Exclusive: Nuke Cheating Scandal Puts Promotions for Air Force Brass on Ice

The widening cheating scandal roiling the Air Force’s nuclear force has put all of the promotions for its senior officers on hold, including at least one colonel who had been nominated to become a general officer, Foreign Policy has learned. Col. Robert Stanley (pictured above at left), the commander of the 341st Missile Wing at ...

Air Force photos
Air Force photos
Air Force photos

The widening cheating scandal roiling the Air Force's nuclear force has put all of the promotions for its senior officers on hold, including at least one colonel who had been nominated to become a general officer, Foreign Policy has learned.

Col. Robert Stanley (pictured above at left), the commander of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, has been nominated to pin on a star and become a brigadier general, but still needs confirmation by the Senate. His command - which operates nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles -- finds itself squarely at the center of a scandal in which at least 34 of the estimated 190 nuclear officers at Malmstrom either cheated on a monthly launch officer proficiency test, or knew colleagues had gamed the system and did nothing. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that investigators now believe closer to 70 officers may be involved. Two Air Force officials declined to confirm that figure in interviews with FP on Thursday, but one acknowledged that the number of officers ensnared in the scandal was indeed higher than 34.

Stanley isn't the only senior officer at Malmstrom whose career is hanging in the balance. Col. Mark Schuler, commander of the 341st Operations Group at Malmstrom, was slated to take command of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota later this year, a congressional source told FP. That move would not come with a promotion in rank, but is widely seen in the nuclear force as a career advancement that would put Schuler (pictured above at right) on track to become a general officer later. His command is part of the 341st Missile Wing, and is directly responsible for the test administrators and students who were caught cheating, according to a former missilier with knowledge of the 341st.

The widening cheating scandal roiling the Air Force’s nuclear force has put all of the promotions for its senior officers on hold, including at least one colonel who had been nominated to become a general officer, Foreign Policy has learned.

Col. Robert Stanley (pictured above at left), the commander of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, has been nominated to pin on a star and become a brigadier general, but still needs confirmation by the Senate. His command – which operates nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles — finds itself squarely at the center of a scandal in which at least 34 of the estimated 190 nuclear officers at Malmstrom either cheated on a monthly launch officer proficiency test, or knew colleagues had gamed the system and did nothing. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that investigators now believe closer to 70 officers may be involved. Two Air Force officials declined to confirm that figure in interviews with FP on Thursday, but one acknowledged that the number of officers ensnared in the scandal was indeed higher than 34.

Stanley isn’t the only senior officer at Malmstrom whose career is hanging in the balance. Col. Mark Schuler, commander of the 341st Operations Group at Malmstrom, was slated to take command of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota later this year, a congressional source told FP. That move would not come with a promotion in rank, but is widely seen in the nuclear force as a career advancement that would put Schuler (pictured above at right) on track to become a general officer later. His command is part of the 341st Missile Wing, and is directly responsible for the test administrators and students who were caught cheating, according to a former missilier with knowledge of the 341st.

Air Force officials declined to speculate on Schuler and Stanley’s future on Thursday. However, a spokesman, Lt. Col. John Sheets, said the Air Force is reevaluating "all senior leadership moves within 20th Air Force," the command that oversees the entire ICBM arsenal.

"No final decisions have been made pending the outcome of the ongoing investigation," Sheets told FP on Wednesday.

The acknowledgement came the same day that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Air Force Secretary Deborah James met for two hours with senior leaders in the nuclear force to address "systemic issues" in personnel growth and development in the nuclear force, a Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, told reporters.

James, who became Air Force secretary in December, told a crowd at an Air Force Association event in Arlington, Va., on Wednesday that the service will address the problems, and that the "need for perfection has created way too much stress and way too much fear," according to Air Force Times. The service also is considering offering financial incentives and addressing burnout concerns, she said.

James and Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force’s top officer, announced the cheating scandal Jan. 15 in a hastily organized press conference at the Pentagon. Law enforcements officers conducting a separate drug investigation that has implicated at least 11 Air Force officers on six U.S. bases worldwide allegedly found that one of their subjects, a launch officer at Malmstrom, also had answers for a monthly test that he had shared electronically with 16 colleagues, all with ranks between second lieutenant and captain. Officials subsequently approached the other estimated 190 officers in the force at Malmstrom, and 17 admitted to at least being aware that material had been shared, Welsh said.

The scandal emerges as the Air Force’s nuclear force, charged with handling the United States’ most dangerous weapons, already was grappling with the removal of a two-star general in October. An Air Force investigation determined Maj. Gen. Michael Carey went drinking and dancing with Russian women while visiting Moscow on official business, shocking some officers traveling with him. He commanded the 20th Air Force — the same organization where promotions are now on hold.

Dan Lamothe is an award-winning military journalist and war correspondent. He has written for Marine Corps Times and the Military Times newspaper chain since 2008, traveling the world and writing extensively about the Afghanistan war both from Washington and the war zone. He also has reported from Norway, Spain, Germany, the Republic of Georgia and while underway with the U.S. Navy. Among his scoops, Lamothe reported exclusively in 2010 that the Marine Corps had recommended that Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer receive the Medal of Honor. This year, he was part of a team of journalists that exposed senior Marine Corps leaders' questionable involvement in legal cases, and then covering it up. A Pentagon investigation is underway in those cases. Twitter: @DanLamothe

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