Air Force Cheating Scandal: Time for a Bold Response

Mark Welsh

Late yesterday, the Air Force announced  it had uncovered widespread instances of nuclear missile launch officers cheating on certification exams.  This is deeply concerning.  Not only for what it says about the readiness of the officers involved and perhaps the broader community to which they belong, but for the noticeable fraying of integrity it demonstrates. Integrity is the bedrock value of the Air Force, and without it, the service cannot function.

The words that follow are animated by worry. As an airman, I ‘m troubled by what seems to be a steady procession of moral breaches such as those alleged in this incident.  If the bonds of trust that bind together airmen, their leaders, and the American people are worn too thin, they could sever completely.  This could severely hamper or destroy the service’s vitality and darken its future.  I know many who share this worry, and it feeds a second concern.  A degraded Air Force means a less secure United States.  That is unacceptable to me and others not as airmen, but as citizens. The service must be kept strong. To the extent problems or issues weaken it, they must be confronted swiftly, honestly, and boldly.

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Gen. Moseley
Gen. Moseley

General T. Michael Moseley was sacked from his position as Chief of Staff of the Air Force in 2008 after an investigation detailing the inadvertent shipment of nuclear weapon components was made public.  Moseley had already weathered a previous incident involving the accidental movement of nuclear warheads the previous year.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ostensibly felt that Moseley had already been given two strikes, and given the criticality of the nuclear mission, he wasn’t going to let him strike out.  All things being equal, history would have been likely to smile on Gates for this decision.

Gen. Schwartz
Gen. Schwartz

His next move, however, probably annulled whatever credit he might have gotten.  Rather than replace Moseley with someone grounded in the nuclear mission, he hired General Norton A. Schwartz, a mobility and special operations operator.  While there was plenty to admire about Schwartz, it’s arguable he wasn’t an ideal fit.  He’d spent most of the previous eight years in senior joint roles that had distanced him from the daily business of the operational Air Force, had no background in the nuclear mission, and was known more for steady bureaucratic competence than the dynamic problem-solving skills seemingly warranted by the circumstances.  But Gates trusted him, and was probably also animated by the promise Schwartz seemed to show when it came to inter-service cooperation.  Gates had been at odds with Moseley concerning what he perceived to be a lack of Air Force responsiveness in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Schwartz seemed less an airpower traditionalist and, therefore, more likely to respond energetically to emerging operational needs.  Especially with the service now cowed in shame over its nuclear missteps.

Schwartz delivered. Or seemed to.  He immediately whipped the service into a full sprint in supporting its ground force partners, drastically dialing up the numbers of remotely-piloted aircraft and support airmen supplied to ground force partners.  He also set about fixing the confidence problem with the nuclear mission by declaring it the service’s number one priority.  A new command was created to warehouse the mission (rather than having bomber and missile components split between two other commands), and Schwartz directed the creation of new staff agencies at multiple levels to oversee, inspect, assess, and resource the mission.  At every opportunity, the service fought to reinforce the public credibility of its “nuclear enterprise.” Unfortunately for the legacies of both Schwartz and Gates, these visible overtures did little to change the realities of operational life in the Air Force’s missile community.

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Morale: less about comfort than discipline.
Morale: less about comfort than discipline.

Morale.  It’s a misunderstood idea.  Some associate morale with attitude or general mood.  Some think it’s about whether people are “happy.”  These are perilous oversimplifications.  Morale is about confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline.  It is the mental and emotional capacity of a fighting force to engage in a fight.  That’s an expansive concept.  It includes not just things like job satisfaction and  team cohesion, but fundamental things like quality of training, adherence to standards, and trust in teammates, leaders, and the validity of the mission itself.

Commanders — good ones, anyway — understand morale as both nuanced and determinative.  The things that comprise it must be held in balance.  Neglecting or overweighting any aspect of it can disturb the balance.  A giddy band of weed addicts who can’t run a checklist may seem happy, but they have low morale.  By the same token, a group of people who seem gruff or even mildly distressed but are able to kill or wound with precision measured in inches are said to have high morale.  In other words, at execution level, morale is nearly indistinguishable from readiness. Good commanders understand morale is the key to mission success, because in any warfighting endeavor, people  determine victory or defeat. The bad news, manifest for some time now, is that the Air Force missile community has morale problem.

A study commissioned by General Mark Welsh, who succeeded Schwartz as Chief of Staff in 2012, found in early 2013 concerning morale issues in a community particularly sensitive — for good reason — to the readiness of its practitioners. Officers interviewed for that study complained of poor leadership, low experience levels, the feeling of being undervalued, insufficient downtime, and  leaders who weren’t listening to concerns. A few months later, 17 launch officers at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota were sidelined for falling short of standards. Internal emails written by a commander with an evident grasp of the problem indicated procedural lapses and systemic “rot” within the missile crew force.  Confronted with the suggestion of a morale crisis, Major General Michael Carey, who was at the time responsible for all Air Force missile crews, downplayed the issue by pointing out that during a recent visit to Minot, he’d found crews “optimistic” and “upbeat.”  He added that while he took the concerns to heart, he believed his crews were “not unhappy. The stark contrast between the picture painted in the internal emails and the official position of a senior commander left many wondering which view was more credible.

