You may be aware that the United States Air Force is investigating cheating by as many as 92 officers on proficiency exams given to Air Force missileers responsible for our nation’s Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force. That is 92 out of approximately 500 in the force, or nearly twenty percent. This is serious business on many levels.
In the way of a little background let me say that I have never been in the United States Air Force. I was a Navy officer. I also will point out that it has been too many years since I was in the service so I can no longer speak authoritatively on current practices. I did however, along with my shipmates throughout the crew on several of the warships I served on, have to go through proficiency tests to certify our ability to carry, and if necessary, use nuclear weapons. (I can neither confirm nor deny that any of those ships actually carried such weapons. Whether or not we actually carried them, the certification process was the same.)
Thus it was surprising, if not shocking, to read a quote from Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James stating that the cheating scandal appears to have its root cause in the nature of the work which creates “undo stress and fear.” Really? Doesn’t that come with the territory? (The entire transcript of her remarks may be found here.)
To be fair, there are a couple of points to be made. Secretary James was only confirmed as Secretary a little over two weeks ago. She is likely still learning the job. Additionally, as I understand it her remarks about stress and fear were directed not at the job itself (the destruction of the world can be stressful after all) but at the command atmosphere surrounding the units that they are in. In other words, the importance of the test was so high that if they did not get a perfect score — not merely passing, but a perfect score — then they feared they could be fired from the job or not recommended for promotion. Well, yeah. That’s how it’s always been, at least in my experience with the Navy. The deal with nuclear weapons is that nothing short of perfection will do. That is the basis of the “trust but verify” motto (which comes out of the Navy’s nuclear power program and not from Ronald Reagan who borrowed it).
The standards are very high — just as they should be. She is quoted as saying; “I heard repeatedly that the system can be very punitive, come down very hard in the case of even small, minor issues that crop up.” She goes on to say; “I believe that a very terrible irony in this whole situation is that these missileers didn’t cheat to pass, they cheated because they felt driven to get 100 percent. Getting 90 percent or 95 percent was considered a failure in their eyes.” I am not sure if she is saying that “good enough” is okay with nuclear weapons or not. It seems that if there is one area that everything needs to be perfect, it is with nuclear weapons. I should point out that I am not talking about mistakes during training. Training is undertaken under very controlled circumstances and never with actual weapons. I am talking about proficiency testing — the stressful but necessary certification process to make sure there are no mistakes.
Over the course of my career I saw some good officers fail for promotion because of minor mistakes in their certification process. Indeed, it sometimes seemed that the performance evaluations of the inspectors themselves depended upon how many ships they could fail in an inspection and they went at it with a vengeance. This could rightly be an area of discussion — what should the standards be or what do they need to be in order to protect the arsenal? That is a reasonable area to debate. However, once those standards are established, they must be met if we are serious about continuing a very impressive safety record in this area.
To help put it into perspective, recall that then Secretary of Defense Gates fired the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force in 2007 when an Air Force B-52 flew cross-country with nuclear weapons onboard that the crew did not know were real. He obviously thought that it was a serious business and I would have thought that the rest of the force would get the picture following that incident.
I do not want to jump too quickly to any conclusions. The inquiry into the incident is just getting underway and I have no first hand knowledge of how serious the situation may have been or exactly what part of the proficiency tests were compromised. None-the-less, I keep coming back to this thought: What part of maintaining and employing our land based nuclear deterrent is not serious business?
I suppose that Secretary James was trying to make the rest of us feel better when she said; “I want to reassure everybody again that this is the failure of integrity on the part of certain airmen. It was not a failure of the mission.” Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel better. The success of the mission starts with the integrity of those carrying it out.