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 Resources have been steadily declining; technical orders are “outdated or inaccurate”; repairs and reforms take an exceptionally long time to implement; and turnover in the security and maintenance forces has consequently been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.