The Air Force fired nine nuclear missile commanders Thursday after an investigation into cheating on exams and said it would punish dozens of junior officers, some of whom could be dismissed from the military.
The service called the punishment unprecedented.
The alleged cheating, at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, went on for two years, much longer than originally thought. The scandal broke last year during a criminal investigation into alleged drug abuse at the base.
The investigation found that officers were texting answers to each other, and that others knew about the cheating but did not report it. In all, 82 officers were accused of providing or accepting answers ahead of the exams, which are monthly and test knowledge of missile launch systems.
The military has stressed that U.S. nuclear capability was never compromised because of the cheating.
The officers implicated were assigned to the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom, which provides security for 150 nuclear missiles.
About half of the missile officers accused will be retrained and permitted to return to duty. The remaining half face disciplinary action. The nine commanders were not involved in the cheating but were relieved of command for failure in leadership, the Air Force said.
The Air Force investigation found that the alleged cheating was confined to Malmstrom and did not affect two other nuclear missile launch sites, F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming and Minor Air Force Base in North Dakota.
The probe also found that a policy of “100 percent or fail” on the proficiency exams resulted in unhealthy pressure from commanders and high anxiety among missile officers that contributed to the cheating. The Air Force said it would lower the acceptable grade to 90 percent.