Cheating officers aren't the most worrisome scandal to hit the nuclear missile corps

Sure, it's embarrassing that America's nuclear missileers are cheating and abusing drugs. But these two scandals are worse.

Test ballistic missile launch
(Image credit: (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Yvonne Morales/Released))

On Wednesday, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James dropped something of a bombshell: 34 officers responsible for launching America's nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) had been caught cheating on their monthly proficiency test or failed to report the cheating to their superiors. All 34 were suspended, stripped of their missile-handling certification, and temporarily relieved of their security clearance.

This is a huge embarrassment to the Air Force, apparently the largest cheating scandal and group ouster of officers entrusted with launching the nation's most lethal weapons. Worse, the high school–grade cheating — one officer texted answers to 16 peers, and at least 17 other officers knew about it and kept quiet — was uncovered during an investigation into illegal recreational drug use by 11 Air Force officers at six bases, including two of the alleged cheaters and another nuclear missileer.

Certainly America — and the world — wants the officers in charge of nuclear ICBMs to be sober, honest, and knowledgeable enough to pass their certification tests unaided. The Air Force has been tarred by several scandals over the past few years, notes Helene Cooper at The New York Times, but "the current revelations are particularly alarming because they involve America's nuclear arsenal, where errors could be catastrophic." Well, yes. The movies are full of nuclear apocalypse near-misses due to sloppiness or malfeasance.

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But is this any more than just a black eye for the Air Force? Was the USAF at risk of unleashing a real-life Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper? Probably not from this scandal. The Air Force certainly says nobody was in danger. "This was a failure of some of our airmen," said Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the USAF's top uniformed officer. "It was not a failure of the nuclear mission."

Well, here's a look at the nuclear missileers. The alleged cheaters are all stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, one of three bases that house America's roughly 450 nuclear ICBMs. (The other two are Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and Wyoming's F.E. Warren Air Force Base.) Collectively, the 600 Air Force missileers at these three bases sit prepared for a nuclear strike, 24/7, from bases about 100 feet underground.

They have to take monthly proficiency tests, and in fact officers routinely cheat, former ICBM launch control officer Bruce Blair tells The New York Times. With officers required to score 100 percent, he adds, "perfection is demanded of all of these crew members, and it's an impossible standard." All 600 missileers will be retested by the end of Thursday.

Boredom is undoubtedly a problem, but so is morale. The ICBMs are just one of three legs of America's nuclear triad, along with the Navy's submarine-based warheads and the USAF's nuclear bomber fleet. "The Air Force's land-based missile leg is the shakiest among the three means of delivering atomic warheads because, as budget pressures mount, experts say it is the leg most likely to be scrapped," says TIME's Mark Thompson.

The AP reported in November that a draft report from the RAND Corp. found high levels of "burnout" in the Air Force's nuclear-launch corps. Thompson's description of the reason for the dissatisfaction borders on pathetic: "There's a palpable sense among Pentagon officials that the nuclear moment — and the honor and glory that once came with it — has faded in recent decades," he says, and "nowhere is that felt more deeply than in the Air Force's intercontinental-ballistic-missile force."

The New York Times' Cooper provides a slightly less guts-and-glory reason, explaining, "The missileers have increasingly come to view their mission as a backwater, with little chance of advancement to the top ranks of the Air Force."

The job is exhausting, thankless, and stressful, the RAND report found, and this dissatisfaction has taken its toll: Levels of misconduct and domestic abuse were higher among missileers than the Air Force at large, with the court-martial rate in 2011 and 2012 twice as high. That in itself is a little worrisome for the men and women in charge of America's LGM-30 Minuteman III missiles. Maybe it partly explains the other recent problems in the USAF's nuclear wing.

The previous scandals range from 17 officers at the Minot ICBM base being temporarily stripped of launch duties last April for flubbing a missile launch test to the demotion of Vice Adm. Tim Giardina — the No. 2 officer at the U.S. Strategic Command, in charge of America's nuclear arsenal — for gambling with counterfeit chips at an Iowa casino. CNN and the AP have lists of the various snafus.

But two gross errors in judgment strike me as more worrisome that the rest — certainly more dangerous than a little cheating on a monthly test or smoking a little synthetic marijuana (presumably) on your off time. The first is the 2007 incident in which a B-52 flew from across the middle of the country, from Minot to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, with six nuclear-armed Advanced Cruise Missiles attached to the bomber's wings; the warheads were supposed to have been removed from the to-be-decommissioned missiles. Heads rolled for that.

More recently, the USAF general who oversaw the three ICBM bases, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, was relieved of duty in October for "conduct unbecoming a gentleman" during a trip to Russia in July. That's almost a polite way of describing what the USAF's investigation found.

The problems started during a layover in Switzerland, en route to an official visit to Russia, when Carey started talking loudly about his responsibilities as commander of a large nuclear arsenal, boasting that he "saves the world from war every day." In Moscow, he went on a bender with an unidentified male, staying out late partying with two "foreign national women" — or as he bragged the next day, when he was 45 minutes late for an official briefing, he'd "met two hot women the night before."

During a subsequent visit to a monastery, he reportedly slurred his words while repeatedly interrupting the tour guide. Then, at a Mexican restaurant, the drunk general pestered The Beatles cover band to let him on stage to sing with them. He also left his colleagues to go sit with the women from the night before. "There was no indication Carey's behavior compromised sensitive nuclear information or went beyond drinking, dancing, and fraternizing with the women," say CNN's Holly Yan and Faith Karimi. That doesn't seem like the sort of gamble we should have to put up with.

Those breaches were far more serious than the new cheating scandal, in my opinion. But that doesn't let the 34 officers off the hook, or the 11 accused of dropping Ecstasy and smoking Spice. "There's no making this better," former Pentagon official Kathleen Hicks tells The New York Times. Any potentially dangerous lapse in judgment among the people tending to America's nuclear arsenal is "worrisome. Period. Full Stop." And so it is.

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