Gen. Carey
Gen. Carey

Carey may have helped answer that question a few months later, when he was relieved of command after an investigation found he’d been serially drunk and behaved inappropriately during an official trip to Russia in connection with his command role.  The Air Force had lost confidence in his leadership.  Based on what has transpired since then, it’s fair to wonder if that confidence was ever warranted in the first place. In addition to the deficiencies noted at Minot, new problems have emerged.  Last week, three missile launch officers were implicated in a narcotics investigation.  Yesterday, the Air Force revealed that in the process of that investigation, agents unearthed a cheating scandal implicating as many as 34 officers in efforts to falsely pass exams required to sustain their nuclear certification.  It’s difficult to decide which aspect of the situation is more startling: the cheating revelations themselves, or the notion that they may signal deep-seated problems understood and illuminated by squadron-level leaders who are being ignored by an out-of-touch chain-of-command.

The cheating allegations are cause for serious concern, something the initial Air Force response seems to acknowledge.  Certification exams in any technical career field are core to the qualification and training regime that ensures practitioners are ready to do their jobs.  We can imagine that in a field like this one, the certification regime — and the testing to support it — would be exacting, unforgiving, and uncompromising, as it absolutely must be for reasons as obvious as they are disturbing to think about.

But this situation isn’t concerning merely because it involves critical certification procedures.  What is perhaps more distressing is what these allegations have to say about the Air Force’s value system, which is much more fundamental than any technical matter. The Air Force’s most cherished shared value is integrity.  Such a brazen and broad violation of it — not among trainees or cadets still earning their way through the door, but by commissioned officers responsible for nuclear readiness — is a gravely startling thing indeed.

Clearly, the Schwartz strategy, inherited and carried forward by Welsh, has failed.  But why? How could it be that new bureaucracies, more brass, beefed up headquarters inspections, leader visits, more staff oversight, and added scrutiny could produce the same result as before?  Well, because those things don’t have anything to do with individual integrity.

As it turns out, this is a people problem, and people don’t respond to all that stuff.  Viewed most favorably, the things Schwartz did could be seen as necessary but insufficient.  Less charitably, they could be seen as solutions to something other than the actual problem.  Schwartz opted for more oversight, implying he viewed the problem as one of supervision and surveillance.  But the real problem was much more stubborn, involving both supervision of the mission and the fundamentals of daily life performing it.  By placing more senior-level surveillance against the challenge of nuclear surety, Schwartz may have actually further obscured the true nature of the issues bedeviling the community.

By default, employees will show and tell their bosses what they believe those bosses want to see and hear. This is especially true in an authoritarian hierarchy.  More staffs and direct executive involvement only helps if communications are stripped of pretense and employees show and tell their bosses the honest state of things; otherwise, these things simply induce more message alignment and mental conformity.  Understanding these intricacies, the late luminary Colonel John Boyd admonished that in addressing problems, leaders must focus on people before organizations.  Unless people are well-trained, capably led, empowered to hold one another accountable, and encouraged to provide honest, unguarded truths about the state of their readiness, organizational remedies can have no positive effect and may even backfire.

The seriousness of a strategy to understand and strike at the root of people issues can be understood by how key leaders are selected and empowered. Here, the Air Force has work to do. In the Air Force, the process by which officers are selected for command — in the missile community and elsewhere — is a bureaucratic one founded upon back-office record reviews and a disjointed bidding process.  Officers are considered only at narrowly-defined points on a calibrated career timeline.  Commanders typically get one shot at commanding for around two years before they are ushered along to the next career waypoint.  Even if unit and individual circumstances argue for putting someone in command twice consecutively or leaving them in the job for an extended time, to even suggest such measures would be taboo.  There are no special clauses or caveats allowing for early selection, and early termination is seldom exercised for anything short of criminality.

This selection process is, however, subject to a certain degree of informal influence by highly placed generals looking to advance the careers of their proteges.  This occasionally results in a weak candidate being given command when a hiring authority would have preferred otherwise. When this happens, local superiors typically respond by “stacking the deck” to help the weak commander succeed, which makes sense given that a failing squadron means a failing group or wing, and this is an unacceptable result (especially in the nuclear community where failure is literally not an option).  The problem with rescuing weak commanders is that it leaves them sealed in a bubble of self-deception, believing they succeeded on the merits when in fact, they might well have struggled or failed without the unseen help they received.  And since they don’t fail, these officers continue advancing in rank just as their benefactors intended, their records and confidence levels reflecting successful command.  They eventually become hiring authorities who hire more officers like themselves, blocking out the expert practitioner-leaders whose abilities are most cherished in squadron leadership roles.  Allowed to persist, this pattern eventually places too many of the wrong people in command, eroding morale until the mission is jeopardized.  Any time the less competent or incompetent squeeze out the best and brightest, pathological outcomes are inevitable.  Whether or not commander selection has a direct connection to the morale problems confronting the Air Force missile community is an open question, but there is evidence suggesting it to be worthy of a closer look.

