In Naval Aviation we have all lost squadronmates, students, friends, to the dangers of our beloved profession. Yesterday I added another to my own list, which slowly grows as we gain experience and seniority. This loss is a little different though. I never shook CAPT LeFon’s hand. I only knew him through his writing. I think there are probably many of us out here though that are in the same boat. His writing was what Papa Hemingway called “true writing,” which is the best kind of writing and what Papa said he always struggled to produce. Because of that, many of us felt that we knew him even though we had never met.
There are very few folks that mix our chosen profession as Naval Aviators with a love of meaningful words on the page. Seeing that not only an aviator, but a Fighter/Attack Guy, could mix thinking and writing with being a combat pilot and a respected leader gave inspiration to a Rotorhead like me. It is easier to leave the yellow brick road and take the path less traveled when you see that at least there are footprints in the mud.
Lex is one link in a small but strong chain of men who strapped themselves into an airframe, but were also known for picking up a pen. In early 1941, as Britain fought Germany alone, a young man named John Gillespie Magee rolled into his first combat squadron, the 412th Fighter Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Born in Shanghai, China to an American father and a British mother, Magee turned down a scholarship to Yale in 1940 in order to enlist in the RCAF and headed to Ontario for flight training. While in Britain in his operational training squadron (what we Naval Aviators would call the Fleet Replenishment Squadron) he wrote a sonnet which has become famous among Aviators everywhere. Only a few months after writing it, after being in his squadron for less than a month and at the age of 19, he died in a midair collision between his Spitfire and an Airspeed Oxford training aircraft out of RAF Cranwell.
This is for Neptunus Lex, not the first of those wearing Wings of Gold to leave us and not the last. Your brothers and sisters will always remember your leadership, your inspiration, your writing, and your flying…
by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds…and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of…wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up, the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor even eagle flew.
And while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space…
…put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
The headlines today have beamed in, half way across the world, as the news of the death of writer and public intellectual Christopher Hitchens spreads. So why should we, naval officers or members and regulars at The Naval Institute, care about the passing of such a figure? The simple fact that the New York Times actually “stopped the presses” in order to reformat and include his obituary (something that rarely happens in todays cost-savvy media world), should at the least make us take notice of the man’s passing. Readingmany of the headlines we are told that he was a “militant writer,” which isn’t really the same thing as being a military writer (though some Americans may confuse it).
Hitchens wasn’t quite as “militant” as the press would lead many of us to believe. Instead he was a self described “contrarian.” That’s something that The Naval Institute recognizes: the importance, the value, the vitality of contrarians. In fact, at the founding of the Institute in 1873 that was pretty much the whole idea…to open up naval thought to new voices and new ideas. The mission of today’s Naval Institute, “to provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense,” is one that Hitchens would have embraced.
When I left for deployment, not knowing that it would be record setting length, I stocked up on some “books” for my e-reader. One of them was Hitchens’ “Letters to a Young Contrarian.” Modeled after the work of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in his “Letters to a Young Poet,” Hitchens approached the question “Could I offer any advice to the young and the restless; any counsel that would help them avoid disillusionment?” And he was off and typing, making it appear so easy. Hitchens was a well read man, exceedingly well read, and I freely admit that many of his references sent me scrambling for a Google search as I read “Letters.” He conceded that “It’s too much to expect to live in an age that is actually propitious for dissent. And most people, most of the time, prefer to seek approval or security.” That was all the more reason, he assured his young correspondent, to continue to think outside the box, and to write and talk about it. It is all the more reason, today, to finish that article each of us has been thinking about submitting to Proceedings as well. “Don’t expect to be thanked, by the way,” he wrote, “The life of an oppositionist is supposed to be difficult.”
While inDubai, somewhere south of eight months into deployment, I made the rounds of a few of the media stores at the enormous malls to check out the English language books. Laying on display in a Virgin Megastore was an enormous paperback tome with Hitchens’ mug on the cover, entitled “Arguably.” It is a collection of reviews and essays that he has penned over the past decade. Of course, near the eight month point and with the end of deployment still well over the horizon, I needed more reading material and I purchased myself a copy.
