Tag Archives: Air Force

Sub Officers Jealous Air Force Missileers Get to Have All the Fun

International Maritime Satire Week Warning: The following is a piece of fiction intended to elicit insight through the use of satire and written by those who do not make a living being funny – so it’s not serious and very well might not be funny. See the rest of our IntMarSatWeek offerings here

LOCATION CLASSIFIED – U.S. Navy Lt.j.g. Paul McKudo leaned over the conn rail to check the boat’s position on the chart. “Yep,” he sighed, “still here.”

As officer of the deck on board USS Louisiana (SSBN-743) McKudo is responsible for safe navigation of this nuclear powered warship which carries a key leg of the U.S. nuclear weapons triad, 24 Trident II D-5 Nuclear Ballistic Missiles.

“I understand the importance of our mission and the strategic role we have in our nation’s defense” McKudo said, “but I really want to be in the Air Force missile program, those guys know how to party”.

Recent news involving Air Force officers appeal to the junior officers in Louisiana’s wardroom. They see the buttoned-up culture of Navy ballistic missile submarines as too restrictive and lacking variety.

“I have a buddy from college who works in the missile fields up in North Dakota,” says Ensign Robert Connely, Louisiana’s reactor chemistry officer. “He tells me stories about driving Suburbans 90 miles per hour through snowy corn fields. That sounds awesome”.

“Look, those guys don’t even have to really take any sort of regular tests or anything,” McKudo said with excitement. “And when they do it’s so open book the Chinese get to crib the answers too. Plus their generals get to party so hard, especially on foreign travel, it defies the imagination”.

According to a recent study by the RAND corporation, officers in the Air Force missile corps are “burnt out” and often act in a manner inconsistent with the standards of the military due to their levels of stress. Members of Louisiana’s wardroom do not sympathize.

“They get to sleep on watch!” said. McKudo. “Try being out in the middle of the ocean for three months, constantly think about boiling water, then come talk to me. They are obviously just partying so hard they forget what they are doing. They don’t even have to closer the door! It’s better than Florida State U!”

“You know what happens if we forget to close the door?” asked Connely. “We sink – that’s what happens. Can’t sink in the middle of Wyoming, no sir.”

The two officers’ watch reliefs arrived, signed the logs, descended the ladder to the wardroom, the boat having traveled 6 miles in their 6 hour watch. After surveying the small collection of games and DVDs they agree to play their 326th game of Cribbage.

Alan Tweedie currently serves in the Navy reserve as an intel officer. At his civilian job he spends a lot of time with former Air Force missile officers who have no idea how good they had it.

Drone Pilots: Statistically, On the Front Lines

The battlefield is not the only place our defenders die.
The battlefield is not the only place our defenders die.

Within the Air Force, there is no cow more sacred, no shibboleth greater, than the glory that is the manned fixed-wing combat aircraft. While even the most obstinate fighter pilot might be willing to concede that unmanned aircraft will necessarily make up the majority of a future force, such pallid (even bloodless) prospects are loudly lamented. Valor and heroism cannot be had from an armchair; Sic transit gloria Air Force.

Within the Air Force, it is the danger and thrill of piloting (and the concomitant safety and tedium of remote combat) that justifies the continued marginalization of the RPA community from promotions and awards. Certainly, flying RPA is less exciting than flying a F-18. But, as a career, is it actually that much less dangerous?

It’s not hard to imagine, early one morning, an IED going off on the road to Creech AFB, blowing up a commuter bus full of RPA pilots on their way to work. How different would the conversation about a “drone medal” have been in the wake of significant combat casualties? Such a scenario isn’t just possible – it’s one America’s enemies are actively trying to bring about.

Critics might say that this is just a hypothetical, which is true. It’s exactly as hypothetical as a fast-mover being brought down by enemy fire in post-invasion Iraq or Afghanistan, which is to say that it’s a possibility which has never occurred. For these two wars, “combat risk” has been as hypothetical for F-16 pilots in Iraq as for RPA pilots in Nevada. But even if we accept that fixed-wing combat aircraft are working in a very low risk combat environment in Iraq and Afghanistan, what about all the other dangers of flying? While, a differential risk analysis still supports the conclusion that flying RPA in combat is only marginally less dangerous than flying manned fixed-wing combat aircraft.

