Before they go on duty with U.S. nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, officers are trained in classrooms and simulators. They are schooled in weapons systems, missile code handling and emergency war orders, among other things. For decades, these missileers have been surrounded by a mystique. They were at the front lines of the Cold War — the officers in the silo who get the codes from a president and turn the keys to launch a nuclear-armed missile.
But this mystique has been clouded with the discovery that officers at the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana were cheating on routine tests. The base is home to 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, about one-third of the nation’s land-based force.
Each month, the missileers are required to take and pass a 20- to 30-question knowledge test in each of three subjects: weapons systems, code handling and emergency war orders. To pass, they must get a minimum score of 90 percent.
An investigation found that four officers were at the center of a cheating ring that distributed answers to the monthly tests, largely by smartphone. All told, 79 officers were eventually implicated. The cheating is inexcusable, and the Air Force has fired nine mid-level commanders and disciplined dozens of junior officers.
But something like this does not happen without a larger context. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James acknowledged one factor may have been “spotty morale.” The investigation also blamed an “unrealistic and unobtainable ‘zero defect’ nuclear culture,” an ideal that would require “complete elimination of human error in America’s nuclear enterprise.” The pressure was so intense that missileers feared their careers would be derailed if they did not score 100 percent each time on more than 50 knowledge tests a year. They were lured into the cheating ring, in which their pals would send answers to exam questions by text message. This had even worse consequences for their careers.
These powerful weapons were built to be launched quickly — within four minutes of receiving an order from the president — as a way to deter the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Even today, two decades after the Soviet Union fell apart, some of these missiles are still on launch-ready alert. We have questioned the wisdom of this alert status. President Obama, who promised to end the practice in his 2008 campaign, changed his mind and has not done so.
Thankfully, none of these missiles was launched. They served their deterrent purpose by being ready. It wasn’t entirely uneventful — there were accidents and false alarms. As long as we have these weapons, we must not neglect the people who operate them. The meaning of the cheating scandal is that the Air Force needs to train effective stewards of the nuclear arsenal, men and women who will perform with integrity and a sense of mission, rather than distracted duty officers playing on their smartphones, just dying to get out of the silos.