TIME National Security

Air Force Flunked Stolen Nuclear Weapon Test

An Air Force review called the failed drill a "critical deficiency," representing another setback for the Air Force nuclear program.

Security forces at a U.S. nuclear missile base failed to speedily recapture a stolen nuclear weapon in a simulated drill last year, according to a review obtained by the Associated Press.

The test failure came as the security team at Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base was responding to a hostile takeover of a Minuteman 3 nuclear missile silo. According to a review obtained by the AP through the Freedom of Information Act, the team showed an “inability to effectively respond to a recapture scenario” due to insufficient training and, lack of familiarity with “complex scenario” exercises and shortcomings in “leadership culture.”

The Air Force called the failure a “critical deficiency” at the base.

Military officials acknowledged a failed inspection of the base in August, but they did not publicly attribute it at the time to the failed simulation. Even the partially-censored review obtained by the AP does not specify what exactly went wrong.

A spokesperson for the Air Force Global Strike Command declined to comment further to the AP, but said nearly all of the recommendations in the review had already been put in place. An inspection of the base two months after the initial evaluation found no security weaknesses, according to the AP.

The Air Force nuclear missile corps has faced a series of recent embarrassments. A commander of the 450 Minuteman missiles was removed from his post last October after the Pentagon concluded that he drank too much and cavorted with “suspect” women on an official trip to Russia. And in March, the Air Force fired nine commanders at Malmstrom amid fallout from a cheating scandal.

[AP]

TIME Military

Disaster in the Sky: Old Planes, Inexperienced Pilots—and No More Parachutes

A view shows wreckage of Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker plane near site of crash near Kyrgyz village of Chaldovar
Part of the tail of the doomed KC-135. Vladimir Pirogov / Reuters

A routine Air Force mission supporting the Afghan war turns tragic

Putting young, inexperienced pilots into a 50-year-old Air Force plane seems like a risky idea. Even riskier? Getting rid of crew’s parachutes to save money.

But that’s what the Air Force did last May 3, when it launched a mission to refuel U.S. warplanes over Afghanistan using a KC-135 Stratotanker delivered by Boeing to the Air Force on June 26, 1964. A problem with the plane’s flight-control system cascaded toward trouble after actions by what the Air Force has concluded was its inadequately-trained crew. In short order, the double-barreled dilemmas ripped the airplane’s tail off three miles above Kyrgyzstan’s Himalayan foothills. The plane quickly entered a steep dive, dooming all three aboard.

Both pilots graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2008, shortly after the service decided it couldn’t afford to keep parachutes on KC-135s. “A lot of time, manpower and money goes into buying, maintaining and training to use parachutes,” the Air Force said in March 2008. “With the Air Force hungry for cost-saving efficiency under its Air Force for Smart Operations in the 21st Century Program, commonly known as AFSO 21, the parachutes were deemed obsolete.”

Captain Mark Tyler Voss, 27, Captain Victoria Pinckney, 27, and Technical Sergeant Herman “Tre” Mackey III, 30, were the first airmen killed in a KC-135 crash since the Air Force stripped the parachutes from the planes.

Given the violent end of their mission, the parachutes may not have made any difference, according to the official Air Force investigation into the crash. “The [accident investigation] board sort of concluded, informally, in talking among themselves, that even if there had been parachutes, there would have been no way for them in this particular case for them to be used,” Air Force Lieut. Colonel John Thomas, a spokesman for the service’s Air Mobility Command, said Monday.

Others aren’t so sure. “Deploying aircrews to a combat zone without parachutes is an unconscionable risk,” says Alan Diehl, who spent 18 years as an Air Force civilian investigating the safety of the service’s aircraft. “The airmen aboard this KC-135 would have had to don their chutes, jettison the cockpit bailout hatch, and dive overboard—all in a matter of seconds. But to take away the option just seems wrong.”

The aerial tanker arrived in Kyrgyzstan the day before the accident. Earlier flight-control problems had reportedly been fixed. Pilot Tyler, co-pilot Pinckney and, Mackey, the refueling boom operator, boarded the aircraft early that afternoon at the Pentagon’s transit hub at Manas, just outside Bishkek, the country’s capital.

120522-F-FI711-030
A KC-135 refuels an F-15 fighter. 2nd Lt. Lindsay Horn / Air Force

They were the first crew to fly the 707-based aircraft toward Afghanistan, loaded with 175,000 pounds of aviation fuel, since its arrival at Manas. Tanker crews are the unsung heroes of the service, the so-called “global reach” that vastly extends how far Air Force aircraft can fly without landing to refuel.

Voss had slightly more than 1,000 hours flying such tankers; Pickney had fewer than 600. Mackey was the most experienced member of the crew, with 3,350 KC-135 flight hours, but as the boom operator he had nothing to do with flying the airplane.

