Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Tale of Two Commanders...

Leadership… There’s a plethora of books, articles, comments, blogs… you name it there's something on it.  I offer no comments on the merits of each, they speak for themselves.  I just share a couple of war stories based on personal experience.

Tale 1

There I was … [all war stories begin this way so humor me with your patience]… a captain in the US Air Force and flying in B-52 bombers as an electronic warfare officer [EWO].  My job was to protect the aircraft and crew from both radar and heat-seeking threats.  One eventful time my B-52 crew was selected to participate in a Red Flag exercise.  Red Flag is an advanced aerial warfare exercise held few times a year at Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, Nevada.  The Red Flag is designed to simulate actual combat operations, i.e., fly as we fight.  The Red Flag ranges contain a multitude of threat radar simulators which mimic those of enemy systems.  Further, on this particular exercise, in addition to the usual F-5 / T-38s masquerading as MIGs, the OPFOR [opponents] included RAF Phantoms and Tornados.  The Commander of the exercise was a British Group Commander [0-6] from the Royal Air Force.

“Great!” I thought, because (1) we got an opportunity to test our training and mettle in the most realistic battlefield environment short of actual combat; and (2) we got to spend a few days in Las Vegas.  

The staff guys from our wing tactics’ shop had been sent a couple of weeks ahead to coordinate and assist with the planning.  A few days prior to our deployment, our received the mission package and we began mission planning.  I was really excited. “I’m going to fly Red Flag!”  At the time, B-52 crews included a gunner to operate the 20 mm Gatling cannon [H-models; quad .50 caliber machine guns on G-models].  My gunner and I meticulously reviewed all threat radars, enemy aircraft characteristics, and analyzed possible contingencies like, “if I’m wounded, push this button to keep the jammers active, etc.”  and “There’s no way we’re going to allow our aircraft to be shot down.” 

During our pre-mission briefing, we were informed of the rules of engagement [ROEs].  During low level penetration and bomb run, our altitude was held a few hundred feet higher than we expected.  “Whisky Tango Foxtrot?” says I.  “Why are we being held to such non-tactical parameters?”  But orders are orders and we were to fly at such and such an altitude. “Foxtrot Tango” I was one pissed-off [EWO].

Our flight went smoothly enough through initial low-level penetration to terrain avoidance altitude.  As we approached the range, everything appeared peaceful enough. My warning receivers were operating normal giving no indications of OPFOR activity.

We arrived at the initial point and began our bomb run.  The pilot revved up the aircraft to max power and speed; even though we are wearing helmets with ear protection -- IT IS LOUD!

“BLEEP… BLEEP…” I heard on the earphones in my helmet.  My warning detected the sure tale signs of air surveillance radars. Then height-finders… “Holy Sierra” OPFOR s are there!

Then all hell broke loose.  Every freaking bell, whistle, and flashing lights [and there are lots of them] began to beep.  We had encountered the forces of two OPFOR armies and all of their target-tracking radars [TTRs] were on … us.  Imagine playing ten different video games all at the same time while playing the stereo at full blast and more…

Under such circumstances, your mind cannot keep up with the sensory overload; training takes over.  Before I could even digest the totality of the situation, my hands were flying over the jammers & punching out chaff & flares to protect the aircraft against the TTRs and heat-seekers. 

We proceeded with the bomb run [think of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries; or Eye of the Tiger by Survivor depending on your musical preferences] 

Then I noticed the radar signal of an AWACS – directing OPFOR fighters against us.  Jam him too… Over the radios you could hear the controllers directing Brit Phantoms against our aircraft.  I called for lower altitude but the pilot told me we were at the lowest altitude allowed by the ROES.  “F__ the ROES” I screamed on the interphone…  but we couldn’t do that.

Suddenly my brain woke from what seemed to be a mental fog … I had a clear vision of what was going on… I had complied with every procedure called for in such a tactical operation and I did not even realize that I had done it – the value of training over and over.   I could not believe I was getting paid to have this much fun!!!  Even Bill Gates cannot buy such a moment…  My gunner high-fived me as we completed our bomb run and began our exit from low-level altitude.

We got back to Nellis and were slapping each other on the back for a kick butt mission.  The staff pukes told us debriefing was the following morning at 0800 hours (8:00 a. m. for civilians); Vegas night awaited us. 

Next morning at debriefing, the staff pukes from our tactics division informed us that our aircraft had been shot down by OPFOR fighters as we climbed out of low level. 

“BULL__” I said. “There was nothing there.” 

“You got shot down by an infrared missile” said a staffer.

