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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel set out Wednesday on a two-day trip to visit several nuclear facilities and the airmen who operate them.
Hagel went to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico on Wednesday to visit a nuclear weapons vault at Sandia National Laboratories and meet with commanders of the 898th Munitions Squadron, which operates an underground depot-level weapons maintenance and storage facility. The squadron devolops the policies and practices for handling nuclear weapons worldwide.
On Thursday, Hagel will visit F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, home to about 150 Minutemen III intercontinental ballistic missiles. He will tour a missile launch site and hold a town hall-style meeting with personnel.
Hagel also will stop in San Antonio to visit wounded warriors at Brooke Army Medical Center and tour a burn center.
The trip comes at a time of mounting criticism of the Air Force’s management of nuclear weapons and concern about morale in some units.
In October, the Air Force fired Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, commander of 20th Air Force, which is responsible for all 450 of the Air Force’s Minuteman III missiles. Air Force officials said Carey drank too much and behaved inappropriately during a recent trip to Russia.
Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, told reporters in November that the service must “add more vigor” to its screening of candidates for senior nuclear commands.
In August, one of the Air Force’s three ICBM groups, the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, failed a safety and security inspection.
Earlier this year, the Associated Press revealed that four ICBM launch officers were disciplined this year for napping while the blast door to their underground command post was left open, posing risks that an intruder could tamper with equipment or compromise secret launch codes.
Some officials in Washington are talking about reducing the size of the launch-ready ICBM force. A defense bill that became law in July authorizes the Defense Department to study the potential closure of some missile silos and reduce the ICBM force below 450 in accordance with a new treaty with Russia. Some lawmakers oppose those closures.