WASHINGTON - The number of U.S. Air Force service members implicated in a scandal involving alleged cheating on tests of nuclear missile launch operations has roughly doubled from the 34 initially cited, officials said Tuesday.
It wasn't immediately clear whether
the additional 30-plus airmen suspected of being involved in cheating on proficiency tests are alleged to
have participated in the cheating
directly or were involved indirectly.
The Air Force announced on Jan. 15 that while it was investigating possible criminal drug use by some airmen, it discovered that one missile officer at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana had shared test questions with 16 other officers. It said another 17 admitted to knowing about this cheating but did not report it.
The cheating, which was discovered during a drug investigation that included two of the 34 officers, is the latest controversy involving the service members who maintain and operate the nation's 450 nuclear missiles.
The 34 officers had their security clearances suspended and they were taken off missile launch duty. It was not clear Tuesday whether the additional people implicated in the investigation since then also were taken off launch duty.
The tests in question are designed to ensure proficiency by launch officers in handling "emergency war orders," which involve the classified processing of orders received through their chain of command to launch a missile. These written tests are in addition to two other types of monthly testing on the missile system and on launch codes.
An Air Force spokesman, Lt. Col. Brett Ashworth, said the Air Force would not discuss details of the cheating investigation, including any change in the number of suspects, until the probe is completed.
A "profoundly disappointed"
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, the service's top civilian official,
told a Pentagon news conference last week that the alleged cheating at Malmstrom was discovered during a
previously announced probe of drug possession by 11 officers at several Air
Force bases, including at least two who also are in the nuclear force and
suspected of participating in the cheating
Malmstrom is home to the 341st Missile Wing, which operates, maintains and provides security for 150 nuclear-armed Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles. This represents one-third of the entire ICBM force.
The cheating scandal is the latest in a series of Air Force nuclear stumbles. The Associated Press revealed a number of them, including deliberate violations of safety rules, failures of inspections, breakdowns in training, and evidence that the men and women who operate the missiles from underground command posts are suffering burnout.
In October, the two-star general then in charge of the ICBM force, Michael Carey, was fired for engaging in embarrassing behavior, including drunkenness, while leading a U.S. delegation to a nuclear exercise in Russia. He was replaced by Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week ordered a review of the problems inside the ICBM force and said he would assemble a group of outside experts to look for solutions. Hagel is scheduled to meet with senior officers involved in the nuclear force on Wednesday at the Pentagon to discuss how to attack the problems.
Hagel has raised the possibility of reconsidering the way ICBM launch crews are tested.