Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day

I understand what it means to be a Veteran and observed first hand the military way of doing things for more than a decade. Still, every time I see films about the invasion at Normandy or Iwo Jima I can’t help thinking what horrendous military blunders these operations were, even considering the limitations of those times. Tens of thousands of young men died needlessly because their leaders failed to think or act creatively.

Don’t try to tell me there was no such thing as “thinking outside the box” in the 1940’s. Just look at the way WWII ended. The Manhattan project was more “far out” than just about any military project ever undertaken. In stark contrast, Normandy and Iwo Jima stand out as monuments to the worst case of bureaucratic conventional thinking imaginable.

While there is some documentation of extensive efforts to bomb the Japanese off of Iwo, I have seen no evidence of any serious attempt to use air power to eliminate the immediate threat overlooking Omaha Beach. It boggles the mind to think that so much effort was placed into saturation bombing and fire bombing of German cities while none of that power was reserved for use against the bunkers along the coast. While the 101st Airborne was fully deployed behind the lines, they were too far inland to be of much use in the initial landing. The famous LST landing craft proved to be totally ineffective, yet no alteration of their deployment strategy was ever made in the 8 to12 hours men were sacrificed before they even touched the beach. Almost no cover existed once on the beach either. This was especially true at Iwo Jima and the reason so many thousands died needlessly. An airdrop of steel cargo containers onto those beaches could have saved many of those lives. I can think of many less deadly alternatives.

Why couldn’t those landing craft have been “backed up” toward the beach, opening to the rear so they could be used for cover? Why couldn’t troops have been provided metal shields or something to give them a chance to get off the landing craft? Why didn't our HumVees in Iraq have steel doors? The answer lies in conventional military thinking and the habit of filling the gap between have and need with sheer guts. Rumsfeld, who never served a day in harms way, rationalized his lack of preparation for war by claiming the military always has to make do with what they have. That’s what the Marine Corps is all about. Take that hill, even though it seems impossible…crazy to even try.

It would be nice to think that by today’s standards such strategy would be dismissed as unacceptable but I can tell you that little had changed by the time I left the service. One of my last duties as a combat ready Air Force Navigator was to airdrop a new Ranger Battalion on its final airdrop before being declared combat ready.

The weather was terrible, visibility near zero, low clouds and heavy rain totally obscured the smallest and most remote drop zone at Fort Bragg. Even our B-57 bomb nav radar couldn’t see the ground through the heavy overcast. This was the toughest challenge that could be created for the Rangers in the US during peace time. I had dropped thousands of troops over a decade, 4,000 flight hours, half of it low-level, with few injuries or deaths. We were purposely never informed of the exact results of any airdrop. But no mission I’d flown was ever so purposely difficult and dangerous to the paratroopers we carried. The 82nd Airborne would not have done this drop.

I gave the mission briefing along with the Chief pilot and Ranger Colonel in charge. We were to do the only truly Adverse Weather Aerial Delivery System (AWADS) live airdrop I’d seen, dropping an entire 12-ship formation (564 troops) on the smallest approved drop zone anywhere, immediately surrounded by dense pine forest. I was in the Second Element lead aircraft, the most challenging position because we had to maintain our relative position 12,000’ from the lead (timing our turns from his, etc.) but also lead our own element, providing offsets and turn signals to our wingmen, just as our leader was doing. It was an hour of “assholes and elbows” in the cockpit for all the navigators, but especially for me. I did my best.

We were relying upon the un-calibrated offset of our Station Keeping Equipment (SKE radar) at its maximum distance as an element lead. Even worse, that error was compounded for our wingmen who further offset from our SKE signal. Technically speaking, just the error in our equipment was many hundreds of yard more than a jumper could correct once in the air, even if he could see the drop zone, which nobody could. To summarize, if we didn’t place ourselves and our wingmen properly upwind from the drop zone, they were going to come down in the trees.

My navigation aids were minimal. The radar was almost useless, there were no radio nav aids aligned with our remote rural NC flight path, and the Omega GPS receiver the Air Force had purchased for our C-130 aircraft was the only one that had failed all the flight tests. (I participated in those tests and the final report submitted to HQ Air Force). Our GPS was useless. It picked up only 2 of the 4 not yet operational GPS satellites above the Eastern US at the time with an average lane error of 14 miles. We were trying to fly over a 400x600 yard drop zone cut out of a dense forest without being able to see the ground. The combat control team on the ground heard but never saw our formation. We flew the hell out of the equipment we had, but in the end, the Ranger Colonel died and nearly half his troops were either killed or seriously injured as most landed well off the drop zone. I felt sick about it, but knew there was nothing I could have done to improve their chances. That whole mission was set up to fail yet reaffirm that 50% losses were still acceptable for a combat airdrop mission.

