Reserve Reasoning, Part II

This photo seemed oddly appropriate for some reason.

This photo seemed oddly appropriate for some reason.

In Part I we talked about reasons of morale and morals that might encourage someone to become a military Reservist, particularly in the Navy Reserve. Part II is the one that will probably come up if you randomly Google “Navy Reserve benefits.” Because there are a lot of them. If there weren’t, it would be difficult to justify the time and effort spent on what is still just a part-time job.

So Why Do It?

Depending on how long you were Active Duty, becoming a civilian can be jarring. You might be going right into school; there might be a job waiting; there might not. Chances are whatever job comes next is not in the military’s league where compensation is concerned, and certainly it has nowhere near the same benefits package. Membership in the Reserve Component or National Guard can help soften the blow.

Extra Paycheck: It is common to take a pay cut when you leave Active Duty. Routine Sailors’ griping aside, the military is very well compensated, and it’s tough for equivalent civilian work to match it. Working that one weekend a month is a good way to earn some of those lost wages back. Plus some enlisted and officer communities have accession bonuses when you join the Reserve straight from active duty, so there might be some additional cash to assist with your transition. Most of your costs, like travel and uniforms, are tax deductible, too.

Retirement: Many leave active service at four or five years; I separated at seven years, seven months. Some friends of mine left after eleven or twelve years, having done sea tours as department heads. The longer you serve, the more acutely you feel a certain issue – the Navy has not contributed a single dollar to your retirement (though this is changing soon). In that sense, affiliating with the Reserve is a way to prevent that time from being wasted. You continue to accumulate credit for time served and once you hit the magical twenty-year mark, you become eligible for a pension starting at age 60, possibly earlier. It’s not as generous as an active duty pension, but any kind of defined benefit is a rarity these days and Reservists have a means of earning one.

Health Care: As a Reservist you remain eligible for Tricare (the DoD-administered health care program, and health care is NOT one word, thankyouverymuch) under the Tricare Reserve Select (TRS) program. Unlike Tricare for Active Duty, this is a premium-based program, and functions basically like any other health plan in the civilian market, allowing you to choose local providers where you live, not military hospitals. The family premium is half what my employer offers for a similar plan, so I count that as a win. Note: Federal employees are NOT eligible for TRS.

Education: The Post-9/11 GI Bill is an incredibly generous inducement to national service (probably too generous to be sustained, but that’s for another post). If you didn’t have enough time on active duty to have earned the full benefit, some additional time as a Reservist can help you get to 100 percent. And while this is probably the most widely-used program, it is far from the only educational benefit. Officers are eligible to pursue masters’ degrees through the Naval War College and the other servicesequivalent schools, both in-residence and via regional seminars (the Fleet Seminar Program, which I am doing). And three times a year the Reserve Component National Security Course convenes in Washington, DC, for senior enlisted and mid-to-senior-grade officers, a course to which I’ve applied before and will continue applying until I get in. Then there are service schools, specific to your job or unit, which pop up in the course of performing your duties (I attended this course as part of my mobilization). This is far from an exhaustive list, but hits the highlights.

Job Opportunities: It’s not all just overseas mobilizations. Depending on where you live, you might be able to pick up some work in uniform – anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple years – without even changing your ZIP code. This is obviously easiest where there’s a big Navy presence, places such as Norfolk, VA; San Diego, CA; Washington, DC; or, believe it or not, Memphis, TN. But sometimes oddball things come up in random places, like recruiting duty or supporting a Fleet Week. Essentially, being a Reservist gets you access to the job board.

Networking: Through your unit or local Reserve center you’ll meet people you never would have otherwise, and reconnect with folks you haven’t seen in years. Especially if you’re new to an area, it’s a great way to make connections and integrate into the community.

Transferability: Most of the work I’ve done for the Navy and the extra education I’ve been able to get from it has been applicable in some fashion in my civilian profession. The degree of transferability varies depending on what kind of work you do, but in principle you should be able to see some return.

Break the Routine: All that said, my best reason to have stuck with the Reserve is it breaks up my work routine. I have enjoyed my civilian job, but at the same time, I don’t think I could sustain my efforts for more than a couple years without getting bored (call it the residual effect of the Active Duty PCS cycle). But the opportunity to do something else for two or three weeks each year breaks up what could devolve into monotony. By getting out of the office, I’m ready to go back to it.

If you do short-term contracting or seasonal work, Reserve military service is a great way to fill the gaps between jobs or during the offseason. If you have steadier employment it’s trickier to plan, but can still be worthwhile for the other benefits.

Wow, the Navy Reserve Sounds Awesome.
Why Would Anyone NOT Do It?

