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Hagel Questions Whether Nuclear Exams are Too Rigorous

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking at the Pentagon on Friday, said the routine certification tests that all Air Force missile-launch officers are required to take could be too difficult and might need to be reevaluated. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking at the Pentagon on Friday, said the routine certification tests that all Air Force missile-launch officers are required to take could be too difficult and might need to be reevaluated. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel thinks the proficiency tests that all Air Force missile-launch officers are required to pass may be too onerous.

"There's a testing issue here," the defense chief was quoted by Stars and Stripes as saying to journalists on Friday at the Pentagon. "We have a pretty significant and tight and unforgiving test curriculum and regimen that I'm not sure doesn't need to be explored and examined in some detail."

In recent weeks, close to three dozen missileers at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. were implicated in a scandal that involved cheating on a routine proficiency exam for nuclear-launch operations last fall. News of the cheating, as well as other recent incidents in the silo-based strategic missile force, prompted Hagel last week to order a thorough review of personnel issues within the military's nuclear weapons mission.

Other scandals over the past few months have included a probe into drug possession by some launch officers and the dismissal of a top commander for unprofessional conduct during a trip to Russia.

Since news of the testing scandal broke, a number of identified and unidentified onetime missile-launch personnel have come forward with personal knowledge of cheating within the missile officer corps. The United States currently fields about 450 Minuteman 3 ICBMs, which launch officers oversee from underground control centers.

Hagel indicated that the rigor of the proficiency exams and the consequences that befall officers who do not test well could have spurred the cheating.

"When you connect that with the high standards [and] expectation that every test you take, if you don’t make a 100 percent on every test then you’re eventually in a position where you probably minimize your chance for advancement," said the former Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska. "We’re going to take a look at how we train [and] continue to train and test all these young people who have who have this great responsibility. Standards must not be eroded, of course not, but is there a better way to do this [and] can we -- can we be more attuned to their interests?"

The loneliness and tediousness of a Minuteman 3 launch officer's job might also play a role in the professionalism and morale problems the force is now seeing, Hagel indicated.

"When you put these people in these locations where there is ... almost a certain amount of isolation, I think that's a dynamic of an environment that you have to factor in, too," he said. "Do they get bored? Are we doing enough?"

The secretary said the Pentagon in its nuclear personnel review would examine offering more job perks to missile-control officers to encourage better performance.

Hagel told reporters he was "deeply concerned" about the "overall health and the professionalism, and discipline of our strategic forces" and that he would be meeting regularly with the senior civilian and military leaders of the Air Force to review their efforts to address the problem.

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