The army pronounced the airdrop “successful”, approved activation of the new Ranger unit, and re-affirmed the viability of their airborne airdrop mission. If a serious technical investigation had been done, it would have shown our SKE equipment was never calibrated or maintained properly. The AWADS program itself was a 1960's salvage operation to refit B-57 K-Band radar equipment into a C-130. It worked well enough. SKE was developed to spread the advantage of that precision ground mapping to "dumb" follower aircraft in formation. It was a one-time project with little or no ongoing funding or evaluation. All the R&D and funding went into newer weapon systems and eventual replacements for the C-130. [The combined experience of five decades of C-130, C-141 and C-5 operational requirements resulted in today's C-17. ]

That was one of the last live troop drops I flew. I became a Command Post controller and helped launch my squadron, the 40th TAS, on the Grenada airdrop mission. They dropped the other Ranger Battalion from Ft Lewis onto an airfield at the tip of that Island nation, secured the airfield and rescued the American students. But that mission could easily have been a total disaster if luck hadn’t intervened.

I believe the military has come a long way since WWII, but not nearly far enough. Future conflicts should be fought as much as possible with remotely controlled aircraft, vehicles, and high technology. But in the end, the soldier must occupy and pacify whatever battle area he or she is assigned by military and civilian commanders with whatever equipment they see fit to provide. As always, our freedom depends upon their willingness to do whatever it takes to accomplish their military objective or hold their ground until relieved. May God have mercy on their souls.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Homeland InSecurity

By now you’ve heard all the arguments over Border Security. Whatever your position you must agree that a nation unable to control its borders these days, for whatever reason, is in for serious trouble. Even if Iranian or Al Qaeda terrorists don’t use this weakness to sneak in weapons of mass destruction, the uncontrolled flood of the least capable from Mexico and Central America will depress wages, overwhelm government services, and generally further lower our already falling standard of living and education level. These people can’t succeed at home, some can’t survive where they are so in desperation they head for the USA. In their place, we would do exactly the same. Don’t blame them.

Combined with six years of government led outsourcing and exporting of most manufacturing and tech services there has been a massive shift of tax burden from the wealthy to the Middle Class. Add elimination of retirement security, no estate taxes on the transfer of massive wealth, loss of employer assisted health insurance, falling wages and rising prices (for everything but especially home prices), no more job security or overtime pay to name a few and it is easy to see that the American Dream is becoming just that…a dream.

Just this week (5/12) Congress extended tax breaks for the rich in spite of our unfunded War on Terror. Those earning under $75,000 will save between $9 and $30. Millionaires will pay $49,000 less tax which is that much more borrowed from overseas investors (China, OPEC, Nigeria, Venezuela, and others) and must be paid back by our grand-children. These potential enemies already hold $3 Trillion in US debt and some are considering exchanging our dollars for Euros or other currency with stronger prospects. This could make our currency worthless.

Not since the Great Depression of the 1930’s have we seen such an accumulation of wealth in the hands of so few. Over 60% of America’s wealth belongs to fewer than 2% of us. Our slow recovery came only when government gave us a “New Deal”, implementing Progressive taxation (not flat or Value Added taxes that benefit the rich) and the redistribution of wealth between generations (through Estate Taxes) to give everyone a fair chance to succeed and make everyone earn some of their success. Since 1986 our Congress has been systematically eliminating the New Deal and replacing it with a Bad Deal for the vast majority of Americans.

Only Social Security remains but the new Prescription Drug law is specifically designed to bankrupt Social Security by paying Billions more to the drug companies than any other government pays for the very same drugs. Before this law was passed Bush tried and failed to get us to undermine or eliminate Social Security which would have lasted until 2040 or later. In a few years it will become obvious that we cannot continue this outrageous drain on the “paper” trust fund whose $Trillions in contributions were spent by Congress long ago.

Special interest lobbying on a massive scale now controls everything Congress does. It takes Millions to get elected to Congress and that money comes almost entirely from the wealthiest two percent among us or the Corporations they control. Is it any wonder our Reps sell us out at every chance? They pass useless legislation to make it look like they are doing something when in fact they are paid to do just the opposite. Yet we re-elect these same crooks 98% of the time. That’s the power of Advertising and the government “pork barrel”, spreading Federal funding around based on the influence of incumbents.

The solution to Border Security is a lot harder than building a wall, punishing employers who hire illegals, or even deploying some troops. It is the same as the solution to most of the problems average Americans face today. We need a New Deal from our own government that has been working against us.

I'm astonished Bush still has 31% approval ratings, Cheney 18% and Congress 26%. A lot of people still don't get it. We are under seige from within as well as from outside our borders.

