Up in Arms

Published — January 16, 2014 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Cold, damp, underground cheating

The ICBM force is not getting the Air Force’s high flyers


This photo shows military personnel executing a stimulated launch during a training exercise at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in October 2012. R.J. Oriez/warren.af.mil

UPDATE: Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told reporters Jan. 30 the number of missile crew members implicated had more than doubled. See below.

Working in the U.S. nuclear-tipped missile force, a job that seemed vital to the country’s security during the Cold War, is an increasingly thankless and dispiriting task, as a new scandal this week has made clear.

A special Defense Science Board survey, completed in April 2013, noted that morale in the force had declined because “national leaders, past and present, [question]…the need for the nuclear capabilities.” Resources have been steadily declining; technical orders are “outdated or inaccurate”; repairs and reforms take an exceptionally long time to implement; and turnover in the security and maintenance forces has consequently been high, the report said.

Those responsible for launching nuclear-tipped missiles in some ways have the worst of it. The capsules they work in are sometimes dampened by groundwater leaks dozens of feet underground, and they are sometimes surrounded by “collapsing electrical conduits,” according to the report. Moreover, there is “a deeply rooted drive for zero risk” that to the board’s members seemed excessive.

“What has changed is the perception of negative career impacts, the slow response to concerns, and the need for tangible evidence that things are improving and will continue to improve,” the Board warned as it noted low retention rates. “If the practice continues to be that the troops compensate for manpower and skill shortfalls, operate in inferior facilities, and perform with failing support equipment, there is high risk of failure to meet the demands” of the nuclear deterrence job.

These factors might explain why the Air Force has had trouble attracting to the mission its highest flyers, so to speak. And this in turn may explain the repeated scandals related to official misconduct in the Air Force missile force within the past year.

The latest embarassment, disclosed at a Pentagon press briefing on Jan. 15, led to 34 intercontinental ballistic missile officers at Malstrom Air Force Base in Montana being stripped of their security clearances and “decertified” for ICBM launch roles. According to Gen. Mark Welsh III, the service’s chief of staff, 17 of them had cheated on a monthly test of their abilities to fulfill “their standard operational duties as a member of the missile crew.”

In short, it was not a trivial exam. Sixteen of them had each received the answers to multiple questions on the exam, via a text message, from one officer, Air Force officials said. Seventeen more were aware of the cheating but failed to blow the whistle on it, a violation of Air Force ethics rules. Their ranks ranged from second lieutenant to captain.

What’s even more problematic is that the cheating was discovered during an Air Force probe of illegal drug possession that encompassed two of the cheating missileers. Welsh said the size of the group involved in the cheating is “the largest one that we’re aware of” – amounting to 18 percent of the 190 crew members at Malmstrom, which controls 150 Minuteman III missiles.

UPDATE: Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told reporters Jan. 30 the number of missile crew members implicated had more than doubled, from 34 to 92, out of a total of 500 missile crew members at three launch sites. All of those implicated were at Malmstrom.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, head of the Air Force Global Strike Command, told reporters at the same briefing that after the cheating was discovered all 500 missile crew members were given a surprise test on missile launch procedures. Twenty-two still failed. Anything less than 90 percent is a failing grade. Those who fail are taken off of alert, retrained and retested.

James said she met publicly and privately last week with missile crews at all three bases, and found morale problems widespread. In her remarks she seemed to blame the testing regime, rather than the missilleers themselves, for the cheating problem. “We do have systemic problems within the force,” she said. “I’ve heard repeatedly that the need for perfection has created an undue climate of undue stress and fear.”

She said crew members at all the bases told her that they believed that promotions were handed out mainly on the basis of test scores rather than broader measures of their performance. “In our drive to have a zero-perfect nuclear force, these tests have been elevated to such a point where the environment has simply become unhealthy and we’re not looking at the whole person concept and the totality of how they perform,” she said. “My opinion is we need to change that.”

She spoke a day after Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with 15 top Air Force, Navy and strategic forces commanders about the troubles. Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said later that Hagel would discipline any officers who were found culpable in connection with the scandal. “To the degree leaders have failed in their duties, he wants them held to account,” Kirby said.

Earlier scandals led to the dismissal of two high-ranking generals within the nuclear workforce. Vice Admiral Tim Giardina, the deputy commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, was fired in October for allegedly using counterfeit chips at an Iowa casino. Two days later, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, who oversaw the entire ICBM force, was ousted for “inappropriate behavior” that allegedly included heavy drinking with local women during an official trip to Moscow. In May last year, 17 ICBM officers at Minot Air Force Base were relieved by their commander for violations of safety rules, mishandling codes, and inappropriate attitudes.

The new discovery of malfeasance in the nuclear force this week has put the Air Force in the ticklish position of declaring that nothing serious is really wrong but also making clear that top officials are turning over chairs to reach the site and make needed reforms.

“I am confident in the security of the force,” newly-appointed Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told reporters at the Pentagon. But she also said she rejiggered her schedule to permit a visit to two ICMB bases next week, accompanied by Welsh. The new head of the Strategic Command, which oversees all nuclear forces, “will also be visiting in the near term,” she said. “So all of us will be assessing the leadership and working with those on the ground to make sure that we have an effective ICBM force, not only right now today, but also going forward into the future.”

In total, there are 450 Minuteman III missiles deployed in four bases in Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota. The Air Force wants to modernize them over the next decade, at a cost estimated by the Congressional Budget Office at roughly $24 billion (including operation and maintenance).

When Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel visited the Wyoming base earlier this month to boost morale, he said that “you’ve… chosen a profession where there’s no room for error. In what you do every day, there is no room for error, none,” Hagel told the crowd. “You’re all smart, you’re committed, you’ve got other options, but it is a purpose in your lives that partly commit you to do it. You’re doing something of great importance for the world. You’re doing something important for your families, for your future, for your country, and for our security.”

But Bruce Blair, a former ICBM officer who went on to lead a group called Global Zero that has advocated eliminating all ICBMs, said “I don’t know anyone who didn’t cheat on those exams, including myself. Cheating, sleeping on the job, these are all things that have been widespread for decades.”

“The job has always been the backwater of the Air Force, but there was a sense of mission during the Cold War that doesn’t exist anymore. The fact is that those missiles out in the Midwest no longer have a role to play,” Blair said.

Blair said the Air Force is “refusing to face reality with this program.” The nuclear force, he said, “is not the future.”

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