The growing number of nuclear missile launch officers implicated in a cheating scandal indicated a "systemic" problem in how the Air Force handles the nation's most powerful weapons, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.
"The numbers have gone up in the cheating investigation," said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon Press Secretary.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said last week that at least 34 lieutenants and captains in the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., were suspected of either cheating on a monthly proficiency test or failing to report the cheating.
The Associated Press first reported that the number suspected of cheating at Malmstorn in the 341st Missile Wing had more than doubled. Kirby said the number of cheating suspects had grown from 34, without confirming or denying that at least 64 were now implicated.
Kirby declined comment on whether the cheating was limited to Malmstrom, or had spread to F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., and Minot Air Force Base, N.D., -- the two other bases with missile silos for Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.
The near doubling of the number of officers suspected of cheating would mean that about 14 percent of approximately 500 launch control officers in the Air Force had been at least temporarily suspended from missile duty while the investigation proceeds, the AP said.
The officers in the cheating scandal allegedly texted answers to each other on the monthly test involving knowledge of the launch systems, Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of Staff, said last week.
The impact of the scandal would potentially be more difficult to manage if it were limited to Malmstrom. About 190 officers currently serve in launch operations at Malmstrom. If 64 were implicated, and they were all at Malmstrom, that would mean that more than one-third of the launch officers were under suspicion.
The cheating scandal was a major topic in a Pentagon meeting convened earlier Wednesday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel with James and top Air Force officers involved with the management of the nation's nuclear arsenal and the personnel operating the weapons systems.
At the meeting, "there was a general recognition that -- Yes, there are systemic problems" in Air Force oversight of the ICBM force, Kirby said at a Pentagon briefing.
Earlier Wednesday, at an Air Force Association meeting, James stressed again that the cheating scandal had not compromised the security of the ICBMs.
"The mission is strong," she said. "It remains safe, secure and reliable."
Other than the temporary suspensions, no other disciplinary actions have been taken in the cheating scandal as Air Force officials wait for the completion of the investigation. Col. Robert W. Stanley II, who was in charge of the 341st Missile Wing during the cheating, remains in command.