History in Pigment

A friend sent a link to the very generically-named www.sailingwarship.com. It has apparently not been updated in several years, but if paintings of historic events and scenes in the maritime domain are your thing – well, this is the place for you. Catch it while someone’s still paying for the server space!

One of many battles of Algiers

One of many battles of Algiers (a joint Anglo-Dutch bombardment in 1816)

SW_icon_endnote

And That Was That

Our benevolent overlords

Our benevolent overlords

Remarkably, mobilization is complete. I am now taking 21 days of terminal leave, and will complete this whole thing after a grand total of 11 months and one day on active duty.

Weird.

So, a few thoughts on demob – for any Reservist who may come across this post.

  • Individual Augmentees on active duty are released after just a few hours. They have gear turn-in and a few other things, but nothing too much. Reservists, on the other hand, stick around at ECRC for three days, minimum.
  • The first two days are for medical/dental/PSD appointments. The third day is mandatory death-by-PowerPoint. Some of it is actually important, though, like a discussion of how your Tricare transition works.
  • Overall, the ECRC process was actually easier than I expected. I did as much medical and dental as I could in Bahrain (like getting an audiogram done). That helped keep things simple.
  • I handed back the CBR gear I was issued but they didn’t ask for anything else.
  • Remember to bring an extra copy of all prior DD-214s and proof (NSIPS records or other primary documents) of all your awards so your new DD-214 can be written. They don’t advertise that in advance, and it results in a rush to the printers to put your stuff on paper, which is a waste of time.
  • My demobilization orders specifically directed the member (me) to call NGIS and book my own room, or, failing that, get a Certificate of Non-Availability. So that’s what I did, using my government credit card. Upon on arrival at the airport, you can imagine my surprise as I exited the baggage claim to see ECRC personnel ready to put us on a bus to lodging they had booked for us. I’m not sure if anyone bothered to tell the returnees that was their plan. Anyway, I went to own self-arranged things and fully expect that travel claim to linger for months.
  • I rented a car at my own expense. Totally worth it.
  • Random question: Is the VA for Reservists a scam? You can claim service-related disabilities and even get small monthly checks from the VA even as you remain a drilling Reservist with a full expectation of again mobilizing to active duty someday. Essentially, you can be disabled and yet still eligible to serve. There’s a leap in logic somewhere in there that I am missing. And, no, it’s not a scam in any legal sense, but it seems some moral hazard is certainly present.
  • I will miss my per diem.
  • Check-in at the NOSC was really just a few signatures and a brief visit with the CO. Most of the admin stuff that has to happen can’t actually be done until terminal leave is complete and I am officially off active duty. Upshot: the NOSC will punch in my info on the appointed day in September. Coincidentally, a drill weekend follows the very next day, but my EDM profile will almost certainly not be updated yet and my drill pay will have to be processed retroactively. Just something to be aware of if this happens to you…

So, those are my initial observations, which won’t make sense or matter much to anyone not in the Navy or, specifically, the Reserve. I may add other stuff on the phenomenon of demobilization, but for now here are the nuts and bolts that are fresh in my mind. Although I’m not working full-time for a couple months, there’s plenty going on here with family so posts will certainly be less frequent. But I’m back in the States, so now life is too boring to blog about anyway, right?

Let us all hope so.

SW_icon_endnote

An Ode to NavFit 98A

Released when Seinfeld went off the air, and still going strong

Released when Seinfeld went off the air, and still going strong

‘Twas Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Eight
On what we call an auspicious date,
For what transpired on that day
Was the birth of NavFit 98A.

Built on an Access database
With a point-and-click user interface,
NavFit was a fine design,
Ultra-modern and top of the line.

For writing evals and Fitness Reports
It could take inputs of all sorts
To ensure products’ consistency and sameness…
But this could not prevent eventual lameness.

One must make a new database if starting anew
And within it create a new FitRep, too.
The architecture, I think, maybe was rational
But was shown to be folly when it went national,
For it makes sense if it’s run by one central admin
But at what command, ever, has that ever been?

