Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks during a press conference at the Pentagon. (Saul Loeb / Getty Images)
A mockup of a Minuteman 3 nuclear missile is used for training by missile maintenance crews at F. E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. (Robert Burns / AP)
WASHINGTON — Top defense and military officials worked Wednesday to figure out what systemic personnel problems within the Air Force’s nuclear missile corps have caused problems ranging from low morale to cheating and serious security lapses.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gathered senior nuclear leaders from the Air Force and Navy for the first of a series of meetings on the issue, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
Officials are exploring whether there are cultural problems within the nuclear force that make crew members more willing and able to cheat on proficiency tests, Kirby said, the latest revelation in a growing morass of problems among the men and women who maintain and staff the nation’s nuclear missiles.
The number of officers in the nuclear corps who have been implicated in a cheating investigation has more than doubled to at least 70, officials said Tuesday. That means that at least 14 percent of all launch officers have been decertified and suspended from missile launch duties.
All are 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.
Kirby said officials spent the bulk of the meeting discussing the breadth of the problems and how to begin solving them.
“I think the general consensus in the room was that we all need to accept the reality that there probably are systemic issues in the personnel growth and development inside the nuclear mission,” Kirby told Pentagon reporters after the two-hour meeting with Hagel. “The secretary made it clear at the end of the meeting that he intends to do these on a regular basis.”
The scandal is one aspect of a growing array of personnel problems facing the Air Force’s nuclear missile corps. Hagel said last week he was determined to get to the bottom of the problems, which include poor morale, and find quick solutions.
The Wednesday meeting included 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.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the additional 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 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. Since then the investigation has continued, and the number of those implicated has been growing.
The Air Force has 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, on alert at all times, with a contingent of about 500 launch control officers, some number of which are unavailable on any given day due to illness or other reasons. So the number temporarily unavailable for duty because of the cheating scandal is substantial. It was not clear Tuesday how that affects the mission, beyond requiring the remaining crew members to bear a bigger share of the work.
Each day, a total of 90 officers work in pairs inside 45 underground launch control centers, with each center monitoring and controlling a group of 10 ICBMs. They work 24-hour shifts in the missile field and then return to their base. They generally do as many as eight of these shifts per month.
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.
The drug and cheating probes are being handled by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
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 ring.
Malmstrom is home to the 341st Missile Wing, which is one of three ICBM groups. The other two are in North Dakota and Wyoming.
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.
Hagel last week ordered a review of the problems inside the ICBM force and he has raised the possibility of reconsidering the way ICBM launch crews are tested.
“We have a pretty significant and tight and unforgiving test curriculum and regimen that I’m not sure doesn’t need to be explored and examined in some detail,” Hagel told a news conference Friday.