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More black eyes for nuke command

Jan 16, 2014 - The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- In what may be the biggest such scandal in Air Force history, 34 officers entrusted with land-based nuclear missiles have been pulled off the job for alleged involvement in a cheating ring that officials say was uncovered during a drug probe.

As part of the announcement Wednesday of the alleged cheating, the Air Force said three ICBM launch officers -- two at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana and one at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming -- were among 11 officers at six bases implicated in an illegal-narcotics investigation.

The 34 are suspected of cheating several months ago on a routine proficiency test that includes checking missile launch officers' knowledge of how to handle an "emergency war order," which is the term for the authorization required to launch a nuclear weapon.

The cheating scandal is the latest in a series of Air Force nuclear stumbles documented in recent months by The Associated Press, including deliberate violations of safety rules, failures of inspections, breakdowns in training and evidence that the men and women who operate the missiles from underground command posts are suffering burnout. In October the general who commands the nuclear missile force was fired for engaging in embarrassing behavior, including drunkenness, while leading a U.S. delegation to a nuclear exercise in Russia.

The AP disclosed in May an internal Air Force email in which a missile operations officer complained that his force was infested with "rot" -- bad attitudes and disregard for discipline.

On Oct. 11, the Air Force fired Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, commander of the 20th Air Force who had been stationed at Warren AFB, which is responsible for the entire Minuteman 3 missile force, amid an investigation of an alcohol-related complaint. This happened two days after a Navy admiral who was second-in-command at U.S. Strategic Command, the military's main nuclear war-fighting command, was relieved of duty amid a gambling-related investigation.

A "profoundly disappointed" Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, the service's top civilian official, told a hurriedly arranged Pentagon news conference Wednesday that the alleged cheating at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., was discovered during a previously announced probe of drug possession by 11 officers at several Air Force bases, including two in the nuclear force who are among the 34 suspected of cheating.

"This is absolutely unacceptable behavior," James said of the cheating, which Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said could be the biggest such scandal in the history of the missile force.

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