Restoring the Meritocracy, or addressing concerns about the US Officer Corps

Recently Mr. William Lind published his latest article, and as usual it was provocative. Titled “An Officer Corps that can’t score,” it argues that the United States military has lost the competitive edge in combat for the following reasons:

  • An ego problem, the apparent perception of US Officers that they oversee the best military that’s ever existed;
  • A personnel problem, that officers are punished for creative thinking and innovation (and the mistakes that invariably accompany such a mindset);
  • A staffing problem, which shortens command tours of duty so everybody on the bench gets a chance to play, if only for a short period of time; and worst of all,
  • A moral problem, in which officers support and perpetuate the status quo to protect their careers–notably a problem the US Military did not have after the Vietnam conflict (according to Mr. Lind).

Certainly these are serious accusations. Mr. Lind’s article sparked a great deal of response, too. Several active duty officers penned articles which asserted indignantly that there *is* a great deal of debate in the military regarding staffing, weapons acquisition, force structure, and other ‘big picture’ issues. What is conspicuously absent from the responses, however, is a critique of the personnel situation–which, as the lynchpin of Mr. Lind’s argument, probably deserves the most thoughtful consideration.

Mr. Lind’s own history plays a big part in his critique as well. I’ve never met the man, but if you’ll indulge in a little amateur psychology, I would say that Mr. Lind very much has a dog in this fight. He was foremost among what he calls the most recent wave of “reformist innovators,” and highly praises his contemporaries Col Boyd (USAF) and Col Wyly (USMC), with whom he generated much of the intellectual foundation of so-called Maneuver Warfare. He also helped introduce and develop the theory of Fourth-Generation Warfare, an extension of Col Boyd’s definitive and much-lauded omnibus theory of combat “Patterns of Conflict.” Anyone who is a bit startled (and/or stung) by the opening line of his article, “The most curious thing about our four defeats in Fourth Generation War—Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan—is the utter silence in the American officer corps,” ought to at least realize that Mr. Lind is aggressively applying the theories of warfare that he developed and championed to his very broad-brush of a statement about our apparently constant defeats.

The predictable–and justified–knee-jerk reaction by junior officers in the US Military is that Mr. Lind is wrong, and that there is anything BUT silence about the struggles and outcomes of these so-called “Fourth Generation Wars.” Indeed, in my own experience there is a lot of debate about technology (drones, bombs, tanks, and their efficacy) and tactics regarding the most recent conflicts in the Middle East. That is all very good. But I think Mr. Lind hits the nail on the head when he criticizes the military–particularly the officer–personnel system. And while there is a lot of debate about that issue as well, it’s usually conducted in hushed voices and away from field grade and higher officers.

Complaints about personnel issues usually center around field grade officers focused on achieving the next rank (and running their subordinates into the ground to get it), or general officers trying to maintain their reputation to their civilian masters with an increasing administrative burden of annual training and paperwork accountability. To the uninformed, it just sounds like bitching, but hearing enough of it reveals that both types of anecdotes coalesce around one central issue: today’s officer cadre does not have either the time or resources to focus on warfighting.

How has this come to pass? At the danger of theorizing ahead of data, I have some suggestions:

  • First, during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts we created a whole sub-combatant-command for each location, complete with Joint Force Commanders, Functional Component Commanders, Service Component Commanders, and associated staffs. This effectively doubled the requirement for staff officers in each of the four major service components. In addition to being top-heavy, it prevented the whole coalition from having any true cohesion as a unit, because new units were revolving in and out under a joint commander who, in addition to directing the whole campaign, also had to administer the vastly increased relief-in-place and transportation requirements of such an ad hoc system. Imagine if Patton had new armored and mechanized units rotating in and out of the 3rd Army throughout 1944 and 1945. Would he have been able to build such a successful and dynamic fighting force?
  • Second, as a corrolary to the first, there are career requirements for officers appointed to joint commands. The demand for those officers has forced the services to cut career billeting corners to get enough qualified officers to meet the demand. That is a recipe for “check-the-box” leadership and careerism from start to finish.
  • Third, most services made a decision to shorten deployment times in order to ease the burden on servicemembers’ families. This was a social decision, and it may not have been a bad one. However it did create a ‘revolving door’ in nearly every unit in the military, as whole combat units turned over from year to year and had to be assigned places in the supporting establishment, which in turn was bloated beyond needs and suffered the same ‘revolving door’ effect. The Army alone experimented with year-long deployments in the hopes that more time in country would allow greater innovation and success in the counterinsurgency fight; I’d be curious to see if there were any positive results.
  • Finally, Congress has micromanaged the benefits of servicemembers to the point of restricting officers from shaping their force. I doubt anyone in the military, including me, would complain about pay increases, money earmarked for better base gyms and housing (including ‘in country’), and a reduction on sexual assault and/or suicide. The problem is the way Congress has enacted these changes. Forcing them down the military’s throat creates a culture of ‘yes-men’ who must “support and defend” the Constitution by bowing to each new decree of a prime Constitutional institution, Congress, no matter what that does to already scarce military resources. Sergeant Major Barrett’s comments, while tactless and insensitive, demonstrate the frustration of many military leaders that servicemembers need meaningful combat training, expensive as it is, more than they need administrative sexual assault training and fast-food joints on base.

The prevailing sentiment among junior officers is that the military is directionless, or maybe more specifically suffering the pull of too many ‘missions’ at once. There’s Congress, forcing social changes and shutting down government. There’s the so-called “War on Terror,” which carries real danger but no real reward–neither Congress nor the Services themselves seem to care much about it anymore. There’s the Administration, preaching a “pivot to the Pacific” and a drawdown, which ominously promises more tasks for the military to accomplish with fewer people, and there’s the innate sense of honor in the services themselves that expect the officer cadre to keep all these masters happy and still field fighting units.

In this context, I will speak heresy to the die-hards and state that there’s small wonder junior officers in particular keep their heads down and try not to screw up (i.e. bring all their servicemembers back alive with comparatively little regard for ‘the big picture’). It also explains why so many veterans of the recent conflicts look back nostalgically on the simpler world of their combat tours, when they had a single direct mission and a feeling of accomplishment.

