Archive for the ‘Military’ Category

Ukraine Flight 752

January 21, 2020

I was going to do a detailed technical writeup of the shootdown of the Ukrainian airliner outside Tehran, but Forbes beat me to it. You really need to read the Forbes article before you read this.

The best I can do is a little bit of color commentary.

First, the Tor (NATO SA-15/Gauntlet) Surface to Air Missile (SAM) is a short-range, point defense missile, similar to, but newer than, the UK-built Rapier. If a target appears on the Tor radar, that means it has penetrated all other air defenses, and the Tor is the last ditch defense. This adds a certain amount of urgency to launch decisions.

Second, most air defense systems have multiple levels of combat readiness, for example: Hold, Tight, Loose, and Free. Guns Tight means aircraft may be engaged only if positively identified as hostile. Guns Free means the battery may fire on any aircraft not positively identified as friendly. From one aspect, guns free is a reasonable level to declare when you are conducting a point defense of a high value target in a high alert situation — remember, this was only four hours after Iran had launched a missile strike on US-occupied bases in Iraq. On the other hand, it is not an appropriate posture when you are operating close to an international airport. They may have been in a guns loose status, where higher echelon approval is necessary to shoot, but they reportedly had trouble with their communications.

Third, they appear to have followed a fairly standard antiaircraft defense procedure of shoot-shoot-look, but this is normally reserved for situations where there might be jamming.

Finally, the SAM site was defending the Bidganeh test facility, where Iran is assembling its latest ballistic missiles. The site had been damaged by possible sabotage eight years ago, and the Iranians might have been concerned about a retaliatory attack.

So, there we have it. Nervous, possibly poorly trained, missile crew just placed on high alert defending a high value target and expecting a US attack at any moment. Unable to contact higher echelon due to unexplained communications failure. Time urgent decision needed. And the crew made the wrong decision.

Iranian failures:

  1. Failure to close the airspace. If they expected an attack, then all non-military flight should have been grounded.
  2. Failure to properly configure their system. If civilian aircraft were to be operating in the same airspace, then stringent controls were required.
  3. Failure to train the operators. My guess is the missile crew never had a chance in training to see on radar the difference between an airliner and a cruise missile. A crew operating in close proximity to a civil airport should have been given additional training.
  4. Failure to build a robust communications system. My guess is they were using the standard field radios built into the system, with no land-line backup.

Accidents are usually due to a chain of failures. If any one of those four failures had been prevented, it’s likely the shootdown would not have occurred.

Memories of my youth: Scud Hunting

February 27, 2019

It looks like the government is showing renewed interest in finding mobile missiles. I did that for a while. It’s hard. Essentially, you are looking for a bunch of truck-shaped vehicles that can be on any road or hidden under any cluster of trees next to that road.

Truck on road near NK nuclear facility. Is it a TEL? Would we have found it if it paused under the trees?

Before the INF Treaty was signed, I spent 18 moths chasing Soviet mobile IRBM’s, with essentially zero luck. For that matter, we didn’t have much luck finding US Army Pershing launch units, even when we knew there were x-number of Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL) vehicles somewhere on that photo of the tops of hundreds of trees.

SS-20 Launch

By the time of Desert Storm, the first invasion of Iraq, I was a civilian contractor, working on a new mobile GIS front end to the DIA database system. We got called into the Desert Storm operations cell at DIA and the first thing the general in charge said was, “show me the Scud launch pads.” I looked up the identifier for Scud launchers and put it into the DB. Nothing. OK, how about the units themselves? Nothing.The general started ragging on us about our lousy DB, until we pointed out that the system we had build was just a window into the DIA DB.

The analyst for the Iraqi army was called over. “Oh, we don’t track those. They are a Presidential asset, not a military asset.” The general was not pleased.

Later during the war we tried feeding the launch coordinates from our launch warning systems into the DB, and doing an area search, looking for warehouses or bridges the launchers could hide in or under. Not much luck there, either.

