"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Warrior Mentality, Combat Perspective, and UAS

Earlier I posted a review of Paul Thornton's (F-16 pilot) thesis where he discussed the lack of loyalty of the fighter pilot community resulting from fighter pilots being sent to fly unmanned aircraft. The post also mentioned that it did not reflect the attitude of Air Force Special Operations (AFSOC) pilots flying UAS. Fortunately, one such UAS driver read my blog and once again has proven he is a much greater intellectual mind and writer than I am. We're fortunate that Dave Blair has provided his exceptional perspective at a time when such a clear understanding of our purpose is so badly needed. While I'll admit a bias towards Dave's community, I think what he has to say encapsulates what it means to be a warrior and his words are vitally important at this time in our service history. They need to be shared far and wide and all Air Force officers need to ponder them and calibrate their priorities. This is especially true for the young warriors in training in Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) who think they've been given a raw deal. They need to realize the import of the sacred nature of combat they are being allowed to play a role in. They need to understand it really matters. I don't think they're getting that perspective from many of their mentors because this perspective is limited to senior leadership and a minority that have developed this perspective while protecting Americans on the ground and making life and death decisions. But enough of my inferior wordsmithing. Here are some words from a current UAS driver with a history of manned combat:

Back to Basics.

“... That I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” That was how it went. There wasn’t an exception for ‘achieving childhood dreams,’ nor an exclusion for ‘as long as leadership has a coherent plan,’ nor a caveat for ‘as long as you’re still doing what you signed up for.’ After serving for the better part of a decade, you start taking your original oath for granted; you start to forget the reasons that called you to service in the first place. It is often only after losing all the bastions of our comfort that we find our way back to those first things. At least, that’s my story.

Two years ago, in the middle of my third deployment as a pilot in the AC-130, I felt the world was more or less in order. I loved the Gunship, its mission and the community, I enjoyed the feeling that I was contributing to the fight; truly, I was living out a childhood dream of flying CAS missions in combat as a Special Operations aviator. I had poured my passions into learning the aircraft and the mission, having read the thousand page Dash-1 two times through, and it felt as if those efforts were finally resulting in a deep understanding of the weapon system. On the home front, I had just finished re-modeling my house, a three year and ten thousand dollar project. The West Florida housing market had already crashed, but it didn’t matter to me, because I was going to be in Gunships for quite some time, and I had budgeted for mortgage payments long ago. Things were finally coming together… Famous last words.

I found out I was coming to Predators right before a step brief for a combat mission, in the form of a post-it note. There was no preferences worksheet, no input, and, being downrange, no ability to make a case one way or another. I think the conversation went something along the lines of, ‘we had to give them a name, and it was you. Sorry.’ Needless to say, I was not exactly ecstatic about this turn of events. Being moved right before I could upgrade to Aircraft Commander effectively closed off the option of coming back, at least for the foreseeable future; being moved from a collapsed housing market into Cannon’s speculators’ market threw my finances into a tailspin. Any plans I had at that point in time were pretty much left in tatters.

It is strange how, in the wreckage of plans, you find valuable things long forgotten rising to the surface like flotsam. I don’t think that I had seriously considered my reasons for joining the military for quite some time. True, I wanted to be a pilot. And I wanted to be part of a tactical culture. And I certainly didn’t mind living in Florida. Ultimately, though, none of those were a calling, for a calling must be about something higher than yourself. Being a warrior is a calling. Being a pilot is a job. I love flying with all of my heart, and I am thankful that I can do both. Nonetheless, being a warrior must come first, and warriors serve where they are needed, not necessarily where they would prefer.

Therefore, I decided that I would become the best Predator pilot that I could possibly be. I decided that I would take that airplane and use it to bring American kids home and send terrorists away for good. I decided that I would spend my time and effort making Al-Qaeda hate me, rather than concerning myself with whether or not the arbiters of pilot culture liked me. (You know, songs about Predators crashing are funny during Operation Southern Watch. They’re not all that funny anymore when Preds are on the cutting edge of chasing down terrorists in their safe havens and keeping American sons and daughters safe.) Between being cool and winning this war, I’ll choose winning this war.

That was the attitude I took into day one, and it is one that has served me well: I take great pride in denying the terrorists safe haven night after night; I am even more proud to stand watch over brave Americans on the ground. I still miss the feeling of being airborne, the sound of the howitzer firing, the adrenaline of actually being physically present for a fire mission. But I would trade all of that and more to ensure that one more American hero makes it home safely. If this is where I am needed to bring that about, then so be it. I am proud to serve toward that end alongside my manned aircraft brethren.

I won’t sugar coat it, though: the Pred life is tough. Our choices in bases aren’t exactly great, our career path isn’t exactly well defined, our hours are long and our extrinsic rewards are virtually non-existent. We have a long way to go as a service before we achieve sustainability for the Predator community. All of that said, none of it changes the ground truths of duty, honor or country. I imagine that a sailor heading off to war in the opening bouts of World War Two must have felt disappointed with the poor strategic choices that sent the battleships of the Pacific Fleet to the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Legitimate as it may have been, that feeling didn’t in any way change his duty or his responsibility, nor in any way lessen the absolute imperative of achieving victory.

I wonder if my story isn’t in some way a microcosm of the Air Force’s journey of the last few years. We had a largely fixed way of viewing the world, our mission and ourselves. We were, in effect, comfortable with our role. But war does not abide comfort. I do not presume to interject myself into discussions about strategic risk, the number of air supremacy fighters, and the like. But I do know that war changed around us. Some hold that by focusing on the present war, we are becoming ill-equipped for future wars. I would point out that the strategic geniuses on both sides of the quite-conventional American Civil War were forged in the fires of the counterinsurgency actions of the American West. Remember that Red Flag itself was borne out of our experiences in Viet Nam, an unconventional war if there ever was one. I believe that by engaging fully in this war, we forge ourselves for both present and future wars, for combat itself is the truest seedbed for future combat leaders. We cannot expect war to meet us on our terms. War has found us… will we ride out to meet it, or will we opt out?

I can only speak for myself and my own situation. But insofar as I am able, and as long as I am bound to my oath, energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. If I can best meet them via satellite, then all the better… so long as my Hellfires meet them in person. This is my war. I will do all I can to win it. If that happens to be inside a cargo container parked on a concrete slab at Cannon AFB, then so be it. I am proud to serve.

His article can be downloaded here.

1 comment:

  1. This article was also published in the Small Wars Journal and has some great commentary over there: http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2009/07/back-to-basics/