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Editorial: U.S. needs reliable fingers on nuclear triggers

A mockup of a Minuteman 3 nuclear missile

A mockup of a Minuteman 3 nuclear missile used for training by missile maintenance crews at F. E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. Credit: AP / Robert Burns

What's up with the people entrusted to launch the nation's nuclear weapons? Cheating, drugs, safety violations and a drunk, cavorting commander do not inspire confidence that the world's deadliest arsenal is in good hands.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James insists the system is safe. It likely is since there must be launch protocols in place that make it impossible for one person to trigger a catastrophe. But given the long list of incidents, it's clear there are serious problems to be addressed.

Ninety-two Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile launch officers were suspended and decertified this month. They were suspected of cheating on proficiency tests by sharing answers via texts. That's about half of the missileers at the Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, one of the nation's three nuclear bases. It doesn't help that the cheating came to light during a probe of drug possession implicating three missileers.

Then there's Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, who was commander of the Air Force's arsenal of 450 nuclear armed ICBMs in July when he got drunk repeatedly on an official trip to Moscow, insulted his Russian hosts and hung out with women he met in a bar whose overt friendliness toward a commander with nuclear secrets made some of his colleagues suspicious. He was removed from the job in October.

And in May, the Air Force announced it had stripped 17 officers at a base in North Dakota of authority to launch nuclear-tipped Minutemen missiles. It cited safety violations.

Military officials blame low morale after the Cold War. With counterterrorism getting greater focus, nuclear-weapons duty is no longer prestigious. And emphasis on proficiency tests may have led officers to cheat -- not to pass, but to get perfect scores, in the belief that anything less would block promotions. The Air Force commander vowed to deliver a plan in March to address the problems. A good start would be guaranteeing that drugged cheaters will never have their fingers on nuclear triggers.