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Hagel Announces Billions In Upgrades To Nuclear Program

A Minuteman III missile engine is loaded into a truck for transport to another building for X-raying before being torn down and rebuilt. The Air Force's missile command-and-control structure has been the subject of several recent scandals.
Douglas C. Pizac

Updated at 10:25 a.m. ET

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today that the Pentagon is aiming to invest about 10 percent more over the next five years to upgrade the nation's nuclear deterrent, following reviews that uncovered "systemic problems" in the system.

Hagel said the U.S. was "probably looking at a 10 percent increase" in spending, according to Reuters, which said internal and external reviews have made some 100 recommendations on improving the nuclear forces.

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

The Pentagon reports "are a searing indictment of how the Air Force's and Navy's aging nuclear weapons facilities, silos and submarine fleet have been allowed to decay since the end of the Cold War," The New York Times writes.

According to the newspaper, inspectors over the years "ignored huge problems, including aging blast doors over 60-year-old silos that would not seal shut and, in one case, the discovery that the crews that maintain the nation's 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles had only a single wrench that could attach the nuclear warheads."

The Associated Press says:

"Hagel's reviews concluded that the structure of U.S. nuclear forces is so incoherent that it cannot be properly managed in its current form, and that this problem explains why top-level officials often are unaware of trouble below them. The senior defense officials said the reviews found a 'disconnect' between what nuclear force leaders say and what they deliver to lower-level troops who execute the missions in the field."

As the Two-Way has reported, it's been a particularly difficult year and a half for the wing of the U.S. Air Force that maintains and controls the aging Minuteman III missiles that are supposed to be ready for launch in underground silos.

In May 2013, the Air Force stripped 17 officers of their nuclear missile launch authority after they received poor reviews on their mastery of launch operations. Five months later, the top U.S. missile commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, was dismissed "due to a loss of trust and confidence in his leadership and judgment."

In January, the AP said two Air Force officers with nuclear launch authority had been implicated in a drug probe. As The Two-Way's Mark Memmott reported that same month, dozens of Air Force nuclear officers were linked to a cheating scandal. And, in March, nine missile commanders were fired, while others were disciplined over the cheating scandal.

According to the Times:

"Senior officials said they were trying to determine how much the emergency repairs would cost. 'It will be billions' over the next five years, one official said, 'but not $20 or $30 billion.'

"That is in addition to tens of billions of dollars that the Obama administration has already designated to upgrade nuclear laboratories and extend the lives of aging warheads. The huge investment has been hard to explain for an administration that came to office talking about a path to eliminating nuclear weapons around the globe, though President Obama has also pledged to make the country's nuclear arsenal as safe and reliable as possible."

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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