This is frustrating

If this doesn’t get you steamed, I don’t know what’s wrong with you:

It was not known whether the action reflected a high-level policy decision at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) or confusion in a city where dozens of entities are involved in aid efforts.

I found this via the Instapundit, where a reader adds this tidbit:

The “aid” agencies did the same thing in Afghanistan. Being a logistics specialist, I volunteered to help an American NGO with rebuilding schools, and was on the ground in Kabul in January of ‘02. (I later ended up in charge of UNICEF’s warehouse/distribution operation for all of the new school supplies…leaving me with a complete and total disdain for all things UN-related.)

For the NGO community, to be seen co-operating with the US military was the kiss of death. NGO co-ordination meetings specifically warned against co-operation with the US military, as opposed to UN agencies. The supposed reason was that they wanted a clear line between the “killers” and those that were “there to help”. They would actually COMPLAIN that the military was out doing things like rehabilitating wells and such, whining that these were things that should be left to the aid agencies. The irony of the fact that we were all sitting in a meeting, DISCUSSING it, while the US military had already been out DOING it, was completely lost on them.

Sounds like it’s same-old, same-old. Nothing but tools, the lot of them.

I am ready to punch someone in the face over this. The Obama administration made the decision that USAID would be the lead agency in Operation United Response. Fair enough. But the point of the operation is NOT to make the US government look good. It is to provide succor to the people of Haiti. Who in USAID or in the administration made the call that the Army shouldn’t hand out rations? It isn’t like the Haitians don’t have the memory of the US Army and other services being there. The whole country was occupied in 1994, and the Marines ran the whole country for a decade or so earlier in the century. And the whole point of having the military there is that they are THE logistics experts at getting things into the area and distributing them in an austere environment with little or no functioning infrastructure.

I’m not saying USAID and NGOs don’t have a valuable role to play. But right now, it sure looks like the only role they want to play is that of spoiler, and that is going to cost lives and certainly goodwill.

It’s time to stop the Marines from buying aircraft.

I’ll grant, strictly for the sake of argument, that the Marine Corps is a fine fighting organization.

But one thing they can’t seem to do is buy aircraft in a way that makes any kind of sense. At all. I can’t think of a single aircraft procurement program the Marines have run well since the UH-1N program. And that was mostly run well because the Twin Huey was first built for the Canadians. The Marines just bought what someone else designed.

The legacy aircraft of the Marines, the UH-1N, the CH-46E/F, the CH-53E, the AH-1W, and the AV-8B are all pretty much overdue for replacement.  But with the exception of the replacement for the CH-53E, the replacement programs have been a series of disappointingly expensive products that either offer less capability than other aircraft available off the shelf,  or “revolutionary” aircraft that are so expensive that they can’t be risked in combat, and don’t fit in with other aspects of the Marines.

The Marines currently plan to replace the UH-1N/AH-1W with the UH-1Y/AH-1Z.  What started in the mid-1990s as a relatively modest program to upgrade both aircraft has grown into a monstrosity that has all the expense of a brand new aircraft program, but no great leap in capability. Instead of upgrading the UH-1s, the modifications are so extreme, the contractor came back and got permission to build new airframes.

The CH-46 has provided well over 40 years of faithful service, and is assuredly due for retirement. But its replacement, the MV-22B Osprey is a fantastically expensive aircraft that has virtually no self defense capability, can only lift 24 Marines at a time, is very expensive to operate, and has such hot exhaust that the decks of the ships it is to operate from require extensive modification. During development, the MV-22 had a series of high-profile accidents that led many people to worry that it was a death-trap. I’m not too concerned about that. It is very normal for new aircraft to have a high accident rate as people learn to operate it. And it is almost certain to be safer than the tired old CH-46s it replaces. But that doesn’t mean the program makes sense.  And it appears that the Marines may be up to some shennanigans in trying to hide its true safety record. Any time you have to compromise your integrity for a procurement program, things are not good.

