Sunday, May 02, 2010

Adaptation and Reversion

Date: 2 Feb 2010
Location: Off the Western Coast of Malaysia, Eastern Indian Ocean

Our war is over. We’re on our way home.

There comes a point when, no matter where you find yourself, you have fully adapted to your environment. Not necessarily become comfortable or content with it, but adapted. And this adaptation involves viewing the entire world through the prism of your surroundings. This thing called home is an apparition on the horizon, but you are too far removed from it to really understand what it is.

You’ve become used to watching the three channels of the Armed Forces Network, with the thrilling titles of “Spectrum,” “News” and “Sports.” You’re really not sure what new and exciting products are available in your home country, but are aware that it’s a bad thing to shake your baby, chewing tobacco will give you cancer that deforms your jaw (with the spokesman to prove it), sexual harassment is not acceptable and joining the military was the best decision you ever made (look at all the cool places you can go! You all can be fighter pilots and SEALs with constantly exciting jobs and an energizing soundtrack!) – such public service messages, and many schoolmarm others, serve as advertisements during commercial breaks. State controlled media at its best.

When you go to a foreign port and try to fall asleep in the hotel room, you are shocked by the silence. No jets are doing afterburner engine checks on the flight deck two stories above at 3am. No chains being dragged across the metal deck just above your head, no water pipes whooshing on and off next to your bed, no 1MC announcements proclaiming “THIS IS A TEST OF THE SHIPS EMERGENCY SYSTEMS: BOOONG BOOONG BOOONG…BEEEEP BEEEEP BEEEEP…RIIIING RIIIING RIIIING. REGARD ALL FURTHER ALARMS, THIS WAS ONLY A TEST.” You check your watch and it reads 6:00am. Seriously? 6AM? Don’t the ship drivers realize we aviators need our sleep after landing in pitch blackness with the ship trying to kill me at midnight??? You also realize that you are all alone. There aren’t seven other guys rustling and turning and snoring within ten feet of you. It feels a little uncomfortable.

You forget what its like to have a cell phone with you at all times. In fact, you don’t even realize you miss it, because you feel free of it. No ability to check Facebook at all hours of the day because the internet speed is worse than the old school 14.4k modems (I suppose I’m finally old enough to be dated by an obsolete technology…). Your only connection to the outside world is the occasional email, a daily political newsletter that analyses something called Washington DC from a conservative perspective, and the calendar squares on the wall sent from the squadron wives and girlfriends.

And despite your adapting to this now familiar and comforting place we call the ready room, the beginning of every month brings a bit of anticipation because something will change – new squares suddenly appear on one of the walls. Children grow – some guys seeing this progression from newborn to giggling toddler only through pictures as the months pass because their babies were born after we left. Old wedding pictures to celebrate anniversaries, awkward pictures of you and your siblings in past decades that your parents think are adorable but bring jeering ridicule from fellow aviators (or uncomfortable admiration if your southern-belle blond sister just happens to be gorgeous). And amidst all the family friendly photos, the younger wives make the single aviators feel part of the show with cutouts of scantily clad models cooing over how much they look forward to you coming back home.

Your day job has even become routine. By the fourth month of war, doing the same six hour missions day in and day out, you come to understand the rules of engagement quite well. The hour-long preflight brief can nearly be recited backwards and forwards, knowing exactly what is to be encountered given where you are going. The KC-135 is still a complete pain to tank off of, what with the inflexible metal boom and incessantly leaking basket that fills your cockpit with pervasive jet fuel fumes for hours after. Even the British JTAC’s on the moonscape below know you by your voice – especially if you are a girl and you’ve flirted with them a few times over encrypted comms in the previous weeks.

Then when you finally think you’ve adapted, when it seems that you’ve managed to make it through another day, and are feeling pretty good about yourself, the shock comes – a completely unexpected change of pace. Unexpected but welcome.

During our last week of combat ops in the third week of January, the Black Aces came face to face with international diplomacy and politics. We were four days from out-chopping from Fifth Fleet to start the eastward steam home when we got a tasker from the Commander of Naval Forces in the Gulf: Send two jets to the Bahrain International Airshow. Now.

This seems a pretty simple task. And normally it would be if you had more than twelve hours to plan it, had diplomatic over-flight rights of neighboring countries and had jets in the proper “slick” configuration required for demonstration flights at the show as opposed to say, fully laden combat platforms with pylons, bombs, targeting pods and fuel tanks. But the Navy being what it is, none of these nice to have conditions were met.

I happened to be in the ready room, milling about, at 7pm when I saw a huddled conference of our skipper, operations officer and maintenance officer pouring over airplans and navigational charts. This piqued my interest. Through bits and pieces, I eventually figured out what was going on.

Carrier Air Wing Seven, embarked on the USS Eisenhower, was originally tasked with supporting the airshow and had been coordinating this event for months. Their maintenance personnel were already within the Kingdom of Bahrain, everything set. Then in one of those diplomatic snubs that sometimes occur from time to time between tenuous allies, a large country they were to fly over from the Med had the over-flight paperwork lost in a convenient morass of bureaucracy – and were only informed it had been misplaced the day before. The solution by the Vice Admiral was to get jets from the only other asset available: us.

