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Doubling of number implicated in Air Force nuke missile cheating puts more strain on force

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WASHINGTON - The Air Force's nuclear missile corps faces new strains after dozens more officers were implicated in an investigation of cheating on missile-launch proficiency tests. The number implicated in the probe has roughly doubled from the original 34 officers, meaning that about 14 per cent of all launch officers are now sidelined.

Officials on Tuesday said the number of officers implicated now approaches 70 — all at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., which is responsible for 150 Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles, or one-third of the entire Minuteman 3 force.

The officials who disclosed the higher number spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information by name while the investigation is ongoing.

The scandal is one aspect of a growing array of personnel problems facing the Air Force's nuclear missile corps. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel was scheduled to host a meeting Wednesday at the Pentagon of top nuclear officials, including the heads of the Air Force and Navy nuclear weapons organizations, as well as U.S. Strategic Command, which is responsible for nuclear war planning and for oversight of the nuclear forces.

Hagel said last week he was determined to get to the bottom of the problems, which include poor morale, and find quick solutions.

It wasn't immediately clear whether the additional 30-plus airmen suspected of being involved in cheating on proficiency tests are alleged to have participated in the cheating directly or were involved indirectly.

Regardless, a doubling of the number implicated means that more than one-third of certified launch officers at Malmstrom — and approximately 14 per cent of the entire Air Force cadre of nuclear missile launch control officers — has been removed at least temporarily from active missile duty. It was not clear Tuesday how that affects the mission, beyond requiring the remaining crew members to bear a bigger share of the work.

The Air Force announced on Jan. 15 that while it was investigating possible criminal drug use by some airmen, it discovered that one missile officer at Malmstrom had shared test questions with 16 other officers. It said another 17 admitted to knowing about this cheating but did not report it.

The 34 officers had their security clearances suspended and they were taken off missile launch duty.

Lt. Col. John Sheets, a spokesman for Air Force Global Strike Command, which manages the nuclear Air Force, said he could not comment on the number of additional officers implicated in the cheating investigation since last week, but he said all are launch control officers at Malmstrom and all have been removed from performing that duty pending the outcome of the investigation.

The Air Force has 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, on alert at all times, with a contingent of about 500 launch control officers, some number of which are unavailable on any given day due to illness or other reasons. So the number temporarily unavailable for duty because of the cheating scandal is substantial.

Each day, a total of 90 officers work in pairs inside 45 underground launch control centres, with each centre monitoring and controlling a group of 10 ICBMs. They work 24-hour shifts in the missile field and then return to their base. They generally do as many as eight of these shifts per month.

The tests in question are designed to ensure proficiency by launch officers in handling "emergency war orders," which involve the classified processing of orders received through their chain of command to launch a missile. These written tests are in addition to two other types of monthly testing on the missile system and on launch codes.

An Air Force spokesman, Lt. Col. Brett Ashworth, said the Air Force would not discuss details of the cheating investigation, including any change in the number of suspects, until the probe is completed.

The drug and cheating probes are being handled by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

A "profoundly disappointed" Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, the service's top civilian official, told a Pentagon news conference last week that the alleged cheating at Malmstrom was discovered during a previously announced probe of drug possession by 11 officers at several Air Force bases, including at least two who also are in the nuclear force and suspected of participating in the cheating ring.

The Air Force's top general, Mark Welsh, has said the removal of 34 missile launch officers at one time appeared to be the largest such action in the history of the missile force. He said there is "absolutely no excuse" for cheating.

Malmstrom is home to the 341st Missile Wing, which is one of three ICBM groups. The other two are in North Dakota and Wyoming.

The cheating scandal is the latest in a series of Air Force nuclear stumbles. The Associated Press revealed a number of them, including deliberate violations of safety rules, failures of inspections, breakdowns in training and evidence that the men and women who operate the missiles from underground command posts are suffering burnout.

In October, the two-star general then in charge of the ICBM force, Michael Carey, was fired for engaging in embarrassing behaviour, including drunkenness, while leading a U.S. delegation to a nuclear exercise in Russia. He was replaced by Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein.

Hagel last week ordered a review of the problems inside the ICBM force and said he would assemble a group of outside experts to look for solutions.

Hagel has raised the possibility of reconsidering the way ICBM launch crews are tested.

"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," Hagel told a news conference Friday.

"Obviously, our standards can never be compromised," he said. "This is a business of error-free management. And when you connect that with the high standard expectation at every test you take, if you don't make a 100 per cent on every test, then you're eventually in a position where you probably minimize your chance for advancement."

Hagel added: "We're going to take a look at how we train and continue to train and test all these young people who have this great responsibility."

___

Follow Robert Burns on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP

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