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Nation/World

March 14, 2014

Air Force nuke crew failings worse than reported

WASHINGTON — Failings exposed last spring at a U.S. nuclear missile base, reflecting what one officer called “rot” in the ranks, were worse than originally reported, according to Air Force documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Airmen responsible for missile operations at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., would have failed their portion of a major inspection in March 2013 but managed a “marginal” rating because their poor marks were blended with the better performance of support staff — like cooks and facilities managers — and they got a boost from the base’s highly rated training program. The “marginal” rating, the equivalent of a “D’’ in school, was reported previously. Now revealed are details of the low performance by the launch officers, or missileers, entrusted with the keys to missiles.

“Missileer technical proficiency substandard,” one briefing slide says. “Remainder (of missile operations team) raised grade to marginal.”

The documents also hint at an exam-cheating problem in the making among launch crews at Minot, almost a full year before allegations of widespread cheating erupted this January at a companion nuclear base in Montana.

An official inquiry into the troubled inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot in March 2013 concluded that one root cause was poor use of routine testing and other means of measuring the proficiency of launch crews in their assigned tasks. For example, commanders at Minot did not ensure that monthly written tests were supervised. The analysis also said Minot senior leaders failed to foster a “culture of accountability.”

In a more direct hint at fudging on exams, one document said, “‘Group testing’ was viewed as ‘taking care of each other,’” while adding that the missileers felt pressure to score 100 percent on every test. Those are echoes of explanations Air Force leaders have recounted from launch officers in the aftermath of the cheating scandal that surfaced in early January at the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. At least 92 officers at Malmstrom have been removed from launch duty for allegedly cheating or tolerating cheating by others, pending an investigation, the results of which may be released by the end of this month.

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