“No way” I said.  “There’s no way we got shot down.” We kept arguing back and forth.  I demanded to see proof that our aircraft had been jumped by OPFOR at low-level exit.  They produced some data showing that, indeed, aircraft had jumped us at our low level exit point… and the pilot had yelled FOX 4 – IR missile “launch”.  I was … yep… the ROES.

Next the British Group Commander came in and began to talk about the mission and the following mission.  Not being too much of a milquetoast kind of guy, I immediately raised my hand:

“Why were the B-52s held at XX altitude?”

His response was not what I expected.  He slammed down his briefing book and began yelling that all of this had been coordinated ahead of time with all units and why in the bloody hell were we asking such questions…  My pilot gave me a look “SHUT THE F___ UP”

Limey bastard, I thought.  “With due respect to your rank , sir, if the object of the exercise is to fly as we expect to fight, then the B-52s should be allowed to fly at tactical altitude? If the object of the exercise is to prove a foregone conclusion…?" I thought the Group Commander was going to explode… then suddenly he burst out laughing…  He looked at his staff… all of them sitting with notebooks on their laps [like those pictures of North Korean generals around Kim Jong Un];  “Why the hell didn’t any of you say this?” Silence.

He came over and gave me a friendly slap on the back… “Well done, Captain.” 

True story…

Tale 2

In a flying wing, all operations are under the control of the deputy commander for operations [DO].  He or she is responsible to the commander of the wing for the flight schedule, aircrew training, flying hours and all of the support necessary to ensure them… It’s a pretty responsible job and was particularly so during the 1980s because of the B-52s nuclear missions.

There I was one day, when our crew was selected to participate in a very secret program.  We were given some guidance and told to develop a mission profile.  Once we did this, we were to travel to Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska and brief the vice commander of SAC – a three-star general.  When a crew gets such an assignment, they get bombed [no pun intended] with staff assistance from the wing [i.e., you are going to do this in such and such a way]. 

Our particular DO was a new colonel who was bent on becoming a wing commander, hence, a general.  I had seen him at a number of functions at the officer’s club. He seemed okay to me though I had not had many interactions with him. 

With staff ‘assistance’ we prepared our mission profile, etc. in the required time.  Our DO led a team of staffers, our crew, a KC-135 crew, etc. to SAC HQ to brief vice-CINCSAC.   The briefings went well enough… and a few days later it was time to return home.

I was based in Northern Michigan at the time, and it was COLD.  While we were gone, the base had been through a major snowstorm and had begun to dig itself out of the snow.  We flew back on a KC-135.  Upon landing, there were no buses at hand to pick us up… the temperature outside was around -15 degrees F.  All of the sudden, a command car pulled right up to the tanker.  It was the DO’s assistant.  Without a word to any of us, the DO got in the car and they drove away.  We all looked at each other… and 40 minutes later or so buses arrived to pick us up.

A few months later, we were expecting a staff assistance visit from SAC.  A staff ‘assistance’ visit is an inspection by another name.  The higher staff ‘assists’ you by nitpicking and second-guessing everything you do; and writes action items for you to complete by such and such time.  They are not fun.

The DO was obviously concerned about it because it is report card.  Bad grades affect your promotion opportunities.  As the staff assistance got closer, he decided to have a DO Commander’s Call for his staff.  As I was in a standardization and evaluation crew (Stan Eval) at the time, I was directly under the DO’s command.  In the Air Force duty days run from 0730 to 1630 hrs (7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.). Commanders’ Calls, attendance is mandatory, are held by unit commanders to inform all unit personnel of various activities, recognize people, and such things.  I had never heard of a DO having a commander’s call—as this is a staff unit.  Whatever…

The DO Commanders’ Call was set for 1530 hours [3:30 p.m.].  At 3:00 p.m., we received a call saying that it had been moved to 4:30 p.m. because the DO was busy…

At 4:30 p.m., all of the DO staff gathered at the base theater [about 100 people] for the commanders’ call.  The DO began speaking telling us all how important this visit was and in order to inform everyone of what was going on, he tasked each DO division to brief us on its mission [oy vey…] I settled deeper in my seat…

For the next hour or so the meeting droned on an on with no end in sight.  Around 5:40 p.m., one of the division chiefs got up to brief.  He said he did not know what this was about, and had not prepared anything, so he had a pre-canned briefing of about 100 slides … [collective GROAN...]

I then noticed a young airman looking glumly at his watch…. “Airman, what time does the mess hall close?” I asked quietly.  “Six o’clock, sir” he responded…

There was no way we were going to be done by then… someone had to say something.

