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92 Air Force Officers Suspended For Cheating On ICBM Exam

ICBM Bunker

For more than a year now, we’ve seen problem after problem make its way through the Air Force’s corps of officers charged with manning the underground bunkers from which Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles are launched. Entire squadrons have been relieved of duty for extended periods of time, and commanding officers have been forced into retirement. Now, nearly 100 officers have been suspended due to suspicion that they cheated on a test related to their job duties:

WASHINGTON — The Air Force said Thursday that it had now suspended 92 officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base — nearly half of the nuclear launch crew there — in a cheating scandal, and it acknowledged a “systemic problem” in the culture of the team that is entrusted to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Air Force secretary, Deborah Lee James, said a “climate of fear” that was pervasive in the ballistic missile force might have encouraged launch officers to share answers to monthly proficiency tests. She said the nation’s nuclear arsenal remained safe.

For now, the 92 officers who have been suspended and decertified are barred from the underground missile capsules from which ICBMs are launched. The remaining launch crew members at the Montana base — just under 100 — will now perform extra duty on 24-hour standby, Defense Department officials said, and will spend at least 10 days a month in the missile capsules, up from eight.

“This situation remains completely unacceptable,” Ms. James said in her second news conference in two weeks to discuss the case.

The cheating came to light during an inquiry into illegal drug possession, when investigators discovered that test answers were being sent in text messages to the missile launch officers’ cellphones.

The cheating is only the latest in a series of scandals for the Air Force, but is particularly alarming. “You know what the bumper sticker says, ‘one nuclear weapon can ruin your whole day,’ ” said Loren B. Thompson, a military expert and the chief executive of the Lexington Institute, a research group.

Malmstrom, near Great Falls, is one of three bases that oversee the country’s arsenal of 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Air Force officials say they have retested about 500 launch officers at the three bases, and that all but 22 of them passed, with an average score of 95 percent. Lt. Gen. Stephen W. Wilson, commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, said that Defense Department officials do not believe the cheating at Malmstrom extends to the country’s other nuclear launch sites because the tests at each base are different.

But both current and former missileers, as the launch officers are known, say that cheating has been a fact of life for decades. Ms. James said that during her visits to all three bases last week, crew members — while not admitting to cheating — told her that they felt pressure to score 100 percent on the proficiency tests. While 90 percent is considered a passing score, they said that their commanding officers would not promote them unless they scored 100 percent.

“I heard repeatedly from teammates that the need for perfection has created a climate of undue stress and fear,” Ms. James said. “Fear about the future. Fear about promotions. Fear about what will happen to them in their careers.

“The irony is that they didn’t cheat to pass, they cheated to get 100 percent. This is not a healthy environment,” she added.

Ms. James also said that the drug investigation that led to the cheating scandal has been widened to include 13 airmen, up from the 11 initially reported by the Air Force. Three of the 13 are missile launch officers.

Clearly, there are some serious cultural problems going on in this part of the military.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Mikey says:

    This has been going on for a while in the strategic bomber and missile force. It seems like the end of the Cold War has made them feel unnecessary, and there’s been a deficit of leadership.

    The Air Force’s core values are “Integrity first, service before self, excellence in all we do.” I’m truly saddened to see so many of my fellow airmen failing on all three.

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  2. Ron Beasley says:

    It’s time to do away with the Air force and turn it’s responsibilities over to the Army and Navy. It really is redundant.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  3. Mikey says:

    @Ron Beasley: It would be most efficient to have a unified force with specialization branches, much as the Army does within its own structure (Infantry branch, Armor branch, etc.) but that’s not coming any time soon.

    The military makes a good effort to maximize “jointness,” but that’s not exactly the same thing.

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  4. DC Loser says:

    I would caution on having a joint force. The Canadians did that experiment and in the end went back to the separate services. Part of the military identity has to do with being part of a ‘tribe’ with its own culture, uniforms, etc., that sets it part from other services. Inter-service rivalry is also healthy to an extent for competition and esprit de corps. The problem with the ICBM force (I was a member of it in the 80s) is that its mission is really more or less irrelevant in the current wars and the missile force is at the bottom of the pecking order for Air Force missions (as well as promotion potential).

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  5. Mikey says:

    @DC Loser:

    Part of the military identity has to do with being part of a ‘tribe’ with its own culture, uniforms, etc., that sets it part from other services.

    Yes, it’s important to maintain a distinct “culture” but the maintenance of entirely distinct services is just not efficient and can lead to some pretty disastrous breakdowns. The failure of Eagle Claw in 1980 was due in large part to the inability of the different services to communicate.

    The problem with the ICBM force (I was a member of it in the 80s) is that its mission is really more or less irrelevant in the current wars and the missile force is at the bottom of the pecking order for Air Force missions (as well as promotion potential).

    Pretty much what I thought, too.

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  6. PJ says:

    For more than a year now, we’ve seen problem after problem make its way through the Air Force’s corps of officers charged with manning the underground bunkers from which Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles are launched. Entire squadrons have been relieved of duty for extended periods of time, and commanding officers have been forced into retirement. Now, nearly 100 officers have been suspended due to suspicion that they cheated on a test related to their job duties:

    Don’t believe the lies, they were all set up.
    If Obama thugs control the ICBMs etc, then who will be able to stop Obama when he refuses to step down in 2017? It’s all part of him turning the US into the USSR. America into Amerika.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  7. Pinky says:

    @PJ: I have to hope this was a joke. Just a few threads ago I was mocking the people who said this stuff about Clinton, and then Bush (or was it Cheney taking over and declaring a police state?). Think this through: if there’s going to be a presidential coup, what good would nuclear warhead control be? Those are the most useless things in the world when it comes to mounting a coup. And it isn’t like “Obama thugs” are taking control of them, anyway. Other AF personnel, the same ones who have been doing this job for years, are.

