Navy probes cheating on submarine nuclear exams

In this handout image provided by the U.S. Navy, the nuclear-powered fast attack submarine USS Hartford is moored off the U.S., Naval Academy in 1999 in Annapolis, Maryland. Photo by Don S. Montgomery/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

HARTFORD, Conn. - The Navy's inspector general for the Atlantic submarine force is investigating claims that pervasive cheating has tainted exams administered to enlisted sailors and officers as part of their nuclear training.

The official leading the inquiry, Pat Urello, told The Associated Press that it began in August in response to a complaint that originated in Groton, Conn., the home port of an attack submarine that was rocked by an exam-cheating scandal last year.

The investigation could lead to changes for the submarine force, said Urello, the force inspector general.

"We have powers to take corrective action if corrective action is warranted," he said. Urello, who works for the submarine force commander in Norfolk, Va., said he could not provide further details.

After the cheating ring was discovered aboard the Groton-based USS Memphis last November, the Navy fired the commanding officer and kicked off 10 percent of the crew. Navy officials said it reflected a rare lapse in integrity, but several former submarine officers told the AP for a story in August that it is not uncommon for sailors to receive answer keys or other hints before training exams.

Cmdr. Monica Rousselow, a spokeswoman for the submarine force, said the Navy has an obligation to investigate cheating allegations but authorities do not believe the problem extends beyond a few isolated cases.

"We stand by our statistics that show this is not a widespread issue and that there are rare occurrences of cheating that are being handled accordingly," she said.

Norman Polmar, a naval affairs expert and author, said he has heard murmurings of cheating in the submarine force for years. He said he hopes the inspector general will address the issue more deeply than previous investigations into individual submarines that "slapped a few hands."

"Everything I've heard indicates it's a significant problem within the submarine force," he said.

One former submarine officer who has described cheating as pervasive, Christopher Brownfield, said in an email that the investigation is a sign the Navy is taking the issue seriously.

"It's important to note that the IG does not toe the party line. They should have no qualms about finding and reporting any problems, if they still exist," said Brownfield, who wrote in a book published last year that his superiors aboard the USS Hartford urged him to accept an answer key to pass a nuclear qualification exam. "Their focus will likely be upon current operations, not upon the past."

The leadership of each submarine designs exams for crew members from the engineering department, who have to make it through rigorous training before going to sea with responsibility for maintaining the vessels' nuclear reactors. The training exams taken during deployments are part of a continuing training program that also includes drills and oral exams.

Several former submariners interviewed by the AP said there is no doubt the crews know how to handle the technology, but vessel commanders competing for the highest proficiency ratings have made the exams so difficult that they have little to do with the skills sailors actually need. As a consequence, they say, crew members sometimes bend the rules to pass.

Several former submariners say they have seen cheating firsthand or heard from sailors on other vessels that shortcuts on exams are common.

"There is a serious problem throughout the naval nuclear training process and fleet examination and inspection process that condones cheating and deceptive tactics to allow a ship to look better than its peers. Basically it's a competition," said a former member of the nuclear-trained personnel aboard the Memphis who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because he said he feared repercussions from the Navy. "It's so common a practice that people don't even realize that it's wrong."

In the case of the Memphis, investigators found sailors were emailed the answers before qualification exams, took tests outside the presence of proctors and openly asked officers for answer keys. The sub's commander was relieved of duty, and 13 crew members were punished for their roles in the cheating ring.

The Navy has described the episode aboard the Memphis as highly unusual.

Officials at Naval Reactors, the agency that oversees the Navy's nuclear propulsion program, have said that roughly 16,000 nuclear-trained officers and enlisted sailors take several exams every year, and on average there are one or two cheating cases per year that result in the removal of nuclear qualifications.

In the wake of the scandal on the Memphis, submarine squadron commanders and commanding officers were encouraged to make any changes that might be necessary to prevent such cheating.

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