Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh, right, testifies seen in Washington in this file photo taken June 4, 2013. The Air Force said that it had pulled the security clearance of 34 officers and is re-testing the entire force overseeing America's nuclear-armed missiles after uncovering cheating on a key proficiency exam. Picture: Larry Downing


Washington - At least 34 nuclear launch officers lost their security clearances and were suspended from duty for their involvement in cheating on a proficiency test, the two top US Air Force officials said on Wednesday.

The discovery was made while the Air Force Office of Special Investigations was following up on a separate investigation into drug use.

General Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, said all of the officers had been put on restricted duty and decertified.

He said the investigation did not indicate that launch operations were at risk due to incompetence, rather it was a question of officers not living up to standards.

He said it would be “hard” to cover up incompetence by cheating on the monthly proficiency test that all launch officers must take.

“This is about violation of the first core principle of integrity first,” Welsh told reporters.

Deborah Lee James, Secretary of the Air Force, and Welch said that the ongoing investigation into 11 drug cases at six different bases led to the uncovering of the cheating scandal at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.

They said the cheating involved 34 officers - out of 190 officers at Malmstrom.

They discovered that a missile launch officer had shared answers to a routine proficiency test with at least 16 other officers.

The involvement of the remaining 17 officers was not made clear.

Malmstrom is one of three Air Force bases that maintains Muniteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel was “deeply troubled” by the allegations and supported the aggressive steps the Air Force was taking, according to a statement from Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby.

The new revelations come on the heels of a series of problems involving nuclear missile officers, including the commander of all 450 Minuteman missiles that are spread across five states.

The commander, Major General Michael Carey, was relieved of that duty after having been found guilty of personal misconduct during an official four-day trip to Moscow in July that included drunkenness and cavorting with “suspect women.”

Air Force Secretary James said she would visit the three nuclear missile bases on a fact finding trip to measure morale and conditions there.

“I want all of you to know that, based on everything I know today, I have great confidence in the security and the effectiveness of our ICBM force,” she said.

“And, very importantly, I want you to know that this was a failure of some of our airmen. It was not a failure of the nuclear mission.”