Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told naval submariners on Wednesday that the U.S. has let its focus on the military's nuclear responsibilities drift a bit, but two reviews are wrapping up and he will be looking at recommendations to strengthen the health of the force.
Speaking at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Hagel said more attention must be paid to the nuclear forces as key to national security.
Hagel has ordered two reviews of the nation's nuclear operations, to find the causes of leadership lapses and other problems revealed by a series of Associated Press reports, including security gaps, cheating and other systemic breaches within the force.
"We have let our focus on the nuclear deterrence aspect of our national security drift a little," Hagel said.
Many of the recent problems in the U.S. nuclear forces have occurred in the Air Force, but in February the Navy announced that dozens of senior enlisted instructors at a Navy nuclear propulsion school in South Carolina were accused of cheating on written tests that help them qualify to operate nuclear reactors. The matter is not directly related to nuclear weapons but to the nuclear power reactors that provide propulsion for Navy ships and submarines.
The Navy has not announced the results of its investigation at the Nuclear Power School near Charleston.
During his visit here, Hagel toured the USS Tennessee, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine. And he told the troops that the Pentagon is still committed to replacing the aging submarines. He said the steep budget cuts are making it difficult to meet spending priorities.
The stealthy subs, called "boomers," are one leg of the nation's nuclear triad, which also includes long-range bomber aircraft and land-based missiles. There are 14 Ohio-class subs, and they can carry up to 24 Trident II ballistic missiles, but the launch tubes can also be loaded with torpedoes.
The Defense Department wants to spend $1.2 billion in 2015 research and develop a replacement sub.
Plans call for detailed design work on the replacement to begin in 2017. The Pentagon hopes to buy 12 of the new subs, with the first purchase in 2021, at a projected cost of $12.4 billion. The cost includes $4.8 billion for planning and $7.6 billion for construction. The first sub would go on patrol around 2031.
While at Kings Bay, Hagel also met with a number of female submarine officers, as the Navy moves to slowly integrate them into what has long been a male-only force. The move to put female officers on subs began in 2012, and there currently are more than 60 women serving as part of 14 crews on seven submarines. Each sub has two crews.
There are 20 female submarine officers and six female submarine supply officers serving in Kings Bay, on three integrated subs. Women do not serve on the USS Tennessee, which Hagel toured on Wednesday.
Navy officials are planning to begin integrating female enlisted members into the submarine force over the next few years.
The sub base is the first stop for Hagel on a two-day trip that will also take him to the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and the Army's Fort Rucker in Alabama.
The trip is designed to underscore some of Hagel's budget priorities, including some that have gotten slammed by Congress, as members continue to debate the spending plan.
National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.