Because it takes a lot of time. Duh. If it was freakin’ easy everyone would join! (If you left Active Duty because you want to be free of the military, then BE FREE! Run away!) I spent a weekend out of town almost every month since early 2013 until I was mobilized. In my eldest daughter’s lifetime, I’ve spent more time away from home as a Reservist than on Active Duty! And people get mobilized and leave for months at a time. The only way to be sure that person isn’t you is to not be affiliated. I drew the short straw this time around. Oh, well. But for all the reasons described above, it is worth it to me. It isn’t to most people.



Reserve Reasoning, Part I

A recent post talked a little about the nature of the Navy Reserve. This one follows up with why anyone would want to take on a part-time job in the military. But, instead of just drawling on about a laundry list of benefits, let’s tackle it from a different perspective.

As a civilian, you may have heard that career tracks in the military are rather structured. Those who wish to make it to a twenty-year retirement must check certain boxes in their career field during that span. If you have hopes of becoming a general or admiral someday, things are even more constricted. Those who step off the conveyor may be able to recover, but they are risking promotion and possibly even retention.


SecDef and SecNav, the Dynamic Duo

Here in the waning days of the current administration, attention is being paid. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is spending a lot of time at podiums and darkening millions of pixels discussing personnel reforms; Military Times provides a summary of his efforts in an article about SecDef’s March 22 visit to West Point. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus is, um, perhaps a little overenthusiastic at times, and I waver between thinking his heart is in the right place or that he’s just angling for higher office from a future chief executive. He has meaningfully changed the Navy’s Surface Warfare career path (where I grew up), probably for the better; he also rather vindictively gave the Marine Corps just two weeks to come up with a plan to integrate its separate male and female boot camps, and then backed off under fire. In any case, manpower reform’s high-profile treatment in the final 18 months of a Presidential administration means it’s likely they’ll be able to say “See, we TRIED!” without actually accomplishing anything.

And this is where the Reserve Component comes in. Most of the proposed reforms for Active Duty come down to increasing career flexibility, and giving members the ability to get commands, promotions, and pensions without following a narrow path. Reservists already have that. By the very nature of not being on active duty, they can take time for school or to raise a family, or enter private industry and bring those lessons learned back into the military. Being a Reservist is ideal for those who enjoy being in the military but not the constricted career track.

Admittedly there’s a key difference in that reform would theoretically provide full pay and benefits to Active Duty members at grad school or other career alternatives, while Reservists aren’t in that position. But there are still substantial benefits to being a Reservist (to be covered in this space soon), and it makes a great Plan B if, as I expect, Plan A dies a silent death with the change of administration in January 2017.

Already, a Reservist can achieve the career flexibility with which personnel reformers are so enamored, and which today’s workforce (you know, those pesky Millennials) expects. Time for additional schooling, professional development or raising children can be taken when the Reservist plans it. As opposed to the Active Duty job assignment (“detailing”) process, over which members have very little control, Reservists (in the Navy, at least) have a great deal of influence over what unit they are assigned to and what orders they take. Often, it is simply an application and interview process nearly analogous to what happens in the civilian world. The Reservist can apply for orders that last weeks, months or occasionally years, only seeking and accepting them when he or she wants to. The exception is involuntary mobilizations, in which the Reservist has little say, but even these can be headed off by blocking off a certain period and volunteering for one that falls within it. There will be downtime between military jobs, but for many people that is a feature, not a bug. That time allows for a civilian job or to accomplish some other personal goal. The member will perform monthly drills while not on orders, but even those drills can be moved, within reason, to a time that better fits the member’s schedule.

There are trade-offs, of course – there are very few places Navy Reservists can reside if they want to do a lot of work for the Navy while still sleeping in their own house at night. And you can command a Reserve unit, but command at sea is very, very rare short of World War III. At the highest levels, a lot of Reserve officers are the deputy to an Active Duty commander, but very few actually are the commander.

To truly make the Reserve Component a major part of reforms to the active side, a lot of jobs (“billets”) would need to be reassigned from active to reserve Sailors and new manpower processes built to train and man those positions. And Congress needs to get involved, if for  nothing else than to update the services’ authorized strength. This is not a turnkey solution, but the ingredients are present. Ongoing Army efforts at Active, Reserve and National Guard integration may prove instructive.

Everyone leaves Active Duty for one reason or another. If upon careful reflection, you realize your reasons for separating come down to an unwillingness to follow the prescribed track, but you are reluctant to leave the community and camaraderie of military service, then affiliation with the Reserve Component may be a good way to address both sentiments. Service as a Reservist is a way to achieve, in large measure, the career freedom and flexibility desired by many in the Millennial generation, and may yet be part of the solution to the personnel questions of the entire Department of Defense.


Andrew Lloyd Webber, Call Your Agent

They're watching you...

They’re watching you…

Sailors and Marines come and go. Civilians stay longer but still have homes to return to. Even local hires don’t stay forever. Only one group can legitimately claim ownership of Naval Support Activity Bahrain – the cats.

They are everywhere, and they are in charge.

