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Cheating scandal only latest embarrassment for U.S. nuclear force

AP Photo/U.S. Air Force, Beau Wade

Air Force personnel ride inside the T-9 maintenance trainer at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana in 2012. The Air Force says 34 nuclear missile launch officers at Malmstrom have been implicated in a cheating scandal.

Safety lapses, binge drinking, drug use — the list of embarrassments plaguing the military’s nuclear force continues to grow, raising worries that the nation’s arsenal is not in good hands.

In the latest blow, 34 U.S. Air Force officers in Montana are accused of cheating on a monthly exam that tests their knowledge of missile launch systems — perhaps the biggest scandal of its kind for the force. The officers were suspended and stripped of their security clearances, officials said Wednesday.

This string of setbacks for the Air Force — centering on a department responsible for the country’s classified and sensitive nuclear arsenal — is the product of a shift in priorities, says one military historian.

“The guys and gals sitting in the missile silos think that nobody cares about them,” Robert L. Goldich, a former defense analyst for the Congressional Research Service for more than 30 years, told NBC News. “It’s a program starved of resources.”

He said the department’s problems stem from the shift of importance given to the country’s nuclear program. While there are still nuclear threats to the U.S., the urgency associated with it compared to other military programs is at a lower priority than it was during the Cold War, he added.

Low morale, jobs in isolating locales and stress associated with always needing to be on alert can take their toll on men and women expected to be perfect, he added.

“I wouldn’t be shocked if six months to a year from now we hear of more misconduct,” Goldich said.

One of the biggest exam-cheating scandals in Air Force history has resulted in 34 nuclear missile launch officers being pulled from their jobs for cheating on a proficiency exams. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the nuclear arsenal, said he was “disappointed” and is calling Air Force leaders to “redouble their efforts to investigate.”

“Sen. Udall is very concerned about these allegations of misconduct,” spokesman James Owens told NBC News, adding that he will “determine how his subcommittee should respond to these allegations based on what we learn from the investigation.”

In announcing the cheating allegations, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, told reporters at the Pentagon that the nation’s nukes haven’t been compromised.

Instead, he offered, the cheating is “about compromise of the integrity of some of our airmen.”

But that integrity is already following a disturbing pattern, observers say. Among the failings:

● The cheating scandal, which involves officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, only came to light after officials were in the midst of a separate illegal narcotics investigation involving 11 officers at six bases, including Malmstrom.

● Seventeen officers at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota were deemed temporarily unfit for duty and given weeks of remedial training last April after safety violations were uncovered.

● The Air Force fired Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, commander of the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, in October after a report found he had been binge drinking and acting rudely during a trip to Moscow.

● At least twice in 2013, Air Force officials punished officers who left blast doors open in their underground command posts while they were sleeping — a breach that could allow an intruder to break in and compromise security, The Associated Press reported.

● The AP last fall also released findings in an unpublished RAND Corp. report that said members of the nuclear missile force were feeling “burnout” and stress from the job.

In the cheating scandal, the monthly proficiency tests aren’t described as being particularly difficult. The questions have been comprised of multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions, as well those requiring written-out responses.

But there is the expectation that officers need to attain perfect scores if they want to stay out of their commanders’ cross hairs and earn coveted positions. Those commanders, in turn, also want bragging rights for their squadron, observers say.

Andrew Neal, a former Air Force captain and launch officer, said he observed low morale while stationed at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming — although everyone worked hard.

“I’m not surprised this is happening,” he said of the scandals, “given the intense pressures that the crew members are expected to perform through on a daily basis.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Related:

● 34 nuclear officers cheated on tests, Air Force officials say