Archive for December, 2018

Memories of my youth: New Years in VietNam

December 31, 2018

Fifty years ago tonight I was celebrating the new year in our quarters in downtown DaNang. It was an old French villa, with mossy stone and flaking plaster and Asian style roof tiles. And our own bar. Most of us had no duties the next day, but nobody was falling down drunk. It was, after all, a war zone.

It was easy to tell it was a war zone because of all the gunfire going on around us. Not due to combat, but because of sheer high spirits among heavily armed teenagers far away from home. Every so often somebody down the street or across the river would let off another M-16 magazine on full auto, pumping another display of tracers into the warm night sky. Of course, what goes up must come down, and we later heard reports that four people were wounded due to falling bullets.

Don’t try this at home, kids.

Space Force

December 30, 2018

President Trump wants a new military service, the US Space Force. This is a bad idea, and not just because of the merchandising. If you listen to the proselytizing of Vice President Pence and his supporters, you will understand that what is pushing the President is more a concept of manifest destiny than an understanding of the issues.

There are, of course, a number of different opinions on the topic. What follows is mine.

Military services are structured for the domains in which they operate — land, sea, and air. They are separate services because the organization, skills, and equipment are substantially different for each domain. You fight a land war differently from the way you fight a naval campaign. The goals and objectives are different, and the means for accomplishing them are different. Naval forces can transport land forces to a hostile shore, help them gain a foothold, and keep them supplied. But then, the land forces will move to places that naval forces cannot go. Likewise, ground forces can provide protection for ports and naval bases, but their reach into the sea is limited.

When air power came along, it was initially seen as a support function for land and sea forces. It was only later, when air capabilities had improved, that it was possible to conduct an air campaign separate from the land and the sea element. This started with the strategic bombing campaigns of WWII, and culminated with the advent of nuclear weapons, the ultimate strategic bombing tool. The air domain had its own possibilities, goals, and objectives, and so required a separate organization to raise, train, and equip. But what about space?

Right now, the space domain can be seen as a support function, extending the capabilities of the other three domains. All of our current space systems involve a surface component as well as a space component, primarily communications, weather, and reconnaissance. There are no current space-based weapons, and few surface-based weapons with targets in space.

The Air Force was created because there were things air power could do that were distinct and separate from land and sea power. Right now, there’s no mission for a space force that isn’t support for the other forces.

Now, there are issues associated with the way we are currently organized. Acquisition is fragmented. Career paths are limited. No-one is tasked with the development of doctrine. But those problems can be solved without a new military service, with all the overhead that involves.

One issue that isn’t addressed deeply enough (although Tom’s Dispatch covers it) is the idea that creation of a space force is one more step towards militarization of space. Unlike projection of surface based power into space, via ASATs for example, a space force implies a permanent military presence in space. Essentially, it’s the start of a new military arms race, and we should ask ourselves if that’s what we really want. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. For example, Henry Kissinger is said to have lamented that we didn’t really think through the implications of both sides putting MIRVs on their ICBMs.

In any event, the creation of a Space Force is something that requires complex lawmaking on the part of Congress. The new Congress has already made it clear they will be reluctant to commit scarce resources to the task.

Memories of my youth: Genteel poverty

December 29, 2018

The military has never been exceptionally well paid. In recent years, despite the lies the President tells, pay has been adequate, and pay raises at least kept pace with inflation. But at the end of the last Century there were times when enlisted members with families qualified for food stamps. There was a ten year period when my real income (counting taxes and inflation) didn’t change, despite an increase in seniority and a promotion.

Back in the late 50’s and early 60’s, we lived in a state of what might be called genteel poverty. There was no trouble keeping food on the table and shoes on our feet but there was nothing extra for any but the smallest luxuries.

I had always been a bookish lad and living on Vandenberg AFB in my early high school years, my tastes tended toward space science and satellites and such. Since all the major aerospace firms had offices on base, it was possible to write to them and get publicity packets, with photos and other handouts. One such letter prompted a call from the Convair folks, and after a discussion of what I was interested in, they invited me to come down to their San Diego plant to look at the Atlas production line. This was the chance of a lifetime for a nerdy high schooler.

Atlas assembly line

Alas, it was not to be. The trip would incur expenses — travel, lodging, food, and so forth, more than our budget would allow. My parents talked it over, seriously trying to find a way to make it happen (send him down on the bus, alone; see if there were friends he could stay with in San Diego). After a long while they concluded that there was no way to do it. We simply didn’t have the money.

I, of course, was crushed. But I’d heard their discussions and I knew their decision was not taken lightly. Maybe some other day.

