Pentagon cheating scandals: a breakdown in ethics or an outmoded system? (+video)

When cheating within the nuclear forces surfaced, the Pentagon framed it as an ethical issue. But critics say it's the system and cold-war cultural expectations that need a fix.

By , Staff writer

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    Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert (l.), accompanied by Adm. John Richardson, director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon on Tuesday. The Navy is investigating alleged cheating on tests by senior enlisted sailors training on naval nuclear reactors.
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The plot thickens in the cheating scandals involving nuclear officers in the US military, in which a senior enlisted sailor stepped forward to report an alleged cheating ring to higher authorities because the sailor “recognized that this was wrong.” 

“To say that I’m disappointed would be an understatement,” said Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations. “It affects the very basis of our ethos.” 

The news comes on the heels of reports of Air Force cheating involving nearly one-quarter of its entire force of nuclear missileers.

Recommended: How much do you know about nuclear weapons? Take our quiz.

So why now – why this sudden spate of cheating allegations within the nuclear forces? And what can the services learn from it?

Unlike Air Force officials, top Navy brass is pushing back against the notion that it is a drive for perfection in testing that has led to the scandal. “I don’t perceive ... that there’s an element of ‘you have to get the highest grade,’ ” Admiral Greenert added, in a briefing with reporters. 

But defense analysts aren’t so sure about that. Within its nuclear realm, the US military has often endeavored to create a “culture of perfection,” says Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

Given that these are deadly nuclear weapons, such a drive for perfection isn’t too tough to understand. During the height of the cold war, in particular, “It wasn’t simply a matter of nuclear safety,” Dr. Cordesman points out. “It was the fact that you were dealing with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the hands of enemies and the reaction times were short.” 

Today, of course, the military is not on a cold-war footing. Navy officials have been quick to note that the Navy's cheating scandal does not involve troops who handle nuclear weapons. They do, however, work with operational nuclear reactors – in other words, the power plants than run most of the American military’s large ships and submarines. 

These have the potential to be dangerous jobs, so it is important that standards be high. Yet the Navy can accomplish this aim and also be realistic without having to be perfect. The problem is that post cold war, it is not clear that the Pentagon has ever reexamined the sorts of standards it had during the hair-trigger days of the cold war.

“You always need to set realistic standards. If you don’t have tests that tell you the truth, you don’t know when the system is broken,” Cordesman says. “In a different world, do you need to redesign the system?”

For example, today there is an “awful lot” that can be done automatically and electronically, he adds. “That doesn’t require everybody to memorize everything in exactly the way it did 10 or 20 years ago.”

Rather than a breakdown in ethics, the series of cheating scandals, Cordesman argues, could instead be “warning signs that you have a system that needs modernization and reappraisal.” 

The Pentagon, for its part, has repeatedly emphasized the ethics of the matter. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered senior DOD leaders to “take a step back and put renewed emphasis on developing moral character and moral courage in our force,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Wednesday. 

At the same time, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey is launching efforts “to place a renewed emphasis on character development, particularly amongst our officer corps,” Kirby added, during a briefing with Pentagon reporters. 

The problem, however, is the tendency of “military folks to talk about character and integrity as if that’s the answer to all of your problems,” says Martin Cook, Admiral Stockdale chair of professional military ethics at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

Instead, the key may be to examine the cultural expectations of institutions in question, including nuclear training schools, Dr. Cook says.

In Navy pilot school, for example, it’s well known that the “ambient culture” is “cooperate to graduate,” Cook says. “If we all share our answers and ‘cooperate to graduate,’ then that’s what most people are going to do. So you shouldn’t expect most individuals to deviate from that.”

In other words, it will be the rare individual who says “no” to that system, Cook points out. This is what top Navy officials say happened in the case of the most recent Navy cheating investigation. The problem, Cook adds, is that “you’re relying on the one rare individual who perceives this thing to be wrong.” 

Secretary Hagel and others have “defaulted to talk about character and integrity, because that’s what military leaders always do.”

The danger of this emphasis is the failure to question “not just these individuals who fail but what kind of pressure do you put on them and how do ordinary people respond to that?” Cook adds.

If there is a culture of zero tolerance for wrong answers on the test, then that in turn will “drive normal human beings to make sure they don’t get any wrong answers,” Cook says, which could lead to cheating. 

Indeed, there is much study to suggest that “institutional morality” has a much greater effect on how people behave than does personal morality.

Cook points to a well-regarded psychology study in which students came into a room and were told to solve as many math problems they could in a fixed amount of time.

They would then grade their own work and pay themselves according to how many correct answers they’d scored. They were also instructed to tear up and discard their answer sheets when they left, an instruction that was meant to convey the notion that they would be accountable to no one but themselves.

In the default group, most people tended to pay themselves for one or two more problems more than they actually solved. “Most people cheat a little,” Cook says.

With another group, researchers added something to the mix: They put an actor in the room who – shortly after the test begins and in much less time than would have been possible – announced that he had solved all of the problems, picked up the money, and left the room.

The question was, did the presence of the actor increase or decrease the amount of cheating within the group?

The answer was surprising: It depended on what sweatshirt the actor was wearing.

In one test group at Carnegie Melon, if the actor was wearing a Carnegie Melon sweatshirt (which is where the test subjects went to school) “cheating went way up,” Cook says.

If the actor was wearing a Pitt sweatshirt (from the school across town) cheating went “way down,” he adds, far below even the default group.

The study’s conclusion was that the behavior of the group depends in large part “on what your team is perceived as accepting.”

The take-home message for the Pentagon, Cook says, is that “the military training environment is all about the sweatshirt.”

So, rather than a PowerPoint presentation on the importance of ethics writ large, a discussion of the cultural expectations of the place could prove to be more helpful and impactful, Cook argues. “I wonder if someone at the beginning of nuclear power school talks to them about the vital importance of them acquiring this expertise, the dangers of them not getting it, and the need to get this right authentically?”

In other words, “Do they have a full sense of the moral gravity of the enterprise they’re engaged in?” he adds. “I expect they’re plowing right into the technical stuff without much of a framing discussion.” 

What’s more, “It ought to be possible to have a reasonable amount of failure and correction, otherwise people are going to be evasive, right?” Cook says, adding that most learning theory shows that if people score, say, an 80 percent and also get immediate feedback on their errors, they tend to learn “pretty quickly.”

In the meantime, top military officials say they are looking hard for answers. When one reporter asked whether the cheating could be the result of an increased operational tempo (that’s “op-tempo” in Pentagon parlance) created by a decade of war, Greenert said he honestly doesn’t know.

“If I knew that answer, I would be doing all kinds of things within the Navy,” he noted. 

That said, “We will be very introspective on this,” he added. “We will, as I said before, make this very much a case study.”

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