Everyone wants a chop, from divo to captain
But how is it sent in the format it’s wrapped in?
PII keeps the database from being sent to others,
So what do we do when we have our druthers?
Disaggregate! Yes! It’s the only solution
That permits proper chain of command distribution.
So sorry we’ve mooted the database construct
But we wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t sucked.

But
An .mdb file cannot be e-mailed
On NMCI – it always e-failed.
But it lets you change the file extension
Though beware! The receiver must pay attention
Lest he reveal his lack of knowledge
As an Academy grad, not an actual college.
If he doesn’t change the extension back
The file won’t open, it won’t unpack.

But if he succeeds and gets on a roll
Now we must watch out for version control
Since after all these .mdb e-mail exchanges
Someone now has to merge all the changes!

It’s about at this point we get to thinking
That somewhere there’s a Sailor too young for drinking
Who, when he enlisted, provided a birth date
That fell in that year of Ninety-Eight.
And we glance over longingly at Marine Online
And think “I’d at least take something from Ninety-Nine.”
There’s a programmed successor, but we cannot touch it,
For it’s behind schedule and over budget.
Oh, when, oh, when will we finally say
We’ve kicked the habit of NavFit 98A?
Really, quite anything will do,
A fillable PDF, a whiteboard, a tattoo.
Someone has a better way for personnel rating
Than an archaic system that leaves everyone hating.

Wait – what’s this? Could it be? Is that a… a transfer FitRep?

All is forgiven!

That document ejects me from this place that I live in!

I’m free! I’m free! I’m free! I say!
However you made this FitRep today,
A couple signatures on it, and I get away!
Thank you, thank you, NavFit 98A!

SW_icon_endnote

Barely Satire

The world according to the Joint Staff

The world according to the Joint Staff

Contrary to what you may have thought, the Navy hasn’t fought a war since World War II.

But don’t get too smug, all you soldiers out there: neither has the Army. Nor the Marine Corps. And the Air Force has never fought one at all.

It’s been subject to various revisions since 1947, but the common thread is that “unified” commanders, generally forward-deployed, are the ones who fight the good fight on the front lines. Today this takes the shape of the regional “combatant commanders” spread around the globe (plus some functional ones, as opposed to regional, like SOCOM). The services – that is, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force – simply provide forces to the commanders, who use them to meet national tasking. The commander is personally a member of just one service, but he or she is in charge of all the U.S. military forces within the Area of Responsibility (AOR).

The services operate under the authority of Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which assigns them the duty of manning, training and equipping their respective forces. Title 10 also authorizes the President to assign the unified commanders who operate those forces. The end result is a perverse bit of nomenclature in which the Chief of Naval Operations is, in fact, in charge of absolutely zero naval operations.

If this sounds complicated, it really isn’t. As usual, it can be interpreted through the satire of the indispensable Duffel Blog:

Hello, Combatant Commander! How are you this morning?

Wonderful. Wonderful.

I’m calling today to ask you if you’re one hundred percent satisfied with your current force provider. Are they treating you right? Are you getting the properly equipped, trained and sustained troops you need for the various conflicts in your Area Of Responsibility?

Really, where would we be without Duffel Blog? Like all the best satire, it illuminates while inducing a giggle. Even I don’t know all the acronyms they use in this discussion of GFM (Global Force Management) but who cares? It still gets to the question every combatant commander should be asking – are the services sending me the right forces to accomplish the missions that I am tasked with?

So imagine the services as Q to the COCOM’s James Bond. No, too glamourous. Or the pit crew to the COCOM’s Jimmie Johnson. Eh, maybe not exactly, but you get the point. The services provide a force – and the Presidentially-appointed commanders use it.

And now you know.

SW_icon_endnote

The Reign in Bahrain Aims to Sustain

ba-lgflagAmerica may resemble an island, but Bahrain really is one.

It’s a tiny little country in a rough neighborhood, ancient enough to be referenced in Gilgamesh, colonized by the Portuguese, taken by the Persians, liberated by locals, handed to and decolonized by the British, and ruled today by a Sunni monarchy established the same year that concluded the American Revolution.

So they know how to stick around.

Keep that in mind as you read this article (which you really must) about recent happenings in Bahrain by a former U.S. Ambassador to this fair country. Namely, a prominent Shi’a political party, Al Wefaq, was banned. This has caused some unrest.

