WASHINGTON — The Air Force said Wednesday that as many as 34 officers responsible for firing nuclear-tipped missiles may have cheated on a proficiency test, the latest and potentially most serious misconduct scandal involving the military’s most destructive weapons.
Some officers are under investigation on suspicion of sharing text messages last fall with answers to the test and others for knowing about the cheating and doing nothing, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, said at a Pentagon news conference.
All of them are members of missile-launch crews at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
The cheating was discovered during an investigation of two of the officers suspected of drug possession. The inquiry quickly widened to include nearly one-fifth of the 190 missile-crew members at Malmstrom, Welsh said.
All 34 have been suspended from missile crews, and the 600 crew members in the three intercontinental ballistic missile wings who oversee the 450 land-based missiles are retaking the proficiency test, he said.
“There was cheating that took place with respect to this particular test. Some officers did it. Others apparently knew about it, and it appears they did nothing,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said. “This is absolutely unacceptable behavior.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement that he was “deeply troubled” by the cheating allegations and strongly supported “the aggressive steps the Air Force is taking in response to them.”
The continuing investigation has uncovered the largest known case of cheating in the nuclear force, James and Welsh said.
Bruce Blair, a former Minuteman ICBM launch officer and expert in nuclear weapons at Princeton University, said cheating had been “endemic” for decades among missile launch crew members on both nuclear weapons safety tests and on war plan procedures. He said the problem had never been acknowledged publicly by the Air Force because it raised questions about the reliability of the nuclear weapons system, the foundation of U.S. national security strategy.
“Cheating is endemic and always has been, particularly on the exam dealing with the nuclear war plan,” Blair said. “Missileers are expected to achieve perfection — zero mistakes — and if they fail to do so, then the consequences are severe — retraining, recertification, suspension from pulling combat alert duty, a rescheduled life for weeks or months, and a great deal of strain and anxiety.”
Blair added that cheating used to be done on a small scale “by looking over shoulders,” but “now it’s done with cellphones, so potentially larger in scale.” He added that “an erosion of diligence in the area of nuclear safety could have seriously adverse consequences.”
The Air Force has been dealing with misconduct and performance lapses in its nuclear forces for years. With the end of the Cold War and more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, missile crew duty has come to be seen as a backwater assignment, some experts say.
A senior U.S. officer who recently toured several Air Force missile wings said crew members complained that they were on duty at remote missile sites for weeks at a time away from their families.
They noted that the grueling schedule brought little recognition and few financial incentives, beyond their regular pay and benefits. Some are volunteers, but many are assigned to the crews, making morale an even bigger problem, the officer said.
By contrast, the Navy, which operates submarines that carry nuclear-tipped missiles, has not seen the same number of misconduct problems. But everyone aboard is a volunteer, said the officer, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the Air Force’s problems.
In 2007, six cruise missiles, each carrying a nuclear warhead, were mistakenly loaded on a B-52 bomber at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. They were transported to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and were not reported missing for more than 36 hours.
That and another incident in which ICBM parts were mistakenly shipped to Taiwan contributed to the decision in 2008 by then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to fire both the Air Force secretary and the chief of staff.
But misconduct cases have continued. Last month, the Air Force released details of its investigation of Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, the former commander of the intercontinental ballistic missile force.
He was relieved of command in October after it was determined that he drank heavily, made rude comments and spent time with “suspect” women while leading a U.S. government delegation to a nuclear security exercise in Russia last summer.
Welsh said the officers implicated in the cheating scandal were either lieutenants or captains, relatively junior officers, and he is confident that the nuclear force is safe and capable.
The Malmstrom wing failed a nuclear security inspection in August, he said, but scored the highest possible score on a retest in October. In a November test of nuclear operations readiness, its score was “excellent,” he said.
“I believe that the operational capability to conduct the mission is not impacted at this point,” he said.
The Air Force investigation into illegal drugs, which was disclosed last week when Hagel was on a three-day visit to missile sites in Nebraska and Wyoming, has expanded to include 10 officers — nine lieutenants and one captain — at six bases.
Two of the officers are in the missile wing at Malmstrom and others are at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, which also operates missiles, Air Force officials said. They declined to say how many were at Warren.