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Culture of Perfection Led to Missileer Cheating: Air Force

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James briefs reporters as Global Strike Command head Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson looks on at the Pentagon on Thursday. The Air Force leaders said a climate of fear led a number of nuclear missile officers in Montana to cheat on a recent certification exam. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James briefs reporters as Global Strike Command head Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson looks on at the Pentagon on Thursday. The Air Force leaders said a climate of fear led a number of nuclear missile officers in Montana to cheat on a recent certification exam. (U.S. Defense Department photo)

Afraid of negative career repercussions if they did not earn perfect scores, a number of U.S. missileers chose to cheat on tests, the Air Force said on Thursday.

About 50 percent of the 183 nuclear launch officers at the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana have been decertified and removed from duty  as a result of the Air Force's ongoing probe into missteps in testing, the Associated Press reported. Of the 92 officers thus far embroiled in the investigation, 40 missileers played a direct role in the cheating, which involved texting exam answers to other officers, Air Force Global Strike Command head Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson said at a press conference.

The approximately 550 Air Force officers with responsibility for operating the country's arsenal of silo-based Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles are required to routinely sit for certification tests that assess their knowledge of such things as launch-control procedures. Thus far, it appears that the cheating took place only at  Malmstrom, according to the Air Force.

"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," despite needing just a 90 percent score to pass, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told journalists. "They have come to believe that these tests are make-it-or-break-it."

Largely in response to the cheating scandal and other recent lapses in professionalism among the missile-launch officer corps, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered a comprehensive review of morale and performance issues in the military's nuclear sector.

With half of the launch officers at Malmstrom now sidelined, each of the remaining missileers and base staff have had to take on two extra 24-hour shifts a month manning the underground missile-firing centers. Extra staff from the 20th Air Force, which oversees all Minuteman 3 missiles, also are being tasked with launch duty.

No commanders have yet been punished for the uncovered cheating. A number of former launch officers have come forward this month -- some identified by name -- to say that many senior-level Air Force officers knew of the cheating and even condoned it. The service has moved to freeze senior officer promotions within the 20th Air Force while the investigation continues.

"I do believe there are climate issues, and part of that will be assessing commanders -- how did this happen?" James said.

The service's top civilian leader spent last week visiting missile facilities in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, where she spoke with launch officers.

"I heard repeatedly from teammates that the need for perfection has created a climate of undue stress and fear," James was quoted by the New York Times as saying. "Fear about the future. Fear about promotions. Fear about what will happen to them in their careers."

Service officials have admitted that there may be too much focus on test achievement at the expense of nuclear personnel's overall mission competency.

"We have lost the distinction over time between training and testing," James said.

However, Loren Thompson, an armed services analyst at the Lexington Institute, said the nature of the nuclear mission leaves zero room for error.

"The consequences of a mistake in the handling of nuclear weapons are far greater than in problems that could happen with anything else," Thompson said. "One hundred percent is necessary on these tests because one mistake could be very catastrophic."

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