February 13, 2014 11:06 AM EST

For more than 50 years, Americans have relied on the nuclear triad to guarantee their strategic safety. Fourteen Ohio-class submarines carry dozens of missiles on untraceable deterrent patrols in the world’s oceans. Sixty B-2 and B-52 bombers are on alert for missions around the globe. But it turns out that the third leg of the triad–the weapons we put atop missiles and then hide in the ground in the U.S.–may be the most unreliable of all the doomsday devices.

Unreliable, that is, if you measure by the personnel who man the missiles. On Jan. 30, the Air Force said 92 of the nearly 200 airmen operating intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base are believed to have cheated or tolerated cheating on monthly proficiency tests by using cell phones to share answers. Former missileers, as they are called, say such cheating is widespread and has gone on for years.

The cheating scandal is only the latest evidence of trouble at the heart of the U.S. ICBM force. The Air Force is investigating three Minuteman airmen, two of whom also are suspected of cheating, for suspected drug use. Missileers have repeatedly left their capsules’ multiton blast doors open, violating regulations designed to prevent unauthorized entry. The Pentagon sacked two top nuclear officers last year for public drunkenness and gambling with counterfeit chips. “We know,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, “that something is wrong.”

But what? The mission, for starters, has faded. “We mattered under Strategic Air Command,” says retired missile colonel Dana Struckman, referring to the glory days of General Curtis LeMay, who forged SAC into a proud war-fighting command in the 1950s. (The Pentagon scrapped SAC in 1992, but its triad survives.) “The Cold War was still on, and we had a sense of purpose that I don’t think they have today.”

The first sign of trouble in the nuclear force came a decade ago, outside the bunker, when Air Force weapon handlers mistakenly put six nuclear missiles on a B-52 flight from North Dakota to Louisiana without anyone noticing. “The loss of half a dozen thermonuclear warheads for a day and a half was a wake-up call,” says Eric Schlosser, author of 2013’s Command and Control, a troubling account of U.S. atomic-weapon mishaps. “But the message clearly wasn’t heard.”

After the B-52 incident, the service toughened its detailed, highly technical tests on launch codes, the siloed missiles and emergency war orders. “Even though the subject matter hadn’t changed in 50 years,” says an Air Force officer who left in 2011, “they kept on cranking up the difficulty of the tests to prove they were making the force better.” As difficulty rose, so did cheating. Early test takers would share a list of answers with later ones, some of whom would tuck it into flight-suit pockets and discreetly refer to it during the test.

While 90% was a passing grade, only those scoring 100% were likely to be promoted. Waiting on never-to-be-issued orders in a bunker up to 10 stories underground wasn’t bad duty in the Cold War. But in the era of asymmetrical wars that we live in now, it’s a ticket to nowhere. So the only way up and out was to be perfect on the tests. “I felt guilty about it, because my four years at the [Air Force] academy taught me that was wrong,” says the former officer, who like most other ex-missileers would speak only anonymously because of their current jobs, in and out of government. “But after a while, my friends and I joined with the herd in helping each other out.”

The service says it doesn’t know yet if cheating has taken place at its two other bases in Wyoming and North Dakota. But former launch-control officers say the practice is rampant. “Everything that’s been happening up at Malmstrom is completely unsurprising to me,” says Tim Cerniglia, who served on an MX Peacekeeper crew in 1997–99 and says he remains friends with current missileers. “The cheating goes on everywhere–they just got caught.”

The logic is simple: airmen who fail can’t man the missiles. When that happens, others have to work overtime. “If you get decertified, everyone else is pulling more alerts,” Cerniglia says. “You do what it takes to make sure that doesn’t happen.” Lieut. General Stephen Wilson, chief of the Air Force’s Global Strike Command, confirmed that on Jan. 30, saying the noncheating airmen at Malmstrom are now pulling 10 24-hour alerts a month, a 25% increase, since their cheating colleagues were caught.

The nearly 600 airmen (and women) overseeing the missiles tend to be young lieutenants and captains. Once the blast doors close, uniforms are swapped for sweats and pajamas. (death wears Bunny Slippers is a popular ICBMer patch.) One crew member at a time is allowed to sleep. The other can amuse himself with a 15-in. satellite television screen and a computer keyboard and monitor, or snack on burgers, Tater Tots and other comfort foods from their topside kitchen. Study and movies help the hours pass between drills, when airmen are strapped into their seats to help them ride out nearby nuclear blasts. Sewage backups–as unpleasant as they sound–have been a recurring problem.

It isn’t easy to find people who want to spend their days in a hole in the ground, particularly when it means moving to remote bases in the northern Great Plains. “Given the day-to-day requirements of executing the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, many interviewees told us that the nuclear mission was placed on autopilot by the Air Force,” a 2012 Air Force report found. Commanders routinely told nuclear airmen that they were in a “sunset business” and “were not contributing to the fight that mattered.” A second Pentagon study noted that most airmen manning ICBMs “were not volunteers for missile duty.”

Today’s arsenal is far smaller than 1990’s peak of 2,440 warheads on 1,000 rockets. Some even say the ICBMs are an unnecessary relic of the Cold War. “The mission is obsolete,” says Bruce Blair, a missileer 40 years ago who now works for nuclear disarmament at Princeton University. Sending young officers underground, he says, doesn’t make sense when there’s no enemy to threaten with their nuclear weapons. “No amount of skull cracking is going to brainwash the crews to think and act otherwise,” he adds.

Hagel has tapped two retired senior officers to study what one ICBM commander calls the “rot” inside the force and propose ways to remedy the problems. The Air Force fears losing its ICBMs, but Congress is unlikely to take them away, even as the Obama Administration weighs additional cuts in the nation’s ICBM force to comply with a 2011 arms-control pact with Russia. Whether by neglect or agreement, the once sturdy triad is starting to look lopsided.

This appears in the February 24, 2014 issue of TIME.

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