U.S. defense officials acknowledged last week that a handful of Air Force officers safeguarding the country's nuclear missiles had been implicated in a drug investigation. But the probe has spawned another embarrassment: The discovery that at least 34 of the estimated 190 nuclear officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana either cheated on a monthly launch officer proficiency test, or knew colleagues had gamed the system and did nothing.
The widening scandal in a command that historically prided itself for its zero-defects culture was announced Wednesday by the Air Force's top officer, Gen. Mark Welsh, and its new civilian leader, Air Force Secretary Deborah James. In a hastily announced press conference at the Pentagon, they said the investigation -- now split off from the existing drug probe -- is ongoing, and pledged accountability and corrective action.
"We do not know of an incident of this scale involving cheating in the missile force," Welsh said. "We are researching that now.… but we are not aware of it at this point in time."
James and Welsh insisted that the security of the intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal was never at risk. The cheating reflects a "failure of integrity" of individual airmen, "not a failure of the nuclear mission," James said. The security clearances of all 34 officers implicated have been suspended, and they have been restricted from missile crew, Welsh said.
The scandal emerges as the Air Force's nuclear force, charged with handling the United States' most dangerous weapons, already was grappling with the removal of a two-star general in October. An Air Force investigation determined he went drinking and dancing with Russian women while visiting Moscow on official business, shocking some officers traveling with him. Maj. Gen. Michael Carey commanded the 20th Air Force, which is responsible for maintaining the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal.
Top Air Force leaders learned of the cheating over the weekend as investigators continued to probe illegal drug possession that has implicated 11 Air Force officers on six U.S. bases worldwide. One of the personnel ensnared in the drug probe is a missile launch officer with the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom, one of three Air Force bases that maintains and operates the Minuteman III ICBM, Welsh said.
Investigators discovered that the launch officer had shared answers for a monthly test electronically with 16 colleagues, all with ranks between second lieutenant and captain. Officials subsequently approached the other estimated 190 officers in the force at Malmstrom, and 17 admitted to at least being aware that material had been shared, Welsh said.
"We don't know how or if each of those officers used that material, but we do know that none of them reported the incident to their leadership," the general said. "Regardless of an airmen's level of participation, cheating or tolerating others who cheat runs counter to everything we believe in as a service."
Welsh declined to say how the drug investigation led to knowledge of potential cheating. But he said the answers appear to have been shared by text message, raising the prospect that investigators discovered them while examining the phone of the officer who initially shared the information.
The drug case, first reported Friday, includes three nuclear officers among 11 personnel implicated, Welsh said. He declined to identify what kind of drugs are involved, and said that investigation is being run separately. Two of the nuclear officers implicated in the drug investigation serve at Malmstrom, while the third works at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.
All of it is bad news for the Air Force, which is still smarting from the 2008 removal of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley and Secretary Michael Wynne following a string of embarrassing incidents, some involving the nuclear force. They were forced to resign by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, most famously after the service accidentally transferred six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
James, who took over as secretary in December, and Welsh promised Wednesday they would investigate the cheating scandal fully, and won't go easy on anyone found to have committed wrongdoing. They met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday to discuss the situation, and plan to closely examine in coming months everything from morale to modernization that may be needed in the nuclear force, James said.
"Accountability, to me, is everybody," she said. "Everybody is accountable... No one escapes accountability in the Air Force, as far as I'm concerned, so we'll be looking at all of that."
Airman 1st Class Yvonne Morales/ Air Force