WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Air Force members Friday there is "no room for error" within America's nuclear forces, commenting publicly for the first time on what he called "troubling lapses" in professionalism within the ranks.
Speaking at the headquarters of the military's nuclear war-fighting command in Omaha, Neb., Hagel alluded to a series of missteps revealed by The Associated Press, including lapses among those who operate and support the Air Force's nuclear missile force. Last month, two senior nuclear commanders were fired amid misconduct investigations, and in August, service members working at a nuclear-missile base in Montana failed a safety and security inspection.
"You have chosen a profession where there is no room for error," Hagel said, directing his remarks to the hundreds gathered at U.S. Strategic Command for a change-of-command ceremony. "That's what the American people expect from you, from all of us. And you must deliver."
Hagel said the failures had been exposed by what he called "close scrutiny" and the Pentagon's most rigorous evaluations. But while he credited the retiring head of the command, Gen. Robert Kehler, for enforcing tough standards, he also insisted that "perfection must be the standard of our nuclear forces."
Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were at Offutt Air Force Base for the ceremony, as Kehler steps down and Navy Adm. Cecil D. Haney takes the helm.
Last month, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey was fired as commander of 20th Air Force, which is responsible for all 450 of the Air Force's Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles. Carey was fired for behavior that officials have said is linked to alcohol abuse.
His firing and the removal of a Navy admiral for alleged misconduct related to gambling came amid a series of disclosures by the AP about serious security and leadership lapses, morale problems, training flaws, and an assertion by one midlevel nuclear officer that he had found "rot" inside his nuclear missile unit at Minot Air Force Base, N.D.
Air Force and Pentagon officials insist that despite these issues, the nation's nuclear arsenal is being operated and maintained safely.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.