Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel on Friday acknowledged “troubling lapses” among troops managing the country’s nuclear arsenal and warned their job allowed “no room for error.”
In a speech marking a change of leadership at the US military’s Strategic Command that oversees nuclear forces, Hagel noted recent failings in upholding “professionalism,” an apparent reference to alleged misconduct by senior officers and problems reported at missile units.
Scrutiny of Strategic Command (STRATCOM) and “the most rigorous evaluations that we have within the Department of Defense have recently exposed some troubling lapses in maintaining this professionalism,” Hagel said.
“To our STRATCOM professionals, I would say, you have chosen a profession where there is no room for error,” Hagel told service members at Offut Air Base in Omaha, Nebraska.
“That’s what the American people expect from you, from all of us, and you must deliver. We must all deliver.”
He added that “Americans trust you with their security, and their families and their future. They count on you.”
Hagel said “perfection must be the standard for our nuclear forces” and praised the outgoing head of Strategic Command, General Robert Kehler, who he said “has vigorously enforced that standard throughout his tenure.”
Kehler officially stepped down as head of Strategic Command in the televised ceremony, handing over responsibility to Admiral Cecil Haney.
Hagel’s remarks came after two senior officers commanding nuclear weapons were sacked last month in the space of a few days.
The deputy chief of Strategic Command, Navy Vice Admiral Tim Giardina, was fired after he came under investigation for allegedly using counterfeit chips at a casino in Iowa.
And Air Force Major General Michael Carey was relieved last month of command of the 20th Air Force, which maintains “on-alert” intercontinental ballistic missiles, due to “personal misbehavior” involving alcohol, according officials.
The military’s nuclear command has come under criticism in recent years after a number of critical inspections and blunders.
An inspection of the nuclear missile unit at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota uncovered shortcomings that prompted the military to discipline 17 launch control officers and eventually relieve an officer in charge of training.
In August, a missile unit in Montana failed a nuclear safety inspection, while Air Force crews in charge of launching missiles have been punished twice this year for leaving open a blast door at their command posts.
Former defense secretary Robert Gates sacked the Air Force secretary and chief of staff for what he called an erosion of standards that led to two mistakes involving atomic weapons.