WASHINGTON—Air Force officers responsible for safeguarding and operating nuclear-armed missiles at a base in Montana cheated for years on monthly readiness tests, but rarely faced punishment even though some commanders were aware of the misconduct, according to three former officers who served at the base.
Their assertions shed new light on a cheating scandal involving 34 officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base, who are under investigation for improperly sharing information about exam questions and failing to report the alleged misconduct.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James called the alleged behavior “absolutely unacceptable.”
But the former officers, two of whom served at Malmstrom in the last decade, said that cheating on the three monthly written tests — covering missile safety, code handling and launch procedures — was so commonplace that officers who declined to participate were the exception.
“Everybody cheats on every test that they can, and they have for decades,” said one former officer who served at Malmstrom from 2006 to 2010, and said he had cheated on tests. “Maybe five percent [of the officers] don’t. But they know about it.” He asked not to be identified, citing fear of retribution by the Air Force.
Another former officer, Brian Weeden, who served at the base from 2001 to 2004, said that ploys to score higher ranged from exchanging tips about difficult questions on upcoming tests to actually sharing answers, which he called “much more rare.”
The practice is so ingrained, Weeden said, that commanders of launch teams would sometimes look over a junior member’s test before it was turned in. The goal was to ensure it contained no mistakes that might reflect badly on the team, thereby helping everyone’s career.
“I know a couple of commanders — and I did this a couple of times — who said before their deputy’s test was turned in, ‘Let me see it,’ and told them go back and look at a question” that was answered incorrectly, Weeden said.
A third former officer, Bruce Blair, said, “There were hundreds of officers at my wing at Malmstrom, and I don’t think that I know anybody who didn’t cheat.”
Blair was a launch officer from 1970-1974 and went on to help found the organization Global Zero, which seeks the elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide.
The tests are used to measure the readiness of more than 500 launch officers — stationed at the three bases nationwide — who are responsible for securing 450 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and keeping them ready for launch around the clock.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, the commander of the Air Force’s Global Strike Command, which oversees the missile force, challenged the former officers’ assertions that cheating is widespread.
“The Air Force does not tolerate cheating, period,’’ he said in a statement. “It’s unacceptable. Most of our airmen believe in, abide by, and live our core values of integrity, service and excellence…When we know of those who don’t, it takes courage to speak out, step up and set the right example.”
The cheating scandal came to light when Air Force investigators looking into drug possession involving two Malmstrom officers came across text messages in which dozens of officers allegedly shared details about a test last September, officials said.
The investigation is the latest embarrassing blow to the Air Force, which has been dealing with misconduct and performance lapses in its nuclear forces for years. Experts blame the problems on the decline in importance of nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War, which led launch crews to be seen as a backwater assignment.
The former officers say that sharing test answers and other forms of cheating is a regrettable but unavoidable byproduct of the pressure-filled life of a launch officer. They describe a grueling routine of 24-hour “alert” duty in remote subterranean bunkers, classroom reviews, and constant testing on intricate checklists and voluminous rules. There are also monthly launch tests in simulators and an annual evaluation.
The tests are administered on a rolling basis, so officers who take them early in the month can pass along tips to others, the former officers said. In other cases, instructors make it clear what the test will focus on, in an effort to raise scores, Weeden said.
Most officers did not seek actual answers and some refused to exchange information about tests at all, Weeden said. The other two former officers said outright cheating was more common.
The missile-safety procedures alone fill two thick binders. A decade ago the test on those procedures was open-book, reflecting the impossibility of memorizing the rules, Weeden said.
But rather than easing with the end of the Cold War, the demands for perfection on tests has intensified in recent years, the former officers said.
“There is no acknowledgment of human error,” said the former officer who requested anonymity.
During a test a few years ago covering missile-launch procedures called “Emergency War Orders,” he said, a proctor caught him looking at another officer’s paper.
“He confronted me and I denied it,” the former officer said. “He may have said something” to the unit’s commander, but there was no punishment, he said.
By disclosing their experiences, the three former officers said they hoped to spur changes in the way the Pentagon prepares and trains for nuclear war, a system that they said has become outdated and demands an unrealistic standard of perfection, encouraging cheating.
Each also emphasized their belief that the misconduct on tests had not impaired the safety of the nuclear weapons or the Pentagon’s ability to launch missiles, if ordered.
The former officers said missile squadron and wing commanders were promoted in a military environment where cheating was accepted and they don’t stop it because their own promotions are dependent on the performance of their launch crews.
Facing a critical inspection several years ago, a lieutenant colonel at Malmstrom told a junior officer that if his launch crews did not perform well, “I will crush you,” according to the former officer who asked not to be named.
A passing score on written tests is 90% or above, but perfect scores are “expected” and those who score below that routinely are passed over for better jobs within the unit, Weeden said.
A failing grade means more hours of instruction, more tests and, in the worst case scenario, a potentially career-ending “decertification” as a launch officer.