Friday, May 25, 2012

Remembering Our Fallen; Memorial Day 2012

There is no such thing as a casualty-free war; and fortunately for the America, there are a select few who accept the most austere conditions in believing our country is worth defending. Today's the day we remember those who died for their beliefs.

Writing for Leatherneck and Gazette I’ve been fortunate to meet hundreds Marines in Helmand and Anbar; motivated and determined young men and women, and I’m honored to record the efforts of Marines and Navy Corpsmen who volunteer to go into harm’s way. It's all OOH-RAH and exciting-until that final firefight.

Two years ago I was in Afghanistan, flying from Camp Leatherneck to Kandahar. It was a cargo flight that had been suddenly designated a “Dignified Transfer Flight,” which is Pentagon-ese for bringing home the body of one of our young men killed in action.

The plane was virtually empty; two passengers and me, the small Air Force crew, and covered by an American flag, the body of a serviceman killed that morning by an IED in Helmand Province. The military’s goal is to bring our dead back home within 48 hours, and this was the first leg of such a journey.

I didn’t know him personally, but after 14 embeds, I’ve met hundreds of young men like him; under 25, proud of his unit, usually a couple of tattoo’s, enthusiastic, friendly, will share his last bottle of water, and wants me to tell the American public that ‘we’re doing some good things here.”

Usually flights into Kandahar are lively as the troops are listening to their IPods or trying to talk. But not that day; the only sound was that of the plane’s engines as most of our group had their heads down and I watched one of the Air Force crew adjust the flag draping the young man.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the flag. Unlike 99% of those who cover the war, I’m not a disinterested observer; my son is an active-duty Marine with multiple combat deployments to his credit. I know too many in this age group not to be affected by this young man’s sad trip home and I imagined my son or one of his friends coming home the same way. How would I react I wondered (as do many of us parents of deployed sons and daughters) if they came and knocked on my front door?

After we landed, our plane came to a halt in a corner of the airfield, away from the usual bustle of troops, contractors, and cargo, and the rear of the plane opened to reveal a small honor guard assembled to ready him for his final flight home. As we prepared to walk off the plane through the forward hatch, a Marine Chief Warrant Officer and I lagged behind to pay our respects; the Gunner removing his Kevlar and bowing his head, and me, a non-practicing Roman Catholic, offering a sign of the cross before the crew gently pushed us to depart.

I wanted to stay and watch the ceremony, but with one of the crew shaking his head, I grabbed my bag and hurried to catch up to our group. Walking to the terminal all I could think about was how fiercely proud I hope his family is of him. Oh young man, you’ll be missed.

Many will be missed, and that’s what Memorial Day is all about.

Unlike the young man above, I knew HN3 Chris “Doc” Anderson: I met Doc in Ramadi in October 2006. We were out in OP VA and Doc was amazed that someone ‘even older than his dad’ as he gently put it, would be accompanying him and the Marines on daily patrols. He and I got to be good friends; after the debriefs he’d talk about his dad who ran a commercial real estate business, and while he liked medicine and being a corpsman, maybe he’d go back and work with his dad? Great conversations; he was full of life and enthusiasm.

In December I learned that he’d been killed; while treating one wounded Marine, another mortar round hit close by, killing Doc who had thrown himself over the Marine in order to protect him.

Then a few weeks later, maybe midnight, my phone rang; Hi, I’m Jim; Doc’s dad" the voice said, “I found your card in my son’s personal effects, and was hoping you could tell me about your time with him?"

I asked if I could call him back; I needed to think about what I was going to say.

It was a long call. I told him of his son’s pride in him, and how he was undecided over a career of medicine or real estate. I told him how he looked after the Marines both while on patrol and back at the PB, as well as how he’d made me his special project. While nothing I could ever say would relieve the pain of his oldest son’s death, I tried to reassure him that Doc’s last weeks were as productive and fulfilling as ever in his life.

That’s the spirit of Memorial Day; it’s the remembrance of those who didn’t come back alive, and a celebration of the esprit-de-corps and how they lived their lives.

God bless the United States and thank you for those who stand watch over us tonight.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Yemen the Model

                                         A Marine trains a Ugandan soldier. (U.S. Mission Uganda photo.)
“Any future defense secretary who advises the President to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined” as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”- Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
“Compounding the stress on the force is the reality that the demand for SOF [Special Operations Forces] continues to exceed supply.” - ADM William McRaven

The above quotes are illustrations of two trends that should act as left and right lateral limit markers for Marines as we plan for our future missions. The first illustrates the sense that, after long, expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, future U.S. leaders will be reluctant to commit to taking and hold ground from rogue governments. The second shows that, due to the proliferation and increasing capabilities of irregular threats around the globe since the end of the cold war, special operations forces will be engaged beyond their capabilities. As conventional ground forces draw down from Afghanistan by 2014, SOF forces will be in even higher demand. These trends will converge at a point where SOF forces will have to be augmented by other military assets. The best option to augment SOF forces in the persistent, low level conflicts that the U.S. will face is, of course, to send in the Marines. Fortunately, this is not a complete departure from how we operate as a Marine Corps. As Dan Trombly has pointed out, shifts in U.S. strategy are in actuality a return to the “small wars” era of Marine and Navy history.

