Professionalism/Cheating Scandal at Malmstrom Air Force Base

Malstrom Air Force Base


In August and September of 2013, 40 of 190 nuclear officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base cheated on their certification exam and 52 other officers knew about the cheating and did not report it. [1] Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh said the officers "electronically shared the answers to monthly missile launch officer proficiency tests."[2]

General Mark A. Welsh III

The Air Force found both the cheaters and those who knew about the cheating equally at fault due to the expectation that officers follow the Air Force Honor Code: We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. [3] After a full investigation of the scandal by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI), 14 officers received Article 15s, consisting of reprimands and forfeiture of pay, 70 officers received permanent files of reprimand, and 9 officers in the leadership chain of command were relieved of command. [4]

Pressures on the CheatersEdit

The set-up of the Malmstrom nuclear training program placed great pressure on the crew members to cheat on these monthly exams. Any mistakes when handling nuclear bombs can lead to catastrophic disasters. For this reason, perfection was the standard at Malmstrom as the senior officers frequently emphasized their desire for an unrealistic zero-defect environment. This put pressure on the crew members to get one hundred percent on their monthly exams. The test score results, rather than field work ethic, determined which crew members were promoted. This discouraged the crew members from working together toward a common goal, and rather forced many to focus on their individual test scores.

The only members who were not on their first assignment at Malmstrom were the senior officers. This created a huge divide between the crew members and the senior officers and created an “us versus them” mentality. The senior officers took the exam in group settings. Many crew members thought this was unfair. Young crew members also proctored the exams of their peers because the senior officers thought they would be a disturbance in the room. The proctors were allowed to give exam takers hints and senior officers gave some crew members who completed extra tedious work a perfect exam score. These factors may have blurred the line between cheating and help. Furthermore, the near-continuous monthly evaluations may have led crew members to believe that constant reevaluation of the same knowledge was unnecessary and repetitive. [5]

Pressures on the BystandersEdit

52 crew members knew about the cheating, but did not partake. A major reason none of these crew members reported the cheating to senior officers may have been the us-versus-them mentality that existed at Malmstrom between the crew members and the senior officers.[5] All of the test takers, including the officers who knew about the cheating, were approximately the same age and rank, and would have to tell older, higher-ranking officers about the cheating going on among their peers. Deborah Lee James, the secretary of the Air Force, agrees that the "testing and training environment was unhealthy" and may have been a key factor in why cheating occurred and the bystanders having trouble reporting it "if it's amongst your peers." [2]

Decision BiasesEdit

A key problem with this scandal was poor decision making and a lack of action from men and women who are trained to be critical thinkers. What could have caused such a large group to have such a lapse in judgement? It is possible that the officers involved in the cheating scandal may have been affected by common psychological traps and biases that negatively affect decision making skills.

For the officers who were not cheating, but allowed it to continue, a Status Quo Bias or Bystander Effect may have contributed to their lack of action. The Status Quo Bias is a contention that “individuals disproportionately stick with the status quo” instead of making a decision unaffected by what others are doing, supported by “a series of decision-making experiments” done by numerous psychologists. [6] Similarly, the bystander effect “occurs when the presence of others hinders an individual from intervening.” [7] Both of these effects may have kept officers who knew the cheating was wrong and disapproved of it from speaking out and reporting it.


For the Air Force Honor Code to be successful, all followers must have autonomy. Autonomy has several definitions.

If autonomy is defined as the right or condition of a group to be self-governed, than it is unclear whether the crew members had autonomy.[8] On the one hand, the crew members proctored each other on the exams and were able to give hints to one another. On the other hand, pressures from the Malmstrom culture such as the zero-defect environment, the promotions based on test scores and the us-versus-them mentality may have "governed" the crew members to do anything they could to get a perfect score on the tests. The senior officers set these pressures in place, so they may be at fault for the failure of the honor code.

Another definition of autonomy is the capacity of an individual to act in accordance with objective morality rather than under the influence of desires. [8] Unlike the previous definition that defined autonomy for a group, this definition focuses on the individual. The cheaters and bystanders at Malmstrom clearly did not act with autonomy as defined for individuals. Perhaps the cheaters are to blame because under the honor code they are expected to act in accordance with their morals. Their desires that the pressures created should not have interfered with the crew members’ autonomy.


The officers who participated in the cheating and those who failed to report them may have acted differently in a better situated environment. Although the Air Force attempted to give the workers autonomy, the crew members' setting led to an environment that made independent decision making difficult. The Air Force and any other group of professionals could learn from this scandal that a successful work environment allows for worker autonomy while also providing an adequate amount of oversight. The balance may be delicate. This scandal also shows that any group can become susceptible to decision making traps and biases when put in certain circumstances. Although these officers have sworn an oath to keep their integrity, they were caught cheating and tolerating, possibly because of avoidable biases due to a negative work environment.


  1. Chuck, E., Kube, C., & Miklaszewski, J. (2014, January). 92 nuclear missile officers implicated in cheating scandal, Air Force says. NBC News.
  2. a b Department of Defense (2014). Department of Defense Press Briefing on the Status of Air Force Investigations into Allegations of Illegal Drug Possession from the Pentagon Tanscript.
  3. Air Force Academy. (2015, May). Air Force Honor Code.
  4. Rowell, J. (2014). Air Force releases info on Malmstrom cheating punishments. Great Falls Tribune.
  5. a b Holmes, J. (2014, Feb). Report of Commander-Directed Investigation Concerning ICBM Test Compromise At Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.
  6. Samuelson, W., Zeckhauser, R. (1988). Status quo bias in decision making. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty.
  7. Physcology Today. (2015). Bystander Effect.
  8. a b Oxford Dictionary (2015). Autonomy Definition.