The replacement for the AV-8B is slated to be the F-35B, a short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter program.  The problem with this program is that whereas if the Air Force and Navy had simply tried to come up with  a common airframe for the carrier based and land based variants, the tradeoffs would have been rather small. There’s a very long history of Navy aircraft working very well for the Air Force. See the F-4, A-7, and even the A-1 Skyraider.  But when you put the Air Force in charge of developing a Navy aircraft, you get programs like the F-111. Sure, the Air Force gets a nice plane, but the Navy gets screwed.  In the case of the F-35, you end up with something even weirder. The smallest partner of the program, the USMC, ends up driving so many of the requirements of the basic airframe that you just have to wonder what compromises were forced onto the other variants.  The entire F-35 program has been wrapped around the STOVL variant. It’s a lot easier to take a
STOVL design and design a conventional variant than it is to take a conventional plane and make it STOVL.  So what compromises had to be made for this? And aside from having a half dozen on each big-deck amphibious ship, when do the Marines operate their Harriers in a STOVL mode? They don’t.  They operate them from conventional airfields, just like any other plane, including their F-18s.  So we end up having to pretty  much double the development cost of the F-35 program, just so they can own a variant that doesn’t do as much as they other services, at greater cost? That’s stupid.

Now, I’m not saying the Marines should get out of the aviation business. At the tactical and operational level, they do a fine job.  And the Marine Corps has been organized and trained since before WWII to integrate ground, air, and logistics forces to produce the optimum balance of firepower and strategic mobility.

But they can’t figure out how to buy aircraft to save their asses. So what should be done? Well, all is not gloom. Despite very poor choices, there are readily available platforms that the Marines could adopt or adapt that would go a long way to recapitalizing their aircraft inventory, while spending as little as possible, freeing funds up for full procurement, training, operations, and maintenance. Let’s take a look at a notional replacement program for the Marine air fleet.

Legacy platform: UH-1N. Current replacement: UH-1Y. What should replace it: H-60 platform.

It isn’t like the H-60 hasn’t been operated at sea for the last quarter century. Blackhawk/Seahawk helos are currently in production, fully capable of being operated from all the amphibious platforms the Marines operate from, and would benefit from commonality of training, spares, and production.  Instead, the Marines have gone with a new production aircraft, with new construction prices, and all the associated development costs, and the lost decade of development time, to build a Huey that has characteristics similar to an early H-60. This is such a no-brainer, I’m amazed the Navy didn’t put its foot down and insist on the Marines buying H-60s.

Legacy platform: AH-1W. Current replacement: AH-1Z. What should replace it: AH-64.

The Cobra has been a fine attack helicopter. Earlier versions were the very first designed for purpose attack helos. But what benefit do the Marines get from the Zulu that they wouldn’t get from a navalized Apache? Again, you lose out on the cost efficiencies of scale with a standardized airframe. For what the Marines are paying for Zulus, they could buy just as many Apaches.

Legacy platform: CH-46. Current replacement: MV-22B. What should replace it: Either the S-92, the CH-47 Chinook, or nothing.

The Marines medium lift, indeed, the core of the Corps aviation, the CH-46, needs to go. Not because the Phrog is bad, just that it is worn out. It is slow, has a small payload, and a short range.  The current replacement, the MV-22, is fast, has a good range and a decent payload. But, depending how you count it, it costs about $44 million for just one. And it is  a maintenance hog.  Can we really afford to spend half a billion dollars for one squadron of helos?  And that speed comes with some real problems. For instance, there is no helicopter escort capable of keeping up with it. So there’s no fire support.  And because of its unique configuration, the Osprey can’t really mount much in the way of self defense.  So we are buying an incredibly expensive aircraft, that costs a lot more than others to operate, that can’t go into any areas that might be defended.  Where is the advantage there?

As for replacement aircraft, there’s several options. One is the Sikorsky S-92, which is something like an H-60 on steroids. This would give the Marines a medium lift helicopter with similar capabilities in terms of payload, while sacrificing speed for lowered cost. It would also benefit from commonality with the H-60 series.

Another option is to just not operate medium helicopters at all. The Army model for air mobility uses light transports such as the H-60 and heavy transports such as the CH-47. The Marines could well opt to remove the CH-46s from their air wings, replace them with a combination of H-60s and a few more heavy lift helos such as the CH-53.  One problem here  is that the Marines already face something of a shortage of CH-53s, with the next generation not slated to join the fleet until 2015. My solution? Buy the Chinook. The CH-47 is technically a medium lift helicopter, coming in somewhat under the size of the CH-53. And while it is somewhat larger than the -46, a decent number could still  fit on the deck of an LHD or LHA(R), and still provide greater lift capability than the dozen or so CH-46s a Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron would provide.  And while the Chinook is slower than the Osprey, it isn’t all that much slower. Plus, it can carry more than twice as much payload.  So for a given period of time, say three hours, at a given distance from the ship, say 75 miles, you’d actually end up moving more Marines ashore with 10 Chinooks than you would with 10 Ospreys.  And don’t forget, the Chinook costs less upfront to buy, and less to operate.