Cats roam outside the gate, and inside. Meowing, faint or sometimes very loud, can be heard at all hours of the day and night. They come up to people and look for company… or food. Signs warn DO NOT FEED THE CATS. But little piles of kibble can still be found here and there. I think it’s the Marines – they’re all softies at heart.

These creatures are not devoid of personality. One had kittens a couple months ago whom I see now and then. They are skittish. Others are more assertive; two of them were involved in a very loud confrontation behind a bush when one came shooting out in front of me into the street, with the other immediately chasing at high speed.

There’s another wily one that consistently hangs out by the back exit of the Navy Exchange’s mini-grocery store. People often stop there to re-pack their groceries into backpacks or bicycle baskets. This orange cat has figured out that some of these people are nice to it, and always gives attention to those who pause there. I don’t know if it’s ever paid off with a snack, but the cat is apparently confident it will.

AND they can burn you with their eyeballs!

AND they can burn you with their eyeballs!

I did the usual blog-level cursory research to see if cats are a big deal in Bahrain, and I was surprised to find they actually are. Meet the Delmun cat – it has its own website. Very few cats can code in HTML, but Bahrain trains them well. The name, also spelled Dilmun, alludes to the civilization that flourished on the island 4,000 years ago, a contemporary and trading partner of Mesopotamia. The cats are native to the island, though through the centuries there has been some interbreeding with visiting cats gone feral. In their purebred incarnation, they are well-adapted to desert life and low water intake, while at the same time, they have webbed feet. These cats are seriously conflicted about their preferred lifestyle.

Whether the Delmun cat would rather hunt in the southern desert or swim to Saudi Arabia, it’s obvious it doesn’t require people to help. So the very needy cats on base are probably a big embarrassment to the native cats. This must contribute to some pretty cutthroat intrafeline politics here. And so in the cats we find yet another intractable Middle Eastern dispute.

I knew there was a reason I never liked “Cats.”



Reserve Judgement

Ted Nugent sets the tone

Ted Nugent sets the tone

The Salty Wog includes a page for Navy Reserve stuff and I conceived of it as a place for Reserve discussions – and yet haven’t done a single one yet. Instead I’ve been off doing movie reviews and long-winded explanations of The Way Things Are. Which will continue, to be sure. But the Reserve page deserves some content, and I’ll start with a bit of what the Navy Reserve is.

As of this writing, the active-duty Navy is home to 328,828 personnel (the latest numbers may be found here). The Navy Reserve, writ large, is about a third that size, at 107,440 individuals. Those 100,000+ trained Sailors provide a strategic manpower reserve to augment the rest of the Navy in a time of need. So if you add it all up, there’s something like 435,000 people in varying stages of affiliation with the Navy.

But there is, as always, more to it than that. The Navy Reserve gets sliced and diced a lot of ways. About half of those affiliated are in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), which means their name appears on a list somewhere but they’re not obligated to do anything unless there’s an emergency call-up. Most folks who serve their minimum active duty obligation end up in this situation. We’re generally obligated to eight years of service total, with the first five or so on active duty, but after that our names remain on the list until all eight years are up, even if we never put on a uniform for the latter chunk of time.

The rest – currently numbering about 57,000 – are in the Full-Time Support (FTS) and Selected Reserve (SELRES) communities. There are around 10,000 FTS and 47,000 SELRES, give or take. FTS is an active duty portion of the Navy Reserve in which members have tours both with the regular Navy and in direct support of Reserve operations and administration. SELRES is made up of the Weekend Warriors you hear so much about. Broadly speaking, most SELRES members belong to units that directly support something in the Navy’s active component or bureaucracy. My Reserve unit helps plan and execute pre-deployment training for East Coast ships, for example. Others do Pentagon admin, provide port operations expertise, or maintain and operate small riverine boats – and dozens of other missions. SELRES members get paid to do these things part time; one weekend a month, two weeks a year.

But paying people to train isn’t necessarily beneficial if they don’t apply that training – so we have mobilizations. That’s where I’m at. As of this month, nearly 3,000 Navy Reservists are mobilized to various active duty gigs, and I’m one of them. Some folks are mobilized to places like Colorado Springs or Tampa, but I am not one of those. A significant portion end up in the Middle East, largely Bahrain. I am attached to a staff that is in charge of the daily operations of some of the U.S. Navy ships in the area, so mostly I stay up to date on what’s going on and inform the right people. A lot of the security folks (Masters-at-Arms) are Reservists, and discussions of Reserve affairs can often be heard on and off base.

Several friends and I have been mobilized after only two or three years in the SELRES; on the other hand, I’ve known senior officers who never mobilized in more than a decade of Reserve service. Life is like a box of chocolates, etc.

There is more, of course, with the obvious questions about what motivates people to join. But this post is already long-ish, and with the last one being quite the marathon, it is probably time to cut it short. But now at least you know what the Navy Reserve is. That alone sets you apart from most people.


