Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been considering pay raises and other incentives to boost the flagging morale of young officers in the nation's nuclear missile force, which has been rocked by a major drug and cheating scandal.
Hagel was "open to considering the potential for some incentives" in the way of pay and education benefits for the missileers charged with launch operations for the nation's Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon Press Secretary.
Kirby said Hagel discussed incentives with several young officers from the missile force last week during a visit to F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming and told them that "he's willing to think about it."
On Wednesday, new Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, disclosed that 34 missile officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., were under investigation in a cheating scandal involving the monthly proficiency test for missileers.
Welsh said that the 34 allegedly either cheated or knew that cheating was going on and failed to report it. All 34 were suspended from duty and had their security clearances lifted while the investigation proceeds.
Two of the Malmstrom officers suspected in the cheating scandal, and a third nuclear missile officer from another Air Force base, are also suspects in a drug possession investigation that has thus far implicated a total of 11 officers at several Air Force bases, Pentagon officials said.
The morale of the missileers has been a major Air Force concern for several years that has seen a series of scandals that raised questions about the security and reliability of the nation's most powerful weapons.
Last October, Air Force Gen. Michael Carey, commander of the 20th Air Force in charge of the ICBMs at three bases, was relieved of duty because of a "loss of confidence" in his leadership.
An Air Force Inspector General's later charged that Carey had been drunk and disorderly last year on a trip to Moscow for a nuclear security exercise.
At a Pentagon briefing, Kirby said that the entire officer corps in the nuclear missile force was being re-tested. On Wednesday, 277 of the 497 officers had been retested and 97 percent had passed, Kirby said. The re-testing of the rest of the officers was expected to be completed Thursday.
The 34 officers implicated in the cheating scandal would be re-tested if they were returned to duty, Kirby said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also met Thursday with James to urge that the investigation be pursued aggressively to determine whether higher-ups in the chain of command may have been responsible.
"There could be something larger afoot here," Kirby said. Hagel's instructions to James were to "let the investigation take you where it may," Kirby said.