to travel Friday to Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, where airmen oversee intercontinental nuclear missiles and bomber aircraft.

Arms control advocates argue morale problems are inevitable because the crews sense their mission has become obsolete with the collapse of the Soviet Union and that it is time to scale back the costly arsenal.

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