Tuesday, November 18, 2014

While our attention was diverted

The mid-term elections took most of the American media's attention away from the air strikes in Iraq and Syria.  The Republican win has some serious changes coming for the Armed Services Committee which means a potential end to defense cuts.  For example, the A-10 may finally be spared and its continuation means ground troops will continue to have the best close air support platform available.

After the elections, attention has continued to be focused on how the Republican controlled Congress and Senate intend to deal with a lame duck President who intends to pass the most drastic and radical immigration reforms ever.  Obama may be playing on fears that he will try to use executive power to push it through to manage an extremely hostile legislative branch (one in which he has no friends even within his own party).  The problem is becomes a game of chicken and if he blinks, it will be over.  If on the other hand if does push through immigration then there will be calls for the legislative branch to impeach the President.  If that happens, there will be no winners.

Meanwhile, while the media and pundits await this political stand-off our attention gets diverted to yet another potential flare-up in Ferguson, MO.  The grand jury will announce its decision any day and now seems more and more like no indictment.  The press has done a marvelous job of allowing this tragedy to turn into a racially divisive issue.  If no indictment is handed out, rioting is expected and the Missouri governor has already called out the National Guard to assist police.

Somehow the similarity to having armed troops called out (again) to the earlier response by the Ferguson PD (and how its response fueled rather than dampened tensions) has escaped the governor.  To make matters worse, a Navy veteran was fired from his job at Drury Suites in Chesterfield, MO when he posted photos of dozens of Department of Homeland Security SUVs parked in the hotel garage.  Chesterfield is 25 southwest of Ferguson.  It's as if matters are being deliberated handled to make matters worse. (source: Daily Mail)

Ebola continues to burn through Liberia and the Army is sending more units according to the Army Times;

•16th Engineer Brigade headquarters, Ohio National Guard

•223rd Military Intelligence Battalion (Linguist Detachment), California National Guard

•272nd Engineer Company (Vertical Construction), Texas National Guard

•294th Area Support Medical Company, Iowa National Guard

•891st Engineer Battalion, Kansas National Guard.

The Reserve units deploying are:

•96th Sustainment Brigade, of Salt Lake City, Utah, and Denver, Colorado

•313th Movement Control Battalion, Baltimore, Maryland

•324th Fire Fighting Detachment, East Point, Georgia

•324th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, Granite City, Illinois

•329th Survey and Design Team, St. Joseph, Minnesota

•387th Medical Logistics Company, Miami, Florida

•398th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, Rockville, Maryland

•452nd Preventative Medicine Team, Miami, Florida

•996th Horizontal Engineer Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

•B Company, 412th Civil Affairs Battalion, Columbus, Ohio

The interesting thing is how even ebola has become a divisive issue here in the US.  Take barring passenger flights originating from ebola infected countries when the outbreak first started.  The White House claimed to cut-off those countries would do more harm then good, yet other African countries have take exactly that stance and have remained outbreak free.  Healthcare providers expected infected patients and family members to follow that they then seem to ignore themselves once they return home.

All of this takes attention away from a question that should have been bothering us for some time.  How did ISIS/ISIL/IS not only become so formidable but manage to maintain its gains even in the face of US led airstrikes?  War takes troops and weapons but most of all it takes money.  Where is ISIS/ISIL/IS getting theirs?  According to a story yesterday on RT.com, "Dozens of vehicles carrying oil leave Syria’s petroleum capital, Raqqa, currently under IS control, every hour, earning the extremist group a million dollars daily, according to an oil refinery employee in the occupied city".  The story goes on to conclude that the Islamic State has an estimated wealth of nearly $2 billion making it the richest terrorist organization in the world.  If the RT story is accurate, this means for the first time since the Cold War the US is fighting an enemy that is a financial match.

The US faces a very tough road ahead.  On one hand, the US could lose a war of attrition by simply being unable to afford enough replacement munitions and equipment (not to mention troops!) to fight IS for the long haul.  IS does not rely on expensive weapon systems such as F-22s so it is a distinct possibility.  On the other hand, should the US go after the refineries it will make others in the Muslim believe this war was only an excuse to take over resources from Syria.  We could either end-up losing a war by going bankrupt or win a war and confirm Muslim fears of US lead imperialism (and still end-up bankrupt).

