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Jan. 16, 2014: Thirty-four missile launch officers assigned to the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Mont., were involved in a cheating incident during a nuclear proficiency test, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James announced during a Jan. 15 Pentagon briefing. 

All the officers involved—ranked second lieutenant through captain—have had their nuclear certifications stripped, their security clearances suspended, and are now restricted from missile crew duty, said Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh during the same briefing.

In August, the same wing, which oversees 150 of the nation's 450 Minuteman III ICBMs, received an unsatisfactory rating on another nuclear surety inspection, after having made “tactical-level errors during one of several exercises conducted during the inspection.”

The cheating scandal came to light as officials with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations looked into a recent illegal drug case against 11 Air Force officers spanning six bases in the US and England.

A missile launch officer at the 341st MW allegedly sent the answers to a nuclear proficiency test via text messages to 16 other missile launch officers last fall, said Welsh.

“Some officers [cheated], others apparently knew about it, and ... did nothing, or ... not enough to stop it, or to report it,” said James. “This is absolutely unacceptable behavior.” 

After the cheating was discovered, US Strategic Command boss Adm. Cecil Haney ordered the entire ICBM force to take another nuclear proficiency test by close of business Jan. 16, said James.

There are roughly 190 missile launch officers at Malmstrom, according to Welsh, and as far as he knows, this is the largest known cheating incident in the missile community, he said.

The nuclear community has come under fire following several embarrassing incidents over the last year.

In April, the Air Force sidelined 19 launch control officers at the 91st Missile Wing at Minot AFB, N.D., after they received a poor, yet passing grade, in missile crew operations. Within a few months, most of the 19 officers were able to return to duty after completing recertification training.

Also in April, a crew member at Minot was found “derelict in his duties” after leaving the silo blast door open for a food delivery while the second crew member was on authorized sleep.

A month later, a maintenance team at Malmstrom was allowed into the launch control center while a crew member was sleeping. In addition, the crew’s commander ordered the deputy to lie about the incident, reported CNN.

And, in November an unpublished RAND study, reported by the Associated Press, found that members of the nuclear missile force have a low job satisfaction and often feel job-related “burnout.”

Despite being “profoundly disappointed in the airmen ... involved,” James maintains she has “great confidence in the security and the effectiveness” of the ICBM force because the nuclear mission “is full of checks and balances,” she said. The officers were found cheating on just one of their multiple tests, she said, and “though this is serious, [it] does not make or break an entire system.”

“This was a failure of some of our airmen; it was not a failure of the nuclear mission,” she added.

James, Welsh, and Haney are slated to make a trip out to F. E. Warren AFB, Wyo., Malmstrom, and Minot next week to emphasize the importance of the nuclear mission.