All 500 members of the nation's land-based nuclear missile crew were to have retaken a proficiency test by Thursday evening in the wake of a scandal in which 34 Air Force officers are accused of having cheated on the text or of having failed to report cheaters.
The 34 officers, all of whom work at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, were decertified, had their security clearances suspended and can no longer work with the intercontinental ballistic missiles at the base.
"There was cheating that took place with respect to this particular test," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told Pentagon reporters Wednesday. "Some officers did it. Others apparently knew about it, and it appears they did nothing, or at least not enough, to stop it or to report it. Now, this is absolutely unacceptable behavior, and it is completely contrary to our core values in the Air Force."
The test cheaters were discovered during an ongoing separate investigation into drug use, James said, and two of the cheaters have been implicated in that probe. Both probes are being conducted by the Air Force Office of Special Investigation.
One airman used text messages to share answers to a monthly proficiency test with at least 16 other officers, and at least 17 additional officers knew about the cheating but did not report it, Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, said.
The cheating scandal is the latest problem for the commanders and officers who run the nation's nuclear weapons programs.
Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, commander of the 20th Air Force, was fired in October after investigators found that he'd gotten drunk in public and had inappropriate relationships with two foreign women while on an earlier trip to Russia.
Around the same time, President Barack Obama removed Vice Adm. Tim Giardina from his post as deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Giardiana allegedly used counterfeit poker chips at the Horseshoe Council Bluffs Casino in Iowa, near Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, where the U.S. Strategic Command is headquartered.
Earlier last year, a commander at the Malmstrom base and 17 officers at the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota were disciplined following failed inspections or poor evaluations.
An internal report obtained last year by the Associated Press said many ICBM launch officers were feeling burned out by their high-stress jobs.
STRATCOM oversees the nation's triad of nuclear missiles delivered from land, air and sea. The 20th Air Force is responsible for the Minuteman 3 missiles built to deliver the country's land-based, long-range nuclear weapons.
James said that she will move up previously planned trips and travel next week to the Malmstrom and Minot bases, along with F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. The bulk of the nation's ICBMs are at those bases.
James said the country's nuclear weapons are still well secured and in good hands despite the spate of problems involving the officers who oversee them.
"This was a failure of integrity on the part of some of our airmen," she said of the test cheating. "It was not a failure of our nuclear mission."
James said she met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday to brief him on the cheating scandal, broader problems and planned corrective steps.
"We've decertified all 34 officers involved," Welsh said. "They are restricted from missile crew duty. Their security clearances have been suspended."
Welsh said he did not know of any previous instance in which so many missile launch officers had been decertified at the same time. He said the punished officers range in rank from second lieutenant to captain.
Welsh acknowledged that the 156 launch officers who remain in place at the Malmstrom base are having to work extra hours in order to make up for the absence of the 34 decertified "missiliers," the military's name for the man and women who command U.S. nuclear forces.
About 500 officers at the three Air Force bases were to retake the proficiency test Wednesday and Thursday, Welsh said.
Welsh said that Gen. Martin Dempsey and Adm. Cecil D. Haney, the new head of STRATCOM, will be involved with the continuing dual investigations of the text-cheating scandal and narcotics abuse.
Eleven officers at six Air Force bases have been implicated in the drug case, Welsh said. Three of the officers handled nuclear weapons at the Malmstrom and Warren bases, he said.
Welsh was asked whether the string of problems is tied to a loss of glamor for nuclear weapons jobs from when they were at the center of U.S. military strategy during the Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union.
"We are committed to making sure that our nuclear airmen understand how critical they are to everything that this nation stands for in terms of security posture," Welsh responded.