Thus set into motion a first hand view of the international military-industrial-political complex in full swing. In many ways, this last minute order was over fifty years in the making.

A simplified history of the region is in order. After World War II, the small island of Bahrain broke away from their Iranian overlords. Needing a strategic base in the midst of a small gulf with access to the world’s preeminent source of black gold, the United States immediately agreed to ally itself with this newly formed kingdom. Over the subsequent decades, the US Navy maintained an ever increasing presence, working closely with the inhabitants of Bahrain. This friendship paid off with the growing importance of the region, and the subsequent wars fought between the US and countries in the Middle East. Furthermore, after the fall of the Shah in Iran, combined with a defiant fear of re-invasion by their once-masters, the Bahraini government saw an easy way to parry their fears with the strength of the American military.

I’m jumping a bit ahead in the narrative, but there was a telling moment as I stood showing off our Super Hornets at the airshow. A young sheik stopped by – apparently a member of the Bahraini royal family. He was dressed as all the audaciously wealth Arabs of the region do – flowing white robe with matching headdress, finely coiffed goatee with big, silver-tinted reflective aviators. He lingered for a while in front of the display, seeming to lean in apprehensively as I chatted with some Irishmen. Soon it was just he and I, so I struck up a conversation with what turned out to be a kid barely in high school. His travels were already broad – he had spent time in Los Angeles, and had a flat in Manhattan where he lived for over a year. It was rather amusing to talk to him – here was this fabulously wealthy near-prince shyly and deferentially talking to a middle class kid from the Midwest who happened to be in a green flight suit. Anyway, as he left he said “Thank you for defending my country.” Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I should be proud or uncomfortable – the world’s leading democracy in cahoots with an avowed autocracy. But that is the reach of American hegemony – and ironically, perhaps even Pax Americana.

Even so, an increasingly wealthy and strategically placed nation has developed its own aspirations towards self-sufficiency. There is no better way to improve your military, at least superficially, than to buy a modern air force – and for a country with money, it’s good to have the competitors come to you in the form of your First Annual International Airshow. Conversely, despite two wars occurring, it is apparently good politics and business to send your most capable aircraft to show off to a long time ally in the hopes they will spend a few billion to help prop up a struggling domestic behemoth. And why not feature some young twenty something hotshots in flight suits to seal the deal?

When they were deciding who to send, I was in the line of sight of the Ops O, and he threw my name on the schedule. I was to go from weary warfighter to shining mini-celebrity overnight (and now that my fifteen minutes is exhausted, I’m back to weary ex-warfighter).

Walking to the flight deck the morning after some frantic navigational planning, our bulky combat chariots had been magically transformed into lean, sleek fighter-looking aircraft. The makeover was stunning in a way only an aviator can appreciate – this was the plane Boeing sold to the Navy when they first unveiled her ten years ago. It was with the pride of a father that I looked on those birds, because their transformation was due to an overtime effort by the forty two troops I have the honor of leading within the aircraft division. And not only did they slick the jet of any and all external encumbrances, they scrubbed each of them of the grease and grime that had accumulated over six months of combat. It was these unseen and all too often unheralded barely twenty year-old wrench-turners who executed a herculean task overnight with precision and expertise so we flyboys could joyride for a few days and relax.

Due to the lack of diplomatic clearance through the United Arab Emirates, we were forced to fly the tenuous airways over the Straits of Hormuz. This is the strategic cross-roads of the world, and it’s remarkable that the world economy hinges on a stretch of water surprisingly narrow in width. With Iran occupying three sides of it. As we made our way through in tight formation, hugging the correct side of the menacing black line on our moving maps, even crossing over it at a few points to follow the negotiated GPS points, a feeling overcame me that I have never experienced yet, and hope never to experience again. My first combat mission was even different from this. It was fear, pure and simple -- An insidious tingling deeper than that of nervousness within the stomach. Images of the news reports of the British Navy crew captured by Iran last year flashed through my mind. Here we were adhering strictly to international agreements related to the Straits passage, but what if we navigated wrong? What if we were queried and they didn’t view our response as appropriate? What if they figured out who we were, even unarmed, and intercepted us? Of course, it was completely baseless. Should anything happen en route, no doubt the response would be swift and furious. Even so…

This lasted no more than five minutes. Soon, we were through, and Dubai appeared on the horizon – a soothing relief. A dark black spire rose up from the desert, dwarfing the other metal structures clustered around it – the Burj Dubai as a lighthouse of civilization amidst the unwelcoming barrenness. The World writ small in manufactured islands next to the failed man-made Palm, devoid of any habitation save the one frond built on by the Emir as an example of what was possible – before financial collapse due to debt default sent investors scrambling and left nothing but empty dreams. Here were the exploits of man, seen from the air, soon passed.

