PENTAGON: In her first press conference as Air Force Secretary, Deborah Lee James had the sad duty of detailing the biggest cheating scandal in the history of Global Strike Command, involving 34 of the 190 officers who man the nuclear missile silos at Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base.
James said she met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this morning to discuss the problem. Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh told reporters during the news conference that the airmen’s security clearances have been suspended and they are not manning the missile silos during the investigation. The actual cheating, which Welsh said involved test answers being texted from one officer to the rest, occurred in the August-September timeframe.
While James and Welsh were at pains to say the nuclear enterprise was not compromised, it is a sad fact that this is becoming the image of the Air Force’s nuclear force: drugs, cheating, gambling, drunkenness and incompetence. In 2007, the Air Force Secretary and the Chief of Staff were fired by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates after airmen mistakenly loaded six nuclear warheads on a B-52 and the warheads were effectively lost for much of a day.
Then, as we reported last October:
Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, commander of the 20th Air Force, was fired after “a loss of trust and confidence in his leadership and judgment,” the Air Force said in a statement. Carey was the deputy commander responsible for nuclear ICBMs. His removal was prompted by an Inspector General’s investigation into reportedly drunken behavior during a trip to Russia and didn’t have anything to do with nuclear weapons.
And the deputy commander of U.S. nuclear forces, Vice Adm. Tim Giardina, was relieved in the same extraordinary week. Giardina was relieved of duty after a military investigation of allegations that he used counterfeit chips at an Iowa casino. His removal is much more serious than Carey’s. The Air Force general did not have operational command of the nuclear force, as did the admiral.
Then, on the day that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited F.E Warren Air Force Base to show his commitment to the nuclear force and remind them how important their job is, the Associated Press broke the news of a drug investigation of several missileers at Malmstrom.
Here’s how the Air Force notified Congress of the cheating scandal, which also encompassed two of the Malmstrom missileers being investigated for drug possession:
“Last week we informed you of an ongoing investigation regarding alleged drug possession/use that identified two ICBM crew members. During the course of that investigation, agents discovered answers for monthly proficiency tests on one crew member’s cell phone. The test is a monthly validation of the ability to evaluate and execute the nuclear mission and covers concepts from recurring training,” Air Force Lt. Col. Ryan Novotny, said in an email.
“At no time were nuclear weapons or launch codes compromised; this was a compromise of these Airmen’s integrity. The 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB is still certified to execute its nuclear mission, and sufficient crews exist to comply with all directives and alert requirements.”
Secretary James and Gen. Welsh are descending on each of the missile fields next week to shake things up and demonstrate the service’s commitment to and respect for the mission of those young airmen who spend long and lonely vigil on a mission we all hope they never have to execute.
I asked them how they can boost morale for a mission few Americans think or seem to care much about any more. The golden days of Strategic Air Command, when those young men often seemed to be all that stood between us and the Soviet horde, are far behind us and the Air Force.
“This is a force that needs attention,” said James, who handled herself with poise and ease today. “I want to hear it and see it for myself.” She pledged to go beyond immediate remedies — finishing the investigation by the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, determining who did what and why and punishing those found guilty — and address the medium term.
Secretary Hagel spoke of the loneliness and the long grind of 24-hour duty watches in the sparsely populated lands where the missiles silos stand during his visit there. Restoring or reinforcing the sense of mission and demanding adherence to the highest moral, ethical and technical standards for the lieutenants and captains who serve as nuclear missileers is a long, daunting task for him and the Air Force leadership.