A Continental Island

Sometimes people refer to “Fortress America” as a somewhat ironic term for the military-industrial complex. But a much more accurate term would be “Island America.” For, indeed, the United States of America is an island – and I’m not just counting Hawaii here.

The thing is, it’s a really BIG island – sea-to-shining-sea, after all – and it’s easy to forget we live on one. The tension between real and imagined status as an island nation has always been a defining characteristic of American national character.

So let’s stop for a moment and consider why America is an island politically and geographically.

Why Is America an Island?

The overwhelming political factor is that we have good neighbors – Canadians to the left of me, Mexicans to the right; here I am, stuck in the middle with U.(S.A.). Things are pretty quiet here. The world’s longest undefended border last saw battle in the War of 1812. The U.S.-Mexico relationship has been a little more tumultuous (including one of the strangest episodes of the 20th century) but Mexico clearly does not have aggressive intentions. Ultimately we’ve been able to push ahead with things like NAFTA and U.S./Canadian NATO cooperation to closely integrate North American neighbors. This permits the U.S. to look farther afield without fear of getting sucker-punched by Justin Trudeau (which, let’s face it, would be pretty embarrassing coming from this guy).

The ability to look outward brings geography to the fore. Everyone else out there is across the sea. Even our Caribbean neighbors, which are not that far off, are still surrounded by generous quantities of salt water. And to get to continental nations, there’s even more. Miami to Caracas, Venezuela, is more than 1, 300 miles. The distance between Boston and Lisbon, Portugal, exceeds 3,000 miles across the Atlantic. And it’s more than 5,000 miles from San Francisco to Tokyo.

Without foreign aggressors at home, and vast distances to anyone else, that sure sounds like an island to me.

And wasn’t that the whole point? People came to America to get away from the troubles of their old countries, and find opportunity in a new land. If America wasn’t functionally an island, how would any of that have been possible?

Why Do We Forget It’s an Island?

It's BIG! Really BIG!

It’s BIG! Really BIG!

But, as mentioned earlier, it’s a gigantic island that spans a continent. Canada is even bigger (if mostly uninhabited). So there’s plenty for people in the interior to do – plenty of room to set up homes, cities and lifestyles, and plenty of resources to extract. The U.S. frontier only closed in 1890, and even after that there was (is) still bountiful barely-populated land to tame.

Between the Arctic tundra and the jungles of Yucatan lies almost everything a modern economy could want – plenty of timber, mineral and oil wealth, a steady water supply in the heart of the continent, and above all, space, space, space. If you’ve never set foot in the deserts, plains and mountains between the Sierras and the Mississippi (or visited Alaska or the Yukon or Northwest Territories) I’m not sure you can conceive of how undeveloped most of North America is. Or think of it this way – between Seattle and Minneapolis, there are no Major League Baseball teams. That’s a 1,600-mile gap. Picking a team must be tough if you live in Montana (minors to the rescue!).

With such ample natural wealth and vast overland distances it is easy to turn inward. If forced by global crisis, North Americans could probably get by on their own. It wouldn’t be comfortable, and you wouldn’t be able to get out-of-season fruit from Chile, but we wouldn’t starve. And that is what makes the American island different – on a regular island, the resources do not exist to support an industrial society. They are reliant on trade to support themselves. Think of some historically great trading nations and city-states – Great Britain, Athens, Japan, Singapore, Holland, Venice, Portugal. These are all either islands or have some geographic feature that makes them functionally similar. Commercial activity was the only way to maintain the accustomed standard of living of a growing population within a static space. Happily, it made them rich, too.

Commerce and Capital

The American colonies were mostly founded as commercial enterprises. Sure, there were plenty of natural resources to exploit in the 1500s and 1600s, but who among the colonists had the money to get a crew together and go to work? Capital was necessary. And the capital that funded these efforts was not native to this country – it came from abroad. So, from the very first moments of post-Columbian history, America had to maintain close commercial connections with the Old World. Otherwise, colonists would have been destined to remain subsistence farmers, able to make little more than a hardscrabble living off the land with the tools they brought with them. In reality, an infusion of international capital over 200 years enabled American colonists to enjoy the world’s highest standard of living even before the events of 1776.

The new United States retained its commercial character and colonial commodities-based economy – an economy much like those of Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, just bigger. Yes, there was a vast continent across the Appalachians to explore, but those intrepid pioneers still needed London bankers to pay for it. So the enormous American maritime industry continued to put ships to sea exporting American commodities and returning with European manufactured goods – and cold, hard cash.

A Highway and a Moat

Pop quiz: Can anyone recite the reasons why the War of 1812 was fought? OK, you’re forgiven. In retrospect, it seems like a pointless exercise, right? It can only be understood by zooming out – the war between the U.S. and Britain was, in fact, directly related to the Napoleonic Wars raging in Europe. And it resulted, arguably, from George Washington’s philosophical mistake.

