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Launch airmen cheat on exams that test readiness in times of emergency

| Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Chuck Hagel on Jan. 9 made the first visit to a nuclear missile launch control center by a Defense secretary in more than three decades.

WASHINGTON — At what point do breakdowns in discipline put the country's nuclear security in jeopardy?

And when does a string of embarrassing episodes in arguably the military's most sensitive mission become a pattern of failure?

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is concerned “there could be something larger afoot here,” according to his chief spokesman, and “wants this taken very, very seriously.”

The disclosures of disturbing behavior by nuclear missile officers are mounting and now include alleged drug use and exam cheating. Yet Air Force leaders insist the trouble is episodic, correctible and not cause for public worry.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, just four weeks into her tenure as the service's top civilian official, told reporters Wednesday that the Air Force's chief investigative arm is investigating 11 officers at six bases who are suspected of illegal drug possession.

She said that probe led to a separate investigation of dozens of nuclear missile launch officers for cheating on routine tests of their knowledge of the tightly controlled procedures required to launch missiles under their control.

At least 34 launch officers, all at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., have had their security clearances suspended and are not allowed to perform launch duties pending the outcome of the investigation.

They stand accused of cheating, or tolerating cheating by others, on a routine test of their knowledge of how to execute “emergency war orders.” Those are the highly classified procedures the officers would use, upon orders from the president, to launch their nuclear-tipped missiles.

The commander at Malmstrom, Col. Robert W. Stanley II, said in a telephone interview Friday it's not “off base” to think that the cheating points to a deeper problem in the intercontinental ballistic missile force.

“But I do think it's far more than just us. I think this is a sort of cultural thing our society is going through” in which too many people have grown accustomed to “putting blinders on and just walking past problems.”

This is reflected in the cheating scandal, he said, where 17 of the 34 did not cheat but knew about the cheating and failed to report it.

“In ICBMs, we can't tolerate that,” Stanley said.

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