Freedom of Information

Everyone has a means of distributing information

Strange as it may seem, most of what you need to know about what’s happening in the world is at your fingertips. If you want to understand the interests of a country, what its goals are, and what it’s thinking, there’s no need to delve into the Top Secret stash of operational details (today there’s one real winner about to get a cold dose of reality regarding that fact). Really, all you have to do is ask. They’ll tell you.

Of note this week, we have the annual report to Congress from the Office of the Secretary of Defense concerning Chinese military and security developments.

Want to know how the Chinese military is structured? Where their fake islands in the South China Sea are? How many troops are located near the Strait of Taiwan? The stated strategic objections of the People’s Republic? U.S. analysis of Chinese intentions? It’s all there – you – yes, you! – can read it.

But don’t take DoD’s word for it. Want to know the Chinese Military Strategy? They’re happy to fill you in – the white paper was released in 2015 for your eager eyes.

Forget China. What about that other big guy we often perceive as a mystery wrapped in an enigma, Russia? Well, I don’t read Russian, but if you do, have fun with this. It’s there for you! For the rest of us, we have an engrossing report by the Office of Naval Intelligence assessing the state of the Russian fleet.

Pretty much anything you want to know, you can. Between that and reading a map, you’ll be pretty much up to speed.

Highways of the Sea

Maritime power is much trickier than land power for the layperson to understand. Armies use weapons to control the land they stand on; navies cruise around singing to each other, or something – right? No. So, taking advantage of a couple recent events, let’s take a different approach.

Combined arms operations at a maritime choke point

Event one: It’s National Police Week and Washington, D.C., is crawling with cops from around the country. I drove home behind a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy yesterday, which is not a feature of my typical commute.

Event two: For some reason, Hollywood remade CHiPs. Fortunately the box office numbers indicate hardly anyone saw it, so they won’t feel compelled to do that again.

Why is this important?

Because the sea services are basically the highway patrol!

I don’t mean that literally – Posse Comitatus and such, after all – but in the sense that the fundamental purpose of a highway patrol, more so than municipal law enforcement, is the facilitation of commerce and connections across a wide territory. It keeps the roads open and functional. The sea services do the same in their environment.

In most states the highway patrol or state troopers are the only statewide law enforcement agency, so it’s true they spend significant time investigating criminal cases. Nevertheless, most people’s exposure to them is not in a criminal context, but just simple traffic enforcement. The purpose of enforcing safe driving and adherence to rules of the road is, yes, personal safety, but also to keep the roads open, keep the traffic flowing, and keep commerce humming. If you cannot trust that you will survive your daily commute due to unruly traffic-mates, you are unlikely to undertake it. The norms enforced over decades by the highway patrol are what give you the confidence you need. And that confidence is what enables the economic activity that supports us all.

That’s not to say some states and municipalities aren’t capricious or abusive in their manner of implementation. But the fundamental mission is critical.

On the sea, no one has to physically keep the ocean open – water is water, and ships float equally well anywhere. But, still, the world’s coast guards keep the busiest areas marked with buoys and cleared of obstacles – a job fundamentally analogous to transportation agencies ashore and the law enforcement agencies that support them. The world’s navies complement navigational safety by preventing brigandage and piracy of defenseless merchants. Such prevention and deterrence can only be conducted through presence. That presence gives bad actors a reason to stay home, and reassures legitimate mariners that they can come on in; the water’s fine. A navy or coast guard that isn’t visible on the sea lanes isn’t doing its job.

And in a world with a thoroughly global economy, it is up to the largest economic players to provide that global presence. Not even the California Highway Patrol is equipped for that job. But neither is France. Nor China. Nor Germany. Nor Brazil. Sadly, not even the queen’s Royal Navy can sustain such an effort nowadays. However it may grate upon you, America, to carry the weight for all those freeloaders out there, alternatives are lacking.

Without the highway patrol, you’ll have the Fast and Furious crew dominating the interstates with little regard for your safety. Without a forward-deployed navy, you’ll have contested chokepoints, maritime insurance premiums climbing through the roof and more expensive everything.

Fundamentally, the mission of a highway patrol is not to catch bad guys, and the mission of a navy is not to fight wars. Their common mission is to simply allow you and your things to get from place to place unfettered.

And, for the record, none of the four highway patrolmen in my family paid me to say a word of this!

Addendum: Please visit the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund or CHP 11-99 Foundation and consider a small donation.

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.

Mad Dog

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


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.


Musing on Drill Weekend

It’s drill weekend and I’m camped out in Norfolk for some quality time with other Reservists. These weekends are always a fine opportunity to break away from the “real world”, if only for 48 hours or so.

But the real world always reaches in and grabs my thoughts, no matter my intentions. So, here are a few things that have happened in recent weeks and some connections between them.


