A "culture of fear" made US nuclear weapons officers believe they had to get perfect test scores to be promoted fueled a widening cheating scandal within the military's nuclear missile corps, to Air Force officials have claimed.
Half of 183 launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana – soldiers who would carry out orders to fire ICBM missiles - have been implicated suspended over claims they shared proficiency test answers to pass regular checkups.
Speaking on Thursday in the United States, the secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James and Lieutenant General Stephen Wilson, who heads the Global Strike Command, said Montana base was permeated by a climate of frustration, low morale and other failures.
"These tests have taken on, in their eyes, such high importance, that they feel that anything less than 100 could
well put their entire career in jeopardy" even though they only need a score of 90 to pass, said James, who
only recently took over as secretary. "They have come to believe that these tests are make-it-or-break-it."
"They cheated because they felt driven to get 100 percent," she said.
The launch officers did not cheat to pass the test, "they cheated because they felt driven to get 100 percent", she said.
The implicated officers have been suspended but James said the scandal had not affected the safety or reliability of the military's nuclear mission.
The cheating scandal is the latest in an array of troubles that now have the attention of senior defence officials, including Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The test-fixing was discovered as the Air Force was investigating use of drugs among its officers.
Of the 92 officers implicated so far, as many as 40 were involved directly in the cheating, Wilson said. Others may have known about it but did not report it.
Separately, James said that an investigation into drug possession by officers at several Air Force bases now involves 13 airmen, two more than initially announced.
The drug probe led to the discovery of the cheating problem, when investigators found that launch officers were texting answers to each other.
All 92 officers, nearly 17 percent of the force, have been decertified and taken off the job while the scandal is being investigated.
That means other launch officers and staff must fill in, performing 10 24-hour shifts per month, instead of the usual eight, Wilson said. Staff members from the 20th Air Force, which oversees all of the nuclear missile force, are also being tapped to do the shifts.
The Air Force has 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, on alert at all times.
Each day, 90 officers work in pairs inside 45 underground launch control centers, with each center monitoring and controlling a group of 10 ICBMs.
They work 24-hour shifts in the missile field and then return to their base.
The latest scandal set off a top-level search for solutions, including a round of visits by James to all the nuclear bases, where she met privately with small groups of airmen to get their insights into the problems.
James and Wilson said that the problems underscore the need to develop new testing and training procedures, provide more incentives and rewards for those who perform well, and set up a system that looks at more than test scores when evaluating officers.
Officials have yet to discipline any commanders or officers beyond those who actually took the tests.