Culture of Perfection Led to Missileer Cheating: Air Force

Global Security Newswire Staff
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Global Security Newswire Staff
Jan. 31, 2014, 6:04 a.m.

Afraid of neg­at­ive ca­reer re­per­cus­sions if they did not earn per­fect scores, a num­ber of U.S. mis­sileers chose to cheat on tests, the Air Force said on Thursday.

About 50 per­cent of the 183 nuc­le­ar launch of­ficers at the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana have been de­cer­ti­fied and re­moved from duty  as a res­ult of the Air Force’s on­go­ing probe in­to mis­steps in test­ing, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­por­ted. Of the 92 of­ficers thus far em­broiled in the in­vest­ig­a­tion, 40 mis­sileers played a dir­ect role in the cheat­ing, which in­volved tex­ting ex­am an­swers to oth­er of­ficers, Air Force Glob­al Strike Com­mand head Lt. Gen. Steph­en Wilson said at a press con­fer­ence.

The ap­prox­im­ately 550 Air Force of­ficers with re­spons­ib­il­ity for op­er­at­ing the coun­try’s ar­sen­al of silo-based Minute­man 3 in­ter­con­tin­ent­al bal­list­ic mis­siles are re­quired to routinely sit for cer­ti­fic­a­tion tests that as­sess their know­ledge of such things as launch-con­trol pro­ced­ures. Thus far, it ap­pears that the cheat­ing took place only at  Malmstrom, ac­cord­ing to the Air Force.

“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,” des­pite need­ing just a 90 per­cent score to pass, Air Force Sec­ret­ary De­borah Lee James told journ­al­ists. “They have come to be­lieve that these tests are make-it-or-break-it.”

Largely in re­sponse to the cheat­ing scan­dal and oth­er re­cent lapses in pro­fes­sion­al­ism among the mis­sile-launch of­ficer corps, De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel has ordered a com­pre­hens­ive re­view of mor­ale and per­form­ance is­sues in the mil­it­ary’s nuc­le­ar sec­tor.

With half of the launch of­ficers at Malmstrom now side­lined, each of the re­main­ing mis­sileers and base staff have had to take on two ex­tra 24-hour shifts a month man­ning the un­der­ground mis­sile-fir­ing cen­ters. Ex­tra staff from the 20th Air Force, which over­sees all Minute­man 3 mis­siles, also are be­ing tasked with launch duty.

No com­mand­ers have yet been pun­ished for the un­covered cheat­ing. A num­ber of former launch of­ficers have come for­ward this month — some iden­ti­fied by name — to say that many seni­or-level Air Force of­ficers knew of the cheat­ing and even con­doned it. The ser­vice has moved to freeze seni­or of­ficer pro­mo­tions with­in the 20th Air Force while the in­vest­ig­a­tion con­tin­ues.

“I do be­lieve there are cli­mate is­sues, and part of that will be as­sess­ing com­mand­ers — how did this hap­pen?” James said.

The ser­vice’s top ci­vil­ian lead­er spent last week vis­it­ing mis­sile fa­cil­it­ies in North Dakota, Wyom­ing and Montana, where she spoke with launch of­ficers.

“I heard re­peatedly from team­mates that the need for per­fec­tion has cre­ated a cli­mate of un­due stress and fear,” James was quoted by the New York Times as say­ing. “Fear about the fu­ture. Fear about pro­mo­tions. Fear about what will hap­pen to them in their ca­reers.”

Ser­vice of­fi­cials have ad­mit­ted that there may be too much fo­cus on test achieve­ment at the ex­pense of nuc­le­ar per­son­nel’s over­all mis­sion com­pet­ency.

“We have lost the dis­tinc­tion over time between train­ing and test­ing,” James said.

However, Loren Thompson, an armed ser­vices ana­lyst at the Lex­ing­ton In­sti­tute, said the nature of the nuc­le­ar mis­sion leaves zero room for er­ror.

“The con­sequences of a mis­take in the hand­ling of nuc­le­ar weapons are far great­er than in prob­lems that could hap­pen with any­thing else,” Thompson said. “One hun­dred per­cent is ne­ces­sary on these tests be­cause one mis­take could be very cata­stroph­ic.”

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