Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered a security review of the nation's nuclear arsenal and the personnel in charge of the weapons following a major cheating scandal and allegations of drug abuse in the Air Force nuclear missile force.
Hagel was confident in the safety, security and efficient operation of the nation's triad of nuclear missiles, bombers and submarines, but the recent charges involving the intercontinental ballistic missile force has given him "pause," Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon's Press Secretary, said Thursday.
In a memo to senior military leaders in all the services, Hagel said that "personnel failures within this force threaten to jeopardize the trust the American people have placed in us to keep our nuclear weapons safe and secure."
"Combined with other recent lapses by those responsible for overseeing our strategic deterrence enterprise, the allegations that have been raised recently also raise legitimate concerns about the department's stewardship of one of our most sensitive and important missions," Hagel said in the memo.
The memo was first reported by the Associated Press and later read at a Pentagon news briefing by Kirby. Hagel ordered the senior commanders to report back to him in 60 days on their initial findings, Kirby said.
"We're confident in the professionalism of the majority of the (nuclear) force," Kirby said, but "the Secretary's concern today really was more centered on people issues" involving the culture of nuclear mission personnel and the stresses under which they work, particularly in the ICBM force, Kirby said.
Last Wednesday, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of Staff, disclosed that 34 lieutenants and captains at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., were under investigation in a cheating scandal involving the monthly proficiency test for missileers.
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.
Following the cheating disclosure last week, Kirby said that Hagel has been considering pay raises and other incentives to boost the flagging morale of young officers in the missile force.
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, Kirby said.
Crew members who oversee those missiles spend 24-hour shifts underground in a 12-by-20 foot steel-and-concrete capsule, designed to withstand a nuclear attack. Each missile carries up to three warheads, capable of reaching a target 6,000 miles away in about 20 minutes should a presidential order come down.
Immediately after the cheating disclosures, the Air Force ordered the re-testing of the entire force in charge of the 450 Minuteman III ICBMs in silos around Malmstron, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and F.E. Warren Air Force Basse in Wyoming.
Kirby said that 481 of the 499 young officers had been retested and about 95 percent had passed. The 22 who failed would be re-trained and retested, Kirby said, and the 18 who missed the test because of leave or temporary duty would have makeup dates.
The test that 17 of the 34 officers cheated on was a monthly launch officer proficiency test. One missile officer texted answers to the monthly test to 16 other officers. Air Force investigators found out that an additional 17 missile officers knew about the cheating and didn't take part, but failed to report it.
This is just one of a string of problems discovered within the Air Force's missile community. In October, the 20th Air Force commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, was fired for conduct unbecoming an officer after he was excessively drunk and socializing with "suspect" women, according to an IG report.
In August, 17 officers from the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom were temporarily relieved for failing safety and security inspections. The wing as a whole failed a key nuclear inspection that month before passing the retest in October. In November, the Associated Press reported on heightened levels of misconduct like spousal abuse within the missile community.
Col. Robert W. Stanley II, the 341st Missile Wing commander, told the Associated Press that his unit was "broken hearted" over the discovery of the cheating ring and the airmen felt they let the country down.
In 2008, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates launched an investigation into the Air Force's nuclear force after nuclear missile components were mistakenly shipped to Taiwan. A year earlier airmen accidentally flew six nuclear warheads from North Dakota to Louisiana. Gates fired the Air Force secretary and chief of staff following the second of two investigations.
When asked if the investigation would result in similar firings, Kirby said it was too early to tell and Hagel was waiting on the results of the investigation.