Scud TEL with support convoy — It’s easier in the desert

In defense of all our failures, mobile missiles usually don’t need  launch pads, as such. Essentially, all they need is a stretch of flat road (or field) strong enough to hold a TEL and missile for half an hour or so. Missile accuracy is improved if you know exactly where the launcher is relative to the target, but modern systems with terminal guidance can even relax that requirement.

Iskander-K Cruise Missile

So, what DoD is asking for is almost an impossibility. It’s true that our satellite and radar and signals collection has improved immensely since I was a lad, but what they are trying to do is find a truck that could be a TEL, part of a SAM site, a coastal radar mount, or a bridgelayer, and say “yep, it’s a TEL”. Good luck with that.

Nuclear Posturing

February 14, 2019

The history of mankind’s dalliance with nuclear weapons is one of fear-driven power politics and the resulting bad decisions, made with the best of intentions given the information available at the time.

The development and use of the atomic bomb was first of all driven by fear of a seemingly superhuman enemy. Between them, Germany and Japan had overrun most of Europe and Asia. A super-bomb would help tilt the scales, and in any event had to be developed ahead of known German efforts in the same area. The atomic bomb was used against Japan to shorten the war, and to limit American (and Japanese civilian) casualties. It was also a signal to the Soviet Union that the US was too powerful for them to try to dominate in the post-war period.

The immediate post-war period may have offered an opportunity for treaties limiting atomic weapons, and halting research on thermonuclear ones, but the Cold War was already starting. The Soviet Union, led by a paranoid dictator, was both afraid of another invasion by Germany and determined that the Communist System would overcome Capitalism. It might have been possible to agree to some sort of treaty, but we had no means of verification, and wouldn’t for another fifteen years.

In the 1960’s, both sides developed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, making possible the almost instant destruction of opposing capitals. Limiting the development of ICBMs would have been difficult, because both sides’ space programs (including satellite verification systems) were based on ICBM launchers.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US and USSR settled down to an uneasy truce. Most of today’s policies were developed then, as efforts to stabilize the system. If the enemy can launch an attack without warning, and have it take effect within 30 minutes, then you have to be able to respond within that 30 minute time frame. Hence, keeping weapons on fifteen minute alert and allowing the President to launch a nuclear war (OK, appropriate retaliatory response) with no checks and balances on his actions.

At the same time, the USSR deployed and maintained a large ground army in Europe. Interesting fact 1: East Germany is about 80% the size of Alabama, and roughly the same oblong shape. Interesting fact 2: The USSR maintained more first line combat divisions in East Germany than the total number of divisions in the US Army. Yes, the Germans and other NATO allies provided enough troops to make up the difference, almost, but we were so concerned about the result of a massive surprise attack by 100+ Warsaw Pact divisions that our war planning discussions included the possibility of defensive fallback positions on the Rhine and the Loire. The plans also contained theater nuclear options, and a common phrase heard around NATO was that the real job of the ground forces was to hold the line until R-hour was declared for nuclear release. Under such conditions, there was no way a responsible leader could espouse a no-first-use policy. The whole reason for being of theater level weapons was so the Soviets couldn’t be sure if or when our retreating forces might use them.

Today, of course, the world is a much safer place — Soviet Communism is gone, the Warsaw Pact is gone, and the Russian military is much reduced — and we can seriously consider some of the recommendations discussed in this article in Tom’s Dispatch. Note that the article discusses two main issues: how to keep us from becoming less safe, and how to help us become more safe.

1. The less safe issues surround the Trump administration’s push for extremely low yield tactical weapons mounted on strategic launchers — 5kt W76-2 warheads on Trident SLBMs. I can think of nothing less useful. First question, who is the target? Russia? China? Are you seriously going to launch a strategic missile at either one, feeling safe in the knowledge that when it hits they will realize that it’s only a 5kt yield? OK then, North Korea? We can’t have a stealth bomber drop a dial-a-yield bomb? We’re going to launch an intercontinental missile on a trajectory that both China and Russia will feel threatened by?

Anyone who has given any thought to the edge case uses of nuclear weapons comes to the same conclusion: a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon, and once you have set one off, you are in a nuclear war. This applies to tactical battlefield weapons, EMP explosions, and small intercontinental attacks.