I stood up and said to the DO:  “Excuse me, sir.  The mess hall is going to close at six o’clock so we should excuse those who have to eat there.”  I expected him to be understanding… they had just forgotten the time.

His reaction was not what I expected.  “THIS IS IMPORTANT” he screamed almost hysterically. Then rambled something about how important the staff assistance visit was. I thought that our troops having dinner was important too.  I had made my point so I sat down and didn’t say anything further… And the briefing droned on…

About 10 minutes later, at 5:50 p.m., the DO grumbled “Those who have to eat at the mess hall may leave.”  Half of the audience left…  The briefing droned on for another 5 minutes or so.  “Enough of this” the DO said.  “We’re done.”  We never had another DO commanders’ call again… and yeah, we survived the assistance visit.

That night I wondered if I had a career still left, but no regrets.  Next day, some Tanker pilot whom I did not know came up to me and said:  “That took a lot of guts. I can’t believe how poorly he reacted…”

True story…


Monday, January 5, 2015

Russian-American Relations 2014: Mistakes Repeated

George Kennan in discussing American foreign policy and democracy notes that we made two big boo-boos during the cold war.  (1) to attribute to the “Soviet leadership aims and intentions it did not really have; in jumping to conclusion that the Soviet leaders were just like Hitler and his associates…” with the same aspirations, timetable, and who could only be dealt with in the same manner as Hitler was. [1]  (2)  The second postwar mistake was to embrace the nuclear weapon “the mainstay of our military posture, and the faith we placed in it to assure our military and political ascendancy in this postwar era.”[2] 

"It is from these two great mistakes that there has flowed, as I see it, the extreme militarization not only of our thought but of our lives that has become the mark of this postwar age. And this is a militarization that has had profound effects not just on our foreign policies but also on our own society… And this habit—the habit of pouring so great a part of our gross national product year after year into sterile and socially negative forms of production—has now risen to the status of what I have ventured to call a genuine national addiction. We could not now break ourselves of the habit without the serious of withdrawal symptoms. Millions of people, is addition to those other millions who are in uniform, have become accustomed to deriving their livelihood from the military-industrial complex. Thousands of firms have become dependent on it, not to mention labor unions and communities. It is the main source of our highly destabilizing budgetary deficit. An elaborate and most unhealthy bond has been created between those who manufacture and sell the armaments and those in Washington who buy them. We have created immense vested interests in the maintenance of a huge armed establishment in time of peace and in the export of great quantities of arms to other peoples—great vested interests, in other words, in the Cold War. We have made ourselves dependent on this invidious national practice; so much so that it may fairly be said that if we did not have the Russians and their alleged iniquities to serve as a rationalization for it, we would have to invent some adversary to take their place—which would be hard to do.[3][My highlight]"

In 2014 it appears that the United States repeated these mistakes (1) to attribute to the Russian leadership aims and intentions that it does not really have; in jumping to conclusion that Putin is just like Stalin and communists. (2) The second mistake it to embrace military instrument of national power as the mainstay of our politico-diplomatic posture despite its limitations in a geopolitical heartland largely outside our strategic reach and capabilities to affect political outcomes.


Question for policy makers: “Is it possible that we may be expecting of Russia [or an other country] higher standards of international conduct than our own?” (Vera Micheles Dean, “Is Russia Alone to Blame?” Foreign Policy Reports, Vol. XXV, March 8, 1946).[4]




[1] George F. Kennan,  At a Century’s Ending.  Reflections 1982-1995 (New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996), p. 130.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Idid., pp. 130-131
[4] Direct cite from Kenneth W. Thompson, Interpreters and Critics of the Cold War.  Wash. DC: University Press of America (1978), p. iv


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Response to Paul Masciotra, Salon.com

On November 9, 2014, Paul Masciotra wrote in Salon.com an article:  You don’t protect my freedom: Our childish insistence on calling soldiers heroes deadens real democracy 

http://www.salon.com/2014/11/09/you_dont_protect_my_freedom_our_childish_insistence_on_calling_soldiers_heroes_deadens_real_democracy/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=socialflow

Here’s my response:

In the early 1980s I was a B-52 Electronic Warfare Officer with the United States Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, stationed in K. I. Sawyer, Air Force Base, Michigan.   ‘K. I.’ was located near Marquette, Michigan by the shores of Lake Superior; it has since closed.  It is really a pretty place, but in the winter, it is COLD!  The temperature plummets well below zero degrees Fahrenheit.  The coldest I personally experienced was -53 degrees (without wind chill factor).

