Air-Minded: “I’ve Never Seen the Knife More Dull”

Institutionally, the military services have never forgotten the crippling constraints imposed upon the conduct of the air war in Vietnam:

Target lists were reviewed at the White House in the informal atmosphere of the Tuesday lunch, attended principally by President Johnson, his press secretary, the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the President’s special assistant for national security affairs. (Although the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is by law the senior military adviser to the President and General Earle G. Wheeler was one of the few military men Johnson liked, Wheeler attended an average of three Tuesday luncheons per quarter during the course of Rolling Thunder.) After dining, the target list for the coming week was discussed. Each proposed target had been reduced to a single sheet of paper and categorized on four bases (as revised by ASD/ISA): the military advantage for striking the target; the risk to U.S. aircraft and pilots; estimated civilian casualties; and danger to third-country nationals. Each luncheon attendee individually graded each target on the basis of his appraisal of the four standards. Their grades were then combined and averaged. President Johnson reviewed the averaged grades, then personally selected the targets for attack. Parameters of attack were determined. These included the number of aircraft authorized for strike of the target, date/time of attack, routes of ingress or egress, weapons authorized or prohibited, and restrike authority.

Today, a letter from an anonymous USAF A-10 pilot is making the rounds of current and former fighter jocks. What the letter writer says about the “lessons learned in Vietnam” is close to the heart of any military aviator; in the wake of that disastrous war generations of mid-level officers and tacticians … with the help of a few leaders willing to risk their careers … fought to improve combat effectiveness by decentralizing control and delegating decision-making to those closest to the action. And we got there. Desert Storm was the high point. Now, it appears, we’re sliding back to the bad old days. Here’s the letter:

The squadron is doing fine. Everybody is happy to be here and we are doing some good work. The A-10s are holding up well and the technology we have have on the jets now (targeting pods, GPS guided bombs, Laser Guided bombs, Laser guided missiles, tactical data link, satellite comms), and of course the gun, make the A-10 ideal for this conflict. We are killing off as many ISIS as we can, mostly in ones and twos, working with the hand we are dealt. I’ve never been more convinced in my career that we are facing an enemy that needs to be eradicated.

With that being said…I’ve never been more frustrated in my career. After 13 years of the mind-numbing low intensity conflict in Afghanistan, I’ve never seen the knife more dull. All the hard lessons learned in Vietnam, and fixed during the first Gulf War, have been unlearned again. The level of centralized execution, bureaucracy, and politics is staggering. I basically do not have any decision making authority in my cockpit. It sucks. In most cases, unless a general officer can look at a video picture from a UAV, over a satellite link, I cannot get authority to engage. I’ve spent many hours, staring through a targeting pod screen in my own cockpit, watching ISIS shitheads perpetrate their acts until my eyes bleed, without being able to do anything about it. The institutional fear of making a mistake, that has crept into the central mindset of the military leadership, is endemic. We have not taken the fight to these guys. We haven’t targeted their centers of gravity in Raqqa. All the roads between Syria and Iraq are still intact with trucks flowing freely. The other night I watched a couple hundred small tanker trucks lined up at an oilfield in ISIS-held northeast Syria, presumably filling up with with oil traded on the black market, go unfettered. It’s not uncommon to wait several hours overhead a suspected target for someone to make a decision to engage or not. It feels like we are simply using the constructs built up in Afghanistan, which was a very limited fight, in the same way here against ISIS, which is a much more sophisticated and numerically greater foe. It’s embarrassing.

Be assured that the Hawg drivers are doing their best.

Another military blogger read the letter and wrote about its implications. Here’s part of what he had to say:

We did this well in Operation Desert Storm. Decisions were made at the tactical level – targets were hit when discovered. We also designated areas in which pilots were free to engage targets as they appeared. One of the tactics was to delineate “kill boxes” in which no friendly forces were present. Anything that appeared to be military was engaged – it had a devastating effect on the Iraqis.

We have regressed. I am not sure why, but we seem to be operating in a zero-defect environment. That is political-speak for not killing any innocent people in the conduct of military operations.

How much of this institutional aversion to risk and collateral damage comes directly from President Obama I cannot say, but surely the SecDef, service chiefs, and JCS follow his lead and do his bidding.

Generals and admirals are notorious careerists. In my day you could say the same of nine out of ten colonels. It’s probably worse today. If it surprises you to hear an A-10 pilot say he can’t engage a target until a general officer, safely hunkered down in a command post hundreds or even thousands of miles away, authorizes the attack, it shouldn’t … decision-making authority, these days, has crept back up to the very top level of command.

Well, hello, Vietnam … we meet again! I wonder how long it’ll be before President Obama and Secretary of Defense Carter convene a Tuesday luncheon.

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5 thoughts on “Air-Minded: “I’ve Never Seen the Knife More Dull”

  • Another excellent, if somewhat disheartening, post. Looking at it from a purely economical point of view, the thought of a fighter jet hovering over a known target, and using up all that fuel — to say nothing of endangering the pilot — is just maddening. I can see why the guys are frustrated. Doesn’t all that hovering (well, probably not actually hovering) just give ISIS more time to target the planes? Of course, they might be too busy throwing guys they suspect of being gay off roofs. Yes, can we please just shoot them? The other economic point of pain is using fighter jets and other high-tech equipment too kill off an enemy in ones and twos. Now that really is painful. Makes for a really, really expensive war. And ISIS is so vicious, it actually makes me nostalgic for the good old days of napalm. I know, not a very Buddhist point of view, but they really are barbarians. They do need to be eradicated. Bet you never thought you’d hear me talk like this.
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  • After living through the frustration of Vietnam and the exhilaration of Desert Storm, I actually thought we were getting it right. Then came Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we have Vietnam all over again. I do not believe it has to do with careerism per se. Please remember, the military is controlled by elected politicians. AS IT SHOULD BE. Flag rank officers ultimately do as their leaders dictate. That is not careerism. Politics is all about power, and politicians do what they can because they can. I would argue that what we are seeing is more about leadership, or the lack thereof. When our leaders get the policy and the objectives right, a lieutenant can right the strategy. Anyway, so sayeth General George C. Marshall. And history proves he had a clue.

  • Very true, Dick, but I was thinking of lower-ranking flag officers and colonels who might be willing to buck the system at the risk of their careers, and the dearth thereof. Probably there has always been a dearth thereof!

  • Roger on the dearth thereof. In defense of the system, the military is a command organization, an officer takes an oath to obey orders. He, or she, is not there to “buck the system” but to make it work, the more efficiently the better. Only when an officer receives an illegal order is he/she justified in “bucking the system.” Having said that, I attribute the problem of stupid, ill thought-out directives and programs to the lack of leadership, which has always been a problem in itself. One of the best commanders I worked for was Al Logan, the DO of the 86th at Ramstein. We had some very freewheeling staff meetings were you could voice any objection to a policy, etc., as long as you were respectful. As much as I wanted, I never referred to a certain general as a “dumb ass” as much as I wanted. Logan would listen, then make a decision. At that point, regardless of your objections, you had better get on board.

    And then there is the problem of ego. I cannot remember how many times I saw pure ego raise its lovely head and screw things up. At Soesterberg, I was the guy who had to tell Sipple he couidn’t do some things because we were already chopped to NATO and had to work through the Dutch. Oh, boy! One of my best war stories involves a readiness exercise I was running . . . but that’s another story.

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