US Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James announced Jan. 30 that the number of nuclear force officers implicated in a proficiency test cheating scandal has grown to 92 out of a force of 500. (James Varhegyi / AFP)
Ninety-two officers are now connected to the cheating investigation at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., the US Air Force announced Thursday.
That means almost one-fifth of the entire ICBM officer force has been temporarily decertified and taken off watch duty during the investigation. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who visited the missile bases last week, said the cheating situation shows a deep-seated problem in the ICBM force that needs to be addressed.
“We do have systemic problems,” she said Thursday. “The need for perfection has created undue stress and fear.”
The Air Force announced earlier this month that 34 officers at Malmstrom admitted to either cheating or knowing about cheating following an investigation that started with allegations of illegal drug possession. Since then, the entire ICBM force of about 500 missileers has been retested, with a pass rate of about 95 percent.
James said the 92 officers are all at Malmstrom and were connected to the original test. The Air Force Office of Special Investigation is nearing completion of an investigation at Malmstrom, and that number is not expected to grow by much, she said.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, said that normally missileers pull eight duty shifts per month. With almost half of the force at Malmstrom taken off duty, each remaining missileer is pulling 10 shifts per month. Additionally, airmen in staff positions but who are in the missile career field are going to Malmstrom to help cover shifts. The base is meeting its operational requirements, he said.
Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes, the vice commander of Air Education and Training Command, plans to visit each missile base and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., to assess how missileers are trained and tested. Holmes will produce a report within 30 days.
Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a 60-day review of the ICBM force, including bringing in Navy officials to review best practices. Officials had their first meeting Wednesday and reaffirmed their confidence in the nuclear community, James said.
James said she has directed the group to review seven areas that need to be addressed in the nuclear force:
■ The cultural issue. The need for perfection has caused undue stress on the officers, and commanders can be very punitive if officers score any less than 100 percent on their exams. The level of micromanagement needs to be changed, she said.
■ The distinction between training and testing. Officers need to be able to make mistakes during training and learn, without these mistakes having impact on their careers.
“This is not a healthy environment,” she said.
■ Accountability at all levels. Young airmen, along with leaders, need to be held responsible if necessary. Wilson said that includes leadership at the squadron, wing and numbered Air Force levels.
■ Professional and leadership development. The Air Force needs to assess if airmen are getting the right leadership training, she said.
■ Reinvigorate core values. The failure is one of integrity, and airmen need to refocus on these values, including the need to report any problems, she said.
■ Incentives. The Air Force is looking at new incentive pay, award ribbons and medals for both enlisted airmen and officers as a way to support airmen in the ICBM community.
■ Other investments. The Air Force needs to use more funding to improve quality of life and infrastructure issues at the aging missile bases, she said.
Getting to the bottom of problems with the nuclear community is James’ top priority, Hagel said Friday during her public swearing-in ceremony at the Pentagon, held one month after she officially took office.
Hagel said he is “deeply concerned ... about the overall health, professionalism and discipline” of the Air Force’s nuclear missileer community. “Whatever the factors — historical, institutional, cultural — the Department of Defense and the Air Force will do whatever it takes to ensure the safety, security, reliability, and effectiveness of our nuclear enterprise — because our security will depend on it for many years.”