Saturday, January 12, 2008

Of Butter Bars and Stripes

I wore tracks on my collar during the days of when we fought Victor Charlie in jungle and rubber. On tracks I rode, on Thunder Road, named not after Robert Mitchum’s story of running moonshine on Kentucky roads, but of exploding mines made from unexploded bombs, and artillery rounds. A lot of this comes to mind as I watch the detailed accounts of combats in Iraq, and Afghanistan. But there are some really big differences I note.

The biggest is that of the extraordinary competence of the Non Commissioned Officer Corps. Of missions they routinely carry out with expertise unheard of in the “old” Lifer-Draftee army. We never trusted a sergeant to do anything outside the range of an officer which downgraded the Butter Bar to do sergeants work without the experience with troop handling that sergeants with time under their belts. It was demeaning and counter-productive.

We ran out of experienced Noncoms early in the war, as by 1961, the WW2 veterans reached the twenty year mark, and emptied the mid ranks of Noncom as they filled the First Sergeant jobs, for which they had not trained. To fill the void, a program was instilled, called the “Shake and Bake” program to take enlisted direct from Advanced Individual Training into a NCO academy. Successful conclusion gave the graduate the rank of E-5. After the dust had settled, studies found that half were damn good, the other half was over-paid.

The NCO training that was built to meet an emergency grew and matured into the Noncommissioned Officer Education System (NCOES) which has produced the best Noncoms in the world. It is because of this, that our troops are so damn good. I am constantly amazed at the degree of detailed knowledge and competence I see on the small screen from what I see against over thirty years of experience. The talking head in front is a distraction, so listen to what the sergeant says.

To back the development of Noncom competence, the Army lifted a training system from the Strategic Air Command (SAC) that we eventually called the Battalion Training Management System (BTMS). BTMS stressed a collective action oriented training mode which insisted that, during breaks in the battle, the Noncom would conduct “hip pocket” instructions that he believe his squad or platoon’s Mission Essential Task List (METL) needed to practice.

I am concerned over maintaining the competence of the NCO corps in the face of the return of the Training Cycle.

Another thing that concerns me is that these magnificent sergeants, including those the Marine Corps calls “the Strategic Sergeant”, are being committed outside the range of both radio and fire support. That’s something that the uneducated OJT officer corps of Vietnam never would do. Two to five minutes is more than enough to get 155mm on the way, with mortars filling the wait. It’s a bad idea to send troops into Indian country without eyes in the sky carrying a minigun and maybe some rockets. Something’s not right here.

I also don’t see the grab and pile on tactics developed in Vietnam for Air Cavalry or Leg Infantry riding into hot LZ’s on Slicks with Guns covering the flanks. I don’t see the Air Cavalry role of reconnaissance by force being used by forces with plenty of Cobras, Apaches, and Blackhawks.

The basic tactic of air cavalry we used was to nose around with grunts on the ground or a “Pink Team” made up of a Cobra and an OH-6. The idea was to get a reaction from the bad guys, hold on and pile on. The Air Cavalry Squadron had an infantry platoon, called the “Blues” ready to drop in and join battle. Ordinarily, an infantry generated contact was similarly treated with forces on strip alert or close to a landing zone for pick up. A shot fired at or by a squad at noon could be answered by two or more companies by dusk.

I hear the cry of collateral damage to explain away not using artillery, justifying the cut in guns in direct support of troops in contact by reliance on precision munitions which aren’t available when you need them and upon air strikes dependant upon the approval of CinCWorld to fire. I love the Air Force with their Nape, Snakes, and Nails. But they aren’t responsiveness for those caught in the killing zone.

There’s a break in the chain somewhere/

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