Shortly after the flight, dubbed Shell 77, took off, a problem with the flight-control system triggered “rudder hunting,” which caused the airplane to yaw, its nose turning from left to right and back again.

A dutch roll. Picascho

Nine minutes into the flight, the plane entered a “dutch roll,” which can happen as increasing yaw generates more lift on one wing than the other. That causes the plane to roll, until increased drag pulls the wing back and the process repeats itself with the other wing. “It’s kind of waffling,” the crew reported as they climbed above 20,000 feet. “The jet’s bent.”

The pilots tried to bring the five-second-long dutch rolls under control by using the plane’s rudder and auto-pilot. But that only made matters worse.

“The cumulative effects of the malfunctioning [flight-control system], coupled with autopilot use and rudder movements during the unrecognized dutch roll, generated dutch roll forces that exceeded the mishap aircraft’s design structural limits,” the Air Force said in its investigation into the crash, released last month. “The tail section failed and separated from the aircraft, causing the mishap aircraft to pitch down sharply, enter into a high-speed dive, explode inflight and subsequently impact the ground.”

Voss’s superiors described him as a “peerless aviator” who was “highly motivated and extremely dedicated.” Pickney’s commanders said she was “a superior leader with the drive and ability to succeed at any task.”

But despite their demonstrated skills, the investigation said that instead of trying to halt the dutch roll with the rudder and auto-pilot, they should have shut down the malfunctioning flight-control system and manually used the ailerons on the main wings to regain control.

So why didn’t they?

“The mishap crew appears to not have been adequately trained for the dutch roll recognition and recovery; they experienced a condition they had not encountered in training,” the investigation concluded. “The mishap crew received a total of 10-15 minutes of recognition and recovery training several years prior to the mishap,” during initial pilot training.

Such training “appears to be insufficient,” the probe added. “The mishap crew was a qualified, but minimally experienced, crew” whose “inexperience led them to rely on the autopilot to make timely inputs in an unstable flight regime. Although the Inflight Manual does not explicitly prohibit autopilot use in dutch roll, the system is incapable of making the precisely timed inputs that are required to counteract dutch roll. Both times the mishap aircraft engaged the autopilot the oscillations grew worse.”

Shouldn’t KC-135 pilots train for such predicaments in their simulators? They can’t. “Insidious onset of dutch roll is impossible to replicate in KC-135 simulator training due to mechanical limitations,” the probe said. Nor can the simulator replicate more serious forms of the roll: “A former KC-135 Instructor Pilot and current simulator operator, who experienced severe dutch roll in flight, confirmed the current simulator training does not reproduce a severe dutch roll.”

Can’t pilots practice it, carefully, while actually flying? No. “The Inflight Manual prohibits pilots from practicing dutch roll recognition and recovery in the aircraft, specifically stating `intentionally-induced dutch roll and aerobatics of any kind are strictly prohibited’” the investigation noted.

Once their plane lost its tail, was the crew’s fate sealed? “Egress was not possible,” the accident report said. “The KC-135R is not equipped with parachutes, ejection seats, or any other means of inflight egress.” The report didn’t mention that parachutes had been on the planes until 2008.

The crew “made no comment on the flight data recorder that `We need to get out of here’ or `This is going down,’” Thomas, the Air Force spokesman, said (the recorder shut down when the plane was at 21,760 feet). “The indications were that they continued to fight to regain control of the aircraft until probably they lost consciousness.”

And how did that happen? “There is some surmising that goes on,” Thomas explained. “But [the accident board] had several experts to address this point directly, and their best understanding of what probably happened—because they have to put together their best guess based on the flight data—is that when the tail broke off, the aircraft that remained pitched, and because it was in the middle of a dutch roll it probably pitched up first, because as the tail section broke off it probably gained altitude as part of the physics of it swinging back and forth, they probably experienced negative G-forces that would have probably blacked them out.”

That 2008 Air Force news article detailed the logic of getting rid of the KC-135’s parachutes:

By design, parachutes slow things down. Crew members forced to evacuate in-flight aircraft with parachutes, for example, have much gentler impacts with the ground than those without chutes. But the only thing being slowed by parachutes aboard KC-135 Stratotankers, Air Force leaders recently decided, was the mission. So they got rid of them. Removing parachutes from military aircraft may sound peculiar, but KC-135s are not like other aircraft. They seldom have mishaps, and the likelihood a KC-135 crew member would ever need to use a parachute is extremely low.

“The [accident investigation board’s] technical experts didn’t recall that there’s ever been an attempted, successful or otherwise, egress from a tanker aircraft,” the Air Force’s Thomas said.

But the technical experts are wrong, according to former airman Joseph Heywood. He bailed out of a KC-135 over Michigan—along with three other airmen—as their plane ran out of fuel in August 1969 (the pilot landed the plane short of the runway, but safely, at the now-closed K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base). “If they were in a dutch roll, I think it’d be almost impossible for them to get out,” he said. But removing the parachutes “doesn’t make any sense—it’s just another way of saying that money is more important than people.”