Tech Failures

I am constantly reminded of the failure of technology to change my world for the better. More than twenty years ago, it was obvious to me that digital technology would eliminate the need for paper documents revolutionizing business, industry, and government. That just hasn’t happened. Instead, people use computers to generate even more paper, now with un-readably small print. For the most part, business hasn’t yet fully embraced the paperless database driven virtual organization. We still build big offices full of desks and huge libraries to hold paper books. American industry has moved offshore instead of automating. Our government is purposely not digital, organized, or accountable for the $ Trillions it collects and spends each year. If taxpayers actually knew where it all went they wouldn’t believe it or accept it. This tech failure is to keep us blissfully ignorant.

I’m not really surprised. I could see the resistance to digital accountability long ago. I watched the Marine Corps, long known for it’s failure to account for equipment and supplies, repeatedly fail to implement even the most basic digital inventory system and whenever it appeared that it would, the system was replaced with yet another, incompatible system that could not read or use any information previously collected. It quickly became apparent to me that this was purposeful sabotage from above in the chain of command. The war in Iraq is the latest excuse to bypass inventory control (Reserve units leave their equipment when they rotate out) to hide massive losses of equipment and supplies.

The IRS is a similar story. By now they should have everyone’s income tracked electronically and taxes calculated automatically. They could even hire it done by the folks who make tax software. The IRS has spent $Billions on computers yet still fails to keep the most basic records that might hold EVERYONE accountable. Even the FBI is purposely saddled with outdated technology and procedures insuring wiggle room for white-collar criminals and govt. cheaters. Immigration and Naturalization is a joke. It has never been funded to do it’s job and has no accurate data on tens of millions of immigrants it has processed.

Abuse of Technology
Institutionalized government inefficiency is accepted. I remember one particular lady who worked in the Federal Building for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at a low paying job. While each department had computers with immediate access to several computer databases and good network connectivity, her job was to print out daily reports and distribute them. A nice person but not capable of holding a real job, she was frequently several days behind in printing her reports and distributing them. It took two full cases of paper to print the report (20 reams) for all departments and the collated results filled a large stainless steel cart she pushed around all day. Most offices dumped the outdated report in the trash (for the shredder) as soon as she left, but nobody was willing to change her job description or alter her daily routine. The massive Xerox line printer we (a private contractor) managed was always on the blink and service calls cost $175 an hour. We “supplemented it” with two high-end HP laser printers that were far cheaper to operate and more reliable. She printed over 1 million pages on them in just the few months I watched this abuse of technology and trees. I often wonder if she and thousands of other government welfare workers are still at it a decade later. Then I remember the Department of Homeland Security…FEMA.

Government has not gotten more efficient, more economical, or smaller in spite of technology. That would defeat one of the primary roles of government, giving dignity to and assuring survival of the hopelessly inept. It would be far cheaper to send all these people home and just pay them to stay there. Let them Tele-commute and save Billions on office buildings, water coolers, and govt. parking lots. If they goof off working from home, so difference.

When I go to a pharmacy or watch a doctor of any kind, I’m appalled at the failure to utilize a database of symptoms, diagnosis and treatment to validate what the professional may or may not already know and prescribe. Consider the lengthy, locally designed paper forms we repeatedly fill out but nobody reads. This constitutes gross negligence and medical malpractice. It cannot be tolerated in the 21st Century when 47 million Americans can’t afford even basic health care. America’s health care system is purposely broken by the greedy doctors union (AMA), artificially difficult and limited doctor training procedures, drug companies and insurance companies who profit from our grossly expensive medical system unlike any other in the world. Too many vested interests prevent improvement.

Education as well has failed to utilize our vast global communications network to bring the best teachers and information to the masses. While we have more knowledge at our fingertips than any generation in history, our kids are dumb as stumps. Only with great institutional rigidity and effort can teaching and learning remain the Byzantine manual process it is today. Soon, world governments will implement digital programmed instruction that can educate billions in the Third World, but America won’t participate. We continue to fall further behind.

Designed to Fail
I could go on about our machines from autos to washing machines that are designed to make maintenance difficult, repair nearly impossible and failure inevitable. Why haven’t they yet incorporated air conditioning components into the modern auto engine or placed the oil filter where it can be easily reached? These basic items remain Rube Goldberg add-ons or afterthoughts to every new design. GM could use a computer that would design the ultimate car but they won’t because a computer would never come up with the purposely-fragile crap we accept from all automakers. Sure Toyota and others are a bit more reliable, but they still operate from the same basic industry premise. “Make it wear out and break so we can continue to build and sell new ones.” Don’t accept the premise of the computer industry, “better, faster, cheaper will insure a market for future computers.” Imagine what the auto industry could really do with today’s technology.

Technology hasn’t failed. It continues to evolve. People have insured the application of technology fails when such failure furthers other human objectives.