Do the Military’s Nuclear Operators Need More Incentives?

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a recent visit to the Pentagon's nuclear facilities

DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a recent visit to the Pentagon's nuclear facilities

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wants to reform the troubled nuclear enterprise. Could more incentives and recognition help turn things around? By Stephanie Gaskell

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel summoned top leaders at the Pentagon on Wednesday to talk about ways to get a handle on the growing spate of scandals within the military’s nuclear enterprise. One possible solution? To give out more incentives and accolades to nuclear force workers who many say feel bored and underappreciated.

Hagel has given Air Force and the Navy leaders 60 days to come up with a plan to recommend changes and improvements to the nuclear enterprise after an investigation into alleged drug use uncovered a widespread cheating scandal by nuclear launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters at a press briefing Wednesday that military leaders are considering ways to better motivate missile launch workers. 

“That came up as well this morning, this idea of incentives and accolades and what manifestations are there that show the people that work in this force that they’re — that they’re valued,” he said. “This would be something that the Air Force would have to speak to, should that decision be made. But it was an issue of discussion, this idea of how do you reward the people that do this incredibly difficult work and make sure that they know that they’re valued and that we’re proud of them?”

(Related: Hagel Orders a Review of the Nuclear Force)

A recent RAND study found that many of the workers say they’re bored and underappreciated in the post-Cold War era. “As the role of the nuclear mission is perceived to be less important to the country, it may be more difficult to attract and retain the high-quality workforce needed,” the report said.

The Malmstrom case is one in a string of cases to rock the nuclear enterprise. Last year, another unit at Malmstrom, which operates a third of the 450 Minuteman III nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles in the military, failed a safety inspection and 17 personnel from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota were suspended after a failed inspection.

Kirby said Hagel is committed to fixing the problem. “I think the general consensus in the room was that we all need to accept the reality that there probably are systemic issues in the personnel growth and development inside the nuclear mission,” he said. “Now, exactly what they are and how to address them, well, that’s what they spent the bulk of the two hours talking about. But I think there was a general recognition that yes, there are systemic issues, and yes, we need to start trying to solve them.”

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