Bailing out used to be a key part of the KC-135’s Cold War mission. “Our job was to fly up and plug B-52s up near Greenland,” he says. “And if they demanded it, to give them all of our fuel, and then to bail out onto the ice pack and make our way back on foot to Billy Mitchell field in Milwaukee.”

The missing parachutes don’t bother Heywood now. “It doesn’t cause me any heartburn, because I’m not one of the people flying them,” he says. But the former Air Force captain well remembers when he needed one. “The day after I bailed out I took a bottle of booze—I think it was Chivas Regal, actually—to the guy who packed mine,” he recalled. “I’d rather have a slim chance than no chance.”

The combination of an aging aircraft, poorly-trained young pilots, and the need to save money that led the Air Force to remove the parachutes, shows a force frayed by ever-tightening, and perhaps misallocated, budgets. “The various problems surfaced by this mishap—overlooked maintenance issues on older aircraft, limited crew experience and training, poor flight simulator fidelity, and no parachutes—are all driven by funding limitations,” former Air Force crash investigator Diehl says. “The Pentagon and our Congress need to stop sequestering safety.”

The Air Force recently detailed changes it is taking following the crash. KC-135 crews will be getting more training to help them deal with dutch rolls. The service is revising flight manuals, beefing up maintenance, and improving rudder controls for the 396 KC-135s still flying. The fleet is also in the middle of a $1 billion refurbishment. But restoring parachutes to the planes—slated to fly until at least 2040—isn’t on the list of improvements.

Transit Center honors fallen heros
An honor guard carries photos of the KC-135 crew members during a memorial service at Manas six days after the crash. SSgt. Stephanie Rubi / Air Force
TIME Military

U.S. Working to Preserve Drone Dominance

Air Force Works To Meet Increased Demand For Predator Aircraft
Drone operators like these at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada... Ethan Miller / Getty Images

The U.S. military is worried about being attacked by foreign drones—and about protecting the airmen operating ours

Some things never change in war. It began with rocks among cavemen, until one of them sharpened his stone, creating a better weapon. That, in turn, spawned the shield.

The same thing is happening now with drones. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles—they go by a variety of names inside the U.S. military—came into their own following 9/11. Once outfitted with Hellfire missiles and other weaponry, they created a new kind of war.

Predator begat Reaper begat Global Hawk.

Predator Drones in Afghanistan
A Predator drone flies over Afghanistan. Veronique de Viguerie / Getty Images

They lurked out of sight and sound, some killing in an instant when the trigger was pulled, perhaps on the other side of the world. For more than a decade, U.S. drones stood pretty much alone at the top of the hunter-killer pyramid.

Well, one thing is sure: the rest of the world, including the bad guys, aren’t standing still.

That’s got the Army—you know, the guys most likely to be attacked by enemy drones—a little concerned. “U.S. forces will be increasingly threatened by reconnaissance and armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in the near and far future,” the service says, detailing a two-day session on the topic in Huntsville, Ala., later this month. Written proposals on ways to defeat enemy drones were due April 1.

“All levels of detection, decision, and defeat should be considered when developing and proposing a capability,” the Army says. Since the Army calls drones “UAVs,” it only makes sense that it calls its yet-to-be-perfected drone-killing technologies “CUAS,” for Counter Unmanned Aerial System capabilities.

“Engagement options should consider the echelon of employment, air and ground coordination measures, prevention of civilian casualties, fratricide, cost per engagement, and the number of engagements possible in a surge application,” the Army says. “Both kinetic and non-kinetic solutions are encouraged” (“Kinetic” means destruction by physical collision, like the 20-pound warhead on an AGM-114 Hellfire. “Non-kinetic” means a way of defeating a drone using electronic warfare or other ways of keeping an incoming drone away from its target).

“Only U.S. based and owned companies are eligible to respond,” the Army says. “Foreign participation is not authorized for this effort.”

Meanwhile, the Air Force wants to construct an “RPA Mission Control Complex Physical Protection System” around its drone operations at Creech Air Force Base outside Las Vegas. (The Air Force prefers to call its drones RPAs—Remotely-Piloted Aircraft—emphasizing that a person remains in control, even if not in the cockpit).

The northeast corner of Creech is where airmen sit at desks and control many of the MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers that have been flying over Afghanistan and Iraq for the past decade.

The service is seeking someone to build an “Intrusion Detection System (IDS) Sensor Platform Fence” at Creech. “The project,” it adds, “will include construction of circulation control fences within the Mission Complex secured area to provide secondary security and compartmentalize access at seven (7) Base-identified critical facilities and areas.”

Such a fence, of course, will help stop intruders on the ground. But it won’t be much help against…drones.

