The Air Force's new secretary said the service will hold the officers involved in the nuclear cheating scandal, as well as the leaders above them, accountable, but stopped short of saying whether the unit commander will be disciplined.
Deborah Lee James, a former industry executive and staffer on Capitol Hill, said the issue has consumed her attention during her first two months in the Air Force's top job. Last month, she held a press conference at the Pentagon to announce that 92 launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. -- about half of the missileers on the post and more than initially assumed -- were involved in cheating on a monthly proficiency test.
The incident came several months after the Air Force temporarily removed more than a dozen officers from similar positions at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., following inspection failures and several years after a B-52 mistakenly loaded with nuclear warheads flew across the country, triggering a widespread investigation and reorganization within the service.
"There is going to be accountability in this matter," James said during a panel discussion on Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "There certainly will be appropriate accountability for the individuals who participated in the incident. We're also assessing leadership accountability. So there needs to be accountability and there will be."
James, a former executive at the defense contractor SAIC Inc. and staff member on the House Armed Services Committee, appeared at the event with Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson. He commands Global Strike Command, which oversees the service's nuclear mission, including the three missile wings responsible for operating the service's fleet of Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.
When asked whether they still have confidence in Col. Robert Stanley, who was in charge of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom during the cheating, only Wilson responded.
"Right now, we have a commander investigation underway to look at all the people involved in this, so it would be premature to comment on any particular person," he said. "The secretary has visited the wings. The chief of staff [Gen. Mark Welsh] has visited the wings. We are confident in the people doing the mission out there. We have to wait for this investigation to come to a conclusion."
James said she's "convinced" that the Air Force's overall nuclear mission is "safe and secure," based on her assessment of inspections, simulations and other team exercises. In addition, two days after learning of the incident, the service re-tested all of the approximately 450 nuclear missile officers, who had a collective passing rate of 95 percent, she said.
"One proficiency test does not make or break anything," she said, noting that missileers take three such tests a month.
That said, after visiting with airmen at bases across the country, James said she believes there are "systemic problems" within the force, including low morale, high stress, unequal or unfair assessments and micromanagement.
"In order to fix the systemic problem, you need a holistic approach," she said. "To just go after the incident of cheating is not adequate."
The cheating probe, being led by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, was spurred by a separate investigation of drug possession allegations involving 11 officers at six Air Force bases in the U.S. and Britain.
The officials didn't specify how many of the officers suspected of cheating came from Air Force Academy, Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) or Officer Training School (OTS). "All commissioning sources were involved," Wilson said.
Of the 92 officers involved, the Air Force is focusing on a core group of about 40 who allegedly texted answers to each other. The others allegedly knew that cheating was going on, but failed to report it. All of them have been temporarily decertified and are no longer on alert.
The suspensions have strained other crews. Launch officers still on duty at Malmstrom are pulling additional shifts, with support from staff personnel. They had been required to perform eight 24-hour shifts in the silos per month. Now, they must complete 10 24-hour shifts per month.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has asked James to submit an "action report" within two months for recommendations on how to improve the nuclear force. The Pentagon and the Air Force are conducting independent reviews of the matter. The Air Force has also reached out to the Navy, whose Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines carry nuclear warheads, for help in reviewing its training and testing practices.
The Navy, however, last week also announced the discovery of a cheating scandal.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of Naval Operations, said the incident involved senior enlisted members of the training staff at the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program in Charleston, S.C.
"To say I'm disappointed would be an understatement," he said at a Pentagon briefing.