Why Bahrain is acting in this way has mystified most observers. Western media reporting on Bahrain has been superficial. It tends to portray the situation in black-and-white terms: people versus government or democracy versus repression. In fact, the politics are more complicated than this because of a deep communal split on the island. The Shi‘a are a majority of the population, but there is a large Sunni community that, with the exception of a radical fringe, strongly supports the monarchy and even more strongly opposes Shi‘a domination. Both Sunni and Shi‘a in have their own internal divisions. The Sunni community also includes a radical, anti-monarchical fringe that has sent fighters to join the Islamic State. Although it has been largely overlooked in the Western press, the Bahraini authorities do continue to crack down on Sunni extremists as well as Shi‘a. On June 23, 24 Sunnis received sentences for ties to the Islamic state and attacks on Shi‘a. Thirteen were stripped of their citizenship.

The government held elections in 2014, which Al Wefaq tried to boycott (without much success), as they saw elections as simply a way to legitimatize their marginalization. Turns out, the U.S. isn’t the only country that knows how to gerrymander. Fast forward to this summer:

Over the past year, demonstrations have continued in the smaller villages, but the overall level of violence has dropped (though there have still been some fatal incidents). Controversy flared again in June 2016. On June 14 the government closed the offices of Al Wefaq, and on June 20 human rights leader Nabeel Rajab was arrested for “spreading false news.” At the same time, the government revoked the citizenship of the leading Shi‘a cleric on the island, Shaikh Isa Qasim. Ali Salman’s prison term was extended from four years to nine. The confirmation of Al Wefaq’s dissolution by a Bahraini court took place on July 17, 2016.

There is, of course, a U.S. angle:

Some observers call on the United States to move its naval base in Bahrain as a way of pressuring the government to reform. The location of the naval base, however, is truly important for maintaining freedom of navigation, the free flow of oil, and support for the U.S. Navy inside the Persian Gulf. Moving the base isn’t possible—it would cost billions of dollars, which Congress is unlikely to provide. Nor would the gambit work even if it were. The other Arab Gulf states have banded together in solidarity with Bahrain, and there is no reason to believe that any of them would provide an alternative location in order to help the United States pressure the Bahraini government.

One could legitimately ask whether the United States should mortgage so many security interests in order to press a friendly if autocratic government to alter its internal policies. Even if the answer is “yes,” one would still have to ask whether such pressure would likely bring about the desired change. Since the Bahraini government believes that its survival is at stake, it is doubtful that even extreme U.S. pressure and criticism would accomplish much. The regime’s real dependence is on Saudi Arabia. And nothing suggests that the Saudis intend to use strong pressure in the interest of greater rights for the Bahraini Shi‘a.

Bahrainis will talk the ears off any Westerner they can find about the Jewish woman they appointed Ambassador to the U.S. But whatever their progressive credentials – and, for this region, those credentials are many and real – they still have to survive.

And that is a tall order.

A Westerner is never well-served by defending authoritarianism, but nor is he well-served by ignoring certain regional and cultural realities. An anonymous Sunni leader puts the situation succinctly:

“I would prefer democracy but I would take dictatorship over theocratic rule.”

Well… when you put it that way…

SW_icon_endnote

Triumph

NWUtypeIIn a momentous show of sanity, Navy leadership has decided to ditch the Navy Working Uniform, Type I – affectionately known as “blueberries” by the current generation of Sailors. It is not worth rehashing the full story of this uniform (the Navy Times can do that for you) – suffice it to say, all the services developed so many battle dress-style uniforms over the past 15 years that a year or two ago Congress mandated (quite justifiably) that they cut back. Over the next three years, we in the Navy will transition from the Type I to the Type III. Or in other words, from blue to green:

Though black boots on the green uniform looks absolutely bizarre

Though black boots on the green uniform looks absolutely bizarre

Besides being appreciated by hundreds of thousands of Sailors, this change also has interesting ramifications for the San Diego Padres. Additionally, you should never read the Russian mouthpiece RT, but I did appreciate their interestingly-formulated headline on the topic.