Legacy platform: AV-8B. Current replacement: F-35B. What should replace it: F-35C, F/A-18E/F, Nothing.

The Marines have a long, long history of providing their own fixed-wing close air support for their ground troops. They were among the very first folks to figure out that CAS was a tough mission, and find ways of doing it well. They were certainly among the first to demonstrate that CAS was a great combat power multiplier, engaging targets that they didn’t have the artillery to engage.  But much of Marine fixed-wing air has been subsumed into the greater maw of Navy Air, with Marines routinely providing F-18 squadrons to Navy carrier air wings, not to provide CAS, but because the Navy faces a severe shortage of fighters.  Practically the only Marine jets still fulfilling their historical role of dedicated support to ground troops are the Harriers. But even they find themselves not just supporting Marines on the ground. Harriers are routinely tasked to support Army and foreign coalition troops. And they rarely operate from anything other than fixed airbases that are fully capable of supporting regular fixed wing aircraft. And likely as not, if the Marine on the ground in Afghanistan today calls for air support, he’ll get it from the Navy or the Air Force.

So do we sink several billion dollars into the STOVL variant of the F-35 (which can’t, BTW, operate from the Navy’s regular carriers) just so 8-10 can go to sea with each Marine battalion? Or do we equip the Marines with the carrier capable F-35C to provide the fixed wing air support for the Marines? Do we equip them with the currently in-production F/A-18E/F Superhornet that the Navy is buying?  Or do we do away with Marine fixed-wing air and allow them to concentrate on rotary-winged air mobility?

The Marines have consistently displayed an inability to wisely spend the acquisition dollars granted to them for their aircraft. When will we stop this?

Gators go to war.

Our first unit was a part of the 25th Infantry Division, back in the mid 1980s. The 25th ID was a “Light” division. Light meant that the division had fewer vehicles than a regular infantry division (to say nothing of a mechanized infantry division). The goal was to make the division as deployable as possible, preferably on as few as 500 sorties by C-141 aircraft. That meant all the people, guns, trucks, and other equipment.  So the Army made very deep cuts in the size of units. More importantly, they sacrificed tactical agility for strategic mobility.

There heart of the division were the three infantry brigades, each with three infantry battalions (each brigade also had an artillery battalion in direct support).  The infantry companies had no organic transport. That is, they didn’t have any vehicles. Everyone, from the CO down to the lowliest private, walked. That restricted the speed of the company to a maximum of about 4 miles per hour. It also imposed a very real limit on how much equipment and ammunition the company could carry.  In training, troops would routinely carry loads anywhere from 70 to 120 pounds. That’s without having to carry heavy ammo like mortar rounds, 40mm grenades, and anti-tank missiles. And it’s without having to wear the heavy body armor all troops wear today.  The fact of the matter is, with a combat load, a light infantry company would be lucky to move two miles per hour. And that’s on level terrain. In complex terrain (like, say, Afghanistan), a company would be so burdened that it would be virtually immobile. To move the companies more than  a few miles would require trucking support. But there were no trucks larger than a humvee in the battalion. A company would require support all the way from the division’s support battalion. These trucks weren’t often available, since they were busy moving all the divisional logistics, such as food, water, fuel and ammo.

And in rough terrain, there were real limits on where a truck or even a humvee could go.  Something else was needed, but until the purse strings were loosened by the immediacy of the needs on the war on terror, nothing was in the pipeline.  But once the shooting started, commanders suddenly had some discretionary funds to buy supplies “off-the-shelf” that weren’t ordinarily available.  I wasn’t terribly surprised to see that several units had bought 4-wheel ATVs to haul trailers full of the heaviest items the companies would have to take with them, specifically, ammo.

And it wasn’t long before ATVs and its slightly larger cousin, the John Deere Gator started popping up all over the place.

And John Deere, knowing a good thing when they see it, started making models tailored for the military.

The even come with gun mounts (though they aren’t really fighting vehicles).

Now, while many companies have access to a Gator or other ATV, many of the handy little trucks are found on the many FOBs and other installations for routine “administrative” logistics- the mundane, day to day movement of small stuff that seems to occupy an inordinate amount of the Army’s time.  Relatively cheap, handy, easy to operate and maintain, they are just the thing for hauling a load quickly and easily. In fact, they are such a no-brainer, I’m still surprised the Army uses them!

H/T to: The Mudville Gazette

Death Delivery from Above!