One last thought to kind of tie things together, since IS has deep pocket books wouldn't a simple strategy be to recruit operatives from hotbed areas such as Ferguson and destabilize matters without ever mentioning IS?  Or IS could follow the Colombian drug cartel model of paying a third party to commit acts of terror for you?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Absentee Leadership

In the past month, we have experienced the run-up to the midterm elections, Halloween, and the Democrats lose the mid-term elections and finally Veterans Day.  I've struggled with analyzing the impact of the elections beyond the partisan lines that we have been inundated with for nearly the last two weeks.  This is going to be a long essay as I try to broach elections, national security and what is going on in the USAF (sorry, I haven't figure out how to include Halloween in this entry) so bear with me.

My conclusion in short is that the United States has produced the greatest crop of mediocre leaders that has ever held office, Democrats and Republicans alike.  One nearly needs to know that most likely candidates to run for President in 2016 have the last names of Clinton and (perhaps) Bush to realize we have no hope for change in the future.  Anyone who has not been battered about in the media by political pundits has zero chance of getting nominated, much less elected.  The modern vetting process has the secondary effect of making any candidate so middle of the road as to be completely uninteresting and mediocre.  Hence when a new candidate that does manage to surface, there is a buzz and excitement that he/she will do something.  This was the phenomenon that helped get Obama elected (a mediocre Senator from Illinois) and explains the landslide Republican victories in this year's election.  Americans are tired of mediocrity but we don't know what to do about it.

You can analyze this further but what happens is the closer you look, the greater the tendency to start forming theories along partisan lines, regardless of your political affiliation.  Democrats see that elections as a failure to mobilize their base (really?  How many incumbents fought tooth & nail but still lost?), Republicans see it as a repudiation of the Democrat agenda (whatever in the hell that means).  They are both right and both wrong.  Americans are quite frankly looking for leaders and they aren't finding any in either party (no Republicans, you haven't proven yourselves yet).  If the newly elected Republicans don't produce leaders, the 2016 elections will see Democrats winning in a wild hope that they are secretly the leaders the Republicans didn't turn out to be.

The mediocrity of American leadership, and I'm not just speaking now of elected officials, has been in the making for quite a while.  My compass on this epiphany is my alma mater, the United States Air Force.  The military has always been a microcosm of what is happening on a larger scale in the rest of American society because that's where the troops come from.  Two recent articles reinforced my opinion of this theory and it explains the state of affairs in the military as well as to why the Democrats lost the election (and in-turn what that means for our national security).  More on those articles in a moment but first a little background as to why those articles resounded with me.

A retired chief master sergeant that I worked with and still am good friends with likes to point to how the USAF started down the path of mediocrity when it went ape-shit over total quality management (TQM) back in the early 90s.  I was still in the active duty back then and remember how we were told TQM would help give the lowly airmen in a back shop the means to let the commander know why the aircraft weren't operating at peak efficiency.  Sounds awesome except even after we went full-blown down the TQM road, aircraft still were late or didn't take off the same way the did as before the implementation of TQM.  We may have been better able at identifying problems but we weren't any better at solving them.  By adopting TQM (and later many other quality improvement techniques), the USAF was admitting without realizing it that their leaders didn't know what was going on.

The USAF tends to function much more like a corporation at times rather than as a branch of the military.  Perhaps this should not be too surprising given that number of commissioned officers that are engineers (at one time this number was over 90 percent).  We have a tendency in the USAF to believe process improvement will overcome anything (including poor leadership).  Engineers are taught from their first classes in college to dismiss anything that does not lead to an improvement in efficiency.

The effect is compounded by the commanding officers who are also pilots of single seat aircraft.  These officers spend their formative years learning to fly ever more efficiently to defeat the enemy.  Compare that to how junior officers in the Army or Marines spend their time learning how to lead their troops into battle.  Rated officers in the USAF may not directly supervise troops until they become a squadron commander (usually a major so that's around 8 years commissioned time assuming the officer has not been passed over).