So what sort of reform would make Mr. Lind happy? I’m not sure, as he simply bemoans US Officers’ lack of creativity and moral fibre, but I have some suggestions on that score as well. But first, I’ll point out that some of the best ideas have come from much more creditable sources than me. Go there, and explore.

My ideas are pretty simple. There is a romantic conception floating around that the military is a meritocracy–in other words, the officers who are best at their jobs should be the ones that get promoted. The shortened command tours, vast administrative requirements, and glut of officers in the services effectively obscure the good officers from the mediocre, lowering moral and motivation. I believe that the best leaders in today’s military truly seek a chance to lead and to show their mettle, so I propose the military make a few structural changes to recover a merit-based promotion system.

  • Lengthen command tours, including the tours that are required for command screening, to 3 (or 4) years. This would first of all require existing commanders to put a lot of thought into the junior officers they promote, knowing that the officers they evaluate highly will eventually control a combat unit for three years (instead of 18 months), and would allow existing junior officers a lot more time to develop and lead their troops under the guidance of one Commanding Officer. 
  • Longer tours help mitigate the ‘zero-defect mentality,’ a colloquialism which refers to the reality that one mistake in an officer’s career is enough to prevent him/her from making it to the next step, because he/she will always be compared to other officers with no such mistakes. It’s a lazy way to evaluate, because the positive effects of the officer with the mistake may be greater than those of his/her peers, and may indicate greater potential. But at least with a full 3 years of observed time, officers will be able to recover from mistakes–and their seniors will be forced to consider which of their subordinates are best suited for further opportunities, knowing that maybe only one will have the opportunity.
  • Longer command tours also permit greater unit stability, which will increase esprit de corps, has been shown to reduce things like suicide and sexual assault, and will certainly increase combat effectiveness.
  • Increasing tour length will be essentially meaningless if officer staffing remains high, because right now it seems like every officer gets the chance to move on regardless of his/her performance against peers. As part of the draw-down, the military as a whole should reduce officer staffing to the minimum level required for service administration, starting with Generals and working down the rank structure (and this reduction should occur before any enlisted personnel cuts, in accordance with good leadership practices). The military should also eliminate the additional joint force staffs located in Iraq and Afghanistan. This will be an unpopular step, as many generals will be forced into retirement, many more field grade officers will be forced into early retirement, and many junior grade officers will not have the opportunity to continue in the military past their first tour. It would help ensure, however, that only the best officers in each rank will remain–reinforcing the idea of the military as a meritocracy.

Actual, active duty officers have much more specific lists of things which need to change, most of which revolve around their ability to train their servicemembers. And we should listen to them. But we can’t force current officers to change their way of thinking–most of them have been shaped by the questionable leadership environment that Mr. Lind notes for the entirety of their career. We can, however, collectively change the game–we can stop playing that ‘everybody gets a chance’ and start giving our officers the space and responsibility to fully lead their men and women. That’s why most of them sought a commission in the first place.

These kinds of changes will force leaders at all level to focus on quality, not qualifications; it will force officers to make tough evaluation decisions after years of watching their subordinates develop. Ultimately, only the top 20-30% will have a career each tour, which will ensure that only the most effective officers run our military.

When our nation’s security and American lives are at stake, isn’t that what we want?

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Retreat

This past weekend was busy. My new squadron celebrated the Marine Corps’ birthday on Friday night, which turned out to be a lot of fun. The celebration takes the form of a Formal Ball, except when Marines are out in the field. Then, I am told, it is usually celebrated over an MRE (or whatever chow is available). Regardless, it is a big deal, and tradition dictates that we follow a specific procedure: first we read the original birthday message from General Lejeune (the 13th Commandant), then we read the message from the current Commandant, then we cut a cake with a sword. The first piece of cake is given to the oldest Marine present, who takes a bite and passes it to the youngest Marine present to symbolize the passing on of tradition. The ceremony this time was followed by a pretty good dinner and dancing, and everyone got pretty convivial. I stayed as sober as possible, however, for I had to drive out of town the next morning.

During the same weekend, my church’s young adult community held it’s annual retreat at Whispering Winds Catholic Retreat center in Julian. If you followed the wildfire saga here in San Diego, you know that Julian was hit pretty hard. It sits up in the mountains east of the city (elevation some 5,000 feet), which is where all the fires start when the Santa Ana winds blow. Fortunately, though, the campus was unscathed, and the utilities were restored mere days before we arrived.

The retreat started on Friday night, and that was when everyone did the icebreaker-type events and made “affirmation bags” where other people could leave them encouraging messages of faith. Saturday morning they heard the first of several talks aimed at young adults–the one I missed concerned Theology of the Body–and had some reflection time followed by lunch. That’s when I arrived.

I showed up in an enthusiastic mood. The road up to Julian winds through narrow canyons, over knife-edge ridges, all in a glory of tight turns and sudden views. My car got quite the workout–I must have taken 10,000 miles off my tires. There is something wild and relaxing about the mountain scenery, the clear sunlight, a zipping car, and solitude. A kind of reflection occurs at such times, unconscious and unintended, driving focus to the immediate present and pushing away external and extraneous worries. It was providential: I arrived in Julian freed from the burdens of everyday life and ready for the retreat.

I know a fair number of the church’s young adults by now, and it felt like ‘going home’ to meet with them–they make up my core friends here in San Diego. But there were also many new people to meet. Fortunately the retreat schedule offered “free time” in the early afternoon where people could go to confession if they wanted, and also participate in any number of social or religious activities. One guy organized a football game; another a hike. I chose to make my confession and then participate in the Rosary walk. This may seem like a silly thing to do, since it involves praying a notoriously “rote” prayer in a group, but for me it brought back sweet memories of my pilgrimages to Medjugorje, where the Rosary and it’s focus on the life of Jesus was second only to the Mass, and nearly always prayed/celebrated as a community. There is also an additional measure of accountability and support when praying as a community, which prevents any worries or whims to distract from the prayer itself. Furthermore, the rosary only occupied a short amount of the “free time,” so I also got to play in a touch football game. Like the drive up, there was something clear and refreshing found in that time spent outside in the sunlight, amid the smell of pines and the thin mountain air. The advantage of the football game over the drive, though, was that I got to share it with others.

