Archive for the ‘US military and COIN’ Category

Playing to Our Strengths (the USS Georgia)

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015

originally published in The Weekly Standard, 12/21/2015
MAGAZINE: From the December 21 Issue
Playing to Our Strengths
A visit to an Ohio-class submarine redesigned for counterterrorism

Dec 21, 2015 | By Ann Marlowe

Key West

It’s one thing to read debates about Navy budget decisions and the aging of our submarine fleet, and quite another to visit one of our 71 submarines and see what the fuss is about. This November, I spent 24 hours on the USS Georgia—one of four Ohio-class subs redesigned in 2004 for counterterrorism, with Tomahawk cruise missiles replacing nuclear warheads and some missile silos retrofitted as lockout chambers to allow Navy SEALs to exit in combat zones. I came away with a profound respect for the submarine culture.

Many of my expectations were wrong. Happily, I didn’t feel claustrophobic for a minute. In fact, being on the 560-foot-long Georgia was blissful compared with getting on, which involved a rough trip of about an hour off Key West on a “rigid inflatable boat” out to the surfaced sub, then a short scramble up a well-worn rope-and-wood ladder. Topside, you’ve got 18,750 metric tons beneath you, and it feels very stable indeed.

Public affairs officer Lieutenant Lily Hinz (who accompanied me on my visit) and I descended from topside through a hatchway about 20 feet down a narrow fixed metal ladder in what’s called the port lockout chamber (another former missile silo). We were led to our bunkroom: very compact, but not much tighter than a sleeping compartment on a train. Down the hall was the “head” with two stalls and a shower; a sign on the door could be shifted from “Male” to “Female.” The ceilings hold a jungle of wires, cables, and pipes, but the Georgia’s faux wood paneling and speckled tan linoleum tiles reflect its 1979 vintage.

Then we climbed up a longer internal ladder to the cockpit, where the officer of the deck leads the ship when on the surface. This is part of the bridge—the area that includes the Ohio-class sub’s two periscopes, one visual and one digital. Captain David Adams and Lt. J.G. Jake Christianson were standing on the top, on what’s called the sail, tethered to the periscope tower. A junior officer, Ensign Laura Wainikainen, was getting certified for a “man overboard” recovery. Ensign Wainikainen would be directing the crew in the control room below to stop the submarine and reverse course to enable recovery of the “man” (a foil-covered box). This was accomplished in about 15 minutes in rough seas.

I was able to visit the Georgia because she was certifying for combat readiness, and boats were going out to her almost daily, bringing SEALs and others involved in training. I saw some drills that did look claustrophobic: A group of SEAL divers spent hours in a lockout chamber and then entered a tiny sub, called a SEAL delivery vehicle (SDV), that was playing damaged. The SDV holds six divers, submerged in water, breathing from air tanks. Again, the crew had to turn the Georgia abruptly to find and lasso the SDV.

Ohio-class subs are facing mass retirement now, just as military budgets are under pressure. Their estimated useful life has been extended 10 years, to 40 years, because the Navy’s ship-building budget is $17 billion a year, and building one Ohio-class sub is estimated to cost $7 billion.

This sounds ridiculous, until you see what a complex, profoundly unnatural ecosystem such a sub is. To put the cost in perspective, the $25 billion the United States spent training and equipping Iraqi troops who ran away from the fight would have bought three new Ohio-class submarines. The argument can be made that putting more of our military budget into technology and less into training dubious foreign fighters is a vote not only for American industrial might and innovation but for American military culture. In fact, the Navy is arguing for a special budget just for the Ohio-class replacements.
The USS Georgia arrives at Souda Bay on the Greek island of Crete. (Credit: U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class John Martinez)

Adams points out that the more reluctant the United States is to commit boots on the ground, the more sense it makes to rely on precision-guided missiles and on special forces delivered from stealthy platforms like the retrofitted Ohio-class subs. The Georgia’s sister ship, the Florida, fired more than 100 Tomahawks on March 19, 2011, at the start of Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya. These took down some of Qaddafi’s air defenses.

“Our advantage is massive underseas,” Adams says. “We can take on anyone, though China has a lot of good subs and is gaining. Why not play to our strengths?”

The Georgia will be deploying in the general direction of the Middle East this spring, relieving the Ohio-class USS Florida, with which she rotates deployments, and she could well be used to support U.S. operations against the Islamic State.

Besides us, only the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and India have nuclear-powered submarines. Our new nuclear submarines don’t have to refuel during their estimated life of 30 years; conventional diesel-and-battery-powered submarines must keep returning to the surface for oxygen, limiting their ability to stay at depths where they can lurk undetected.

Submarines are zero-tolerance-for-error workspaces. As Adams put it, “The people are the platform. One man can kill all of us here by making a mistake.” (The United States hasn’t lost a submarine since 1968, when the USS Scorpion suddenly disappeared in the Atlantic under circumstances that remain unclear.)

