Air Force Proficiency Cheating: More Than Punishment Needed?

This past week, the U.S. Air Force announced that a cheating scandal among nuclear launch officers had grown. Now, the military says, more than 90 missile launch officers have been involved with cheating on monthly proficiency exams. NPR's Arun Rath speaks with former Air Force officer Brian Weeden, who thinks the missileer culture needs to change.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath.

Even now, decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States maintains a big nuclear arsenal. At any given moment, 24 hours a day, American service members remain on alert - on land, sea and air. Ready, if the order comes, to drop bombs or launch missiles that could each annihilate a city.

This week, the Pentagon announced that 92 Air Force officers - service members who keep watch on the country's nuclear missiles - have been suspended. The charge: involvement with cheating on monthly proficiency exams.

SECRETARY DEBORAH LEE JAMES: I guess I believe now that we do have systemic problems within the force.

RATH: That's Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James at a press conference this week. She's been visiting Air Force crews around the country, talking with the service members known as missileers.

JAMES: I heard repeatedly that the need for perfection has created a climate of undue stress and fear, fear about the future, fear about promotions, fear about what will happen to them in their careers.

RATH: All of the suspended officers come from just one base: Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. And that means almost half of all the officers at that base have been suspended. That gives you a sense of how few people actually do this work.

BRIAN WEEDEN: Your job is basically to monitor the 10 nuclear missiles that you are in charge of. If there's maintenance going on at those sites or at your location, you're supervising that. And that workload can range from a lot going on to not a lot.

RATH: Brian Weeden is a former Air Force officer who served at Malmstrom in the early 2000s. He says the monthly exams can be extremely difficult, requiring hours and hours of memorization. A good result, he says, is a perfect score. Passing means getting a 90. Brian Weeden says he started to question the value of his work when he served on alert in charge of 10 nuclear missiles during the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

WEEDEN: We were doing a job where we were told, if you do this job well and you're really proficient, you will deter attacks against America and help keep America safe. And what we saw on that morning - what I saw was we had failed on that job. And that, in me, evoked a combination of frustration and anger. In my mind, part of what we're seeing with the change in the culture in the nuclear world is there's a discontinuity between what the leadership says is reality and what the people actually see as reality.

What they're saying is reality is the nuclear force is just as important as it has always been. And therefore it is just as important for you to be as prepared, as proficient and as vigilant. But what I saw - and I know the others I've talked to that did the job have seen - is that the nuclear force, the nuclear deterrent is not as important as it once was.

RATH: When you heard about the cheating scandal involving the current group of missileers, what was your reaction?

WEEDEN: Any discussion about this issue has to revolve around how people define the word cheating because there's a spectrum there. On one end, you have here's all the answers. Everybody, I think, agrees that that is obviously cheating. But on the other end of the spectrum are things like, well, watch out for question nine this month. It's a trick question. Or you go to turn in your test and somebody might say, why don't you go back and double-check question number 20? That some people would consider cheating, some people would not.

RATH: By most academic standards, though, wouldn't that be considered like, you know, I just know from the last time I was in college and taking, you know, say, a biology test that that would definitely be considered...

WEEDEN: Absolutely. And so...

RATH: ...not acceptable?

WEEDEN: Yes. Now, when I was in, I was not aware of any situation where people were sharing entire answers of the test, but there were certainly a significant amount of that other end of the spectrum going on, of hints, tips, maybe intelligence about tests. Not everybody was doing it, but just about everybody was aware that it was going on. So when these revelations came out, when I first heard about them, myself and everyone else that's on the job, we were not surprised.

And actually what took us by surprise was the initial reaction by the leadership that this is new and this is just a few bad apples. And I think what's interesting is over the last several weeks, we've seen the leadership position of that change. And now, they're talking about how, yes, we should've seen this coming. This is a cultural thing that needs to be corrected.

RATH: So how does that get going? I mean, if that was even there in your time where, again, it does - in terms of what you consider academic cheating, even the tips are cheating as much as it is to get a full set of answers?

WEEDEN: I mean, I've talked to people who had done the job as far back as the 1970s. And through those, they've done after me. And what I've seen is over time, a increase in the pressure put on people to be perfect. There's been a progression over time where they're using the test scores for things other than just measuring proficiency. You know, they're determining who gets promotions and who gets hired into instructor evaluated (unintelligible). That can determine careers.

At the same time, people are seeing that the value of what they're doing is not what it once was. I mean, there's a set of incentives here. And the incentives are clearly driving people towards finding shortcuts.

RATH: And, Brian, I don't want to linger on this point uncomfortably, but I just want to be clear. You were among those who cheated on these tests, right?

WEEDEN: Well, again, it goes back to defining how you define cheating. In the career field, when you come into the field, you're known what's called a deputy, right? You're just learning the job, and you have a crew partner, a commander assigned to you who's been on the job for at least a year and a half. He's much more experienced.

For the first couple of months when I had a new deputy, before they turned in their test, I would look it over for them. And I would tell them to go back and look at ones that I knew they'd gotten wrong. That was to help them get on their feet. Now, some people might consider that to be cheating, but in my mind, the penalties for them screwing up that early test over the course of the next three, four years of their career far outweighed any ethical violation that I had in doing that.

RATH: That was Brian Weeden. He is no longer with the Air Force but served for four years as a missileer. Brian says he is hopeful that the Air Force is working to not just discipline officers but to change the culture among those who keep watch on the nuclear arsenal.

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