Archive for the ‘Military’ Category

Memories of My Youth: Marine Corps Language

December 1, 2016

The f-word is a Marine’s favorite noun, verb, gerund, prefix, suffix, and post-fix. When I was in DIA, my boss (Army LTC) told a story about a conversation with an Army NCO in his unit in Hawaii who was a former Marine. It went something like this:

“Ya know, Colonel, I was up to f–n Camp Smith yesterday, talking to this f–n Marine, and he f–n says to me ‘You used to be in the f–n Marine Corps, didn’t ya?’ Now, how the f–k did he know that?”

I was reminded of this when reading reports of what your standard Marine grunts were saying about the nomination of retired Marine general Mattis as SecDef. F–ng great!

The return of the $640 toilet seat

April 16, 2016

Pentagon waste is an evergreen topic. It never grows old. It never goes away. It’s always there when you need a quick filler. Last week it was TomGram‘s turn to break out the old war horse and give it a trot around the block. They even bring back an iconic symbol of Pentagon waste, the $640 toilet seat.

The trouble is, they rarely address all the root causes of these budget busters. To their mind, they are all due to single-source contracts and contractor-driven over-runs. But there are other problems, and they are baked into the system.

You see, much of the waste is due to Congress specifying rules that maximize the ability of their district to get contracts, rather than maximizing efficiency. And much is due to Congress wanting close and continuous control over the budget, as is their Constitutional duty.

Not worth $640 Except in small lots

Not worth $640
Except in small lots

For example, that toilet seat. The reason it cost so much is that Congressionally mandated accounting rules said that the entire cost of re-opening a closed production line had to be applied against the 54 covers that were ordered. Why didn’t they build more and amortize the cost over a longer production run? Because the Services are limited in how many out-year spare parts they can order.

Another reason for cost overruns is feature creep — government mandated additions and changes to the system. It takes a long time to develop a new weapons system, and technology changes. That being the case, the government will often come to the contractor and say “we want to add x capability”. The contractor isn’t being paid to say no, so they add the new capability and the new weight and charge the additional cost.

F-22 Raptor Heavy as you want it to be

F-22 Raptor
Heavy as you want it to be

When I was on the Air Staff in the early 1980’s, we were working on the specifications for the ATF, the Advanced Tactical Fighter that would become the F-22, with an IOC of 2005, a twenty year development cycle. The ATF had a takeoff weight of 23,000KG, while the F-22 has a takeoff weight of 29,000KG. Where did those extra six tons come from? Part was reality contaminating a beautiful design. Part of it was feature creep.

There was one incident in the last ten years or so (from memory, sorry), where a contractor was hauled into court for fleecing the government, and the court looked at the records and said in effect “the government knew and approved all of these price changes and is totally complicit in the cost overruns. You got no case.”

Am I saying that contractors don’t try to screw over the government and don’t pad their expense accounts at every opportunity? Heavens no. It goes on all the time. The Lockheed Corporation of toilet seat fame was infamous for it. There are whole battalions of administrators that should be in jail after Afghanistan and Iraq. But remember that a major weapons system like the F-22 will have a small army of DoD accountants and contract officers in the production facility.

The lesson is, don’t believe everything you read in the press. But you knew that already, right?

Veterans and Entitlements

June 17, 2014

In the almost-century that tha VA, or its components, has existed, it’s never been adequately funded to meet its responsibilities. In typical fashion, Congress has ignored it, except when some scandal has forced their hands. In the most recent decade, they have consistently refused to provide funding for those thousands of veterans injured in America’s Longest War. It took a series of vets dying practically on Senator John McCain’s lawn to trigger the latest stopgap measure. And stopgap it is, and no, it won’t be followed up on, not once the November elections are past.

Despite that, some Republican lawmakers still found it necessary to carp about the cost and the open-endedness of it all. Senator Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, a state kept afloat by Army, Navy, and Air Force bases, found it in his heart to say:

“I feel strongly we’ve got to do the right thing for our veterans. But I don’t think we should create a blank check, an unlimited entitlement program, now,”

Blank check. Entitlements. You know, Senator Sessions, every serviceman and -woman signs a blank check upon entry onto active duty. That check says they will obey all lawful orders given by their superiors. If those orders require that they die carrying them out, well, they knew that when they signed up. You can see it in the kinds of orders that are sometimes given: “hit the beach”, “take that hill”, “hold until relieved”, “come on you bastards, ya wanna live forever?”. The Coast Guard, responsible for rescuing mariners in trouble, no matter what the sea state, has a saying: “You have to go out. You don’t have to come back.”

We’re not that far past the anniversary of the Battle of Midway, the turning point of WWII in the Pacific. My father was with the Marine Defense Battalion on Midway Island during the battle. His introduction to it was his commander saying to them while they were still in Hawaii, three months after the fall of Wake Island, “You lads want to go bait a trap?” One of the heroic stories of the battle itself was the performance of Navy torpedo squadron VT-8. Torpedo 8 is famous because they pressed home their attack in the face of overwhelming fire, every plane was shot down, and only one man survived. What normally isn’t said is the fact that they knew, when they took off from their carrier, that if the Japanese fleet was where we thought it was, they wouldn’t have enough gas to get back. They still went. Blank check.

So yes, Senator Sessions, Senator Johnson, Senator Corker, we should create a blank check for these people. We should create an unending entitlement, because they did the same for you, in all your foreign wars and adventures. It’s one of the costs of engaging in those wars, a cost that should be fully recognized at the start. If you can order them in harm’s way, you can damn well care for what comes back. It’s their right. They’re entitled.

