US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has ordered an independent, full-scale review of the American nuclear force and assembled top military brass to discuss potential consequences. The move is in response to multiple scandals involving nuclear officials.
The Air Force recently announced that it had suspended the security clearances of 34 nuclear missile launch officials due to allegations that they cheated on the proficiency exam that an officer must pass before they are given such an important responsibility. Investigators came across that information while searching for evidence that the officials were involved in a drug ring.
In a Thursday memo, Hagel ordered top Pentagon officials to prepare for an independent review that will seek to determine if the cheating scandal is a symptom of a wider, more serious issue among nuclear officers.
“Personnel failures within this force threaten to jeopardize the trust American people have placed in us to keep our nuclear weapons safe and secure,” he wrote, as quoted by the Associated Press.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, Hagel’s spokesman, told reporters Thursday that the defense secretary is confident that the nuclear arsenal has not been put at risk. However, Kirby said that 499 airmen have retaken their proficiency exams and 22 have failed, while another 18 have yet to be evaluated.
“We’re confident in the security of the nuclear arsenal of this country,” Kirby stated. “That said, we’ve clearly got some issues here.”
The new concerns come one month after the Air Force announced that a two-star general had been relieved of his duties after an official trip to Moscow last summer turned into a days-long drinking binge.
Prior to that, in October, a vice admiral in charge of nuclear forces as the deputy chief of the US Strategic Command resigned after a casino caught him using counterfeit gambling chips.
“Combined with other recent lapses by those responsible for overseeing our strategic deterrence enterprise, the allegations that have been raised recently also raise legitimate concerns about the department’s stewardship of one of our most sensitive and important missions,” Kirby said.
The Air Force is responsible for 450 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles, along with a fleet of nuclear-capable bombers.
Hagel said that he would bring together top military officials to analyze “the health of the culture” and to formulate “an action plan.”
The secretary has made multiple trips to Air Force bases around the country in an attempt to lift morale as news of the scandals reverberates. His announcement Thursday, however, has been portrayed as a signal that such embarrassments will no longer be tolerated.
“To the degree there are systemic problems in the training and professional standards of the nuclear career field, the secretary wants them solved,” Kirby said. “And to the degree leaders have failed in their duties, he wants them held to account.”