US nuclear forces: Drinking and cheating? What the Pentagon wants to fix.

Deborah Lee James, the new secretary of the Air Force, vows senior persistent oversight of the scandal-stricken nuclear forces and an attempt to boost missileers' self-esteem.

John Turner/US Air Force/Reuters
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James talks to members of the 341st Missile Wing during a visit to Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana January 22, 2014.

Nuclear weapons are, of course, the most dangerous in the US military’s arsenal. That’s why a series of scandals surrounding alleged mismanagement, cheating, drunken carousing in Moscow bars, and drug abuse in the Air Force’s nuclear command has Pentagon officials vowing to make big changes in the way the nuclear forces operate.

Here’s what’s been happening:

Drunken cavorting in Moscow bars, you say? 

Yes. While on a trip to Moscow last year, Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Carey – who was at the time in charge of US intercontinental ballistic missile facilities and operations – allegedly got drunk and, according to an internal Air Force report, “talked loudly about the importance of his position as commander of the only operational nuclear force in the world and that he saves the world from war every day.” 

Maj. Gen. Carey was removed form his job as the head of US land-based nuclear missiles in October, but he remains in the military, reassigned to a job as the special assistant to the head of Air Force Space Command. 

This followed on the heels of the firing of another top nuclear commander, Vice Admiral James Giardina, who was relieved of command after he tried to use $1,500 in fake poker chips to gamble at a casino.

These positions are one “of great trust and responsibility,” noted Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, head of Air Force Global Strike Command. “Personal behavior is vital to that.” 

Now, wasn’t there something a few years back about the Air Force misplacing some nuclear weapons?

You’re likely thinking of an “incident,” in Pentagon parlance, that happened in August 2007. That’s when a B-52 bomber took off from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota carrying six cruise missiles, each armed with a nuclear weapon capable of creating a blast 10 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The plane left at 8:40 a.m. and landed in Louisiana at 11:23 a.m., where it then sat at Barksdale Air Force Base until 10 p.m. without any special security measures – until an alert member of a munitions crew discovered that these weapons were not training rounds, but real-deal nuclear weapons that had been loaded in error.

For this, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates dismissed both Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff General Michael Mosley.

Phew, sounds like the Air Force took care of some regrettable leadership problems. Anything else?

Afraid so. The next chapter came this January, when the news broke mid-month that 34 nuclear launch officers were under investigation for a cheating scandal – the biggest one ever uncovered within the military’s nuclear command, according to Pentagon officials.

It involved 16 nuclear officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana accused of getting answers to a monthly missile launch test via text message, another 17 officers who allegedly knew their colleagues were cheating but failed to report it, and one officer accused of giving them the answers.

Two of the alleged cheaters were also found to be in possession of illegal drugs.

“This was a failure of some of our airmen,” Deborah Lee James, the new secretary of the Air Force, told Pentagon reporters on Jan. 15. “It was not a failure of the nuclear mission.”

After the cheating came to light, Global Strike Command ordered a proficiency test to be administered to all the missile crew members, while those charged with cheating were decertified and restricted from missile duty, with their security clearances suspended.

Well, that takes care of that, right?

Unfortunately, not quite. On Jan. 30 James returned to the Pentagon press room podium with the announcement that the those implicated in the cheating scandal at Malmstrom had risen to 92 officers. 

That’s a lot of people – somewhere on the order of 20 percent of the Air Force’s total missileer force of 500, and half of the force at Malmstrom. Those implicated in the cheating scandal have been pulled from duty, while the remainder of the force has been re-tested. 

In those tests, the crew members scored an average of 95 percent. In an inspection that focused on “nuclear control order procedures,” the crew received grades of “outstanding,” Secretary James said.

That said, senior Pentagon officials stress that the investigations into the matter will continue. “We are going to get to the bottom of this,” James added. “The mission is going to get – going forward – senior level, very persistent oversight.”

So what’s behind this behavior, and what is the Pentagon planning to do about it? 

The alleged cheating may be the result of a great deal of pressure on nuclear missileers, which “is not a healthy environment,” James said.

“What I mean by that is although the standard on our test – a passing grade on these tests is 90 percent – the missileers are still driven to score 100 percent, all of the time.” 

That’s because commanders there are using the test scores “to be a top differentiator, if not the sole differentiator, on who gets promoted,” she added. “So I believe that a very terrible irony in this whole situation is that these missileers didn’t cheat to pass. They cheated because they felt driven to get 100 percent. Getting 90 percent or 95 percent was considered a failure in their eyes.”

There is also some concern among top Pentagon officials that as a military speciality, the field of nuclear weapons does not have the caché that it once used to have. 

“Do they view this as a career field that has promise and where they can see a path to advancement at the top?” James asked. “I’m not sure they view it that way today. And I believe that we need to fix it so that it is viewed this way.”

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