Via John at Castle Arrggghhh, here’s a Youtube about air-dropping supplies to a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan, and how GPS technology has made airdropping supplies easier and more feasible.


Yes, that’s the RAF, and they’re resupplying the British Army (ever wonder why it’s “the Royal Navy” and the “Royal Air Force” but not the “Royal Army?”) but the basics apply to US forces as well, with a couple of caveats.

First, the RAF has a serious shortage of Chinook helicopters. They’ve recently signed contracts to buy more, but they’ll be short of helos for a while. With fewer helicopters to move heavy loads, they have to either move supplies by road, or air-drop them. For many missions that the RAF might air-drop supplies, US forces would simply use Chinooks.

The second is that even this isn’t the cutting edge on using GPS to improve drop accuracy. The comment at The Castle points to MMIST, a supplier of air-drop accessories. And while the video seems to show their Low Cost Aerial Delivery system, they also sell GPS guided para-delivery systems. In fact, almost as soon as the Army realized that GPS could be used for more than just pinpointing your location, they started development of a system to guide air-drops using modern airfoil parachutes tied to a GPS system.

Thoughts on Afghanistan

One of the things that makes me a lousy blogger is that I don’t like to post my thoughts immediately on issues of the day. I didn’t post my opinions within 5 minutes of the President’s address last night because I wanted to digest them a bit. I also wanted to see what others thought, as that almost always gives me a deeper insight into what I truly think, rather than my first emotional reaction.

Oddly, two of my favorite blogosphere sources are from retired Naval officers, CDR Salamander, and Neptunus Lex.  And of course, Drew M. at Ace’s has some thoughts that illuminate. Why take the Navy guys take on what is primarily an Army operation? Well, CDR Salamander is dialed in on the operational and strategic implications of policy changes in Afghanistan (traditionally, I think the Navy has trained its officers to think at that level better than any other service). And Nep Lex has a wonderful clarity of thinking and such a terrific ability to write that you can hardly afford to not read him.  As for Drew? Look, I read Ace’s all day every day.

My own thoughts…

1. Good on Obama for adding an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. There is clearly a need for more troops if we are to shift to a counterinsurgency approach there. I think that is the proper approach, vice a counterterrorism approach. And COIN warfare is inherently a manpower intensive approach.

2. Bad on Obama for only adding 30,000 additional troops. GEN McChrystal requested 40,000 troops. You can be sure he didn’t just pull that number out of a hat. He had a reason for requesting the number he did, tempered by what he believes can be logistically supported in theater, and by what the Army staff tells him can be generated for deployment.  I’m certain he didn’t just request a number of troops, but rather a particular force structure that happened to add up to 40,000.  The President has authorized only 30,000. Which troops and what units did he think that McChrystal didn’t need? Why did he think that? What justification has he given for not including those forces? Does he think the additional 10,000 troops will be forthcoming from our NATO allies (fat chance!)?

3. Other than an arbitrarily imposed timeline that will enable the President to show a troop drawdown, why impose a 2011 timeline? Is this in there solely so Obama can show this drawdown during a presidential election cycle? One of the concerns I had about the surge in Iraq was that it was a “one-shot” deal. It simply had to work, because there was no way the Army could double down, and the ability to maintain that level of effort was time limited. They could surge additional troops, but only for about one deployment cycle, before real issues developed in maintaining readiness. That is potentially a problem here in Afghanistan, but it isn’t nearly the problem that the Army faced in 2007 in Iraq. But when President Bush announced the surge in Iraq, he did not announce that the surge was a limited time offer. In fact, the open ended nature of the commitment was a key component of its success. Those Iraqi factions that were beginning to consider aligning with us were convinced that we would still “respect them in the morning” and weren’t going to leave them hanging. In contrast, President Obama’s speech last night pretty explicitly told the Afghani people, “I’m love you, but I’m not in love with you.” If you were a tribal leader, and had to choose to align yourself and your tribe with either the US or the Taliban, who would you choose? That kind of undoes the whole point of a counterinsurgency strategy. The anti-coalition forces are pretty good at information operations. You can bet that this will be a major bullet point on their presentation.

4. The money thing. Look, no commander gets everything he wants. There are never unlimited resources. The Army understands that. But this sudden pennypinching impulse in an era of massive government expenditures for bailing out banks, and the Porkulus Stimulus spending that magically seems to fund every Democrat pet project of the last 20 years costs a heck of a lot more than funding the fight in Afghanistan. And you may rest assured that spending a ton of money to win a war is a lot cheaper than losing a war by trying to save money.