At the time, SAC kept its bomber and tanker crews on nuclear alert.  We had to spend one week out of the month sitting on nuclear alert; away from our families and our movements restricted to the alert facility and selected portions of the base.  While on alert, we had periodic exercises where the Klaxon would ring and everyone would race to their aircraft, and depending on the command and control message, start engines, taxi the aircraft, and even do a simulated minimum interval take-offs (MITO)  down the runways.   The object of the exercise was to prove we could take off prior to incoming submarine launched ballistic missiles launched from Soviet Yankee and Delta class subs off our Eastern coast obliterated K. I.  Naturally, while the probability was low, the possibility always existed that the command and control messages were not exercise but directed a real-world action.

One night in early 1984, SAC was conducting an exercise titled, Global Shield.  The command was proving that it could respond on a moment’s notice to deter any threat, i.e., Soviet threat.  As a then lieutenant on nuclear alert, my humble part in all of this was to be ready to jump from whatever I happened to be doing at the moment, run to the aircraft and be prepared for anything.  All the SAC crew dogs were expecting the Klaxon to sound around 2400 hours (midnight).  Midnight came and went.  We began to think that the SAC commanders had decided not to ring the Klaxon because outside was -25 degrees, and with the wind chill it was around -35 degrees or so.  IT WAS COLD!  

I went to my bunk around 0100 hours (1 in the morning).  “At least they have a heart” I thought and fell asleep…

NNNNRRRRRIIIINNNNGGG   NNNNRRRRRIIIINNNNGGG  NNNNRRRRRIIIINNNNGGG  [it’s hard to describe the loud irritating sound] “KLAXON KLAXON KLAXON”   over and over again  Time?  0300 hours (3 in the morning)!

The two other guys with whom I shared the room (the radar navigator and navigator) and me jumped out of our beds, put on our flight suits, cold weather Bunny boots, and ran out as fast as we could into the cold Upper Michigan night.  Interestingly, after the base was closed, the Alert Facility was turned into a minimum security prison.  The room in which the three of us slept was deemed to small to house one prisoner.  

As I was running to my aircraft it was really slippery. I kept running trying not to fall or trip over all of the other Crew Dogs who were also running with me.  Suddenly, I saw a co-pilot named Sam Gilmore, just go sliding down the runway on his back – it was that slick.

The thought then hit me.  I know I’m not doing this for money and no one else here is doing it for money.  Why am I running to an aircraft at 3 in the morning in -25 degree weather in Upper Michigan? Why is Sam Gilmore sliding on his back on the runway?  I looked up at the clear cold sky… Yep, I knew that a Soviet satellite was observing our reaction.   I raced faster …

After the exercise was over I pondered over what I had seen.  Yes, none of us was doing this for money.  We did it because it was our duty.  We belonged to something larger than our own comfort and ourselves which no amount of money could properly compensate.  I was part of the strategic nuclear offensive forces of the United States.  The Soviets would not dare to strike us because despite all of the crap they saw on TV about the anti-nuclear movement, etc.  they had proof that in some remote air base like K. I. a group of guys just like me would run to their aircraft and get off the ground ahead of their SLBMs and make them pay an unacceptable price.

Yuri Andropov, then Soviet leader, and his generals were not deterred because some kindergarten teacher expressed her horror of nuclear war or some old hippie preached ‘make love, not war’ while smoking pot or because Bubba and Billy Bob had their pumps (shotguns).  Nyet!  It was because SAC crew dogs like Sam Gilmore, yours truly and all other soldiers, sailors, and airmen were at their posts ready to protect our country.  While the buck stops with our commander in chief, the President, it is we who give the buck its value!

I’m no hero.  I did my duty to the best of my abilities because I love this country and felt that I was doing something important.  The Soviets did not attack us while I was at my post.

What you want to call us does not matter to me; I did my duty and do not need your praises. I suspect that calling our soldiers heroes is largely due to America’s collective guilt at the way America treated its soldiers when they returned from the horrors of the Vietnam War. Thank you, Sylvester Stallone for 'Rambo.'

Bottom line:   To paraphrase Herodotus’ King Leonidas,  “Go tell the Americans, thou that passest by, that here according to their laws, we always serve.”



Friday, September 26, 2014

Law of Victory in War?

LAW OF VICTORY?[1]

What we ought to be looking at is whether there is a recipe for success in both war and peace that can be brought to light.

Q:    What is the secret of success in combat, in an operation?
      How is victory achieved?
      Is there still that “magic key” which opens the “magic box of victory”?
      Maybe everything is decided by the talent of the military leader?
      Is the answer contained in the formula “the fittest wins”?
      Is there a law of victory and if there is, what is it?[2]

Basic Law of War:  The course and outcome of war is determined by the political objectives of war and the correlation of all forces of the warring sides.  The latter are understood as the sum total of the state’s (coalition of states) military, economic, scientific and technical and spiritual potentials.

