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America’s missile dud

A scandal reveals cheating a fact of life among US nuclear launch officers.


February 4, 2014 12:06:34 am

HELENE COOPER

Top military officials were quick to voice outrage over recent revelations that 92 officers responsible for launching the nation’s nuclear missiles cheated on monthly proficiency tests, but few expressed surprise.

Cheating has been a fact of life among America’s nuclear launch officers for decades, crew members and instructors said. “When I saw that they got something wrong, I would say, ‘Go back and look at No 5 again’,” said Brian Weeden, a former launch officer at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, who said that he routinely asked new crew members to show him their test answers before they turned them in.

Gen Mark A Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, said the misconduct of some officers had not compromised the safety of the nuclear arsenal.

The Air Force later said that the number of people involved in the scandal has more than doubled and it had suspended nearly half of the nuclear launch crew at Malmstrom Air Force Base. It also acknowledged a “systemic problem” in the culture of the team that is entrusted to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Air Force officials insist that regardless of the cheating, there is no potential for a nuclear mistake because several backup procedures are in place. Air Force secretary Deborah Lee James said a “climate of fear” pervasive in the ballistic missile force might have encouraged launch officers to share answers to monthly proficiency tests.

For their part, missile launch crew members say they know the test material, which includes how to handle nuclear launch codes, but argue that the grading standards are unreasonably high.

Whoever is right, the cheating scandal comes as the nation’s missile launch officers, known as missileers, are caught in a vicious cycle. They work with the lethal jewels of the nation’s arsenal, for which errors can be catastrophic, but they find themselves overshadowed by combat and Special Operations forces central to the marquee mission of fighting terrorism. No one wants a nuclear conflict, but launch officers see their lot spending a lifetime waiting for a war that will never come.

“The nuclear deterrent mission has lost much of its status in the Air Force as the Cold War ended, and many of the personnel on the mission are demoralised,” said Loren B Thompson, the head of the Lexington Institute, a research organisation.

Former missileers say the cheating is also driven by, what they say, are onerous consequences for failing the tests, including additional time on “alert” in the isolated, cramped underground capsules from which the missiles are launched. In the language of diplomacy, they say there are few carrots for rewards and far more sticks for retribution.

“The sticks are so severe, the punishment for imperfection so great, that it encourages crew members to work together to ensure that no one fails,” said Bruce Blair, a former missile launch officer and co-founder of Global Zero, which advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons. Blair said that he cheated on his proficiency tests, as did his fellow crew members.

One former missileer who left Malmstrom in 2010 said that he believed every officer there knew about the cheating and 85 to 90 per cent of them, himself included, cheated on the tests.

“The penalty is so severe that everyone is freaked out,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions. Current and former missileers described a surreal circular dance in which crew members routinely cheated on the tests, got promoted to higher ranks, and then officially announced their zero tolerance of cheating, all the while looking the other way. “The colonels, they all did the exact same thing we did,” said one captain, who left Malmstrom in 2011 after four years there, and who said he routinely cheated.

Maj Gen Jack Weinstein, commander of the Twentieth Air Force, Air Force Global Strike Command, said that the breadth of the cheating at Malmstrom “shocked” him.

A former missileer himself, he said he had never cheated or witnessed cheating. “I’m not saying that people did not complete a test and then tell others, be careful of this question or that question,” Weinstein said. “But to the extent of full answersheets being passed around, I’ve never seen that before.”

The cheating is only the latest in a series of scandals for the Air Force, but it is particularly alarming. “You know what the bumper sticker says, ‘one nuclear weapon can ruin your whole day’,” said Thompson.

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