By David Alexander and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the nuclear missile wing at a base in Montana resigned on Thursday and nine officers were removed from their jobs over a test-cheating scandal that involved 91 missile launch officers, the Air Force said.
Lieutenant General Stephen Wilson, head of the Air Force's Global Strike Command, said Colonel Robert Stanley, commander of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, had resigned on Thursday and would retire from the service.
The nine other officers, mainly colonels and lieutenant colonels, were removed from their positions of command at the Montana base that is home to a third of the nation's nearly 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles. They will be reassigned to staff jobs and face administrative punishment, such as formal reprimands or letters of counseling.
Wilson said the root of the problem was the emphasis on perfection in the nuclear mission at the Montana base and throughout the missile force, which led to cheating on exams in an effort to achieve the sort of perfect scores perceived to be required for advancement and promotion.
The exams were classroom tests to check staff knowledge of how to carry out the nuclear mission and security procedures.
"Leadership's focus on perfection led commanders to micro-manage their people. They sought to ensure that the zero defect standard was met by personally monitoring and directing daily operations, imposing unrelenting testing and inspections with the goal of eliminating all human error," Wilson told a Pentagon news conference.
He and Air Force Secretary Deborah James said the evaluation and assessment of missile launch officers would be radically overhauled in an effort to change the culture and behavior that has developed in the missile wing.
Nuclear critics say the problem is deeply rooted and has been going on for years, becoming increasingly acute since the end of the Cold War as the nuclear mission has increasingly come to be seen as a dead-end career that's relevance is in decline.
"Many of these issues come back to the fundamental fact that a lot of these people who sit in the holes out there are in a way demoralized. They are sitting ready for a scenario that is unlikely to ever happen," said Jon Wolfstahl, a former nonproliferation official with the White House's National Security Council who is now with the Monterrey Institute.
"During the Cold War, the ICBM force on high alert was very ... prominent in the nuclear posture," he told reporters this week. "It seems far less relevant in the day we live in ... and in the foreseeable future."
The cheating scandal was discovered earlier this year as officials were investigating several officers for illegal drug activity. Investigators looking at the officers' cell phones found test material, including answers and a photograph of a classified test answer, Wilson said.
The cheating investigation eventually involved 100 officers who were believed to have received test material, sent test material or who were aware the cheating was going on. Allegations against nine were not substantiated and they will be retrained and returned to duty, Wilson said.
Of the 91 remaining cases, nine are still being probed by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, including eight suspected of mishandling classified information and three for alleged illegal drug activity, Wilson said. The remainder have been implicated in the cheating scandal.
The launch officers face a range of punishment, from letters of admonishment to courts martial, depending upon the nature of the offense, Wilson said.
James said the investigation following the cheating incident found "systemic issues in our missile community," including "spotty morale and micro-management issues at all of the bases." She said the Air Force would implement a "holistic plan" to address the problems.
The Air Force will spend $19 million this fiscal year to refurbish the launch control center and repair infrastructure across the missile wing, James said. Another $3 million will go for "quality of life requirements" at the missile bases, which are in remote areas of the country where weather is often harsh.
She said substantially more funding would be devoted to improving the force in 2015 and beyond, but equally important would be the emphasis on the importance of the missile launch job and ensuring young officers in the specialized field have a realistic career path.
James said it was "terribly important that people see a path to rise through the ranks, so that it will be in fact and in perception viewed as a good job."
(The story corrects paragraph 3 to say nine commanders face administrative punishment, not courts martial, and adds a clarifying 14th paragraph.)
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and David Alexander; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman)