The cheating scandal that has rocked the Air Force's nuclear commands has expanded to such proportions that the service has sent extra missile launch officers to Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana to account for all of those who have been sidelined, Air Force officials said Thursday. That acknowledgement came as service officials said that nearly half of all launch nuke officers at Malmstrom -- 92 out of about 192 -- are now unable to do their work because of the investigation.
The officers are charged with safeguarding and operating missile silos containing the United States' arsenal of Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles. The sidelined airmen are accused of either cheating on a monthly proficiency exam, or knowing about others who did and looking the other way. Air Force leaders disclosed the cheating Jan. 15, saying at the time that at least 34 officers at Malmstrom had been implicated.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, commander of the Air Force's Global Strike Command told reporters at a Pentagon news conference on Thursday that the service is focused right now on a "core group of about 40" officers who may have cheated. He did not address what consequences they may face, but cheating on some tests in the military has led to expulsion in the past. As Foreign Policy first reported Wednesday night, the widening scandal also has put all promotions for senior officers in the Air Force's nuclear community on hold, including at least one colonel who had been nominated to become a general officer.
The launch officers ensnared in the cheating probe have been decertified, meaning they are no longer allowed to pull "alert" shifts overseeing the missiles, said Air Force Secretary Deborah James, who also addressed the media. That job typically entails riding out to an underground missile site and spending more than 24 hours at a time manning control panels that operate the missiles. To account for those who lost their certification in the scandal, others at Malmstrom will be called on to boost the number of alert shifts they perform from eight to 10 per month. In practical terms, that means they'll be working another four days each, since each shift typically lasts more than 24 hours, said a former missileer with knowledge of the work.
Staff officers based at Malmstrom also have picked up some of the vacant alert shifts, and other personnel assigned to 20th Air Force at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming have been sent to Malmstrom temporarily to help provide training and other work as long as the Air Force remains short-handed there, said Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the nuke force. Nuke officers at other bases also could be called on to augment the hurting force at Malmstrom in the future. The Air Force has about 500 launch officers across the service.
"Much like any organization, we have contingency plans in place in case something were to go wrong, much like what happens if the crew force were to get the flu," Wilson said at the news conference.
James toured the three ICBM bases -- Malmstrom, Warren, and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota -- and Global Strike Command headquarters last week to get a better feel for the force and its problems, she said. After meeting with groups of airmen privately, she came away convinced that there are systemic issues, including a culture of "undue stress and fear" that may have driven some of the officers to cheat to get the best score they could.
"I believe that a very terrible irony in this whole situation is that these missileers didn't cheat to pass," she said. "They cheated because they felt driven to get 100 percent. Getting 90 percent or 95 percent was a failure in their eyes."
Wilson said he believes the cheating is confined to Malmstrom because the test in question was conducted only there. Missile units at other bases conducted their own proficiency tests, he said. Still, Wilson said another senior officer, Lt. Gen. James "Mike" Holmes, will examine whether changes need to be made in how testing and training occurs.
Micromanagement from senior commanders also may be an issue, James said. Nevertheless, she and Wilson would not address directly whether any leaders may ultimately lose their jobs as a result of the failures in their units. Instead, they said after the investigation concludes, those found to be culpable for the students' cheating will be "held accountable."
The officers' whose next assignments are held up because of the investigation include Col. Robert Stanley, the commander of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom. He has been nominated pin on a star and become a brigadier general, but still needs confirmation by the Senate. His command is directly at the center of the scandal.
Additionally, Col. Mark Schuler, commander of the 341st Operations Group at Malmstrom, was slated to take command of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot later this year, a congressional source told FP. That move would not come with a promotion in rank, but is widely seen in the nuclear force as a career advancement that would put Schuler on track to become a general officer later. His command is part of the 341st Missile Wing, and is directly responsible for the test administrators and students who were caught cheating, according to a former missileer with knowledge of the 341st.
Air Force photo