Newspaper article International New York Times

92 Suspended for Missile Exam Cheating ; U.S. Air Force Officers on Nuclear Teams Shared Proficiency Test Answers

Newspaper article International New York Times

92 Suspended for Missile Exam Cheating ; U.S. Air Force Officers on Nuclear Teams Shared Proficiency Test Answers

Article excerpt

The Air Force has acknowledged a "systemic problem" in the culture of the team that is entrusted to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The United States Air Force says it has now suspended 92 officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base -- nearly half of the nuclear launch crew there -- in a cheating scandal, and it has acknowledged a "systemic problem" in the culture of the team that is entrusted to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Air Force secretary, Deborah Lee James, said a "climate of fear" that was pervasive in the ballistic missile force might have encouraged launch officers to share answers to monthly proficiency tests. The nation's nuclear arsenal remains safe, she said Thursday.

For now, the 92 officers who have been suspended and decertified are barred from the underground missile capsules from which ICBMs are launched. The remaining launch crew members at the Montana base - - just under 100 -- will now perform extra duty on 24-hour standby, Defense Department officials said, and will spend at least 10 days a month in the missile capsules, up from eight.

"This situation remains completely unacceptable," Ms. James said in her second news conference in two weeks to discuss the case.

The cheating came to light during an inquiry into illegal drug possession, when investigators discovered that test answers were being sent in text messages to the missile launch officers' cellphones.

The cheating is only the latest in a series of scandals for the Air Force, but is particularly alarming. "You know what the bumper sticker says, 'one nuclear weapon can ruin your whole day,"' said Loren B. Thompson, a military expert and the chief executive of the Lexington Institute, a research group.

Malmstrom, near Great Falls, is one of three bases that oversee the country's arsenal of 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Air Force officials say that they have retested about 500 launch officers at the three bases, and that all but 22 of them passed, with an average score of 95 percent. Lt. Gen. Stephen W. Wilson, commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, said that Defense Department officials did not believe the cheating at Malmstrom extended to the country's other nuclear launch sites because the tests at each base are different. …

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