This is at least a six-meme occasion. Huzzah!

blueberry_meme5

blueberry_meme2

 

 

blueberry_meme4

 

 

 

 

You know it's true

You know it’s true

blueberry_meme1

 

 

 

 

 

 

blueberry_meme6

My personal story…

SW_icon_endnote

 

 

Continuity

One characteristic endemic to military life is constant turnover. The personnel churn never stops, especially out on the front lines where “arduous” duty takes place. My orders sent me to Bahrain for just under nine months; some folks are here for up to a year. Multiply that by about 40 and you can see that, within just my unit, people are always coming and going.

Yes somehow continuity is maintained.

BroadsidePartly this is because the Navy is the Navy is the Navy (or pick your own favorite military service) – certain things are the same everywhere and anyone can hit the ground running. But every team also has things unique to it, whether they be traditions or procedures or some cultural quirk, and these get passed on too. Some things die out, but others last. After several years, the originator has probably been long gone for one or two “generations”, but people still do it (Why? They know not the reason). Sometimes that’s bad, like in the case of a hazing culture, but more often it is good for cohesion and comradery.

There are lessons here.

Organizational culture, or culture in general, is like the English common law – it is “discovered” rather than imposed. Certainly most commanders (or other institutions) will push their own organizational visions, but many initiatives will fade away because they simply don’t suit the people, while others will grow and be perpetuated because they fit people’s needs. Change is constant, yet to endure, it must remain within certain steady parameters. To break through those walls requires visionary leadership that sees the need to do so, but can also align such radical acts with such fundamentals as the team’s mission or deeply embedded culture. Change for change’s sake is a losing proposition.

The continual passage of knowledge from the “old” to the “young” among the compressed generations of a single ship’s crew present another angle. Experienced crew members know a ship’s personality quirks (every ship has a personality) or the peculiarities of working in a certain area, like the Pacific or Middle East. New members don’t. Over the time they overlap, that knowledge is passed on, and the knowledge that Sailor 1 had in 2014 is retained long after by Sailor 2 in 2017. Ideally, anyway.

Did you ever hear something to the effect of “A person is smart, but people are stupid”? Time is the key. Over the years, individuals learn lessons about life and how stuff works. The older or more experienced they are, the higher the chances are that they’ve acquired some wisdom on the topic of life, or maritime affairs. They are often perfectly willing to share stories of their mistakes and how to avoid them.

Young people haven’t had that time. And we basically make (and break) careers out of refusing to learn from other people’s mistakes. The youth anthem for all eternity ought to be “This time will be different” – and if that’s not a song, it should be (OK, apparently it’s a bunch of songs).

this_time

Anyway, leaven the old and experienced with the young and inexperienced, and now you have “people” being stupid. Hence the need for continuing education – vocational, academic and otherwise – from the old to the young, from the senior to the junior, from the knowledgeable to the newb, to minimize the stupidity.

The trick is that when worthwhile change is made by one generation, it needs to pass on the reasons to its successors. If it’s a radical change with no clear rationale, follow-on generations will likely revert to whatever everyone else is doing, or did before. The turnover, or knowledge transmission process, must explain the why just as much as it describes the what and how.

At a unit level, this means pointing out how many inspections were passed, how many mission requirements were met, or how much extra liberty time was earned (there’s the clincher!) after investing in certain changes and sticking with them. Make it clear that things are the way they are for good reasons.

At a broader level, like say, the United States, it means remembering to view the country from the perspective of a recent immigrant. Why did they leave their country of origin? And why did they choose to come to the U.S.? What made that place stand out from all potential destinations? Understanding these reasons – the reason for our country to exist – is the key to keeping it a going concern for centuries to come. The positives identified by an immigrant need to be accentuated and further improved. And the things that repel him from his home country – let’s not do those. Please.

Don’t make me call SMOD.

SW_icon_endnote

Drill, Baby, Drill

The backbone of America

The backbone of America

My time in Bahrain is short. A westbound flight beckons through the haze of the next two weeks, with demobilization shortly beyond. A return to civilian life follows.

Mostly.

I’d better keep my uniforms crisp. That one weekend a month – or something roughly equivalent – will endure for a good, long time. Drill weekends lie in wait.

