Why the US Had Only 1 Wrench for 3 Nuclear Bases

PHOTO: The Defense Department uses a heat shield counter-bore tool to install nuclear warheads. PlayAir Force Global Strike Command
WATCH Mismanagement in Nuclear Defenses

Call it the Pentagon’s wrench problem.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Friday that he is making changes to the Air Force and Navy’s nuclear forces after two reviews found systemic problems and mismanagement.

A prime example of the problems Hagel cited Friday was a toolkit that included a wrench needed to install a nuclear warhead atop an ICBM. Only one of the toolkits remained available, so the three bases that maintain the fleet of 450 Minuteman ICBM’s would share the toolkit. How? Hagel said they would use Fed Ex to ship it to the base that needed it at the time.

“They were creative and innovative, and they made it work,” said Hagel. “But that's not the way to do it. We now have a wrench for each location. We're going to have two wrenches for each location, soon.”

The wrench in question is officially known as a Heat Shield Counter-bore Tool and was originally used for the now-defunct Peacekeeper missile. But it was needed again when the Minuteman III’s weapon system was upgraded, but it has seldom been used. The toolkit has been used less than five times since 2008.

Hagel said the episode is “reflective and indicative of a system that's been allowed to kind of slowly back downhill. ... We have seen ... as a result of the intense reviews, internal and external, these kinds of things which you just mentioned about the wrench.”

Other problems, Hagel said, included a culture of micro-management and over-inspection, as well as manning, infrastructure and skill deficiencies. In addition, he said, there appeared to be inadequate communication, follow-up and accountability on the part of senior leaders in the nuclear force.

The micro-management and over-inspection may have partly resulted from efforts to prevent a recurrence of the mishandling of nuclear gear in 2007 and 2008 that led to the firing of the Air Force’s senior leadership.

Hagel has ordered that the command of the Air Force’s nuclear fleet be upgraded to a four-star command and he is looking to boost spending for the nuclear force by 10 percent over the next five years to address short-term needs.

“I will hold our leaders accountable up and down the chain of command to ensure that words are matched with actions,” particularly in the Air Force, said Hagel. “We must change the cultural perception of a nuclear enterprise, which has particularly suffered in the Air Force. We must restore the prestige that attracted the brightest minds of the Cold War era so our most talented young men and women see the nuclear pathway as promising in value.”

The defense secretary acknowledged that much of the focus over the last decade has been on the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the nuclear enterprise mission has been taken for granted.

“I think this nuclear enterprise has kind of been allowed to back downhill a little bit," he said. "It's not paying attention where we should have, in some areas.”

Hagel warned that “if we don't fix this, eventually it will get to a point where there will be some questions about our security."

But he offered some good news too: “There's nothing here that we can't fix. The good news is that none of this has endangered America, Americans, or put our security at risk. That's all good news.”