Sex, drugs and violence: Coronation Street plot lines? No – all in a day’s work for USAF nuclear missile teams.

Drug abuse, cheating, and drunkenness may sound like plotlines from a television soap opera, but they are real life issues currently confronting the US Air Force's nuclear missile launch crews.

Over recent weeks a growing series of scandals involving officers from the Air Force's Global Strike Command, responsible for overseeing and launching the USA's 450 nuclear-armed Minutemen 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) has hit the pages of the US newspapers.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has now been forced to step in and take action to address concerns about professionalism and morale which have plagued the Air Force's nuclear launch personnel.

The Air Force has admitted that thirty four of the one hundred and ninety ‘nuclear officers’ at Malstrom Air Force Base in Montana either cheated on monthly missile launch proficiency tests or knew that colleagues had cheated the system.  What began as an investigation carried out by Staff General Mark Welsh and the new Secretary of the Air Force, Debbie James, into the problem of drug taking among Air Force personnel at six separate missile bases soon took an even more dramatic turn as the charge of cheating the launch system tests emerged.   

An unpublished study for the Air Force, obtained by Associated Press, indicates ‘burnout’ among officers with their fingers on the nuclear button controlling 450 weapons of mass destruction as well as behaviour issues, sexual assaults and domestic violence.   But what began as a drugs-related investigation soon uncovered ‘cheating infractions’ which are particularly sensitive in the nuclear force where launch officers have ‘no margin for error.’  Thirty four launch officers assigned to a nuclear missile wing, were either caught with stolen answers to the monthly proficiency tests or were aware of cheating by others but chose not to report it. On discovering evidence of cheating, Welsh and James immediately ordered all 600 Air Force officers who work on missile lunch to be retested. These officers, known as missileers, are assigned to three separate air force wings in North Dakota and maintain around 450 Minutemen 3 missiles.  

Last June, a commander in charge of training missile crews was fired after poor performances on launch testing.  In 2008, Robert Gates, then secretary of defence, fired the Air Force’s top civilian leader after a series of incidents including a B-52 bomber flying across the USA while with six cruise missiles on board armed with nuclear warheads.   

This latest scandal comes hot on the heels of news that the US two-star general responsible for commanding the USA's ICBM force went on a drinking binge and fraternised with ‘suspicious foreign women’ during an official visit to Moscow in the summer of 2013.  

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has now ordered a thorough review of US nuclear-force personnel matters following the series of scandals. Hagel has directed that an action plan be drafted within two months to analyze and offer remedies for professionalism and morale problems within the missile launch corps, and has ordered  an independent team of nuclear experts to carry out a wider analysis of issues within US nuclear forces. As well as addressing personnel issues associated with the Air Force Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile force, the review will also examine crews on board the US Navy's Ohio class submarines, which operate Trident D5 ballistic missiles.

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