5. Dithering and deployments… What did the President say last night that justified the three months that it took for him to reach a decision? Nothing. So why did it take so long? And this three month delay is on top of the fact that back in March, the President announced his own new approach to the war and appointed his own commander for Afghanistan.  Are we going to see quarterly revisions to strategy all the way through this administration? I understand that circumstances change, and that you have to adapt. But there has been no clear communication of our goals and how we intend to fulfill those goals by this administration (and this isn’t a problem exclusive to this administration. The Bush administration did a poor job in this respect as well).

The President has attempted to make up for his three month delay in reaching his decision by expediting the deployment schedule for those brigades that will be going. I was asked about this at The Hostages last night, and here was my response:

Comment by xbradtc on December 1, 2009 8:42 pm

Brad, I’m thinking moving 2+ Divisions into inland and mountainous regions without ports and decent roads is going to take just a bit longer than the first few months of 2010.

Your thoughts?

Dave, the Army has a plan to move them (and more, don’t forget that McChrystal offered options of 80k, 40k, and 20k to Obama). It won’t be easy but it will be doable. The problem is that Obama is gonna “push” the deployment and get them in theatre faster than the original plan.

That will pose logistical problems, I’m sure, but the real assfuck will come in training. Brigades that see their deployment date moved up will have less time to integrate new troops, develop their training plans, implement individual, squad, platoon and company training, less time for cultural and language training, less time for Bn and Bde leadership to do leaders recons on the ground in A-stan and develop their campaign plan.

It’s impossible to quantify, but some troops will die because of these training deficiencies.

6. GEN McChrystal seems to be onboard with the President’s decision. He really has only two choices. Either say “Yes, Sir!” and try to do the best he can, or hand in his resignation. Given that the President has voiced support for his strategy and resourced most of it, GEN McChrystal really had no choice to but accept the challenge. If the President had instead provided only token increases, or none at all, he would have been sorely tempted to call it a day, I’m sure. Still, we as a nation have civilian control of our military, and at the end of the day, expect our officers to do what they are ordered to do by the President. For a theater commander to resign, he better have a damn good reason. And every commander that faces that choice also has to struggle with the issue that he could be abandoning his troops on the battlefield. That goes against the grain of every moral fiber in a soldier.

7. Delivery. For a guy that has a wonderful reputation for oratory, it sure seemed like he was just phoning it in. Of course, I’ve yet to be impressed by his public speaking. I’m biased, of course. I didn’t vote for him, and tend to have an immediate distaste for whatever he’s pitching the moment he opens his mouth. But it seems to me that his best speaking comes when he is making campaign speeches, and his worst comes when he discusses policy.  And, to me, he seemed to lack any enthusiasm for what he was selling last night. His handlers like to stage manage this sort of thing, putting him in front of the Corps of Cadets at the US Military Academy. That struck me as being a bit too smart for themselves. While the Commander-in-Chief is guaranteed to have a polite audience there, Barack Obama was unlikely to have an enthusiastic audience there. I still clearly remember when President George H.W. Bush announced the doubling of troop deployments for Operation Desert Shied/Desert Storm in November of 1990. He gave that speech from the Oval Office. It seemed presidential and had the proper gravitas. I didn’t get that impression last night.

Overall, I’m somewhat disappointed and less than fully optimistic for the campaign in Afghanistan. But I’ve not given up hope. I have a near boundless faith in the ability of the American Soldier (and Marine, Sailor and Airman) to persevere in the face of daunting challenge and to overcome. Time will tell the result of the President’s approach to his leadership in what he himself called a war of necessity.

Your thoughts?

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Wolfhound Warrior

I just found out a bit of sad news (from Neptunus Lex of all places).

COL (USA, Ret) Lewis L. Millet, Medal of Honor, passed on November 14th, 2009.  COL Millet, as a Captain, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on February 7, 1951 in Korea:

Capt. Millett, Company E, distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action. While personally leading his company in an attack against a strongly held position he noted that the 1st Platoon was pinned down by small-arms, automatic, and antitank fire. Capt. Millett ordered the 3d Platoon forward, placed himself at the head of the 2 platoons, and, with fixed bayonet, led the assault up the fire-swept hill. In the fierce charge Capt. Millett bayoneted 2 enemy soldiers and boldly continued on, throwing grenades, clubbing and bayoneting the enemy, while urging his men forward by shouting encouragement. Despite vicious opposing fire, the whirlwind hand-to-hand assault carried to the crest of the hill. His dauntless leadership and personal courage so inspired his men that they stormed into the hostile position and used their bayonets with such lethal effect that the enemy fled in wild disorder. During this fierce onslaught Capt. Millett was wounded by grenade fragments but refused evacuation until the objective was taken and firmly secured. The superb leadership, conspicuous courage, and consummate devotion to duty demonstrated by Capt. Millett were directly responsible for the successful accomplishment of a hazardous mission and reflect the highest credit on himself and the heroic traditions of the military service.

