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Hagel 'deeply concerned' about health of U.S. nuclear forces

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) and French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian conduct a joint news conference after their meet
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) and French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian conduct a joint news conference after their meet

By David Alexander and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Friday he was "deeply concerned," over the health of U.S. nuclear forces after the drug and cheating scandals this month, and that some nuclear officers felt their mission was taken for granted during 13 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Hagel, who ordered a high-level review of nuclear forces on Thursday, told a news conference that the problems affecting missile launch officers were caused by a range of factors.

"There's no one issue here ... this is cultural," Hagel told reporters, pointing to the physical isolation of the force, the pressure to meet exacting standards through regular testing and an incentive structure that may need improvement.

Over the past three weeks, an investigation has uncovered illegal drug possession among some missile launch officers as well as cheating on a proficiency exam that resulted in the suspension of 34 people and the retesting of the entire force.

The investigation came just months after the head of the intercontinental ballistic missile force was fired for drunkenness and other inappropriate behavior during an official nuclear security visit to Moscow.

Hagel, in a swearing-in ceremony for Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, insisted that U.S. nuclear arms are safe. But he added, "I am deeply concerned ... about the overall health, professionalism and discipline of our strategic forces."

"Recent allegations regarding our ICBM force raise legitimate questions about this department's stewardship of one of our most sensitive and important missions," he added.

Missile launch officers work out of remote bases, are tested frequently and expected to meet extremely high standards of performance while being offered few of the benefits received by troops who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"This country over the last 13 years has been committed to two long, large land wars," Hagel said. "And I think that there has been a sense ... we just take for granted that nuclear component of our national strategic baseline."

Hagel said the high-level reviews he ordered on Thursday would look at the overall culture of the U.S. nuclear forces and the problems that have surfaced in recent months and devise a way forward.

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Leslie Adler)

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