Now, I can almost hear the jaws of fighter jocks hitting the floor. How could armchair warfare approach the danger of conducting close air support over hostile territory? The answer is: cumulatively. Now, the Air Force should be more amenable to this line of thinking than the other branches of the armed services. During WW2, the Bronze Star was created to raise the morale of infantrymen who were disheartened by the Air Medal. As George Marshall said in a memo to Roosevelt, infantrymen “lead miserable lives of extreme discomfort and are the ones who must close in personal combat with the enemy.” And yet, this viewpoint mostly originates from a skewed view of what risk is. It’s true that your average WW2 infantryman faced individual moments of tremendous danger, punctuating long bouts of boredom. Given the personal courage required to maintain effectiveness in the face of the enemy, it is easy to see why infantrymen could be dispirited by medals going to bombardiers flying safely miles above the battlefield. But, while the risk of any particular bombing mission was relatively low (over Germany, about 5%), it was the cumulative risk that was so valorous – only one crewman in six was expected to survive his tour intact. The courage of the infantryman consisted in doing an exceptionally dangerous thing a few times; the courage of a bombardier, in doing a mildly dangerous thing many times.

If the modern student of war can understand why the infantryman’s courage cannot be privileged over the air crewman’s, he can come to see why the manned pilot’s valor cannot be preferred to the unmanned, in both the current wars and the wars to come. First, combat looks very different in asymmetrical wars like Iraq and Afghanistan. In twelve years of combat, we’ve lost a whopping one fighter jet to hostile fires in the air, in 2003. In both wars, we’ve lost a total of 18 fixed-wing fighter aircraft (almost all due to human errors or mechanical failure), and six of those pilots have died. Although each of these deaths is tragic, six fatalities in two wars over twelve years is hardly an epidemic, and these deaths account for a tiny fraction of all airmen who have died over these twelve years.[1] Moreover, only one of these deaths was caused by enemy fire, largely due to the fact that, since 2003, the enemy has had zero capability to shoot down fast-movers. From a statistical standpoint, since the defeat of Saddam’s air defense weaponry, ~0% of the risk to manned fixed-wing combat aircraft has come from enemy fires –  all of the risk is due to the general risks associated with flying. This is not to say that flying is not dangerous – over the past ten years, there have been an average of 8.2 fatalities a year (though most of those fatalities come from multi-death incidents). But for fast-movers in particular, none of the risk comes from combat or deployment.

What then, are the primary dangers to airmen? The data unequivocally says motor vehicle accidents (52 fatalities in 2012) and suicides (over 100 in 2011), [2] and on the rise) kill the most airmen every year. Nor are these two kinds of casualties equally distributed across occupations. Because most of the data is hard to get at, the following are sketches of arguments, suggestive evidence open to empirical verification.

Ironically, one of the “perks” of being an RMA operator – not deploying and instead commuting to work every day – almost certainly will, over time, kill more operators than flying manned planes would. According to a NATO morale survey[3], a significant number of Reaper/Predator pilots complained about the long commutes to the bases where they work (meaning they had commutes of over an hour). Combined with high levels of work-related stress, long shifts for months on end, and unhealthy sleep schedules, this driving substantially raises the risk of a vehicular accident (though exactly how high, it’s difficult to say). Manned fixed-wing pilots have some of the same work issues as unmanned pilots, of course, except that they are deployed for months at the time when their occupational stress is the highest (and when they would have the highest work-induced risk factors for a vehicular accident). It’s a little counterintuitive, but when your main job (flying combat sorties) has become surprisingly safe, the risk starts to come from weird, other factors.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest a perfect equivalence between a pilot who dies in a car crash on his way to work and one who dies flying in an operation over Iraq (rare as that is). But risk analysis demands that we also take lots of small risks over time to be serious and meaningful. An airman fatigued from piloting a Predator for 12 hours straight who dies in a crash at 2am on his way home from Creech AFB has “paid the ultimate price” just as surely as a disoriented F-18 pilot who makes a fatal maneuver. And some of the risks from driving that airmen face are operational –they come from the pace and intensity of their work. [4]

While added driving risk is difficult to tease out, suicide provides a much more personal face to a 21st century understanding of what combat risk is. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might be the first in history where the number of suicides exceeds the number of combat deaths. Because that the Air Force doesn’t publish casualty breakdowns by Air Force Specialty Code (though a FOIA request might dislodge them), it’s impossible to say what the suicide rate amongst only pilots has been. But we do know some things about it from other research.