Basic formulation of a Law of Victory:  The course and outcome of war is determined by the political goals and correlation of the aggregate forces of the warring sides, as well as by the ability of the latter to take into account the effects of the laws of war and warfare.[1]

      Analysis:  law of victory incorporates a triad:  formulation of a goal; creation of a corresponding troop grouping; and expert use of the available forces.

      Law of victory incorporates an objective and subjective side

      Objective:  the goal and the correlation of forces is a permanent constituent of victory, reflecting the need to prepare in advance

      Subjective:  the essence of the law of victory (in a narrow sense).  As a variable constituent of victory, it reflects that cognized freedom of action which is retained by military leaders ( commanders) of the opposing sides in the context of an abjective limitation of forces already in the course of war (operation or combat).    Freedom is realized through the ability  and skill to make an efficient use of their forces and fires, as well as other objective factors (time, space, terrain features, climactic and weather conditions, and so forth) which assume the form of “degrees of freedom” so that their effects favorable for the troops are strengthened and the unfavorable minimized.  This is in fact military art - the art of using the laws of warfare in the interest of victory.[2] 

A characteristic of the law of victory is its certain logical transcendence as it incorporates all the laws of war and warfare.  “ This means that the law of victory is impossible to represent in a manifest and unequivocal form:  It is a “thing in itself”, as it were.  This means that its cognition is inconceivable without studying the laws of warfare.[3]

The problem is not to prove the dependence of the course and outcome of warfare on the knwoledge and creative use of its objective laws - this is obvious, but to elicit, in a concrete situation, those laws whose effect objectively contribute to victory, and, by making and executing corresponding decisions, use them actively - by engaging in “creative work” in the battlefield.


    [1]  Ibid., p. 33.
    [2]  Ibid., p. 34.
    [3]  Ibid., pp. 34-35.

    [1]  Lt Col V. V. Kruglov, "Is There a Law of Victory", Voennaya Mysl' (Military Thought)No. 1, January 1994, pp. 32-37.
    [2]  Ibid., p. 32.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu Reconsidered



      Throughout history some battles have had tremendous strategic effects beyond those of immediate tactical success.  For example, the German defeat at the battle of Stalingrad placed the Germans on the strategic defensive for the remainder of the war.  Germany never conducted large-scale offensives after Stalingrad.  

       Was Dien Bien Phu an example of a battle achieving large strategic ends?  On the one hand the victory succeeded in removing the French from Vietnam.  On the other hand its success ultimately led to the American intervention, furthering the conflict for another twenty years.  If the Viet Minh had not achieved such a decisive military victory over them, the French, whose goals were vastly overambitious given both available resources and national will, would have eventually withdrawn their forces and acceded to the Viet Minh's quest for independence as they subsequently did in Algeria.  It is worthy to note that in Algeria there was no Dien Bien Phu equivalent, the French withdrew, and there was no American intervention. 


      I contend that Dien Bien Phu, while being a great tactical victory, was a strategic failure because it created more problems for the Viet Minh than it solved as battlefield success led to strategic failure, i.e., American involvement.  I analyze this hypothesis by:  (1) briefly reviewing the strategic setting that led to the battle of Dien Bien Phu; (2) reviewing the strategic setting after the battle which led to the subsequent American involvement; and (3) based on the previous analysis, provide an alternative outcome that might have led to a resolution of the conflict instead of trading one outside power for a stronger one.


      In reviewing the French strategic setting of the battle of Dien Bien Phu prior to the battle, the situation had changed considerably after 1949 with the advent of Communist China.  "Especially damaging was the loss of French outposts along the Chinese border."[1]  In particular, the Chinese overland routes gave the Viet Minh access to a free flow of Chinese supplies and establishment of base areas.  "It brought a fundamental change in the nature of the war - henceforth, any expansion of Western forces in Vietnam or Laos could be readily offset by Viet Minh force escalation.[2] 


      Thus the French faced a protracted war that they had little chance of winning they had been searching for a situation in which to bring the Viet Minh into battle.  Previously, the Viet Minh had been waging a guerrilla war against the French.  The French hoped to decisively defeat the Viet Minh in conventional operations, destroy it as a political movement, and retain their colonies in Indochina.  The plan they came up with to accomplish was the Navarre Plan of March-April 1953, named after France's last general in Vietnam, General Henri Navarre.  The Navarre Plan envisioned that the "Vietnamese army was to assume a larger role, with the United States assuming the financial burden."[3]  The French forces, with American equipment, would emphasize mobility operations, designed to entrap Giap's forces and engage it in pitched battle.  The French were unable to trap Giap's forces in a series of operations, so Navarre decided to build an airhead in Giap's territory, the mountains of Tonkin.  Navarre believed that he could lure Giap's elite forces into "meat-grinder" battles.  He did lure the Viet Minh into the "meat-grinder" but it was the French that were consumed for the reasons that we discussed during the student presentations.


