Over 90 US Air Force officers, nearly half of the nuclear launch crew at a key base, have been suspended for cheating in exams after it emerged that answers were being sent in messages to their cellphones.
The Air Force said it suspended 92 officers at the Malmstrom Air Force Base in a cheating scandal, even as it acknowledged a "systemic problem" in the culture of the team that is entrusted to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The Air Force secretary, Deborah Lee James, was quoted by the New York Times as saying, a "climate of fear" that was pervasive in the ballistic missile force might have encouraged launch officers to share answers to monthly proficiency tests.
She said the nation's nuclear arsenal remained safe.
The 92 officers suspended and decertified are barred from the underground missile capsules from which ICBMs are launched, the Times report said.
The remaining launch crew members at the Montana base -- just under 100 -- will now perform extra duty on 24-hour standby, Defense Department officials said.
The cheating came to light during an inquiry into illegal drug possession, when investigators discovered that test answers were being sent in text messages to the missile launch officers' cellphones.
The cheating is only the latest in a series of scandals for the Air Force but is particularly alarming, the report said.
Malmstrom, near Great Falls, is one of three bases that oversee the country's arsenal of 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Air Force officials say they have re-tested about 500 launch officers at the three bases and that all but 22 of them passed, with an average score of 95 per cent.
Lt Gen Stephen W Wilson, commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, was quoted as saying that Defense Department officials do not believe the cheating at Malmstrom extends to the country's other nuclear launch sites because the tests at each base are different.
But both current and former missileers, as the launch officers are known, say that cheating has been a fact of life for decades.
James said that during her visits to all three bases last week, crew members -- while not admitting to cheating -- told her that they felt pressure to score 100 per cent on the proficiency tests.
While 90 per cent is considered a passing score, they said that their commanding officers would not promote them unless they scored 100 per cent.