Mostly, we know that the suicide rate amongst pilots (RPA and Manned) is lower than the rest of the Air Force; pilots are officers and are selected for physical, mental and moral capabilities, both of which reduce risk factors for suicide. But, of course, the risk factors for individual pilots vary depending on their circumstances. One of the biggest risk drivers of suicide for veterans is PTSD, which one study showed to make someone ten times more likely to successfully commit suicide.[5] And a number of recent studies have shown that RPA pilots are at an increased risk of PTSD and work-related stress. A NATO study found low morale and high levels of operationally-induced stress in Pred/Reaper crews.[6] More significantly, a retrospective cohort survey found that RPA pilots have higher levels of PTSD and other mental health diagnosis compared to manned pilots.[7] Absolutely, they face a 60% increased chance (in this admittedly limited survey) of a mental health issue, although adjustments for age and experience brought that number back towards the baseline.

PTSDDronesUnfortunately, despite a fairly extensive search of the data available online, it’s hard to drill down more on the number of suicides afflicting pilots. But it’s sort of irrelevant, because I can still lay out my basic conceptual case for a new way of thinking about risk. The case that being an RPA pilot isn’t much less dangerous than being a fighter pilot is pretty simple. In low-intensity conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan, the hostile fires-risk part of a fighter pilot’s job approaches zero, leaving only the risk of flying (~1 Class A mishap/100k flight-hours). On the other hand, while a lot of the data is still coming in, we know that being an RPA pilot carries its own set of real, physical risks. The geographical placement of AFBs where RPA pilots work and the increased stress of their jobs takes a physical toll. Over time, those risks will add up to deaths. Given that, for fighter pilots in particular, the going fatality rate seems to only be about 1-2 per year, it is logical to conclude that the combination of increased motor vehicle risk and suicide risk could render RPA more dangerous than flying, over time. This hypothesis is empirically testable (albeit using data the Air Force hasn’t made available), and it may be worth following up on this post with further research.

This analysis also makes a broader point. The Air Force has reached a point where heroism can no longer really be understood by amounts of physical risk. Though outside the scope of this post, enlisted AF technicians who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and whose duties took them outside the wire were manifestly more subject to combat risk than the pilots deployed to support OEF and OIF. We have been fighting wars where physical risk has not necessarily most heavily accumulated to those doing the actual killing (e.g. C-130s, not F-15s, are subject to hostile fire). What this reveals is something that was probably true all along. We need to stop idolizing risk and realize that we should make heroes who look like the excellences we need. The sacrifices that C-130, F-18, and MQ-9 pilots make to perform excellently and serve their country well are all going to look a little different. It’s long past time to stop privileging one view of heroism.


[2] Many accidents are actually suicides. Cf. Pompili et al (2012), Car accidents as a method of suicide: a comprehensive overview, Forensic Sci Int.

[3] Psychological Health Screening of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) Operators and Supporting Units, 2011

[4] Combat exposure, too, has a role to play (http://www.journalofpsychiatricresearch.com/article/S0022-3956(08)00003-4/abstract).

[5] Gradus et al (2010), “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Completed Suicide”, Am J of Epidemiology.

[6] Psychological Health Screening of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) Operators and Supporting Units, 2011

[7] Otto et al (2013), “Mental Health Diagnoses and Counseling Among Pilots of Remotely Piloted Aircraft in the United States Air Force”, MSMR.


A Relay Race: Communication Relay Drones

"Can you hear me now? No, it's because you grabbed the EO/IR sensor instead of the communications relay package again."
“Can you hear me now? No? It’s because you grabbed the EO/IR sensor instead of the communications relay package again.”

