F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. -- Moments before he launched a carefully planned pep talk to members of the Air Force's nuclear missile force, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was undercut by yet another sign of trouble in their ranks: a drug probe of two missile officers.
Hagel flew here Thursday to deliver a message he felt needed to be heard by men and women who sometimes tire of toiling in a job that can seem like military oblivion. He wanted to buck them up, while also insisting they live up to their own standards, which he said should never be compromised in a business as potentially dangerous as the launching of the world's deadliest weapons.
"We depend on your professionalism," he declared to an assembly of members of the 90th Missile Wing, which operates 150 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles, one third of the entire ICBM force.
What Hagel did not count on was the news -- disclosed just as he was preparing to deliver his words of praise and encouragement -- that two Minuteman 3 launch control officers at an ICBM base in Montana had been removed from duty because they were under investigation for illegal narcotics.
Details of the illegal narcotics case were not released, but the two officers were members of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations was handling the probe.
Hagel did not mention the news, which he was told about by aides while he was visiting a missile launch control center in "Flight Echo" of the 319th Missile Squadron at a remote site just across the state line in his home state of Nebraska. The Pentagon's press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Hagel was the first defense secretary to visit an ICBM launch control center since Caspar Weinberger in 1982. Since then, defense secretaries have visited ICBM bases but none has ventured to a launch center, a pill-shaped capsule buried at least 60 feet below ground.
In his speech later back at F.E. Warren, Hagel stepped lightly on the sensitive issues of misbehavior and occasional performance, training and leadership lapses in the ICBM force.
"You are doing something of great importance to the world," Hagel told the group. Lest they sometimes doubt that importance, he said, "You have chosen a profession where there is no room for error -- none."
Hagel made no direct reference to problems revealed in the past year by The Associated Press, including an unprecedented sidelining last spring of 17 launch control officers at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., after commanders deemed them unfit to fulfill their duties, which include the potential launching of nuclear war, and none in his audience asked his views on the state of their profession.
One asked Hagel what the future holds for ICBMs, and the Pentagon chief said the Obama administration was committed to preserving all three legs of the strategic nuclear triad: ballistic missile submarines, heavy bombers and ICBMs. He said the Pentagon was making progress on a study it began last year to determine what kind of missile should replace the Minuteman 3, which was first deployed in 1970 and is approaching obsolescence.
Some have questioned whether the U.S. can afford to further modernize its ICBM force at a time of shrinking defense budgets.
"You are doing something of great importance for the world," Hagel said. At the same time, he said he realizes that their jobs must be carried out in isolation, with little public recognition or acclaim.
"No fanfare, no TV cameras," Hagel said.
The unsung nature of their work, coupled with increasing talk about ICBMs being an expendable element of the U.S. nuclear force, has weighed on the morale of many in the missile force. The AP disclosed in November that a RAND Corp. study of the ICBM force had detected signs of "burnout" among a sample of missile launch officers and some missile security forces.
In an apparent allusion to breakdowns in discipline, Hagel said, "How you do the job really is as important as the job itself."
F.E. Warren Air Force Base, which is headquarters for the organization in charge of all 450 U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles, has more than 3,000 enlisted airmen and officers and saw 12 courts-martial in 2013, compared with nine the year before, 12 in 2011 and eight in 2010, according to Air Force statistics provided to the AP last week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
In each of the past four years, the courts-martial rate at F.E. Warren was higher than in the Air Force as a whole, the statistics show.
Drug offenses have been at or near the top of the list at F.E. Warren. Of the seven top offenses that led to courts-martial there last year, for example, the most common was "use of controlled substances," and also on the list was the distribution of controlled substances, according to statistics provided by the Air Force Legal Operations Agency. In 2012 the top offense in courts-martial was "wrongful use of marijuana."