What we need to remember on Memorial Day

May 26, 2014

I was not going to write anything this Memorial Day, because there’s only a few simple facts that apply, and one grows boring, repeating them over and over. But I persist. After all, Delenda est Carthago. What prompted this was a typical feel-good Memorial Day email from my Congresswoman, Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Reading it, I found I had to reply.

Thanks for your Memorial Day message, but let me remind you that actions speak louder than words.

As a VietNam veteran, I have some suggestions as to what actions you, as a lawmaker, can take to honor those who died, or otherwise gave their lives in service to America.

1. Fund the VA, nationwide, at a level that will let them hire the doctors and staff needed to serve the workload associated with our wars, for as long as those who served need their service.

2. Fund the economic programs needed to make sure returning service members can find a job when they get out, and that they have a safety net until they find that job.

3. Fund the State Department at a level that will let them maintain adequate security at all their stations. Did you know that since the end of the Cold War, we’ve lost more ambassadors overseas than we have general officers?

4. Finally, keep us out of stupid wars and ill-thought foreign adventures. 6000 Americans died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we’re less safe than we were on September 10th.

Do these four things, whoever is in office and whatever their party, and you will have the undying gratitude of those who served, and their survivors. Do these four things without regard to offsets or tax reform or other political cant. Do these four things because they are the right thing to do to support the troops, and because they represent part of the hidden costs of a robust foreign policy, a hidden cost you have to accept when you make the decision to engage.

It’s fine to remember the troops, and I thank you, but more importantly, you should never forget that it’s your laws and your funding that sends them in harm’s way and cares for what comes back.

They miss the Soviet Union

October 12, 2013

This news story about Major General Michael Carey and Vice Admiral Tim Giardina being fired got me to thinking about nuclear strike forces, then and now.

Back in the day, there was SAC, the Strategic Air Command. They controlled the Air Force’s stock of strategic nuclear weapons, which meant most of them. Bomber, and later, missile crews sat alert 24/7. Airborne command posts stayed airborne 24/7.

SAC took its job seriously. Before going on alert, crews took a nuclear weapons control test, and the only acceptable score was 100%. Anything less and the crew, the training officer, and the wing commander, might find themselves being flown down to numbered air force headquarters to explain to a general officer why they shouldn’t be fired. The second commander of SAC, and the man who shaped it into the elite force it became, was General Curtis LeMay. He is famous for saying “I can’t tell the difference between bad luck and bad management”. In LeMay’s day, If a SAC crew crashed a bomber, the wing commander was automatically fired and replaced with a new one. If a second bomber crashed the next day, the new wing commander was also fired. When SAC opened up its ‘Northern Teir’ bases, in North Dakota and Montana and Wyoming (to move them away from Soviet missile submarines), LeMay refused to relax readiness requirements, even in the face of blizzards and seriously sub-zero windchills on the flight lines, because he was worried that if he let standards slip, there’d be no bottom.

SAC felt it had to do this because the Soviet Union was our declared enemy (that’s a politically incorrect word, so we’d say adversary, or the competition, but everybody knew the e-word). The USSR had the ability to destroy the US completely, if it launched first. Flight time over the pole was 30min. Flight time from offshore SSBNs was as little as 15minutes. SAC had to be able to get enough bombers airborne in that amount of time to ensure the counter-destruction of the USSR. That was deterrence.

At the same time, they had to have absolute and total control of all the thousands of nuclear warheads in their inventory. In SAC, you had to know where every weapon was at all times. There were rigid rules about what could and couldn’t be done with them (plug a test pad into a bomb to see if it was still calibrated and you’d end up on report for using a live weapon as a test device). Everything around the weapon was a no-lone zone, where two weapons-qualified people were needed to pull a sheet of canvas over a weapon. The human reliability program saw to the psychological health of all SAC weaponeers. One young officer was pulled from missile duty and reassigned, because he asked for dynamic tension exercises he could do while buried in the ground on silo alert for a week, to keep from getting antsy. SAC doesn’t want antsy people near weapons. Theoretically, such reassignment doesn’t impact career prospects, except without crew experience his chances of becoming a commander were slim.

To get a flavor of what SAC was like in the early ’60’s, go find a copy of “Gathering of Eagles”, a typically Hollywood melodrama portrait starring that most manly of men, Rock Hudson. Despite its flaws, it still manages to capture some of the atmosphere of a SAC base.

And then, it all changed.

The Soviet Union went away. Russia lost a good many of its missile silos and bomber bases to newly independent states. Both sides stood down their alert forces, and both agreed to zero out the targetting information in the missile guidance packages, so that an accidental launch wouldn’t start a war. Both sides started reducing the size of their arsenals.  Russia remained a competitor, but was no longer an active enemy. It soon became obvious that nobody cared any more. Remember 2007, when the B-52 bomber crew flew from Minot, ND to Barksdale, LA, not noticing that two nuclear missiles were still on board?

SAC was gutted, with the remnants becoming part of Strategic Command, a command with the detail-oriented requirements of old, but without the compelling adrenalin rush that justified the absolute and total dedication to those details. SAC wanted anal-retentive warriors. SC wants anal retentives. What they’ve got, is anal retentives with a loose grip.

The problem is, it’s hard to maintain that level of commitment to the goal, when the goal is something like be kindof available in the unlikely event that somebody wants to blow up the world, or maybe just one town. The USSR gave the US nuclear force a reason for being. Right now, they don’t have that kind of a reason, and it shows.