The Real Problem with Cheating at Malmstrom
By: Sarah Weiner
On Wednesday of last week, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James announced a set of new initiatives meant to reinvigorate lagging morale and address other personnel issues in the Air Force nuclear enterprise. These new programs come in response to the discovery in January 2014 that over 90 ICBM officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, had admitted to cheating or being aware of cheating on their proficiency tests. The cheating scandal led to the temporary decertification of almost one-fifth of the United States’ cadre of nuclear missileers and prompted Secretary James to acknowledge a “systemic problem” in the nuclear force.
Investigators are now looking into the underlying factors that would cause Air Force officers to cheat on a test that, by all indications, most would have been able to pass on their own. Many factors have been identified including overreliance on test scores as a metric for evaluation and promotion, stress created by a “zero mistakes” professional culture, and insufficient incentives available to airmen who enter the nuclear career field. Secretary James’s new slate of reforms includes adding more money to the Air Force’s nuclear budget, proposing the elevation of the position of Global Strike commander from a three- to a four-star general, and introducing new bonuses and incentive pay for missileers.
These new steps are certainly headed in the right direction, but the source of the morale problem may run deeper. Nuclear weapons are an insurance policy we hope never to use. The Cold War Soviet threat gave context and immediacy to the day-to-day task of executing the nuclear mission, but today’s security and political climates are very different. In the wake of the cheating incident, it’s worth asking if the value and importance of the nuclear mission are being sufficiently communicated to the men and women who have dedicated their careers to the important work of deterrence. Without this sense of purpose, we can expect to see more incidents like the one at Malmstrom in the future.