Degrading infrastructure at U.S. nuclear missile bases is thought to have negatively impacted the morale of airmen, the Associated Press reports.
While the nation's arsenal of decades-old Minuteman 3 ballistic missiles is carefully maintained to ensure the weapons will fire properly when desired, much less attention and care has gone into keeping up the infrastructure that young Air Force personnel rely on to carry out their nuclear mission, the news agency reported in a Tuesday article.
The Air Force has acknowledged that much of its strategic missile infrastructure, such as underground launch-control centers and living quarters, is badly in need of a facelift or, in the case of a fleet of emergency helicopters, an all-out replacement.
At the same time, the Air Force says its operational responsibility for U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles is one of its most important missions. The airmen assigned to the care of nuclear missiles, though, have observed for years an apparent disconnect between what the service says about the mission and the resources it throws its way, according to AP.
Ex-Congressional Research Service defense specialist Robert Goldich said the Air Force's nuclear mission has been at "the short end of the stick" in terms of assigned staff and budget.
"I honestly don't think it's much more complicated than that," Goldich told AP. "When that happened, people lost sight of how incredibly rigorous you've got to be to ensure quality control when nuclear weapons are involved."
Low morale has been blamed by Air Force brass on a number of recent scandals in the nuclear missileer corps. Recent incidents that have embarrassed the service include the discovery of a test-cheating ring at a base in Montana, allegations of drug possession by some missile-launch officers, and occasional failures by missileers to follow all security rules.
"One of the reasons for the low morale is that the nuclear forces feel unimportant, and they are often treated as such, very openly," said Michelle Spencer, who previously worked as a nuclear weapons consultant for the Air Force.
An independent advisory panel in a 2013 study submitted to the Defense Department said the service needed to demonstrate a "believable commitment" to updating its nuclear missile force.
"If the practice continues to be to demand that the troops compensate for manpower and skill shortfalls, operate in inferior facilities and perform with failing support equipment, there is a high risk of failure," the report stated.
The Air Force has responded to the recent scandals by announcing it will protect thousands of jobs in its nuclear mission from job cuts that are impacting other parts of the military, create a new mid-level manager position to better translate command orders to nuclear personnel, seek an elevation in rank for the head of its Global Strike Command, and authorize bonus pay for some missile specialists.