WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a sweeping review of the Pentagon's troubled nuclear weapons force and summoned commanders for a face-to-face meeting amid an investigation into cheating and drug use by missile-launch officers, officials said Thursday.
The moves reflect deepening concern among senior Pentagon officials about morale and discipline among the nearly 600 officers who are responsible for maintaining and operating the 450 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Allegations of widespread cheating and other lapses "raise legitimate concerns about the department's stewardship of one of our most sensitive and important missions," said Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
Last week, 34 officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana were suspended for allegedly cheating on a readiness exam last year. The evidence emerged during a separate drug investigation of two of the officers, but former officers said cheating was common on monthly written tests for missile safety, code handling and launch procedures.
Kirby said Hagel would meet with top commanders and senior officers in charge of nuclear weapons in the next two weeks. He has not decided whether anyone should be disciplined, Kirby said.
The Air Force and the Navy, which has nuclear-armed ballistic missiles on submarines, were ordered to draw up an "action plan" within 60 days to address personnel problems within their forces, Kirby said. A panel of former officers and officials will conduct a separate review.
Hagel acted after talking on the phone with Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who visited Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, another facility with nuclear-tipped ICBMs.
Despite the problems, Hagel is not concerned about the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Kirby said.
Five years ago, then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fired the Air Force secretary and chief of staff after several incidents of negligent handling of nuclear warheads and missile parts.
He also appointed an outside commission to review the Air Force nuclear effort. It found that the end of the Cold War led to morale problems, with nuclear launch crews viewing their role as a backwater assignment.
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