Back to Basics

Plotting a course to nowhere good

Things have been a bit hectic in my neck of the woods, hence the dearth of posts this summer. But if you are following the news and have any bit of curiosity about what’s going in the surface Navy – specifically, why is it so bad at driving ships? – well, then I didn’t want you to miss the below Navy Times article, appropriately headlined, “Maybe today’s Navy is just not very good at driving ships.

There is so much to be said, and I have too little time to say it. But others can. Here’s the general idea:

After 2003, each young officer was issued a set of 21 CD-ROMs for computer-based training — jokingly called “SWOS in a Box” — to take with them to sea and learn. Young officers were required to complete this instructor-less course in between earning their shipboard qualifications, management of their divisions and collateral duties.

It’s worked out about how you might expect.

The Salty Wog is not intended to be a venue for bitching about being a SWO. That said, there are reasons I chose not to continue down that career path on active duty. The Navy Crimes, er, Navy Times article about sums them up.

Read the whole thing for more.

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A Tale of Two Services

Surprisingly, this takes a while to build

There’s a lot of talk out there about boosts to defense budgets here, cuts to others there, and Armed Services of increased sizes everywhere. But at this point, it must be made clear that it really is just talk. No president ever gets the budget they want – only Congress can spend money. No reason to get nervous or, alternatively, cocky.

But be that as it may, let’s take such intentions as a given and see how they play out in the real world.

The Army is ready to go! They have taken their marching orders and are ready to increase end strength by 28,000 troops this year. It doesn’t exactly turn on a dime but, when you consider the scale of it – it nudges the total Active, Reserve and Guard strength to just over one million people – that’s pretty fast. The history of the Army is one of rapid swings up and down.

Then there’s the Navy. Growth cannot move fast. Speed is not a thing. A ship is an enormous capital investment. The Navy might be able to get some new aircraft in short order, or maybe some other smaller equipment, but a new ship or submarine – the backbone of the force – will take years. The industrial base for rapid expansion does not exist. You can order new ships, but where will you build them? Who will do the labor? Pretty much everyone still capable of doing the work already is. So there’s a bit more legwork to do before making this a reality. And the will to do so must remain intact for years on end.

Simply maintaining a navy, let alone expanding one, requires enormous sustained political support across the executive and legislative branches, and the people they represent. Sea power maven Bryan McGrath articulates the need for a naval narrative here. We would do well to listen.

In short, maritime trade and freedom of the seas is the very basis for global prosperity. Threats to that flow must be deterred (preferably) or eliminated (occasionally). But the forces to do so cannot simply be called into existence – if you need them, you’d better already have them. And if you don’t, someone else will fill the vacuum… probably someone unattractive.

So what will happen now? Despite the big numbers being thrown around not a whole lot, even if they become law. Readiness will be improved; the current force could be brought into slightly better shape. But actual growth? Not during this presidential term.

Involuntold

Yes, I really did go for the ABC primetime soap image

OMG = Over-Mobilized Guardsmen

Scandal!

Well, maybe not that bad – but it looks like plenty of Reservists and National Guardsmen were caught, well, off guard. Courtesy of the Military Times:

Thousands of reservists who deployed over the past two years, thinking they were entitled to the benefits that mobilized and deployed reservists have typically received for years, have been bitterly disappointed upon their return. 

The culprit? The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which amended Title 10 of the U.S. Code with the now infamous (as of today, anyway), Section 12304b.

The issue? Section 12304b provides the service secretaries an additional authority to recall up to 60,000 Selected Reservists to active duty for periods under 365 days.

Why this other authority? Check out the section titles in Title 10, Chapter 1209; all will become clear. Compare Section 12302 – “Ready Reserve” – with Section 12304 – “Selected Reserve and certain Individual Ready Reserve members; order to active duty other than during war or national emergency.” This just goes to show that unwieldy titles generally denote bad news.

Reserve activations under 12302 cover any state of “national emergency declared by the President” – in short, the typical situations people think of when the Reserves need to be called up. Section 12304, though, provides authority to call up Reservists outside of those national emergencies; in the case of subsection 12304b, “a preplanned mission in support of a combatant command.”

In a nutshell, 12302 covers Reservists being mobilized for war; 12304 covers those being sent to conduct international exercises or other long-planned engagements.

Why the benefits problem? Laws governing benefits like the Post-9/11 GI Bill were written prior to 2012 and were never amended to cover Section 12304. There’s no conspiracy here. But still, a bunch of Reservists and Guardsmen involuntarily mobilized to support exercises instead of operations are left without access to many of the benefits they expected when they joined up. The gripes are justified.