Later that afternoon we heard a talk on vocation, and how vocation isn’t necessarily a job, a call to religious life, or a call to marriage; rather it is a responsibility to do God’s will in all the small acts of our lives. As I write this I am shocked to see how obvious it appears, baldly contained in one small sentence. But like many people I am victim to the temptation of focusing only on the big things in my life: my career as a Marine and an Aviator, my important relationships, my spiritual life. I find it easy to overlook what God’s will might be for me when I do a specific thing, like go to a church function, or drive to work, or undertake a job around the squadron. But the speaker explained that making our entire lives a prayer depends on the holiness we exhibit in all our actions, not just the big decisions. This lecture was the first of several events at the retreat which thus far have subtly began to change my life.

After dinner we headed down to the chapel for adoration and confession. Though the team had priests offering the sacrament during the free time, this evening event was much larger in scale. The intent, I think, was to gently remind us that there is an immense acceptance of grace found in the act of adoration and the receipt of the sacrament. Both were once cherished elements of Catholic faith that seem to have fallen off recently (especially among young people). Though I am a rather conservative Catholic myself–and therefore quite open to such practices–it was good to hear again the dogmas and teachings behind the Catholic framework of worship. Because I had gone to confession earlier that afternoon, I prayed silently for a while and left the chapel to pray another rosary with a close friend of mine under the chilly stars.

What a night it was! In an earlier post I talked about suddenly discovering stars, and the impact of that experience was no less in Julian. Ringed by mountains, undimmed by human lights, the stars above us that night shone forth in pre-industrial splendor. The Milky Way and the familiar constellations stood out clearly among thousands of stars I had all but forgotten. The crisp still air seemed to sharpen my senses and evoke a sense of exhilaration. I spent little time examining the panorama above, but its presence seemed to infuse the conversations that evening with a excitement and wit and laughter that I seldom experience, even among my closest friends.

During one such conversation a fellow retreatant told me that because I had no “affirmation bag”–I didn’t arrive until Saturday, so I wasn’t around during their creation–he made one for me. It may seem a small thing, but for me that represented the ultimate act of kindness. Having something kind to say, and guessing that others might as well, this friend out of charity decorated a paper bag so that I could receive notes and small gifts. I was humbled. I took about an hour and a half that evening to sit and write notes to all the people at the church who meant something to me, and it was a cathartic experience. I have found kindness, hospitality, challenges to be a better person, support, and companionship among this community, and it felt right and satisfying to thank each and every person for what they gave me. When I first heard of the concept of an “affirmation bag,” I cringed inwardly. Here, I thought, there would be sentimental, yearbook-style, banal notes that would sound the same for everybody: “so nice to meet you, hope we see more of each other, you’re so cool.” But as I wrote to my friends I found I had something unique to say to each of them. I realized then that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I was part of a cohesive group of friends, where I could appreciate them individually and collectively, not just as my personal friend but as friends of each other too. I have much to be grateful for.

The next morning started with Sunday Mass, then ended with breakfast and the pack up. An easy camaraderie had formed among us that made the worship and the meal a simple and penetrating joy. In its closing the effect of the retreat is hard to put into words. Long had I known the right spiritual steps to take in my life, regarding both my personal prayer life and my interactions with others. But long had I put off taking those steps, due perhaps to fear that I would find spiritual dryness, or to my own selfish clinging to a comfortable routine, or even simply to a kind of spiritual apathy. But since I’ve returned I’ve discovered a subtle inspiration born of gratitude and humility. Perhaps that is the manifestation of accepted grace, brought on by the constant prayer at Whispering Winds. I write this more deeply grateful for all that the church community has given me; I am humbled by the good and virtuous company of my friends. I have received a great gift.

Early Cross-Countries and Wildfires

The past several weeks have been very busy – so busy, in fact, that I have not seen the last four Notre Dame games, which for those of you who know me well is quite rare. On the flying side, there was a two-week period where I went on three cross-countries: the first to Phoenix, the second to Las Vegas, and the third to Yuma, AZ (though that one was more of necessity than by choice). The whole idea of a cross country is to take a weekend with a jet and complete some needed training.

This is good from the squadron’s point of view because aircrew get extra flights (and qualifications!) outside of normal working hour, without increasing the maintenance burden. Aircrew get something out of it too: we get to travel on the weekend to places like Phoenix or Las Vegas, and in a F/A-18D. Also, it is fun to fly around unfamiliar places – the sense of detachment and appreciation that comes from looking on new cities and the countryside from the air is always exhilarating.

The Phoenix trip occurred in the middle of the week, because Miramar shut down for the upcoming weekend airshow (October 12-14). We flew over as a two-ship section from San Diego in two legs, stopping each time to dogfight each other. Those kinds of flights are my favorite: high-G, intense, competitive, and just plain fun. We made it to Phoenix without incident, checked into our hotel for the night, and went out for a quiet evening of college football over steaks (I was pleased to see Navy beat Pitt in overtime) and turned in early. The next morning, we got up, drove to the airport for two more flights; the first was another dogfight, the second was practice dive-bombing. That night–Thursday–we went out with the ASU kids in Tempe, spending our evening at a bar called “The Library.” It was decorated with bookshelves (and real books!), but it served strong drinks and boasted the entertainment of an 80s Metal cover band called Metal Head–which meant we rocked out to Def Leppard and Van Halen covers for the rest of the night. It was a little like being back in college, but it was one of the better nights I have experienced since Pensacola.

We recovered Friday morning over a full breakfast spread, kindly (and anonymously) purchased for us by a patron of the hotel who noticed our uniforms. It was the first time I’d received that particular gesture, and I was humbled to realize that, in uniform, I was the steward of others’ respect and hope. I was also very grateful.

After breakfast, I joined my comrades for our two flights back to San Diego. On these legs we fought each other again, and landed Friday afternoon exhausted but satiated with high-performance flying–just in time for the weekend.

That weekend was one of labor for me, as I moved from my La Jolla condo to a San Diego apartment. My new room-mate, Brooks, had his girlfriend, brother, and sister-in-law help us move everything across town, and I had some friends from St. Brigid’s to assist, and overall it was pretty fun. As when the anonymous hotel patron bought me breakfast, I was humbled by the friendship and charity present I found in my friends, who gave up their Saturday to help me move my belongings (in the rain, no less).

