Washington — The “missileers” who oversee America’s land-based nuclear arsenal were once seen as the tip of the spear for the US military during the tense days of the Cold War.
But now the crews face questions about their discipline, their professionalism and even the rationale for their job.
Revelations this week that missile launch officers cheated on a proficiency exam — the latest in a stream of embarrassing incidents — has put the spotlight on a force that has posed a recurring headache to commanders for years.
After announcing 34 officers had been suspended over the cheating at Malmstrom base in Montana, Air Force leaders called the scandal “unacceptable” and vowed to rectify the problem.
But concerns about declining standards in the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force are nothing new.
The trouble began after the demise of the Soviet Union, as the mission gradually received a lower priority and offered a less promising career path.
“Since the end of the Cold War, the Air Force level and intensity of concentration on its nuclear mission has declined conspicuously,” a Pentagon review found in 2008.
The report was ordered by former defense secretary Robert Gates who fired the Air Force chief and civilian secretary after accounts of negligent handling of nuclear weapons.
At the time, Gates said there were signs of “a degradation of the authority, standards of excellence, and technical competence within the nation?s ICBM force.”
Reforms were enacted, but inspections over the past year have turned up fresh problems at the missile sites.
In recent months, two senior commanders have been sacked for misbehavior, including the head of the ICBM force after he went on a drunken bender in a trip to Russia.
In October, officials said missile officers were caught twice failing to close the blast doors on their bunkers, violating a strict security rule. And authorities say crew members are under criminal investigation for illegal drug possession.