WASHINGTON - Criminal investigators suspect hundreds of US Army soldiers exploited a recruitment program to receive illegal kickbacks worth more than $29 million, lawmakers and officials have said.The scale of the potential fraud was “astounding” and ranks as one of the largest criminal probes in the Army’s history, said Senator Claire McCaskill, who held a hearing on the scandal. An Army audit has found that more than 1,200 recruiters had received payments that were potentially fraudulent, defence officials said. “We now know that thousands of service members, their families and friends, may have participated in schemes to defraud the government they served and the taxpayers,” McCaskill said.The kickbacks grew out of a 2005 project launched at a time when the US Army and National Guard were struggling to secure new recruits amid heavy casualties in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.The National Guard program, which was eventually extended to the active-duty Army, essentially paid troops for referrals of recruits. These “recruiting assistants,” which included National Guard soldiers and civilians, were allowed to earn between $2,000 to $7,500 for each person they persuaded to enlist.Although official US Army recruiters were barred from collecting any referral bonuses, many of them took payments that were undetected for years.Defence officials confirmed the allegations to AFP that were first reported by USA Today. Officials at the firm hired to run the program, Docupak, first reported a few cases of fraud in 2007. Over the years, officials grew more suspicious and in 2011, the Army launched a formal audit of the whole program, which was scrapped in February 2012.“This criminal fraud investigation is one the largest that the Army has ever conducted, both in terms of sheer volume of fraud and the number of participants,” said McCaskill, chairwoman of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight. She cited a criminal case in Texas, in which a former member of the National Guard was recently sentenced to four years and nine months in prison for leading a conspiracy to obtain $244,000 in fraudulent recruiting bonuses.The Army expressed outrage at the fraud and vowed to get to the bottom of it. “No one is more outraged about this than the leadership of the United States Army,” said spokesman George Wright.After an internal probe identified fraud, Army leaders immediately terminated the recruiting programs and ordered a criminal investigation, he said. Those found to have abused the program would be held accountable in military and civilian courts, he said.About 30 instructors who train US sailors on the running of nuclear reactors are under investigation for cheating on a written exam, Navy commanders said Tuesday. The allegations raised fresh questions about ethics problems in the military and come on the heels of another cheating scandal that has implicated nearly 20 percent of the Air Force’s nuclear missile officers. The suspected cheating took place at the navy’s nuclear propulsion program in Charleston, South Carolina, where a sailor alerted senior officers to the problem, commanders said. The instructors for the program, who also oversee the running of the reactors, are required to be regularly re-certified to teach fellow sailors and must pass written, oral and hands-on tests, officials said.“The propulsion exam was allegedly shared amongst some senior enlisted operators,” said Admiral John Greenert, chief of naval operations.“To say that I’m disappointed would be an understatement,” the naval chief told a news conference. “I assure you if these allegations are substantiated we will hold the ...appropriate people accountable.”Admiral John Richardson, head of the propulsion program, declined to say at the same press briefing how many sailors were under investigation. But a navy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told several reporters that about 30 instructors are suspected of sharing the answers to the written exam. Richardson said he took “full responsibility for this incident.”All sailors implicated in the alleged cheating have been “removed” from the site and stripped of access to the reactors, the admiral said.A naval criminal investigation was under way, additional supervisors had been assigned to oversee teams at the South Carolina center and officials also were examining if the cheating reflected a broader problem. But he said there was no doubt that the military’s nuclear reactors “are operating safely.”The Navy has 10 aircraft carriers and 93 submarines powered by nuclear reactors. Richardson said the cheating allegations were not uncovered as part of a wider Pentagon review of the nuclear force, prompted by a series of incidents in the Air Force’s missile officer corps.The cheating scandal by “missileers” in the Air Force has implicated 92 officers out of the 500-strong member corps, sparking concerns of a deeper morale problem.But Richardson said at the moment the suspected cheating among sailors did not appear to point to any morale crisis.