What should you do? If you get involuntold to go somewhere, check Reference A in your orders, right under your name and address. The reference will tell you what authority you’ve been mobilized under. If it’s Section 12302, Title 10 USC, you’re good to go. If it’s any other number… you might want to get that checked out.

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Tradition!

There's a guy who knows tradition

There’s a guy who knows tradition

It was brought to my attention tonight that the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 has ended a great and glorious naval tradition. Or maybe not so glorious; anyway, one worth noting:

By law, Sailors can no longer be confined for three days on bread and water.

Shucks.

Now that both flogging and bread and water have been dispensed with, I think we’ve safely left the Middle Ages. Commanding officers still have it in their authority to reduce enlisted members in rank or withdraw pay – which is a lot scarier to most people.

No big news here, but an interesting historical note.

Happy Wednesday.

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Mad Dog

It happened. It really happened. And meme-creators everywhere rejoice!

meme-mattis_knifehand

As reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, “Mad Dog” Jim Mattis, the Warrior Monk, callsign Chaos, and hands-down the most revered American warrior still resident among the living, is being tapped by the new administration (pending Senate confirmation) as Secretary of Defense.

If you are unfamiliar with this 44-year Marine Corps veteran and four-star, I cannot explain to you in a blog post the high regard in which he is held among servicemembers, Marines in particular. Click the above links for a taste. But much of it can be covered here, by checking out a few quotes from over the years (notably, “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” Thousands of Pentagon staffers are collectively holding their breath…).

Also, he planned and executed the initial conventional assault into Afghanistan back in 2001, inserting Marines into a land-locked country from the sea. Which is pretty good.

I mean, the mere fact that Mattis is already a frequent Internet meme should say something.

Actually, what it does say – not to be overly political on this blog, but nevertheless – is that the President-elect really does understand populism better than most people give him credit for. I doubt he could select any SecDef more popular with the rank-and-file. It buys him some street cred with folks who are otherwise reluctant to give it.  Transparent pandering? To a degree, sure. We’ll see how that works out for him – and us. But in this case, there’s at least a reason to be cautiously optimistic.

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(Mis)Management

Does laser removal await?

Does laser removal await?

Big Navy – that is, the Secretary, Chief of Naval Operations and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy – recently announced major changes to enlisted career paths. Frankly, the topic is a little esoteric for the audience here as I understand it, but the process produced a couple “change management” notes that you can put in your back pocket for later (courtesy of an in-depth article in Navy Times).

As brief background, just consider that certain naval job titles – boatswain’s mate, gunner’s mate, quartermaster, yeoman – have existed since the founding of the U.S. Navy in the 18th Century. However, as of two weeks ago, those titles are now eliminated for official purposes and all enlisted Sailors are to be addressed simply by their rank. Whatever the merits, this is a major shock.

Lesson No. 1: Don’t Show the Boss a Throw-Away Option

Often, when people have to present the boss with courses of action, they’ll put two or three that are reasonable and/or achievable, and then something outlandish just to pad their overall numbers. Every leadership or staff officer course, ever, will say not to do that – but of course it still happens.

Secretary of the Navy Mabus requested options for eliminating the word “man” from job titles (never mind the gender-neutral definition of “man” in such contexts; not everyone can be troubled to read a dictionary). So, Navy leadership provided him four options, ranging from simply changing certain jobs’ names to the vast reform actually selected.

Does anyone get the feeling SECNAV picked the throw-away?

Lesson No. 2: Transition Time – Please

This policy went into effect the day it was announced, with no warning. Who would ever advise an organization to do that? With no time to prepare or gain any understanding of how to manage their future careers (not to mention the cultural impact), there is rather significant pushback from the enlisted force. Despite the high-level cover, the lack of grassroots support leaves open the possibility for some major revisions. The immediacy of the announcement and policy change – the details of which are still very much up in the air – undercut its legitimacy, and it will be very difficult to ever restore it to move this thing forward.

It is worth noting, some goodness follows under the headline-making changes. Additional career options and training pipelines for enlisted members are positive. Hopefully that doesn’t get lost as the rating changes go back and forth.

Lastly, I don’t know if there are any publicly-held tattoo companies, but if so, their stocks have probably taken a dive lately!

UPDATE:  Aaaaaaaaaaaand it’s been reversed. Ratings are restored. I have only two words to say: Utterly. Predictable.

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Reserve Retirement Update

This guy looks too young to be retired...

This guy looks too young to be retired…

There’s some official word out for Reservists and the impact of the new “blended” retirement system now. Actually, it’s a month old, but I noticed it just the other day on the Navy Reserve Homeport site. Forgive my tardiness, but I hope I can at least provide some amplification.

