- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Pentagon’s decision to look into what ails the Air Force group responsible for nuclear missiles was hardly a bolt from the blue.

It followed months of accumulating evidence of trouble in a segment of the military few Americans even think about. Why would they? The Cold War ended a generation ago, and with it, seemingly, the threat of nuclear war. For more than a decade the U.S. has been focused on wars of a very different kind in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some questions and answers about the nuke problem and how the Pentagon is going about fixing it.

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Q. What’s the basic issue here?

A. No one has defined it in full, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week summed it up as “personnel failures.”

He was alluding to a series of missteps by the nuclear Air Force over the past year - most recently allegations of drug use and cheating on written tests designed to ensure that nuclear missile officers know their job. Before that it was the commander of the missile force getting fired for misbehavior in Russia, including drunkenness, and before that it was missile officers getting pulled off duty for attitude problems. The Associated Press in November revealed serious security lapses and that a study commissioned by the Air Force found evidence of “burnout” among a sampling of missile launch control officers - the men and women with the keys in their hands.

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Q. Why is this happening now?

A. That is part of what Hagel wants to find out through a small group of outside experts that he is assembling. They are supposed to give him answers within 90 days. What’s already clear is this: The problems are not new. What’s new is the public’s awareness of them and top-level Pentagon officials acting on them.

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Q. What is this missile force?

A. It is a relatively small, unheralded segment of the Air Force whose job is to operate 450 nuclear-tipped missiles that stand in underground silos, hidden and ready on a moment’s notice to soar to a target almost anywhere on the globe. They are called Minuteman 3 missiles and they have been “on duty” since 1970.

Earlier generations of missiles performed the same function starting in 1959 as a key weapon in the Cold War with the former Soviet Union. To this day, none has ever been launched other than for test purposes.

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