So how will these modern day “small wars” look? Well, they’ll look an awful lot like what we’re doing in Yemen.  Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondent for the Nation, recently described U.S. efforts in Yemen in an interview on NPR.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The "Dear Boss" Saga

The Air Force has a storied tradition called the "Dear Boss" letter. While there may have been previous iterations, and certainly the feeling was out there before, the "Dear Boss" letter as it is known started with a letter penned by then-Captain Ron Keys in 1973 to General Wilbur Creech, Tactical Air Command commander. The below is just a snippet of the opening of his missive.

"Dear Boss,
Well, I quit. I’ve finally run out of drive or devotion or rationalizations or whatever it was that kept me in the Air Force this long. I used to believe in, “Why not the best,” but I can’t keep the faith any longer. I used to fervently maintain that this was “My Air Force,” as much or more than any senior officer’s…but I can’t believe any more; the light at the end of my tunnel went out. “Why?” you ask. Why leave flying fighters and a promising career? Funny you should ask— mainly I’m resigning because I’m tired. Ten years and 2,000 hours in a great fighter, and all the time I’ve been doing more with less—and I’m tired of it. CBPO [Central Base Personnel Office] doesn’t do more with less; they cut hours. ...

"I’m too tired, not of the job, just the Air Force. Tired of the extremely poor leadership and motivational ability of our senior staffers and commanders. (All those Masters and PMEs [professional military educators] and not a leadership trait in sight!) Once you get past your squadron CO [Commanding Officer], people can’t even pronounce esprit de corps.

The rest of the letter can be found here. The letter could have been written today, judging from recent discussion. As a matter of fact, the letter has come back, purposefully copied numerous times including in 1997 and 2009. And if you delete the Air Force-specific references, the same has been cited in all of the services.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

ASB. Easy as 1,2,3

Although the final form of the concept is still in draft form and thus unavailable to the public at large, AirSea Battle is already a juggernaut of a military concept. The planned shift in DoD focus to Pacific Command certainly demands a reassessment of naval and aerial operations, but the major impetus for the development of a Navy and Air Force concept of operations is the proliferation of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) capabilities among our possible enemies.

A2/AD may have a fancy acronym, but it is not much more than a well planned, large scale defensive position. It seems new because missiles can pack enough of a punch and are accurate enough to destroy a ship at sea. This is nothing new, it has just been forgotten that there used to be something called “coastal artillery” that could block access and deny areas to ships in littoral regions. Coastal artillery was integral to the Confederate isolation of Fort Sumter in the opening days of the Civil War and Turkish control of the Dardanelles during World War I, for example. The clearest explanation of A2/AD comes from the HQMC AirSeaBattle Office.
In the aftermath of DESERT STORM, it was apparent to many potential adversaries that it would be inadvisable to oppose the U.S. in a force-on-force conflict, and they explored how to disrupt U.S. power projection through means designed to complicate both movement to and maneuver within an area of mutual interest. These two elements of an adversary's comprehensive warfare strategy are referred to as "anti-access" and "area denial" or "A2/AD".
In other words, our enemies intend to execute a well-planned defensive operation on key terrain using all of the tools at their disposal. Those have been around for a while.
"Don't worry, lads. It's 1944. A2/AD hasn't been invented yet. Easy day. Let's do this." SGT Leeroy Jenkins

So, what do we do now? Enter AirSea Battle. According to the same ASB office, the concept includes:

         The Air-Sea Battle Concept centers on networked, integrated, attack-in-depth to disrupt, destroy and defeat (NIA-D3) A2/AD threats.

"We're going to attack the bad guys far away from us and the bad guys close to us and we're going to talk to each other while we do it."

 Offensive and defensive tasks in Air-Sea Battle are tightly coordinated in real time by networks able to command and control air and naval forces in a contested environment. The air and naval forces are organized by mission and networked to conduct integrated operations across all domains.

"But we're not just going to do it willy-nilly. We're going to do it together as a team even though we'll all be doing the mission we're best suited to accomplish. The contested part just means that the enemy will fight back. That happens sometimes."

The concept organizes these integrated tasks into three lines of effort, wherein air and naval forces attack-in-depth to disrupt the adversary's intelligence collection and command and control used to employ A2/AD weapons systems; destroy or neutralize A2/AD weapons systems within effective range of U.S. forces; and defeat an adversary's employed weapons to preserve essential U.S. Joint forces and their enablers.
 "Oh and we're not going to just attack just anyone. We're going to attack important stuff and stuff that can threaten us."