WASHINGTON – Top U.S. Air Force officials have blamed a persistent culture of “undue stress and fear” for leading 92 out of 550 members of the military’s nuclear missile corps to cheat on a monthly proficiency test, feeling pressured to get perfect scores in order to get promoted.
Air force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Thursday that at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, roughly half of the 183 missile launch officers have been implicated in the cheating.
The scandal is the latest in an array of troubles that now have the attention of senior defense officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
AP began reporting on the issue nine months ago, revealing serious security lapses, low morale, burnout and other issues in the nuclear force. The air force recently announced the cheating scandal, which grew out of a drug investigation.
But James and Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, who heads Global Strike Command, insisted that the failures have not affected the safety of the military’s nuclear mission.
James and Wilson suggested that so far it appears the cheating has been confined to the Montana base.
“These tests have taken on, in their eyes, such high importance, that they feel that anything less than 100 could well put their entire career in jeopardy” even though they only need a score of 90 to pass, said James, who only recently took over as secretary.
“They have come to believe that these tests are make-it-or-break-it,” she said.
The launch officers did not cheat to pass the test, “they cheated because they felt driven to get 100 percent,” she said.
Of the 92 officers implicated so far, as many as 40 were involved directly in the cheating, Wilson said. Others may have known about it but did not report it.
Separately, James said that an investigation into drug possession by officers at several air force bases now involves 13 airmen, two more than initially announced.
All 92 officers have been decertified and suspended while the scandal is being investigated, meaning other launch officers and staff have to fill in, performing 24-hour shifts 10 times per month, instead of the usual eight, Wilson said.
Staff members from the 20th Air Force, which oversees all of the nation’s nuclear missile force, are also being tapped to do the shifts.
The mounting scandal, as well as other embarrassing incidents, also have prompted commanders to put a hold on any promotions of senior officers in the nuclear mission, a defense official said on condition of anonymity.
“They’re reviewing all of those (proposed promotions),” the official said.
The air force has 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles on alert at all times. 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.
The latest scandal set off a top-level search for solutions, including a recent round of visits by James to all the nuclear bases, where she met privately with small groups of airmen in order to get their insights into the problems.
“I heard repeatedly from teammates that the need for perfection has created a climate of undue stress and fear,” she said. “Fear about the future. Fear about promotions. Fear about what will happen to them in their careers.”
She said that members of the nuclear missile force have doubts about their career prospects and that some question if the Pentagon genuinely values their mission.
Since the end of the Cold War, which reduced the perceived relevance of the force, the Pentagon has worried about the morale and professionalism of the officers who oversee the United States’ land-based ICBMs.
James and Wilson said that the problems underscore the need for new testing and training procedures, provide more incentives and rewards for those who perform well, and set up a system that looks at more than test scores when evaluating officers.
Officials have yet to discipline any commanders or officers beyond those who actually took the tests. But the ongoing reviews look at leadership and accountability within the force. That includes a culture of poor integrity that may encourage officers to share test answers as a way of looking out for each other.
“I do believe there are climate issues, and part of that will be assessing commanders — how did this happen,” said James.
Still, James reiterated the Pentagon’s stance that the destructive weapons are in safe, competent hands, saying, “I remain confident — and having gone there to our bases last week, even more confident — in the safety, reliability and effectiveness of the nuclear mission.”
Wilson said all missile launch officers have now been retested, and the average score was about 95 percent. He said that 22 failed.
Additional nuclear testing and crew evaluations are also being carried out.
Malmstrom Air Force Base is responsible for 150 Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles, or one-third of the entire Minuteman 3 force. The other two bases are F.E. Warren in Wyoming and Minot in North Dakota.
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.
According to James and Wilson, the monthly tests all cover the same course material, but until now each base developed its own individual questions. As a result of the scandal, Wilson said the tests will now be developed by the 20th Air Force.