      The Viet Minh's strategic view and desired end state in seeking battle against the French was that General Giap had become convinced that the protracted people's war being waged by the Vietminh against the French had entered into its third stage, general counterattack.[4]  Giap had now three-hundred thousand troops who were organized along conventional lines into battalions, regiments, and divisions.  These units were well supplied with Russian and Chinese equipment, and O&M supplies which were carried by a stream of peasant porters to the operational divisions.  Their objective was simple:  destroy the garrison at Dien Bien Phu and drive the French out of Indochina.  General Giap's message to his troops on the eve of the battle said:  "Master fear and pain, overcome obstacles, unite your efforts, fight to the very end, annihilate the enemy at Dien Bien Phu, win a great victory!"[5]


     The strategic setting after battle as a result of the Geneva Accords was only a military ceasefire between France and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV).  Vietnam remained divided along the 17th parallel, and only vision of a political future that the DRV received was a promise of elections in two years.  The French had the opportunity to regroup their forces below the 17th parallel, and expected to continue to exert their influence on South Vietnam, but their involvement in Vietnam was finished.  The ultimate result of the Geneva Conference was the beginning of direct American involvement in Vietnam.


      The United States became involved in Vietnam because it saw France's defeat as a blow to the West and a victory for communism.  In the aftermath of the Chinese Revolution and the Korean War, the French military defeat at Dien Bien Phu signified a victory for Chinese communism over the West.  This Chinese Communist expansion could not be tolerated, thus the US did not support the outcome of the Geneva Conference.  What the US did do was to "embark on a course designed to make the purely military arrangements serve as the basis of a de facto political settlement."[6]   The US also did not promise to observe the promised elections but rather not to use force to break them up.  Effectively vetoing the elections through this clause, the US sought to shore up Ngo Dihn Diem's government in South Vietnam, and thereby making Vietnam's division permanent.  The US believed that France pusillanimous policy in Vietnam, poor military planning, and colonial past had been the reasons for their defeat.  Not burdened by any of the above sins, the US sought to fight communism in Vietnam through Diem.


      Given the political accords reached as a result of Dien Bien Phu, clearly it did not produce a great strategic result or victory:  Vietnam remained divided, and the US became directly involved taking the place of France.   One may argue that the Vietnamese might have been able to achieve more at the conference table had it not been for American intransigence and duplicity.  On the other hand, it can be equally argued that it was the benign nature of the political demands that the accords placed on France (and the US) that led to the agreement in the first place.  This remains conjectural but if the demands had been the immediate reunification of Vietnam under DRV rule, the accords might have not been signed.  The point here is that the military victory of the Viet Minh over the French at Dien Bien Phu did not translate into a political victory but a great political defeat for the Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh.


      An alternative outcome occurred in the Algerian War of independence where there were no French defeats in large-scale military operations, but France subsequently withdrew and there was no American involvement although Ben Bella was also espousing a 'socialist program', employing Marxist rhetoric, and enticing the Soviet-bloc nations for political and material aid.  Why did the US not become involved in the Algerian case which was similar in nature to the Vietnamese case, and in an area which was, geographically, much closer to vital American security interests such as Europe?[7]  The answer to this issue lies in the political perspective that a military defeat may result in.  In Dien Bien Phu, the French were ignominiously defeated and humiliated.  As perceived by the Americans, their defeat was a result of the lack of military prowess, an inability to supply troops in the field, and lack of aircraft and technology; essentially a managerial problem subject to a quick resolution if one is tough to see it through.  This is was a national security issue which the United States viewed as tailor-made for its foreign policy due to its ability to manage and solve technological problems, which this was if seen through this prism, in an expeditious and efficient manner.  Addition-ally, the policy of containment had recently become the motive force behind American rhyme and reason, and led to the Truman Administration's decision to begin military aid to Indochina was taken in "more or less" within the overall policy of containment in the world without evaluating the merit of each individual case.[8]


      In the Algerian case, as France did not suffer any major military defeats of note, the American's viewed French operations there as ongoing, and when the negotiated settlement did occur in 1962 there was no stigma of a military defeat for France (although in fact it was a great strategic defeat), and the US did not perceive the communists as being able to pummel the West politically through another Western military disaster.