The culture of efficiency then is hard-wired into many USAF officers and when faced with a leadership problem, the tendency is to look for a way to improve efficiency rather than lead.  What this means in overly simplistic terms is the best way to improve efficiency is to look for components (people) that are not performing at optimal levels.  To efficiency experts (management consultants fall into this category as well), leadership can be quantified into how the individual components are performing.  To these experts, a poor performing component must be the problem thus improving the perforce of said component (or removing it) means increased efficiency.  Simple, none confrontational and easy to package and sell.

So what has a quarter century of process improvement vetted against the longest war in modern history produced?  On Nov 7, Col Donald Grannan (88th Communications Group Commander) wrote an essay on the Wright-Patteron Base webpage entitled "How did we lose this young Airmen?".  If you haven't already read this piece, take the time now and read it.  I applaud Col Grannan for taking the very bold step of not only recognizing what is wrong with the USAF leadership culture and having the courage to write about it.  I guarantee he isn't be popular with senior leaders but from the comments you can see how many airmen agree with his assessment.

The article has gone viral amongst USAF airmen and anyone with an interest in military leadership.  John Q. Public, a extremely well written blog on the USAF, also analyzed Col Grannan's essay on "Boiling Point: Colonel's Commentary Exposes Deep Frustration Amongst Airmen".  It is an extremely insightful piece that mirror much of my own experiences and observations about the Air Force.  His conclusion, "It (Col Grannan's essay) casts a light on a profoundly broken service culture more concerned with identifying and punishing imperfection than championing excellence, training and developing people, or building teams to fight and win wars," is extremely alarming but is the result of a service that wants to hide behind management techniques rather than fostering real leaders.

The essay takes points raised by Col Grannan further by pointing out the issues caused by the constant deployments faced by airmen.  It creates absentee leaders yet deployments have become one of the core missions of the USAF (basic training now has airmen going through a simulated deployment as part of their training).  The pursuit of efficiency (the USAF would say excellence but the preponderance of evidence is to the contrary) is why the Air Force adopted the concept of the "air expeditionary force" in the first place.  To better understand this, a little history is in order first.

Back when I was serving in the 39th Special Operations Wing (39 SOW) in the early 90s, it was the only special ops wing in the region (Europe and Africa) so we often were tasked with both air rescue missions as well as special ops missions.  At this time however, the first President Bush had decided to draw down the Cold War legacy infrastructure in Europe to save money (overseas bases don't have elected officials who will bitch if you try to close them).  Granted, there were a surplus of facilities but the Bush drawdown started while US forces were still fighting in Desert Storm!  Soldiers rotated back to their European bases to find them closed and their families moved back stateside.

In 1992, I remember having to rotate 3 times down range in support of Operation Provide Comfort (the cease fire of Desert Storm).  Upon returning from my 3rd rotation, I found out our unit was not only tasked with continuing to support Provide Comfort, but also the Olympic Games in Spain (the IOC in its infinite wisdom decided to house the athletes on ships.  A more perfect hostage scenario could not have been imagined), and a new contingency in a little place called Somalia.  Oh and it was the 39th SOW who would be flying US citizens out of places like Liberia whenever their governments decided to implode. At the same time, the Bush drawdowns also introduced "reduction in force" (RIF) or involuntary separations.  Officers who were commissioned between 1980-85 stood a 90% chance of being involuntarily separated (except for pilots, although rotary wing pilots were not exempt).  Guess where I fell?  Class of 1985 thank you very much!  In frustration, I asked my boss how we were supposed to meet all of these requirements with fewer people and that's when I heard the words that caused me to leave the active duty, "We will have to do more with less".

I didn't realize how prescient his words would turn out to be.  Most military scholars would say the legacy of Desert Storm was to prove the supremacy of airpower.  The dirty little secret though was Desert Storm was done in a bass-akwards way.  Troops and equipment were assembled piecemeal from stateside and European units and sent forward as deployed elements (contrary to all of the doctrine).  Part of this was out of fear that if whole units were sent, then the Soviet Union (which had not yet fallen) might try to attack a vulnerable Europe.  A more cynical view is this was a way for the Bush Administration to circumnavigate the War Powers Resolution (often erroneously called the"War Powers Act").  Desert Storm also gave more momentum towards the "more with less" mentality as the USAF would have to maintain two no-fly zones over Iraq with fewer aircraft and troops than in the months during the war.