The following weekend was the Las Vegas trip, which was a little different from our jaunt to Phoenix. My part in the plan was to get Low Altitude Tactics (LAT) qualified. Next to dogfighting, it is the most fun you can have in a fighter jet: raging around scarce hundreds of feet above the ground, diving through valleys and pulling hard over ridges. Like dogfighting, it is hard physical work– we pull a lot of Gs in LAT due to the high speed of our flight–important because we want enough speed to maneuver and climb if we need to, and high speeds mean high Gs in the turn. LAT also makes the cockpit very warm, because the air entering the jet is ground temperature and does little to mitigate the heat of the sun coming through the thick canopy. Each flight is roughly like an exhilarating, hour-long workout. We flew two sorties that day, stopping in between at Edwards Air Force Base (and landing behind an F-22 which was kind of cool).

Flying into Las Vegas itself was extremely busy, since we have to compete with all the commercial carriers and the corporate jets for airspace. Yet despite the intensity of the approach, I couldn’t help notice in the gigantic multicolored desert cliffs that surround the city, cast into sharp dramatic relief by the setting sun. I always get a sense of awe flying over the high desert–it seems to be all jagged ridges and blasted lakebeds, like a foretaste of the apocalypse. Nearly as impressive is the massive metropolis springing out of bare desert, tucked into a deep valley and bordered by a giant still lake. It looked like something out of the Arabian Nights.

Las Vegas is kind of a destination for military aviators. The airports there are kind to us, the city itself is close to the restricted airspace where we do our training, and there is a lot of entertainment for the evenings. That Friday night we were staying in the Stratosphere hotel, and decided that we would “stay local” – eat dinner there and go afterwards to the Stratosphere nightclub. Before that, however, I was subjected to a “hasty callsign review,” where amongst much drinking “Vigo” was rejected and I was awarded the moniker “ECMO-2.” An ECMO is the backseater in an EA-6B prowler, and is responsible for jamming enemy radar signals. Because that job is so technical, ECMOs are considered the nerdiest of nerds. So am I, apparently. After that was over, we went to the nightclub where I happily sang along to all the 80s music they played until I couldn’t stand up any more and went to bed.

The next morning I didn’t have to fly, so I was free to recover and sightsee as I pleased. It was actually a very depressing day. The temperature was cool–for which I wasn’t prepared–and I was fighting off the nauseating after-effect of the previous evening. I was struck by how quickly and disconcertingly grand impressive casino facades and sumptuous casino lobbies transitioned to tawdry glitter and cheap furnishings adorning the actual casino floors. The entire city seems designed to be overwhelming and beautiful on the outside, but ultimately industrial and soul-less at it’s gambling core. The sight of elderly men and women chain-smoking and drinking alone at slot machines, looking miserable and alone; and that of stylish but easily frustrated young men with bored pretty women aimlessly shopping or sitting at quiet, bitter blackjack tables–it shocked and saddened me. If Vegas is supposed to be a center of entertainment and fun, why are so many of it’s pilgrims unhappy?

Then I went to Mass. The Cathedral for the diocese of Las Vegas sits almost directly on the Strip, just north of the Wynn casino. It is a dramatic, geometric building that looks to have been built in the late ’50s. The façade had a mural showing three men paying homage to a Christ in apotheosis, accompanied by the exhortations “Prayer…Penance…Peace.” Inside, the retablo behind the altar consisted of another, pure art-deco mural showing what I assume to be the resurrection: a noble, powerful, youthful, clean-shaven, and, well, virile Jesus (identifiable only by the holes in hands, feet, and side) springing up from the tabernacle in a burst of atomic light, surrounded by similarly virile angels, spreading his arms wide toward the ceiling. It was unlike any religious art I had ever seen. Also, the trappings on the altar themselves were beautifully carved and impressive, and the church itself was remarkably clean and well-maintained. It occurred to me later that the diocese of Las Vegas was probably quite wealthy.

Despite the jarring decorations, the mass itself was orthodox and heartfelt, and preached to a full congregation. It felt good to shut out the huge palaces on the Strip and retreat for an hour into familiar church hymns and rituals. The depression and the sadness of my day melted away, and I exited the church in a more cheerful frame of mind.

Stepping out the church door into twilight, I was greeted by a gritty blast of cool dry desert wind. The palm trees were bowing toward the horizontal and sheets of dust raged howling up the Strip. Well-dressed gamblers and partygoers, hunched against the assault of sand and air, scurried along to get cabs or get inside. I slitted my eyes and strode as best I could down to the Flamingo, two miles to the south, where I was staying for the night. I passed the silent, wind-lashed fountain outside the Bellagio and inwardly rejoiced at this desert windstorm that had shut down the painful, frenetic pace of the city. At my hotel I ate a nice, quiet dinner with my room-mate, declined my comrades’ offer to go to the Playboy Club, and retired early.

The following morning we ferried the jets home from Las Vegas in one trip, dropping into a range for some LAT (which was fun). More arresting were the small wildfires we flew over to the east of San Diego, but on the whole it was simply good to be back “home” in the solid reality of my own routine and apartment. I looked forward to a week not living out of a suitcase.

But Providence had other plans. The small fires we saw on Sunday grew and threatened the metro area of San Diego itself. On Monday morning, pilots in the squadron flew the jets to Arizona (to get them out of the danger zone) while the WSOs–like me–stayed back to run the squadron. There was much to do. My job was standing Tower ODO, as the officer in charge of running the airfield itself. It is largely a supervisory role and it isn’t too difficult. Mostly I just take phone calls and watch the Marines who operate the actual control tower, the refueling equipment, and the fire trucks do their jobs. My only excitement was some planning for a visit by the President later in the week, which I turned over to my replacement at the end of my shift.

The following day the squadron was shut down, so I sort of had the day off. The day after that, Wednesday, the jets flew back in and I was asked to fly to Yuma as part of a training detachment. Even when fires threaten our home town, training must go on. Significantly, those of us who went to train lived in areas not threatened by the fires.

