Air Assault

Air Assault is Army shorthand for the movement of troops and equipment to battle by means of helicopters. Now, loading and unloading infantry from helicopters is not a great intellectual challenge. I’ve done, so there’s your proof.

Having said that, there are techniques that do require a greater level of training. Preparing and sling-loading vehicles and supplies is an art and a science. Rapelling from helicopters is also a specialized technique that most soldiers don’t train on.

To pass on this tribal knowledge, the Army has Air Assault School. Selected soldiers attend this school, qualifying to facilitate the technical aspects of arial movement, and take this knowledge back to their parent units.

Now, rapelling from helicopters is somewhat simple. Gravity does most of the work. But it does have its risks. In order to mitigate them, there is  a further level of training, the Rapell Master Course. Every time a helicopter has troops rappelling from it, a qualified Rapell Master has to supervise. And so it was that my platoon sergeant in Hawaii, SFC Lopez was attending the Rapell Master Course. The final excercise was to supervise a soldier rapelling 12 times from a Huey, and 12 times from a Blackhawk. I quickly volunteered to be his “dope on a rope.”

After a very pleasant day spent flinging myself from a helicopter to slide somewhat gracefully to the ground, SFC Lopez and I returned to our unit. As we were driving back, SFC Lopez looked closely at my uniform. “PFC Bear? Where’s your Air Assault badge? You are out of uniform!”

“Uh, Sergeant Lopez, um, I’m not Air Assault qualified.” Hey, I just wanted to have a fun day.

Field Expediency

Take this:

Add some of this:

Held aloft with this:

And all you need for a good workout is this:


When I was deployed to the Middle East for Operation Desert Storm, there weren’t many creature comforts or recreational facilities. In fact, there were none. Being good American, red-blooded boys, we improvised.

First we played football. Unfortunatly, even touch football in the Army is a full-contact sport and after a few guys ended up with significant (if not serious) injuries, football was prohibited. We were left with two options. Option one was soccer. It suffered from two drawbacks. One, it’s SOCCER! for cryin’outloud. Two, it soon devovled into the same injury causing mess as football.

The only option left was volleyball. By stripping the camo part out of a section of camo-netting, and judicious use of net-poles, commo wire and engineer’s white tape, we quickly made a decent volleyball court. We had plenty of sand, so beach volleyball it was. And as an added bonus, it was scaleable. You could make the court pretty much any size you wanted to accomodate anywhere from four players to 100.

Not surprisingly, volleyball was a contact sport as well. I forget where in the rules it is, but I’m sure it says something about diving under the net to tackle a guy getting ready to spike.

Stand By

I’ve had requests for more information on the organization of the Army. I’m working on it. One suggestion was “cliff notes.” Heh. So I get a little long winded. Pixels are cheap. But I am working on some powerpoint slides that have an org chart that might make some of this a little easier to grasp. What do you think?

[polldaddy poll=1027622]

Just Deserts

I’m Palm Desert this weekend, visiting family, so probably not too much in the way of posts. Worse, I won’t have a chance to visit the Desert Training Center, which is just up the road. Of course, there’s nothing there, just desert.

Back in WWII, when it became apparent the Army would have to fight in North Africa, the Army realized they had no experience at all fighting in desert environments. It had just formed the Armored Force, composed of two armored divisions and needed a place to train them. Enter George Patton. Patton bought up an enormous chunk of cheap desert land here in Southern California and parts of Nevada. Pretty soon he had established The Desert Training Center and had tankers driving hell bent for leather over the sandy soil. This training would prove to be of great value when the divisions deployed to North Africa a year later.

The post was little more than some tarpaper shacks and tents. Now, even those are gone. But if you go up the road a ways to Barstow, you’ll find the modern successor to the DTC at Ft. Irwin, home of the National Traininng Center. More on that later.

From the top…

We’ve previously looked at the organization of certain units. And we recently talked about the difficulty in communication caused by the jargon the services use. For this foray into management, we’re going to look at the organization of the military from the top down.

