But the last few weeks have been different. Today, as I traveled to a seminar on counterinsurgency, held in a quaint lodge near a lake at Fort Drum, I opened the top on my Jeep, taking in the sunlight and enjoying a sky crystal-clear, and radiant blue. The grass was a deep, vibrant green, occasionally dotted with dandelions. The small lake--normally still frozen over this time of the year--had thawed, leaving behind a pool of water so clear and tranquil, it looked as if it were a mirror, dropped from the heavens.
But the real miracle lay not in the weather, but rather, during the counterinsurgency seminar itself. There, in the lodge beside the lake, lay a pony keg of beer, vulnerable in the presence of over forty aviators. Yet, the pony keg of beer went largely ignored, for the pilots were so interested in discussing counterinsurgency that they neglected the poor keg of that life-giving nectar of the gods that is...probably Miller Lite or something.
Yes, you read that correctly. The aviators completely forgot about the beer and talked about counterinsurgency.
Much to my surprise, aviators do get counterinsurgency, and we get it quite well. A PowerPoint presentation I composed with the help of Commander Herb Carmen, as well as a few other captains, guided a group discussion on the impact of Army aviation in the counterinsurgency environment.
What surprised me the most about the discussion was that, contrary to popular perception, it was the colonels and majors that had the most to add to the discussion, as opposed to the captains. Those who have been studying the US military's recent counterinsurgency odyssey over the last few years might find this a little counter-intuitive. Yet, I think it's a dynamic that's peculiar to the aviation realm. Some potential explanations, as well as some miscellaneous musings:
- First, and most obvious, is that maybe the majors and colonels spoke more because, well, it's the military and we tend to defer to rank.
- Secondly, many of the field grade officers have some unique experiences compared to those of their junior counterparts. After several years in an aviation battalion, an aviation captain usually gets slotted in a billet doing something other than flying. Some get embedded within infantry brigades, others within military transition teams. These jobs give aviators a greater understanding and appreciation for the ground tactical plan.
- As Cmdr. Carmen notes, an aviator's first priority--in conventional conflict or counterinsurgency--is to become proficient in his or her airframe. All the cultural awareness in the world isn't worth a damn if a pilot can't fly the aircraft. For this reason, a new aviator generally spends his or her first few years out of flight school learning the ins-and-outs of aircraft systems, weapons limitations, mission planning, unit standard operating procedures, aircraft maintenance, and airspace. If they're a platoon leader or company commander, they face the additional challenges of knowing their people, administrative procedures, and property accountability. It's a Herculean task simply to learn these skills in those first critical years. Small wonder junior officers in the aviation world lag behind their infantry brethren when it comes to understanding counterinsurgency.
- The AH-64 and OH-58 pilots, as a general rule, seemed to understand COIN better than the UH-60 and CH-47 pilots ("skirts", as we're known). This is likely because these aviators are employing weapons on the battlefield and have to think about the effects of their weapons systems.
- One of the most profound statements came from an Apache pilot, who spent a few weeks in a targeting class. The first few days of the class focused on the principles of Islam and Muslim culture. At first, he found the emphasis a little bizarre; however, upon his deployment to Iraq, he quickly learned the importance of culture. As he looked at the ramshackle buildings and farms below him, he could see a man's livelihood--his only means of supporting his family. Damaging a farm or killing goats might cause an entire family to go hungry--something we must always consider when employing weapons systems on the battlefield. This shouldn't be an excuse to never fire--just another factor to take into consideration before firing. Wiping out a farmer's livelihood might drive him to seek an alternate form of employment: insurgency.
In all, it was a great class. Thanks to the gang at CNAS for all the help. If you want to view the presentation, or help me write a short primer (maybe 10-15 pages of notes) on COIN for aviators, hit me up. I do the crowdsourcing thing :)