US nuclear officer cheating scandal widens as top brass investigates
Defence secretary Chuck Hagel summons military chiefs to Pentagon to tackle ‘systemic problems’ of stress and low morale
Associated Press in Washington
theguardian.com, Thursday 30 January 2014 12.38 EST
The number of nuclear force officers implicated in a proficiency test cheating scandal has grown to 92 out of a force of 500, said the air force secretary, Deborah Lee James.
Speaking on a tour of nuclear bases around the US, James said the nuclear force was beset by “undue stress and fear” and that it suffered “systemic problems”.
Evidence of cheating was discovered at Malmstrom air force base in Montana, with low morale and burnout within the nuclear force believed to have contributed to serious security lapses and other breakdowns.
The air force announced recently that 17 officers initially were believed to have been involved in cheating on a monthly proficiency test to ensure they know how to maintain, and launch, nuclear missiles.
The widening cheating scandal has set off a top-level search for solutions.
The defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, summoned 15 of his top air force, navy and nuclear mission leaders on Wednesday to the Pentagon, where they discussed whether cultural problems within the nuclear force made launch officers feel compelled to cheat on their proficiency tests.
The Pentagon press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, said officials spent most of the meeting discussing the scale of the problems, which include low morale, cheating and serious security lapses, and how to start solving them.
“The general consensus in the room was that we all need to accept the reality that there probably are systemic issues in the personnel growth and development inside the nuclear mission,” Kirby told Pentagon reporters after the two-hour meeting with Hagel. “The secretary made it clear at the end of the meeting that he intends to do these on a regular basis.”
The cheating scandal is the latest revelation in the growing debate around problems among men and women who maintain and staff the US’s nuclear missiles.
The number of officers in the nuclear corps who have been implicated in a cheating investigation has nearly trebled.
Malmstrom air force base in Montana is responsible for 150 Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles – one-third of the entire Minuteman 3 force.
The air force also is taking a closer look at its nuclear leadership. Lt Gen Stephen Wilson, who heads global strike command, has ordered the 20th Air Force, which oversees the Minuteman 3 missiles, to re-evaluate all senior leadership moves at the three air wings that operate the missiles. Malmstrom is home to the 341st Missile Wing, which is one of three ICBM groups, with the others in Wyoming and North Dakota.
It was not immediately clear whether the additional airmen suspected of being involved in cheating were alleged to have participated in the cheating directly or were involved indirectly.
Wednesday’s meeting included the heads of the air force and navy nuclear weapons organisations, as well as US Strategic Command, which is responsible for nuclear war planning and for oversight of the nuclear forces.
The air force announced on 15 January that while it was investigating possible criminal drug use by some airmen, it discovered that one missile officer at Malmstrom had shared test questions with 16 other officers. It said a further 17 admitted to knowing about this cheating but did not report it. The 34 officers had their security clearances suspended and were taken off missile launch duty.
The air force has 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, on alert at all times, with a contingent of about 500 launch control officers, some of which are unavailable on any given day due to illness or other reasons. So the number temporarily unavailable for duty because of the cheating scandal is substantial.
Each day, a total of 90 officers work in pairs inside 45 underground launch control centres, with each centre monitoring and controlling a group of 10 ICBMs. They work 24-hour shifts in the missile field and then return to base. They generally do as many as eight of these shifts a month.
The tests in question are designed to ensure proficiency by launch officers in handling “emergency war orders”, which involve the classified processing of orders received through their chain of command to launch a missile. These written tests are in addition to two other types of monthly testing on the missile system and on launch codes.