At the top of the Chain of Command is the President. His role as the Commander-in-Chief (CinC) is set by the Constitution. Beneath the President is the Secretary of Defense, as head of the Department of Defense. From there it starts to get complicated.

The Secretary of Defense (SecDef) is supported by the Secretaries of the Army, Air Force, and Navy (which also covers the Marines). He is also supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Chairman thereof. And while the SecDef is in the chain of command, he’s only able to execute approved policies, that is, those things the President has directed. For instance, if the President said, “Invade Iraq,” the SecDef could do that, but he couldn’t invade Iraq by way of Iran.

The Secretaries of the Army, Air Force and Navy, and The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Joint Chiefs (JCS) themselves are not in the operational chain of command. They can’t pick up the phone and give orders for ships to sail, or divisions to move or squadrons to fly. That isn’t their job. Their job is to provide ready and trained forces to the combatant commanders (we’ll get to them in a moment). A big part of what they do is run the procurement programs that buy all the ships, tanks, planes, boots, flashlights, copy machines and stuff that it takes to run the services.

At the level under the Joint Chiefs is where we pick up the chain of command again. No service in today’s military fights alone. The battlespace is just too complex. Instead, the military has divided the world into geographic areas of responsibility, known as the Regional Commands, and specific areas of expertise, known as the Functional Commands.

The Regional Commands are:

  • Africa Command (AFRICOM), which, pretty obviously, covers Africa
  • European Command (EUCOM), covering Europe and parts of Western Asia
  • Pacific Command (PACOM), which covers the Pacific and parts of the Indian Ocean
  • Northern Command (NORTHCOM), which covers the US and the rest of North America
  • Central Command (CENTCOM), covering the Middle East, to include Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), covering South America

Each of the regional commanders is responsible for all US military operation in their areas, regardless of which service the forces are from. Some of the regional commanders “own” units assigned there. For instance, there are large numbers of units permantly assigned to PACOM and EUCOM. But CENTCOM and SOUTHCOM are just headquarters and are given control of units sent to their regions as needed.

NORTHCOM is a little different. While NORTHCOM is responsible for the defense of the homeland, US forces stationed at home don’t normally fall under it. They generally belong to their component service. NORTHCOM has responsibility for the air defense of the US (and Canada, with the cooperation of the Canadians) and for providing support to civilian agencies for disaster relief and response to attacks on the homeland.

Certain folks on the left of the political spectrum are up in arms about an active duty Army brigade being assigned to NORTHCOM for the first time. Lighten up, Frances.  The brigade is not planning the detention camps that are sure to come, just as soon as Bushilter calls off the election and rounds up all the oposition. In fact, I’d be surprised if the troopers in the brigade are doing much in the way of specific training for the job. The real work is being done by the staff on the brigade, identifiying the people and organizations they need to be able to contact and work with in case of a disaster, locating staging areas for likely events, and coordinating with the NORTHCOM staff to make sure they know what is expected of them. If the troops are called out to assist civilian agencies, Posse Commitatus is still in effect, which prevents the services from taking a direct role in law enforcement.

The Functional Commands are:

  • Strategic Command (STRATCOM), which provides command and control to nuclear forces
  • Joint Forces Command (JFCOM),who provides the training and organization of forces stationed in the US
  • Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which acts almost like a 5th armed service as it trains and organizes all the Special Operations Forces for all the services
  • Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), which coordinates all the air and sea shipping needs for logistics for all the services (the Navy’s underway replenishment is a separate issue).

Each of the Functional Commands has worldwide responsibility (except JFCOM, who instead provides trained and ready forces to the Regional Commanders). The commanders of both the Regional and Functional Commands are typically 4-star generals or admirals. Some, like PACOM are historically held by one service (has PACOM ever had a commander that wasn’t Navy?) while others rotate between the services fairly regularly. Each is nominated by the President to serve for two years, and typically renominated for a second two year term. All nominations need  to be approved by the Senate.

