WASHINGTON — The Navy said Tuesday that instructors responsible for training sailors to operate nuclear reactors that power submarines and aircraft carriers may have cheated on qualification tests, the latest in a series of ethical and criminal misconduct cases roiling the Pentagon.
The Navy suspended 30 senior enlisted sailors serving as instructors at the Navy base in Charleston, S.C., after a sailor seeking to qualify as an instructor alerted his superiors that he had been offered answers to a written test on reactor operations, senior Navy officers said.
"To say that I'm disappointed would be an understatement," Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said at a Pentagon news conference. "We expect more from our sailors, especially our senior sailors."
The case comes less than a week after the Air Force acknowledged it may have "systemic problems" that include widespread cheating among officers responsible for maintaining and operating the nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
The Air Force is investigating 92 launch officers from Malmstrom on suspicion of cheating on a launch proficiency test or failing to disclose that others were sharing answers.
The Navy inquiry was disclosed the same day as a scathing Senate hearing into allegations of fraud by hundreds of Army National Guard recruiters. Audits indicated that they had claimed more than $29 million in bonuses for signing up recruits from 2005 to 2012 whom they had no role in recruiting.
Although National Guard recruiters were barred from receiving the incentive payments, they often conspired with Guard soldiers and others, known as "recruiter assistants," to share bonuses for recruits, Army officials said.
Of 851 recruiter assistants under criminal investigation, 139 are in California, more than any state but Texas.
The Army shut down the program in 2012.
The repeated revelations about scandals and misconduct cases have caused some senior Pentagon officials and top officers, as well as members of Congress, to question whether the military is facing an ethical crisis — or merely a spate of embarrassing but isolated cases.
The Navy is still investigating a massive scandal into contracts to service ships. Criminal charges have been filed in San Diego against two Navy commanders, a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent and two Malaysian business executives.
The Navy cheating scandal in Charleston involves nuclear reactors that are used to power aircraft carriers and submarines. Officials said they had no indication of any misconduct involving the Navy's nuclear-armed Trident missiles, which are carried aboard submarines and involve a different branch of the service.
Adm. John Richardson, director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, said investigators were examining whether the alleged cheating was limited to one test or was common at the base, where the Navy conducts training on two decommissioned submarines with working nuclear reactors.
"We're just getting started," he said. "We may find more."
Richardson said the examinations on which sailors may have cheated included classified information. He declined to discuss possible punishment but said anyone found cheating would probably be discharged from the Navy.
In 2010, the Navy found widespread cheating on nuclear operations tests among the crew of the attack submarine Memphis. Sailors were emailed answers before qualification exams, took tests outside the presence of proctors and asked officers for answer keys, according to an inspector general report on the incident.
The captain was kicked out of the Navy, and a dozen other crew members were disciplined, Navy officials said.