By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Friday he will appoint a senior officer to report directly to him on matters of military ethics after a spate of embarrassing scandals including widespread exam cheating among nuclear missile launch officers.
Hagel said the incidents have raised questions about the extent of the problem in the armed forces and whether America's military failed to focus enough on questions of integrity during more than 12 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We need to find out, is there a deep, wide problem? If there is, then what's the scope of that problem? How did this occur," he told a Pentagon news briefing.
"Was it a constant focus of 12 years on two long land wars, taking our emphasis off some of these other areas? I don't know.
We intend to find out."
Hagel promised upcoming actions including the appointment of a senior officer, reporting to him, who would coordinate actions with the heads of the branches of the U.S. military on issues of military ethics, character and leadership.
"I want someone who understands the outside, who understands the pressures of combat, the pressures of curriculums and testing, and who has a good, well-rounded background in command," Hagel said, adding his appointment would be announced soon.
Last month, the U.S. Air Force acknowledged that it has what appears to be a systemic problem within the ranks of its nuclear missile launch officers after discovering widespread cheating on a proficiency exam at a base in Montana.
This week, the U.S. Navy disclosed that instructors at a nuclear propulsion school in South Carolina had been suspended from their duties over allegations of cheating on a key qualification exam.
But the scandals extend beyond exam cheating. The head of America's force of inter-continental ballistic missiles, Air Force Major General Michael Carey, was fired in October for getting drunk and carousing with women while leading a government delegation to Moscow for talks on nuclear security.
A major Navy bribery scandal erupted last year, with Navy officials accused of accepting prostitutes, cash, luxury travel and concert tickets in exchange for doling out information to a Malaysian businessman.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a written statement on Friday that the matter had his full attention but also appeared to caution against over-generalizing the problem.
"The overwhelming majority of our military leaders are tremendous professionals and citizens who show up to serve, to bring their best, and often sacrifice greatly," he said.
"We can't afford to let the transgressions of the few undermine the trust and credibility of our entire profession."
(Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Bernard Orr)