TIME Military

Commander in Air Force Cheating Scandal: ‘We Let the American People Down’

This undated handout photo provided by the US Air Force shows Col. Robert Stanley II.
This undated handout photo provided by the US Air Force shows Col. Robert Stanley II. US Air Force/AP

Col. Robert Stanley resigned and retired from the Air Force on Thursday when nine commanders were fired for failing in leadership duties while Airmen allegedly cheated on missile tests

The senior officer at the Air Force nuclear missile base where nine officers were fired Thursday amid a cheating scandal said in his resignation letter that he was leaving the military because the “we let the American people down on my watch.”

“This is a wake-up call for everyone who has lost their sense of right and wrong, for those who have become cynical and for those indoctrinated by modern society to acquiesce when faced with bad behavior,” Col. Robert Stanley wrote, according to the Associated Press.

Officers were allegedly sharing answers to tests on “emergency war orders,” which included information on targets and missile launches. The cheating reportedly began in 2011 and continued for two years. The nine officers fired by the Air Force were said to have failed in leadership. Col. Stanley said in the letter that had one “silent Airman” come forward with the details of the scandal, the reputation of the 34th Missile Wing could have been maintained. “But it didn’t happen,” Stanly wrote. “Wrong won out over right … the voice of integrity was silenced … and the good guy lost at the end of the movie.”

Stanley said he hopes his action will stir other Airmen to “stand up for what’s right the next time they are confronted by immorality.”

[AP]

TIME Military

Air Force Applies a Band-Aid to a Sucking Chest Wound

Secretary and Global Strike Command issue Malmstrom update
Lieut. General Stephen Wilson, chief of the Air Force's Global Strike Command, and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, detail what happened at Malmstrom. Scott Ash / Air Force

The Air Force punishes mid-level officers who failed to prepare for yesterday's war

Like doctors relying on leeches after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, Thursday’s action by the Air Force to punish missile officers who had cheated on tests, or their superiors, is a 20th century patent medicine for a 21st century wound.

The service, at a Thursday news conference, said it would cashier nine mid-level nuclear officers and will discipline scores of junior officers at Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base following a test-taking scandal that erupted there earlier this year. The colonel in charge of the base also submitted his resignation Thursday, along with most of his subordinate commanders, for their ignorance of widespread cheating on their watch. Similar cheating was not found at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., and F.W. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo.

“The best way to change a culture is to fire everyone down to about the O5 [lieutenant colonel] level, and replace them with people possessing the culture you want to instill,” says Tim Cerniglia, who served on a MX Peacekeeper crew at F.E. Warren in 1997-99 and says he remains in touch with currently-serving ICBM operators. “If [the punishment] is isolated to Malmstrom, then it is like excising a mole but ignoring the cancer. The rot goes much deeper than this.”

An older missileer agrees. “It’s implausible that missileer cheating was confined to Malmstrom,” says Bruce Blair, an Air Force launch officer during the 1970s who is now advocating for nuclear disarmament at Princeton University. “The Air Force is either in denial or it muffed the investigation. Cheating has been extensive and pervasive at all the missile bases, going back for decades.”

The Air Force maintained that such a broad cashiering of officers in charge of nation’s intercontinental ballistic missile force—450 ICBMs siloed at bases in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming—was unprecedented. That may be true, as far as it goes. But the real issue is the lethargy that pervades the nation’s missileers since they’ve spent the past 20-plus years primed to attack… well, no one.

That’s the key: to keep the nuclear edge sharp, the U.S. military needs a clear, identifiable, acknowledged like-sized foe against which to hone it. Lacking such an enemy, the atomic blade, inexorably, will dull over time. It’s called, for lack of a better term, human nature. Let’s face it: Staring down the Soviets with the doctrine of mutually-assured destruction made a bizarre kind of sense during the Cold War, but those ICBMs are worthless when it comes to keeping Vladimir Putin’s troops out of Ukraine.

“I certainly picked up on spotty morale and micromanagement issues at all of the bases, and so did those who participated in our follow-on reviews,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James says. “The drive to always score a hundred percent on exams when 90 percent was the standard, and the use of these scores in some cases as the sole differentiator on who got promoted and who didn’t, just seemed inappropriate to me.”

The probe concluded that 91 officers cheated, or tolerating cheating, at Malmstrom. “It showed various levels of involvement from officers who sent, received, solicited test material, or those who simply had knowledge about it but failed to report it,” Air Force Global Strike Command commander Lieutenant General Stephen Wilson said.

According to Wilson, the Air Force investigation revealed that:

– Leadership’s focus on perfection led commanders to micromanage their people. They sought to ensure that the zero-defect standard was met by personally monitoring and directing daily operations, imposing an unrelenting testing and inspections, with the goal of eliminating all human error. This approach is unrealistic given the ICBM mission is built around redundancy through weapon system design, standardized procedures and teamwork.

