More bad news for the boys and girls in blue: the cheating scandal among Air Force nuclear missile launch officers at Malmstrom AFB, Montana is growing. 

The Associated Press reports that 90 launch officers–roughly half the number assigned to Malmstrom–have been implicated in the scandal, which involved texting correct answers to a monthly certification exam.  Early reports suggested that a smaller number of missileers had been identified in the cheating scandal, which grew out of a separate drug investigation.

So why were so many launch officers cheating on the exam?  Air Force officials are placing part of the blame on a “culture of fear” among missileers, who worried that their careers would end if they didn’t achieve a perfect score.   From the AP account, via Air Force Times:

“…“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” even though they only need a score of 90 to pass, said [Air Force Secretary Deborah] James. “They have come to believe that these tests are make-it-or-break-it.”

The launch officers didn’t cheat to pass the test, “they cheated because they felt driven to get 100 percent,” she said.

Of the 92 officers implicated so far, as many as 40 were involved directly in the cheating, Wilson said. Others may have known about it but did not report it.”

Previous reports on problems in the Air Force nuclear enterprise have indicated other problems, including low morale, frustration and job dissatisfaction.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently ordered a full investigation into the nation’s nuclear forces, and Secretary James (along with the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh) recently visited nuclear bases in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. 

If this sounds like a case of bureaucratic deja vu, it should.  After the infamous, unauthorized “transfer” of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from Minot AFB, North Dakota to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana in 2007, the Air Force spent months–and billions of your tax dollars–to fix its nuclear units.  When progress in that effort lagged, the-Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired the Air Force Secretary and the Chief of Staff.  But there have been more problems since the “fix” was completed, and Hagel’s directive suggests that he is growing impatient. 

We’ve outlined permanent fixes for the USAF’s nuclear woes in previous posts, and it’s anything but rocket science (no pun intended).  Pick the right people, train them to exacting standards, demand full accountability and reward them for outstanding performance.  Individuals who can’t measure up should be weeded out of the force as soon as possible.  Sitting in a Minuteman III launch control center with   the keys to unleash nuclear destruction is not a job for slackers, malcontents or whiners. 

To be sure, there are more exciting jobs in the Air Force, and if dissatisfied missileer are looking for something a little less routine, they might consider cross-training.  But they should also remember that the career grass always looks better on the other side of the AFSC fence.  Just ask the security forces officer who (along with his airmen) spends more time in the missile field–in the weather–protecting strategic assets.  Or the supply officer who is responsible for millions of dollars in logistics and personnel, but only gains attention when a needed item is on back-order, or one of his specialists screws up. 

Then, there’s the maintenance officer who struggles to ensure that his wrench-benders can keep aging aircraft in service.  Or the intel guy whose analysis is deemed incorrect by everyone from aircrews to the wing commander.  Even pilots aren’t immue from duty that doesn’t live up to its original billing.  A lot of young men and women who dreamed of strapping on an F-22 now spend their day flying a drone by remote control, convinced that their peers who fly “real” aircraft  will get the promotions and choice assignments. 

Which leads us to another point: why are junior officers so worried about promotion.  Most missile launch crews consist of a junior Captain (who serves as the crew commander) and a lieutenant, who functions as the deputy.  And, it’s not unusual to find a First Lieutenant as the MCC and a new “butter bar” as his deputy.  Did we mention that the promotion rate from O-1 to O-2 is around 99%, and more than 95% o all First Lieutenants make Captain, even in missile squadrons.  Put another way: it’s a long way from your first or second tour as a launch officer and the first “real” promotion board that considers you for advancement to Major (O-4).  Plenty of time for a young officer to do the “right” things that will get them that gold oak leaf, or make a mistake that will kill their chances.  Flunking one certification test should not be enough to wreck a career. 

As a remider, your humble correspondent was never a launch officer.  But I was an aircrew member for several years, meaning I had to meet certification standards for my position, including periodic written evaluation and at least one check-ride a year.  I also served as an aircrew instructor and flight examiner, meaning that I’ve also been one of the “black hats” that evaluates crew performance.  In my experience, failures on written exams and check-rides were extremely rare and when there was a failure, the crew member was quickly re-certified after remedial training and another airborne evaluation.  Put another way: I can’t remember a single failed check-ride that ended someone’s career.

Having said that, I can also empathize with the crew dogs at Malmstrom, Minot and F.E. Warren.  As the Air Force down-sizes (along with the rest of the U.S. military), there will be significant personnel cuts, and junior officers are a prime target, along with first-term airmen and mid-career NCOs.  As a survivor of two reduction-in-force (RIF) exercises in the USAF, I can only say that the best way to avoid the axe is to do a superior job and separate yourself from the rest of the herd.   Obviously, cheating on a certification test is not the way to achieve separation.

As noted in a recent post, the best way to rebuild the ICBM business is by recruiting (and retaining) better people.  That’s why we’ve suggested that more missileers be drawn from the ranks of prior-service officers who earn their commissions through Air Force Officer Training School.  Many of those individuals have 4-10 years of experience before becoming an officer.  They’re more experienced, more mature, and less likely to engage in the idiocy that is now plaguing missile squadrons. 

One thing is certain: the USAF ICBM force needs to get its house in order–and quickly.  Lest they forget, the current commander-in-chief favors slashing the U.S. nuclear asenal, and his Defense Secretary, Mr. Hagel, has publicly advocated the elimination of land-based nuclear missiles.  More screw-ups in places like Minot, Malmstrom and F.E. Warren could provide just enough ammunition to eliminate land-based ICBMs from our strategic inventory, once and for all.  That is truly something to fear.