WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is willing to consider offering additional incentives to bolster America's nuclear missile force, the Pentagon said on Thursday, as an exam cheating scandal raises questions about trouble within its ranks.
The Air Force on Wednesday disclosed that 34 nuclear missile officers were implicated in cheating on a key proficiency exam at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
It was only the latest incident involving America's nuclear missile officers, some of whom are also wrapped up in a separate Air Force probe over illegal drug possession.
The head of the ICBM force, Air Force Major General Michael Carey, was also fired in October for getting drunk and carousing with women while leading a government delegation to Moscow for talks on nuclear security.
"(Hagel) intends to follow this issue very, very closely. He considers this absolutely critical - the vitality, the health, and the security and effectiveness of the nuclear mission," said Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.
The scandals are raising questions about how to keep up morale of the force in the post-Cold War era, in which officers face the same pressure of guarding destructive power without some of the same recognition of other high-profile missions.
Hagel discussed the issue of incentives with two missile officers during a visit last week to a launch control center in Nebraska, Kirby told a news briefing.
"He asked them that question: How much would incentives, one way or the other, whether it's educational incentives or financial incentives, affect your ability to be recruited into this force or to stay in this force," Kirby said.
The officers acknowledged that incentives were a matter of discussion within the force.
"What (Hagel) indicated, though, is that he's willing to think about that. He didn't make any decisions. He didn't make any promises," Kirby said.
"But he expressed that he's willing to look at that. He considers the ICBM force that important ... and he's not going to close any doors."
The Air Force pulled the 34 officers from their missile crew duties as the investigation continues and suspended their security clearances. It is also re-testing the force, a process that should be completed on Thursday.
So far, partial testing showed a 96 percent pass rate, a result that Kirby said was in line with historical averages.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)