Air Force Roots Out Cheaters In Ranks — As Well As Why They Did It

The Air Force has implicated some 100 officers in a cheating scandal at U.S. nuclear missile bases. Its investigation has found an issue: Officers often feel pressure to achieve near-perfect scores.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Air Force has fired nine officers in connection with a cheating scandal at one nuclear missile base. An investigation found there was widespread cheating on proficiency tests at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. The case involves a total of 79 officers.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James called it a problem of leadership culture.

SECRETARY DEBORAH LEE JAMES: We do have some systemic issues in our missile community. So indeed, there are cultural issues here. I certainly picked up on spotty morale and micromanagement issues at all of the bases, and so did those who participated in our follow-on reviews.

SIEGEL: The Air Force plans to change the way tests are administered at nuclear bases and insists, though, that nuclear safety was never compromised.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now. And Tom, what did the Air Force find? Tell us more about the extent of the cheating at Malmstrom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Robert, a hundred were investigated in this cheating scandal. And today, we learned 79 were in some way involved - either sharing test answers, requesting answers and maybe not getting them. Now, they'll face punishment ranging from letters of reprimand up to courts-martial. And all of this, of course, was at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.

And we're told there were a handful of ringleaders here who were also being investigated for drug use. And what they did is basically shared answers to the test using cellphones. And that's the evidence that investigators discovered. And those cellphones allowed investigators to see the extent of this, and how it spread throughout the base.

SIEGEL: Well, the Air Force secretary says the cheating on proficiency tests reflects a cultural problem. What does she mean by that?

BOWMAN: Well, a couple of things. First of all, there is pressure to be perfect, to make no mistakes at all. And at Malmstrom, there was an expectation you had to score 100 on these tests; 90 was considered just a passing grade. And that test was used as a sole means of promotion. And the Air Force secretary said that was unhealthy.

Now, that pressure to succeed is a way to get out of this daily grind. You're in a bunker deep underground, eight times a month for a 24-hour watch. And after a while, many people said, listen, I have to get out of this grind. I want to become an instructor and hence, the test. So you also had this morale problem. You're not in a glamorous job. You're not a fighter or a bomber pilot. There's this sense you're second-tier even though leaders say it's an important job. There's just very little recognition here.

SIEGEL: But if the problem has roots in the culture of the entire missile force, as the secretary said, why wouldn't cheating show up at bases other than Malmstrom? Did the Air Force look to see if this was more widespread than just one base?

BOWMAN: Well, they said they looked into it. They found no evidence of cheating at the two other bases, in Wyoming and North Dakota. And both the secretary and the general, who was with her at the press conference, they were pressed on this by reporters. How far did investigators go? Did they get forensic evidence, like cellphones, elsewhere?

We never really got adequate answers to those questions. If it's a culture problem, why wouldn't cheating pop up elsewhere? Basically they just said, listen, we asked is anyone cheating? And we were told no, and that was it.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about accountability. As we said, nine officers lost their jobs over this. What do we know about their roles?

BOWMAN: Well, none of these officers, all commanders at varying levels at Malmstrom, were actually involved in the cheating. You have colonels, lieutenant colonels, a major. Secretary James said there was a loss of confidence in their leadership, and they basically failed to oversee the airmen under their command. These officers have been moved onto staff jobs but likely, it's an end to their careers.

SIEGEL: And what about changes that are coming? What about the tests?

BOWMAN: Well, those tests will now be pass/fail. You won't have to score 100 on it. They're also looking at more exercises to make sure these missileers are proficient. So it's no longer just about promotion. And they're also looking at team tests. This is how Air Force bomber pilots and Navy sub sailors do it. You're scored as part of a team.

And another important part of this, as secretary said, they're looking at a variety of incentives: better pay, promotions, even medals and badges; more recognition for a job that is really in the shadows. You're a launch officer for a nuclear missile. It's really almost a job from another time.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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