Do We Still Need Nuclear Missile Launch Officers?

Low morale and bad behavior plague the ranks of nuclear officers, but may be a sign their mission is no longer taken seriously.

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Earlier this month, 34 nuclear missile launch officers were implicated in a cheating scandal at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. According to reports the officers, were part of a group who texted each other answers to a monthly proficiency test that they must routinely pass to prove they know how to deal with an "emergency war order" and have retained other fundamental skills. The cheating discovery was made while officials were pursuing a separate allegation:  That eleven officers across several Air Force bases were in possession of drugs. Two of those officers were also allegedly a part of the cheating ring.

According to the Associated Press, the cheating debacle "may be the biggest such scandal in Air Force history." Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said this could be the biggest cheating scandal in Air Force history, and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said she was "profoundly disappointed," adding "this is absolutely unacceptable behavior."

The New York Times, however, tells a different story. According to the Times, the cheating is rather unremarkable and hardly the only problem to befall the struggling Nuclear Corps.

Cheating has been a fact of life among America’s nuclear launch officers for decades, crew members and instructors said. “When I saw that they got something wrong, I would say, ‘Go back and look at No. 5 again,’ ” said Brian Weeden, a former launch officer at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana who said that he routinely asked new crew members to show him their test answers before they turned them in.

Former missile launch officer Bruce Blair told the Times that the standards for the monthly exams — below 90 percent is a failing mark — are too high. "The punishment for imperfection [is] so great, that it encourages crew members to work together to ensure no one fails." Another former launch officer said the percentage of cheaters was much higher than 18: 

One former missileer who left Malmstrom in 2010 said he believed that every officer there knew about the cheating and that 85 percent to 90 percent of them — himself included — cheated on the tests. “The penalty is so severe that everyone is freaked out,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions. “It makes your life so much worse when you miss a question, and there are no real consequences to not knowing the answers, so people help each other out.”

Apparently, the reason there are no real world consequences to not knowing answers to the monthly exams is that the mission it is designed to prepare them for is outdated and largely irrelevant. It's a holdover from the Cold War that relegates experienced, intelligent officers to a boring, stringent, and unrewarding post. Low morale has been well-noted among in the ranks of nuclear officers, and it's often cited as an underlying cause of a number of recent scandals that also suggest the program is no longer taken seriously.

Last month, it was revealed that a top general in charge of hundreds of nuclear weapons was fired for going on a drunken bender while on a federal trip to Russia. One of drunken outbursts allegedly included complaints about how low morale is within the Nuclear Corps. Air Force officers at Malmstrom were punished for napping while guarding launch keys for nuclear weapons, and leaving blast doors protecting the codes unlocked. The officers admitted this wasn't a super rare occurrence, adding that their higher ups didn't seem too bothered by the report. In 2007, six nuclear warheads were sent across the country by accident, and last year 24 launch officers were kicked out of the Corps for poor performance and attitude. 

Why so much dysfunction among the group of people charged with maintaining our most terrifying weapon? Partly because it's hard to get a clear grasp on whether or not the program is still needed in 2014. If, as Blaire and the Times imply, the troops are failing to meet standards on an obsolete mission, why hasn't it been seriously altered? Gwen Ifill asked Blair to explain on PBS

BLAIR: 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.

So the officers are tasked with a highly sensitive, but highly unlikely, set of tasks. Blair, who is involved with a group that pushes for the elimination of nuclear weapons overall,  essentially argues that the program is no longer needed because nuclear bombs are no longer needed. But this perspective is largely hypothetical — as long as we have them, there's a chance we might need them — and doesn't totally explain why the nuclear mission has been met with both disdain and serious disappointment even by the people who do it.

Ifill also talked to AP National Security Reporter Robert Burns about the scandals. He said, "The Air Force's initial response was, well, part of the problem is these fellows, these officers who do this job are very young and they have not taken it seriously enough." So according to Burns, the job is extremely serious but the officers are not — which is basically the opposite of what Blair argued.  

Two opposing narratives have emerged from the cheating scandal. The first is that capable young officers are sidelined to perform an unreasonably stressful and rigorous job that has no room for growth and does not require much actual work. The second is that these officers have become too comfortable, that decades of cheating (before texting, officers used to "crib," or peek over each other's shoulders) and bravado have eroded the culture of the division to the point where officers' integrity has taken a serious hit. So did they abandon the job, or the job abandon them?

The New York Times concludes that for many officers, the strain comes from being in the military, yet feeling that you're not helping to keep U.S. citizens safe. Weeden said that the September 11th attacks made him see his job differently: "The mantra had always been that the nuclear deterrent would keep America safe. But it didn't. So I felt, not only did we fail to deter those attacks, but we couldn't do anything about it after."

The silver lining is that the series of scandals may have finally prompted a reaction from the government. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who supports Obama's goal of reducing or eliminating nuclear arms worldwide, ordered further investigation into the shortcomings of Nuclear Mission personnel. If shifting attitudes towards the ways in which American lives are threatened are fueling feelings of unrest among nuclear officers, it could be a sign that their efforts would be better employed elsewhere, like towards developing more effective counterterrorism solutions. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.