WASHINGTON (AP) — A widening cheating scandal within the Air Force's nuclear missile corps is revealing systemic personnel problems in the force and is setting off high-level meetings to search for solutions.
For the first time, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel summoned 15 of his top Air Force, Navy and nuclear mission leaders to the Pentagon, where they worked Wednesday to figure out whether cultural problems within the nuclear force make launch officers feel more compelled to cheat on their proficiency tests.
Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said the officials spent the bulk of the meeting discussing the breadth of the problems, which include low morale, cheating and serious security lapses, and how to begin solving them.
"I think the general consensus in the room was that we all need to accept the reality that there probably are systemic issues in the personnel growth and development inside the nuclear mission," Kirby told Pentagon reporters after the two-hour meeting with Hagel. "The secretary made it clear at the end of the meeting that he intends to do these on a regular basis."
The cheating scandal is the latest revelation in a growing morass of problems among the men and women who maintain and staff the nation's nuclear missiles.
The number of officers in the nuclear corps who have been implicated in a cheating investigation has more than doubled to at least 70, officials said Tuesday. That means that at least 14 percent of all launch officers have been decertified and suspended from missile launch duties.
All are at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., which is responsible for 150 Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles, or one-third of the entire Minuteman 3 force. The officials who disclosed the higher number spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information by name while the investigation is ongoing.
It wasn't immediately clear whether the additional airmen suspected of being involved in cheating on proficiency tests are alleged to have participated in the cheating directly or were involved indirectly.
The meeting Wednesday included the heads of the Air Force and Navy nuclear weapons organizations, as well as U.S. Strategic Command, which is responsible for nuclear war planning and for oversight of the nuclear forces.
The Air Force announced on Jan. 15 that while it was investigating possible criminal drug use by some airmen, it discovered that one missile officer at Malmstrom had shared test questions with 16 other officers. It said another 17 admitted to knowing about this cheating but did not report it. The 34 officers had their security clearances suspended and they were taken off missile launch duty.
The Air Force has 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, on alert at all times, with a contingent of about 500 launch control officers, some number of which are unavailable on any given day due to illness or other reasons. So the number temporarily unavailable for duty because of the cheating scandal is substantial. It's not clear how that affects the mission, beyond requiring the remaining crew members to bear a bigger share of the work.
Each day, a total of 90 officers work in pairs inside 45 underground launch control centers, with each center monitoring and controlling a group of 10 ICBMs. They work 24-hour shifts in the missile field and then return to their base. They generally do as many as eight of these shifts per month.
The tests in question are designed to ensure proficiency by launch officers in handling "emergency war orders," which involve the classified processing of orders received through their chain of command to launch a missile. These written tests are in addition to two other types of monthly testing on the missile system and on launch codes.
Malmstrom is home to the 341st Missile Wing, which is one of three ICBM groups. The other two are in North Dakota and Wyoming.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Relatively few Americans — less than 5 percent of hourly workers — toil for the minimum wage today.
Yet President Barack Obama's push to offset years of inflation by raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would ripple through the economy and touch the lives of millions more workers and their families.
Here are some questions and answers about Obama's proposal:
Q: How much is the U.S. minimum wage now?
A: It's $7.25 an hour, or about $15,000 per year for full-time work. For a worker supporting a family of two, that falls just below the federal poverty line.
A minimum wage of $10.10 would mean earning about $21,000 per year.
Q: How many Americans work for minimum wage?
A: About 1.6 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They are a smaller share of the workforce than in previous decades.
Another 2 million people are paid even less, because of various exceptions in the law. Many are waiters, bellhops and others whose wages are augmented by tips from customers. Their minimum is lower — $2.13 an hour — and hasn't gone up for more than two decades. Obama supports boosting the minimum for tipped workers to $7.07.
Together, both groups make up 4.7 percent of workers paid by the hour, and even less of the workforce when salaried workers are included.
Q: Are these the only workers who would get a boost from Obama's plan?
A: No. Millions more people who earn less than $10.10 an hour would get an automatic raise. Many of them work in states that have imposed a minimum wage that's higher than the current federal one.
And some people who already make more than $10.10 would get raises, too, as businesses adjusted their pay scales upward.
Democratic lawmakers pushing for the increase predict it would lead to raises for some 30 million people. Republican opponents counter that it could force companies to reduce hiring or even lay off some workers.
Q: How many states have a minimum wage higher than the federal one?
A: Twenty-one states, plus the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
None is as high as the wage Obama seeks. Washington state's is highest at $9.32 an hour, adjusted annually for inflation. California's minimum wage is set to climb to $10 in 2016.
State lawmakers aren't waiting for a divided Congress to act. Democratic legislators are pushing minimum-wage increases in more than half of the states this year, although several are political longshots.
Q: Who makes minimum wage?
A: Most are workers in part-time jobs. They tend to be in the service industry, especially in restaurant and sales jobs.
Most are adults. But teens and young people make up a disproportionately large share: half of minimum-wage workers are under age 25.
Nearly three-quarters have a high school degree or more education. More than three-quarters are white.
Nearly 2 out of 3 are female.
Q: Where did the minimum wage come from?
A: It started at 25 cents per hour in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. Since then, Congress has raised it 22 times. Its value peaked in the 1960s, but the wage hasn't kept up with inflation since then.
The last increase was in 2007, during the presidency of George W. Bush. It was phased in to reach $7.25 in 2009.
Obama wants the wage to be indexed to inflation, so it would rise automatically in the future.
Q: Why not raise the minimum wage?
Q: Many congressional Republicans and other opponents say that would dampen hiring or even spark layoffs at a time when the nation is struggling with high unemployment. They argue that much of the cost would be passed along to consumers as higher prices. And they say it isn't an efficient way to help the poor, because many people earning the minimum wage are part of a middle-class or higher-earning households.
Q: So what do Obama and Democratic supporters say?
A: They say that raising the minimum wage would boost the economy and create jobs, because cash-strapped workers tend to spend any extra money that comes in. Supporters argue that boosting low wages would help narrow the gap between the nation's poorest and richest families. And they say full-time workers with families shouldn't have to live in poverty.