WASHINGTON — Nearly half of the officers responsible for maintaining and operating nuclear-armed missiles at a Montana base have been implicated in a widening cheating investigation, a sign of deep cultural and command problems in the nuclear force, the leader of the Air Force said Thursday.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at a Pentagon news conference that 92 of 190 launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base had been suspended because of the investigation into the sharing of answers on a proficiency test last year.
For the first time since the Air Force disclosed the cheating scandal this month, officials acknowledged that the cheating stemmed from a climate of fear created by commanders, who decided which officers on launch crews would be promoted based on whether they scored perfectly on monthly tests.
“I believe that we do have systemic problems,” James said. “The need for perfection has created a climate of undue stress and fear.”
The number of implicated officers has nearly tripled since Jan. 15, when the Air Force announced that 16 had shared text messages with answers to a monthly missile proficiency test and that 17 others were aware of the suspected cheating but took no action.
Air Force officials continued to say they had no firm evidence that cheating went beyond the single test last year or that it had occurred at the two other Minuteman III missile bases, one in North Dakota and another in Wyoming. They acknowledge, however, that a climate of fear exists at all three installations.
The 550 launch officers at the three bases take three written tests each month on missile safety, handling of launch codes and classified war plans. They also complete a monthly test in a simulator and an annual inspection, along with periodic unannounced inspections.
Eight times a month, a two-man crew completes a 24-hour shift in an underground launch center.
The cheating investigation is focusing on a “core group” of about 40 officers at Malmstrom who are believed to have been most involved in sharing test answers, said Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, head of the Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees missiles and long-range bombers that carry nuclear weapons.
The rest were aware of the cheating but may not have used the answers, he said.