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Air Force needs to move quickly to restore order in its nuclear wing

The Air Force cheating scandal involving missile officers is enough to make anyone nervous, reason enough for a full investigation. Most of us probably assume that those responsible for launching the nation’s nuclear missiles – the officers with their fingers on the button – know what they’re doing.

Apparently, that’s not always the case. At least 34 officers responsible for launching the nation’s nuclear missiles have been suspended and had their security clearances revoked. They’ve been accused of cheating on monthly proficiency tests designed to make sure they know what they’re doing.

Even more troubling is the comment by a former Minuteman missile launch control officer that missile officers routinely cheated. The reason? The Air Force requires a perfect score on the proficiency tests. Given the destructive power at their fingertips, getting it perfect seems like a reasonable request.

The officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, according to the secretary of the Air Force, either knew about or took part in texting answers to the routine monthly tests. In addition, 11 Air Force officers, including two accused in the cheating episode, plus one other nuclear missile officer, have also been at the center of an investigation into the use of illegal drugs, according to defense officials.

Defense experts speculate that the end of the Cold War and the elevation of counterterrorism in the American military have led to low morale among the ranks of those known as missileers, who live and work near the country’s 450 nuclear missiles.

The Malmstrom scandal is not the first instance of things going awry in the Air Force’s nuclear arm.

Last May the Air Force disclosed that it removed 17 officers assigned to stand watch over nuclear-tipped Minuteman missiles after finding safety violations, potential violations in protecting codes and, no surprise, attitude problems.

In August, the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom failed a safety and security inspection.

There was another uproar last November when the Associated Press reported that Air Force officers with nuclear launch authority had twice been caught napping with the blast door open – the door designed to keep terrorists from entering the sites.

The AP also reported that key members of the Air Force’s nuclear missile force are blaming “burnout” on what they see as exhausting, unrewarding and stressful work.

After months of mild concern, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel finally seems to understand how big the problem is, and promises action, saying: “Personnel failures within this force threaten to jeopardize the trust the American people have placed in us to keep our nuclear weapons safe and secure.”

There is no excuse, or room, for failure in such an important mission. Whether the problem is low morale, lack of training or poor selection and promotion of officers, the culture of the Air Force is clearly adrift. The Pentagon needs to repair the problem quickly.