– Leaders placed too much emphasis on monthly test scores. Although the required passing score is 90 percent, crewmembers felt pressured to score 100 percent on each and every test. Leaders lost sight of the fact that execution in the field is more important than what happens in the classroom. These were all bright officers. And as we’ve said before, none of these needed the information to pass the test. They felt compelled to cheat to get a perfect score.

– In the ICBM environment, there’s been an unhealthy overemphasis on perfection and a marked fear of failure, which kept airmen from identifying their weaknesses and working to correct them. Nuclear airmen perceive that any error would could receive high-level attention, derail advancement and could potentially end their career. The constant oversight, inspection and testing regimen alienated subordinates, and a lack of midlevel officers in the squadron contributed to a gap between squadron leaders and missile crews.

The Air Force has identified more than a half-billion dollars in ICBM infrastructure improvements to be spent on “our Minuteman squadrons, ICBM helicopter support and some critical communications areas,” James said.

Absent a foe, apparently, there’s always funding.

TIME Military

9 Air Force Nuke Commanders Fired in Cheating Scandal

Robert Stanley
This undated handout photo provided by the US Air Force shows Col. Robert Stanley II. US Air Force/AP

The commanders discharged were not directly involved in cheating but are said to have failed in their leadership duties. The navy also plans to discipline dozens more junior officers for allegedly sharing answers on important proficiency exams

The Air Force fired nine commanders at a nuclear missile base on Thursday for their involvement in a cheating scandal, and it plans to discipline dozens more junior officers for cheating on an exam.

The Associated Press, citing an unnamed defense official, reports the scandal began as early as November 2011 and continued for two years. Officers allegedly shared answers to exams that tested proficiency in “emergency war orders”—messages about targets and missile launches. The scandal was first revealed last year by the AP. The ensuing investigation led to the termination of the nine commanders. Col. Robert Stanley, the commander of Malmstrom’s 341st Missile Wing, also resigned his post. On Thursday, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, the service’s stop civilian official, said officers would be held accountable once the scope of the scandal was clear.

Air Force officials said the firings are unprecedented in the intercontinental ballistic missile force. The nine commanders discharged were not directly involved in the cheating scandal but are said to have failed in their leadership duties. One hundred missile launch crew members at Malmstrom were identified as potentially being involved in the cheating scandal, but nine were cleared by investigators.

[AP]

 

TIME

Another Lesson from MH370: Nobody is Watching Malaysian Airspace

Wall of Hope for missing Malaysia Airlines MH370
A boy stands beside a model posing for pictures during an art performance in support for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 at the departure hall of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 17, 2014. Damir Sagolj—Reuters

The world wants to know how a rogue Boeing 777 can fly at will over Malaysia without military jets being scrambled

As the search for MH370 widens to some 30 million square miles, the failure of the Malaysian Air Force to identify the plane on radar has taken on new significance.

The number of nations involved in the search has been expanded from 14 to 25, and now includes Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, France, the U.S and the U.K.

The huge area to be searched, and myriad nations to be coordinated, means fingers are being squarely pointed at the initial dawdling by Malaysia’s armed forces.

“Clearly they had let an unidentified aircraft pass through Malaysian sovereign territory without bothering to identify it; not something they were happy to admit,” writes aviation consultant David Learmount, who had previously decried “a chaotic lack of coordination between the Malaysian agencies.”

The Malaysian military spotted the missing jet passing through three military radars over the country’s far northeast, before it headed out over the Strait of Malacca. But despite its erratic behavior, the American-made F-18s and F-5 fighters on alert at Butterworth Air Force base sat idle.

Had the jets been scrambled, the world would have been saved a massive and extraordinary search operation.

“There was clearly a significant failure of response on behalf of the Malaysian Air Force. There’s no real way around it and you might imagine heads would roll for that,” says Anthony Davis, Bangkok-based analyst for defense-and-security-intelligence firm IHS-Jane.

According to Prof. Rohan Gunaratna, a security and terrorism expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, such lapses are not entirely surprising.

“European and North American militaries and governments respond to such anomalies and aberrations in aviation routes, but many Asian governments don’t as they are not paying such close attention,” he tells TIME. “Even if the government is informed, it may not take the same decisive action.”

Investigators believe that the Boeing 777-200 stuck to its intended flight path after first departing Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12:41 a.m. on March 8, heading towards Beijing for around an hour. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told a press conference its Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS, was disabled just before the plane crossed over the Eastern coast the Malay Peninsula.

Shortly afterwards, the aircraft’s transponder cut out near the border between Malaysian and Vietnamese air traffic control. This would imply that the final radio contact of “all right, good night,” from the cockpit came after an attempt to conceal the 200-ton, twinjet aircraft’s location was already underway.

Malaysian officials initially seemed reluctant to direct any suspicion towards Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah or his co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, who, it emerged last week, had previously invited two female passengers into the cockpit for an entire flight from Kuala Lumpur to the popular Thai holiday island of Phuket.

