The cheating scandal at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana has gotten bigger. Half of the base's 183 nuclear missile launch officers have been suspended from their duties because of their role in cheating on a proficiency test.
This means that almost one in five of the officers responsible for overseeing the Air Force's fleet of 450 Minuteman III ICBM's is no longer on the job.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told reporters Thursday that a recent tour of the Air Force bases that are home to the missileer force led her to conclude that it has "systemic problems." However, she remains confident in the Air Force's ability to carry out its nuclear mission because of all of the checks and balances in place. James said the cheating shows there has been a failure of integrity and "not a failure of the mission."
To make that case, she said there was a 95.5 percent pass rate among the 500 missileer officers who were re-tested on their job performance after the cheating scandal first emerged earlier this year. She said the high pass rate shows that missileers "know what their jobs are, they know how to perform."
Of the 92 suspended officers at Malmstrom, 40 were directly involved in the cheating while the remainder were aware of it in some form. Originally the Air Force had said that 34 officers were involved in the cheating scandal with 17 having actually cheated.
That investigation had been triggered by a drug probe of junior Air Force officers that found that one officer had texted to colleagues the answers to a monthly proficiency test.
The Air Force has launched a 30-day review that will also visit Minot AFB in North Dakota and F.E. Warren in Wyoming, the other two bases that are home to the Air Force's 550 missileers. The officers work in pairs in 24 hour shifts in underground launch centers that control ICBM's located in silos dotting the northern plains.
James said that over the next 60 days the Air Force is going to address the concerns she heard during her tour. On Wednesday Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with 15 of the military's top nuclear commanders to work on cultural problems and low morale in the nuclear force.
She heard repeatedly that "the need for perfection has created a climate of undue stress and fear. Fear about the future. Fear about promotions. Fear about what will happen to them in their careers." According to James that has led to the perception that the only chance at a promotion or a career advancement is to get 100 percent on monthly proficiency tests."
"So having done the conversations that I've done, having looked at it very closely now and created my own impressions, I guess I believe now that we do have systemic problems within the force."
She wants to look again at how testing is done as it has become the main criteria for commanders in deciding who should get promoted. "These missileers didn't cheat to pass, they cheated because they felt driven to get 100 percent, getting 90 percent or 95 percent was considered a failure in their eyes."
Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, the head of Air Force Global Strike Command, said the suspensions at Malmstrom are not having an operational impact. Officers still on duty are taking on extra shifts, working 10 24-hour shifts instead of the eight they do when the unit is fully manned. Additional officers currently in staff jobs are also being moved there to pick up the slack.
Wilson said, "In terms of the safety, security and reliability, we remain absolutely confident that the people know how to do their jobs and will perform that when needed."
James said the drug probe has now grown to include 13 Air Force officers, only a few of these officers are nuclear launch officers.