So how does this work in the real world? Let’s use Desert Storm as an example. Back then, many of the commands had slightly different names and missions, but it is close enough for our example.

When the US made the decision to defend Saudi Arabia, the CENTCOM commander, Gen. Schwarzkopf went with his staff and saw the situation and what needed to be done. CENTCOM doesn’t own any forces. He told the JCS and SECDEF what he needed to accomplish his mission and they in turn tapped the predecessor to JFCOM to  provide forces to him. TRANSCOM shipped the equipment by sea, and flew the troops in (mostly by commercial charter from the airlines).

CENTCOM in Saudi Arabia was a joint command, meaning it had forces from all the services. Even though Schwarzkopf was an Army general, he was in charge of forces from the Navy, Marines and Air Force as well as Army troops. To assist him, each service supplied a Joint Forces Component Commander or JFCC. For instance, the Army JFCC, LTG John Yeosock, was the guy under Schwarzkopf who ran all the Army units. He was also the Central Command Army commander or ARCENT, which also had the title of 3rd Army. That’s a lot of hats for one guy to wear, but they were basically all the same job. Each of the other services contributed a component commander and Scharzkopf’s staff worked to make sure all the services were pulling in the same direction.

After the decision was made to kick Saddam out of Kuwait by force, Schwarzkopf realized he needed a stronger force to do that. EUCOM was directed by the SECDEF to provide him with the additional forces. SOCOM also provided forces that he would need to perform reconnisance and other special missions.

After Desert Storm was over, CENTCOM released the forces back to their parent commands, where they began the cycle of training again to be ready the next time a Regional Commander needed them.


Grenades have a very long history in warfare. They’ve been around in one form or another since about 700AD, when clay pots of Greek Fire were tossed at people and forts.

A common form of grenade used in later years was simply a cast iron sphere filled with gunpowder, and ignited by a burning fuse.

But the modern grenade as we think of it was an invention of World War One, where the ability to throw a small bomb into a trench, or from a trench into a crowd of troops, was greatly appreciated. The first really successful hand grenade was the British Mills Bomb. It’s great improvement over other grenades was its time fuze. By using a percussion cap to light a powder fuse, the Mills Bomb would consitently explode after a set interval, typically 5 seconds. The striker for the percussion cap was held in place by a lever along the side of the grenade, which was in turn held in place by a pin with a pull ring.

Thus, early on, the model for nearly every hand grenade was set. Almost all hand grenades share some recognizable traits with the British Mills Bomb. Like, the US Mk2 “Pineapple” grenade that saw service throughout WWII and Korea.

The only significantly different design grenades were the German “potato masher” grenades. These consisted of an explosive can on the end of a long wooden handle.

The Mills Bomb/Pineapple grenades and the “potato masher” grenades reflect two somewhat different philosophies about how grenades should be used. The first group are often referred to as “defensive grenades” while the second are sometimes called “offensive grenades.” The distinction lies in the fragmentation pattern versus the throwing range of the grenade. Simply put, the fragments from a defensive grenade would be dangerous to the thrower even if he threw it as far as he could. He would need to take some type of cover when throwing the grenade. The potato mashers, on the other hand, relied more on the blast of the grenade to cause casualties and could be thrown from an exposed position, as one might find themselves during the assault. The only problem was that they didn’t cause nearly as many casualties. The stick grenade was adopted by the Japanese and later by the Chinese communists, and by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. There are many stories of stick grenades detonating very close to our troops who survived with little or no permanent injury. The same cannot be said of people who have had a fragmentation grenade explode next to them.  For this reason, the Soviets adopted a fragmentation type grenade.