However, the backgrounds of everyone involved are now being thoroughly assessed. No leads have so far been identified although some governments with nationals on board have still to respond to requests for information, said police chief Khalid Abu Bakar. On Saturday, Malaysian police searched the homes of both Zaharie and Fariq. Zaharie apparently had a homemade flight simulator, which is now being examined.

Despite a refocusing on the pilots, the possibility of a hijacking has not been ruled out, and the final recording will be examined for any signs of stress. But investigators remain baffled by the absence of any distress call if hijackers had attempted to storm the cockpit. An airlines official has confirmed that “the pilot and co-pilot did not ask to fly together” on MH370.

Zaharie’s informal hand-off went against standard radio procedures, Hugh Dibley, a former British Airways pilot and a Fellow of the U.K. Royal Aeronautical Society, told Reuters. He should have to read back instructions for contacting the next control center and include the aircraft’s call sign.

The huge area in which the plane may have disappeared — from Northern Thailand to Kazakhstan, stretching down to the Southern Indian Ocean and even the West coast of Australia — makes finding any sign of the aircraft a daunting task, especially when wreckage may have floated hundreds of miles by now. On Monday, Australia announced it would lead southern search efforts.

However, analysts say it is unlikely the plane could have traversed the airspace of various militarized nations to the northwest without detection. “Once you move into mainland Indian airspace, let alone further northwest towards Pakistan and Afghanistan, I would be hugely surprised if an unidentified plane that had filed no flight plan would be able to penetrate their airspace without being challenged,” says Davis. “It would seem to me highly unlikely.”

During his Saturday press briefing, Najib maintained that his government “shared information in real time with authorities who have the necessary experience to interpret the data.” However, allegations of an attempted cover-up have been intense, especially from China. A total of 153 passengers were Chinese nationals.

“It would appear that there was an effort to fudge the result of that and the military did not pass the complete information onto the government,” says Davis, “hence the continuation of the search in the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand for days later.”

TIME Military

Are You Smarter Than a Nuclear Launch Officer?

A pair of Air Force missile launch control officers, having passed their monthly proficiency tests, pull alert at a Minuteman III missile site.
A pair of Air Force missile launch control officers, having passed their monthly proficiency tests, pull alert at a Minuteman III missile site. SrA Javier Cruz Jr.—Air Force

Here’s the type of questions Air Force missileers are cheating on…and why

Remember when you took your driver’s test and had to answer all those questions about who had the right-of-way at an intersection? If you’ve been paying attention in recent weeks, you know that the Air Force is investigating nearly half of the 200-airman force that commands the 150 nuclear-tipped Minuteman III missiles at Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base for allegedly cheating, or tolerating those who did, on their monthly proficiency tests.

These tests, no surprise, are tougher than driver’s ed.

A launch officer and instructor who left the Air Force in 2011 has provided questions representative of those he says he asked his airmen about the missiles they were monitoring. To help you understand their language, you need to know that each launch-control crew is in a numbered Launch Control Center. So Foxtrot LCC is F-01. And all of the missiles the Foxtrot crew controls are numbered, 2 through 11 (F-02, F-03, etc).

Enough test prep.

Number 2 pencil at the ready? Start!

1) An EMT-team [an electromechanical maintenance team consisting of enlisted missile maintainers] has penetrated L03 and L05 to clean a clogged drain in the sump system after a big spring storm. It’s been 15 minutes since your last authentication with the team and you receive a seismic alarm at L04. After referencing LF [Launch Facility] Faults, what will you do?

A) Declare Security Situation?

B) Contact FSC [flight security controller] and have him get two authentications from the security guards at L03?

C) Contact L05 and get 2 authentications from the EMT Team?

D) Contact MMOC [Missile Maintenance Operations Control]?

2) If an OSR [Operational Status Response] is not received from an LF within the previous _____ the LF will report LFDN [Launch Facility Down].

A) [Number of] minutes?

B) [Number of] seconds?

C) All of the above?

D) None of the above?

3) A team is at F10 to do a MGS R&R [flight computer removal and replacement]. The FSC and you have received good authentications from the team and have passed both the launcher combinations. Thirty minutes later F10 reports MOSR X [Missile Operational Status Response X]. What is the first thing you do?

A) Reference LF Faults?

B) Contact FSC and have him request authentications since the MOSR was unexpected?

C) Contact Team Immediately over SIN [dedicated phone network at the LF]?

D) Emergency Launch LF Evacuation?

The time allotted for this test is over.

Please put your pencils down.

(To see if you’re ready for a career underground, check out the answer to Question 1 here, Question 2 here, and Question 3 here.)