      In conclusion, I posit that the battle of Dien Bien Phu was not the great strategic victory but rather a failure.  The reasons for its strategic failure are that the Americans did not want to see the French humiliated by a "communist" movement; did not want another "communist" government in Asia; the outcome of Dien Bien Phu represented Western weakness as opposed if it had been a conscious French choice to withdraw as was in Algeria which did not lead to American involvement.


     Another conclusion, that may be tentatively posited for further observation is that a military victory may not lead to a political victory, or that a military defeat (or a least the absence of victory) may still yield political victory.  The object of war is not to win battles but to win wars; and objectives of wars are defined in political terms.


By:  Gonzalo I. Vergara, Lt. Col., USAF (Ret.)

     [1] Bruce Palmer, Jr. The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam (New York:  Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1984), p. 5.
     [2]  Ibid.
     [3]  Edward Doyle, et. al., Passing the Torch.  The Vietnam Experience Series. (Boston:  Boston Publishing Company, 1981), p. 62.
     [4]  The other two phases of Mao Zedong's people's war, adapted by Giap to Vietnamese conditions, are:  (1) defensive phase where the survival of the revolutionary forces is the prime objective; (2) the second phase's objective is to further demoralize the enemy and increase the ranks of the guerrillas.    Cited in Ibid., pp 48-49.
     [5]  Giap, in Doyle, op. cit., p. 65.
     [6]  Ibid., p. 84.
     [7]  Cold-war security interests.
     [8]  Palmer, p. 5.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

B-52 Tales: Mafia 33

This is a true story.

As I stated in previous posts, I served in the US Air Force  as a B-52 Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) in Strategic Air Command (SAC).

One day in early 1984 our crew had a routine training flight: Take-off, air refueling, low-level penetration and bomb run, climb out of low level and fly home.  The missions normally lasted 8 hours of flight time depending on the mission profile and the location of the target range.

The call signs used by the bomb wings changed daily -- to confuse potential adversaries and on occasion ourselves as well.  On this particular day, the bombers of our wing had the call sign 'Mafia' and our crew was flight 33; hence our call sign for the day was ''MAFIA 33".

I was born in Chile and spent my teenage years in New York City... I still have a slight accent when I speak English and I can "tolk Nu Yoik..." Normally, line of sight UHF communications were handled by the co-pilot. The EWO handled long-range HF radio communications.  Our aircraft commander, Capt. Bob Wheelock, was a smart-aleck kind of guy.  Given our call sign MAFIA 33, he came up to me and with a twinkle in his eyes said "Gonz, you got the radios today... Just don't get us in trouble otherwise communications are yours."  I knew exactly what he meant and wanted me to do.

After a normal start and standard instrument departure from K. I. Sawyer Air Force Base, Michigan, we passed 10,000 feet and it was time to contact the air traffic control center (ATCC) to request altitude change. In my thickest Nu Yok accent [combined a touch of Spanish], I called over the UHF radio:

"Yo, Minneapolis Center, dis is da Mafia 33 requesting climb to Flight Level 350 [35,000 feet]"

These are standard requests and Center usually responds immediately... Silence

"YO, Minneapolis Center, dis is da Mafia 33 requesting climb to Flight Level 350"

Finally:  "Mafia 33 [???] identify yourself"

"Yo, Mafia 33 isah Bravo 52 Hotel aircraft with 6 goombas on board."

"Mafia 33, squawk ___" the ATC controller said with obvious amusement on his voice.  Every aircraft has an IFF box and you program a specific code to ID yourself.  We put in the correct squawk.

"Mafia 33... is that your real call sign???"  The ATC guy asked.  You could hear laughter in the background.

"Ya, we don't pick da call signs"

"Mafia 33 you are clear to climb to flight level 350."

"Yo, Minneapolis Center, dis is da Mafia 33 requesting direct radar vectors to Nu Yoik City"...

"Mafia 33,  Minneapolis Center request dat yu contact Chicago Center on ___ for yur request." ....

We weren't going to New York, but it seemed a great request...

It was a great flight...






Saturday, January 25, 2014

How I Almost Got Harpooned by Greenpeace

This is a true story:

On September 1, 1983, I was a 2d Lieutenant serving as a B-52 Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) in Strategic Air Command (SAC).  On that day a SU-15 fighter from the Soviet Air Defense Forces shot down a Korean Airlines flight KAL-007.

