Stung by a series of scandals in the nation's nuclear force, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced plans Friday to overhaul its management, calling for billions of dollars to upgrade equipment, improve training, increase oversight and address security lapses and poor morale.
Speaking at the Pentagon and later in this snow-dusted base that is home to a fleet of B-52 bombers and missiles with nuclear warheads, Hagel said that sweeping changes were needed to address problems that could undermine the safety, security and effectiveness of the nation's nuclear arsenal.
Disclosures of cheating on tests, drug use, violations of security rules and lax supervision have rocked the Pentagon's nuclear force over the last two years. The Air Force has fired at least two nuclear commanders and disciplined others.
Hagel appeared to blame inattention by top Pentagon brass, saying the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan caused the military to take "our eye off the ball" when it came to nuclear weapons.
"We were not paying the attention we should have," he said.
Hagel said one of the reviews he ordered this year found that maintenance crews at Minot and two other bases that house Minuteman III missiles only had one wrench capable of tightening the bolts that affix thermonuclear warheads to the missiles.
The crews had to FedEx the wrench as needed among the three bases, Hagel said.
"We now have a wrench at each location," he added. "We're going to have two wrenches soon."
The two reviews offered more than 100 recommendations, and Hagel said he would order leadership changes, improve training and inspections, and seek more money in response.
Hagel said it would cost "several billion dollars" over the next five years to address the shortfalls identified. He did not give an exact figure.
"No other capability we have is more important," he said. "As long as we have nuclear weapons, we have … to ensure that they are safe, secure and effective."
The 150 intercontinental ballistic missiles here are hidden in deep silos across hundreds of acres of farmland. The other two bases, each with 150 more ICBMs, are in equally remote areas — at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.
On a gray day with temperatures hovering around zero, Hagel spent three hours touring Minot and speaking with commanders before he addressed a theater of more than 100 airmen.
"You are an indispensable asset in defending our country," he said. "We can't overlook that or take that for granted."
Hagel outlined several measures that he hoped would help improve morale for Air Force personnel forced to maintain and guard missiles that no one wants to use. He said he had ordered a deep cleaning of the launch control facilities, known as capsules, that are 60 feet underground.
Cleaning crews are now scrubbing the 15 capsules where missileers sit on 24-hour alerts, two at a time, commanding 10 nuclear-tipped missiles per capsule, officials said. The facilities are fed by recycled air and in some cases haven't been thoroughly cleaned since they were built in 1962.
Hagel also said that he would raise the rank of the head of the Air Force's nuclear force, known as Global Strike Command, to a four-star general from the current three-star rank, to provide the command with more authority.
"Missiles were thought to be old-legacy technology," said Capt. Joshua Grover, 27, a missileer who heard Hagel speak. "It seems that perception is starting to change with this renewed focus. Any investment on behalf of the government is good for us."
Some critics say scrub brushes and promotions aren't enough to turn around a force that's been in slow decay for decades.
Bruce Blair, a former ICBM missileer and founder of Global Zero, a group that seeks the elimination of nuclear weapons, said Hagel's plan didn't seem to address "the ICBM subculture of missileers who understand … that the Cold War ended decades ago and the missileers are stuck in a backwater career."
"They want out," he said, "either to the civilian world or to real-world operational jobs" in more modern fields such as space, computers and drones.
"It's unlikely that these problems can be solved by more money, more stars, more organizational changes, reducing burdens on airmen, or recommitting to the importance of nuclear deterrence without addressing the underlying problem" that nuclear weapons are not relevant to the security challenges in the post-Cold War era, said Kingston Reif, director of nuclear nonproliferation at the nonpartisan Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
America's nuclear strategy rests on a triad of delivery systems — bombers, submarines and land-based missiles — developed early in the Cold War to ensure that the U.S. retained a credible nuclear response in event of an attack.
The military scandals have focused chiefly on Air Force missile crews and command, and to a lesser extent, the Navy's nuclear-armed submarines.
The missile force is responsible for 450 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting any point on the globe in 30 minutes or less.
The cheating scandal emerged in January when the Air Force disclosed that 16 airmen had shared text messages containing answers to a monthly missile proficiency test on secret codes and safety measures.
By March, the cheating investigation had widened to more than 90 launch officers, who were suspended. It was a sign of deep cultural and command problems in the force.
"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," Hagel said at the Pentagon.
Some former launch officers say cheating on the tests has been common for decades. But they say pressure to achieve perfect scores has increased in recent years — ironically, as the importance of nuclear weapons to U.S. national security has declined with the end of the Cold War.
The Navy suspended 30 senior enlisted sailors in February after a sailor seeking to qualify as an instructor alerted his superiors that he had been offered answers to a written test on the reactors that power submarines and aircraft carriers.
The Obama administration is moving forward with a plan to modernize strategic weapons over the next decade, an effort the Congressional Budget Office estimates will cost $355 billion.
That comes as the Pentagon is under pressure to reduce its budget, and outside experts warn that the modernization could reach more than $1 trillion over the next 30 years.