Vandenberg team launches Minuteman III
A Minuteman III lifts off. Mark P. Mackley—Air Force

These are not simple questions. In fact, two of the tests, involving missiles and the codes that would be used to launch them, are open-book exams, according to former launch officers, also known as missileers. But having thousands of pages of technical orders on Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile ops isn’t a lot of help, unless you know where to look. The third test—emergency war orders—is closed-book, given in a classified classroom known as “the vault,” and is the toughest of the lot. Most of the tests are multiple-choice, with some fill-in-the-blanks thrown in. They range from 20 to 30 questions, and take about 90 minutes, according to former ICBMers (and no, a #2 pencil is not required).

Scoring 100% on these tests has been the only way to earn promotions within the missile force, and possibly escape from it, ex-Air Force missileers say. Most who serve in the underground bunkers overseeing the nation’s fleet of 450 Minuteman III missiles did not volunteer for the assignment, and many want to leave. Air Force officials say that the missiles’ security has never been jeopardized, and that the tests are a minor element of crew training. Yet integrity is supposed to be non-negotiable in a force that boasts “perfection is the standard.”

The problems with the ICBM force, military and outside experts say, stem from the Cold War’s end and the pressures of the nation’s post-9/11 conflicts. Those twin challenges have dulled the glory and pride once associated with the nuclear mission. “Many current senior Air Force leaders interviewed were cynical about the nuclear mission, its future, and its true (versus publicly stated) priority to the Air Force,” a 2012 Air Force report said.

The pressure to cheat can be intense: Some tests were scored to two decimal places—99.44%, for example, like the purported purity of Ivory Soap. “The cheating is pervasive,” says a former Minuteman crew operator who left the service in 2010. “It’s pervasive because the leadership places so much emphasis on rote test scores to advance.” In the wake of the recent scandal at Malmstrom, airmen retook tests under intense scrutiny to ensure there was no cheating; the average test score was 95.5%. “So they’re not cheating to pass —they’re cheating to get 100s because so much emphasis is placed on test scores to advance,” this former missileer says.

Peace is our profession
Missileers pull alerts underground protected from nearby nuclear blasts by eight-ton doors like this. Master Sgt. Lance Cheung—Air Force

Most tests are taken by groups of 30 to 40 airmen at the missiles’ home base. Three tests monthly per person means 36 of these tests annually, plus additional inspections and alert drills. Like any group that works together under unrelenting pressure, there is an ethos to help your comrades, former missileers say.

“They’re a team in the capsule, and the five capsules together are a team out at the squadron,” says the officer who left in 2010. “When faced with the need to score 100% to advance in the missile career field, well, guess what, they’re going to bind together and act as a unit to meet that challenge together.”

Early test-takers would share the answers with those taking the tests later. “Answer keys” were drafted, listing the precise answers, or a simple count—”the test has four As [answers], six Bs, eight Cs and two Ds,” says the ex-Air Force officer who left in 2011. The missileers shared such “gouge” via paper—tucked into flight-suit pockets for surreptitious glances during the test—or via cell phones.

Cheating was encouraged by higher-ups. “The commander would sit down with you and say, `These tests are ridiculous—you can try to do it all by yourself, which is noble, but you’ll but you’ll never be promoted,’” says the missiler who left the service in 2011. “There was times I was saved from failing by cheating. The testing got so ridiculous that it was no longer testing your ability to be a missile operator—it was testing your ability to take tests.”

A favorite patch among ICBM crews, who often pull alerts in pajamas. Wired

The higher-ranking squadron and group commanders played along. “Some of the colonels were so lazy they’d call and tell me to fill in the answers for them,” the ex-missileer said of their quarterly recertification tests. “I very rarely saw the colonels take the test honestly.”

A second former missileer agrees. “The higher-ups generally don’t hold squadron and group commanders responsible,” he says. “The system is so ingrained with this poisonous mentality that your generals and colonels—all those who have succeeded and been promoted in nukes—are the ones who have excelled in this environment, and so they perpetuate it.”

Some senior officers figured out what was happening. “The colonels caught on that there was some kind of cheating going on, so we started getting multiple test versions,” says the officer who left in 2011. “They’d tell us: `Don’t cheat off your neighbor—we have different tests.’” But the changes were relatively modest—mostly, questions were just moved around—and cheating persisted. The cheating could be deduced when higher headquarters would send in their own tests and test-givers, and more airmen would flunk.

This led to disillusion. “You get into a situation where being a good officer and being a good missileer are mutually exclusive,” says Tim Cerniglia, who served on a MX Peacekeeper crew at F.E. Warren in 1997-99 and says he remains in touch with currently-serving ICBM operators.

What’s worse than the emphasis on perfect scores is what it hides, the officer who left in 2010 says. “Many missileers were bad test takers and thought to be bad missileers, but they were the best,” he says. “These tests are supposed to determine whether you’re fit to be a leader, an instructor or an evaluator, but it has nothing to do with real leadership.”

