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Air Force Suspends 34 ICBM Officers Involved in Cheating on Exams

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens as Air Force Capt. Erin Gentile, missile combat crew commander, describes her duties during a visit last week to the E-01 Missile Alert Facility and Launch Control Center near Cheyenne, Wyo. The service announced on Wednesday that 34 ICBM launch officers at a Montana base had been implicated in a proficiency-test cheating scandal. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens as Air Force Capt. Erin Gentile, missile combat crew commander, describes her duties during a visit last week to the E-01 Missile Alert Facility and Launch Control Center near Cheyenne, Wyo. The service announced on Wednesday that 34 ICBM launch officers at a Montana base had been implicated in a proficiency-test cheating scandal. (U.S. Defense Department photo)

The Air Force announced on Wednesday that 34 ICBM officers at a Montana base had been implicated in a proficiency-test cheating scandal.

"There was cheating that took place with respect to this particular test," said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon. "Some officers did it. Others apparently knew about it, and it appears that they did nothing, or at least not enough, to stop it or to report it."

The service learned last weekend about the alleged cheating in the course of a separate investigation into drug possession by some airmen, including three ICBM officers with the Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the nation's 450 Minutemen 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Over the past year, the command has been embarrassed by one scandal after another including the dismissal of the top ICBM commander -- a two-star general -- for excessive drinking and improper behavior during an official visit to Russia in 2013.

In the latest scandal, one ICBM officer was discovered to have transmitted at least one text message with test answers to 16 other officers, according to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh. An additional 17 other launch officers confessed to knowing about the cheating, the Associated Press reported.

The service chief said the alleged cheating took place in August and September.

The nearly three dozen missile-launch officers at the Malmstrom Air Force Base have had their security clearances canceled, the New York Times reported. Pentagon officials maintain that the alleged cheating did not endanger the country's nuclear weapons, though Welsh acknowledged he had never heard of such a wide-ranging cheating incident in the ICBM officer corps.

"This is not about the compromise of nuclear weapons," Welsh told reporters.

Former ICBM-launch officer Bruce Blair said the Air Force's requirement that launch officers receive perfect scores on their regular proficiency assessments contributes to the cheating, which he said is common among the officers.

"Perfection is demanded of all of these crew members, and it's an impossible standard," he said.

Blair -- co-founder of the Global Zero movement that seeks worldwide nuclear disarmament -- said it was also common during his time in service decades ago for missile crews on launch duty to nap in the underground control center with the blast door left open. This is a violation of rules designed to prevent an intruder from gaining access to the ICBM-firing keys.

Next week, the Air Force secretary will visit ICBM bases for talks on ways to avert any further cheating. All 600 ICBM crew personnel, including the 190 officers at the Montana base, on Thursday are to be retested on their proficiency knowledge.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is "deeply troubled" by the reports of deception in testing and he "strongly supports the aggressive steps the Air Force is taking in response," Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement. The secretary wants to be kept closely informed about the cheating probe and ordered the Air Force to prioritize ensuring "the health of the ICBM force," he said.

"We don't yet 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," Welsh, the Air Force chief, told reporters.

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