The Complex

Heads Roll at Air Force Nuke Base Following Cheating Scandal

The Air Force has removed nine leaders in the service's nuclear force and watched a tenth officer resign after a broad and embarrassing cheating scandal that exposed systemic problems in the organization that handles the United States' arsenal of nuclear missiles. The shakeup, announced Thursday by top service officials, amounts to an unprecedented overhaul of those in leadership at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, where an investigation found that dozens of officers cheated on monthly proficiency tests.

The officers who have been fired from their posts at Malmstrom include Col. Mark Schuler, who commanded the 341st Operations Group at Malmstrom that administered the test on which dozens of Air Force missileers were caught cheating. Col. Rob Stanley, Malmstrom's top commander, was allowed to resign his post as commander of the 341st Missile Wing and will retire as a colonel. He had been selected for a advancement to brigadier general, but will not be promoted. Schuler and eight other officers were removed from their positions due to a lack of confidence in their ability to lead, effectively eliminating the bulk of Malmstrom's senior leadership.

"None of these leaders were directly involved in a test compromise, but the command-directed investigation indicated that they failed to provide adequate oversight of their crew force," Air Force Secretary Deborah James told reporters at the Pentagon.

Air Force officials first acknowledged the cheating in January, saying that at least 34 of the estimated 190 nuclear officers at Malmstrom either cheated on a monthly launch officer proficiency test, or knew colleagues who did and did nothing. The investigation was spurred by authorities probing undetermined drug use by three missileers at Malmstrom, and discovering test material on their personal cell phones that suggested cheating was likely.

That in itself amounted to a striking admission for a force that has historically prided itself on a zero-defects culture. The reality was even worse, however. Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson of the Air Force's Global Strike Command said Thursday that the investigation discovered potential cheating going back as far as November 2011, and as recently as November 2013. The number of individuals investigated now stands at 100, the general said. On the most serious side, at least eight officers face allegations of illegally handling classified material - the test answers - and three still face drug charges, he said.

Of the 100 ensnared by the probe, nine have been cleared, and will be retrained and allowed to return to duty. Depending on their level of involvement, those facing allegations could face punishment ranging from letters of counseling in their career file to courts-martial. A breakdown provided by the Air Force on Thursday shows that 31 are accused of receiving test materials; 17 are accused of soliciting, sending and receiving test materials; 13 are accused of sending and receiving test materials. Only five are accused of the smallest allegations -- being aware of the cheating and saying nothing about it.

The other officers removed from their jobs include the commanders of the 10th, 12th and 490th missile squadrons, the commander of the 341st Operational Support Squadron, the deputy commander of the 341st Operations Group, and the director of operations from the 341st Operational Support Squadron and the 10th Missile Squadron. The operations group's standardization and evaluation officer also was removed. Stanley already has been replaced by Col. Tom Wilcox, a career nuclear security forces officer.

James, who has traveled the country since January to meet with missileers, said it will take a while to improve all of the issues the nuclear force is facing. The service is examining ways to fund renovation projects and potential financial incentives to make working in the field more appealing.

"The issues that we have before us today are tough, and they didn't come over night. They have been years in the making," James said. "They're not going to get solved overnight. While we have made progress in certain areas in recent years, there is more work to be done."

Stanley told airmen at Malmstrom in a letter that if his decision to resign and retire influences "just one airman to stand up for what's right the next time they are confronted by immorality, it will have been worth every tear and sleepless night.

"I represent this wing to the world, and we let the American people down on my watch," he said in his letter, first published on Thursday by the Great Falls Tribune in Montana. "With that realization, and the genuine hope that my action will stir even the most apathetic hearts to action, I have decided to volunteer my resignation from this post effective immediately."

Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder / U.S. Air Force

The Complex

Pentagon’s Growing Fleet of Underwater Drones Could Find Missing Airline

Read the word "drone," and you immediately think of unmanned aircraft flying through the skies above countries like Pakistan and Yemen. Some of the Pentagon's newest drones, though, swim underwater like robotic submarines -- and they may hold the key to finding missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

The Pentagon is sending a 17-foot-long drone submarine that can descend to 14,700 feet and scour the ocean floor with high-tech sonar equipment and cameras to Australia to help search the Indian Ocean for wreckage from the doomed flight. But the drone, which looks like a yellow torpedo and is known as the Bluefin-21, is far from the Pentagon's only option for the search. The U.S. military has a growing array of robots, drones and other gadgetry that could help if called upon, and the Pentagon is investing even more money underseas in the future.

