Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

On national service

January 3, 2011

We interrupt the regularly scheduled broadcast… to bring you this worthwhile (but not exactly related to the mainstay of this blog’s focus) video of Matt Pottinger, formerly a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in China, formerly a U.S. Marine Corps officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, now the Edwin R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations delivering an address to his high school last Veteran’s Day.

Pottinger graduated from the Milton Academy in 1991 and was invited back to speak nearly 20 years later.  It’s funny and a little bit interesting to see the emphasis he puts on how he was less than totally dedicated to his studies while a student there, particularly in light of his subsequent professional success both as a reporter for one of the world’s premier newspapers and as a military officer.

It’s an interesting speech to me on a number of levels – first, it’s clear that his story is not typical.  Rarely in the modern day do you see people leave behind rewarding positions like the one Matt had with the WSJ in Beijing to do selfless things like join the Marine Corps to fight, though Matt’s story is not the only one like this – even more well-known was pro-footballer turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman; and there are many more who are relatively more obscure, like the investment banker from San Francisco I personally know who, like Matt, joined the Corps for a single tour in wartime, but in his case it was as a “conscience-clearing” to justify in his own mind the ridiculous amounts of money he was making (he has since returned to investment banking after four years of honorable service that included a tour in Iraq).  We need more people like Matt and my investment banker friend who are willing to step up and serve their countries.

It is also interesting because of the outsize success that Matt enjoyed during his time in the Corps.  He served only 5 years, but accomplished more during that time than many officers can claim in a whole career.  For instance, he innovated the first Marine Corps female engagement teams (FET) in Afghanistan that took advantage of local perceptions about women that allowed female Marines greater access and trust in the local society than the male Marines they served with.  Unlike the male Marines, the female Marines were seen as OK to enter local households without necessitating revenge in the Pashtun honor society system.  Since the FETs were able to get inside the homes of locals, they could better collect information and also tell the locals about what the coalition forces were trying to accomplish, an information operations (IO) bonanza of the first order. (For more on FETs and IO, this recent piece in The Nation discusses the difficulties the Marines and now the Army are having in sourcing personnel for the FETs and more importantly discusses some of the limitations and problems in their use.  This master’s thesis (PDF) from a student at Marine Corps University discusses the need for improved intelligence support to information operations in the types of fighting and nation-building that the US is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Probably largely on the strength of innovating the FETs he was named the 2009 Marine Corps Intelligence Officer of the Year.  He followed that up by deploying to Afghanistan for a second time, and this time around he co-authored (with two high-level intelligence officials also serving in Afghanistan at the time) an influential critique of American intelligence efforts there.  Entitled Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan (recommended reading here at Facing China about a year ago) that advocated, among other things, establishing positions for officers whose jobs would be not unlike that of a newspaper reporter – traveling widely around Afghanistan to speak face-to-face with people on the ground, then taking the information they gleaned at the tactical level back to the headquarters to fuse it together to provide the “real” picture that was getting lost in all the layers of bureaucracy and in the overdependence on technical intelligence collection (no doubt his background as a reporter in China informed this recommendation).

I think Matt makes a good argument for the importance and value of performing national service of some nature – it by no means has to be in the military.  I wonder if through his appearance at his alma mater Matt was able to convince any young Americans of the significance and virtue of seeking service to the point that they resolve to take action.  Only time will tell.

As he says in the speech, Matt has now completed his service and is back at his first love – writing.  I know I am looking forward to what I am sure will be relevant and insightful contributions from him at CFR.

The video is about 40 minutes long, so if that’s too long, you can at least read the “Cliffs Notes” version of it here, in a news release from the Milton Academy.

“Too Big to Fail,” U.S. Marines Version: The V-22 Osprey

May 1, 2010

MV-22 Osprey in Afghanistan

A USMC V-22 flying in Afghanistan [From http://www.flickr.com/photos/marine_corps/ / CC BY-NC 2.0]

I first saw the V-22 in person in the summer of 2005 while stationed in Quantico, Virginia.  I was at an event at the officer’s club there, and just as we were walking out to the parking lot to head home, we saw them across the road, two of them, using the nearby parade grounds as a landing zone.  At that time, most of us had never seen them in person before, so we stood slack-jawed, watching as they prepared to take off, and then, improbably, leapt forth into the sky vertically and transitioned their propellers from helicopter mode to “go fast” mode, rocketing off to the horizon at an impossibly fast speed for a “helicopter.”  It was quite remarkable, I remember thinking at the time – they don’t look like they should even be able to fly, yet there they went up, up and away.

I was no stranger to the V-22 – probably no Marine was.  Full-page glossy photos of the machine had been adorning defense contractor advertisements in the Marine Corps Gazette and other defense periodicals since before I had first taken an interest in the Marine Corps in the early 1990s.  The V-22 had been “hyped” so hard for so long, I figured it was little more than a pipe dream.  Lo and behold, a decade hence, there it was!

The Dream MachineBut it was gained at no small cost, as two reviews of a new book about the V-22 assert: 25 years of development, $22 billion, and over two dozen lives.  Influential defense blog Danger Room recently interviewed Richard Whittle, author of the new book The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey and the May 2010 edition of the Marine Corps Gazette also features a review of the book.  Taken in concert, they’ve got me hooked on wanting to read the book.

