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AF secretary: Drug, cheating scandals won't compromise ICBM mission

CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- The Air Force's top civilian leader said recent test cheating and drug scandals involving dozens of nuclear launch officers will not compromise the future of the nation's intercontinental ballistic missile force.

"As far as I'm concerned, this mission is solid, and it is here to stay," Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said during a visit Tuesday to F.E. Warren Air Force Base. "That doesn't mean there aren't tweaks that we need to make and changes that we need to make."

James' visit came a week after the Air Force implicated 34 ICBM launch officers at Montana's Malmstrom Air Force Base in an unprecedented cheating scandal.

The officers were suspected of cheating on their monthly proficiency tests or at least being aware of material that had been shared. They have since been decertified, restricted from missile crew duty and had their security clearances suspended.

The test cheating revelations came as a result of an ongoing drug investigation that is focused on officers at Malmstrom, F.E. Warren and other bases.

The results of that probe are still pending, James said.

Cheyenne is the headquarters for the 20th Air Force, which oversees the nation's 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles that are maintained and operated by F.E. Warren, Malmstrom and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.

James said she is traveling to the three nuclear bases as part of a "fact-finding" trip to hear from the airmen and determine if any of the problems are more widespread.

Her visit to F.E. Warren on Tuesday was the first of those trips.

"I'm very much wanting to get to the bottom of if it was just the 34 (involved in the cheating scandal) or was it more than that," she said. "And, more importantly, is there something going on with the culture?"

"So yes, is it concerning, but I'm waiting for the totality of the investigation before making a judgment about that."

James addressed a large crowd at F.E. Warren in the morning and then met in smaller sessions with airmen later in the day.

After the events, she said she remains as confident as ever in the "overall ability of the nuclear forces." But she said she has picked up on "morale issues" during some of her discussions here.

"I think those issues are real," she said. "I'll see what I think after I visit the other bases, but I think there are morale issues out there, and I plan to address those."

The Associated Press reported last year that an unpublished study commissioned by the Air Force found many ICBM launch officers are feeling "burnout" because of the stress and unrewarding nature of the job.

It also claimed that misconduct and behavioral problems among the ICBM forces were higher than the Air Force as a whole.

James said some of the low morale could be caused by the high demands of the job and the high expectations that are placed on the launch officers.

She added this could be an underlying issue that led to the test cheating scandal.

"One of the comments that I heard repeatedly is that because the nuclear mission is so important, and because we can't afford to get it wrong, there is such concern that missing an answer or two on an individual test could make or break a person's career or career opportunities," she said.

James said she wants to assure the airmen that "one test does not make or break anything."

"So I'm interested to explore further whether or not we are placing the right emphasis on these monthly tests, as well as the simulations and the outside inspections," she said. "(We want) to make sure we are allowing the opportunity for people to learn in a environment where if they make a mistake, they can learn from it and move forward."

James is the latest high-profile leader to visit the base as result of the scandals. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III visited earlier this month.

James said she has directed the full resources of the Air Force's investigators to continue the drug and cheating probes.

And she said she expects the Air Force to move quickly to address those problems and any of the underlying issues that are discovered.

"Our overall plan at this point is over the next several weeks n not months, but weeks n I want to come up with a plan about what we are going to do for this mission," she said. "Not just study it more, but rather, what are we going to do?"

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