Two Air Force nuclear-missile officers are under probe for narcotics possession and have been taken off launch-control duty, the Associated Press reports.
The ICBM-launch personnel are stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Brett Ashworth said. The officers' access to classified information has been frozen while the drug investigation is under way, a different defense official said. No additional details were available about the two officers or the case, according to the AP report.
The revelation that service members with responsibility for launching intercontinental ballistic missiles could be involved with drugs is just the latest in a series of embarrassing incidents that have thrown a fresh spotlight on how the Air Force handles its nuclear-weapons mission.
The service's top ICBM commander -- a two-star general -- was dismissed in October after it was learned he went on a drinking binge and behaved inappropriately during an official visit to Russia in the summer. An ICBM wing at Malmstrom failed a safety and security test last year. Missile launch officers in two different incidents last spring at Malmstrom and Minot Air Force Base, N.D. were found to have violated security regulations designed to prevent intruders from seizing their ICBM-firing keys.
The U.S. arsenal of 450 Minuteman 3 ICBMs is distributed evenly among three bases in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. The operational headquarters for the ground-based missiles is at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., where since 2010 there has been a higher courts-martial rate compared to the general Air Force population.
Last year, there were 12 courts-martial at that base, compared with nine in 2012, 12 the year prior, and eight in 2010, AP reported, citing statistics it received from an open-records request. Approximately 3,100 officers and enlisted personnel work at Warren.
Drug violations in those years were a leading offense. In 2012, the No.1 courts-martial offense was "wrongful use of marijuana," AP separately reported.
News of the drug investigation came shortly before U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave a speech on Thursday at the Wyoming base that was intended to lift airman morale.
The defense chief did not mention the investigation in his speech nor did he specifically address any of the other recent scandals that have plagued the Air Force's nuclear mission. He did hint at lapses in discipline, though, saying, "How you do the job really is as important as the job itself."
"You are doing something of great importance to the world," Hagel said. "You have chosen a profession where there is no room for error -- none."
Hagel's predecessor in the job revealed that dealing with the problems in the Air Force's nuclear mission was "one of my biggest headaches" during his service in the Bush administration, Defense News reported.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his new memoir, "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War," wrote that he was aghast over the August 2007 "Bent Spear incident where a B-52 bomber at Minot was mistakenly loaded with six nuclear missiles and then flown to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
"I was incredulous at such a monumental screw-up," he wrote.
Gates said he knew serious reform was needed after it was revealed that in 2006 ICBM fuse components were inadvertently sent to Taiwan instead of the helicopter batteries the Taiwanese military had ordered.
"Coming on the heels of the Bent Spear incident, it was clear that all hell was going to break loose," Gates wrote, noting that the Defense Department had to convince China the fuse shipment was a mistake and the United States was not trying supply Taiwan with nuclear arms.
Those two incidents led to the 2008 dismissal of the Air Force's top general and civilian leader, and compelled the service to fold its ICBM and bomber wings under a newly formed Global Strike Command.