We finally landed at the newly paved airstrip where the show was hosted – another oasis in the desert completed literally that week as the King’s private airfield. It was so new, our monthly updates for instrument approach procedures had yet to list it as a viable strip. The road leading to the entrance had been paved 48 hours before. The line of pavilions that served as our luxurious break rooms were constructed over the past three months explicitly for this event. It was an unbelievable effort for a four day event. The cheap, wide-eyed immigrant labor used to build it was still milling about as high tech, multi-million dollar aircraft screamed overhead.

The next three days flew by. We manned our post in front of the display jet and answered questions from the citizens of the world – Indians, Frenchmen, British, Saudis, Irishmen, Germans, Australians. It was amusing to watch husbands eagerly discuss every aspect of aviation while their well dressed and bored society wives looked on in exasperation. Little kids running over to the landing gear and proudly shouting what part of the plane it was – then begging to take a picture with the pilot. I met a Bahraini who was a fellow Vikings fan. The local media ate us up – radio, television and newspaper interviews. We watched as French Rafale’s, Saudi Hawks, Russian SU-27’s and a myriad of other world renown tactical aircraft showed off their stuff – and then watched the demonstration team flown in from Oceana Naval Air Station fly our squadron’s painted up CAG bird wow the crowd. Even I was impressed – and I see the thing fly every day.

When we finally returned to the Nimitz, she was recovering the last of our planes from the final day of combat operations. Our trip to Wonderland was over – the ship recalled her own. As soon as the recovery finished, the Nimitz started heading East towards the States.


As we steamed away, I contemplated what we had done over the past four months. I tried to figure out what it all meant. As fun as the air show was, and relit that spark of love for aviation that had slowly been strangled by six-plus months at sea, I remembered what happened on my last combat flight – and brought this war into better focus than I had understood.

My last mission was over the same area’s we had surveyed over and over again. We were working with the British north of Kandahar on a routine patrol. This was the first time, however, where we were in a region that we could see the entire convoy both in our targeting pod and visually. As they moved towards their desired location, they asked us to sanitize the villages and compounds along their route. Our section of F-18s was also listening into the chat between the convoy and two overhead Apache’s doing a close escort (and more effective) version of what we were.

As we approached the end of our VUL, we heard from the Apache driver that he was in visual contact with a compound where it appeared that women and children were filing out. This was noted with seeming casualness by the JTAC in the lead vehicle. It could be nothing – or it could mean an imminent attack. After five minutes more of uneventful searching, I looked out again at the convoy and saw a huge plume of smoke fly up from the ground where the first truck in the convoy had just been. Within a few hundred meters of this plume, tracks in the sand were kicking up small clouds of dust where some high speed vehicles were converging on the now stopped convoy.

Just as we were about to key the mic and confirm with the guys on the ground that they had hit an IED, they let us know they were, in fact, hit. Fortunately, they were all okay. The first thing out of the JTAC’s mouth, in a way only the ever polite Brits can say, was “Apologies, but I am no longer going to be able to see your down-link information…my laptop just got smashed to hell.” Silence. “And just so you know, I’m okay as well.” We couldn’t help but laugh even in the midst of this terror of war – leave it to an Englishman to care about the guy safely above before telling us about himself. At that moment, I realized how close we as allies really were.

In the aftermath, the Apache driver followed the trigger-puller into a dense compound where he lost him and then saw three more emerge. Positive Identification had been lost. There was no way to find the perpetrator. The vehicles approaching the stopped convoy were Marines on an additional patrol.

Thus even as we leave, this war remains. Marines and Rangers and Soldiers and Coalition ground forces of all stripes remain. My Army brother-in-law heads over within the year. We have been replaced by an airwing that was here last spring, including an old college friend and another close former roommate from Pensacola. My current roommate is in workups to deploy again this fall. When we return, our schedule has us heading back out again in 2011. Our strike group, once at the tip of the spear, is now just another in the line of those who have come and gone over the past eight years. This is, in fact, the long war.

On our way home, we’ve talked internally of our “successes.” The number of sorties flown, the number of weapons dropped, the number of IED’s found. How well our maintenance did in giving us full mission capable jets nearly every day. And these are successes, tactically – but we haven’t won the war with our seventy million dollar machines and thousands of pages of tactics. There is an elusive enemy that has adapted to the methods devised by our best engineering, economic and strategic minds. Yet we find the time and money to wow crowds with measures of contemporary military prowess as if the earth shaking noise of an afterburner doing a dirty roll will defeat an insurgent with nothing but a bit of C4, a cell phone and a cooking pot.

This is the challenge of our generation – and one that seems to have now been embraced by two seemingly divergent ideological administrations. It’s hard to give up on something that so much effort has been put into – and also hard to stay the course when the end seems endlessly in “the future.” I’ve been disabused of my previous idealism – but increasingly resolved in the necessity of preserving the land I call home.

You can’t appreciate the magnitude of what we in America take for granted everyday until you’ve seen what life is without it – how desperate people around the world are for the hope and promise liberty brings. A land where war is an apparition only seen when desired via a newspaper or television screen. You learn what it really means to love something fully when you deeply and inexplicitly realize how much you desperately miss it, faults and all, no matter the distance or the time. We’re headed back to that place. Finally.

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