You’ve probably noticed the grooves in the casing of the fragmentation grenades. That was designed to ensure the even distribution of fragements when the grenade exploded. The only problem was, it didn’t work. It would take a long time before anyone realized that the way to ensure even distribution of the fragments was to groove the inside of the grenade. Since that is difficult to do, many grenades now wrap the explosive charge with wire, inside the casing, or use BB’s or small ball bearings to provide shrapnel.

The current US grenade, the M67, is spherical, and has embedded fragments to increase its lethality. By keeping these fragments lightweight, they also reduce the effective radius of the grenade to about 5 meters. This makes it somewhat safer to throw. Most soldiers can throw the grenade about 30-35 meters (very roughly, about 100-110 feet). Fragments and parts of the fuse can travel up to 230 meters, so obviously, soldiers still need to take some cover when throwing a grenade.

Notice in addition to the pin holding the lever that there is a small wire safety clip. This serves as a secondary safety device. It is removed by a flick of the thumb before pulling the pin and throwing the grenade.

Some Not Safe For Work Language, so turn down the sound.


As an aside, the Army uses grenade simulators in its excercises to simulate the noise and smoke of a grenade without the fragments. These are basically giant firecrackers.


Fragmentation grenades aren’t the only types in service. Smoke grenades are commonly used as well. Some smoke grenades produce a cloud of white smoke to screen troops from observation. Colored smoke grenades are used for signalling or to mark a position.

Thermite grenades are used to set captured equipment on fire. After Operation Desert Storm, we traveled throughout southern Iraq and destroyed abandoned Iraqi vehicles by placing a thermite grenade on the engine block. The intense combustion would melt the engine.


And has anyone seen a Democratic protest without seeing tear gas grenades?

One of the main drawbacks of grenades is their limited range. We’ll take a look the solution to that problem when we cover grenade launchers.

UPDATE: Commenter Aussietrias has this to say:

Must be interesting to train their use because they’d have to get them over their fear yet not so much as to encourage complacency.

Actually, that is a real problem. Most grenade training is done with practice grenades that have a working fuse, but no explosive. And for the most part, grenade training is somewhat boring. Once you’ve done that, you get to throw two live grenades in basic training, and at later trips to the range. I found that pretty boring as well, because you don’t get to watch the explosions. Still, a boring explosion is better than no explosion at all.


But the problem is real- you can easily blow yourself up. Take a look at these guys.



For the record, soldiers in the Army don’t go to “boot camp.” They go to Basic Training. The Marines and the Navy go to boot camp. The Air Force goes to day camp (just kidding, Cranky!)

We wrote earlier about individual common tasks that a soldier needs to know. That’s what basic training (to be specific, Basic Combat Training, or BCT) is all about. When a soldier graduates basic, he (or she) has passed a test on each one of these tasks. They are ready to start learning the specific skills for the job they joined the army for. This specialized job training is called Advanced Individual Training or AIT. Once you complete your AIT, you are awarded a Military Occupational Specialty, or MOS. This is the job that you’ll be doing for Uncle Sam.

Graduation Day!
Graduation Day!

Now, the Army has a couple of different flavors of basic training. They all teach pretty much the same thing, but are organized a little differently. I joined the Army as an infantryman. All infantrymen go to Ft. Benning, GA, home of the Infantry Center and School. The Army has lots and lots of infantrymen (compared, say to optometrists). It makes sense for them to be trained in one place. And since they are already there, might as well have them do their AIT there as a unit, as well. This is called One Station Unit Training, or OSUT. From the perspective of a young private soldier going through it, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between Basic and AIT, except maybe getting to shoot more weapons. Other jobs that go through OSUT include tankers and artillerymen.

For a lot of jobs in the Army however, there just aren’t enough folks going through training at any one time to warrant putting together a basic training class just for them. They end up going to BCT at some place like Ft. Jackson, SC. After their nine weeks of training, and following graduation, they are sent to wherever the schoolhouse is that teaches their AIT. It may be on the same post, or it may be across the country.

The surest way to show that you don’t have any experience in the Army is to try to tell your fellow soldiers about “This one time, in Basic…”