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Hagel suggests nuclear proficiency tests may be too difficult

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to troops and officials at Camp Leatherneck in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, Dec. 8, 2013.

WASHINGTON – Proficiency tests for nuclear launch officers might be too difficult, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Friday.

“There’s a testing issue here,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon. “We have a pretty significant and tight and unforgiving test curriculum and regimen that I’m not sure doesn’t need to be explored and examined in some detail.”

Earlier this month, 34 nuclear missile launch officers were implicated in a cheating scandal at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. At least one of the officers texted answers to a proficiency exam to other officers last year in August and September, officials said.

Hagel suggested the difficult nature of the tests and the career implications of failure might have encouraged the cheating.

“When you connect that with the high standards [and] expectation that every test you take, if you don’t make a 100 percent on every test then you’re eventually in a position where you probably minimize your chance for advancement,” Hagel said. “We’re going to take a look at how we train [and] continue to train and test all these young people who have who have this great responsibility. Standards must not be eroded, of course not, but is there a better way to do this [and] can we -- can we be more attuned to their interests?”

Former nuclear launch officers told the New York Times that cheating was widespread among missileers when they were in the Air Force because the test standards were so high.

The intercontinental ballistic missile community has been plagued by other personnel problems and scandals recently.

Seventeen launch officers at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. were sidelined in April 2013 for unsatisfactory performance and unprofessional attitudes. The cheating scandal was first discovered during an Air Force investigation of an illegal narcotics scandal in which ICBM launch officers were implicated. The drug revelations coincidentally came to light during Hagel’s visit to F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo, on Jan. 9.

All three of the nation’s ICBM bases are located in remote and relatively unpopulated areas -- Great Falls, Mont., Cheyenne, Wyo., and Ward County, N.D. -- and the launch control centers where officers spend 24 hours at a time are far removed from cities and towns. During Friday’s press conference, Hagel suggested that boredom among launch might be contributing to the problem.

“When you put these people in these locations where there is -- where there is almost a certain amount of isolation, I think that’s a dynamic of an environment that you have to factor in too,” Hagel said. “Do they get bored? Are we doing enough?”

Hagel said the Defense Department would explore possible incentives that could be offered to launch officers to boost their morale and improve performance during an upcoming review of the Air Force’s nuclear enterprise, which was announced Thursday.

harper.jon@stripes.com
Twitter: @JHarperStripes

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