So it makes sense that submariners are a tiny elite, just 6 percent of the Navy, 20,500 people in all including 2,500 officers. You have to be in the top half of your Annapolis class to apply for billets on submarines or nuclear surface ships, that is, aircraft carriers. You also must be interviewed in person by the top sub officer, a four-star admiral. There’s no other service where this is the case.

After commissioning, whether through Annapolis, ROTC, or Officer Candidate School, all officers go through six months of Naval Nuclear Power School and Naval Nuclear Prototype School to learn to run the nuclear reactors, then a three-month Submarine Officer Basic Course in Groton, Connecticut, to learn to drive the ship. So they have 15 months of graduate school before they even deploy on a sub.

Ohio-class subs have two separate 160-person crews, “blue” and “gold,” which spell each other so that the sub can spend as much time as possible deployed. The crew I met, the blue crew, will leave the Georgia in early December and return to Kings Bay, Georgia—the home port of the Georgia and Florida—for training, while the gold crew takes the sub to its next deployment, usually about six months. After that, the blue crew will take over again. Since the Florida can’t come home until the Georgia relieves it, pressure was on the Georgia blue crew to certify as combat-ready as soon as possible.

Unlike the Army’s brigade combat teams, where enlisted personnel, NCOs, and officers deploy as a unit, submarine officers rotate on and off (in groups) every six months or so, while the enlisted sailors and chief petty officers (“chiefs”) may remain attached to the same submarine for five or six years. Sub officers serve three years on a submarine, then two to three years off, then three years on. This puts a premium on a unified culture throughout the submarine service, so that everyone can quickly find his or her place—and it attracts the kind of people who have no sharp edges.

Every submariner I interviewed on the Georgia said that the main reason he or she applied for the submarine service was the caliber of people.

Lieutenant Emma McCarthy, a 2011 Naval Academy grad and the Georgia’s strike officer, has been on the Georgia for three years.

“[Submariners] held themselves to a very high standard,” she said. “For me it was either Marine Corps or submarines, and in 2010 the first group of women were authorized to be on submarines. I had an engineering degree, which helps.” She’d only spent one day on a submarine when she made her career choice, but it turned out to be a good fit: McCarthy has won one of four scholarships for graduate study awarded to submarine officers annually and plans to use it to get an MBA.

As McCarthy took me around, I realized that life aboard is relentlessly disciplined and focused. Copies of Travel + Leisure and Popular Mechanics in the head and two enlisted sailors watching a boxing video for a few minutes in the evening were about it for amusement. I got glimpses of the bunkrooms of the female officers, and they were almost devoid of personal decorative touches, unlike the Army officer tents I’d seen in Afghanistan.

The Georgia is also as close to a social-media-free zone as one finds these days. Underway, subs get communications from shore only every 12 hours. At periscope depth—about 80 feet—the captain can send and receive email, slowly, but when I was on the Georgia it was usually around 200 feet under the surface. (It has an unclassified depth limit of 800 feet.)

So the young people—average age 23—who run the Georgia spend their spare time working their way through loose leaf binder paper manuals explaining every aspect of the operation of a 560-foot-long traveling nuclear reactor carrying up to 154 3,000-pound, 20-foot-long Tomahawk missiles as well as a reverse-osmosis water treatment plant.

The Georgia has four levels and three compartments (engine room, missile compartment or MC, and forward compartment or FC), but you can’t simply walk all the way up or down on one set of ladders or stairs, nor can you walk all the way through any level from bow to stern. This is to prevent fire or flood from spreading. The control room is on the top level, 1L, while the torpedos are on the bottom level, forward compartment, FC4L. Enlisted men bunk in MC3L, and some visiting officers are housed there. Enlisted mess is on FC3L. The captain and second in command bunk on FC2L, as do the female officers.
A Navy diver and member of SEAL Delivery Team 2 train outside the USS Florida, twin sister of the Georgia. (Credit: U.S. Navy / Senior Chief Petty Officer Andrew McKaskle)

Young officers begin working in the engine room, where standing watch means monitoring machinery. I wasn’t allowed to visit the engine room, which includes the nuclear reactor, but I did get to see the Tomahawk silos in the missile compartment in the center of the sub, with well-maintained pieces of aerobic exercise equipment and weight stations nestled among them. Along the walls of the missile compartment are the enlisted bunkrooms.

