WASHINGTON - The cheating scandal inside the Air Force's nuclear missile corps is expanding, with the number of service members implicated by investigators now roughly double the 34 reported just a week ago, officials said Tuesday.
It wasn't immediately clear whether the additional 30-plus airmen suspected of being involved in cheating on proficiency tests are alleged to have participated in the cheating directly or were involved indirectly.
Regardless, a doubling of the number implicated means that approximately 14 percent of the entire Air Force cadre of nuclear missile launch control officers, which numbers about 500, has been removed at least temporarily from active missile duty. It was not clear Tuesday how that affects the mission, beyond requiring the remaining crew members to bear a bigger share of the work.
This image provided by the U.S. Air Force shows Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, right, and Tech. Sgt. Justin Richie, a 341st Maintenance Operations Squadron team trainer, riding in a work cage on Nov. 20, 2012, inside the T-9 maintenance trainer at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. The Air Force says 34 nuclear missile launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana have been implicated in a cheating scandal and have been stripped of their certification. It is believed to be the largest such breach of integrity in the nuclear force.
The officials who disclosed the higher number cheating suspects spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information by name while the investigation is ongoing.
The Air Force announced on Jan. 15 that while it was investigating possible criminal drug use by some airmen, it discovered that one missile officer at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., had shared test questions with 16 other officers. It said another 17 admitted to knowing about this cheating but did not report it.
The 34 officers had their security clearances suspended and they were taken off missile launch duty.
Lt. Col. John Sheets, a spokesman for Air Force Global Strike Command, which manages the nuclear Air Force, said he could not comment on the number of additional officers implicated in the cheating investigation since last week, but he said all are launch control officers at Malmstrom and all have been removed from performing that duty pending the outcome of the investigation.
The Air Force has 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, on alert at all times, with a contingent of about 500 launch control officers, some number of which are unavailable on any given day due to illness or other reasons. So the number temporarily unavailable for duty because of the cheating scandal, at roughly 68, is substantial.
Each day, a total of 90 officers work in pairs inside 45 underground launch control centers, with each center monitoring and controlling a group of 10 ICBMs. They work 24-hour shifts in the missile field and then return to their base. They generally do as many as eight of these shifts per month.