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 Ukraine

Eastern Ukrainian Separatists Say Referendum Is On Despite Putin’s Plea

A man guards a road intersection as pro-Russian activists strengthen the barricades in front of the Ukrainian regional office of the Security Service in Slavyansk, May 7, 2014.
A man guards a road intersection as pro-Russian activists strengthen the barricades in front of the Ukrainian regional office of the Security Service in Slavyansk, May 7, 2014. Alexander Zemlianichenko—AP

Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine plan to hold an autonomy referendum despite a request by Vladimir Putin to postpone. The coordinating committee of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic announced that it would hold the vote on Sunday

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine agreed Thursday to go ahead with a referendum on autonomy a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin urged postponing the vote.

The coordinating committee of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic met Thursday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk and said afterward that the referendum would happen on Sunday as planned, the Associated Press reports. It’s unclear how the Kremlin will respond.

Putin said Wednesday the referendum should be postponed and claimed that Russian troops amassed along the border had pulled back, two moves apparently aimed at deescalating tensions in the region. Putin, however, maintained his calls for Ukraine’s military to cease operations against separatists that have spawned deadly clashes in eastern Ukraine.

The separatists’ announcement coincided with military exercises in Russia on Thursday involving the country’s nuclear forces, though those exercises have been planned since November.

TIME North Korea

North Korea: World Must ‘Wait and See’ on Next Nuclear Test

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un arriving at the Samjiyong airport in Ryaggang province in North Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un arriving at the Samjiyong airport in Ryaggang province in North Korea, April 1, 2014. KCNA/AFP/Getty Images

The Communist nation has conducted three nuclear tests in the past, and its recent threat came amid heightened tensions with South Korea. “The DPRK made it very clear, we will carry out a new form of nuclear test,” said a North Korean official

A North Korea official said at a UN news conference Friday that the world should “wait and see” what the government meant when it threatened earlier this week a “new form” of nuclear test.

“The DPRK made it very clear, we will carry out a new form of nuclear test,” Deputy UN Ambassador Ri Tong Il of North Korea (DPRK) said, according to Reuters. “But I recommend you to wait and see what it is.

The UN Security Council condemned North Korea March 27 for firing two medium-range Rodong ballistic missiles into the sea a day earlier, calling it a breach of U.N. resolutions but drawing the ire of the North. On Sunday, the official Korean Central News Agency published a statement threatening a “new form” of nuclear test, following three past tests, without elaborating on what that would mean.

Tensions between North and South Korea have spiked amid joint annual military exercises between South Korea and the United States. On Monday, North Korea fired shells across a disputed maritime border, prompting return fire from South Korea.

TIME Nuclear Weapons

U.S. Faces Challenges Maintaining Aging Nuclear Arsenal

Dismantled components of B-61 nuclear bo
Nuclear weapons, like this U.S. B61 bomb, contain thousands of parts DOE—Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Investigation reveals flaws in tending to the nation’s most deadly weapons

The last thing you hear when leaving the dealership behind the wheel of your new car is the salesperson. She’s reminding you to bring it back to the dealership for repairs to ensure the proper spare parts are used to keep it running like new.

You’d think the folks in charge of keeping the nation’s nuclear arsenal healthy would take the same approach. But they don’t.

That’s because the “configuration management” (CM) requirements — an “exact list, by version, of the drawings, specifications, engineering authorizations, manufacturing records and any other essential documents used in the development and qualification of a nuclear-weapon system or component” — haven’t been met, according to a new report from the Department of Energy (DOE) inspector general’s office.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) counts on those records to ensure its nuclear-warhead blueprints, and resulting upgrades, are correct. The failure to keep them that way has led to faulty parts being installed into the nation’s nuclear weapons. Compounding the problem is the fact that the nation’s nuclear-weapons blueprints are, well, falling apart. NNSA is the part of the DOE that oversees the nation’s nuclear stockpile.

“I’m pretty surprised,” Stephen Schwartz, a nuclear-weapons expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., said on Monday. “I would have thought that the people responsible for designing, building and maintaining our nuclear weapons would keep scrupulous records of what they did.”

