WASHINGTON — Top Air Force officials described a persistent culture of ‘‘undue stress and fear’’ that led 92 out of 550 members of the military’s nuclear missile corps to be involved in cheating on a monthly proficiency test on which they felt pressured to get perfect scores to get promoted.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Thursday that at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, roughly half of the 183 missile launch officers have been implicated in the cheating.
The scandal is the latest in an array of troubles that have the attention of senior defense officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The Associated Press began reporting on the issue nine months ago, revealing serious security lapses, low morale, burnout, and other issues in the nuclear force.
The Air Force recently announced the cheating scandal that grew out of a drug investigation.
But James and Lieutenant General Stephen Wilson, who heads Global Strike Command, insisted that the failures have not affected the safety of the military’s nuclear mission.
James and Wilson suggested that, so far, it appears the cheating was confined to the Montana base.
‘‘These tests have taken on, in their eyes, such high importance, that they feel that anything less than 100 could well put their entire career in jeopardy’’ even though they only need a score of 90 to pass, said James, who only recently took over as secretary.
‘‘They have come to believe that these tests are make-it-or-break-it.’’
The launch officers didn’t cheat to pass the test, ‘‘they cheated because they felt driven to get 100 percent,’’ she said.
Of the 92 officers implicated so far, as many as 40 were involved directly in the cheating, Wilson said. Others may have known about it but did not report it.
Separately, James said that an investigation into drug possession by officers at several Air Force bases now involves 13 airmen, two more than initially announced.
All 92 officers have been decertified and suspended while the scandal is being investigated, meaning other launch officers and staff fill in, performing 10 24-hour shifts per month, instead of the usual eight, Wilson said.
Staff members from the 20th Air Force, which oversees all of the nuclear missile force, are also being tapped to do the shifts.