I would be remiss if I didn’t address the concerns of the Black Helicopter Watch Battalion1 of the Tin Foil Hat Brigade, because there are going to be an awful lot of dark helicopters floating around the skies of the southwest for a couple of months. Yes, O BHWB of the TFHB, these black helicopters are real, they are all sentient, manned by aliens from outer space, all of whose spaceships are deadlined for defective widgets. The aliens are working for the UN and the Martians until new widgets show up (they’re on back order), and they are all expressly out to get YOU.
Now that we have that settled, as I mentioned in that essay I cited to you over the last two weeks, Training for War, one of the five functions of training is “Testing (of doctrine and equipment).” What that means in this case is that if you haven’t done it you don’t know if you can do it. If you haven’t done it, you don’t know if there’s a better way to do it. If you don’t know if you’re doing it as well as possible, or if you can do it at all, then you are risking something between unnecessary loss of life, mission failure, and utter national humiliation.
Think back here to Operation Eagle Claw, the Iran hostage rescue mission. There are all kinds of things people find fault with in that, from trying to form a joint force2 that was perhaps a little more joint than necessary (so everybody – Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and CIA3 – could pat themselves on the back and get a chunk more budget for their service or agency4), to selection of the ground commander,5 to a despicably weak National Command Authority in the form of Jiminy Peanut, now the nation’s worst ex-president. The precise details of the failure are beyond the scope of this column.
Suffice to say that the minimum number of helicopters considered acceptable to the completion of the mission was six, and it dropped to five, then failed disastrously. Why? Ultimately, I think, because they simply weren’t used to flying in the kind of sandstorms, haboobs, Iran presented at that time of year, because they never had. Because of this, they missed that the hard packed sand of Desert One, the airstrip where the various groups assembled, would be covered with deep fine dust. Since the helicopter that was diagnosed by its crew as having a cracked rotor did make it back, one wonders if the sensor, too, wasn’t affected by the haboob.6 One lost visual and had its electronic altimeter apparently scrambled by the dust suspended in the air. Another lost its primary hydraulics.
All that would have been fine, we could have aborted and tried again later, perhaps, except that the dust kicked up by turning rotors and propellers made sight problematic, leading to a crash on the ground, resulting fire, the loss of eight servicemen, and utter national humiliation.
Getting rid of Jiminy Peanut and replacing him with Ronaldus Magnus, though a great good, was perhaps insufficient repayment for all that.
The short version of all that is that, for war, thinking about something never gives all the answers, and usually doesn’t even ask the right questions. You must DO in order to know.
Which brings us back to Jade Helm 15, and the twelve hundred or so Special Forces types, to be scattered mostly in penny packets around the American southwest. How would a similar group be supported in war? How will this group be supported in simulated war? Note, here, that war is in goodly part an exercise in logistics. No, logistics, alone, is not a sufficient key to victory, but it is always an absolutely necessary key to victory.
How do you learn to supply small teams scattered over thousands of miles of hostile territory, mostly basing in urban areas, without being seen? You must do it.
How do you know your helicopters have sufficient practical range, which is always less than theoretical range, to do that over the requisite distances carrying the requisite loads? You must do it.
How do you develop the control systems for helicopters and fixed wing aircraft to land at unmarked or not visibly marked airstrips? You must try it…again and again.
How do you find out how many helicopters of what type are required to provide X support at Y distance? How many once they start breaking down? You must do it.
How do you train to infiltrate your helicopters into hostile airspace? You get the Air Force up to establish what amounts to an aerial interdiction barrier and then you try to get through it, to do it. And you keep trying until you figure out how.
Answering all those questions, and ten thousand more, still wouldn’t give perfection and surety. Nothing is perfect and not much in war is even very certain. This is precisely why one has to answer as many questions as possible, develop as many techniques as possible, test as much equipment as possible, as realistically as possible, and subject every doctrinal preconception you have to rigorous testing against a self-willed opponent, to increase your chances of success as much as possible.
So why not do this overseas, as some of the TFHB have insisted we should?
In the first place, we do, in fact, run similar exercises in foreign countries. There are a number of reasons, however, why we can’t in this case. One is that there is perhaps no area to which we have access with the right mix of terrain, natural and human, plus size, to simulate what we’re trying to simulate here. I, at least, cannot think of any. Another is that, if one thinks the TFHB is overacting to this, just imagine the cries of “Gringo go home,” “Down with Yankee Imperialism,” and “Give us back our country” that would emanate from practically any place overseas where we might try. Then there are the diplomatic constraints we would certainly have to operate under, in large part precisely because of that “Gringo go home!” reaction. Let’s not forget cost, either. Moving a force overseas to conduct an exercise that could be conducted here costs more, and often a lot more. How many in the TFHB complain about the cost of the Federal government and the military? How many want to pay more? “Yes, you, over there in the back? What, not you, either. Tsk.”
So, in summation, all you who object to the conduct of Jade Helm 15 based on a perception of lack of necessity or military advantage, go find another reason.
1 Just for general info, PRACTICALLY ALL ARMY HELICOPTERS, DURING HOURS OF REDUCED OR LIMITED VISIBILITY, APPEAR BLACK. IF YOU LOOK AT ONE IN THE SKY AND IT IS CLOSE TO THE SUN IT WILL ALSO APPEAR BLACK. You might find a white painted one in Alaska. Maybe. We may have a few in desert colors, still. Maybe. Are we all clear on this now?
2 Joint means involving more than one service. In many cases, this is unavoidable, but it is almost always problematic.
3 It’s even worse than that, really; not only did each service get to participate, but the services themselves seem to have gone out of their way to get maximum participation from their sub-organizations, further complicating matters.
4 Yes, different services bring different abilities to the table. They can also bring problems which may exceed the additional abilities.
5 It came as something of a shock to me, later on, to discover that Charlie Beckwith was not universally well thought of in the SF community, and from times long preceding this. Still, nisi bonum, and he did create Delta, AKA CAG. Besides, the services are rotten; he may have been the best thing since canned beer.
6 There’s a lot of odd crap that seems to happen to electronics amidst that kind of dust storm. Perhaps it’s from static electricity. I believe it can effect radar rather badly, too, which makes one wonder if the helicopters couldn’t have gone high and hugged the ceiling of the haboob. Of course, even if possible and useful, they’d have to know to do it, which means someone would have to have done it.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.
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