I really shouldn't be picking fights with this guy...

I really shouldn’t be picking fights with this guy…

Among the many hats he wore, Washington was a businessman and he understood the value of international trade to the young United States. He knew a merchant fleet was vital and that a navy was required to preserve its safety, as exemplified by his signature on the Navy Act of 1794, ordering six frigates that would go on to form the nucleus of the United States Navy. Washington understood that, as a virtual island nation separated from and connected to other modern nations by sea, maritime commerce would be vital to the future well-being of the U.S.

But he wanted it both ways. In Washington’s Farewell Address, he cautioned the nation against involvement in “entangling alliances” with foreign powers.[i] His aim, justifiably, was to use the sea as a highway for commercial enterprise and a moat against unrest abroad (the French Revolution being the crisis of the day). The resulting policy of the U.S. was to deal commercially with all comers in a neutral manner, which students of American involvement in World War I will find familiar.

At the time, that primarily meant trade with Great Britain and France. However, after Napoleon’s rise to power and demonstrated propensity for belligerence, Great Britain found that American trade with France went directly against its interests, and thus worked to prevent it. The upshot was that even neutral trade, conducted without malice toward either party, was itself an act of taking sides in the eyes of the combatants. No alliances were created, but the very act of commerce generated entanglements. Perhaps Washington anticipated this but didn’t say anything, in order to amplify the point he did make. Or perhaps he would have been blindsided had he lived to see 1812. In either case, to stand up for the principle of neutral trade, the U.S. had to fight the world’s greatest empire. Ultimately it was only settled by the fall of Napoleon and the end of war in Europe, rendering the point of contention moot.

The more effective policy would have been to simply side with the British. Doctors would have reported an alarming incidence of heart attacks among veterans of the Revolution and Lafayette’s groupies, and we wouldn’t have had Francis Scott Key write The Star-Spangled Banner, but the war (and related economic collapse) could have been avoided.

But this post is not to second-guess the policies of the Madison Administration (though we can do that, if you’d like). It is to make the point that the same tendency recurs again and again and again throughout American history – the belief that we can base a national economy upon worldwide commerce and somehow avoid the troubles of our business partners. The problem is, trouble always finds you when you’re not looking.

America Is an Island, Not a Hermit

Geography blessed America, but in that blessing lie the seeds of complacency. From Day One, high standards of living in the U.S. have been the direct result of international trade bringing capital and new products to its shores. At the same time, the distance from America to troublesome faraway points tempts Americans to think they don’t have to worry about them – that we can take care of ourselves here and let others clean up their own mess. But the only way for an island to escape the troubles of the outside world is to give up its friendly connections with it.

If retrenchment and disengagement is the national inclination, as the winnowed-down crop of presidential candidates seems to indicate (except one, maybe), then that’s OK. There’s no right or wrong answer in this sort of thing, only trade-offs. But the trade-offs are really important. These decisions impact America’s place in the world and, in the long run, affect how everything you own is produced and priced. So they must be made with our eyes open.

Otherwise time on this American island will be no day at the beach.



[i] Interestingly, the exact phrase “entangling alliances” appears nowhere in the text, but that is the only piece anyone “remembers” from the Farewell Address. Here is Washington’s actual statement on the topic, quoted at length from the much longer full document:

“Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

“Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

“Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”

The Tree of Life: The Not-Movie Version


We're not talking about this.

We’re not talking about this.

Now that I am awake during the day (as opposed to my long period standing watch and generally living at night), I have the opportunity to do daytime things, like play tourist. So I found a brief tour on a day off, put down my $5 (!) and got in a van to visit the Tree of Life.

Several years ago I did see the movie “The Tree of Life,” the very Malick-y Terrence Malick film from 2011. It is a beautiful movie, though I couldn’t tell you what it’s actually about. However the attraction in Bahrain is a little different – Brad Pitt was nowhere to be found, and, for that matter, I couldn’t locate any dinosaurs, either (if you haven’t seen the movie, that sentence will make no sense).

A tree grows in Bahrain.

A tree grows in Bahrain.

Bahrain’s Tree of Life is an actual tree. It is in the neighborhood of 400 years old and all by itself in the southern desert, a generally tree-free region. But somewhere way down deep it tapped into an as-yet-unidentified water source and it has flourished over the centuries. Surrounding the tree are decaying stone-and-mortar foundations that are about the same age as the tree. Archeologists have recovered various signs of human habitation, from jugs to coins to ammunition. It would make sense for someone to have located a fort there and kept a stash of cannonballs. The site is on top of a small hill, from which you can see pretty far in all directions. People don’t tend to think too much about topography, but in a flat country a few feet can make a big difference.

Someone lived here.

Someone lived here.

