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).


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.



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.


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.


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.


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?



What goes up must come down... preferably under power (AP photo)

What goes up must come down… preferably under power (AP photo)

It’s not all doom and gloom. Actually, the world is awesome. Proof:

  • SpaceX landed another rocket the other day. This should not be possible, and yet it’s now  so common it barely makes the news. What might make the news? Landing three at a time.
  • Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are buying natural gas… from the United States. You can’t make this stuff up. (Incidentally, can we go home now?)
  • The American markets keep hitting record highs this treacherous summer because, well, where else are investors supposed to put their money? Whatever issues may loom at the moment, the U.S. economy remains a safe haven because most others suck even more. OK, that’s not exactly awesome, but you have to take what you can get sometimes. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Of course, don’t get too comfortable.


Hope (?)

Death with a smile

Death with a smile

Reuters breathlessly reports from Farnborough that the F-35 had a dazzling debut at the annual UK air show, and that it is rapidly approaching readiness for real-world operations.

It reads like a Lockheed Martin press release. Nevertheless, let us hope this story is true. It’s bought with your money, after all. The airplane intended to be low-cost that will run $100 million a copy had better work as advertised, and for a good, long time.

However, this paragraph made me pause:

But U.S. officials argue the plane’s sophisticated fusion technology will let it spot enemy jets from such a distance that it never get into an actual dogfight, and that its cost will drop to around $85 million by 2019, stepping up competition with rivals such as Boeing Co F/A-18 and Eurofighter.

The second clause might actually happen – with steady production, costs will almost certainly drop. But the first… oh my, the first.

People forget history.

The aircraft: the F-4 Phantom II. The time: the 1950s.

Supersonic flight and missiles were revolutionizing everything – no dogfights would ever happen again. EVER. All the smart people said so. So the F-4, among other interceptors of the time, was designed without a gun.

But the Vietnam War popped up a couple years after the F-4 hit the fleet. That bubble got burst real quick.

The theory was supersonic fighters would be able to loose a missile at its target and be miles away before the unfortunate opponent even knew a fight was on. However, the tech hadn’t caught up. Missiles of the time weren’t quite as precise as Robert McNamara thought. And pilots would often slow down after the first unsuccessful pass in an attempt to turn around, get behind the target and try again.

Which put them in an oft-quoted situation – too bad there was no gun to remedy it. An externally-mounted one solved the immediate problem, but arguably the issue should have never occurred in the first place.

So now comes the F-35 – all three versions of it. It is a computer around which wings and an engine are mounted, with a bit of space for some weapons and a pilot. The “fusion” Reuters speaks of is (unfortunately) not the chimerical power source, but data from a plethora of sources all using the jet as a node for synthesis and analysis. This, combined with stealth, means it’s supposed to see and kill any aerial enemy before it can be seen and targeted itself.

Where to begin?

This is where we separate the men from the boys, and the general assignment reporter dispatched to an air show versus somebody who’s actually given a thought to the subject.

For argument’s sake let’s assume the F-35 fulfills every requirement (I sure hope it does). It remains the truth that all its immense technical capabilities will be controlled by humans, as war is a human endeavor. How we fight is constrained by any number of human factors, some intentional, some not. Rules of engagement will come into play – for example, if visual identification of a target is required before firing on it, then stealth and range are useless. If satellites are taken down (which will happen in the next Big One), then the datalinks are useless. And if the F-35 really does replace the A-10 in the ground attack role, as the US Air Force has long planned, then it’ll be down low where its radar won’t be able to see far and its noise will announce its presence to anyone with ears.

There might be mitigating measures for all these, to some degree or another. But the prospect of never getting into a short-range scrum is ludicrous. Just because something is technically possible doesn’t mean it’ll happen. And in this case, history shows it is virtually certain not to pan out the way the authorities expect. It is insulting that this stuff is still being peddled by the Joint Strike Fighter project office, uninformed news reporters buy it, and everyone else is expected to believe it.

As is common around here, I hope I’m wrong about everything.

PS – here is a recent background piece if you’re not up to speed on the F-35 project. You know, like a normal person.


Ahem, the Dutch Have Something to Say

Today the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued its long-awaited ruling on the case of the Republic of the Philippines against the People’s Republic of China.  As expected, the international court ruled in favor of the Philippines. As expected, the Chinese deemed it a “farce” and continued to ignore its implications – and I say “continued” because they didn’t even send representation to the court during the case’s three years of proceedings.