Apparently, not so much.

“Our review … identified instances in which NNSA had not maintained accurate and complete CM information for its nuclear weapons and components,” the DOE inspector general says in a new report. “We also identified additional concerns with the use of nuclear-weapons parts and components that did not conform to specifications … sites did not always ensure that parts that did not conform to specifications were actually fit for use in a nuclear weapon.” Such actions “could negatively impact the reliability and safety of U.S. nuclear weapons.”

NNSA has acknowledged the inspector general’s concerns and has “proposed and initiated corrective actions are responsive to our findings and recommendations,” the inspector general said.

A big part of the problem is that the U.S. hasn’t built a new nuclear weapon since 1990. That’s pushing the nation to upgrade many existing ones, something that wasn’t generally considered when the weapons were built. It’s vital to have data on how those weapons were assembled, so their thousands of parts can be safely removed and upgraded. That’s also difficult to do when the blueprints are disintegrating.

“Irreplaceable nuclear-weapons CM information is degrading,” the inspector general said. “Specifically, film media and microfiche are being lost due to degradation, and radiographs are beginning to stick together, causing extensive damage and making the data unrecoverable.”

Many of the details are classified, but the issue is of sufficient concern that the inspector general’s office said it has received “multiple allegations” of improper record keeping when it comes to U.S. nuclear arms. In one case, a nuclear-weapons lab opted to use a nuclear-weapon part that didn’t meet required specifications, a shortcoming discovered only when a part in a second batch failed. Had the part in the second batch not failed, the first batch would likely have been installed on the W76-1, “resulting in a reliability concern for a component with nuclear-safety features.”

The Navy had to return 11 of 23 W76-1 nuclear warheads to NNSA because of wiring damaged by the use of commercial off-the-shelf parts in the warhead’s remanufacturing. “The W76-1 weapons were returned due to the discovery of dielectric material missing from a detonator-cable assembly,” the inspector general says. “Dielectric material acts as a nonconductor to a direct electric current and is used to help ensure that an electrostatic discharge does not accidentally set off the main charge of the weapon.”

The W76 is the warhead atop the missiles carried by the Navy’s Trident submarines. With a yield of 100 kilotons, it is seven times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Keeping the nation’s nuclear arsenal in shape has become more difficult as the companies and people who originally built it disappear. “Not having a fully implemented supplier quality-management program,” the inspector general warned, “can have devastating impacts on the reliability and safety of our nuclear weapons.”

Schwartz concurs. “This could have significant consequences,” he says. “This isn’t a one-off problem affecting one particular class of warheads — it looks like it’s affecting quite a lot of them.”

TIME North Korea

North Korea Threatens ‘New Form’ of Nuclear Test

N. Korea launches mid-range ballistic missiles
Rodong medium-range ballistic missiles in a military parade at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang in July 2013 Kyodo/AP

The communist nation warned on Sunday it would test an unspecified new kind of nuclear weapon despite global censure. Its new threat follows test-firings of two Rodong midrange ballistic missiles, which landed in the sea between North Korea and Japan on Wednesday

North Korea promised on Sunday to carry out a “new form” of nuclear test after a recent round of ballistic testing, heightening tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula.

The North’s Foreign Ministry didn’t specify what it meant by a “new form” of nuclear testing. However, Western allies have long believed the isolated state is trying to make small nuclear weapons that can be carried by intercontinental ballistic missiles, the New York Times reports.

Pyongyang’s new threat follows test-firings of two Rodong midrange ballistic missiles, which landed in the sea between North Korea and Japan on Wednesday.

North Korea prompted tightened sanctions and global condemnation when it carried out its third nuclear test a year ago.

“North Korea should bear in mind that if it ignores the stern demand from the neighboring countries and the international community and carries out a nuclear test, it will have to pay a price for it,” South Korea Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tae-young said.

North Korea has struck a defiant tone despite overtures from South Korea that include generous foreign investment if the North ends its nuclear program. Pyongyang’s warnings also come as North Korean and Japanese officials are meeting for their first high-level talks in more than a year.