While I was stationed in Hawaii, I was privileged to be assigned to the 1st Battalion, 27th US Infantry, The Wolfhounds.  The Wolfhounds are a very proud unit, considering they have a relatively short history. The regiment was only formed in 1902, but quickly acquired a reputation as a “can-do” unit. In addition to service in Siberia immediately after the Russian Revolution, the Wolfhounds, as part of the 25th Division, served with great distinction during WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and now in Iraq.

Many units in the Army pay lip service to their heritage. The Wolfhounds live it. One program we had was making sure there was a real connection from the past to the present. Several times while I was in Hawaii, we hosted COL Millet to unit functions.  There were some semi-formal events, dinners and such. But the real benefit was having “Lew” come out and just spend time with us as we went about our training. We tend to elevate our heroes up onto a pedestal. But by meeting and talking with Lew Millet, many young troops had chance to meet a real hero, and see that he was human. Each of us could, if not guarantee that we would perform to his level of valor and gallantry, at least aspire to it.


Rest in peace, COL Millet.

I’m looking forward to this…


Sunday night on the History Channel.

Our Dad missed WWII by about a year, but other family members fought the whole war through (one uncle was at Pearl Harbor) and as a history buff, you just can’t avoid being interested in the war. I’ve seen a goodly amount of the clips in the trailer, but over the course of 10 hours, there’s sure to be plenty of footage that is new to me.


Zapplesauce. Really.

Light infantrymen are obsessed with weight. Everything they take into battle has to be carried on their backs. Some things they don’t have any options about. They have to take their weapons. They have to take ammo. And they have to take water.

But anything they don’t have to take, they won’t. Given the choice of carrying enough warm clothing to keep from freezing, or lightening their load, they’ll fall back on the old adage: “Fight light, freeze at night.”

One item that grunts have to take, but traditionally weighs a lot, is food. Since the early 1980s, the standard Army combat ration has been the MRE. Now, the MRE isn’t bad. Right now, there are 24 different menus, and most of them, if not tasty, are at least edible. But MREs weigh quite a bit. About 2 pounds per meal. They are fairly bulky as well. So if you need to carry two or three days worth of food, you’re talking quite a load.

Grunts being grunts, most folks would take their MREs and “field strip” them. They would remove the meals from their outer packaging, discarding the heavy pouch they come in, as well as any extraneous packaging. A lot of parts of the meal might get tossed out as well.

The Army wasn’t thrilled with this because rations are carefully designed to provide enough calories and nutrients. When you start tossing stuff out, the meals are out of balance. So, the Army started working on a lightweight ration that would get light infantry through the first 72 hours of an operation. After that time, most operations would either be over, or regular ration resupply could take over. For instance, if the 82nd Airborne jumped into combat, after the first 3 days, they could probably count on regular supply channels. And if they couldn’t, they’d have bigger problems than finding something to eat.

The answer to the lightweight ration problem was the First Strike Ration, or FSR. The FSR is a tailor made to provide lots of calories, and to be small and light. It comes in a shrinkwrap pack of three meals, and yet is only a little larger than a single MRE.  Unlike MRE meals, which need a spoon to be eaten, FSRs can be eaten by hand, since they are like “Hot Pockets” or sandwiches.

FSR Components
FSR Components


One of the most popular components of the FSR is a packet of applesausce, fortified with maltodextrose for extra energy. For whatever reason, the Army decided that no one wants to eat “applesauce fortified with maltodextrose”, but Zapplesauce, well,who wouldn’t want Zapplesauce? So the name was changed. In addition, there’s a couple of Army specific energy bars (Called the HooAh bar) and a powder to make an energy drink called ERGO (Energy Rich, Glucose Optimized).

The FSR is a handy ration for folks that just can’t carry a lot of extra weight. But it isn’t designed to feed folks for more than a couple days. For one thing, there’s only a few menus, so people get tired of them pretty quickly. For another, it’s hard to provide long-term nutritional balance from Hot Pockets. Ask the mother of any college student. She knows.