Working 'down in the hole'
Beyond the missileers, thousands of enlisted airmen like Airman 1st Class Matthew Lahood tend to the constant maintenance the Minuteman missile force requires. Airman 1st Class Chris Boitz—Air Force

Part of the problem may be the shifting responsibility for the care and feeding of the ICBM force. Over the past two decades, the Air Force has moved command of the missiles around like an unwanted child. They bounced from Curtis LeMay’s Strategic Air Command, where they had been since becoming operational in 1959, to Air Combat Command in 1992. Then they moved to Space Command in 1993, and finally to Global Strike Command in 2009, created as a mini-SAC following earlier nuclear snafus involving misplaced nuclear weapons and components. As a result of those mishaps, the pace and difficulty of testing and inspections picked up. “The inspections are so frequent,” a 2011 Pentagon report noted, “that the unit has neither enough time nor resources to correct deficiencies.”

The cheating is the latest in a string of embarrassing revelations concerning the nation’s nuclear forces. The Air Force is investigating three Minuteman airmen, two of whom also are under investigator for cheating, for suspected drug use. Missileers have repeatedly left their capsules’ blast doors open, violating regulations designed to prevent unauthorized entry. The service fired Major General Michael Carey—in charge of all the nation’s ICBMs—last October after an official trip to Moscow where he drank excessively and cavorted with “suspect” women. During an en route layover at a Swiss airport, witnesses told Pentagon investigators that Carey “appeared drunk and, in the public area, talked loudly about the importance of his position as commander of the only operational nuclear force in the world and that he saves the world from war every day.” The Navy revealed Feb. 4 that it is looking into allegations that enlisted sailors cheated on tests involving the nuclear reactors that power its submarines and aircraft carriers.

Back in the missile fields, former officers say there needs to be a wholesale shakeup in how missile commanders are selected and promoted. “This pressure-cooker environment has just grown so unhealthy,” says the officer who left in 2010 and believes the nation needs to maintain its ICBM force. “Squadron commanders aren’t expected to lead—they expect their people to get 100% on every test and every evaluation, and they expect perfection, but they’re not expected to meet those standards themselves,” he says. “They’d rather sit in their office reading emails on their Blackberries than leading from the front.”

It has become a self-perpetuating caste. “It’s command incest—you get a bad leader who finds a subordinate who’s just as bad as he is, and he promotes that subordinate, and on and on. It’s been going on for four decades now and so you mostly get a crop of leaders who are more interested in their careers than they are in actually leading,” he says. “Leadership is a human endeavor, and the Air Force takes the humanity out of it.”

Oscar-01 Launch Control Facility
The tip of the nuclear spear. TSGT Bob Wickley—Air Force

In a world of city-killing ICBMs, and the $1 billion spent annually operating them, it’s the little slights that send big signals to the nation’s ICBM crews. “They perceive a lack of knowledge of, and respect for, their mission from within the larger Air Force,” that 2011 Pentagon report said. Service-wide education, recruiting and PR “seem to ignore the ballistic missile mission.” Their commander wears only three stars—a lieutenant general—unlike the four-star generals who command other fighting units. “This is widely noted in the strategic operating forces,” the Defense Science Board study said. A final indignity: “As a missile crew watches the computer display for their mission briefing before starting each period of duty, they see the official classified Air Force screen saver which features a single weapons system—an F-22” fighter (which, like the ICBM force, has never seen combat).

“I believe that we do in fact have some systemic problems in the force,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Wednesday. “The need for perfection has created a climate of what I think is undue stress and fear among the missileers about their futures.” Her service is pondering how to restore a sense of mission to missile duty, including bonuses, medals and patching the “leaking roofs” that she saw on her recent visits to the nation’s ICBM bases at Malmstrom, Minot, N.D., and F.E. Warren, Wyo. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told missileers at F.E. Warren on Jan. 9 that the Pentagon plans to develop a Minuteman replacement “to keep that deterrent stronger than it’s ever been.” He has ordered a pair of investigations into the missile force’s culture and management to see what changes are needed to restore its sense of duty and pride.

Given the missiles’ Cold War bloodline, it comes as no surprise in a post-Cold War world that ICBM backers don’t see their arsenal as a relic. “I don’t think we’re any more a Cold War force than an aircraft carrier, or Special Ops, or the UH-1 helicopter,” Lieut. General James Kowalksi, then-chief of Air Force Global Strike Command, said in July. A Russian attack has become such a “remote” possibility that it’s “hardly worth discussing,” he added. “The greatest risk to my force is an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid.”

Kowalski became the No. 2 officer in U.S. Strategic Command in October, overseeing the nation’s entire nuclear arsenal. He took the post after President Obama fired Vice Admiral Tim Giardina for allegedly gambling in an Iowa casino with counterfeit chips. The charge—a felony—happened at Horseshoe Council Bluffs Casino, a 15-minute drive across the Missouri River from the nation’s nuclear headquarters.

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