Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James speak at a Pentagon briefing last week. (Scott Ash/Air Force)
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While the Air Force investigates the biggest cheating scandal in the history of the nuclear missile force, top Defense Department officials are considering the possibility of raises for those officers to address morale problems.
Thirty-four missile officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., have been implicated in the cheating investigation, which began with one officer reportedly texting the answers to a monthly proficiency exam, top Air Force leaders said Jan. 15.
Agents with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, while investigating reports of narcotics possession among officers assigned to the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom, found evidence that an officer texted the test answers to 16 other officers, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at a Pentagon briefing. Two of the 34 officers are implicated in both the cheating and narcotics possession investigations at Malmstrom. Another nuclear officer, assigned to F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., is also being investigated for narcotics possession.
“This is not about the compromise of nuclear weapons, it’s about compromise of the integrity of some of our airmen,” Welsh said.
Morale issues in the force have been under the spotlight in the past year, beginning with the announcement last spring that 19 officers assigned to Minot Air Force Base, N.D., were reprimanded after earning a “D” rating during a March inspection.
Following the inspection, the 91st Operations Group’s deputy commander, Lt. Col. Jay Folds, said there was a “rot” within the ranks of missile officers, and that “we are, in fact, in a crisis right now.”
In August, the 341st Missile Wing failed a surety inspection, marking the third time in five years the unit had failed an inspection.
When the 341st took the inspection again in October, it received the highest possible score.
A November RAND Corp. investigation, requested by the Air Force, found high levels of burnout among missile officers. The report found that missileers felt underappreciated and overworked, facing a constant risk of failure.
One way the Pentagon may address declining morale: Give the officers a pay raise.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with missileers during a visit to F.E. Warren this month, and brought up the possibility of sweetening the deal for officers who work long shifts under intense pressure and in some of the Air Force’s most remote locations.
“They acknowledged that it’s something that they talk about in the force, the potential value incentives,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said. “But they also said that they take great pride in what they do and ... they weren’t sure whether incentives would make that much of a difference.”
Hagel is also open to additional incentives for education to help recruit and retain missileers, Kirby said.
“He didn’t make any decisions. He didn’t make any promises. But he expressed that he is willing to look at that. He considers the ICBM force that important ... that vital. And he’s not going to close any doors. He’s going to try to keep as many options open as he can as he looks at the future of the force and to keeping it vital and strong.”
Hagel was “deeply troubled” by the allegations and supports “aggressive steps” the Air Force is taking in the investigation, Kirby said.
Current and former Air Force officials have said that another way to help morale is through positive reinforcement and acknowledgment. Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, commander of 20th Air Force who took over after Maj. Gen. Michael Carey was relieved of command for alleged drunken antics during a trip to Russia, said he is working to highlight the work his airmen do. Weinstein said a priority is assigning more responsibilities to the airmen so they feel more valued in their work.
“We are pushing responsibility down to the proper level, making sure people working in the 20th Air Force take responsibility at the right level,” Weinstein told Air Force Times in December. “They feel the ownership of a mission is a huge responsibility.”
Retired Gen. Norton Schwartz, former Air Force chief of staff, took the helm of the Air Force after his predecessor and the then-Air Force secretary were fired for two major mishaps involving nuclear weapons.
Schwartz said Jan. 16 he is confident the Air Force will “decisively” deal with those caught up in the investigation. The Air Force needs to celebrate the airmen who perform to a standard that is not held elsewhere in the military, he said. The airmen need to know their work is valued, he said.
The investigation includes 34 of about 190 missile officers at Malmstrom. Welsh said he doesn’t yet know if any of those involved were supervisors. The airmen were reportedly second lieutenants through captains. The airmen have been pulled off alert duty and have had their security clearances revoked during the investigation.
The test was in August and September, and as a result, all missile officers are being forced to retest. As of Jan. 17, 472 officers had retaken the test, and the remaining 27 were to retest when they returned from leave. About 96 percent had passed, and 21 failed. Kirby said that is in line with historical averages and those who failed will retrain and retake the exam.
Air Force Global Strike Command has directed nuclear surety inspections at the three missile wings: Malmstrom, F.E. Warren and Minot.
Even with the seemingly constant drip of bad news related to intercontinental ballistic missile crews, Air Force leaders maintain their confidence in the force.
“Our top job is to deal with what we have before us today, which we are going to do, and we’re going to do so aggressively,” James said. “What it says to me is that, in any given organization, there are issues. And just because there are issues with individuals, it does not mean that the entirety of the mission is compromised.”
James said it is too early to say if any others will be implicated in the investigation but that “everybody is accountable. There’s nobody who escapes accountability in the Air Force.”