To Stop Cheating, Nuclear Officers Ditch The Grades

Jul 28, 2014
Originally published on July 31, 2014 9:54 am

The young officers at F.E. Warren Air Force Base have an enormous job: to keep 150 nuclear-tipped missiles ready to launch at a moment's notice.

Understandably, they're expected to know exactly what they're doing.

Three times a month, they're tested on the weapons and the codes used to launch them. Anything less than 90 percent is a fail.

But until recently, even 90 percent wasn't really good enough. "I was told that if I got a 90 on a test, I was a D student — and I would be treated that way," says Lt. Daniel Sharp of his first year with the Air Force's 90th Missile Wing.

Now, in the wake of a major cheating scandal among missile officers, the Air Force is changing the way it grades. From here on out, all tests are pass-fail, and individual scores are not recorded.

It marks a huge shift from the ethos that's driven the missile forces. "There was a tag line that's been with missiles for 40 years that perfection is the standard," says Lt. Col. Barry Little, who heads up training. "That idea that you have to be perfect no longer applies."

The change comes because behind the perfection standard was another, unspoken rule: Be perfect, even if you have to cheat to do it. The cheating culture became public in January, when an investigation turned up evidence that officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana were texting each other answers on tests. Nine officers were eventually relieved of duty, and dozens of others were reprimanded.

The Air Force does not publicly acknowledge that the cheating went on outside Malmstrom, but NPR has interviewed former Air Force officers who claim there was cheating at F.E. Warren. It came down to a choice, former missile officer Edward Warren told NPR in March: "Take your lumps and not have much of a career, or join in with your fellow launch officers and help each other out. And that is what most people did."

The new regime shifts the weight away from paper tests and toward practical skills. Inside a full mock-up of a nuclear launch control center, Andrew Beckner and Patrick Romenafski practice the launch of nuclear weapons with the turn of a key. How these two perform in this simulator will play a greater role in their future promotions, Little says. "Your crew proficiency, your reputation among your peers and your credibility ... all weigh in," he says.

The Air Force is trying to improve morale in other ways as well. They are giving more responsibility to officers in the field, replacing aging equipment and refurbishing old facilities.

Not everyone thinks these fixes will resolve the missile force's problems. Fundamentally, the mission is a holdover from Cold War days, says Bruce Blair, a former missile officer and head of Global Zero, a campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons. Missile crews often feel like "orphans of the Air Force," Blair says. "Out of the very accurate sense that their mission is no longer the priority it once was, [they] are just trying to do whatever it takes to get by."

Lt. Col. Little acknowledges more changes are needed to reinvigorate a sense of importance in the job, but he says that changing the perfection culture is an important first step. The pass-fail testing sends a message, he says: "As a team, they need to make the right decisions, but as individuals they're not required to be perfect."

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For the next few days, we're going to be visiting a U.S. Air Force missile base. This is one place where officers keep watch over the country's nuclear missiles. Earlier this year, an Air Force investigation found that officers at another base cheated on tests. Dozens were punished, and the Air Force changed the way it manages its officer corps. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel traveled to the Air Force - the Air Force's 90th Missile Wing to find out whether those new rules will stop the cheating.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: It's just before eight in the morning at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, outside Cheyenne, Wyoming. And young officers are arriving at a windowless classroom.

CAPTAIN CARLOS BERSIBAY: All righty. Good morning, ladies and judgment, and welcome to Recurring Codes. And Captain Carlos Berisbay, your coder for today. Before we begin begin, does everyone have a...

BRUMFIEL: These junior officers carry huge responsibility. They keep 150 nuclear-tipped missiles ready to launch at a moment's notice. And understandably, they are expected to know exactly what they're doing. Today's class is on the codes used to launch the missiles.

BERSIBAY: Next slide, please. And...

BRUMFIEL: The class was on for about an hour. And at the end, there's a test. I decide to take a crack at it. It's 20 multiple-choice questions - looks a little like a drivers' test, except full of acronyms.

All right. Question one. Hmm. OK. Acronym, acronym, acronym, acronym...

Missile launch officers have to take three of these tests every month. And on every one, they're expected to score at least 90 percent, which I found out, even after you've sat through the class, isn't easy. Captain Eric Lopez tells me the bad news.

CAPTAIN ERIC LOPEZ: I've never seen anyone score that low. Based on this, I'm going to have to decertify you as a code handler.

BRUMFIEL: The Air Force discovered that officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana were texting each other answers to these tests. Commanders reacted quickly. Every officer at all three of the missile bases was retested on the spot.

DANIEL SHARP: When the scandal broke up, we walked in cold. And the average scores over 95 percent.

BRUMFIEL: That's Lieutenant Daniel Sharp, a launch officer at F.E. Warren. So if every officer got a near-perfect score without cheating, why was there cheating in the first place? Sharp says, it wasn't about launch procedures. It was about careers and how to get ahead. Officers sitting in the bunkers are usually fresh recruits just getting started. Until recently, promotion depended on doing better than the 90 percent passing score.

SHARP: I was told that if I got a 90 on a test, that I was a D student, and I would be treated that way. That was the cause of the cheating scandal. It was feeling like I needed to get a 100 percent, and that's why I'm here, and that's my only purpose or my only way to further myself of this career field.

BRUMFIEL: Lieutenant Sharp says, he never cheated, and officials never found evidence of cheating at this base, F.E. Warren. But NPR has spoken former officers there who say that they did cheat. And the Air Force acknowledges that cheating is part of a broader cultural problem at all three missile bases. Now the Air Force is trying to get rid of cheating by getting rid of grades.

SHARP: All tests are now pass fail. The 90 percent passing standard is still there, but when your test scores are released, it's going to be a P or an F. So that completely removes the ability to stratify people based on a score - based on a number on a piece of paper.

BRUMFIEL: And there's a new focus on practical skills.

LIEUTENANT A.J. BECKNER: I have a message.

LIEUTENANT PATRICK ROMANOFSKI: All right. We agree. We are authorized to launch our missiles.

BECKNER: I agree.

ROMANOFSKI: All right. Let's get launch key.

BECKNER: Launch key.

BRUMFIEL: Lieutenants Patrick Romanofski and A.J. Beckner sit in a full-scale replica of an underground nuclear command bunker. Instructors can watch as the two-man team practices the launch of nuclear armed missiles with the turn of the key.

ROMANOFSKI: All right. On my countdown - five, four, three, two, one - key turn.

BRUMFIEL: How these two perform in this simulator will play a greater role in their future promotions. This is a big change for the missile business. Lieutenant Colonel Barry Little oversees training here at the base.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL BARRY LITTLE: You know, there was a tagline that's been with missiles for probably 40 years - that perfection is the standard.

BRUMFIEL: But he says, that standard was always unrealistic because individuals do make mistakes. And nuclear missiles aren't launched by one person. It actually takes multiple turns of the key before a warhead leaves the silo.

LITTLE: In reality, we don't expect them to be perfect. As a team, they make the right decisions. But as individuals, they're not required to be perfect.

BRUMFIEL: Little says, with the elimination of grades, other factors, such as reputation and performance in the field, will be used to decide who gets promoted. And that, the Air Force hopes, will reduce the temptation to cheat. Jeff Brumfiel, NPR News.

CORNISH: Tomorrow, Jeff travels out to a command bunker with a missile crew to find out what makes the job so difficult. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.