[NYT]

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

Japan to Turn Over Nuclear Cache to U.S.

Japan will hand over a decades-old stockpile of material large enough to build dozens of nuclear weapons in President Obama's biggest success yet in securing nuclear materials

Japan will turn over to the United States a stockpile of material large enough to build dozens of nuclear weapons, in the biggest success yet in President Barack Obama’s efforts to secure dangerous material.

On Monday, Japan will announce that it will hand over more than 700 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium and a large amount of highly-enriched uranium that is estimated at 450 pounds, the New York Times reports. American officials have been quietly pressing Japan to turn over the material, which is reportedly protected insufficiently, and the country has more than nine tons of plutonium stored at various locations throughout the country.

Some right-wing politicians in Japan see the stockpile as a deterrent, arguing that if the world knows Japan has the ability to turn nuclear material into weapons it is less likely to be attacked. Obama’s initiative has focused on securing nuclear material and pushing countries to harden their security to prevent it from falling into the hands of terrorists, and the Obama administration is hailing Japan’s decision to hand over its material as a success.

“This is the biggest commitment to remove fissile materials in the history of the summit process that President Obama launched,” Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall of the National Security Council told the Times. “It is a demonstration of Japan’s shared leadership on nonproliferation.”

[NYT]

TIME europe

Don’t Worry, Ukraine Won’t Go Nuclear

Russian troops occupy a Ukrainian military base in the Crimean town of Yevpatori, March 5, 2014.
Russian troops occupy a Ukrainian military base in the Crimean town of Yevpatori, March 5, 2014. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME

Ukraine once had a massive nuclear arsenal. But despite calls in Kiev to develop a nuclear deterrent against Vladimir Putin's Russia, the idea is far-fetched. Building a bomb would be incredibly difficult and contradicts the country's long nonproliferation record

As Russia helps itself to Crimea, some Ukrainians are wishing they had a nuclear deterrent against Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions. Ukraine had a vast nuclear arsenal once, after all, which it gave up 20 years ago.

Now the country may be second-guessing that decision—and even contemplating whether to reverse it.

“[T]here’s a strong sentiment in Ukraine that we made a big mistake,” Pavlo Rizanenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, told USA Today this week. “In the future, no matter how the situation is resolved in Crimea, we need a much stronger Ukraine. If you have nuclear weapons people don’t invade you.”

That rhetoric startled foreign policy insiders in Washington. One former Obama administration official says he can’t recall hearing a Ukrainian official publicly regret the country’s denuclearization before.

But Rizanenko’s thinking isn’t unique. “Russia would not invade a nuclear state,” the controversial former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, said in an interview with TIME last week. Saakashvili, whose own country fought a territorial dispute with Putin in 2004, lived in Ukraine for several years and maintains deep political ties there. “Ukraine could still make a bomb,” he said.

In theory, that’s true. But experts say it would be a long and contentious road. Ukraine lacks suitable nuclear material and the means to produce it. Going nuclear would also bring down harsh reprisals from both Russia and the West.

Ukraine “does not have a plausible near-term scenario for developing nuclear weapons,” says Gary Samore, the former coordinator for weapons of mass destruction on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.

“Over the long term, if they made a major national decision, they would have the capability” to develop nuclear weapons, says Matthew Bunn, a non-proliferation expert at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. But, he adds, “there would be a lot of chances for Russia and the United States to lean on them before it reached fruition.”

Obama administration officials aren’t sweating the prospect. Speaking at a nuclear security conference in Washington Tuesday, Samore’s White House successor, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, praised the Ukrainians as “important leaders in nuclear nonproliferation. … They have truly been trailblazers.”

“We fully anticipate that Ukraine will remain a leader in this field,” Sherwood-Randall added.

