A Pass-Fail Exam Is All That Stands Between Air Force Officers and Nuclear Missile Codes

mighty chiwawa/Shutterstock.com

The Air Force is simplifying the way it grades nuclear-missile officers on their monthly exams, the service's top-ranking officer said on Wednesday.

The service has "made the monthly [certification] test pass-fail," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said at a Washington event. His remarks come in the wake of a high-profile cheating scandal at a Montana base that revealed a de facto expectation that perfect test scores were needed for advancement up the ranks.

Welsh did not say in his remarks at the National Press Club what percentage of correct answers would be needed to pass the thumbs-up-or-down proficiency tests. It was previously reported that launch-control officers needed a score of at least 90 percent on each exam to maintain authorization to key in a firing code for one of the country's 450 ground-based strategic missiles.

An Air Force investigation into drug-use allegations uncovered cheating on certification tests at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., and resulted in the service earlier this year firing nine mid-level officers at the base for their failure to detect and report the misconduct. Welsh said the wrongdoing involved about 40 percent of each of the 341st Missile Wing's three squadrons.

The missile wing maintains and operates 150 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Air Force bases in Wyoming and North Dakota each host an equivalent number of the nuclear-armed missiles.

Service brass have attributed the cheating at Malmstrom to a "culture of perfection" that led missileers to believe their careers would suffer if they did not get test scores of 100 percent. Though officials said they did not uncover any test-taking misconduct at bases in North Dakota and Wyoming, ex-missile launch officers have said cheating has been rampant for years throughout the ICBM officer corps.

"The people who cheated, the people who were breaking the law, who were breaking our rules and policies intentionally, they don't have a future with us. That's not how we operate," Welsh said.

He said the service is working to quickly implement quality-of-life changes for nuclear-missile personnel that were suggested in a recent grassroots survey. Some of those fixes involve empowering lower-level officers to make more decisions.

"We're trying hard to eliminate an idea that you can never make a decision, [that] your most-senior boss always has to be the one making the call," the four-star general said. "There are a lot of things that we need to be doing in that business at the lowest level of authority."

(Image via mighty chiwawa/Shutterstock.com)

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