2. The more safe issues deal with rolling back policies that were important in the Cold War, but are destabilizing now. While Russia is certainly a major competitor, it lacks the ideological imperatives that the old USSR did, and it no longer has a large combat force on the borders of NATO (not even the “New NATO”). That being the case, a declared “no first use” policy would go a long way to defusing nuclear tensions, even thought such a declaration can be rescinded at any time. Similarly with China. China has no borders with countries we are bound to protect. Highest probability clashes are over the South China Sea and Taiwan, neither one of which is a nuclear level priority. As for Korea, if the North doesn’t use nukes, then the ROK army can beat them with or without our help. So there’s no reason not to have a declared no first use policy.

In the same way, there is today little reason for Russia to attempt an all out nuclear exchange and as for China, it is both less capable and has less reason to attempt one. That being the case, there is much less need for a continuing Presidential “launch on warning” or “launch under attack” policy. Requiring, for example, consultations with Congressional leadership, or mandating that a launch order be countersigned by the JCS, is not going to cripple our ability to respond. It might be prudent to rigidly enforce the “designated survivor” policy, but with the President we have today, who is to say that a rogue launch order is less likely than a decapitating strike event.

Configuring our nuclear posture has always been a strategic political act, as well as a tactical military one. Our posture sends a message. Changing the posture changes the message. Right now, our new message is that we are willing to make nuclear war easier to initiate, and that we are not interested in taking any steps to alleviate that situation.


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.

That’s not what he said

November 19, 2017

One of the things that gives the press a bad name is their penchant for grabber headlines. It’s not the reporter’s fault. The editors write the headlines, and most editors today appear to be more interested in clicks than accuracy.

Case in point: STRATCOM Commander General John Hyten’s answer to a question at an international security forum in Canada this week. Here’s the way the press presented it:

Slate. U.S. Nuclear Commander Says He’d Refuse to Carry Out Any “Illegal” Trump-Ordered Nuclear Strike

CBS News. Top general says he would resist “illegal” nuke order from Trump

BBC. US nuclear chief would resist ‘illegal’ presidential strike order

CNN. Top general says he’d push back against ‘illegal’ nuclear strike order

CBS broke the news, but has, I think, pulled back on their original headline. Slate is still going with the original.

What he actually said, was:

“I provide advice to the president, he will tell me what to do,” Hyten added. “And if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen? I’m going to say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’ And guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’ And we’ll come up with options, with a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works. It’s not that complicated.”

You see, that’s his job. Advising the President on the implications of his military actions. Not refusing (that never came up), not pushing back (that implies a policy disagreement), but simple professional advice.

But the press is happiest when they have a top-level bunfight going on, with strong opinions on both sides and everyone rushing to their web page to see what the latest is. Given the current economic situation of the press, I don’t see any way this can be changed.

Just, read beyond the headlines, OK?

Recapitalizing the Triad

November 15, 2017

I extremely dislike fuzzy thinking and illogical arguments, even when they are in support of things I might agree with. There’s an essay over at Breaking Defense by Rebeccah Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute that exhibits these problems.

It’s about the need to fund a replacement for the current nuclear triad system — ICBMs, SLBMs, bombers. Well, actually, not the triad. Just the ICBM part. The other two legs are alluded to, but the arguments are about the land based deterrent, the GBSD.

Now, there may be a valid need to replace the entire Minuteman force with something new — it’s been a few decades since I paid attention to this — but these arguments don’t convince, partly because the author attempts some sleight of hand with them

The threats facing the United States and U.S. allies today are varied and complex. Great powers are establishing patterns of provocations and demonstrating a willingness to violate international treaties and agreements. Rogue nations with penchants for proliferation have chemical and biological weapons and are pursuing or testing nuclear weapons. Allies on the doorstep of these strategic threats need constant reassurance of the U.S. commitment to the nuclear umbrella.

