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Cheating Scandals at the Navy and Air Force bring Integrity into Question

Ethics Failures can be attributed to the Culture of the Military Services

Last Tuesday the U.S. Navy said it had begun an investigation into whether senior enlisted sailors training on nuclear reactors had been cheating on written tests, adding to the list of recent military cheating scandals.

Admiral John M. Richardson, the director of the Navy’s nuclear propulsion programs, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference that the exams the sailors are alleged to have cheated on included classified information. Standing next to him at the same lectern occupied in recent weeks by “disappointed” Air Force officials discussing their own cheating scandals, Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, the Navy’s top officer, expressed his own “disappointment” with what he called a lapse of integrity among the sailors. A Navy official said that 30 had been suspended, and that the number could change as the investigation progresses.

During the past three weeks, top military officials characterized cheating scandals as failures of integrity instead of failures in the entire nuclear force. Well that doesn’t make me feel much better since a failure of integrity could mean other areas of operations have been compromised. Both the Air Force and Navy should be put on notice that the public will not tolerate such behavior.

This is no laughing matter. We always knew our nuclear capabilities might be challenged by terrorists but to think it may, someday, be compromised by Air Force and Naval officers is nothing short of a failure of leadership at both of these branches of service. Unethical behavior in one area often begets unethical practices in another.

The Air Force, for its part, has suspended 92 officers at Malmstrom Air Base, nearly half of the base’s nuclear launch crew, and acknowledged a “systemic problem” among the culture of the entire force of men and women entrusted with the authority to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles.

But both current and former Air Force missile launch officers say that cheating has been a fact of life among America’s nuclear launch officers for decades. And Deborah Lee James, the Air Force secretary, said last week that during recent visits to missile launch bases, crew members, while not admitting to cheating, told her they felt intense pressure to score 100 percent, adding that their commanding officers would not promote them with less than perfect test scores.

Pressure to achieve desired results has been the cause of business frauds in the past, as exemplified by companies such as Enron and WorldCom. However, for such pressure for performance to exist in our military services is unacceptable. The officers that allowed this to happen should be fired.

The ironic part of the cheating scandals is that if you look at the ethics standards and values of each branch of service, you would think both of them are 110% committed to ethical behavior. The ‘Navy Ethical Compass’ leans on integrity as the basic value that should guide the action of all Navy personnel. It addresses the Navy’s “Leadership Commitment to Ethical Conduct”:

“It is essential that all Department of the Navy personnel adhere to the highest standards of integrity and ethical conduct. The American people put their trust in us and none of us can betray that trust.”

As for the Air Force, it addresses the ethical standards that underlie the behavior of its personnel through a set of core values, the first of which is Integrity. Here is what is expected of Air Force personnel.

"Integrity is addressed as a character trait. It is the willingness to do what is right even when no one is looking. It is the moral compass, the inner voice, the voice of self-control and the basis for the trust imperative in today's military. Integrity is the ability to hold together and properly regulate all of the elements of a personality. A person of integrity, for example, is capable of acting on conviction. A person of integrity can control impulses and appetites. But integrity also covers several other moral traits indispensable to national service.” These include courage, honesty, responsibility, accountability, justice, openness, self-respect, and humility.

When I consider the ethical standards of the Navy and Air Force, especially the latter, I am impressed by the ethical tone of the statements. However, the lesson to be learned is that a set of core values on a piece of paper is meaningless unless those at the top instill these character traits in everything that is done and everyone who participates.

An ethical tone at the top is probably what is missing at both services. Evidence of these failing was identified in June 2012 when the Air Force identified at least 31 women as victims in a growing sex scandal. The Air Force took the unprecedented step of shutting down all recruit training for one day to give a written survey to all basic military trainees at Lackland Air Force base.

In November 2013, charges were made in a widening scandal involving a Malaysian defense contractor who allegedly bribed naval officers with prostitutes and showered them with gifts to steer business his way. The crimes and unethical behavior tarred high-ranking officials including a three-star admiral and his two-star subordinates that had access to classified information and that were suspended for their suspected connection to Leonard Francis, the chief of Glenn Defense Marine Asia.

As a society we have become accustomed to scandals in Congress and virtually all walks of life. But, to find out it has infected our Armed Forces is shocking as one purpose of joining and being trained in the military, as the Army slogan used to say, ‘Be all that you can be.’ Honorable behavior should be above all else. Let’s hope this doesn’t turn into a philosophy of “do anything you want to do.’

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 11, 2014

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