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  8. Kolohe says:

    The Air Force secretary, Deborah Lee James, said a “climate of fear” that was pervasive in the ballistic missile force might have encouraged launch officers to share answers to monthly proficiency tests.

    Really, though, how hard could these tests be? It’s not like launching ICBMs is rocket science.

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  9. ernieyball says:

    @Pinky: I have to hope this was a joke.

    On the one hand…come on Pink, U gotta know PJ was kidding…
    On the other hand when the Ace Social SagES of the airwaves promote this idea…
    http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/rush-limbaugh-perhaps-what-america-needs-is-a-military-coup/

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  10. ernieyball says:

    @Kolohe: It’s not like launching ICBMs is rocket science.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oShTJ90fC34

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  11. Mikey says:

    @Kolohe: rimshot

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  12. Mikey says:

    @Pinky: I’m pretty sure PJ was joking, but unfortunately the joke is based on some nonsense that’s actually floating around on the right lately. People actually believe the President is “purging” any officers he thinks will oppose him seizing permanent power and refusing to step down in 2017.

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  13. PJ says:

    @Mikey:

    I’m pretty sure PJ was joking, but unfortunately the joke is based on some nonsense that’s actually floating around on the right lately. People actually believe the President is “purging” any officers he thinks will oppose him seizing permanent power and refusing to step down in 2017.

    You’re exactly right.

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  14. grumpy realist says:

    (scratches head) I’m still confused by all this. I’d much rather have someone who was calm, cool and collected in emergencies, knew all the necessary protocols, and whobytheway cheated on his taxes over a pure, pristine squeaky-clean choirboy who couldn’t find his ass with both hands and is liable to panic when an emergency occurs.

    How do the tests relate to their work in the silos? I think that’s the major point. Plus, if the pressure is on to “get 100%” in order to advance, then of course there’s going to be the temptation to cheat. I probably would myself, especially if I couldn’t see any relation between the test questions and my duties. What does the morality of cheating on a test have to do with letting off an ICBM?

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  15. RGardner says:

    Up front, I’m rather familiar with the nuclear missions (Navy SSBNs, 4 years at Stratcom, a couple of years in DC including a stint on nuclear command and control during 9/11). As I see it, having discussed this with retired USAF friends (nuclear), is that Missile Duty, both officer and enlisted, is seen as a dead end (um, ditto nuclear bombers = cruise missiles). About the same as all the USAF IT folks in the 1990s, correcting COBOL for Y2K.All done by 1998, then what? Highest Missileer was a 2-star? Fighter Pilots rule.

    About 10 years ago the enlisted nuclear security MOS was merged with regular MPs. Previously you had folks from the Great Plain states in these jobs that grew up in the weather and remoteness. Wow, given the opportunity to go to Florida instead after 10 years in ND/MT, they said sure. For the folks from FL, the converse was not true. Guess what, similar nuclear issues happened when suddenly half the security forces transferred to warmer climates.

    Regardless, not sure what “cheating” occurred (no details given). There is always an exam bank of questions. The difficulty of questions (and trick questions) determines the passing rates. Are the metrics relevant? I suspect not. Sounds like a broken system to me, and some good people are going to be forever tarnished for being in a bad system.

    After this “scandal,” what cadet would even think of going into this career field? No opportunity, massive attention and blame. Meanwhile a 8-year F-22 pilot gets a $250K bonus.
    The missileer career field is now destroyed. I don’t think it was politically driven (as in planned), but this gives political cover to eliminate ICBMS (going out on an extrapolation here).

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  16. Mikey says:

    @grumpy realist:

    What does the morality of cheating on a test have to do with letting off an ICBM?

    Someone who is willing to short-cut the test is far more likely to short-cut in other areas, like safety and the proper command and control of nuclear weapons. Not really a “morality” issue, but a practical one.

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  17. rudderpedals says:

    @RGardner:

    Regardless, not sure what “cheating” occurred (no details given). There is always an exam bank of questions. The difficulty of questions (and trick questions) determines the passing rates. Are the metrics relevant? I suspect not. Sounds like a broken system to me, and some good people are going to be forever tarnished for being in a bad system.

    Good press conference on the pentagon channel this morning (12:01 am et) with a deputy secretary and the 4 star in charge of global strike command. The details per command: While investigating drug usage, the OSI discovered that examining ossifers at Malmstrom texted the correct answers on Malmstrom-specific monthly tests to their fellow wingmen testees. 82 (or 92? It was after midnight) of the 180-190 missileers were de-certified because they either participated in the cheating or knew of it and failed to report it.

    After this stuff was uncovered the 4 star had everyone at Malmstrom, Minot, Vandenberg and one other base I can’t remember retested with passing rates anywhere from 95% to 96%.

    Command claimed this proved the cheating was more a reflection of failures in training and an improper zero-tolerance attitude towards any mistakes during training. It sounded plausible. Persons with actual military experience (unlike yo) please chime in

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  18. Barry says:

    @Mikey: “It would be most efficient to have a unified force with specialization branches,…”

    No, because whichever branches became politically dominant would trash the others, with far more effectiveness than current.

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