The Complex

New Nuclear Scandal Rocks Navy

It turns out the Air Force isn't the only service with a cheating scandal in the ranks of its nuclear force.

With the Air Force grappling with growing evidence of systemic wrongdoing among its nuclear personnel, the Navy announced Tuesday that, it, too has uncovered a similar problem at a nuclear propulsion base in Charleston, S.C.

Senior Navy officials said they'd already fingered 30 sailors but acknowledged that the total numbers could grow. And if the Air Force scandal is any indication, they will: Air Force commanders first said 34 officers were implicated, only to later raise that estimate to 92. They now say the true figure is likely to be even higher.

Tuesday's announcement means the hot seat the Air Force has been occupying for the last several weeks must now be shared with the Navy, the only other service that operates nuclear systems.

Navy officials said that that a sailor-instructor from the nuclear power training unit in Charleston had come forward after colleagues asked if he or she wanted to participate in a cheating ring. The alleged ring includes senior enlisted personnel who allegedly shared information about how to pass proficiency tests designed to measure their knowledge of naval nuclear reactors.

As Navy officials put it, their system worked: the senior sailor rebuffed the personnel running the cheating ring and immediately alerted the program's chain of command. Navy officials, who had already begun a review of their own nuclear force after the Air Force scandal came to light, said they were conducting a formal investigation into the alleged incident.

"To say that I'm disappointed would be an understatement whenever I hear about integrity issues," said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, who was accompanied at a last-minute press briefing at the Pentagon by the head of the Navy's Nuclear Propulsion Program, Adm. John Richardson.

Navy officials said there are about 16,000 sailors in the Navy's nuclear propulsion program; so far, "less than 1 percent" of them are potentially implicated in the incident. A Navy official put the number of senior sailors who had been decertified at about 30 thus far.

The incident took place in a schoolhouse used for courses on nuclear power propulsion, and Navy officials were quick to stress that their problems - unlike those in the Air Force - did not involve personnel with direct access to nuclear weapons. The test in question measures a sailor's knowledge about one of the 11 "watch stations" on a nuclear reactor.

"I take full responsibility for this incident - it is mine to investigate and to correct," Richardson told reporters.

The Air Force said late last week that as many as 92 nuclear force officers were implicated in a test cheating scandal for a proficiency test. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the cheating had thus far been confined to officers at the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. As first reported by Foreign Policy, the scandal at Malmstrom has put all of the promotions for its senior officers on hold, including at least one colonel who had been nominated to become a general officer.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has also ordered a number of reviews of the nuclear force.

Air Force exams require officers to score 90 percent or higher on the proficiency tests, and those stringent requirements are seen as a possible reason so many appear to have cheated.

Richardson said no such dynamic exists in the testing regimen within the Navy.

"With respect to the morale, we and the necessity to pass these exams in order to advance, that's not really a dimension in our program," he said. "We do not have that kind of 90 percent and above type of dynamic in our program... and so we don't really see that being a dynamic here."

For Richardson and the Navy's other top brass, that means the mystery of why so many sailors appear to have cheated on key tests may be even harder to resolve.

SAUL LOEB/AFP

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