What’s Happening With the Air Force? By NYTimes THE EDITORIAL BOARD

View Original / NY Times / 21 Jan 14
If the Air Force cheating scandal disclosed last week were a singular event, it would be easier to accept Pentagon assurances that America’s nuclear deterrence and military readiness have not been compromised. But it is the latest in a series of breaches that have raised alarms about discipline and competency in the Air Force.

On Wednesday, the Air Force said that 34 officers responsible for launching land-based nuclear missiles were pulled off the job and their security clearances suspended for cheating, or failing to report cheating, on tests that assess their knowledge of how to operate and launch nuclear weapons. They are based at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, home to 150 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles. The cheating was discovered during an investigation into illegal drug possession in which 11 officers, including two accused in the cheating scandal, were under suspicion.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James called the behavior “absolutely unacceptable” — as is the continuing pattern of misconduct. Last month, an Air Force inquiry revealed that the general who oversaw some of the nation’s nuclear weapons was dismissed for drunken antics during an official trip to Moscow last summer.

Last year, the service removed 17 officers assigned to stand watch over the missiles in Minot, N.D., after finding safety violations, potential violations in protecting codes and other problems. The setbacks for the nuclear mission go back to 2008, when there was an inadvertent cross-country transport of six nuclear-tipped missiles on a B-52 bomber whose pilot did not know they were aboard. Then Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired the top two Air Force officials, but problems have persisted.

A RAND Corporation study, reported by The A.P. in November, found “burnout” among launch officers and broader behavioral issues, like sexual assaults and domestic violence. It said that in 2011 and 2012, court-martial rates in the nuclear missile force were more than twice as high as in the overall Air Force; written reprimands for rule violations and other misbehavior were also higher.

The nuclear force is afflicted by morale problems because its mission has lost cachet in an era when the nation’s focus is on terrorism and cyber threats. Experts say the Air Force has made it hard for missile operators to transfer into cyber, drone or space operations, which have more potential for promotion.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is willing to consider additional incentives to bolster these troops. The scandals should force America to think more broadly about the purpose of its vast and increasingly obsolete nuclear arsenal, and how the nation could be safer with far fewer weapons.

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