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Welsh said he knew of no bigger ICBM cheating scandal or launch officer decertification in the history of the missile force, which began operating in 1959. Last spring the Air Force decertified 17 launch officers at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., for a combination of poor performance and bad attitudes; at the time the Air Force said it was the largest-ever one-time sidelining of launch officers. It later said 19 had been decertified; they were held off the job for two months of retraining.

Welsh said one launch officer at Malmstrom was found to have sent one or more text messages to 16 other launch officers with answers to their test. He said further questioning at Malmstrom determined that 17 other launch officers “self-admitted to at least being aware of material that had been shared. We don’t yet know how or if each of those officers used that material, but we do know that none of them reported the incident to their leadership.”

There are about 190 ICBM launch officers stationed at Malmstrom.

Welsh said the probe continues. “People at every level will be held accountable if and where appropriate,” the general said.

The Air Force’s nuclear mission includes operation of 450 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles. The 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom, where all 34 suspected cheaters are based, is responsible for 150 of the 450 ICBMs. The 34 are junior officers: second lieutenants, first lieutenants and captains. Of those 34, two also are implicated in the drug probe.

The Air Force operates Minuteman 3 missiles at two others bases: F.E. Warren in Wyoming and Minot in North Dakota.

The Malmstrom unit failed a nuclear safety and security inspection in August but succeeded on a redo in October. Welsh said the alleged cheating took place in August or September; he said other details could not be released because the matter remains under investigation by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

The drug investigation that led to the discovery of alleged cheating was disclosed by the Pentagon last week. It said then that it involved 10 officers at six bases — five in the U.S. and one in England. On Wednesday the Air Force said the number of suspects has grown to 11. Welsh said he could not comment further on the drug probe.

James said that the ICBM force “needs attention” and that while immediate corrective action is being taken, Air Force leaders are planning to address some longer-term initiatives.