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Hagel: Air Force Nuclear-Missile Officers 'Feel Unappreciated'

A since-retired MX or "Peacekeeper" missile sits at the entrance of F.E. Warren Air Force base in Wyoming, circa July 2001. In remarks prior to his anticipated Thursday visit to the facility, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged that poor morale is an issue among crews commanding the country's land-based ballistic missiles. A since-retired MX or "Peacekeeper" missile sits at the entrance of F.E. Warren Air Force base in Wyoming, circa July 2001. In remarks prior to his anticipated Thursday visit to the facility, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged that poor morale is an issue among crews commanding the country's land-based ballistic missiles. (Michael Smith/Getty Images)

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday said Air Force officers who staff the nation's ballistic-missile command centers often have low morale.

"It is lonely work," the secretary was quoted by the Associated Press as saying in a visit to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. "They do feel unappreciated many times."

Hagel was slated to be in Wyoming on Thursday to visit F.E. Warren Air Force Base. The installation has a 150-missile complement of Minuteman 3 ICBMs and is home to 20th Air Force, which commands all of the services's 450 ground-based ballistic missiles.

He was also scheduled to go by helicopter to an ICBM launch-control center nearby in Nebraska. The last time a U.S. defense secretary traveled to an ICBM base was in late 2008, when Robert Gates visited Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.

The attention from Hagel follows a number of incidents in 2013 that revealed a pattern of performance and morale problems among ICBM officers and poor leadership by some commanders.

The secretary said he learned during a discussion with a group of ICBM officers in November that many were concerned about their careers.

"I asked about their futures and they were very honest, and most of them said they were unsure," Hagel said. "Well, morale is a huge part of that."

Not many military officers request to be assigned to ICBM launch-control centers, which require long, two-person shifts in underground posts. The Air Force has weighed -- but never moved forward with -- offering incentive pay to ICBM personnel.

Hans Kristensen, who directs the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said the recent public attention to problems in the ICBM force has made the issue a "hot potato," leading Defense Department officials to "scratch their heads about how to manage this program."

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