WASHINGTON – At what point do breakdowns in discipline put the country’s nuclear security in jeopardy?
And when does a string of embarrassing episodes in arguably the military’s most sensitive mission become a pattern of failure?
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is now concerned there could be something larger afoot here, according to his chief spokesman, and wants this taken very, very seriously.
The disclosures of disturbing behavior by nuclear missile officers are mounting and now include alleged drug use and exam cheating.
Yet Air Force leaders insist the trouble is episodic, correctible and not cause for public worry.
The military has a well-established set of inspections and other means of ensuring the safety of its nuclear weapons.
But as in any human endeavor, military or civilian, the key to success is the people, not the hardware.
Until recently, Hagel had said little in public about the setbacks and missteps in the nuclear missile force reported by The Associated Press beginning last May.
Last week, Hagel made the first visit to a nuclear missile launch control center by a Pentagon chief since 1982.
He praised the force’s professionalism – even though minutes before, officials had informed him that a few missile launch officers at another base were suspected of illegal drug use.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, just four weeks into her tenure as the service’s top civilian official, told reporters Wednesday that the Air Force’s chief investigative arm is investigating 11 officers at six bases who are suspected of illegal drug possession.
She said that probe led to a separate investigation of dozens of nuclear missile launch officers for cheating on routine tests of their knowledge of the tightly controlled procedures required to launch missiles under their control.
At least 34 launch officers, all at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., have had their security clearances suspended and are not allowed to perform launch duties pending the outcome of the investigation.
They stand accused of cheating, or tolerating cheating by others, on a routine test of their knowledge of how to execute emergency war orders.
Those are the highly classified procedures the officers would use, upon orders from the president, to launch their nuclear-tipped missiles.
The alleged cheaters are said to have transmitted test answers by text message to colleagues.
That is a violation not only of their own personal integrity, officials said, but also of security classification rules.
Malmstrom’s commander, Col. Robert W. Stanley II, said it’s not off base to think that the cheating points to a deeper problem in the intercontinental ballistic missile force.
But I do think it’s far more than just us. I think this is a sort of cultural thing our society is going through in which too many people have grown accustomed to putting blinders on and just walking past problems.
In ICBMs, we can’t tolerate that, Stanley said.