A Pass-Fail Exam Is All That Stands Between Air Force Officers and Nuclear Missile Codes

The change comes in the wake of a high-profile cheating scandal that revealed a de facto expectation that perfect test scores were needed for advancement.

National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
April 23, 2014, 9:19 a.m.

The Air Force is sim­pli­fy­ing the way it grades nuc­le­ar-mis­sile of­ficers on their monthly ex­ams, the ser­vice’s top-rank­ing of­ficer said on Wed­nes­day.

The ser­vice has “made the monthly [cer­ti­fic­a­tion] test pass-fail,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said at a Wash­ing­ton event. His re­marks come in the wake of a high-pro­file cheat­ing scan­dal at a Montana base that re­vealed a de facto ex­pect­a­tion that per­fect test scores were needed for ad­vance­ment up the ranks.

Welsh did not say in his re­marks at the Na­tion­al Press Club what per­cent­age of cor­rect an­swers would be needed to pass the thumbs-up-or-down pro­fi­ciency tests. It was pre­vi­ously re­por­ted that launch-con­trol of­ficers needed a score of at least 90 per­cent on each ex­am to main­tain au­thor­iz­a­tion to key in a fir­ing code for one of the coun­try’s 450 ground-based stra­tegic mis­siles.

An Air Force in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to drug-use al­leg­a­tions un­covered cheat­ing on cer­ti­fic­a­tion tests at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., and res­ul­ted in the ser­vice earli­er this year fir­ing nine mid-level of­ficers at the base for their fail­ure to de­tect and re­port the mis­con­duct. Welsh said the wrong­do­ing in­volved about 40 per­cent of each of the 341st Mis­sile Wing’s three squad­rons.

The mis­sile wing main­tains and op­er­ates 150 Minute­man 3 in­ter­con­tin­ent­al bal­list­ic mis­siles. Air Force bases in Wyom­ing and North Dakota each host an equi­val­ent num­ber of the nuc­le­ar-armed mis­siles.

Ser­vice brass have at­trib­uted the cheat­ing at Malmstrom to a “cul­ture of per­fec­tion” that led mis­sileers to be­lieve their ca­reers would suf­fer if they did not get test scores of 100 per­cent. Though of­fi­cials said they did not un­cov­er any test-tak­ing mis­con­duct at bases in North Dakota and Wyom­ing, ex-mis­sile launch of­ficers have said cheat­ing has been rampant for years throughout the ICBM of­ficer corps.

“The people who cheated, the people who were break­ing the law, who were break­ing our rules and policies in­ten­tion­ally, they don’t have a fu­ture with us. That’s not how we op­er­ate,” Welsh said.

He said the ser­vice is work­ing to quickly im­ple­ment qual­ity-of-life changes for nuc­le­ar-mis­sile per­son­nel that were sug­ges­ted in a re­cent grass­roots sur­vey. Some of those fixes in­volve em­power­ing lower-level of­ficers to make more de­cisions.

“We’re try­ing hard to elim­in­ate an idea that you can nev­er make a de­cision, [that] your most-seni­or boss al­ways has to be the one mak­ing the call,” the four-star gen­er­al said. “There are a lot of things that we need to be do­ing in that busi­ness at the low­est level of au­thor­ity.”

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