The Air Force has roughly 500 officers in charge of protecting and maybe someday launching America's arsenal of land-based nuclear missiles. Nearly all of them cheat on every exam they take, at every chance they get, according to three veterans of the force.

After the military admitted last week that it was investigating widespread cheating and drug allegations against its nuclear missileers, three former officers "said that cheating on the three monthly written tests—covering missile safety, code handling and launch procedures—was so commonplace that officers who declined to participate were the exception," according to a new McClatchy report:

The men say cheating was widespread on U.S. nuclear bases—including Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana—in part because high-ranking commanders' own promotions depended upon stellar passing grades among the launch officers they commanded:

"Everybody cheats on every test that they can, and they have for decades," said one former officer who served at Malmstrom from 2006 to 2010, and said he had cheated on tests. "Maybe 5 percent [of the officers] don't. But they know about it." He asked not to be identified, citing fear of retribution by the Air Force.

Another former officer, Brian Weeden, who served at the base from 2001 to 2004, said that ploys to score higher ranged from exchanging tips about difficult questions on upcoming tests to actually sharing answers, which he called "much more rare."

The practice is so ingrained, Weeden said, that commanders of launch teams would sometimes look over a junior member's test before it was turned in. The goal was to ensure it contained no mistakes that might reflect badly on the team, thereby helping everyone's career.

"I know a couple of commanders — and I did this a couple of times — who said before their deputy's test was turned in, 'Let me see it,' and told them go back and look at a question" that was answered incorrectly, Weeden said.

A third former officer, Bruce Blair, said, "There were hundreds of officers at my wing at Malmstrom, and I don't think that I know anybody who didn't cheat."

The Air Force last week insisted that American nuclear readiness had never been compromised by the test scandal, but civilians can be excused for getting a little nervous when confronted by the details, like this story from one confessed cheater:

During a test a few years ago covering missile-launch procedures called "Emergency War Orders," he said, a proctor caught him looking at another officer's paper.

"He confronted me and I denied it," the former officer said. "He may have said something" to the unit's commander, but there was no punishment, he said.

Yikes. All of a sudden, bomb-shelter preppers don't seem so dumb. But then, who can say for sure? It's not as if they have tests.

[Photo credit: CTBTO/Flickr Commons]