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-52H 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 [opposing forces] 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, we received the mission package and we began detailed 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 receivers 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, flash and otherwise go bonkers.  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, with the whole room shaking, and a lot 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 [start humming 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. 

“BRAVO SIERRA” 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…