About everything, really

First, Senators McCain and Reed wrote a letter to the Chief of Naval Operations expressing their, uh, concern about the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program. Their concern is not unjustified – you can check in with CDR Salamander about the current status of the seven ships in commission, one of which is actually available for tasking. The Navy knows stuff isn’t going well. Just a few days prior to the Senate letter, the admiral in charge of surface ships released a directive completely revamping the system for manning and employing these ships, in an effort to salvage some kind of operational value from them.

In essence, these small ships are not doing very well at basic tasks like completing transits under their own power, much less accomplishing the missions they are designed for. That mission is to control the seas near shore; its shallow(ish) draft means it can go places and do things a destroyer or cruiser can’t. That implies that a LCS will generally remain in a certain region for a long period instead of crossing oceans. Which is good, because it’s a small ship with fuel-hungry gas turbine engines, and can’t carry enough fuel to stay out for terribly long.

Now let’s shift gears.

Recently-inaugurated Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has announced that upcoming joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises will be the last of their kind, as he tries to strengthen ties with China and Russia.

Well, how ‘bout that?

The Philippines are sort of important in U.S. planning for contingencies in the Western Pacific. What happens if they back out of previous agreements? Where are our bases in that region? Where does the logistics train go to camp? Who do they invite in our place?

And what good is the short-ranged LCS in that region if it can’t use bases in the Philippines or pull supplies from there?

Are we building a surface fleet that can’t even get to, much less operate in, the new strategic environment taking shape? After all, it’s a long way from Singapore to Manila…

Let’s add a third thing to the mix.

Neither presidential candidate cares. One of them knows nothing, understands nothing, and cares nothing for the topic, except to make braggadocio-laden statements backed with little but smug vapors. The other has at least a little knowledge of international relations but no particular will to arrest American loss of prestige, and certainly no instinct for reasonable policy if past performance is taken at face value.

So, we have a strategic environment that is rapidly changing; a force that, even on its best of days, is reaching a point where it simply doesn’t match that environment; and top leadership that Will. Not. Adjust. Course.

And remember, this is not a boutique issue – sea power and freedom of the seas IS THE BASIS OF THE ENTIRE WORLD ECONOMY. Shortchange it at your peril.

That is why the Salty Wog heartily endorses the only candidate with a foreign policy that is understandable, achievable and sustainable: SMOD 2016.


An Unusual Moment

The next few weeks mark an unusual period in my family’s history – three of its members are on simultaneous military deployments. I don’t think this has ever happened before. My brother-in-law just departed on patrol aboard a Coast Guard cutter – yes, that’s the military; they’re a uniformed service – one of my younger cousins recently arrived aboard his ship in the Arabian Gulf, and I am, of course, in Bahrain doing the staff thing. (Occasionally I even get to exercise control over my cousin’s ship. It’s a small world.)

Three of my grandmother’s four grandsons and grandsons-in-law are all out there, doing the nation’s business, at this very moment. Just as her husband once did, and one of her sons.

And this is not even counting the other cousin, from another branch on the family tree, who recently returned from a deployment aboard an aircraft carrier.


Meet the family

How did this happen?

That’s a rhetorical question, of course; everyone takes their own path to whatever career they land in, and I won’t presume to speak for anyone other than myself. But I do remember growing up with my cousins and basically still envision all of us as kids. Yet, here we are – this week I hit eleven years of service in the Active and Reserve Components, my brother-in-law reaches nine years in a few weeks, and my cousins four and one, respectively, this summer.

So I guess we’ve actually been doing this for a while.

And yet this is not so uncommon at all.

Military service is increasingly a family business, it would seem. The best recruiters are servicemembers sending their own relations in their footsteps. It is rare to find a Sailor who is the first in their family to join the military, unless, perhaps, you’re talking to a recent immigrant (a topic worthy of its own post). But that immigrant’s U.S.-born children will probably serve someday, just as an immigrant’s grandchild is writing this post. And so it goes – service is concentrated more and more on the same families across the generations.

You see this reflected in geographic representation of servicemembers. Of course, you see plenty of people from the biggest states, but proportionately the southern states and border states are well over-represented, and anecdotally, I would add the Big Ten colleges punch well above their weight as commissioning sources (a cohort of which I am proud to be a part). My native California provides a lot of members, hosts several large bases and is home to a lot of veterans, but they are overwhelmed in a sea of other people – its per capita rate of service is actually among the nation’s lowest.

Sadly underrepresented is the Northeast, home to what can be safely said is the nation’s elite. But signs of progress exist – Princeton recently reestablished ROTC on campus, and after a decades-long hiatus just commissioned its first ensigns and second lieutenants to have participated in the program throughout their four years of school. I do not expect legions of senators’ sons to be taking over the ranks anytime soon – but let us applaud anything that retards the further segmentation of society and spreads risks and burdens to its uppermost levels. Congratulations to Princeton and its newest graduates; may there be many more of them.