As a B-52 EWO, I had a top secret security clearance with special access to various programs.  Because I was born outside the US (in Chile), I had been scrubbed and scrutinized beyond squeaky clean.  In any case, one of the security requirements we had was to report any contacts we may have with communist countries. I subscribed to a number of Soviet periodicals and journals [mostly politico-military stuff],    I dutifully reported my contacts.

After the Soviets shot down KAL-007, in protest, I cancelled all of my journal subscriptions; including my subscription to “Soviet Life” with the Soviet Embassy.  Coincidentally, around this same time, I received a mailer from Greenpeace complaining about Japanese, Norwegian and Soviet whaling practices.  The mailer included a return card adding my voice to protest the whaling.  Now, I admit that I knew little of the issue but since it involved the Soviets and I was upset at them, I sent back the response card to Greenpeace without further thought.

About a month after I sent the mailer back to Greenpeace, my squadron commander called me into his office one morning and told me to report to the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) immediately as they wanted to speak with me.  The OSI is responsible for counter-intelligence in the Air Force.  I was a bit taken aback but did not think too much of it—no idea why the wanted to talk to me.

I reported to the OSI office.  There I was met by three individuals in civilian clothes… Two of them in particular looked like the spitting-images of the Hollywood version of what intelligence officers look like.

“I am the Commander of the OSI for the mid-west region of the United States” said one. 

“We’re Special Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation” said the other two individuals showing their badges.

I am now thinking:  “DAMM… this is not good…”

Keep in mind that this was a difficult security environment in SAC.  In May 1981, 2d Lieutenant Christopher Cooke, was arrested for passing information about the Titan II missiles to the Soviet Embassy.  Cooke was given immunity in exchange for information of what he told the Soviets.   After hearing what Cooke had told the Soviets CINCSAC General Richard Ellis said “this man is a traitor” and wanted to have him court-martialed.  The SAC JAG BG Claude Teagarden screwed up the case and Cooke was set free.  General Teagarden lost his job.

Back at the OSI office, very pleasantly they began to ask me what I thought of President Reagan’s policies, etc.  We chatted for a few minutes speaking in generalities about generalities.  Finally I said:  “I know that you did not call me here to discuss my political views.  Why am I here? What do you want?”

The OSI commander then said: “Why did you write to the Soviet Chancellery in New York? What did you tell them? And why didn’t you report it?”

My jaw dropped.  “I have no idea of what you are talking about.  I have never written to the Soviet Chancellery in New York and I always report my contacts.”

“We have information that on such and such a date the Soviet Chancellery received some correspondence from you” said one of the FBI agents.

Now I began to get scared because I had never written to the Soviet Chancellery. I started to wonder in the back of my mind if this was a trick or they were trying to set me up...  DAMM…  “Sir, I have no idea of what you are talking about because again I have never written to the Soviet Chancellery, I always report my contacts.”

“Then how and why did the Soviet Chancellery receive a letter from you?” the OSI commander asked.

“Sir” I said “I have no idea. But I’m not a Soviet agent.  Just look at my bank account and you’ll see that I’m not profiting from anything. I don’t have a single clue…”   

They chuckled and then OSI commander asked me, “Is there anything you have written?  What have you written lately that could have gone to the Chancellery?”

“I really haven’t written anything to the Soviets… I cancelled my subscription to ‘Soviet Life’ but that’s through the Embassy… I don’t … the only other thing out of the ordinary is that I sent back a card to Greenpeace about Norwegian, Japanese and Soviet whaling practices…”

The OSI Commander slapped his head with his hand… “Lt. Vergara.  Did you know that the card was sent in your name to the Soviet Chancellery?” 

“YOU MEAN THAT GREENPEACE SENT MY CARD DIRECTLY TO THE SOVIET CHANCELLERY IN NEW YORK?” I asked incredulously…  “I DIDN'T HAVE A CLUE THAT THEY WOULD DO THIS.”  “They didn’t tell me that they were going to do it.”  Or obviously I didn't read the card carefully…

The OSI commander and the FBI agents now had knowing smiles on their faces… The mystery had been solved.  That’s exactly what Greenpeace did! They sent my card to the Soviet, Japanese and Norwegian UN offices…   

The OSI commander told me I had violated an Air Force regulation, they would prepare a report and send it to my commander who would take disciplinary action, if any, against me.  Then I was dismissed from the office.

I was really shaken… I could’ve been arrested, court-martialed… I went to my squadron commander’s office and told him about it.  He said not to worry and that when he got the report he would call me.  About a week later, he called me back.  The report basically said that I had violated an Air Force regulation but otherwise did not cause any harm to our national security.

My squadron commander said:  “Gonzo, don't do it again."

“Yes, sir. I promise I will never send back any Greenpeace response cards again.”