The Air Force’s Scandal That Won’t Stop Spreading

Nearly half of the nuclear-missile crew members at one base are tied to alleged cheating on a monthly proficiency test.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
National Journal
Jordain Carney
Jan. 30, 2014, 9:01 a.m.

Ninety-two mem­bers of the nuc­le­ar-mis­sile crew are be­ing tied to a grow­ing cheat­ing scan­dal, Air Force of­fi­cials said Thursday; that is nearly half of the in­ter­con­tin­ent­al bal­list­ic mis­sile crew at the Montana base in ques­tion.

Of­fi­cials said earli­er this month that 34 of­ficers at the Malmstrom Air Force Base were be­ing tied to al­leged cheat­ing on a monthly pro­fi­ciency ex­am. One of­ficer texted an­swers to the test to 16 oth­ers, and an­oth­er 17 came for­ward and said they knew about the test an­swers be­ing shared.

But with Thursday’s up­date, more than half of the 190 crew mem­bers have “some level of in­volve­ment,” Air Force Sec­ret­ary De­borah Lee James said, adding that — to her know­ledge — the al­leged cheat­ing is con­tained to Malmstrom.

Of the 92 mem­bers, the Air Force al­leges that 40 cheated, while 52 oth­ers were aware of the cheat­ing.

The of­ficers have been tem­por­ar­ily de­cer­ti­fied while the in­vest­ig­a­tion is on­go­ing. Lt. Gen. Steph­en Wilson said non­sus­pen­ded crew mem­bers are now “pulling ad­di­tion­al alerts,” but stressed, “There’s been no op­er­a­tion­al im­pact.”

All of­ficers were re­tested, with an av­er­age test score of ap­prox­im­ately 95 per­cent.

Re­ports earli­er this week sug­ges­ted that roughly 70 mem­bers were be­ing tied to the cheat­ing, but a Pentagon spokes­per­son wouldn’t con­firm ex­act num­bers at the time.

James ac­know­ledged that with the new find­ings, she be­lieves there are “sys­tem­ic prob­lems” with­in the nuc­le­ar-mis­sile force. One of those prob­lems is the cur­rent en­vir­on­ment, which she said has cre­ated a “need for per­fec­tion” that has cre­ated un­ne­ces­sary stress and fear.

“I be­lieve that a very ter­rible irony in this whole situ­ation is that these mis­silers didn’t cheat to pass, they cheated be­cause they felt driv­en to get 100 per­cent,” James said. “I think this is not a healthy en­vir­on­ment. I think we need to relook at the way we do these tests.”

At the dir­ec­tion of De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, a 60-day re­view of the nuc­le­ar force is un­der­way.

The cheat­ing scan­dal was ori­gin­ally un­covered dur­ing an in­vest­ig­a­tion for al­leged il­leg­al-drug use.

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