In Helene Cooper’s New York Times piece published this Wednesday, “Nuclear Corps, Sidelined in Terror Fight, Produces a Culture of Cheating,” several former “missileers” offered justification for a recent spate of somewhat unsavory behavior among their ranks, to include a General’s drunken antics while on official visit in Moscow, violation of key security procedures, and a newly unearthed culture of cheating. The excuse? Excessively high standards maintained in a post 9/11 era which did not prominently feature a likely role for the American nuclear arsenal. Most tellingly, Mr. Brian Weeden, a former Air Force launch officer from Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, was quoted as saying, “The mantra had always been that the nuclear deterrent would keep America safe. But it didn’t. So I felt, not only did we fail to deter those attacks, but we couldn’t do anything about it after.”

As a Marine officer, my branch of the service never has nor will have any part in the “nuclear triad” comprising our nation’s nuclear defense from the air, land, and sea. The closest link I can claim to our nation’s nuclear defense is an undergraduate course in nuclear thermodynamics and a few classmates who serve as junior officers in our submarine fleet; I definitely do not know the first thing about serving in a missile silo. I do know, however, that regardless of mission pertinence – something Mr. Weeden hugely (and incorrectly) undervalues about his own community – elite standards are an asset for leaders to ensure mission readiness, not an obstacle to be circumvented for appearance’s sake. As such, unethical compromise of standards is not a failure of mission applicability, but a failure of leadership.

As it stands, though, the claim that the nuclear deterrent failed to keep America safe from September 11th (and using it to justify slacking standards in the wake of declining morale) is akin to saying that mouse traps failed to rid a house of pests because a fly came in through the window. While the “classic” Soviet challenge has been removed, threat of nuclear war still hangs as a mushroom shaped cloud over the international arena. There exists an entire legitimate body of scholarship debating the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence (with Thomas Schelling as its father), but to dismiss even minimally deterrent nuclear arms as failing to deter a terrorist attack misses their point completely. Our nuclear stockpiles are primarily designed to deter other states – not individual actors – from attacking the United States (in a nuclear capacity or otherwise). Regardless of individual terrorist attacks, other nuclear states – not all friendly – still exist in the world. As such, the mission of our nuclear triad remains necessary.

Independent of the relevance of the nuclear corps’ mission, however, to blame excessively high standards, backed by “few carrots for rewards and far more sticks for retribution,” for a culture of cheating is sorely misguided. The stakes in a hypothetical nuclear exchange are undoubtedly higher than perhaps any other military mission, but soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines all train to missions of substantial gravitas, where expectations should be – and usually are – high. In these cases, no matter how many “sticks” are doled out for failure, it is incumbent upon the leadership in a given unit to enforce those high expectations. Not meeting such standards is one issue; deceitfully circumventing them is entirely another. To dishonestly sidestep those standards, at best, keeps a leader wilfully ignorant of his unit’s shortcomings, and, at worst, leaves our nation woefully underprepared.

Sunlight has obviously proven the best disinfectant for our missileers; individuals are being held accountable, and appropriate action being taken. More troubling is the emerging justification of mission inapplicability (no matter how misguided) for such behavior. Immediate threats to national security will constantly be in flux; leaders’ obligation to remain prepared while serving as moral and ethical reference points for their subordinates can never be.

Posted by Michael E. Orzetti in Marine Corps

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  • Jeff Gauch

    I was a Navy Nuke, so I don’t know for certain what the missileers faced, but I suspect it wasn’t high standards, but useless standards.

    In the Navy Nuclear Power Program there is a de facto standard that there will be a certain failure percentage on exams. It’s not written anywhere, and the people in positions of responsibility will swear up and down that it isn’t a standard, but the fact remains that if a certain number don’t fail exams the auditors will deem the exams too easy and the training program ineffective. The inevitable result of this is that exams will steadily become more difficult. As the exams become more difficult they bear less relationship to the actual job. This weakens the moral judgment against cheating, so you get more cheaters, which cause the number of failures to drop, which requires making a more difficult test, which is further divorced from the job… It doesn’t take many iterations of that cycle to generate tests that require cheating to pass.