A Ukrainian move to reacquire nuclear weapons would reverse what may be history’s most dramatic voluntary surrender of military capability. For a brief moment after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal—some 1,900 weapons, most of them long-range cruise missiles. Three year’s after the USSR’s 1991 collapse, which left Ukraine an independent state, the country signed an agreement with the U.S., Great Britain and Russia known as the Budapest Memorandum, under which it agreed to ship the warheads on its territory to Russia for elimination.

Ukraine’s then-president Leonid Kravchuk cast the decision in idealistic terms, saying it would lead the world toward “disarmament and for the elimination of nuclear weapons.” But he also had more pragmatic motives. The move earned yielded goodwill from the U.S., which linked the surrender to help from the World Bank, the IMF and NATO . (It also meant a quick cash infusion from the sale of nuclear material—rendered unusable for bombs—from the dismantled weapons).

Members of Ukraine’s parliament protested, calling nukes a crucial shield against Russia’s territorial ambitions—which were plenty clear even then: In July 1993, Russia’s legislature had voted unanimously to confirm the “Russian federal status” of the Crimean city of Sevastopol, leading Ukraine to appeal to the United Nations.

Russia backed down. But through the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine insisted on and won assurances of respect for its sovereignty and borders. Specifically, the parties pledged to “seek immediate United Nations Security Council action… if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression.”

Little good that does now, when the aggressor is Russia—which wields veto power on the Security Council—and when Putin argues that the 1994 deal is obsolete anyway. On March 4, the Russian president described post-revolutionary Ukraine as “a new state,” one “with which we have signed no binding agreements” (never mind that Putin also calls Kiev’s new government illegitimate).

In a closed-door Capitol Hill briefing from members of Congress on Tuesday, Obama administration officials were pressed about the ominous precedent of seeing the violation of a state that relinquished nuclear arms in return for security guarantees. Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn asked assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland why the U.S. hasn’t done more to enforce the Budapest Memorandum against Putin’s Crimean annexation.

“She said it was a political treaty, not a NATO-type binding treaty, and so you make political noises and objections and that’s all you can do,” Lamborn told TIME after the briefing.

Given all that, it’s not hard to see why Ukrainians might want to revert to pre-Budapest days themselves and go nuclear again.

Easier said than done.

Ukraine does have some highly trained scientists from the former Soviet nuclear complex, including, according to Bunn, Vyacheslav Danilenko, an implosion systems designer who has been linked to Iran’s nuclear program. What it lacks is nuclear material.

That wasn’t the case just a few years ago. When Obama took office, Ukraine still had enough highly enriched uranium (HEU)—in the form of fuel for scientific research reactors—to build several nuclear weapons. But in a signature achievement of Obama’s drive to enhance global nuclear security, Kiev agreed to give up that material as well. The last of Ukraine’s HEU was shipped out of the country in March 2012—one reason Sherwood-Randall dubbed the Ukrainians nonproliferation “leaders” and “trailblazers.”

Today, Ukraine operates several civilian nuclear reactors, but lacks a reprocessing facility to enhance its reactor fuel to bomb-grade quality. The country does possess natural uranium, but not the centrifuges needed for its enrichment. “In theory, Ukraine could develop an indigenous capability to produce fissile material,” Samore says. “But it would take many years.”

Too long to save Crimea. But long enough for severe condemnation and retribution—both from a threatened and dangerous Russia and an American president who considers nuclear nonproliferation one of his most important priorities. A nuclear Ukraine isn’t impossible, but it’s almost certainly not going to happen.

-with reporting from Alex Rogers in Washington

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.

TIME Nuclear

Nuclear Fusion Just Got a Little Closer to Becoming a Reality

Fusion capsule
Nuclear fusion takes place within this tiny capsule of hydrogen Dr. Eddie Dewald

Atomic fusion could produce limitless energy—but scientists haven't been able to harness it. But a novel experiment suggests it could be achievable

When physicists first split the atom in 1938, in the process known as nuclear fission, the feat led very quickly to the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ended World War II. A mere decade or so later this destructive force had been tamed to power the first commercial nuclear power plants. In the late 1940’s, meanwhile, physicists forced atoms to combine against their will to create hydrogen bombs in what’s called nuclear fusion, and they thought they could follow up in the civilian sector. Fusion power planets, scientists predicted in the 1950’s, might be right around the corner.