Addendum: While looking for pics of the FSR, I came across the following picture:

Ration Breakdown- Louisiana Manuevers 1940
Ration Breakdown- Louisiana Manuevers 1940

Back in 1940, they didn’t even have C-rations. Every meal was made from scratch. Each company had it’s own mess cooks and kitchen. The battalion would break down each days ration for the companies to pick up for the next days meals.  I can’t be sure, but this is either a battalion or regimental breakdown.

The Procurement Puzzle

Our armed forces are the best in the world. I don’t think there’s any great dissent from that sentiment among my audience. But the fact remains, as an institution, our armed forces do some things better than others. Some of that is an institutional bias, in that the forces would rather do some things than others. To some extent, there’s also a bit of empire building going on.  And some of it is just our culture doesn’t like to do some things. For instance, our society found it a good deal easier to support the 100 hour ground war in the 1st  Gulf War than our ongoing operations in Iraq since 2003. Why? Well, as a rule of thumb, our society has a fairly short attention span.

As I said, some things, we do well. The US Army spent practically the entire Cold War figuring out the best way to stop a massive Soviet armored assault through Western Europe. The Army’s organization, procurement, doctrine, training, logistics and basing were all geared toward stopping a Soviet attack and fulfilling the Army’s NATO commitment. Indeed, having such an overriding mission made the task of organizing the Army a lot easier. To a great extent, the clarity provided by the Soviet threat also greatly guided the organization and training of the Air Force, Navy, and the Marine Corps.

Once you know what you want to accomplish, it is a lot easier to plan. Indeed, no one plans to fail, they fail to plan.

Let’s take a look at a Cold War centric program, that has proven remarkably useful- the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System. Barrage rockets have a long history in the US. Mind you, “…the rocket’s red glare” in our national anthem refers to British bombardment rockets being fired at our Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812. Barrage rockets in our Army really took flight in WWII. A simple fin-stabilized 4.5in rocket was mounted on al sorts of vehicles to lay down large volumes of suppressive fires on enemy positions.  This was a short range, inaccurate rocket. But it was cheap, easy to use, and easy to mount on everything from jeeps, to tanks, to landing craft to PT boats.  The Russians, on the other hand, used a larger rocket, known as the Katyusha, as a counter battery weapon. They would fire awesome barrages onto German artillery positions to keep them from firing on Russian formations.  The later Soviet BM21 launcher was so successful in this mission, the Russians still use it. The US Army, however, used conventional cannon (or “tube”) artillery for the counter battery role. The problem with this was that US artillery has traditionally been outranged by almost every other nation’s artillery. The Army made up for this mostly by having a better system of fire control. US artillery was almost always better able to locate targets and bring fires to bear on them. But having a shorter range left them vulnerable to Soviet counter battery fires.  Having a longer range system would solve this problem, but simply building a bigger cannon wasn’t really the best approach. The bigger the cannon, the harder it is to move, the bigger the vehicles needed to support it, and the increase in range may not be that great. For instance, even the massive 16in guns of the Iowa battleships only have a 23 mile range. Pretty much the only way to get a real increase in range was to use rockets. But rockets have their own issues. Traditionally, rockets haven’t been very accurate weapons. Now, we weren’t looking for a precision weapon, but it would be nice to have a fair idea of where the rockets would land. Also, rockets take up a lot more space than regular artillery ammunition. Rockets aren’t particularly heavy, but they are bulky. Resupply can quickly become a real issue.

When the Army decided in the 1970s to pursue a rocket artillery system, these were some of the issues they needed to address. The accuracy issue was primarily addressed by using a spin stabilized rocket. Additionally, precise navigation and meteorological data led to greater accuracy. Knowing where you are shooting from, and what the winds are makes for better shooting. For the most part, US artillery was already blessed with these systems. This was good enough to get a rocket in the ballpark. But since an enemy artillery battery might cover an area several hundred meters wide, that’s not good enough. Even a fairly large warhead won’t do much damage to an artillery piece unless it scores a direct hit. So how do you ensure a hit? The answer was sub-munitions. Instead of each rocket having one large warhead, each rocket carried a payload of several hundred hand-grenade sized bomblets. The rocket would open its payload over the target, scattering the bomblets over a wide (but very predictable) area. Each bomblet could punch a hole through the light top armor of a vehicle or its fragments could cut down any exposed personnel.