In an opinion piece for Air Force Times that pre-dated the most recent troubles, a former missile squadron commander painted a rosy picture of life in the nuclear community. Her words describe a “Pleasantville” community where the main concerns have to do with what’s for dinner and when troops can once again be treated to a happy visit from another senior management cheerleader. Perhaps tellingly, this commander also writes about mismanaging the downtime allocated to her crew force, and the anecdotes upon which she draws to support her assessment of “high morale” leave a critical thinking audience with sufficient grounds to doubt her appreciation of the realities faced by her people.

It’s worth noting that her opinion is essentially a retransmission of the same basic assessment previously rendered by the fired General Carey, erroneously conflating happiness and morale.  This may be an illustration of the mental and message alignment manufactured by undue senior leader influence on squadron assessments.  It’s also a stark contrast with the realist tone of the internal Minot emails.  Given that these conflicting accounts concerning the state of the missile community can’t both be true, the Air Force stands to gain by determining which is accurate, then asking itself some tough questions about both commanders.  One of them has a serious grip.  He should probably be promoted a couple more times and placed in charge of analyzing and fixing whatever is determined to be wrong.  The other is  out of touch and should receive considerable development before commanding again, if at all.  What the Air Force cannot tolerate going forward is for a morally courageous voice of caution to seem so isolated that it doesn’t garner deserved credibility, instead cast aside as idiosyncratic.  This is a risk when too many commanders are hired on the basis of the ability to nod and repeat the word “yes” . . . and it is a concern across the entire institution, not merely in one troubled community.

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How should General Welsh and newly sworn-in Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James fix all this?  In a word, boldlySchwartz devised a conservative solution clothed in the illusion of newness.  What is needed is just the opposite, a new approach implemented with calm determination.

It’s not just about focusing on people generally or coming up with a new way to pick commanders.  It’s about radically changing the business model.  Dismantle staffs and send their manpower back to wing level.  There, rebuild squadrons in the image of old, with their own support staffs dedicated to keeping them focused on the mission.  Liquidate additional duties.  Clear calendar space and give people downtime; not so much for the sake of the “happiness” component of morale, but as corporate acknowledgment that the Air Force wins its part of the war cognitively, and the mind needs rest to recharge and be ready.

Sit down, personally, with the officers who execute this mission.  Not the ones hand-picked by wing commanders who are trying to impress you by putting their best foot forward, but the ones you pick after using your staffs to do some homework.  Strive to get the straight talk you need to get in touch with the true nature of the problem.  Maybe, as argued here, it has to do with morale.  Maybe there is even more to it.  But for every layer of management review it must endure between street level and executive level, the truth is filtered, cosmetically enhanced, and its rough edges removed until it no longer carries its substance.  This is why the fixer must cut out those intermediate gatekeepers and get the truth straight from the horse’s mouth.

Finally, hire the best commanders you can find to work the problem.  Since you’re going to hire the best, you can (and you must) trust them and  listen to them.  Forget the modern tendency to treat majors and lieutenant colonels like overgrown children; these are solid, capable, experienced, educated leaders in their own right, and their performance will define the Air Force, for better or worse.  It’s important that junior executives guard against being told what it’s perceived they want to hear, and even more important they guard against manufacturing falsely rosy assessments.  Disconnection from reality can topple organizations.  Delayed truth can injure institutions.  Denial in the nuclear business can compromise national security, and that’s not something the Air Force or the nation can ever countenance.

The Air Force will undoubtedly ensure any cheaters are held accountable should an investigation prove the charges.  The restoration of integrity and confidence in the nuclear mission requires this.  But if the service is to avoid a recurrence or worsening of these issues, it must go further than punishing the offenders and treating the incident as isolated. It must ask questions about the pressures that drove these officers to disown their honor.  Additional duties, distractions, demands for compulsory community service, self-support, and rampant career uncertainty probably connect to this.  These excuses cannot and must not vindicate cheaters, but they can tell the service something about the unsustainable, unfocused nature of squadron life these days.

In the press conference initially responding to the cheating revelations, Secretary James was anxious to disclaim the incident as an example of moral failure by some officers rather than a failure of the mission.  Perhaps as a footnote to her comment, it would be worth digging deep enough to understand what put these officers on the path to moral compromise.  A few years ago, they graduated from a commissioning source with noticeable honor and a commitment to integrity.  Whatever we’ve done to them since they became operational convinced them to abandon their honor and commitment.  No staff directorate is going to fix that.  Only leadership can.

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