But it was only in 2013 that the site was enclosed to prevent cars from driving over the ruins, so it’s not in the best shape. The five of us tourists were walking all over the area, which I’m sure would have been blocked off if we’d been in the Arizona desert.

Beyond actually seeing the Tree of Life, the trip was notable for being almost as far as you can go on the island of Bahrain. There is territory to the south of the tree, but not terribly much. So I can now say I’ve seen nearly the entire east coast, bopping along to the tunes of Smashmouth/No Doubt/Pearl Jam/Adele/Taylor Swift and other pop of the last 20 years on the radio station apparently solely sponsored by Saudi Aramco (a story in itself) for all the expats in the Gulf. It was basically like when driving through Fredericksburg, where I lose the DC stations and put on a local pop one, except that instead of I-95 in lush tidewater Virginia it was a really well-maintained freeway in dusty desert. (Did the desert dust get on you? Shake It Off.)

The drive from Juffair, my neighborhood, to the Tree is actually instructive in that it gets your eyeballs on all the major industries. As you exit the city of Manama you can see the giant skyscrapers – hubs of banking and finance scattered amongst grand hotels serving tourists and business travelers alike. Along the waterfront the ship berths, repair facilities and naval base are visible. Further south as the residential and commercial suburbs give way to heavy industry, an oil refinery and storage tanks become visible (so not only can Bahrain export crude, they can process oil into usable products, which is nice). And a bit before the city streets turn to freeway, there’s a giant aluminum smelting plant which, from the street, looks very clean and modern – aluminum is Bahrain’s second-biggest export after oil, after all. And then right down the road from the Tree of Life itself, you’ll find Isa Air Base, hub of Bahrain’s air defenses. We actually followed a convoy of security forces on the way out from the Tree. So there’s definitely a lot of military activities in the south.

There is, of course, more to say – Bahrain is a small country but it is an entire country, and that’s kind of a big deal. But that’s plenty for one post. As always, there’s more to follow.


An Intervention

We have a problem. It’s not new, but I have seen it more frequently of late. And it’s time for an intervention.

No one knows how to spell “marshal.”

Seriously, people. Let’s break it down.

Marshal – with one L

As a verb, “to marshal” is to arrange or organize a group. As a noun, it refers to people who perform that role, such as a fire marshal, a parade’s grand marshal, an army’s field marshal or provost marshal, or even the U.S. Marshals. In none of these cases is there more than one L.

So when you want to write “marshal”, think of the world’s most legendary fire marshal:

"It's one L! One!"

“It’s one L! One!”

Marshall – with two L’s

This is a name of a human. Various humans have enjoyed the name, such as Chief Justice John Marshall, NFL Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, and entrepreneur and retail titan Marshall Field. What do they have in common? They are all humans, they are all named Marshall, and the letter L is used twice in each case. Some things are named after humans and share the name Marshall, including this West Virginia university which goes to the trouble of spelling out its name for you in its logo:

We Are Marshall… and we have two L’s

We Are Marshall… and we have two L’s

Martial – a very different spelling

The word “martial” is an adjective referring to military or warlike things, such as the martial arts. It is generally used properly and I only include it here to round things out and make clear there are three versions of this homonym. Just remember to use the right one! Don’t whine about it like this girl:


[Knock, knock]

Wait, somebody’s at the door.

[Door creaks open]



The Domain of Professionals

It is said that in war, amateurs devise tactics while professionals plan logistics. America’s status as a virtual island nation makes this doubly true – to even get to theaters of interest, much less conduct useful operations, logistics support is vital. Such innovations as nuclear power do little to change this – fuel for the ship may be unnecessary, but the crew still has to eat, equipment still needs spare parts and embarked aircraft still burn petroleum.

This has undergone many iterations – in the days of sail, ships could travel for months in between stops ashore for food, fresh water and timber. The advent of coal rendered ships’ schedules more dependable but also their cruising ranges more finite, and necessitated the establishment of coaling stations at places far afield for any country that wanted a global presence. Thus, the need for a navy to defend far-flung territories required the procurement of more far-flung territories in order to fuel that very navy. Such is the circular logic of imperialism.

The Royal Navy saw an obvious problem with this. In a maritime conflict, a fleet at sea would rapidly deplete its fuel and need to replenish somewhere. Through a few simple calculations of time, distance, and fuel consumption, an enemy who knew the general location of a British fleet could guess when and where it would need to refuel, and plan its maneuvers accordingly. So as early as 1870, the Royal Navy was already experimenting with ways of transferring coal from colliers to warships underway. In theory, this meant ships could replenish at sea, anywhere.

But coal is bulky, and ships need vast quantities of it. So it didn’t work very well.

The United States Navy took notes and made its own attempts – but what really enabled underway replenishment to work was oil. It’s much easier to pump fluid through a hose than pass boxes back and forth. On April 6, 1917, an American destroyer flotilla headed to the U.K. was successfully refueled off the coast of Greenland by an oiler under the supervision of none other than LCDR Chester Nimitz, the XO and chief engineer. It wasn’t standardized, though, until immediately before World War II, when RADM Nimitz did some further testing from his perch in the Bureau of Navigation.

