By ROBERT BURNS
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Air Force's nuclear missile corps faces new strains after dozens more officers were implicated in an investigation of cheating on missile-launch proficiency tests. The number implicated in the probe has roughly doubled from the original 34 officers, meaning that about 14 percent of all launch officers are now sidelined.
Officials on Tuesday said the number of officers implicated now approaches 70 — all at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., which is responsible for 150 Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles, or one-third of the entire Minuteman 3 force.
The officials who disclosed the higher number spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information by name while the investigation is ongoing.
The scandal is one aspect of a growing array of personnel problems facing the Air Force's nuclear missile corps. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was scheduled to host a meeting Wednesday at the Pentagon of top nuclear officials, including the heads of the Air Force and Navy nuclear weapons organizations, as well as U.S. Strategic Command, which is responsible for nuclear war planning and for oversight of the nuclear forces.
Hagel said last week he was determined to get to the bottom of the problems, which include poor morale, and find quick solutions.
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.
Regardless, a doubling of the number implicated means that more than one-third of certified launch officers at Malmstrom — and approximately 14 percent of the entire Air Force cadre of nuclear missile launch control officers — has been removed at least temporarily from active missile duty. It was not clear Tuesday how that affects the mission, beyond requiring the remaining crew members to bear a bigger share of the work.
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 had shared test questions with 16 other officers. It said another 17 admitted to knowing about this cheating but did not report it.
The 34 officers had their security clearances suspended and they were taken off missile launch duty.