An embarrassed US Air Force has been forced to act after supervisors uncovered a cheating ring among crew members manning critical launch sites at one of its nuclear missile bases.
The men were allegedly exchanging answers to mandatory monthly proficiency tests by text message.
A total of 34 airmen have been removed from their posts and stripped of their security clearance at the Malstrom Air Force base in Montana, one of three in the US that maintains 450 ready-to-launch nuclear missiles.
The officers implicated, accounting for nearly 20 per cent of the entire missile crew on the base, were either directly involved in the cheating, officials said, or knew it was going on and failed to report it.
The Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh, said the ring may have been largest ever uncovered among those looking after America’s nuclear missiles. “We do not know of an incident of this scale involving cheating in the missile force,” he said.
The discovery is just one more in a series of scandals to have hit US missile operations in recent months and undermined public confidence in them.
The cheating came to light last week as the Air Force was pursuing a probe of 10 airmen, now expanded to 11, accused of recreational drug use. Those identified in the drugs investigation were stationed at a variety of bases across the United States and also at RAF Lakenheath in the UK.
Early last year, 17 airmen assigned to work in the underground capsules where the missiles are monitored and prepared for possible launch were quietly reassigned at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota after the wing scored a “D” in a general competence assessment.
At the time, the group’s commander spoke in an email of “rot” in the ranks and rock-bottom morale. In a separate incident last October, a two-star general who was in command of all of America’s nuclear missile capacity was dismissed because of undisclosed “personal behaviour” issues.
“Cheating or tolerating others who cheat runs counter to everything we believe in as a service. People at every level will be held accountable if and where appropriate,” General Welsh told reporters at the Pentagon while insisting that the answer-sharing would not have materially affected the security of the missiles.
“This is not about the compromise of nuclear weapons. It’s about compromise of the integrity of some of our airmen,” he said
The Air Force Secretary, Deborah James, also sought to play down the security aspect of the affair. “This was a failure of integrity on the part of some of our airmen,” she said. “It was not a failure of our nuclear mission.”
In the wake of the discovery, the US Air Force began re-testing all of those still assigned to the nuclear arsenal. All of those tests, involving 600 crew members across the country, were to have been completed this week.
While during the Cold War the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, ICBM, arsenal was at the heart of America’s defensive pose, today there is little reason for the men watching over it to imagine that they will ever participate in an actual launch.
Earlier this month, the US Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, paid what was meant to be a morale-boosting visit to the Francis E Warren base in Wyoming, also home to some of the missiles.
“You’ve… chosen a profession where there’s no room for error. In what you do every day, there is no room for error. None,” Mr Hagel told the airmen in a pep talk.