(Another) Air Force scandal: cheating by nuclear launch officers

The Air Force has grappled with sexual assault, illegal drug possession, and a boozy general in a Moscow bar, but charges of cheating on the nuclear launch tests hit especially hard.

Beau Wade/US Air Force/AP/File
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh (r.) and Tech. Sgt. Justin Richie ride in a work cage inside the T-9 maintenance trainer at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., on Nov. 20, 2012, The Air Force says that 34 nuclear missile launch officers there have been implicated in a cheating scandal.

The US Air Force officers who hold the keys to America’s nuclear arsenal have another scandal on their hands – one that has the service on the defensive as it fields questions about whether the world’s most destructive weapons are indeed in the hands of competent professionals.

This one involves 16 nuclear launch officers that are accused of getting answers to a monthly missile launch test via text message, 17 that knew their colleagues were cheating but failing to report it, and one who gave them the answers.

In another unhappy twist for the Air Force, the cheating scandal – the biggest one ever uncovered among the military’s nuclear officers, according to Pentagon officials – was discovered while investigators were digging into allegations of narcotics possession by troops in the Air Force Global Strike Command.

It turns out that two of the nuclear officers accused of cheating were found to be in possession of illegal drugs as well.

This all comes on the heels of a top Air Force officer, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, getting drunk in Moscow bars and, according to an internal Air Force report, talking “loudly about the importance of his position as commander of the only operational nuclear force in the world and that he saves the world from war every day.”

Major General Carey was removed from his post as head of US land-based nuclear missiles in October but remains in the military. 

Air Force officials insist that these lapses are no reflection on the overall fitness of the US nuclear force. 

“I am profoundly disappointed in the airmen that were involved in this,” Deborah Lee James, the new Secretary of the Air Force, told Pentagon reporters Wednesday, in her first briefing on the job.

That said, “Based on everything I know today, I have great confidence in the security and effectiveness of our ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] force,” she added. “This was a failure of some of our airmen. It was not a failure of the nuclear mission.”

But doesn’t a failure of the airmen within the mission amount to a failure of the mission itself?

It does not, Ms. James argued. “I have learned that the nuclear system is full of checks and balances,” she assured reporters.

These include “outside inspections that take place on a regular basis” and “multiple tests involved in the system.”

On this point, Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force’s top officer, who was also at the briefing, quickly concurred.

True, troops from a wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, where the cheating scandal took place, failed a nuclear security inspection last August. That failure, however, had “nothing to do with air crew operational procedures” but rather had to do “with a problem in a security scenario,” General Welsh said. 

These forces were given a retest in October, “and they scored the highest possible grade. In November, they had a nuclear operations readiness inspection and scored excellent.” 

This week, the head of Global Strike Command ordered a proficiency test administered to all missile crew members. 

So far, 100 people – or 20 percent of the missile crew force – had taken the test, and 97 of them passed it. “That 97 percent pass rate matches our historical averages,” Welsh said.

Those implicated in the cheating have been decertified and restricted from missile crew duty, with their security clearances suspended.

There will also be other inspections and investigations, he promised. “The integrity issue, clearly, has got to be a concern with this kind of activity at this level. And we’re going to look into this with every means at our disposal.” 

“I’m confident about the mission – not about the integrity of these particular airmen,” James added. “That’s the part that’s so disappointing.” 

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