Much of the conversation surrounding the advent of naval drone warfare has focused on those platforms performing the more ‘kinetic’ types of warfare – anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, air warfare – and those of the voyeuristic surveillance variety.  However, a quick look at the composition of the carrier air wings of the U.S. Navy or the dispersed air units of a land campaign reminds us that supporting elements such as electronic warfare and command and control (C2) remain an integral part of modern combined operations.  While it may not be as “sexy” as the ability to deliver a missile on target, the ability to maintain battlefield communications is arguably more important as it is an enabler of nearly all other actions. 

In January, The Aviationist described the U.S. Air Force’s reiteration of the importance and utility of airborne assets providing communications by developing a new line-of-sight system:

The U.S. Air Force is trying to turn the targeting pods carried by some of its legacy fighters and the B-1 Lancer bomber, into flying wireless routers that would allow ground troops to communicate each other.

The U.S. military and associated defense contractors have experimented in the use of UAVs as communication relays over the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, outfitting extant UAVs with communication relay packages (CRPs) to extend the range of terrestrial communication – primarily radios.  At sea, UAVs outfitted to act as communications relays could fill a variety of roles. 

First, as their name suggests, aerial communication relay drones (CRDs) could act to expand the reach of vessels and shore facilities to either additional unmanned aerial, surface, or subsurface vehicles; or to outlying manned vessels such as RHIBs or other small craft.  Even if not the primary means of communication, or necessary for a second craft’s operation, CRDs could provide dedicated data paths with enhanced exchange rates to pass more information on more reliable connections.  This would be all the more important in an operational environment with disbursed tactical components – such as the mothership concept – with increasing competition for limited communication paths.

"Oh BAMS, you're just so hard to talk to these days."
                                           “Oh BAMS, you’re just so hard to talk to these days.”

Second, CRDs could act to re-establish communications with outlying stations, between vessels, or between vessels and shore facilities in the event primary comm paths are degraded, denied, or compromised.  Whether it’s the effects of jamming, environmental interference, data corruption, equipment malfunction, or the outright loss of that equipment (such as the perennial fear of anti-satellite actions) the ability to restore secure and reliable communications is critical capability.

Once again, the more a navy follows a distributed model of naval warfare, the more it will rely on comm paths to effectively wage war, and the more crucial it will be to be able to restore them.  Drone autonomy can help mitigate this reliance with built-in protocols in the event of loss of comm, but it does not prevent the loss of information flowing to the C2 nodes (i.e. decision makers lose sight of what’s going on) or between units, with a potential loss in tactical efficiency.  In truth, the more comfortable a navy becomes with autonomous drone operations, the more units a single C2 node will command, and the more expansive an operational area it will need to communicate across.  Adding to the problem, the more modern naval warfare relies on these comm paths and the more fragile they appear, the likelier they will be the target of adversary actions.

A third role for CRDs would be as a critical tool during humanitarian assistance/disaster response (HA/DR) efforts.  Natural disasters have a nasty habit of taking down communication infrastructure such as cell towers, and even when they don’t, humans have a less nasty habit of trying to get in touch with their loved ones – thereby overwhelming what remains of the communications grid.  CRDs could help fill the gap.  Observation of recent international calamities has in fact led the U.S.’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to explore the use of UAVs to do just that, pressing ahead with ideas for the Deployable Aerial Communications Architecture.  Such an ability would also be useful in case of expeditionary operations into areas where such infrastructure never existed.

Communication relay drones could provide life-saving cellular and wireless service in an area decimated by a natural disaster.
Communication relay drones could provide life-saving cellular and wireless service in an area decimated by a natural disaster.

The capacity to restore comm paths, or establish alternates, could be achieved in a variety of manners.  CRDs could be purpose built or they could be so designated when a communications relay package/payload is fitted on to a multipurpose drone.  Depending on the mode of communication, CRDs could be designed to enhance extant communications past its normal quality, range, or security or they could provide simple bare-bones back-up.  CRDs could operate continuously in orbit or they could be held in reserve.  There are a lot of options to explore and a lot of tactical considerations to experiment with.  Perhaps the most important from a technical feasibility and cost/benefit analysis standpoint will be to parse through the various modes of communication that might be improved or restored – from radio to infrared to wireless to cellular.