You: What do people do on drill weekends?

Me: Thanks for asking.

To follow that awkward transition, here are some links – I did some actual research (consisting of very well-typed Google searches) and found a couple of good Reddit threads for those considering affiliation. Also, your parents are proud of you two out of every thirty days. And apparently the Army calls it “Battle Assembly,” which is either really cool or super lame.

Enough research. Here’s what I’ve experienced.

At minimum, you have admin to do. It’s the military – no matter your status, the paperwork never goes away. There’s a fitness report to review, or a medical evaluation to attend, or some mandatory Navy-wide training to sit through with drool spilling out your mouth. Depending on how squared away your unit is, you might be able to knock out the main requirements in surges just a couple times a year, but more likely the bothersome stuff will be spread throughout.

Some degree of physical training will hopefully transpire. Twice a year there is a required physical fitness test, just like on active duty, and it is only fair for you to have some time to work out while on Navy duty. Before I left, my unit did command PT at the end of the day on Saturday afternoons. That twice-a-year test will be administered on drill weekends, too.

Of course, your unit has a reason to exist, too – it supports some mission the Navy does. So after all the time spent going through the motions of simply being Reservists, there should be at least a few hours that you can work on your mission. Depending on the nature of your unit, you may have actual exercises to plan, point papers to write, or maintenance to perform.

However, it should be stated that most of that direct support to the mission is performed during Annual Training periods (a minimum of twelve days) or while on other long-term orders. Mission-oriented time on drill weekends is most likely to be spent preparing and scheduling Reserve Sailors for their AT; i.e. getting ready to do the mission, but not actually doing it – yet.

This goes to the nature of the Reserve Component as a force-in-readiness; as a Reservist, you may not be doing anything of particular value right now, but you damn well better be ready to go at the moment you get your mobilization orders. Drill gives you the time (and compensation) to do what is required to stay ready. Any additional mission support that takes place during those periods – well, that’s lagniappe.

Of course, you may join a unit that operates differently. Some are “flex drill” – they only meet twice a year for that mandatory PT test, and use their drills at odd times throughout the year. It depends on the mission. The best example is probably units that provide watch officers to 24/7 operations centers – Reservists take some of the load from the Active Component by filling slots during the week and the month, not just a single weekend. Or you might be with a unit that writes a lot of reports, and you can literally phone it in (yes, telecommuting is possible in the uniformed services). And still other units might bunch up all their drills and AT into one continuous month to do some kind of team training or support a big exercise.

So there’s a lot to ask about if you’re considering a unit with an irregular schedule. I’m not sure what’s next for me, as by January I expect to be with a new unit, hopefully closer to home. But these are some of the things I’ll be considering.

As I demobilize, I do look forward to drilling again. I’ve enjoyed the last eleven-plus years in uniform – but after a certain point, it comes best in small doses.

SW_icon_endnote

The Age of Dispersion

The news this summer is, broadly speaking, terrible. There are some bright spots, to be sure, but the only thing that keeps me from wanting to skip directly to 2017 is that we’ll have to deal with all the ripple effects of 2016. And that will be no fun.

somme

A day by the riverfront, 100 years ago

On the other hand, we are not battering each other with million-man armies over our competing interests. This was the case one hundred years ago today at the river Somme, as a British-led offensive stretched into four months of bloody toil against entrenched Germans.

How did we get here? How did we get from a time when you couldn’t make a difference in the field with less than 100,000 soldiers to a point where a mere 2,000 Marines floating around in an Amphibious Ready Group can have a major regional impact?

Welcome to the Age of Dispersion.

Clausewitz wrote “On War” in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, where to use a couple examples, about 75,000 French troops defeated 85,000 Russian, Austrian and allied troops at Austerlitz, and in which Napoleon invaded Russia with 680,000 soldiers. So he had some personal acquaintance with the notion of massing force at the decisive point, and he saw some very, very large forces get massed in his time. The principle continues to apply in everything, really – whatever it is you need to do during your day, you’d better do it with the right tools at the right time and place to get the desired effect. Whatever technological changes may have occurred in the last 200 years, Clausewitz is still correct on this basic point.