A lot of things can claim to have won the war in the Pacific – unrestricted submarine warfare, Navajo code talkers, lucky pilots, plucky Marines – but ultimately none of them were possible without logistical backing. A recent post was about how big the ocean is. With an expanse so vast, no campaign or meaningful operation of any kind, could have been sustained without underway replenishment.

Here’s how it’s done.

(A note on the photos: Several are my photos, but I also borrowed a few from Navy public affairs where I didn’t have a suitably demonstrative shot. You will see the point of view of both the receiving and providing ship.)

  • Approach from behind and off to the side a bit.
Niiiice and easy...

Niiiice and easy…

  • Gently pull forward so your receiving station is even with the oiler’s chosen fueling station.
Anxiously awaiting their customer

Anxiously awaiting their customer.

  • Send over a shotline – i.e. shoot a grenade across with a thin line trailing behind it (which you can actually see in the photo below). The tanker’s crew will literally chase it down and pick it up off the deck.
Firing the shotline from USS Dewey (DDG 105) to Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Patuxent (T-AO 201). (U.S. Navy photo)

Firing the shotline from USS Dewey (DDG 105) to Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Patuxent (T-AO 201). (U.S. Navy photo)

  • The receiving ship will pull that line back, which the providing ship has tied to a cable and a “phone-and-distance” line. It has numbered flags on it so the conning officer has a visual cue for the distance between ships.
Sailors handle the phone and distance line on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. (U.S. Navy photo)

Sailors handle the phone and distance line on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. (U.S. Navy photo)

  • Then it basically becomes a matter of sending progressively bigger lines and cables back and forth until finally you have a spanwire under tension between the two ships. When it’s tensioned, you can send the fuel hose (as seen below). Using another tensioned wire at a different station, you can also send palletized cargo to and fro.
Sending over the nozzle and hose.

Sending over the nozzle and hose.

  • Pray that the ocean doesn’t look like this (the worst part was we couldn’t get food across… not that we’d have been able to eat much).


Keep in mind the ships are sailing in close proximity on a straight course for two or three hours. If you want to compress three hours down to three minutes, here is a frenetically-paced video for you. It can be nerve-wracking, yet is done with astonishing regularity without incident (most of the time).

Anyone with pretensions of global reach needs to be able to do this. It is not optional.


The Nuclear Option


An all-nuclear group photo from 1964.

The post about time, distance, and fuel consumption included an offhand comment about nuclear plants being able to sustain high speed. Questions were raised. I always had the intention of coming back to it, so let’s dig into it now.

In a nutshell, naval nuclear power relies on using the heat generated by radioactive decay to heat water and make steam. Instead of using coal to drive a steam engine, we use uranium. Once you get away from the reactor itself, it’s the same old steam that’s been in use for 200-plus years. But unlike coal, which is depleted as it is burned, the fuel rods stay hot and relatively intact for decades. A ship with a fifty-year service life will probably only be refueled once.

Aside from the ability to bypass the gas station, this steady power source also offers enormous amounts of energy on demand. Depending on the plant configuration and hull characteristics, it really can maintain a sprint across an ocean.

The navies of the United States and a few other countries – notably, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom – have predominantly applied nuclear power toward submarines and aircraft carriers. The nuclear advantage is most pronounced in submarines. They never have to surface to recharge batteries with air-breathing diesels and, since drinking water and oxygen can be made from seawater, the only limit on their endurance is food. Nuclear power also enhances aircraft carriers by eliminating the vast amounts of fuel storage and ventilation that would serve a conventional plant, making that space available for aviation fuel and other supplies. Sustained high speed capabilities also help carriers when launching and recovering aircraft, since they have to make their own wind over the flight deck so their aircraft can generate extra lift.

Other smaller surface ships have been nuclear powered – Russia even maintains some nuclear icebreakers. But cruel economics have ended their careers in the United States. The construction costs of nuclear ships are higher than their conventional brethren, and end-of-life disposal costs are commensurately increased as well. In between, their fuel costs are obviously much, much lower than an oil-consuming ship, but the plants have to be overseen by nuclear-trained personnel.

If you want to enter a career field that pretty much guarantees you lifetime employment, be a nuclear engineer. They tend to get poached by the private sector, so the Navy has to spend a lot of bonus money to retain these guys, whose training wasn’t cheap to begin with. I’m sure there are other external factors that add to the cost of nuclear power, but manpower is definitely a dominant one. Expanding the nuclear manpower model to the entire fleet would require drastic paradigm-shifting reforms to be affordable; otherwise the cost would be prohibitive.

