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Hagel visits troops, defense nuclear facilities in New Mexico

DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett
DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett

By Cheryl Pellerin, American Forces Press Service – 

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he was impressed with what he saw here yesterday at an Air Force base on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, where two facilities represent a large and historic part of the nation’s nuclear weapons expertise.

The secretary spent the morning in San Antonio, visiting troops, wounded warriors and their families, and hospital workers and staff at Brooke Army Medical Center and its Center for the Intrepid. He then traveled here for briefings at Kirtland Air Force Base and the Air Force Materiel Command’s Nuclear Weapons Center, whose responsibilities include nuclear system programs acquisition, modernization and sustainment for the Defense and Energy departments.

Also on the nearly 52,000-acre base is the main facility of Sandia National Laboratories, where scientists and engineers develop, engineer and test non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons. An initial version of the lab was established in 1945 in the early days of the Manhattan Project, a research and development program that produced the first atomic bombs during World War II.

During his visit to Sandia and Kirtland, Hagel met with experts and discussed microsystems and engineering science applications, proliferation assessment, the advanced hypersonic weapon concept, and other topics.

Afterward, while briefing reporters who are traveling with him, Hagel said he wanted especially to visit Sandia “because modernization, research and development, [and] that technical edge that we have been able to maintain, is critically important … in the world we’re in today.”

Technology in particular, he added, has increasingly driven complications, combustibility and new dimensions in the global environment.

At the lab, he said, “I was impressed not only with the technical capability but with the people.”

Because of the critical skills required in any institution, but particularly in the area of nuclear weapons, nuclear modernization and research and development, Hagel said, the United States must continue to be able to recruit and keep cutting-edge minds worldwide on its team.

The secretary said he also was impressed with the people he met at Sandia and Kirtland, including “what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and the commitment they have made to this country and [its] future.” They understand the privilege of helping to make a better world, he added.

Today, Hagel will travel to Cheyenne, Wyo., to visit the Missile Alert Facility and Launch Control Center, where he will receive briefings and have lunch with missile combat crewmembers and security forces.

Afterward, Hagel will move to F.E. Warren Air Force Base, where the 90th Missile Wing, activated in 1963, operates 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles. At the base, he will hold a troop event for up to 200 service members.

“I think it’s very important that all of us who have some responsibility for the national security of this country pay attention to every aspect of that responsibility,” Hagel said, “and certainly the nuclear component of our defense capabilities — the deterrence capabilities that nuclear gives us.”

The secretary said he firmly believes that nuclear deterrence probably is the reason there has been no World War III. “We’ve had wars, but not on the scale of what we saw in the first half of the 20th century,” he said.

Hagel said another reason he visited Sandia and Kirtland yesterday and will travel to Cheyenne today “is that the American people have to be assured of the safety, security and reliability of the nuclear component of our national security.”

In a fact sheet released a year ago, the State Department said the U.S. government is committed to modernizing the nuclear weapons infrastructure to support a safe, secure and effective nuclear weapons stockpile in the absence of nuclear explosive testing. In accordance with the Nuclear Posture Review, the State Department fact sheet said, the National Nuclear Security Administration identified a path forward.

The modernization focuses on recapitalizing and refurbishing existing infrastructure for plutonium, uranium, tritium, high-explosive production, non-nuclear component production, high-fidelity testing and waste disposition. It also will preserve and enhance essential science and technology tools for assessing and certifying weapons without nuclear explosive testing.

“These investments in science, technology, engineering, manufacturing and information technology infrastructure will sustain the capabilities that underpin the stockpile and other national security missions,” the document said.

During his visit here, Hagel acknowledged the high cost of modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure, but noted the importance of nuclear weapons continuing to stay secure and safe. In a December report, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that between 2014 and 2023, the costs of the administration’s plans for nuclear forces will total $355 billion.

“This country has always been willing to make that investment,” Hagel said, “and I think we will continue to make it.”

The secretary said he believes Congress will be a strong partner in this effort. “I’m often asked many questions by members of Congress of both parties and both houses about nuclear modernization and about our investment and our commitment, so I look forward to that continued conversation,” he said. “We’ll get into the specifics of that when I present our [defense] budget, probably within the next two months.”

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