US Air Force suspend 34 airman manning critical nuclear missile launch sites after discovering they cheated on proficiency tests by text

In the wake of the finding at the Malstrom base in Montana, the Air Force has begun re-testing all of those still assigned to the nuclear arsenal

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

MBDA UK Ltd: Electronic Sub-System Design Verification engineer

Flexible working, annual bonus, pension & more.: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the oppor...

MBDA UK Ltd: Test Systems Architect

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity? MBDA has e...

MBDA UK Ltd: Test Systems Design Engineer

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity?MBDA has en...

MBDA UK Ltd: PCB Technologies Engineer

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity?MBDA has en...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor