The cheating scandal revealed Wednesday is the latest in a series of Air Force nuclear stumbles documented in recent months by The Associated Press, including deliberate violations of safety rules, failures of inspections, breakdowns in training, and evidence that the men and women who operate the missiles from underground command posts are suffering burnout.
In October, the commander of the nuclear missile force was fired for engaging in embarrassing behavior, including drunkenness, while leading a US delegation to a nuclear exercise in Russia.
A “profoundly disappointed” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, the service’s top civilian official, told a Pentagon news conference that the alleged cheating at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana was discovered during a previously announced probe of drug possession by 11 officers at several Air Force bases, including two who also are in the nuclear force and suspected of participating in the cheating ring.
“This is absolutely unacceptable behavior,” James said of the cheating, which Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said could be the biggest such scandal in the history of the missile force.
The missile force began operating in 1959. The Air Force’s nuclear mission includes operation of 450 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Welsh said one launch officer at Malmstrom was found to have sent one or more text messages to 16 other launch officers with answers to their test. There are about 190 ICBM launch officers stationed at the base. Welsh said the probe continues.
A spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon chief, who just last week visited a nuclear missile base and praised the force for its professionalism, was “deeply troubled” to learn of the cheating allegations. The spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Hagel insisted he be kept apprised of the investigation’s progress.
James said she will travel to each of the Air Force’s three nuclear missile bases next week to learn more about conditions within the missile launch force and the more senior officers who manage them.
She suggested that the cheating was confined to this single case involving 34 officers, although numerous missile officers have told the AP confidentially that some feel compelled to cut corners on their monthly proficiency tests because of intense pressure to score at the highest levels to advance in the force.
James said the entire ICBM launch officer force of about 600 will have been retested by the end of the day Thursday.
The drug investigation that led to the discovery of alleged cheating was disclosed by the Pentagon last week. It said then that it involved 10 officers at six bases—five in the US and one in England. On Wednesday, the Air Force said the number of suspects has grown to 11. Welsh said he could not comment further on the drug probe.