    Again, I don’t know for certain, but I’m willing to bet that these people (mostly) weren’t looking to dodge standards, but were doing the best they could to meet contradictory standards.

    • grandpabluewater

      Ahem…one minor point, often lost. The redoubtable Adm Rickover had nothing to do with nuclear weapons or submarine launched ballistic missiles. The kudos for the very significantly successful program which made and have kept SLBM’s (Polaris; Poseidon; Trident) the jewel in the crown belong to Adm Raborn and SP, not Adm Rickover and Code 08. Strategic Weapons Specialist submarine officers were drawn from submarine qualified NESEPs
      (i.e., enlisted officer commissioning aspirants), NROTC, and rarely, the Academy, as well as officers from diesel electric submarines, until the post cold war purge of the early nineties. Exceptions were infrequent. The breed is extinct, non nuclear power (propulsion) trained line officers are no longer assigned to SSBN’s. The success of the submarine strategic weapons systems officers in the Cold War is beyond question, the boomers were essentially invulnerable and uncounterable and the missiles had the highest reliability of all the legs of the Triad. All of the officers and men of the boomer fleet may share in the satisfaction of a job well done. Rickover and his merry men played a part. One part.

      One other little thing. Promotion to high rank for Wpns, Aweps and Nav’s who were not among the few nukes to take those jobs was thin, very thin. There was no bonus pay. Command opportunity in nuclear submarines was nonexistent. Standards were high and inspections frequent and tough. There were no force wide scandals, no excuses accepted or expected.

      Sympathy for wayward USAF “missileers”? NIS. Reqn CANX, Remove defective items and replace.

  • Cliff Abbott

    I suppose Mr. Weeden would also argue the local SWAT team is ineffective because people are still violating traffic laws… different tools for different jobs.

    Very Nice job with the article. I would offer one view point regarding the “excessively high standards” that I picked up from everyone’s good buddy Adm Hyman Rickover. The sad truth is that despite all best efforts, there will always be those cutting corners to get things done. So what do you do in a community where falling below the minimum standard could literally be a national disaster? Set the bar so high that even those cutting corners still have to be above the “true minimum” standard.

    And lastly, regarding “few carrots for rewards and far more sticks for retribution”… I don’t recall there being a special combat ribbon for going through a deployment without a friendly fire incident. For christ sake, when did we start rewarding people for meeting the STANDARD.

  • Matthew Hipple

    Well said!

  • The Navy’s Grade 36 Bureaucrat

    I’ll echo Jeff. Rickover himself didn’t want low standards, but the problem has become that every nuclear related job is simply a beatdown, and its in large part because Rickover never developed the people that came after him. Every day our nuclear professionals are told they are not good enough and are punished for it. The problem is not one of standards, but of leadership. Too many so-called leaders in the nuclear field are miserable at inspiring people and keeping them motivated. They were promoted to where they are in large part because they didn’t screw up, didn’t take risks, and were very smart technically, and only a few have the actual leadership skills to inspire a workforce to work hard.

    Mr. Orzetti is fortunate to be in a Marine Corp that cherishes inspiring leaders. He has a difficult job, but I have seen Marine leaders speak and act, and it inspires even me. It’s not to say the Marines don’t have their share of crappy leaders, but its not tolerated like it is on the nuclear side.

    Ask any Marine what it means to develop people, and you’ll get a variety of answers, ranging from professional development to interpersonal skills to combat skills. That’s a good thing: it’s healthy to think about the whole person. Ask a nuke that same question, and it’s all about knowledge. Not that knowledge isn’t important, but very few people go through life simply wanting higher test scores. Lack of inspiration is a massive problem in the nuclear force, and it’s not going to get better without some serious changes.

    I don’t want low standards, not by a long shot. And I don’t want cheating. It’s not healthy. But I want high standards and motivation to come to work every day. The nuclear force has one without the other, and only focusing on the sticks won’t make it any better.