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Hagel Holds Top-Level Meeting on Nuclear Personnel Problems

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday convened a top-level meeting of military officials to review problems in the nuclear corps.

The Pentagon gathering included the heads of U.S. Strategic Command and the Navy and Air Force nuclear-arms operations, the Associated Press reported. The focus of the session was to examine whether any nuclear workforce environment issues are causing Air Force missile launch officers to feel they have no choice other than to cheat on certification exams.

Unidentified officials told AP earlier this week that at least 70 missile officers at the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana have been implicated in a fall 2013 cheating incident. The tests were intended to assess missileer proficiency in responding to "emergency war orders" on the firing of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Defense Department spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby told journalists there was a "general consensus" at Wednesday's meeting "that there probably are systemic issues in the personnel growth and development inside the nuclear mission."

Hagel intends to hold similar meetings on a "regular basis," Kirby said.

In addition to allegations of widespread cheating on missile proficiency exams, some Air Force launch-control officers are being investigated for drug possession. Other crew have been found to have violated security protocols by napping while on duty with blast doors open in underground missile-launch centers.

Kirby said Wednesday's two-hour meeting was "very useful," according to a Pentagon press story.

"There were lots of good ideas floated about things that need to be considered and looked at by everybody, not just by the United States Air Force," he said.

Due to the cheating probe, all promotions of senior officers in the Air Force's nuclear mission have been frozen, Foreign Policy reported on Wednesday.

In recent days, a number of former nuclear-missile officers -- some identified, some not -- have asserted that for years, higher-ranking Air Force officers have been aware of cheating on the proficiency exams and even abetted it in order to advance their own careers.

Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. John Sheets said the service is reassessing "all senior leadership moves within the 20th Air Force," which manages and operates the nation's arsenal of about 450 Minuteman 3 silo-based ballistic missiles.

"No final decisions have been made pending the outcome of the ongoing investigation," Sheets told the magazine.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James at a Wednesday breakfast was quoted by the Air Force Times as saying, "The need for perfection [in the nuclear mission] has created way too much stress and way too much fear."

The service's top civilian leader said better pay incentives are being studied as an option for encouraging greater retention in the Air Force nuclear sector.

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