WASHINGTON — The Air Force said Thursday that it was replacing the commander and nine other senior officers at a Montana base responsible for maintaining and operating 150 nuclear-armed missiles after finding they were unaware of widespread cheating on proficiency tests by missile crews.
Col. Robert Stanley, commander of the 341st missile wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, is retiring and the other officers, all of them either colonels, lieutenant colonels or majors, have been removed from the unit and will face administrative punishment, Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, head of the Air Force's Global Strike Command, said at a Pentagon news conference.
"They weren't aware this [cheating] was going on in any way, shape or form and I think they should have been," Wilson said in explaining the decision to remove the wing's entire chain of command.
An investigation of the cheating at Malmstrom, which came to light in January, has now implicated 100 launch crew members, who either texted each other answers on multiple tests over a two-year period or knew about the practice and failed to take action, Wilson said.
The discovery of widespread cheating has been a serious blow to the Air Force, which has long insisted that its nuclear missile crews operate by the highest standards of performance. Even more embarrassing, the case has grown steadily larger. Initially the Air Force said it involved only a few dozen captains and lieutenants who were suspected of cheating on only one test.
Wilson said the Air Force was just beginning the process of disciplining the launch crew members accused of cheating, and that the punishment will range from letters of reprimand for those who failed to turn in cheaters to courts-martial.
Wilson said that four officers who have also been under investigation for suspected drug possession were "at the center" of the cheating ring.
No evidence of cheating was uncovered a two other air bases, one in North Dakota and one in Wyoming, where intercontinental ballistic missiles are based, he said.