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Is Air Force cheating scandal symptomatic of a bigger problem?

January 16, 2014 at 4:17 PM EDT
Thirty-four Air Force officers who conduct nuclear operations have thus far been implicated in a proficiency test cheating scandal. Gwen Ifill talks to Robert Burns of the Associated Press and Bruce Blair of Princeton University about the larger implications of the cheating revelations for the Air Force.

GWEN IFILL: Now to this country’s nuclear arsenal and new questions about those who sit at the controls of some of the world’s deadliest weapons.

DEBORAH LEE JAMES, U.S. Air Force Secretary: This was a failure of some of our airmen. It wasn’t a failure of the nuclear mission.

GWEN IFILL: It may be the biggest cheating scandal in Air Force history, detailed yesterday by Air Force Secretary Deborah lee James.

DEBORAH LEE JAMES: Thirty-four missile launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana were involved in the compromise of answers to a launch officer proficiency test. Some officers did it. Others apparently knew about it, and it appears that they did nothing, or at least not enough, to stop it or to report it.

GWEN IFILL: The accused officers are among those entrusted with the nation’s 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. Their alleged cheating came to light during a separate drug investigation at six Air Force bases.

Two of the 11 suspects in that probe are among the 34 nuclear officers now accused of cheating. It’s all part of a series of stumbles in recent years involving the Air Force’s nuclear wing. In 2007, the service was embarrassed when six nuclear warheads were accidentally flown across the country. Last spring, more than two dozen launch officers were decertified at a North Dakota base for poor performance and bad attitudes.

And, in October, the head of the nuclear force, Major General Michael Carey, was fired for heavy drinking and other misconduct during an official visit to Russia. This new scandal comes a week after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited a nuclear missile base in Wyoming in a bid to boost morale.

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. Defense Secretary: I suspect you feel maybe that no one cares or no one’s paying attention to you, but we are, and also to reemphasize how important your mission is, how important your work is, how we depend on your professionalism and how you do your work.

GWEN IFILL: The 34 officers implicated in the cheating episode have been pulled from their posts while the investigation continues. And the entire ICBM launch force is slated for retesting by close of business today.

I’m joined now by Robert Burns, national security reporter for the Associated Press, and Bruce Blair, a research scholar at Princeton University. He was once a intercontinental ballistic missile officer in the Air Force and has written extensively about nuclear weapons.

Robert Burns, describe how the Air Force discovered this latest breach.

ROBERT BURNS, Associated Press: Well, it began when they found there was a drug-use problem at several bases.

The first one they found it at apparently was one of the ICBM bases. And in the course of investigating that, they came upon this cheating, exam cheating scandal.

GWEN IFILL: So, it’s one scandal leading to another leading to another?

ROBERT BURNS: And they’re just getting started. They said that this is — it’s too early to tell exactly how extensive this is, because they have literally and — quote — “just getting started” with this investigation.

GWEN IFILL: So the 34 people that we heard about from the Pentagon, that is just, as far as we know, the beginning of this investigation?

ROBERT BURNS: That’s right. They said that’s all they know of at the moment. But this investigation is just beginning and more people will be talked to about it.

GWEN IFILL: Bruce Blair, you have done this job. Exactly who are these officers and what are they responsible for doing?

BRUCE BLAIR, Princeton University: They’re responsible for fighting a nuclear war with — primarily with Russia, which is an obsolete mission, and that’s partly responsible for the distress that the force feels and the lack of — declined morale and something of a decline of discipline.

But they sit out in 24-hour alerts in underground launch control capsules waiting for orders from higher authority to fire up to 50 of these very deadly weapons under their control. Say, if an order went down right now from the Pentagon to these crews to fire their forces without any advance warning, they could fire all 450 of these Minuteman missiles in less than two minutes, probably closer to 60 seconds.

GWEN IFILL: But how is that then an obsolete mission? It sounds kind of important.

BRUCE BLAIR: Well, the Cold War ended 20 years ago.

And if your primary mission is to fight a large-scale nuclear war with Russia, and that’s no longer a very compelling scenario, then it’s difficult to sustain a high degree of motivation and edge within this force, frankly.