“Math Is Hard” Is Not an Excuse (Updated)

Another year, another breathless headline about suicide in the Armed Forces: “U.S. military suicides remain high for 7th year” reported USA Today on April 3.

Yes, suicides remain high. This is one of those situations where one is too many, and we should be aware of risk factors to watch for in those we know or even ourselves. But any military is a reflection of the society from which it is drawn. So while gross numbers of suicides may remain high as an absolute figure, where does it rate in comparison with the general population? Does the military have a uniquely intense problem?

USA Today states there were 265 suicides among Active Duty personnel in 2015. It is too soon to have national figures for 2015 yet, so the article looks to 2012 for comparison, and the Army population in particular. In 2012, there were 30 suicides per 100,000 Soldiers. In comparison, the national rate was 12.5 per 100,000 people. That sounds pretty bad.

How do 2015’s numbers translate into a rate? Well, one odd omission in the article is it never does that easy conversion; it simply provides the top-line number. To get the rate, we need to know how many people served. For simplicity’s sake, here are the figures from the end of the year. The grand total is just over 1.3 million. For a population that size, 265 suicides equals a rate of 20.4 suicides per 100,000 people. This is definitely better than the Army’s 2012 rate, but still way over the national level.

But isn’t the military different in some small ways? Isn’t there some large percentage of the U.S. population that doesn’t even meet basic requirements to serve? Have we accounted for this?

Well, to use the two most obvious discriminators, the military is both overwhelmingly young

The kids are alright

The kids are alright

… and resoundingly, ludicrously male.

Pac Man!

Pac Man!

(Interesting demographic note: Although it is by far the smallest service, the Marine Corps takes young maleness to such absurd extremes that it skews DoD averages on pretty much everything. Oo-rah.)

Well. Now that we’ve established this, does it really make sense to compare the military rates of just about anything with the general population? Really, we’re concerned with males under 30 years of age.

So let’s have a look. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a searchable database with numbers up to 2013, so we will use that as our reference year (above Defense demographics are also from 2013). The CDC’s reporting tool makes it easy to look at rates adjusted for age and even military status. Only 17 states contributed data, but, this is a blog post, not a thesis, and really it just go to show what resources any news reporter has if they’re willing to take an hour to browse the Internet.

All that said, the suicide rate for the entire population of these 17 states in 2013 was 12.84 per 100,000. This is in line with the national average.


Next let’s filter by age. It allows the user to select ages 20-29. Looking at just that age group gets us up to 15.22 suicides per 100,000.

But what happens if we filter out the women?

BOOM. Twentysomething males are at 24.57 suicides per 100,000.


The suicide rate for a superficially similar population in the general public is 20 percent higher than that of its military cohort (remember, 20.4 per 100,000 last year). The implication your humble blogger takes away is that to prevent suicide, you should tell the college-age males in your life to join the military!

There are, of course, many further ways to control statistical variability. As mentioned before, the military doesn’t take most applicants, and really we should be looking at only the population that is actually eligible for service, i.e. those not in jail, free of chronic illnesses, with high school diplomas, etc. And, on the military side, we need to look at who exactly is committing suicide, as there are many communities and demographics within the services themselves. A more rigorous analysis would account for these factors, but that is beyond my resources here. The point is that someone being paid to spend their time doing this stuff has the ability to add a little bit of context, even if it is basic. There is no excuse in the Internet age for such shoddy work.

Well, actually maybe there is. Military suicide, as a journalistic topic, falls in the eye of a perfect storm of media sensationalism and partisan hackery. The mainstream media gets to talk up a scandal, the Left gets to further its false narrative of damaged veterans, and the Right gets to blame everything on the Left (at least until January 2017). No one has an incentive to say that, actually, this military problem merely reflects, and is possibly less severe than, a societal one.

Every military suicide is a tragedy. Sadly, so is almost every piece of journalism about them.

UPDATE 4/19: The Navy’s “Health of the Force” report for 2015 was recently distributed. It covers a great many topics, from recruiting to physical fitness, and among includes suicide rates. Conveniently, they did the normalization I speculated about above. BEHOLD!


So, yes, adjusted for age and other factors, the suicide rate in the general population is considerably higher than in the Navy, and even the Army rate which we calculated in the original post.

With suicide rates already so much lower than the normalized national average, one must ask if additional allocations of the Armed Services’ time and money are bumping into the law of diminishing returns. The recruiting process itself apparently screens out a large degree of suicide risk; some basic peer education and a great Chaplain Corps logically reduce it a bit more; but beyond that, how much more  difference can we make from such a low baseline?