Cleaning House at Nuke Command Raises Bigger Issues

The recent firings at a Montana Air Force base address cheating, but not the real issue, says a retired officer: the lack of leadership within the nuclear missile group.

Eric Draper/AP

Nine Air Force officers were fired Thursday and dozens more disciplined for their roles in a cheating scandal involving airmen in charge of the nuclear weapons arsenal. But one source familiar with the Air Force program told The Daily Beast that the punishments handed out were more show than substance, and that problems in the nuclear program go far deeper than what has been addressed so far.

According to a retired senior Air Force officer familiar with the Global Strike Command (the headquarters responsible for the Air Force nuclear arsenal), who spoke with The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity, the punishments issued yesterday at the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana were a good show, but wouldn’t affect much substantive reform.

“This issue needs leadership,” he said. “You’ve had two stars and three stars [general officers] running the reorganized nuclear enterprise of the U.S. Air Force who have been unable to raise morale, transform the culture and forestall this very type of thing.”

The latest round of punishments and reforms were too narrow and local to achieve the necessary transformation, according to the retired officer. As evidence, he pointed out that no generals or senior officers were reprimanded and that no one was punished outside of Malmstrom—despite initial reports of cheating at other bases, and the Air Force’s own admission of systemic issues that go beyond the individuals caught cheating.

Air Force Secretary Deborah James and Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, the commander of Global Strike Command announced the firings on Thursday to reporters at the Pentagon. The punishments came as the result of an investigation launched soon after the cheating was first uncovered in January.

In addition to determining responsibility for the cheating, the investigation reached broader conclusions about leadership and morale issues within the Air Force nuclear missile group. Confirming the account that The Daily Beast reported in January, the investigator’s found evidence of an unrealistic testing regimen carried out by leaders who both demanded perfection and sometimes looked the other way at forms of rule breaking deemed necessary to sustain that perfection.

In response to those findings, Air Force Secretary James said, “We will be changing rather dramatically how we conduct testing and training going forward.” James also said that more funding would go to upgrades for the nuclear force, including improving intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch centers.

But James denied that cheating was an issue outside of a Malmstrom, a point disputed by the retired senior officer who spoke with The Daily Beast.

“That’s flat out not true,” he said. “According to the young guys within the system, the crew dogs, there is indeed a culture across the command that begins in training… an atmosphere of making sure that we’re looking good, we’re doing good and everybody’s got a good chance to succeed.” Giving everybody a chance to succeed, the officer said, is an acknowledgement that some low level cheating is necessary in order to sustain a career in an environment where the sole measure of competence is achieving perfection on tests.

“It’s part of the culture of global strike command,” the retired officer said. He made clear that some of the officers being reprimanded had crossed a line that neither he, nor those currently serving in the nuclear force, condoned. “Stealing answer keys, that’s clearly criminal. Passing classified information via text, that’s clearly criminal.” But other kinds of rule breaking were routine, he said, and were not criminal, but rather unfortunate consequences of a dysfunctional training approach.

For the retired officer, the real issue was a crisis of morale caused by “the reduction in emphasis on the nuclear mission,” a point that’s been commonly made by people familiar with the force and those who have served in it. “What they do is just not held in high respect or importance,” the retired officer said.

The real solution, he suggested, may only be found by replacing the leadership at the top of the Global Strike Command with new officers who will be more intimately involved in the “day to day, hour by hour leadership” needed to modernize and reinvigorate the nuclear force.