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Pentagon point man for fixing nuclear missile troubles fact-checks Washington talk of progress

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MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, North Dakota — The Pentagon's point man for fixing what ails the nation's nuclear forces came to this remote air base to get a feel for nuclear missile duty in an inhospitable climate.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work got the feel the moment he arrived Tuesday: a slap-in-the-face kind of cold, energized by an icy wind. He joked before arriving that veterans told him February was the perfect time for his first visit because, "If you don't go to Minot in the winter, you're a wimp."

By the time he ventured out to the missile fields Wednesday the temperature had dropped to 2 degrees Farenheit.

What concerns Work more than the harsh weather, however, is Minot's worrisome history of missteps with the nuclear missiles it houses and whether the fixes he's overseeing will be as durable as Minot's reputation for hard winters.

Work, a retired Marine colonel, was assigned that oversight duty by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who ordered a top-to-bottom overhaul of the nuclear force last November just days before he announced his resignation. Ashton Carter, who happens to be a nuclear weapons expert, is expected to become Work's new boss next week.

Minot Air Force Base has the distinction of being the only U.S. base to host both B-52 nuclear bombers and nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. Minot's 91st Missile Wing operates 150 of the nation's 450 Minuteman 3 missiles; they have been "on alert," ready for unleashing nuclear hell, for nearly half a century.

Nearly two years ago, The Associated Press disclosed an internal email from the 91st Missile Wing's deputy operations group commander that decried "rot" in the ranks, including a disregard by some for safety and security rules and what he considered a lack of professional pride. The AP subsequently reported on other issues within the nuclear corps and leadership lapses, prompting Hagel in January 2014 to order in-depth reviews aimed at restoring public trust in the nuclear force.

Work said he came to Minot to see whether the upbeat assessments of progress he is hearing in Washington are in line with what members of the ICBM force are seeing in their day-to-day duties, tending to missiles tucked among farm fields over 8,300 square miles.

Work says he needs some convincing, as do the men and women who operate, maintain and secure the ICBMs.

PHOTO: Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work prepares to visit a nuclear ICBM launch control center in Minot, N.D., Wednesday Feb. 11, 2015, to check on progress in fixing the problems plaguing the force. Work is touring a nuclear missile base in one of his first steps toward fixing the problems The Associated Press revealed in the last 18 months. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)
Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work prepares to visit a nuclear ICBM launch control center in Minot, N.D., Wednesday Feb. 11, 2015, to check on progress in fixing the problems plaguing the force. Work is touring a nuclear missile base in one of his first steps toward fixing the problems The Associated Press revealed in the last 18 months. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)

"They're very skeptical," Work said before arriving at Minot. "They've seen this movie before" — a flurry of talk about positive change and better management, followed by a return to business as usual.

After a day spent talking to a mix of enlisted airmen and officers, Work told reporters they were pleased to see the Air Force starting to fill long-vacant jobs, even as the missile force continues to suffer from slow delivery of spare parts and a lack of experience among the mid-ranking personnel who perform maintenance.

"Otherwise, I thought morale was pretty high," he said, later noting he preferred to call morale "strong."

The Air Force already has lined up, and in some cases begun to implement, changes that could improve conditions in the ICBM force and may boost morale and lessen the number of mistakes. It is giving launch officers more authority, for example, and investing in refurbishments and replacements of key elements of the structure that supports the nuclear missiles.

Hagel said last November that the Pentagon would add 10 percent a year to nuclear spending in order to correct the problems. That's at least an extra $1.5 billion a year, but the Obama administration's proposed 2016 defense budget falls about $400 million short of that, according to Pentagon figures.

Work, however, says the administration is still committed to spending an extra $8 billion over five years to fix these problems, even if the sum for 2016 is short of the initial forecast. He said one study performed at Hagel's request last year suggested an even more dramatic series of increases — $3 billion to $5 billion a year — but that idea was rejected. That study is classified secret.

Minot's troubles are not necessarily worse than at the two other ICBM bases, in Wyoming and Montana. But amid a wave of optimism flowing from Washington and embraced by commanders here, signs of trouble keep emerging. Two weeks ago the Air Force confirmed that a Minot missile launch officer who was sentenced in December to 25 years in prison and thrown out of the service had been the leader of a violent street gang.

A military judge at Minot convicted Capt. Leon Brown IV of two counts of sexual assault of a child younger than 16 and other crimes including distribution of marijuana and psilocybin and use of psilocybin, which is a hallucinogen chemically related to LSD.

To some, the Brown case raises questions about the reliability of safeguards against certifying unfit Air Force members for ICBM launch control duties.

Work sees it differently. With his blessing, the Air Force also is changing — some would say easing — the rules that govern its "personnel reliability program," which is designed to ensure that the men and women entrusted with the world's deadliest weapons are mentally and physically suited for the duty. A 2014 review of the reliability rules concluded they make airmen feel they are not trusted, contribute to morale problems and put an undue burden on nuclear managers.

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