It gave birth to the "air expeditionary force" or AEF concept which is still used today.  From an efficiency model, it is lovely as you only deploy what you need in the quantities need (sort of a just-in-time production model for airpower).  Combat ready troops and equipment are sent into the area of operations and when their time is up or they break (people as well as planes), they are rotated back to home station for maintenance and repair.  Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the originator of the systems approach to warfare, could scarcely have imagined the state of things in the 21st Century USAF!  Airmen no longer fight alongside the people they train with day in and day out, instead they are sent forward to an AEW (air expeditionary wing) as part of a package to become an amalgamation of their home units.  Compound this with the need to draw extensively from Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units and it becomes no wonder that Col Grannan's airmen felt like she wasn't part of anything.  

But the AEF also adversely effects leaders since your performance evaluations are not based on your deployed unit but on your home-station unit's performance. The efficiency experts will say how successful the AEF is by spouting the mantra "Total Force!" but only now, 13 years into the war on terror, are people beginning to see the fallacy.  Commanders are bounced back and forth just as much as their airmen but these are supposed to be the leaders.  When do the leaders actually have time to lead the units and people they are responsible for leading?

John Q. Public makes reference to absentee leaders and how that creates a situation where airmen feel their commanders aren't invested in them.  You may only work your real commander a fraction of your assignment, most often airmen are working for an acting commander.  Likewise when you deploy, your AEW commander is not the one who is going to recommend you for promotion or your next assignment.  The USAF quest for efficiency and quantifiable data has led them down this primrose path and only now are some beginning to see it.  Imagine airpower leaders such as Maj Gen Billy Mitchell, Gen Curtis LeMay or Gen Jimmy Doolittle of mistaking process improvement for leadership.  They could never have achieved their accomplishments in today's Air Force.

Or take for example Brig Gen Robin Olds.  He was a "Triple Ace" scoring 16 aerial kills during WWII and Vietnam.  By all accounts, he was a charismatic leader who lead the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing "Wolf Pack" during the Vietnam War (including flying 100 missions himself) to achieve air superiority in face of the superior MiG fighters and relentless barrage of North Vietnamese .  He was a brilliant pilot who know how to teach other pilots who to thrive in combat.  Yet Brig Gen Olds would never have made it in today's USAF due to his drinking, womanizing and his flagrant disregard for senior leaders.  His case demonstrates an inherent problem with the Air Force, its greatest heroes were also flawed yet they continue to expect today's airmen not to have any flaws.  The Air Force believes by abandoning human relations and focusing on the mission and efficiency, inspirational leaders like Olds will be born minus the human frailty. The quest for efficiency has produce a zero-tolerance mentality for anything that might adversely effect mission readiness.  

Instead of giving officers and NCOs the chance to fail (and learn from their mistakes), these failures are seen as "areas for improvement" to be summarily dealt with.  The result has been to produce leaders who don't rock the boat.  For officers, it has always been a case of "up or out"but now it is the details that will end your career.  How many PT failure did your squadron have has quickly replaced ORI and UCI scores to evaluate your effectiveness as a future leader and potential for career advancement.

As both Col Grannan and John Q. Public point out, the USAF has found a quick-fix in emphasizing PT scores to the point of absurdity.  In addition to losing a quality airmen, the USAF is its quest for efficiency just lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in training that it will have to spend again in training a replacement.  Madness!

Now as the Air Force and the rest of the US military deal with the enviable post-conflict drawdown, the likelihood of this pattern continuing increases.  The drawdowns are to save money that we no longer need to spend since we are "no longer conducting operations"...except of course in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.  This means more, not less, rotations for airmen which will compound the issues Col Grannan and John Q. Public articulated.