Six of the Georgia’s 19 officers are women, and like other Ohio-class subs she will receive her first female enlisted sailors in a year or two. The presence of women on the Georgia seems a nonissue, though there was a flurry of attention when we became the first nation to allow women to serve on nuclear submarines in 2011. The reason, Captain Adams points out, wasn’t to be politically correct, but to deepen the talent pool for this very selective service. To a woman, the six said they had not met with any hostility on the Georgia, though a couple mentioned instructors at the Naval Academy who opposed women’s presence on submarines. Navy women are currently 17 percent of active-duty officers and 18 percent of enlisted. All new ships are built for habitation by both sexes.

While the drills were taking place, most of the officers, even those who were not on watch, converged on the compact control room to follow the action. It takes two crew members just to adjust the ballast, allowing the submarine to go up and down or maintain a level position. Another group steers—this involves monitoring lots of screens. One, a sonar picture of the Georgia’s (and nearby ships’ or large fishes’) passage through the underwater landscape over time, eluded my efforts at understanding. Passive sonar (listening) is the main way the Georgia makes her way around without bumping into the sea floor or surface ships.

I wanted more time to learn more; basic questions were occurring to me just as it was time to leave the ship. (Who cleans the heads? Answer: everyone, including officers. This is called Field Day. Does the crew ever get to go swimming? Answer: Yes, occasionally when the sub is on the surface the captain orders a “swim call,” and people jump off and climb back up on ladders. How does the Georgia get rid of trash? Answer: They shoot it into the sea, except plastics, which are recycled. Do submariners still adhere to the traditional naval sleep schedule of 6 hours on watch, 12 hours off, where you rotate your sleep times? Answer: No, the Navy recently moved to a watch schedule where each man goes to sleep around the same time every night, though there are still three different watches.)

I left wishing more people had the chance to visit a submarine. A complex, thriving system like the Georgia inspires respect not just for the Navy but for American culture, with its rigorous standards, openness to newcomers, and commitment to teamwork.

An Afghan Tale

Sunday, June 28th, 2015

Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard:

An Afghan Tale
Reality and unreality at a Combat Outpost.
Ann Marlowe
July 6 – July 13, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 41

The Valley is marketed as a police procedural set in a remote American military outpost in Afghanistan, and it is a page-turner, all 448 of them. It’s also so cunningly constructed that I had to read it twice to be sure I understood everything that was going on—and there are still a few loose ends. But it’s also an ambitious, if reticent, novel about good and evil, friendship and leadership, courage and shame that mainly succeeds.

Like a classic Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery, The Valley has a very limited geographic area and cast of characters. We follow Lieutenant Black—no first name—who’s been sent to a small American combat outpost to conduct a routine investigation: A villager’s house was damaged when an American soldier fired a warning shot in an unruly Afghan crowd, and the village chief complained to a passing civil affairs captain. Lieutenant Black is due to spend a week filling out the paperwork. Meanwhile, he has his own demons: Something has gone very wrong in what should have been a promising Army career, and this is a chance for him to prove himself.

The ramshackle Combat Outpost (COP) Vega—supposed to be the furthest-east, most isolated, and most dangerous American outpost in a Nuristan valley that ends at the Pakistan border—is home to 47 soldiers and one translator, or “terp,” named Danny, the major Afghan character. The men are fighting with not only the Taliban but the villagers, who are also fighting the Taliban. Five days before Black’s arrival, a soldier from Vega fell behind 10 meters on a nighttime patrol and got snatched by locals. His end was gruesome.

In Army-speak, COP Vega is a “self-licking ice cream cone”: an isolated fort so poorly situated that it mainly exists to defend itself rather than to extend American control over terrain or people. Small wonder that the men are half-crazy with stress and treat Black as an enemy. It’s not even so odd that one soldier may be a killer. It is odd, though, that a soldier no one has heard of is listed on the personnel roster, and that another soldier Black meets in the flesh isn’t on the roster.

The U.S. Army doesn’t lose track of soldiers. Or does it?

The Valley draws as much on the conventions of gothic fiction as crime fiction: COP Vega is a castle clinging to a fog-wrapped mountain, surrounded by hostile, poorly understood forces. Black’s trip to COP Vega on a classically pitch-black, rainy night is full of ominous foreshadowing. There’s a joking road sign pointing to “Xanadu,” a cryptic warning to “beware he who would be king.”

The Valley gives the best description of the American military base environment (and the post-9/11 Army) that I’ve ever read, both accurate in the details and evocative in atmosphere. John Renehan nails the big Forward Operating Bases (which are anything but forward) and the tiny, patched-together COPs up in the hills or on dusty plains where the rubber meets the road. He also captures the tensions between noncommissioned officers and junior lieutenants, and between junior enlisted and NCOs. This is all, by extension, a portrait of America today. Consider this:

The room was standard-issue meathead. Heavy-metal posters and jugs of workout powder. An Xbox video game system sat on a shelf beneath a small and beat-up monitor.