From the Gazette:

The major credit for the Osprey’s repeated leases on life can be traced to many familiar names in our current and recent Marine Corps. From majors and lieutenant colonels who believed in the dream to general officers who recognized its potential, there is no shortage of Marines who literally staked their careers and reputations on the success of the program. Just as important are the members of Congress and industry who shared the vision and continually resurrected what appeared to be a dead program by providing support and, most importantly, money to keep the dream alive.

I worked in close proximity to Marine general officers in 2007 – 08, and I recall that at the time of the first Osprey deployment to Iraq in September 2007 the “pucker factor” was high – there was simply no way that the Iraq deployment could fail.  Too much money, too much time, and too many lives had gone into the development of the airframe and its revolutionary capabilities; it had to be a success.

I’ve discussed the V-22 with Marine rotary wing pilots who fly other airframes and who served in Iraq at the same time the initial deployment was made, and they were of the opinion that the V-22 deployment was successful in no small part because the missions assigned to it were “cherry picked” to maximize the chances it would not be put in an ambiguous situation where failure would likely result, i.e. a V-22 crash or shoot-down.  If this is the case, then the strategy was a success – no Marine V-22’s crashed or were lost in Iraq.  Here’s what Whittle had to say about the Marine V-22’s in Iraq:

Riding in [the V-22] in Iraq wasn’t much different from flying in it elsewhere, except that a crew chief fired some rounds from the machine gun on the back ramp to test it after we took off. In theory, there was a chance somebody would shoot at us, but peace had broken out in Al Anbar province at the time – this was December 2007. Besides, while helicopters usually fly low in combat zones, the Marines cruise their Ospreys at 8,000 feet or more, well above the range of AK-47s and RPGs. The Osprey gets to that altitude quickly enough that getting shot at wasn’t a great worry when I flew in Iraq. It also gets you where you’re going a lot faster than a helicopter can, and it doesn’t shake and rattle you the way many military helicopters do.

Recently a U.S. Air Force V-22 variant crashed in Afghanistan and several servicemen were killed.  When I saw the headline talking about a V-22 crash in Afghanistan, I automatically assumed it was a USMC aircraft and that after such a long development and fielding process followed by an extremely careful method of making the initial combat deployments that the inevitable had happened and that a “knee jerk” reaction would be forthcoming, removing all V-22’s from the Afghan theater.  Thankfully, this has not been the case.

It takes a certain amount of risk to even develop an aircraft like this.  Its unique design gives it capabilities that far surpass any other rotary wing aircraft in the U.S. inventory (along with certain drawbacks that are also unique to it).  In his interview with Danger Room, author Richard Whittle had this to say about Marines, risk, and the V-22:

The Marines are risk-takers by nature, but as I explain in the book, they’ve been in love with vertical-lift aircraft since the helicopter and the atomic bomb emerged during World War II. They saw very quickly that in the atomic age, it might be impossible to do amphibious assaults — their trademark mission — from ships anchored close to a hostile shore, the way they did them in World War II. They fell in love with the tiltrotor because it offered a faster and better way to take Marines to a fight from ships at sea. Their passion for it, though, stems from their unique culture. Unlike the other armed services, the Marines are also a tribe or even a cult, and one of their tribal beliefs is that they have to be different to continue as a separate branch of the military.

Amen, brother!  I am glad that the Marine Corps stuck with the V-22, despite the costs in lives and treasure, for it has the capability to change the way that we are able to move around the battlespace.  Indeed, the combat radius of a V-22 compared to the aircraft it is designed to replace, the Vietnam War-vintage CH-46E is almost funny:

combat radius comparison

Combat radius comparison

For an example of what could be done with the V-22 a little bit closer to home (I live in Taiwan), if you took off in a combat-loaded CH-46E from Kaohsiung, you probably would not be able to make it to China and back. (The CH-46’s advertised combat radius is 184 miles, which is pretty close to the approximately 190 miles that Google Earth tells me it is from Kaohsiung to the Xiamen / Zhangzhou area in China’s Fujian province.) Contrast that with the V-22’s combat radius of 426 miles.  You would not only be able to reach China, you would be able to make it all the way to Hong Kong, 407 miles away.  And then after dropping off its cargo, the V-22 could then return to Kaohsiung, without refueling.  Let’s take a look at the graphic, courtesy of PowerPoint and Google Maps:

Distances from Kaohsiung to selected Chinese cities

(Or, if you’d prefer to see the actual PowerPoint slide, it’s here (.pptx): KHH – HKK)

Not bad.  Nice capability.  This is only a hypothetical situation, though – I don’t think the V-22 will be among approved weapons sales to Taiwan anytime soon. (Better luck with the F-16s that have been promised since the George H. W. Bush administration.)

Marine load cargo on Osprey

Loading an Osprey in Afghanistan [From http://www.flickr.com/photos/marine_corps/ / CC BY-NC 2.0]
In summary, Richard Whittle’s new book about the V-22 looks pretty darn interesting to me and I plan to add it to my “to read” stack.  Maybe you should check it out, too.

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