It was supposed to be a quick trip: fly over Wednesday night, complete the training flights Thursday morning, be back that afternoon. But all of our jets broke. And they broke hard. We spent Thursday trying to fix them, reluctantly stayed Thursday night in Yuma, and found out Friday that the maintenance would take probably several more days. So we rented a car and drove three hours back to San Diego. Although the trip ended up a frustrating experience in many ways, I was surprised and humbled by how well my fellow aircrew and the maintenance Marines handled it. You learn a lot about the quality of your comrades when you watch them deal with adversity. We complained a lot, but not in a negative way. They did it to be funny, and they do it while working very hard to fix what is wrong. They didn’t whine or give up. As a result, the trip turned out to be kind of fun. I am reminded again that I am in the company of Marines.

The events of the last three weeks or so have left me with a wealth of experience. I am not sure how it all fits together. Phoenix, Vegas, Mass in Vegas, moving, wildfires, getting stuck in Yuma–I am fortunate to have enjoyed and learned so much. As a new guy to the squadron, I get the more thankless tasks and the rougher hours, but there is a definite bright side.

Still, I hope I can go at least a couple of weeks without a cross country.

The Green Knights

Today I had my first flight as a “Green Knight” of VMFA(AW)-121. For those of you who don’t know, each letter in that acronym “VMFA(AW)” indicates something specific about the squadron: the “V” denotes its a fixed-wing squadron (as opposed to rotary-wing); the “M” identifies it as a Marine Corps squadron; the “F” and “A” are for our primary missions, fighter and attack; the “(AW)” indicates we are organized for all-weather operations; and 121 is our numerical designator. After three and and half years of training, I have finally joined an operational–“fleet”–unit.

I finished at the training squadron, VMFAT-101 (“T” indicates it’s a training squadron)’ on Tuesday, September 4. The last three weeks with them were a flurry of air-to-air flights, often twice a day. The pace was hard–so many flights packed together meant a great deal of studying too–but the flights were fun and fast-paced with plenty of air combat. My final flight was an combination air-to-ground and air-to-air tactics sortie as I led a division of four aircraft on a self-escort strike. We fought our way into the target area, bombed a target, and fought our way back out. It was a complicated and intense flight, and after I finished the training squadron kicked me unceremoniously out the door.

Looking back, I am amazed at how much I’ve learned. Generally, I have little patience with technical applications–I prefer to focus on “big picture” stuff, like theories and tactics. Yet my profession is dauntingly technical, requiring operation of a complicated machine designed to accomplish many different missions. In order to juggle everything effectively, pilots and WSOs must develop a sort of “muscle memory” about their equipment: we have to be able to operate on instinct in order to focus meager brain power on the layout of enemy fighters, air defenses, and the thousand little surprises that come up in such a dynamic environment. No plan, after all, survives first contact with the enemy…or even Air Traffic Control. It requires a lot of rote memorization and repetitious practice to make the most out of training flights.

Yet even with all my training, I am only technically 60% combat ready right now. The aircraft of my new squadron have more capable equipment than those of the training squadron. This stuff blows my mind, and I am making a concerted effort to learn about it: encrypted radios, sophisticated sensors, new modes of operating our radar, The tactics of real combat go far beyond the introduction I received in the training squadron. So it is true what they say: as an aviator you never stop learning. If I ever become really proficient in the systems I am operating now, there will be new ones to learn being installed on our fleet aircraft. In short, I have not “arrived”–I still have a lot to learn and a lot to prove.

The increasingly technical dynamic of my job makes it hard to write about, which is why I have slowed my posts related to the military. Back in TBS, every week we were introduced to new skills and theories. In the early part of flight school, every month or so I was introduced to a new type of flight. At this point, however, I’m past the theories and broad overview knowledge and required to specialize in my own airplane and our unique tactics–the details of which are probably pretty boring to the outside world.

Yet I could not have found a better place to take this next step. VMFA(AW)-121, or the “Green Knights,” is one of the most storied squadrons in the Marine Corps. It was formed as VMF-121 here at Miramar in 1941, along with the 2nd Marine Division, and was among the leading elements to hit Guadalcanal in 1942. The maintenance Marines of the squadron assaulted the beaches of Guadalcanal as infantry, fought through the jungle to capture the partially finished Japanese airfield there, and begin directing flight operations to bring in Green Knight aircraft. Stories tell how the fighting was so close to the runway that Green Knights would take off and drop ordnance without even retracting the landing gear, and circle back to the field to reload. VMF-121 would later fight from the legendary forward air bases of Espirito Santo Island, Turtle Bay, Bougainville, and Emirau. During WWII, the Squadron produced 14 Fighter Aces while downing 209 Japanese aircraft in aerial combat–scoring higher in both categories than any other squadron.

The Squadron dropped more bomb tonnage during the Korean War than any other Navy or Marine Corps squadron, devastating enemy airfields, supply dumps, bridges, and railroad yards. In November of 1962, the “Green Knights” deployed to NAS Cecil Field on the coast of Florida in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the Vietnam War, the Squadron helped pioneer new night-attack and targeting systems. On December 8, 1989 the Squadron acquired the F/A-18D Hornet (my own aircraft), and was redesignated as VMFA(AW)-121– the first Marine Corps F/A-18D Night Attack Hornet Squadron. Slightly over one year later, the Squadron deployed in support of Operation Desert Shield/Storm and earned the nom du guerre “Heavy Haulers” for dropping more ordnance in support of ground forces than any other squadron. More recently, the Green Knights flew combat missions over Afghanistan and Iraq–in fact, I checked in immediately after the squadron returned from their latest deployment to the Middle East.

The Green Knights are proud and demanding. As a new WSO, I am expected to read and learn various tactical manuals in preparation for my “combat wingman” qualification, and they have set high standards for me and the other new check-ins. Long days of study are the norm, and I usually fly back-to-back flights. The veterans are strict with everything from how we brief to how we talk on the radio. But I sense behind the work a strong commitment to maintain our tradition of excellence and battlefield success. Wish me luck!

Tactical Flight, and life in San Diego

It has been four long months since I last wrote about my continuing military adventure. This is partially due to the time commitment of my job, partially due to the other activities I have taken on, but mostly due to the fact that my job is no longer so easy to explain. As I get more specialized in my profession, the knowledge I acquire is more technical and thus of diminished interest to the world at large. But I will try to adequately describe the excitement of operating a real military jet, which is much more than the experience of flying.

