Washington: Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel is making a rare visit to an Air Force nuclear missile base, hoping to boost morale among the Air Force men and women who operate, maintain and safeguard the nation`s Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles, and who officials have said are increasingly tired of working in what can seem like oblivion.
They win no battles, earn no combat pay and only rarely are given public credit of any kind.
Today that changes, if only for a day and only for a small number of them.
Hagel was to fly by helicopter to a Minuteman 3 missile launch control centre in Nebraska from F.E Warren Air Force Base, Wyoning, which is headquarters for the organisation in charge of all 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Besides Nebraska, the missiles are in underground silos in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and North Dakota.
Each launch centre, buried 18 metres or deeper, controls 10 Minuteman 3 missiles, each in its own silo.
Yesterday, Hagel said he realised the ICBM workforce has morale issues, and his visit today was intended to show them their efforts were appreciated.
"It is lonely work," he said. "They do feel unappreciated many times."
He said he spoke to a small group of nuclear weapons officers in November.
"I asked about their futures and they were very honest, and most of them said they were unsure," he said. "Well, morale is a huge part of that."
The last Pentagon chief to visit an ICBM base was Robert Gates, who in December 2008 spent a day at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., home of the 91st Missile Wing responsible for 150 Minuteman 3 missiles, but he did not go down onto a missile launch control centre like Hagel planned to do.
Gates earlier that year fired the Air Force`s top uniform and civilian officials for what he considered to be weak responses to serious lapses, including an unauthorised transfer of six nuclear weapons from Minot in August 2007.
Noting that he was the first secretary of defence ever to visit Minot, Gates said, "We owe you the attention" and the resources needed to properly perform the nuclear mission, "the most sensitive mission in the entire US military."