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.


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