That was just a tad optimistic. Controlled fusion—which amounts to taming the same awesome force that powers the Sun—has turned out to be much more difficult and more expensive than anyone guessed, and more than a half-century on nobody’s achieved it. Yet as a new paper just published in Nature makes clear, they haven’t given up. By focusing 192 powerful lasers on a tiny sphere encasing 170 millionths of a gram of hydrogen, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory forced atomic nuclei to combine, releasing a whopping 17 kilojoules of energy. “It is not surprising,” writes physicist Mark Herrmann of Sandia National Laboratories in an accompanying Nature commentary, “that fusion scientists throughout the world are cheering.”

(MORE: Europe-based Fusion Project Draws Heat Over Funding)

This might sound a bit over the top when you consider how little hydrogen was involved, and how little power it actually released: 17 kilojoules represents the amount of solar energy that falls on a sq. yard (0.83 sq. m) of Earth (more or less) in full daylight over 17 seconds—and this fusion reaction lasted more like .0000000001 second.

“It sounds very modest,” admitted lead scientist Omar Hurricane at a press briefing. “And it is. But it’s closer than anyone’s ever gotten to ignition”—that is, the self-sustaining process where the fusion reaction can keep going on its own.

The reaction itself is simple: atomic nuclei carry a positive charge, so they try to repel each other. If you can overcome that repulsion and let them crash together and fuse, they release a burst of energy. And the way you do that, says Hurricane, is “you get them running toward each other at high velocity.”

Inside the Sun, that’s no problem. That high velocity comes from the 27-million-degree temperatures at the Sun’s core, which keep nuclei moving with enormous energy. Under other circumstances, most of the nuclei would just escape without colliding. But the enormous pressures created by the Sun’s gravity keep them confined indefinitely. Sooner or later, they crash.

(MORE: Going to Mars via Fusion Power? Could Be)

It’s no problem in an H-bomb either: hydrogen fuel is heated and compressed by an old-fashioned atomic bomb. The compression doesn’t last long, but the energy released in a fraction of a second is hundreds of times more powerful than an A-bomb. For a self-sustaining fusion reaction, you somehow need to get hydrogen very hot and keep it from escaping. That’s the tough part. One technique traps a gas of hydrogen atoms in a magnetic “bottle,” then heats the gas to millions of degrees with high-energy radio waves.

But the Livermore scientists have long focused on another method, known as inertial fusion. They bombard a spherical capsule of hydrogen with lasers from all directions, vaporizing the container itself and driving the hydrogen inward. “We need to compress the capsule by a factor of 35,” says Livermore physicist and co-author Debbie Callahan. The capsule itself is a fraction of an inch across, but the compression, she says, “is equivalent to compressing a basketball to the size of a pea.”

When that happens, the temperature shoots sky-high, the pressure reaches 150 billion times atmospheric pressure on Earth, and the hydrogen—more precisely, it’s a mixture of deuterium and tritium, which are heavier varieties of hydrogen—begins to fuse. “It’s quite ferocious,” says Hurricane.

It will have to get a lot more ferocious to deliver usable power, which would presumably come from blasting one capsule after another in unbroken succession. How long it will take to make a commercial reactor, says Hurricane, “is anybody’s guess. We’re working like mad, but this is research—it’s not a power plant, not a reactor.”

The same can be said for the magnetic confinement technique, whose most advanced experiment, the Joint European Torus (JET), briefly produced 16 megawatts of fusion energy back in 1997. That reaction wasn’t self-sustaining either, and the technical barriers to making this kind of fusion work are no less daunting than those the Livermore scientists face.

But don’t tell the scientists that. “We’ve waited 60 years to get close to controlled fusion, and we are now close in both magnetic and inertial,” says Steven Cowley, director of the Culham Center for Nuclear Energy, in England, where JET is located. “We must keep at it.”

(MORE: Nuclear Energy Is Largely Safe. But Can It Be Cheap?)

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