They posted a very handy chart showing the basics of the program. There is nothing shocking, but I was anxious this summer to see if anything would come down because in all the initial press, only the Active Component was referenced – there was nothing specifically about how the Reserve Component would be affected. The Department of Defense has now rectified this shortfall.

My concern was this – since the baseline of military pay is so much lower for a Reservist than an active member, matching five percent TSP contributions are five percent of a much smaller number. It was conceivable things might work a bit differently for a Reservist, with that in mind. But it looks like the fundamentals remain the same: there is still a reduced annuity, matching contributions to the 401(k)-style system, and a bonus check at the 12-year mark.

So a few notes on each, in the order presented above:

Annuity

Here’s how the annuity calculation works. If you are a Reservist, you derive your years of service by adding up all the points you have and dividing by 360. Then you take that number, multiply it by 2.5, put a percent sign after the result, and multiply it by the average monthly pay of your last 36 months of service (using the active duty payscale). The new change is that the 2.5 becomes a 2.0, so the final result will be 20 percent smaller than before.

Let’s do a couple scenarios under the old system and new, using simple numbers for easy math. Let’s say someone earned 5,000 points in a career and ended his career with an average base pay of $6,000 a month (had he been on active duty).

LEGACY SYSTEM
5000 / 360 = 13.89 years of service
13.89 x 2.5 = 34.725 percent of base pay will be monthly annuity
34.725% x $6000 = $2083.50 monthly

BLENDED SYSTEM
5000 / 360 = 13.89 years of service
13.89 x 2.0 = 27.78 percent of base pay will be monthly annuity
27.78% x $6000 = $1666.80 monthly

The question is, can our member with 5,000 points make up a difference of $416.70 a month with contributions from a Reserve salary? That takes us to…

Thrift Savings Plan

So, it should go without saying that you should max out your contributions if your employer is willing to match them. If you don’t, you are voluntarily turning down a part of your compensation package – the money has already been set aside and all you have to do to get it is invest in yourself. If you don’t do anything and the military just does its obligatory one percent contribution, then, no you won’t make up that gap. So this section is not for you.

Simple math again. I’m going to assume a service member who makes $10,000 each year from Reserve service, including monthly drills and twelve days of Annual Training. Oddly, this member was never terribly junior but also never gets a raise over twenty years, so we’ll call her average. If this average member contributes five percent of that year’s pay, it equals $500, which the government matches for an even $1000.

So now we’ve got $1,000 a year going into the pot. Assuming an annual rate of return of three percent over twenty years, this will provide a hair over $27,000 at the time of retirement. But with Reservists being what they are, it’ll be another twenty years until our average members turns 60 and can draw from it. With that additional time and three percent annual returns, the member will have $49,000 to draw from.

But even then, it falls short. Under the contrived circumstances presented, estimated monthly income from the $49,000 saved would be around $267, which is about $150 short of where we’d like to be.

Lesson: Don’t do the minimum. Here’s how it looks for someone who spent four years on active duty plus two year-long mobilizations, with $40,000 in base pay each year. That’s an additional $4,000 in contributions each year, times six – an extra $24,000 in principle, and a more realistic profile for a great many Reservists. If this compounds at three percent until age 60, the member would hold $92,000!

And guess what – for this more realistic member, it not only meets but exceeds the threshold we established earlier, at over $500 a month.

Unintentionally or not, it looks like the blended retirement system is a way of tacitly motivating Reservists to participate more.

Bonus (Continuation Pay)

At the twelve-year mark, members under the blended system have the option to receive a small bonus if they elect to remain in service another four years. Not much to say about this, except that it would make some nice additional principle you can add to a retirement account (whether TSP or another one)… especially if you’re only doing the minimum Reserve commitment.

So what’s the bottom line?

First, my numbers are unrealistic in that they don’t account for inflation and reflect no known species of servicemember, and I agree. But neither were they made up out of thin air, and I believe still help tell the story. (And my calculations were done on bankrate.com, but I don’t where my business school notes are, and I wasn’t going to take the time to find them. So, there.)

Second, retirement from the Reserve will be more dependent upon what you put into the Reserve than before. If you are planning on this being a major source of support in your dotage, then don’t skimp on your efforts now. Max out your points every year and spend some decent time on active duty in order to build up some good TSP contributions.

Third, if you’re a Reservist hopefully you have some other form of work to occupy your time and pay the bills. Let that be your primary means of support. The benefits of being a Reservist provide a wonderful cushion and service opens many doors – but it is still just a part-time job. Ensure you plan for what you do on the outside to be enough to see you through.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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