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Minot Air Force Base troubles highlighted in nuclear weapons review

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. John Bonebreak, left, with the 91st Security Forces Group, signals to direct other troops during an exercise at the Minot Air Force Base missile field complex near Minot, N.D., in 2013. The base was cited in a new Pentagon report for its crumbling infrastructure, extreme isolation and bad weather. (Photo by Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp/ U.S. Air National Guard)

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel traveled Friday to Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota after announcing that the Pentagon will address a series of problems it found in a review of nuclear weapons programs this year. It’s no accident: the base is cited at length in the review for its crumbling infrastructure and the effect on troops of its bad weather and extreme isolation. Officials warned that if “the current trend of complacency” in managing the facility continues, it could lead to failure with major consequences.

The base is less than 50 miles from the Canadian border in oil-rich central North Dakota, and is the only military installation in America that includes both nuclear missile silos and bomber planes that drop nuclear bombs. But many of the troops stationed at it leave as soon as they can in the face of limited resources, the review’s report said.

“This unique and challenging set of circumstances should call for special attention and additional support at Minot AFB,” according to the report, which includes an entire section devoted to concerns about the base. “Instead, there are important instances where the opposite has occurred.”

Retired Air Force Gen. Larry D. Welch, who led the review with retired Navy Adm. John Harvey, told reporters Friday that at the height of the Cold War, service members at Minot prided themselves on having the toughest mission in the Air Force. As the emphasis in Washington shifted to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that sense of importance gradually disappeared.

“So then when you look at Minot today, you find some of the oldest maintenance facilities in the Air Force,” said Welch, who served as the service’s top officer from 1986 to 1990. “You find an extreme reluctance to accept an assignment to Minot.”

The weather has always been brutal, with sub-zero temperatures and heavy snow common in the winter. But troops on base face other issues, too. On-base day care hours do not accommodate a 12-hour shift, although that is standard for troops working maintenance jobs, the report said. The base commissary store’s hours also have been reduced; it is closed on Monday and frequently short on perishable food items on the weekend.

“Further issues include reduced manning at the base medical clinic while the load on the off-base facilities has increased,” the report said. “The wait at the clinic pharmacy is often an hour or more.”

Nuclear launch officers and enlisted security forces all are required to drive to missile silos that are spread across hundreds of miles of terrain. They’ve raised concerns in the past about whether they had appropriate vehicles to do so in bad weather — something the service will address now, with the purchase of 26 four-wheel drive vehicles.

Air Force officials said a number of other upgrades will occur at Minot as the service works to make service in the nuclear force more appealing. That includes redirecting about $10 million to buy maintenance parts and equipment and adding $1 million to improve quality of life programs on base and missile launch facilities. The service has funded 48 separate projects at Minot to renovate buildings, improve storm drainage, add airfield lighting and refurbish missile alert facilities.

Current Air Force personnel policy also has played a role in the problems at Minot, the report said. A “base of preference’ program allows troops at Minot to be transferred out three years into a four-year enlistment, creating a brain drain.

“Given the lengthy nuclear training and qualification process, an Airman in critical specialties, such as missile maintenance, is likely to have just reached an effective level of proficiency at the three-year point,” the report said.

In October, Air Force officials added incentive pay of up to $300 per month to encourage service members to stay in the nuclear force. Global Strike Command, which oversees Air Force nuclear weapons, also has added 303 new positions on the base, part of a broader effort that calls for 1,00 new civilian and military jobs. Of the new jobs at Minot, 234 will be in the 91st Missile Wing, which oversees nuclear missiles.