If this means anything, it means that it is definitely time for memes.


If you’re not up on your Southeast Asian international relations (which is understandable), the “nine-dash line” represents China’s territorial claim to virtually all of the waters of the South China Sea. It’s based on – ahem – “history”. This is in gross violation of international law, which, under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, recognizes more legitimate (though still mutually conflicting) claims to these waters by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam. There are plentiful natural resources for exploitation, and it is a major thoroughfare for international shipping, so the stakes of ownership are pretty high.

Within this claimed maritime territory, China has been fishing, sending its coast guard on patrol, and building islands atop reefs and fortifying them. This isn’t new, either – China forcibly ejected Vietnamese forces from the Paracel Islands back in the 1970s. But in the last decade the pace has noticeably picked up.

Despite the many claimants in opposition to China, it is difficult to get the Southeast Asian states to agree on much of anything, let alone antagonizing their great neighbor to the north. So it was noteworthy that the Philippines stepped up to the plate and brought the arbitration case in 2013 – but all too predictable that not a single co-litigant would accompany them. However, since the case was brought, the PI elected a new president, Rodrigo Duterte, who sees things a bit differently than his predecessor Benigno Aquino, so it’s an open question how this victory he’s been handed less than two weeks into his administration will be followed up on.

So that’s the situation in a nutshell. Also, this:


So really, despite the day’s fun, we’re really right back where we started. Cue the next crisis.

Happy Wednesday!


Broadcast Notes

He's cute and cuddly and sucks you in...

He’s cute and cuddly and sucks you in…

As my time in the island Kingdom winds down – I have precisely one month to go – I wanted to record some of the unusual things I’ve seen on TV. Not that I watch a lot of local TV, but when I go to the gym I usually turn it on to pass the time. In any case, I’ve been able to make a few observations, placed in no particular order below.

First, I should say that in Bahrain there are some local channels, but all the English-language Arab channels I’ve been able to identify are out of Saudi Arabia, which is right next door (we also get the BBC and CNN International). So when I talk about Arab TV, really I mean Saudi.

  • It would appear Turkey has a bustling export market in soap operas. Turkish TV is subtitled, but they’re Arabic subtitles, so, aside from reading right to left, I’m lost anyway. What I have learned from them is that everything worth doing in Turkey happens within view of the Bosporus.
  • Back in the spring, one channel had a Star Wars-themed promotion for… something, I know not what. It was spectacularly unlicensed. The stormtroopers and Darth Vader looked pretty good (those are common costumes, after all) but Chewbacca was an absolute travesty of a man in a bear suit. A certain degree of sloppiness must have been required to avoid a lawsuit. The desert scenery, though, was quite convincing.
  • I can identify certain Arab actors across different commercials now.
  • At some point while channel surfing I found Hugh Laurie playing second fiddle to a talking rat in “Stuart Little 2”, which I suppose I could have seen in the States except there is no freaking way I would have ever seen this film if I hadn’t been in a Bahraini gym watching Arab TV showing lower-tier American movies (Dude, was that kid the “Jerry Maguire” kid? Yes, yes he was.).
  • According to the programming announcement, following “Stuart Little 2” were “Cool Runnings” and “The Big Chill”. Their catalogue is deep.
  • Camel racing really is a thing.
  • Saudi TV shows a lot of stuff that would be highly illegal on a Saudi street. Like women’s faces.
  • They censor the visuals but none of the audio. If you’re learning English you can learn to swear pretty well from Saudi TV.
  • Surprisingly they showed the carrot scene in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” but cut basically the entire rest of the movie.
  • I finally saw the end of “Antwone Fisher”! I mean, I kinda knew how it ends, but still…

The End is Coming…

… to the legacy military retirement system, that is.

He's not wrong

He’s not wrong

You thought I was going to say something else, didn’t you? Ha!

No, seriously, there’s a major ongoing overhaul to the military retirement system. It will change a lot of incentives and require members to pay more attention to their own finances; and, on balance, I believe this is a benefit for Reservists, in particular.

Historically retirement has been the 20-year deal: serve honorably for twenty years, and earn a pension, determined by paygrade and years of service. The Reserve system parallels the Active Duty retirement, though with the additional variable of Reserve Retirement Points thrown in, but it is basically similar.

