The Air Force has removed nine leaders in the service's nuclear force and watched a tenth officer resign after a broad and embarrassing cheating scandal that exposed systemic problems in the organization that handles the United States' arsenal of nuclear missiles. The shakeup, announced Thursday by top service officials, amounts to an unprecedented overhaul of those in leadership at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, where an investigation found that dozens of officers cheated on monthly proficiency tests.
The officers who have been fired from their posts at Malmstrom include Col. Mark Schuler, who commanded the 341st Operations Group at Malmstrom that administered the test on which dozens of Air Force missileers were caught cheating. Col. Rob Stanley, Malmstrom's top commander, was allowed to resign his post as commander of the 341st Missile Wing and will retire as a colonel. He had been selected for a advancement to brigadier general, but will not be promoted. Schuler and eight other officers were removed from their positions due to a lack of confidence in their ability to lead, effectively eliminating the bulk of Malmstrom's senior leadership.
Read more from FP on the cheating scandal at Malmstrom Air Force Base
- February 7: Text messing: SMS-ing classified information creates problems for nuke force.
- January 30: Nuke base gets outside help as cheating scandal mushrooms.
- January 29: Nuke cheating scandal puts promotions for Air Force brass on ice.
- January 15: First drugs, now cheating: the Air Force nuke scandal just got bigger
"None of these leaders were directly involved in a test compromise, but the command-directed investigation indicated that they failed to provide adequate oversight of their crew force," Air Force Secretary Deborah James told reporters at the Pentagon.
Air Force officials first acknowledged the cheating in January, saying that at least 34 of the estimated 190 nuclear officers at Malmstrom either cheated on a monthly launch officer proficiency test, or knew colleagues who did and did nothing. The investigation was spurred by authorities probing undetermined drug use by three missileers at Malmstrom, and discovering test material on their personal cell phones that suggested cheating was likely.
That in itself amounted to a striking admission for a force that has historically prided itself on a zero-defects culture. The reality was even worse, however. Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson of the Air Force's Global Strike Command said Thursday that the investigation discovered potential cheating going back as far as November 2011, and as recently as November 2013. The number of individuals investigated now stands at 100, the general said. On the most serious side, at least eight officers face allegations of illegally handling classified material - the test answers - and three still face drug charges, he said.
Of the 100 ensnared by the probe, nine have been cleared, and will be retrained and allowed to return to duty. Depending on their level of involvement, those facing allegations could face punishment ranging from letters of counseling in their career file to courts-martial. A breakdown provided by the Air Force on Thursday shows that 31 are accused of receiving test materials; 17 are accused of soliciting, sending and receiving test materials; 13 are accused of sending and receiving test materials. Only five are accused of the smallest allegations -- being aware of the cheating and saying nothing about it.
The other officers removed from their jobs include the commanders of the 10th, 12th and 490th missile squadrons, the commander of the 341st Operational Support Squadron, the deputy commander of the 341st Operations Group, and the director of operations from the 341st Operational Support Squadron and the 10th Missile Squadron. The operations group's standardization and evaluation officer also was removed. Stanley already has been replaced by Col. Tom Wilcox, a career nuclear security forces officer.
James, who has traveled the country since January to meet with missileers, said it will take a while to improve all of the issues the nuclear force is facing. The service is examining ways to fund renovation projects and potential financial incentives to make working in the field more appealing.
"The issues that we have before us today are tough, and they didn't come over night. They have been years in the making," James said. "They're not going to get solved overnight. While we have made progress in certain areas in recent years, there is more work to be done."
Stanley told airmen at Malmstrom in a letter that if his decision to resign and retire influences "just one airman to stand up for what's right the next time they are confronted by immorality, it will have been worth every tear and sleepless night.
"I represent this wing to the world, and we let the American people down on my watch," he said in his letter, first published on Thursday by the Great Falls Tribune in Montana. "With that realization, and the genuine hope that my action will stir even the most apathetic hearts to action, I have decided to volunteer my resignation from this post effective immediately."
Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder / U.S. Air Force