Air Force suspends 92 missile officers in cheating probe

The Air Force has suspended 92 members of its nuclear missile force due to an investigation into cheating on monthly proficiency tests, said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James on Thursday. 

An additional 22 officers are temporarily restricted from performing their jobs after failing a recent retest, said James. The test is administered to missileers on a monthly basis to test their ability to execute the nuclear mission. 

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The suspensions, at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, are causing other officers to pull more shifts. Officers from other bases are also pitching in to fill the gaps. 

“This has real world impact. People will be working harder, and working more alerts,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, commander of the Global Strike Command, who briefed reporters at the Pentagon along with James.

James said she remains confident in the "safety, reliability and effectiveness of the nuclear mission," after visiting with crew members at Malmstrom. 

"There are multiple checks and balances in the system, and there are a variety of ways we ensure its reliability and safety," she said. 

Earlier this month, a drug possession investigation revealed that a nuclear missile officer had sent answers for the monthly test to 16 others. Subsequently, 17 other members stepped forward voluntarily as having cheated, or known about the cheating. 

The number involved in the cheating has now mushroomed to 92, prompting the Air Force to retest all 500 or so missileers across three bases, at Malmstrom, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, and the F.E. Warren Air Base in Wyoming. 

All but the 22 have passed the retest, which requires above a 90 percent grade to pass. The 22 who failed are being retrained to retake the test, said an Air Force spokesman. 

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel now considers the health of the nuclear force a "top national security priority," Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said on Wednesday. 

He has ordered the Air Force to come up with an action plan in 60 days, on how to fix what defense officials now believe are cultural and systemic problems within the nuclear force. 

"The need for perfection has created a climate of undue stress and fear," James said, after visiting several Air Force bases in recent weeks and talking to officers and enlisted crew members.

She said she found that officers believed they needed to score an 100 percent on their proficiency tests in order to be considered for career advancement.

She said the Air Force would look at creating a more comprehensive system to evaluate crew members. 

The Air Force will also look at whether there is sufficient professional and leadership development, reinvigorate a campaign to reinforce integrity and other core values, look at how to reward and motivate nuclear missile crew members, and see if more investment is needed. 

James added, however, that there would also be accountability "at all levels" for those involved in the cheating.

"It's a failure of integrity on the part of certain airmen, not a failure of the mission," she said. "We are going to get to the bottom of this."