I did a bit of cursory research and found a couple tidbits that flesh out the bottom line of why nuclear has not retained its foothold in the surface fleet. First, in this Heritage Foundation report from 2007, they estimate that oil prices above $74/barrel make nuclear power competitive (they say it’s a Navy estimate but there’s no sourcing). Then, go to page 23 of this 2011 Congressional Budget Office analysis of nuclear power’s cost-effectiveness for surface ships. The history of oil prices since the early 1990s – when the last nuclear surface combatants were decommissioned – shows that prices high enough to justify nuclear ships are actually pretty rare, only about 2006 to 2008 and 2010 to 2015 (including recent history after the report was published). With OPEC keeping the spigots on, Iranian oil about to hit the market, and the American “fracklog” waiting to take advantage of any price jumps, cheap oil will be a reality for a while. Some commercial shippers are finding fuel costs to be so low that it is more economic to take extra-long trips around Africa instead of paying Suez Canal tolls, which might mean an extra ten days at sea by our calculations the other day. No need for nukes in this situation.

So, at the end of the day, nuclear plants only appear on the vessels where they offer a clear qualitative advantage – submarines and aircraft carriers.

In that case, you ask, how do we sustain a fuel-hungry non-nuclear force at sea? There’s a clue in the photo up top… stand by for more.


The Timelessness of Geography

You are reading this on the Internet. You may, in fact, make a living online and never need to leave your town. Distance may seem an abstraction when you can talk to anyone on the planet (or in orbit of it!) in real time, or fly almost anywhere within 24 hours. But as long as you need food to eat or clothes to wear – or the electronic device you’re using to read this – geography and distance will continue to have a substantial impact on your ability to to fill those needs.

Which is a roundabout of saying, the ocean is really BIG.

How big is it?

A straight shot from San Diego, California, to Tokyo is a bit over 5,600 miles (9,100 km). This will take you 14 days at 15 knots.[i]

Sailing from San Diego to Brisbane, Australia, will cover 7,200 miles (11,600 km) and take 18 days at the same speed.

London to Hong Kong, via Suez, is a voyage of more than 11,000 miles (18,000 km) and requires 27 days to complete at an average speed of 15 kts.

If the Suez Canal was shut down, the same trip would be 15,000 miles (24,000 km) and 37 days. So let’s hope the canal doesn’t have any issues.

But here’s the part that might shock people of the modern technological age: These numbers have been static for 150 years. As far back as the 1870s, ships were winning the unofficial “Blue Riband” for Atlantic crossings with speeds averaging 15 knots. By 1952, the final Blue Riband winner, the passenger liner SS United States, edged the competition with an average speed of 34.5 knots, crossing from the United Kingdom to New York City in 3 days, 12 hours and 12 minutes. But no (non-nuclear) ship can sustain such speeds for very long. This graph is why:

Go fast, but not too fast.

Go fast, but not too fast.

In general, this asymptotic curve represents every situation in which friction is fighting your efforts – it takes progressively more and more energy to add marginally less and less velocity. Even skydivers hit terminal velocity, where wind resistance keeps them from plummeting any faster even though gravity wants to keep accelerating them at 9.8 m/s2. I propose that we change the term to “asymptotic velocity” and then make that into the name of a rock band. It would be awesome. But back to our point, which is:

Water is much thicker than air. Friction is correspondingly greater.

Three-and-a-half days at 34.5 knots might work for a big ship with plenty of room for the oil bunkers, but they’d never make it across the Pacific at that speed. Even a vast 50,000-ton ship like the United States would run out of fuel.

So a more moderate speed it is – and somewhere in the teens or maybe low twenties in nautical miles per hour[ii] is where you’ll find most transoceanic ships’ sweet spot combining speed and fuel efficiency.

And thus, a trade route or war plan conceived in 1910 is still going to be about the same as today. Except for the occasional addition of a canal, the choke points don’t change. Key ports don’t appear or shut down all that often. Places that mattered to William McKinley generally matter to us now. Check out this graphic from 1938, courtesy of the University of Texas – there’s not too much that needs updating (though the lack of mainland Asian ports like Shanghai or Pusan is a question mark). Things have changed a bit since then, but cities and islands are still right where they used to be. And ships crossing the vast spaces between them are no faster than they were in the coal era.

Ships themselves will always be improving, getting safer and more efficient. Nevertheless, they remain prisoners of geography and physics. The world may feel smaller when I can write this in Bahrain and you can read it the same day in North America – but the time it takes to sail that gulf is the same as it has been for decades, and will be so for decades to come.


***Blog Bonus!!!*** I discovered a Hostra University professor’s transportation maps while researching this post. They accompany a textbook. I didn’t directly reference it anywhere, but it was too good not to mention. Go spend some time there to learn about how the world is stitched together by transportation links.


[i] All these numbers are rounded, if you couldn’t guess.

[ii] A nautical mile is 2,000 yards. The term “knot” comes from the method sailing ships used to estimate their speed.