Thirty-four intercontinental ballistic missile launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., have been implicated in cheating on the ICBM launch officer proficiency test, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Jan. 15.
The revelations emerged during an investigation into alleged illegal drug possession, James said. The officers range in rank from second lieutenants to captains, and the alleged cheating occurred in the August and September timeframe.
James and Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff, clearly were disturbed by the allegation as they briefed Pentagon reporters on the matter, but said they are confident the nuclear mission itself was not compromised by the incident.
“This was a failure of some of our Airmen,” James said. ”It was not a failure of the nuclear mission.”
Welsh reiterated that confidence. The nuclear mission requires Airmen to meet the highest of standards, the general said, and most of the missileers do. “There’s absolutely no excuse for the breach of integrity.”
Air Force Office of Special Investigations officials were examining allegations of illegal drug possession when evidence surfaced that a missile launch officer at the 341st Missile Wing electronically shared the answers to monthly missile launch officer proficiency tests with 16 other officers. Air Force officials subsequently approached the entire missile crew force at Malmstrom, and 17 other officers admitted to at least being aware of material that had been shared.
“We don’t yet know how or if each of those officers used that material, but we do know that none of them reported the incident to their leadership,” Welsh said.
“Cheating or tolerating others who cheat runs counter to everything we believe in as a service,” the general added. “People at every level will be held accountable if and where appropriate.”
All 34 officers have been decertified and restricted from missile crew duty. The Air Force has suspended their security clearances, and the investigation continues. Two of the officers involved in the cheating scandal also are implicated in the illegal drug possession case.
“Every missile crew member in our other two missile wings will be questioned about involvement in or knowledge of sharing test material,” Welsh said.
James ordered that all the members of the ICBM force be retested by close of business tomorrow.
“As of an hour ago, 100 people had completed that test — that’s about 20 percent of our missile crew force. Ninety-seven percent of them passed the test, and there were three failures,” Welsh said. “That 97 percent pass rate matches our historical averages.”
Air Force Global Strike Command will conduct a limited nuclear surety inspection focused on operation crew procedures in the near future. James and Welsh will visit all missile bases next week to ensure that airmen have no question about their expectations.
Welsh called the cheating “a violation of that first core principle of ‘integrity first.’”
“Our actions as we move forward will be about making sure that every member of our Air Force understands that we will not accept or allow that type of behavior, that there is nothing more important to the nation than the integrity and the trustworthiness of the people who defend it and that anyone who doesn’t understand that should find another line of work,” Welsh said.
ICBM retesting continues, Hagel open to incentives for missileers
Retesting of all ICBM launch crewmen finished Jan. 16, the Pentagon press secretary announced during a news conference.
Air Force officials ordered the retesting after discovering that nuclear launch crews cheated on proficiency exams. A total of 34 crewmen at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., have been suspended from duty due to the allegations.
Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said that as of last night, 277 out of the total of 497 ICBM crew had taken the test. This is about 55 percent of the entire force. Of these, 96 percent passed. A total of 11 Airmen failed the exam.
“For those 11 who failed, they’ll be retrained and returned to duty following a second re-test,” Kirby said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is intensely interested in the matter and intends to follow it closely, Kirby said, adding that Hagel considers the security and effectiveness of the nuclear mission to be vital.
Hagel is open to any method to improve the nuclear force, Kirby said. The secretary visited ICBM crewmen last week and asked if new incentives would help recruit and retain them.
“They acknowledged that it’s something that they talk about in the force — the potential value incentives,” Kirby said. “But they also said that they take great pride in what they do and … they weren’t sure whether incentives would make that much of a difference.”
The secretary indicated, however, that he is willing to think about incentives.
“He didn’t make any decisions,” Kirby said. “He didn’t make any promises. But he expressed that he is willing to look at that. He considers the ICBM force — that leg of the triad — that vital, and he’s not going to close any doors.”