As a refresher, I am currently assigned to the Fleet Replacement Squadron VMFAT-101. The purpose of this unit is to train new pilots and flight officers how to specifically operate the F/A-18 Hornet. The program consists of several phases. The first I wrote about in my last post about flying. The next is air-to-ground training: how to bomb and deliver advanced weapons — the ones you hear about on the news. Much of knowledge required is technical specifications about the ordnance itself, or the delivery systems organic to the aircraft, and much of that stuff is secret (no, it’s really classified…I’m not kidding). But the flights themselves are rewarding, because we generally “roll in” on a target, a fancy way to say we dive-bomb it. It has a few advantages: you can look at your target and thereby attack more accurately, and you can deliver the weapon on a moving target (something harder from high altitude). There is little in the world as exciting as flying toward the ground at 500 mph, trying to put a steel bomb on target without actually impacting the ground yourself. Naturally, we are very careful–and we certainly don’t hesitate to pull out of the dive if a dangerous situation develops. But it requires a lot of concentration.

Some of you may be inquiring why we dive-bomb when we have all these fancy GPS weapons. Others might be thinking that we’re crazy to dive-bomb at all, what with the threat of turning ourselves into a kamikaze jet. A single answer suffices for both: dumb bombs are cheaper than smart bombs, and the most effective way to deliver them is by a dive delivery. And since the whole purpose of Marine Aviation is to put bombs on bad guys, we do that as best we can…even if it’s dangerous. And we train to it. Hence the many practice flights. You’d think it gets repetitive, but it doesn’t. It’s a lot of fun, partially because it’s such a challenge. There are few things in life as satisfying as doing a demanding job well.

Speaking of putting bombs on bad guys, the culmination of the air-to-ground phase is CAS, or Close Air Support — supporting ground troops actually in contact with the enemy, as opposed to pre-planned deep strikes against solitary (and presumably high-value) targets. This is also very dangerous, because the explosive effects of our weapons can cover a lot of ground, and the worst thing we could do is hurt our own troops. To add to the possibility of error is the fact that oftentimes we cannot plan our targets in advance, since a battle is always fluid and we have to respond to developing situations. We instead rely on external controllers (airborne or on the ground) to direct us to targets as they appear. So we have strict procedures to follow in the airplane to deliver our weapons accurately. There is a specific brief over the radio (the 9-line) and standardized radio comms to keep everybody informed and allow ground personnel to check our attack parameters and target location. I can’t really describe the excitement of this kind of mission: it is exciting, challenging, and intense. It is, in fact, exactly what I wanted to do when I signed up for Marine Aviation. It’s worth noting that as a backseater, I will eventually train as one of the (airborne) external controllers, and my job then will be to fly above the battlespace and direct other aircraft (including helicopters) in Close Air Support. I can’t wait.

In my civilian life, I have found a church here with a very strong Young Adult program (they tend to get offended if referred to as “youth,” though I still think of myself as such). This facet of their ministry is appropriate considering their location in Pacific Beach , a neighborhood of small shops, tattoo parlors, bars, and small apartments whose chief residents are college students. But the ministry offers everything from a Memorial Day barbecue to in-depth conferences and bible studies oriented toward (and led by) young adults. It’s a fun group—we often go out to dinner after Mass, or simply go out drinking if the mood strikes us. Recently I began leading a bible study with a friend of mine, and the chance to do the “great books” thing again–by immersing myself in the text and trying to understand it with other people and perspectives–has been very rewarding. In fact, spending time with these young Catholics constitutes my largest extra-military activity.

As my parents found out when they visited over Mother’s day, life is good in California. The weather is nice more often than not, and (at least around the city) the landscape is beautiful. It is definitely desert, though–I find it amazing that the entire coastal landscape becomes distinctly greener after a day of rain, and becomes gradually browner during good weather. The real desert is evident when flying over the mountains east of the city to the bombing ranges. It is a bleak, magnificent landscape; never easier to appreciate than when raging around at 300 feet above the desert floor, rolling over dramatic ridges and diving through valleys. Though it’s fun to see that kind of landscape, I prefer the comparatively lush coastline.

On one flight out over the ocean, I chanced to look down as we went “feet wet” and noticed what appeared to be a solitary beach immediately below me. That afternoon I went to check it out as a possible location to go for a run. There were only a few people there, but oddly enough half of them appeared to be naked. It took a minute for this to sink in (since it was so unexpected), but I discovered later that I had found Black’s Beach, which is apparently a de facto nude beach. Given the several-hundred-foot cliffs that separate it from the headland, authorities rarely (read: never) come to enforce the San Diego ordinance prohibiting nudity. Despite that, it is a largely solitary and clean beach, nestled between the surf and the cliffs–a beautiful place to run. In fact, there are many beautiful places around here, and I am happy to be able to enjoy them.

Southern California has not disappointed me.

First Hornet Flight and the Great Southwest

This past weekend I climbed into an F/A-18D Hornet for the first time. From Friday to Sunday I completed five flights. The loss of my weekend was well worth the opportunity to “go on the road,” as the say here, because I got to explore a part of the country I had hitherto only read about.

Friday morning my instructor and I manned up the jet to fly out to Scottsdale, AZ and the to Albuquerque, NM. We had five flights to do, so we started by flying north to Fresno, and then southeast to spend that night in Scottsdale. The first flight is mostly an introduction, so we took time to explore the aircraft capabilities offshore. Part of that is demonstrating turn rates, acceleration, and climb capabilities (all of which are important to know and use when fighting). There, for the first time in my life, I broke the sound barrier. It was actually much smoother than I expected–no more than a slight bump passing Mach 1.0, and then again decelerating. Since it has been six and a half months since I’ve aircrewed a jet, I experienced a little nausea during the maneuvers and some difficulty counteracting the G forces. I was also a bit nervous. But all went according to plan and I didn’t actually get airsick, so all was well. We flew directly over Los Angeles and got to see the entire city from the west hills to Irvine and Burbank, then passed over the inland desert. My attention for most of the rest of that flight was held by the Sierra Nevada in the distance, floating and snowcapped.