That came back to me when I was reading about the impact of the government shut-down. Now, this time the military was not effected. The DoD has an on-time budget, the first time in ten years. But hundreds of thousands of other government employees (including the US Coast Guard, which is DHS, not DoD, and so doesn’t have a budget) were going into the new year, trying to fund the equivalent of a couple dozen trips to San Diego with nothing in their bank accounts and useless OPM advice in their mail boxes.

Shutting down the government

December 22, 2018

I’ve been through this before, both in and out of government. It’s not a lot of fun. Essentially, a government shutdown is a game of chicken between the two parties, or in this case, the President and the Congress.

As usual, the people who get hurt are the little people, the ones in government who make sure things keep moving. Despite what the Republicans think, most government workers (clerks, staff workers) don’t make a lot of money, and most people who provide services to the government (janitors, security guards) make even less. If they work in Washington, DC, they are making ends meet in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

The people I knew, and know, in government are proud of what they do, serving the country and their fellow citizens. Here’s a couple of non-shutdown examples. One woman I knew, a DIA analyst and the wife of a banker (you’d recognize the name), could have been part of the white-glove and tea party set in Northern Virginia. Instead, she was coming to work at 5AM of a dark December morning to prepare Intelligence analysis reports for the morning briefing. She did it because she felt it was important work. She wasn’t alone.

Many commercial offices have Christmas parties this time of year, where they shut down for four hours or so, and everybody relaxes. Not so with the government offices I was in. It might be time for the office party, but that meant having your slice of cake on the desk next to your keyboard while you wrote up some analytical input for the next day. The party went on, but so did the work.

During a government shutdown, that work has to go on as well. Those who were designated as essential were required to come to work (at 5AM). They just weren’t paid for it. They were working on the hope that Congress would include back pay when a budget was passed, but there was no guarantee. My examples are from mid-level workers, ones who could afford to miss a paycheck. Others are not so lucky. The janitors and clerks were not “essential”, so they got furloughed, which meant no work and no pay and live on their meager savings in the dead of winter until the situation resolved itself.

For contractors, the situation was even more fraught. It was illegal for us to do any work on a contract during a stoppage. Depending on the company, we might get paid by the company (and the company wouldn’t get any reimbursement, because we weren’t allowed to bill against a contract) or we might not.

Of course, none of the politicians who are currently thumping their chests and comparing the length of their dicks will be hurt by any of this. They get paid if they do their jobs or not. The current consensus is that the Republicans, and Trump, will get the blame for this. The historical experience is that this will suppress support for their party for the next six months or a year, with limited impact on the next election, come 2020.

And so, she’s gone

December 17, 2018

Not a good Christmas week. Song didn’t make it.

She was OK through Saturday, bright, cheerful, wanting to stand, wagging her tail. On Sunday, she was depressed and lethargic, and bad enough we took her to the emergency vet.

On Monday, she died on the operating table. Essentially, the seal on her intestine failed. So did her pancreas. And her spleen.

She was only nine, and was a bright, energetic golden retriever. She loved to train, whatever the weather.

Indoors, she liked nothing more than to lie around with the other dogs.

Good night, Song.

 We will miss you.

Not with a bang

December 15, 2018

So ends my last academic week as a professor. I thought it would be a bittersweet going-around to offices, final correcting of finals, final assignment of grades, and so forth, before finally riding off into the sunset. Not so fast, Chips.

On my last day of finals I got hit with some sort of viral infection. Bad enough for me to see the doctor. As usual with these things, she gave me a bunch of symptom-suppressors and told me to go home to bed.

But those finals!

So, I’d correct for a couple of hours, then sleep for a couple of hours, and so-on. Finished late on Sunday, instead of mid-day on Thursday, as is my wont. Got the grades in on Monday. Cancelled my dental and eye appointments, and went back to bed.

Meanwhile Song, our senior golden retriever, ate a washcloth, as goldens are wont to do. It disappeared, didn’t show up on X-rays, festered, impacted, other horrible stuff, and sent her to the hospital. They found it, inside two feet of rotting bowel. She came home on an IV, which we had to watch constantly for 24hrs lest she pull it out.

She’s survived the initial crisis and no longer needs a constant hand on her head. Next issue is, was the operation successful? Can she take fluids without vomiting (yes, so far, 4 tablespoons at a time). Solid food comes soon.

Meanwhile, it’s MJ’s busiest time of the year, with the Christmas Cantata tomorrow. When she hasn’t been worrying about me, or keeping a hand on Song, she’s been working program notes an rehearsing the choir. She is somewhat stressed, but hides it well.

It’s not just politics that will make us happy that 2018 has ended.

What reading does for you

December 7, 2018

Not everything is about Pearl Harbor. On this day eighty years ago, as it turns out, excessive reading was found to be an acceptable cause for divorce.