Taking the points articulated by John Q. Public and Col Grannan one step further absentee, mediocre leadership is exactly why we have seen a increase in sexual assaults in the Air Force.  Let's go back to Col Brannan's airmen for a moment and her car crash.  No one saw themselves as "owning" responsibility for insuring the airmen saw justice.  Everyone involved thought (or worse, hoped) someone else would deal with it accordingly.  No one bothered to check up on her situation to insure she was getting the help she deserved.  They didn't because few in today's Air Force truly see themselves as "airmen" who are responsible for the well being of every other "airmen".  The whole wingman concept sounds great in theory but is not really being practiced for if it were, the loss of Col Grannan's airmen should have been a loss to be grieved and her colleagues (superiors as well as peers) called to account for why they had failed her and the USAF.  Reversing this sense of ownership is the only way the USAF will ever produce real leaders.  I consider myself a real leader and have had my butt chewed more than once whenever I took on a cause of defending someone that I thought was not being treated fairly, I don't hold my breath for this to happen.  Damn regulations and policies, sometimes we lose sight of the forest because of the tree!  Losing airmen because she did feel like anyone cared means there are scores of others that feel exactly the same way.

Apparently, the USAF isn't the only branch suffering from absentee leadership.  Voltaire Net, which is a Russian website published an article, "What frightened the USS Donald Cook so much in the Black Sea?"  It alleges that a Russian Su-24 was able to shut-down all of the systems on board the USS Donald Cook, an Aegis class destroyer.  If true, it would seem to explain the US reluctance to confront Russian forces engaged in Ukraine in a head-on manner.  It would also mean that like airmen, the expertise of the Navy NCOs and Petty Officers have been ignored.  Should the allegations of the Voltaire piece prove even be half-true, it means Navy senior leaders bought off on a high tech solution that the Russians figured out how to beat with a low tech weapon (most likely, lots of high-power energy to overwhelm all of the Aegis systems simultaneously).

Any salty sailor who has manned a radar or maintenance tech could have told the higher ups that their precious, high value system was vulnerable to a good old-fashioned virtual, high-powered sledge hammer.  I've actually seen this happen.  When I was in Ground TACS (mobile radar), we were in a large-scale exercise.  We went up against an EF-111 (Raven) that tried to jam us.  We used all of countermeasures to make the back-seater earn his paycheck but he got of tired of playing with us and showed us what a pissed off Raven could really do.  He turned up the power and shut-us completely, and I do mean completely, down.  I'm inclined to believe the Su-24 did not make the USS Donald Cook sailors life any easier.

During the Cold War days, the US became increasingly concerned about reducing the amount of collateral damage and looked to create ever more accurate weapons (which in part gave birth to GPS).  In contrast, the Soviets didn't worry about accuracy.  If they wanted to take out a bunker they multiplied the tonnage of a given warhead by a factor of "p" for plenty!  They would build multiple copies of this system so that even if some went astray, eventually one would find its target.  It appears the modern day Russians have not forgotten this brute force approach to defeating US high tech.  Where are the Navy leaders who should have said, "But our adversaries don't fight like us!  What if they simply put more electrons down our pipe than it can handle?  Will our systems handle it or will it create a complete shut-down of all systems?"

Unfortunately, this leadership problem is not just endemic to the US military.  It is a reflection of what is happening in the private sector as well.  Many of our current politicians boast advanced degrees from the same Ivy League institutions that produce the latest theories on performance improvement.  Worse, we now view failure as a detriment.  If you had to file for bankruptcy or lost a business, you are more noted for that than any successes you may have had.  The one-failure mentality in the private sector is little different from the "up or out" mentality of the USAF.  You are supposed to be born with the wisdom to lead, we don't recognize the value of someone who has tried and failed.

Obama is just the latest, most obvious example that was taught all manner of management theory and then given the reigns to the country without having had to vet his theoretical knowledge against the harshness of reality.  He never had to try and fail at anything before and was elected because this vacuum was not held against, in fact it was why the US public voted for his "hope and change" promise.  The US in desperation has now elected a whole new crop of unproven officials in the hopes that they may still be able to lead us somewhere despite a lack of evidence that they are any better than the people the have replaced.