We spent about two hours on deck in Fresno, refueling with pizza and Gatorade, and then got on the way to Scottsdale. Our original intention was to fly over the Grand Canyon, but since the sun was westering and we wanted to make it to Scottsdale while it was still light, we decided to scrap that plan and turn to our destination. Having seen it twice from the air (once in a commercial jet), I still have a hard time comprehending just how barren the Southwest is. Our visibility from the jet was unlimited, and nowhere did I see anything but brown, bare, rugged desert. Occasionally a dry lakebed would emphasize the essential lifelessness of the place. It was beautiful, though. It was a place of immense and magnificent solitude. As an interesting bit of trivia is that the Space Shuttle uses one of the dry lakebeds as a place to land – it essentially extends from the end of the normal runway for another three or four miles.

The land becomes more mountainous in the Phoenix area. Small ranges or single mountains grow at random from an otherwise flat desert. Phoenix airspace has become very busy, and my instructor demonstrated the Air-to-Air radar for me by locking up “shooting” other aircraft. We got Scottsdale airfield in sight just as the sun set, and performed a 7.5 G break over the field – far more Gs than I had previously pulled in any jet. That is, incidentally, the maximum for the F/A-18. It was a very exciting, high-performance maneuver and it was a suitable end to an exciting (almost overwhelming day).

The next morning we took departed the Phoenix area to the north. This time we had plenty of daylight, beautiful weather, and were going to see the Grand Canyon if we could. On our way there we passed both Sedona, with its incredibly red gorges and rocks, and Flagstaff mountain, which stands as a solitary snow-capped beacon over the desert. With the canyon in sight, Air Traffic Control (ATC) asked us if we wanted the “canyon tour,” then (unusually) cleared us to deviate right or left as necessary to see the whole thing. Probably only those reading this who have actually visited the Grand Canyon can understand how awesome an experience it is. The terrain around it is 6,600 feet above sea level (and incidentally, was lightly dusted with snow). The Canyon walls themselves plunged alarmingly into a seemingly infinite set of alternate gorges and peaks. It was very colorful, but the most distinct element was simply how vertical the rock formations were. Spires and ridges of stone reared thousands of feet nearly straight up in the air. At the bottom of the canyon was no valley; the Colorado river wound through what was purely a trough of stone. The whole edifice covered hundreds of miles of desert. There are literally no words to adequately describe it, but it was good to fly lazily mere thousands of feet over the canyon and drink in its majesty.

Once we were sufficiently overwhelmed, we called ATC and told them we were heading to Albuquerque. We had a lot of fuel left, so we cruised pretty quickly over there. The Albuquerque airport sits at 5,355 feet above sea level (higher than Denver), and the air is thin enough that the jet takes a lot longer to slow down before landing and a lot longer to stop once touched down, which was interesting and just a bit hairy. We met my instructor’s mother at the terminal, and decided to see the sights of the city. Albuquerque sits on the high desert, with mountains (Sandia peak) towering to the east. There is a famous tram that runs to the top (really more a gondola), which claims to be the longest in the world. We decided to go up, check out the view, and have lunch. It was an amazing ride – the west slopes of the mountain are bare and vertical, with stunted little firs growing trained by the constant wind. Toward the top, three and four feet of ice were plastered horizontally on the boughs. At the top itself, the temperature was 16 degrees Fahrenheit. I never knew the southwest could get so cold! Furthermore, the altitude up there is 10,300 feet above sea level. To give you some perspective on how high that really is, in naval aircraft we are required to be wearing oxygen masks above 10,000 feet in order to prevent hypoxia, or dangerous oxygen depletion. The three of us sat up there in the restaurant and drank down tea and coffee to stay warm, and admired the 100-mile views out to other mountain ranges. Around us sat skiers and snowboarders who ride the tram up and ski down the east slopes of the mountain, which is serviced by three lifts and has long, beautiful, powdery runs–which is something else I didn’t know was in the southwest. The desert sunset from the top of the that mountain was an incredible spectacle. When our ticket finally got called to ride down, we froze in the now four degree air and forty mile-an-hour wind blast until the tram arrived, wondering if we’d ever been colder in our collective lives. I certainly hadn’t.

That night we flew back to North Island Naval Air Station, which is on the island of Coronado in San Diego. Technically still on cross country, it was nice to sleep in my own bed again. Flying at night is peaceful, because the radios are quiet and the spread lights look very peaceful from above. After our ordeal on the mountain top and our tour of the Grand Canyon, we welcomed the relatively stress-free flight back home. The next morning (Sunday morning), we drove back to the jet and took off for the extremely short trip back to Miramar. Fortunately, we had fuel and time so we went back out over the water to maneuver the jet again, and I got to fly up to 48,000 feet and see the curvature of the earth along the horizon, then unloaded (put the jet into 0-G flight) and pushed the airspeed up to 1.38 Mach. My instructor practiced some Air Combat maneuvering at high Gs (which has left my legs quite sore), and we returned to the field in time to debrief and get home for the Super Bowl.

Now, back on the ground, I am tired. My body needs to get used to flying again – the pressure changes, the G forces, the mental strain of operating systems and talking on the radio. But it was definitely fun–I still revel in the fact I am flying in a plane that can accidentally break the speed of sound if the pilot isn’t paying attention, and I welcome the opportunity to see new places. It is good to be here again.

Wings of Gold

I did it. I earned my Wings today. I capitalize it because it is such a big deal to me: it has been my goal for the last 18 months. I am the Marine Corps’ newest Naval Flight Officer / Weapons System Officer. I completed two flights today, and shortly thereafter I was doused with champagne and ice water to celebrate. The Flight School Adventure is over. What makes this even more memorable is that I winged with a classmate who was also in my company at TBS. He crewed the other aircraft – since our last events are BFM, or “dogfighting” events, we always go up in pairs – and though I got the best of him in our engagements today, neither of us would have made it this far without working together. Tomorrow another classmate gets winged, and we are looking forward to celebrating together this Friday after the ceremony.