Or this description of Lieutenant Pistone, the commander of COP Vega:

He became your squared-away super-soldier, in his own way. Fastidiously organized, diligent about physical training. Not necessarily a good leader. He walked around with the sound track of his freshly awesome life playing in his head. He tended to forget that succeeding in the military was not so much about his own cosmic journey to heroism as it was about how good he was at dealing with people, handling people, taking care of people.

It comes as a shock to read in Renehan’s acknowledgments that the pain-stakingly observed Afghan setting is a work of imagination. Renehan served as an artillery officer in Iraq and has never been to Afghanistan. As this suggests, Renehan is not only a brilliant writer, but a very clever one. Still, there are some first-novel fault lines here: The Valley is written in a close third-person, almost entirely from the point of view of Lieutenant Black. (The couple-dozen pages that take the points of view of other characters are far less successful.) But there’s a major surprise at the end, and the closeness of the narration makes it seem as though the author is pulling a fast one on us.

More seriously, I wish the novelist had opened up his main character more toward the end. He has elegantly avoided all the redemption clichés we might have expected, but the ending feels a bit choked, and The Valley ends on an uncertain note.

Renehan has spoken in an interview of writing a sequel, and I can’t wait; I hope there’s a movie, too. “You are [a] man who needs the truth,” the Afghan terp Danny says to Lieutenant Black. And we need these truths about our wars and our soldiers, too.

Ann Marlowe, a writer in New York, was embedded with the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions in Afghanistan.

Much Ado About Afghan War Photos (orig. pub. in WSJ 4/23/2012)

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

April 23, 2012

Much Ado About Afghan War Photos

Sometimes men do dumb things. This is one of them, little more.

By Ann Marlowe

Last week’s U.S. military “scandal”: Some young enlisted men from a platoon in the 82nd Airborne, most barely old enough to vote, posed for photos in 2010 with the remains of Afghan suicide bombers.
In some of the photos, Afghan National Police officers posed alongside U.S. troops. This group has taken the heaviest losses from suicide attacks. No American in the photos committed any atrocity or required subsequent military discipline. In fact, according to Col. Dave Oclander, who commanded the battalion that included the platoon in question, this unit was one of his best, and many of the men in the photos had performed acts of humanitarian service while deployed.
Military investigators have found that the men might have violated General Order No. 1, intended to “identify and regulate conduct which is prejudicial to good conduct and discipline of forces.” Section 2f prohibits photography of “human casualties.”
No one had published the photos anywhere until last week, when the good people at the Los Angeles Times decided that the world would be best served by doing so. The Pentagon had requested that the newspaper refrain since some of the men in the photos are currently deployed in Afghanistan.
By now, every bien-pensant commentator has weighed in with self-righteous indignation at this manufactured story. It symbolizes a breakdown in command, the effects of overly long and frequent overseas deployments. And somehow, although it took place two years earlier and under different senior leadership, it is of a piece with last month’s alleged shooting spree by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.
In polite circles today—meaning circles in which few people under 60 have served in uniform—the American military is seen through distorted lenses. One lens exaggerates the good characteristics of those who serve, making even the most indifferent truck mechanic or supply-chain manager a “hero.” This does little for the real heroes, who have received less recognition in our Afghan and Iraq engagements than in any previous war. The other lens, measuring ordinary men and women against this impossible standard, labels every ordinary lapse of judgment as a grave indicator of the failure of a chain of command, a moral blemish, and a comfort to our enemies.
These young men should never have taken those photos. But that is the extent of their “crime.”
Was the picture-posing culturally insensitive? Probably less so in Afghanistan than it would have been here. Afghans themselves have often denied Islamic burial to suicide bombers. When I was embedded with U.S. troops in Khost province several years ago, the Afghan governor allowed one bomber’s body parts to be left in tree branches as a deterrent to others. The Afghan National Police—who lost 1,555 men between mid-2010 and mid-2011, according to figures reported by the Washington Post, most to improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks—hate suicide bombers as no one else does.
Afghan civilians mainly feel the same way. Like the police, they don’t drive around in armored vehicles that can withstand bomb blasts. In 2011, according to United Nations figures, the Taliban killed about 2,600 civilians, 431 in suicide bombings. Just about the only Afghan to get on his high horse about the publication of the photos was the feckless president, Hamid Karzai.
Part of the issue here is also the accelerating feminization of American culture, which has caused the increasing demonization of relatively normal male behavior. Men at war demonize their enemy and enact their triumph over him symbolically. That is part of the psychology that makes them able to kill.
No, it isn’t pretty, but it’s not that different from the way football teams psych themselves up for games or the way that (with less physicality) a big company’s sales force revs up for a new product introduction. Male aggressivity serves a purpose in a healthy society—as many of us realized for the first time when the U.S. had to fight back after 9/11.
And sometimes, men do dumb things. This is one of them, and not much more.