But the nature of the force has changed.

In the Great War of 1914-1918, just as in the Napoleonic Wars, the power of infantry was in great numbers. Each individual soldier carried a long gun with bayonet (a musket or rifle, 100 years apart) and maybe some grenades. When they fired their weapons, chances were they would hit precisely nothing of value. Individually, they couldn’t accomplish very much, but in big groups they could overwhelm a similarly-situated enemy.

And big groups were not terrifically hard to form. Relatively speaking, infantry were not difficult to train and equip, and, for authoritarian states like France and Russia, they were fairly easy to obtain. Thus, it was both logical and achievable for neighboring powers to one-up one another in building increasingly bigger and bigger armies to vie for domination of Europe. Similar dynamics were seen in the American Civil War (100,000 Union soldiers fought about 75,000 Confederates at Gettysburg).

But technology changed. Mechanization and mobility took away the advantages that infantry had enjoyed in the Nineteenth Century. New techniques with air power and wireless communications meant even a single grunt could achieve far more on the battlefield than his peer of a few decades before, despite being intrinsically the same old guy with a gun. Meanwhile, weapons were becoming both far more destructive and precise, culminating in nuclear weaponry and guided “smart” weapons – two very different concepts that revolutionized the battlefield in one key way: massed forces are now simply targets.

Forces like those seen at the Somme a century ago would today simply invite death from the sky. That could be in the form of rocket artillery like HIMARS or air-dropped bombs (nukes that kill everything or smart bombs that find you) – but either way, their presence in such concentration would mark them for instant death. The only solution: disperse!

Dispersion enables survival on the battlefield by not being seen – and, if you are seen, at least it won’t give away the location of your comrades. Large groups are likely to be seen; small groups are not. As a result, small but highly-trained and well-outfitted units dominate today’s modern militaries.

The same is true at sea – a three-ship Amphibious Ready Group on deployment almost never has all its ships in the same area. An aircraft carrier will almost always have another ship in sight for safety reasons, but other ships in company are often over the horizon. And in neither case are they the dozens of ships that would sail together in World War II.

Societally, this also means that governments feel less need to have large manpower-intensive forces at the ready; the draft is far rarer around the world today than it was 100 years ago. An army may still need a lot of people to maintain the aircraft and other equipment, but those are professional positions that cannot be filled by draftees off the street. Hastily filling a 100,000-man field army with the dregs of society is operationally dubious at best.

So we find ourselves in a virtuous circle where smaller and smaller forces are all that is necessary to reach a decision in war. Logically this should conclude with single combat, but I’m doubtful we’ll ever get that far (and I can’t envision any of our presidential candidates winning a duel with Vladimir Putin, or even Justin Trudeau, and no, WWE doesn’t count).

Of course, there’s a dark flip side. We are not the only ones to apply dispersion to military science. Every single terrorist organization or ideology, ever, applies this doctrine with everything they do. The enemy that cannot be found cannot be stopped or deterred. Thus, ISIL does all it can to motivate people it has never even met to act on their own with ISIL’s blessing. ISIL essentially disperses its force, a force of will, via religious-ideological means. Once their operatives show themselves, their survival rate approaches zero percent. But the damage is done by then.

What goes up must come down – but sometimes it must go up again. The drawback to technology is that it requires an industrial base to design, build and maintain. When the Big One comes (and I don’t mean the next San Francisco earthquake), all players will find that their exquisite modern weapons are exhausted in fairly short order because, as described here, their numbers are really quite small, but take a long time to produce. War remains violent, and a lot of the gear on all sides will be broken and lost, and its operators injured and killed. The bench is not deep and there will not be one-for-one replacements. Are we all just going to stop fighting because the VTC went down? If the objective is worthwhile enough to have been fighting over in the first place, then almost certainly not. Wartime exigencies will demand some sort of quick action – and a very real option is to try overwhelming the enemy with vast numbers of draftees. When the bulk of the tech has already been destroyed, dispersion will be less valuable and massed forces more effective.

So when SecState complains that Russia is behaving as if it’s the Nineteenth Century – well, maybe Russia is just ahead of its time.

Sorry, did you expect something uplifting?

SW_icon_endnote