Perhaps I should back up. When I transitioned from the T-39 to the T-2, I my remaining events comprised three different kinds of flights. FAM flights came first, designed (through a simple air navigation mission) to give me the time to get comfortable in the new cockpit and aircraft. WEPS flights are low-level air-to-ground flights meant to provide practice operating as a section, or as two aircraft in one flight. For the rest of my career, almost every single flight will have at least two aircraft in it. The third kind of flight is BFM, which stands for “Basic Fighter Maneuvering.” These are the most fun. We depart the airfield as a section, head out over the water, fight each other until we get low on gas, then come home. Today I completed my final BFM flight first, then flew my final WEPS flight. Experiencing both kinds of missions made for a fitting wrap-up.

The T-2 is perhaps the ugliest aircraft ever built, at least when sitting on the ground. In the air it seems much more aerodynamic. It is also, literally, a vintage aircraft. It was designed in 1957, and the last modification we have was probably completed in the late ‘60s. We still fly it with genuine ‘60s flight instruments, too…no computers here, which can be frustrating. For example, the instrument which shows our aircraft heading and navigational information actually drifts over time, and requires constant correction off an old-fashioned wet compass. Every 10 minutes of flying—less if there has been any kind of maneuvering—we must readjust our navigation displays. It is ironic that this instrument is so unreliable, considering how important it is to fly the right heading, especially when a) flying in very busy airspace (so you don’t hit another aircraft), b)flying in clouds (when you can’t see) and c) when flying an approach (so you actually find the runway). Another crazy feature of the T-2 is the Electrical Disconnect Switch. Since the T-2 was designed as a pilot trainer, somebody thought it would be a good idea to enable the Instructor (presumably in the back seat) to simulate a total electrical power failure. So they installed a switch that actually shuts off the generators and the battery – so it doesn’t so much simulate an Electrical failure so much as cause one. Then, of course, you become an emergency aircraft with no way of navigating or communicating…and oh by the way your engines may fail without the electrical spark plugs, which means you either have to airstart one of them or eject. Brilliant.

Idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, the T-2 is a pretty perky little jet. We routinely pull up to 6 Gs during turns and Aerobatics, and it low over the ground it flies really well. During WEPS flights hug every curve of a road at close to 400 mph, then execute a high-performance pull, roll inverted, dive in at our “target” to deliver weapons, then pull hard up and away again. It is fun, dynamic, and physically draining – imagine trying to keep your head up looking around and your arms moving around a cockpit when they weigh five times more than usual! Yet BFM flights are the most fun, not only because you are fighting a buddy, but also because you continually operate the aircraft in high-G, high-performance flight. You might pitch up to arc over the top of your opponent or slice around in a max-performance turn to get behind him, or (if you’re in trouble) you might “unload the jet” (go to zero-G flight) so as to accelerate quickly. In this kind of flying, the only instrument you watch is the altimeter, because you are upside down as much as you are right side up, and the only thing that matters is not hitting the ground. It is extremely exciting flying. It is what I signed up to do. But before I could get there, I had to complete the obligatory aviation simulations.

T-2 Simulator Events are pretty low-key. The instructors are all former military pilots who work for Lockheed and have a contract with the Navy. Some of them have fought as long ago as Korea , and many have ejected at least once from their aircraft. One of my instructors flew the now-obsolete F-8 Crusader, now distinguished as the last American fighter jet designed with guns as its primary weapon system. It was fast, though, and my instructor told me that a peer of his was flying around at Mach 2.4 when the wind blast sheared his canopy right off the aircraft. Desperately trying to slow his jet down, the pilot was pulling the throttles to idle and putting out the speed brakes when the wind pulled his upper ejection handle out from the top of the seat, and ejected him at Mach 1.7. He was hopelessly out of position and slammed by wind traveling over 1,000 mph, which caused his knees to break so badly that his feet were slapping against his helmet visor while he parachuted down. The pilot lived to fly jets again, though my instructor had this comment: “that man does not walk like you or me anymore.”

Despite the sea stories, sim events are graded and can be stressful. My last sim was with an instructor who I had flown before. Though he is widely regarded as one of the nicest instructors around – in the lingo of flight school, a “Santa Clause” – I have always performed poorly with him. He wasn’t mean to me or anything, but for some reason I never, not once, had a good flight with him. Remarkably, he only failed me once. At my Intermediate Graduation, where I graduated first in my class, he pulled me aside afterward to ask incredulously, “How, out of all of these students, did you graduate first?” Anyway, when he walked into the T-2 student lounge to pick me up for my final sim, he stopped in his tracks, looked at me appraisingly with a funny little smile and said, “So we meet again.” Fortunately, I had a fairly decent event (though certainly not my best), and afterward he handed me my gradesheet, saying, “Well, you’re free of me forever.” We had a good laugh about that.

One little side adventure I had during this phase was a trip to Washington, DC. This took place during my three FAM flights. It is nice to do them “cross country,” because not only do I get experience flying outside of Pensacola (which I am very familiar with, but I can travel to cool places for the weekend. The flights themselves are pretty low-key, too: I am only responsible for basic navigation, a skill I have been working on since the first phase of training. Friday we flew to NAS Oceana (at Virginia Beach), and then my student partner and I rented a car to drive to D.C. We had a good time: I spent an entire afternoon in the National Gallery, saw a bunch of old friends, and generally relived the days of TBS when I visited DC every weekend. Sunday morning we drove back to Oceana and took the two quick flights home. Travel is one of the benefits of Aviation.

And now, this upcoming Friday, I will officially receive the Wings of Gold. I am near the end of my time in Pensacola , and that makes me just a little sad. I have grown to love it – everything from the beautiful white beaches to the friendly dumpy dive bars has made this an interesting and entertaining cultural experience. I will leave some good friends behind as I move on, but that’s part of a military life – and it isn’t really new. My old room-mate John has gone to California ahead of me, though not to San Diego, and another old room-mate will shortly move from Jacksonville to Whidbey Island, and yet a third has deployed to Iraq. I was nervous when I first moved down here – I only really know one of the guys I would be living with, and practically no one else in the greater Pensacola area. But shortly after moving in, my other room-mate approached me in a bar and said, “I don’t know how to say this, but I really wasn’t sure if living with you was going to work out or not. I didn’t really get along with you at Notre Dame. I’m pretty surprised it has gone so smoothly so far.” I guess that sounds like a mean thing to say, but I had felt the same way. And now I have many good friends from this Pensacola experience.

Enough reflecting. Tonight it is time to celebrate my newly-earned Wings of Gold.