I participated in a study with Senator Hagel, now Secretary of Defense Hagel, and with General Cartwright, former head of all nuclear forces, less than two years ago. And this was a study for Global Zero, of which I’m involved in. And it recommended that we look very seriously at eliminating this force completely, because the mission has basically disappeared. And the military utility of these weapons is very low.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Robert Burns about that.

Are these were — in — as they are investigating this problem, were nuclear weapons compromised? Was access to nuclear weapons?

ROBERT BURNS: Not as far as we know. In fact, the Air Force has emphasized that that is not the case.

But to make — for the point on what Mr. Blair just said there, when the initial set of problems were first exposed by the AP last spring, the Air Force’s initial response was, well, part of the problem is these fellows, these officer who do this job are very young and they have not taken it seriously enough.

GWEN IFILL: And they have a morale problem.


ROBERT BURNS: Well, that’s associated with this morale problem.

On the other hand, that is somewhat putting the blame on these officers, the young officers. Other people will tell you that the real problem is weak leadership by the more senior people in the Air Force.

GWEN IFILL: Is that something you found in your investigation with Secretary and then Senator Hagel as well, Mr. Blair?

BRUCE BLAIR: Well, we didn’t look into this dimension very thoroughly.

But I stay very close to the ground on these questions, in close contact with former and current launch control officers. And my view is that these men and women are every bit as capable and proficient, competent and dedicated as previous generations of launch officers, including my own generation.

I would like to make a point about the notion that this is a scandal of unprecedented proportions. That’s the way it has been portrayed by the Air Force. But the truth of the matter is, is that a subculture within the Minuteman force has evolved over decades, in which cribbing is widespread. I have known hundreds of officers personally on active duty, and all of them cribbed at one time or another, to my experience.

GWEN IFILL: You say cribbed. In this case, it was actually texting the answers to people taking the proficiency test.

BRUCE BLAIR: Texting is something new.

Basically, one used to look over the shoulders of each other and help each other out. And the reason is because, although we were extremely proficient and professional, you couldn’t miss a single question. If you did, you flunked and went through some punitive process that was extraordinary.

And so we kind of all banded together and helped each other out. So I don’t — you know, cheating has been — of this sort has been going on extensively for a long, long time.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me — let me ask Robert Burns, who has done a lot of reporting on this, what your sense is of the scale of this, not only this particular scandal, but also all these other things which we delineated in the setup piece, all these other mistakes, all these other issues and questions and investigations under way within the Air Force.


Well, it seems pretty clear that there is a problem, the root of which has not really been identified and addressed yet, apparently, by the Air Force. And they have said repeatedly over the course of several months when a number of problems have been exposed by our reporting that this is an isolated incident, we understand what the problem is, we’re fixing it, and that sort of thing.

But the real big question seems to be, is this symptomatic of something more long-term and more permanent?

GWEN IFILL: That was my question, yes.

ROBERT BURNS: And the answer, I think it’s still to be determined.

But I think even Secretary Hagel’s spokesman said today that he leaves open the possibility that this could be symptomatic of a bigger problem. And, of course, Secretary Hagel has been in office about a year. A number of the top Air Force nuclear officers, commanders are actually fairly new in the job.

And I think people are not yet quite sure where to go with this.

GWEN IFILL: Bruce Blair, do you think it’s symptomatic of a larger problem?

BRUCE BLAIR: Well, again, I think that the mission is obsolete.

These are young men and women who came of age after the end of the Cold War, never thinking Russia was an enemy. They were thinking Osama bin Laden is the enemy or North Korea, Kim Jong Il and others. And their mission has nothing to do with confronting North Korea and Iran.

It’s to fight a war with Russia. So it’s obsolete. It’s time to come to grips with that. And, you know, these people are not — they’re not naive. And they see the writing on the wall. And they want to transfer out of nuclear. There’s no future in it.

It’s always been a backwater. You could never really have much prospect for promotion, and certainly not rise to the level of general, in an organization that is dominated by pilots. And so the only hope, the glimmer of hope for these crew members has been that they could transfer out into other more interesting and promising careers, including cyber and drones, space operations.