While they haven’t received nearly as much attention as their sub-hunting, rocket-launching, or enemy-peeping kin, CRDs could fill a role just, if not more, important in the future of naval warfare.

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

Diego Garcia…Not yet Cause for Alarm


Bombs away or bombs to stay?

In 2016 America’s 50-year lease on the island of Diego Garcia expires. Under the current terms of the agreement, the option to extend leasing rights for a further 20 years must be agreed upon by both the U.S. and Diego Garcia’s owner, Britain, no later than December 2014. On June 8th, likely spurred on by the looming deadline, the prime ministers of both Britain and Mauritius met to discuss the future of the island. At issue is the question of sovereignty.


Mauritius, located 1200 miles to Diego Garcia’s southwest, is typically grouped into African international associations and has only tenuous connections with Diego Garcia’s Chagos Archipelago. Prior colonial rulers Britain and France at various times lumped the island chains together administratively. Once it became a self-governing colony in 1959, Mauritius retained control of the Chagos archipelago until it sold the islands back to Britain in 1965, the same year Mauritius voted for complete independence. Britain then proceeded to depopulate the newly formed British Indian Ocean Territory, sending (both voluntarily and not) the approximately 2,000 inhabitants to the Seychelles and Mauritius, to make room for an American military build-up.


Now, it appears there is a good chance Britain may transfer sovereignty back to Mauritius to extract itself from the fallout of forthcoming legal rulings. Originally I wasn’t going to post on this situation because, while interesting, I didn’t feel the saga was likely to change much of the Asia-Pacific’s strategic make-up. However, a couple widely read maritime blogs and a National Review Online article have sounded alarms over fears raised by The Guardian‘s coverage of the topic. Namely, the assumption that if the British give up their sovereignty the Americans will lose their ability to use the base for strategic Pacific purposes (no irony intended).


The “footprint of freedom’s” long-range assets.

This fear is misplaced for a couple of reasons. First, Mauritian Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam has taken pains to assure Washington that while “The objective of 2014 is to reassert sovereignty,” there is “without question” a need for the West to maintain a base on Diego Garcia. And there’s reason to believe him. There’s little other economically profitable activity the island and surrounding waters can sustain. In all cynical likelihood, the great interest Mauritius has taken in “regaining” control of Diego Garcia is precisely to be the recipient of American rent for its operations there.


Second, setting aside the moral issues stemming from the deportations, upcoming legal rulings at the U.N. and E.U. Court of Human Rights might force Britain’s hand if it holds on to the islands (although the matter of enforcing the ruling might leave its effects in limbo). If Mauritius gains control over the archipelago, a ruling in favor of the Chagossians could be mitigated by the powers Mauritius exerts over its own citizens, forcing them to accept additional compensation in exchange for perhaps occasional visits, or a token designated area of inhabitation.


Don’t say your goodbyes just yet.

Third, strengthening ties with Mauritius fits in to the strategic architecture not only in the Asia-Pacific, but also for the western Indian Ocean and Africa. As a democracy with a strong Western tilt and Indian ties, Mauritius represents a stable base from which to make inroads into critical areas along maritime trade routes. In a further act of signaling to reassure, Prime Minister Navichandra took the opportunity of visiting Downing Street to also sign an anti-piracy agreement with the U.K., opening up Mauritius as a destination for the prosecution and jailing of pirates. For its part, the U.S. has good relations with the country and helps to train its military in counter-terror and other missions.


In some regards the Cassandras of the Chagos are right to worry about the outcome. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal military outpost and waypoint than the current setup at DG: no neighbors to complain about the noise or pry into operations, cheap pay for imported labor, excellent diving (if you don’t mind the sharks). The only real drawback is perhaps its slightly too-distant location from hot spots in Southeast and Northeast Asia, but it can’t be everywhere at once. If Mauritius does come into ownership, the U.S. may pay more for its continued use of the basing, pay more for labor and have to hire former islanders or their descendents, and put up with a few inhabitants and the complications that they bring. All in all, however, such changes would be mostly superficial. 


Yes, Mauritius could always change its mind on basing rights in the future. But there’s not yet cause for alarm. 


LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.