Of course I know the rocket doesn’t go there. Don’t start!
In Case you have “Flexible” morals
I shouldn’t have to say the obvious, but in case anyone wonders: cheating is wrong. The fact that 34 United States Air Force officers cheated on a test, with some of them also involved in drugs, is very, very wrong. This post is an opinion piece, one describing the environment I lived in (I’m pretty sure current Missileers are still living in). This post will also suggest why these officers felt compelled to cheat (but it’s not sympathetic to them).
I used to be a Missileer, which just so happens to be the term of endearment used for those 34 officers, too (although I can think of a few other terms for them). I was a Missileer a long time ago, pulling nearly 300 alerts before my tour was up, so I’m sure some things have changed in this career-field. But I’m also pretty sure some things haven’t. Because Missileers, while coming from a fairly humble but important mission, have some fairly headstrong traditions and operational doctrines.
The missileer’s lot
The Missileer is faced with doing the impossible every day, and paid to do it. A Missileer must conduct, as humanly as possible, 24/7 operations which are error-free. “Impossible!” you say? Maybe, but the idea of error-free operations and reality can come fairly close. Do people in this career-field make mistakes? Yes. I know I did—and sometimes I got paperwork for them. But I write all this only to show there is a certain amount of pressure on the Missileer day-to-day that many, many other people might not be able to comprehend, nor tolerate.
Such an error-free philosophy extends everywhere for the Missileer during a nuclear missile assignment. Testing, which is conducted monthly, consists of three kinds of tests, plus a “monitored” simulation (an actual simulated trainer where the hardware matched what was in the field). Missileers are expected to pass these tests as close to error-free as they can. Anyone receiving below a 90% grade on ANY of those tests was going to be talked with, and possibly retrained. And there are a lot of other tests and inspections at any given time which Missileers must overcome. The majority do.
The rationale for the error-free standard? NUKES.
The crux of the biscuit
But such a philosophy and standard also has drawbacks. It makes some people nervous about their careers. Some Missileers just are competitive and want to stay at a 100% test average during their entire missile assignment (supposedly it’s possible—I wasn’t one of those). But this nervousness doesn’t just impact the crew-force. It permeates the entire nuclear officer structure. Squadron commanders in charge of underperforming crew members get looked at closely. Group commanders worry about squadrons in which the test average is lower than 90%. Wing commanders whose wings failed inspections are routinely sidelined.
What I’m saying is, there’s a lot of micromanagement that goes on, because “leadership” doesn’t want to be the one to fail and they certainly don’t want to be responsible for officers in their charge who do fail. So Missileer crew members, day-to-day, become disenfranchised and aren’t allowed to make decisions unless vetted and printed in a “Technical Order.” Squadron commanders aren’t allowed to “command” a squadron in the way a traditional Air Force squadron commander might (in case they make the “wrong” decisions). Missileer group commanders don’t really serve as a “barrier” between wing commanders and squadron commanders—they’re more like a direct cable connection, someone who facilitates bad habits of leaders nervous about their position in Missileer life.
This kind of nervousness got so bad, that at one point the missile wings had GPS radios installed into crew vehicles. These were the vehicles that transported Missileers to and from their Missile Alert Facility to pull alert. The whole idea was to ensure crews didn’t speed to and from the base (and therefore not getting in an accident). I think the official line was to help pinpoint stuck crews, but anyone pulling crew could see through that.
the “cameron” factor
So Missileers are an uptight bunch, micromanaged, tracked, and “Monday Morning Quarterbacked” in everything they do, stuck on bases that aren’t in very interesting locations, very nervous about when the next mistake is going to happen. Much like Cameron from “Ferris Bueller.” What does this have to do with the cheating?
EVERYTHING! The disenfranchisement of the crew force from decisions is the single biggest problem. Throughout a Missileer’s training, everything’s about following the technical order. If, during an evaluation, a Missileer fails to “check off” a step in a technical order, they will be assessed an error—even if that step was accomplished. Missileers are told to “stay within the lines of the coloring book.” Very little emphasis is given to independent thought. Much of what the Missileer does is scrutinized.
the PUPPET-MASTERS’ disappearing act
This is what puzzles me about the situation which the cheating Missileers are in. Almost everyone in a leadership position gets into the day-to-day business of the Missileer. But apparently no one in a leadership position knew about the cheating?
This cheating occurred in a proportion which is unprecedented. It was encouraged by someone and grew to somehow become the epidemic it is now. And someone had to help fertilize that growth. The cheating had to be shown to be acceptable, as it had been going on for a while. With all the micro-management going on, there may be many, many hands in the pie—and not just crew members. But I don’t know if we will hear anything else about this story regarding others being involved.
So what SHOULD happen? Well, first a story to show the precedent.
the flip side
During my crew time, an unfortunate crew managed to flip their crew vehicle on the way out to alert. They were actually doing the right thing, and driving very slowly because it was the season’s first frost. But then, they hit a patch of ice. Their vehicle spun slowly, hitting the gravel on side of the road sideways, and slowly rolled over onto its top into the steep ditch next to the road. No one was hurt.
But the crew was punished. They, their flight commander, squadron commander, group commander, and, I think, wing commander were all flown to FE Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming to accept responsibility for something that was obviously beyond their control. NO ONE in the leadership chain accepted the accident as not preventable.
Using the same sort of logic, then, if you have Missileers deliberately deceiving everyone else with their proficiency in nuclear weapons expertise, then at the very least the same sort of thing should be happening (I am not saying I agree with this kind of thought process, but I’m using precedent), because: NUKES (and the lack of a truly qualified person operating them).
Each Missileer, the flight commanders, squadron commanders, group commander and wing commander should be flown out and “talked with.” Not only that! Since it’s obvious the Evaluation and training squadrons were involved (someone within had to provide the answers), those commanders should be flown out, too. This would be in line with the typical “knee-jerkiness” Missileer upper echelon managers are known for.
But what really needs to happen is a gutting and total re-working of the Missileer command structure and philosophy. At the very least, the Air Force needs an Independent Review Team to come in, and investigate practices encouraging dishonest behavior. Then the Air Force needs to adopt the team’s recommendations, not dismiss them with rationalizations. The technical expertise IS there, the people have been trained, and as long as there are Missileers doing the right thing, the mission will succeed.
Many Missileers ARE doing the right thing in spite of all the things going on. Missileers who are being punished in this debacle (re-taking a test—what does that really prove?) but display integrity every day. Those are the ones who should be the standard setters. And they shouldn’t be punished. Because dropping the hammer to dispense some indiscriminate justice just says to a rational person “It doesn’t matter if you’re dishonest or not–it matters that it LOOKS like we are doing something about it. So re-take the test–Shut up and color!” Is it any wonder there’s talk of “burnout” in the Missileer corps?
Don’t worry, be happy!
There are those who say “burnout” is an inaccurate description of the Missileer attitude. That things don’t need to change. Well, they’re right—it’s not burnout, it’s just the way the Missile Wings have conducted their business every day since I’ve worked for them. Every problem is approached with a hammer, and morale was low in my time and continues to be low. It’s a Missileer fact of life (although there are a few Missileers who actually enjoy it—they’re called OGV). And if a person is not worried about the mission failing, then things don’t need to change. What occurs as a result of this “head in the sand” mentality will be tragic. It will be a great display of the “leadership” failing their subordinates, the Missileers, and more importantly, the mission of keeping the nuclear arsenal under control.
In the meantime, I haven’t really heard anything about how the Missileers will earn the public’s trust again. Apparently retaking the test is the way to go :-|. I don’t envy these guys right now.