The current fleet includes a 6,400-pound underwater craft (pictured above) that allows the Navy to dissect undersea wreckage. It's known in military-speak as the CURV-21, short for cable-controlled undersea recovery vehicle. The eight-foot long, five-foot wide craft is equipped with sonar, and uses seven hand-like manipulators to pick through salvage while recording images on a high-resolution digital still camera and several television cameras, Navy officials said. It can operate up to 20,000 feet under water.

Christopher Johnson, a Navy spokesman, said its Office of Salvage and Diving has used "various types of remotely operated or autonomous vehicles" to help recover black boxes and other key components from downed commercial aircraft.

The CURV, for instance, has an array of smaller cousins like the Deep Drone 8000 and the Magnum Remotely Operated Vehicle. The Deep Drone weighs 4,100 pounds, and can descend up to 8,000 feet deep. Like the CURV, it is equipped with sonar technology and has manipulators that can lift and move pieces of wreckage. It also is equipped with sonar sensors and cameras, and operated remotely. The Magnum is even smaller, weighing about 3,500 pounds. It is encased by a cage that protects it from debris when operating in strong currents, and deployed using an armored cable from the side of a ship. Once the vehicle is close to its target, it is released from the cage with a 600-foot cable made of Kevlar, the same material used in bullet-proof vests and many combat helmets.

A new generation of underwater vehicles is under development by the Pentagon, too. In one novel example, the Office of Naval Research is examining "GhostSwimmer" technology developed by Boston Engineering in Massachusetts. The program envisions a fleet of underwater drones that resemble fish, mimicking the motion of a tuna and cutting down on drag. It isn't clear when aspects of the design could be incorporated into the Navy's fleet of underwater surveillance drones, but the Pentagon awarded the company a $1.5 million grant in 2008.

Researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, are also busy developing new drones, including a "Hydra" program that will include an underwater truck capable of carrying both drone submarines and unmanned aircraft. The vehicles would be used for a variety of missions, including surveillance and countering enemy mines at sea, and small enough for the Navy to drop them off using existing ships, aircraft or submarines. DARPA plans to spend about $29.9 million on Hydra in fiscal 2015, up from $14.9 million this fiscal year, according to DARPA budget documents. There is no timeline on when the vehicles could be fielded, but DARPA held a "proposers' day" for the program on Aug. 5 at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

DARPA also is developing a small underwater vehicle designed to operate in the shallow waters off coastlines as both a drone and with a small crew of sailors on board. It's known as the Unmanned/Minimally-manned Underwater Vehicle, or UMUV. The program appears to be even earlier in development than Hydra. It received $2 million in funding in fiscal 2013, but no additional money this year. Still, the program remains on DARPA's books.

The Navy, for its part, is interested in new technology under development by DARPA that can help detect enemy diesel-electric submarines using a series of underwater surveillance. The program would rely on a network of underwater satellites, known as subullites, and use sonar and other forms of detection. The program is known as Distributed Agile Submarine Hunting, or DASH for short. It, too, is early in development, with no fielding timeline set.

The Bluefin submarine sent to Perth, Australia, to assist in the hunt for Flight 370 is operated by Phoenix International Holdings Inc., of Largo, Md., which collaborates with the Navy on many salvage operations. The company also owns a "black box locator" that is towed behind a vessel to listen for acoustic "pings" coming from beacons mounted on a downed aircraft's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.

In the last five years, Phoenix has participated in 95 search-and-recovery projects with the U.S. government, many of them involving underwater drones. In one example, the Navy collaborated with Phoenix to recover a U.S. Air Force F-16C fighter jet that crashed in the northern Pacific Ocean on July 22, 2012, after the pilot safely ejected while traveling from Japan to Alaska. The Navy sent Phoenix personnel along with a CURV-21 drone and a high-tech Navy sonar system known as Orion from the company's headquarters in Maryland to Hawaii, where it was loaded on board the USNS Navajo, a tugboat. Searchers spent 10 days traveling to the crash site, and another 10 recovering items needed by accident investigators, company officials said. Even then, Air Force officials said it was difficult to reconstruct what happened because the plane's data recorder was crushed by water pressure.

U.S. Navy photo