Mobility was important as well. Once the rockets were fired, Soviet radars could track the path of the rockets to determine where they were fired from. If we could fire the rockets, then leave the firing position before they even hit, we would be safe from any counter battery fire that was in range. This is a technique known as “shoot and scoot.”  Accordingly, the Army made the decision to mount its new rocket system on a tracked vehicle. Tracked vehicles are heavier, more expensive, and more maintenance intensive than trucks. But tracked vehicles can also travel cross country over terrain that trucks can’t . They can also mount armor that trucks can’t. Rather than design an all new vehicle, the Army’s contractor, Food Machinery Corporation, adapted its M2/M3 Bradley chassis. By using the same engine, transmission, and suspension, development costs were kept to a minimum.

By using a combination of innovative technology for the rockets themselves and the onboard fire control system, in conjunction with legacy technologies such as the navigation systems, and the vehicle chassis, while integrating them into the existing framework of the US artillery system, the Army developed a  fearsome capability to fire counter battery missions up to 70 kilometers away. Of course, counter battery wasn’t the MLRS’s only mission. It was also ideal for smashing armored formations in the second echelon or decapitation missions that strike enemy headquarters.

So far, so good. The Army had found a solution to a nagging problem it had faced through most of the Cold War. And the system worked almost to perfection during the 1st Gulf War. When it came to preparing for a conventional war, no one came close to the US.

But not all wars are conventional. In fact, because of our dominance in the conventional warfare arena, possible opponents have quite deliberately decided to avoid a conventional fight with us and instead pursue asymmetric warfare techniques against us. The IED is the typical example of an asymmetric attack. How do you fight an inanimate object? Further, by hiding in the general population, knowing we won’t fire indiscriminately, enemy forces negate much of our firepower. In an era when any civilian casualties will almost certainly be plastered across the headlines as potential war crimes, using an MLRS is pretty much out of the question. Even conventional tube artillery, with a smaller impact than the sub munitions of the MLRS, is too indiscriminate for use in urban areas with nearby civilians.

Eventually, the Guided MLRS round was introduced. Ironically, the rocket artillery was now far more accurate than tube artillery. The GMLRS is accurate enough to be used against a single building, and has a small enough warhead that it can be used in urban areas with minimum collateral damage.

Another example of the lag time in reacting to the new paradigm of limited warfare is in surveillance. By now, you’ve seen plenty of  gun camera footage of Hellfire missiles and laser guided bombs smiting jihadis.
You’ve also seen news about the Predator drone and other “eye in the sky” surveillance. For a long time, the video tape was only analyzed  after the airplane returned to base. Eventually, real-time transmission of the images gave commanders great information about what was going on in a given area. Building ona legacy of 60 years of designing surveillance systems to “see” the entire battlefield, commanders were thrilled with the level of information dominance they were achieving.

That’s great, but it turned out, troops on the ground weren’t very happy. It turns out that no one thought about them. While the general might be able to see the battle unfolding with a god’s eye view, the guys in the fight couldn’t see any further  than if they  were medieval yeomen. Pretty soon, a program known as ROVER was instituted that fixed the issue. Now troops on the ground can use a laptop system to view the video from an overhead asset in real time.

The point is this. The armed forces of the US are on the horns of a dilemma. We have to adapt to new conditions on the battlefield, while still equipped and organized primarily to face a conventional enemy. But if the armed forces re-equip to face an unconventional enemy (and re-equipping in these austere times is going to cost more than anyone wants to pay), we face the risk of having some other opponent build its forces along conventional lines. Having re-equipped to face an unconventional foe, we would be ill equipped to face a conventional opponent. Generally, the US forces feel it is easier to adapt our existing conventional forces to face unconventional foes, via training, doctrine, and limited re-equipment (such as up-armored HUMVEES and MRAPs) than it would be to tailor our forces to unconventional warfare and have to face risk at the high end of the warfare spectrum.

And we haven’t even gotten into the messy part of the problem- politics. Virtually all defense related items are purchased from domestic suppliers. And each of these defense contractors has facilities in at least one Congressional District, which means there is a Representative and two Senators who are interested in seeing them get contracts and bring or keep jobs for their constituents. I don’t think anyone here would be surprised to learn that. And while many Congressmen, from both parties, who serve on the Armed Services committees are bona fide experts, it would be asking a bit too much from human nature for us to expect them to cast aside such political concerns when looking at what is procured. For instance, the current kerfuffle over buying several extra Gulfstream jets is probably more aboout getting some extra business to Gulfstream than it is about providing nice jets to Congress.