OK, so, great powers (RU, CN) are being more aggressive. Not in the we will bury you way of the Cold War, but in a sharper elbows, ignore treaties we don’t like (just like the US has done on occasion) approach. Nothing there says we need new ICBMs. Indeed, it probably argues for more carrier task groups. Second, rogue nations (NK) are testing nuclear weapons. So, do we need 400 ICBMs to take out NK, or would a squadron or two of nuclear F-16’s do the job? Finally, our allies next door need reassurance that we will continue to provide nuclear cover. If the question is, will we lend our nuclear F-16’s to protect Japan from NK, that’s a diplomatic issue. If it’s will we lend our ICBMs to protect Japan from CN, well, we might have to think about that, and a modernized ICBM force doesn’t change anything.

So, the next statement.

A key value of America’s ICBM force is its contribution to nuclear stability — the sheer number of missile silos makes it impossible for a nuclear adversary to believe it can carry out a pre-emptive strike against them that will successfully destroy the land-based leg of the triad. Without the ICBM force, however, even small states might be more tempted to consider attempting to disarm the United States by hitting a handful of targets: bomber bases and two nuclear missile submarine ports.

The first sentence is absolutely true, but it applies only to RU. Russia is the only country on the planet who poses an existentialist threat to the US. China can do horrible things to us, but we’d still be recognizable as the USA the next day, and China would be gone. Nobody else counts. Yes, they might hit Guam or Seattle, but that’s not destroying the country.

The second sentence ends up out in left field. Nobody is suggesting we take down the entire ICBM force. And if we did, striking a submarine port would not keep our deployed SLBMs from retaliating.

As it turns out, we’re not just talking about the missiles.

To be fully functional, this system requires more than just missiles. As the only leg of the triad on constant alert, the system is composed of launch facilities, sophisticated guidance systems and secure command, control, and communications

So, it’s not just the ICBM replacement missile. It’s communications systems as well. And new guidance systems that will let us take on a wider range of missions than simple deterrence. Of course, those kinds of upgrades don’t depend on the missile itself, and don’t cost nearly as much as a whole new ICBM system, and don’t require an ICBM replacement.

There are other arguments, and many assertions, in this essay, and none of them are particularly compelling. I don’t actually have a personal opinion on if we should spend $400Billion per year for the next thirty years, but this essay doesn’t convince me we should.

Veteran’s Day 2017

November 11, 2017

I’ve retweeted this on The Twitter, but I thought I’d put a less ephemeral link up here.

Stonekettle Station is a retired military blogger of roughly my generation. He was Navy, I was Air Force. I had the same relationship to Robert Heinlein that he apparently had — a formative voice on what it meant to be a military officer.

Starship Troopers is about two things — responsible citizenship and how you prove it, and a celebration of the lifers, the guys who stayed in the military because the ethos and culture fit well with who they were. At 22 years, I guess I was one of them.

Many people dislike the novel, because of that celebration. They call it militaristic, as if military service turns people into fascists. It doesn’t, and you rarely, not never, find the hard-core right wing types among the career ranks, and very rarely among the officer corps. What it does do is give you an abiding distaste for war, and a profound distrust of politicians, both things we could do with more of.

This is Stonekettle’s take on the matter, this Veteran’s Day. It should be required reading for all those who never served and want to understand those who do. I pretty much agree with everything he said.

Almost a month ago, David Brin wrote (not for the first time) about the war on the professionals, including the military. And now, we see Trump attacking his professional Intelligence Community while overseas, meeting with a foreign leader. In DaNang, VietNam. My old stomping ground. Something ironic there.



North Korean artillery demonstration

August 26, 2017

There’s a number of photos out there of a NK artillery exercise, held somewhere along their coast at an unknown date. It’s a publicity photo-op, because nobody uses artillery like that any more, do they?

They start off by lining up a hundred or so howitzers and self-propelled guns, hub to hub.

Just like Napoleon would have done

Then the firing starts

From one end of the beach…

…to the other

The problem is, two thirds of the troops are within 100 meters downrange from that back row. And a third of the troops are within 100 meters of two rows of artillery. Quite aside from the impact on troop hearing, artillery shells have been known to burst on their way out of the tube. This sprays fragments across everybody immediately downrange. Friend of mine from VietNam was still finding microfragments in his body, twenty years after the war.

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.