‘Culture of toleration’ rampant at U.S. nuke base led to ‘rot’ worse than originally reported

It’s good to know America’s nuclear deterrence received a “D” grade boost as opposed to an “F” because it’s held up by cooks, facility managers and a ‘highly rated training program’ where cheating has been running rampant, as of late.

WASHINGTON — Failings exposed last spring at a U.S. nuclear missile base, reflecting what one officer called “rot” in the ranks, were worse than originally reported, according to Air Force documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Airmen responsible for missile operations at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., passed an inspection in March 2013 with a “marginal” rating, the equivalent of a “D” in school. But it now turns out that even that was only because of good marks received by support staff like cooks and facilities managers, as well as a highly rated training program. Launch officers, or missileers, entrusted with the keys to the missiles did poorly and, on their own, would have flunked, the records show.

“Missileer technical proficiency substandard,” one briefing slide says. “Remainder [of missile operations team] raised grade to marginal.”

The documents also hint at an exam-cheating problem in the making among launch crews at Minot, almost a full year before allegations of widespread cheating erupted this January at a companion nuclear base in Montana.

An official inquiry into the troubled inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot in March 2013 concluded that one root cause was poor use of routine testing and other means of measuring the proficiency of launch crews in their assigned tasks. For example, commanders at Minot did not ensure that monthly written tests were supervised. The analysis also said Minot senior leaders failed to foster a “culture of accountability.”

In a more direct hint at fudging on exams, one document said, “`Group testing’ was viewed as `taking care of each other,’” while adding that the missileers felt pressure to score 100 percent on every test. Those are echoes of explanations Air Force leaders have recounted from launch officers in the aftermath of the cheating scandal that surfaced in early January at the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. At least 92 officers at Malmstrom have been removed from launch duty for allegedly cheating or tolerating cheating by others, pending an investigation whose results may be released by the end of this month.

The allegation at Malmstrom is that information on “emergency war orders” exams, which test how a launch crew would handle classified messages related to missile targeting and launch, was shared in advance among launch officers. It’s not clear whether this or other forms of cheating have taken place at the Air Force’s two other ICBM bases, but numerous former missileers have said in recent weeks that cheating does occur.

The Air Force operates a total of 450 Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles, divided evenly among the three bases.

It also found that errors on monthly written tests and errors on launch control simulators soared after the March inspection. In the 10 months of written tests prior to its inspection, the Minot missileers had a total of 162 “job performance requirement” errors, which are mistakes on what the Air Force considers essential tasks. In the three months following the inspection the total doubled, to 321 errors, according to the data analysis.

Air Force officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

After visiting all three ICBM bases days after the Malmstrom cheating scandal was disclosed, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said she was troubled to hear that missileers “felt driven to score 100 percent all the time” because commanders use scores as the main, or only, factor in promotions. James called this “unhealthy.” She is weighing recommendations on ways to reform testing and training.

The pressure to be perfect apparently has driven some to cheat and others, possibly including commanders, to look the other way. There is no evidence that this has translated to unsafe handling of nuclear weapons duties, but an Air Force review found “a culture of toleration” at Minot that “allowed unprofessional and non-compliant behaviours,” It said launch crews had an “artificial sense of preparedness” for tests and inspections.

Full article: ‘Culture of toleration’ rampant at U.S. nuke base led to ‘rot’ worse than originally reported (National Post)

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