What the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act has done is reduce (not eliminate) the defined-benefit pension, and add a matching contribution to the already-established Thrift Savings Program (TSP) in which all federal employees, including military, may enroll. Since most people don’t retire from the military, the matching contributions would mean that the vast majority can finish their service with a little something for their retirement beyond their own personal savings.

It’s not perfect – and, in fact, it’s not even finished, as the Pentagon’s FY17 budget request would delay matching contributions until the fifth year of service, meaning many servicemembers would see no benefit – but it’s a step in the right direction. The full defined-benefit pension is not affordable and a “blended” system better accounts for today’s more mobile workforce.

It’s also a boon to Reservists.

At the moment, as a mobilized Reservist, I am essentially on loan back to the Active Component of the Navy. The way Reserve retirements are set up, a pension normally begins at age 60. However, time spent mobilized (in 90-day increments) can move up that first pension check, 90 days at a time. For example, a six-month mobilization would move up your pension by six months (A seven-month mob would move it by only six months, though… so don’t do seven. Stick with numbers divisible by three, if you can.).

However, there are multiple kinds of Active Duty orders in the Reserve – you might get a job considered Active Duty for Training (ADT) or Active Duty for Special Work (ADSW). Those orders retain you in the Reserve Component and thus do not move up the start date of your pension. ADT and ADSW orders earn points for you, and additional points can help increase your pension – until you max out at 130 for the year. Beyond that, you’re doing nothing to help yourself in this regard.

But matching contributions would change that. If you’re a Reservist on long-term ADT/ADSW orders (and there are many of them), then you can now earn a matching contribution to your TSP account with every paycheck, and continue accruing benefits even after your annual points are maxed out. That’s a major change for the better!

It’s all academic to me – I’m too senior to “opt in” to the new system, and, on account of that decade-plus already served, I wouldn’t do it even if I had the option. At this point, there’s no way I can make up all those years of missed matching contributions compared to what I’ll earn with the legacy Reserve retirement. So it’s the old system for me.

But for all you youngins out there, it’s definitely something to consider. Unlike for Active Duty, where costs and benefits are more ambiguous at this stage, for Reservists it is a clear win.

Keep in mind, this won’t really be implemented for a couple more years, so all of our opinions might change 180 degrees between now and then. Change is going to happen anyway – finances compel it. But for now, at least, the good appears to outweigh the bad.

Update: They finally released some information geared toward the Reserve Component.


Big News Day

Today was an enormous, epochal news day, for obvious reasons. You know, the Navy authorized anyone – not just the instructors, but anyone – who has ever served at a recruit or officer training command to wear a new ribbon. This has got to be the most memorable thing to happen this week.

Even Oprah agrees

Even Oprah agrees

So, having served three years as an officer at the Navy’s only boot camp, I can get another ribbon now. It used to be that just actual trainers were eligible – the Recruit Division Commanders who work 16-hour days for months on end without a break. But now it’s been opened up to all staff.

That’s fine, I guess. But there have been a few things like this in the last several years. Last summer the Navy established a new award for the top graduate in each weekly class of recruits; there’s a physical fitness award in the works; and the ubiquitous end-of-tour award is less a mark of a job well done than a handshake out the door. Some awards are certainly earned, but many seem to be handed out just for doing one’s job.

Of course, it’s totally rational that this happens. Two well-meaning COs on the waterfront each have a hot-running department head they want promoted; one of them finds he can give his guy a competitive edge by finding a reason to give him a prestigious award. Soon other COs get wise to it, and start doing the same thing so they can help out their people. It’s all done in benevolence, but pretty soon we’re all Oprah audience members getting stuff because… well, because it’s what you do. At a certain point (which we are well past), to not play along is to screw your people out of their careers.

One wonders what Nimitz would say…

That - that's what he would say

That – that’s what he would say

Seriously, the more well-decorated an armed force gets, the poorer it tends to fare in the realm of actual combat. I mean, we’ll see how North Korea goes, but the prognosis isn’t looking good…


We don’t want to end up like Ottomans, Soviets and the Norks, right? Right?

Hey, guys! Who's up for a push up contest?

Hey, guys!


Um… I see. Well, uh… wait! What’s that up in the sky? WHAT COULD IT BE? OH MY GOD, IT’S…

P.S. Will I go to the trouble of getting this ribbon? Duh! I earn two from the mobilization and this conveniently gives me a third to make a full row. Everyone has a price – now you know mine.

UPDATE: I have it on good authority that SMOD, bringer of instant armageddon, wears no ribbons at all.