The thing that the essays in “Arguably” have reinforced for me is that every genre gives you an opportunity to communicate your ideas, and sometimes to even have fun. Hitchens book reviews are learned and obviously from a man who consumes the written word voraciously, full of references to other works in whatever field he’s discussing, but also full of ideas. Not just the ideas brought up in the book under review, but counter-thoughts and expansions of those ideas and connections to others. It’s a reminder that we are always learning as long as we are always reading. The first encouragement in the John Adams quotation that the Insitute has embraced, “to dare to read, think, and write,” will help us build the background and the knowledge that allows Hitchensesque connections and the flow of ideas to continue. His essays frequently come at important subjects like international politics from unusual angles, like “Long Live Democratic Seismology” which will make you reconsider the political ramifications of geology. My father, a geologist by education and trade, has been trying to tell me this for years. There are other essays that are just outright fun. His discussion on the proper etiquette involved in refilling wine glasses at a restaurant is fantastic.
Hitchens came from a Navy family. His mother and father met in Scotlandduring the Second World War when they were both serving in the Royal Navy. His father continued serving after the war and retired from the service as a Commander. Hitchens was raised in the style of many Navy brats, moving constantly to stations across the world. I remember watching an episode of the Charlie Rose Show when Hitchens admitted that he had even considered a naval career, but the discipline and silent nature of his father drove him away from the idea. He wrote on naval subjects when they drew his attention, including the discussion of connections between The Barbary Wars and modern day counter-terrorism. There is a part of me that half wonders if he was ever a member of the Institute. He should have been, we would have been a stronger organization with him onboard.
So, put aside your differences with him on the subject of religion, or your disagreement over whether or not women are funny, or whether or not you believe that waiters should refill your wine glass (thus interrupting conversation and trying to guilt you into buying another bottle), and find something by Christopher Hitchens to read. I suggest something controversial or contrarian, it shouldn’t be hard. Because daring to read, think, and write is exactly what he would want us to do, and it is a fitting tribute.
On August 11t h, 2011 the M/V Caravos Horizon was attacked by “sea bandits” in the Red Sea, just north of the Straits of Bab al Mendib. The distress call was picked up by Combined Task Force 151 and Expeditionary Strike Group 5, and they determined that there were two naval assets capable of responding in the vicinity. HMS MONMOUTH, a British Frigate, and USS BATAAN, an American amphibious assault ship, both swung into action. The crew of the Caravos Horizon secured themselves inside a “citadel” as six “sea bandits” boarded and took control of the bridge of the ship.
Bay Raider 45, an armed MH-60S Knighthawk from HSC-28 Detachment TWO, was airborne flying regularly scheduled Search and Rescue duty with the BATAAN Amphibious Ready Group at the time of the attack. The Knighthawk was brought back to the flight deck to top off the fuel. Expeditionary Strike Group 5 ordered the BATAAN ARG to send a helicopter toward the scene of the attack to provide intelligence, survelliance, and reconnisance (ISR) and to report information back to BATAAN. Bay Raider launched and headed south to provide assistance to the mariners in distress.
The purpose of this post isn’t to re-tell the story of the event. Both HMS MONMOUTH and USS BATAAN released reports of the incident which can be found in the open press. The PAO’s put hard work into these articles, read them for the story of a successful boarding to retake control of the M/V Caravos Horizon. Instead of rehashing the story, here at the USNI blog we’ll look at the larger picture…what lessons can we learn about counter-piracy and naval irregular warfare?
In October of 2010 I was lucky to be invited to speak as a panelist at the Naval Institute’s History Conference “Pirates on the High Seas” during a discussion of the history of piracy and counter-piracy titled “Blackbeard to the Barbary.” In my opening remarks I highlighted three things that stuck out from the 200+ year history of the USN’s counter piracy missions: Platforms, People, and Partnerships. Specifically, having the right “low end/high end” mix of hardware to do the job, having professional and aggressive junior officers to lead operations, and having competent and willing allies to work with in the region. The combined Anglo-American response to the attack on M/V Caravos Horizon reinforces that these principles are as important in the twenty-first century as they were when Decatur, Porter, and Downes sailed in the nineteenth.
When it comes to the hardware involved in this successful operation, a key takeaway is the vital importance of rotary-wing aviation. Irregular operations rarely require the expensive, fast, sexy, high altitude TACAIR jets that you’ll find in Hollywood movies. They need the quiet professionals of the often overlooked naval rotary-wing community. Helicopters embarked on the ships that conduct counter-piracy operations are a force multiplier that provide the ability to respond rapidly, develop critical ISR, and finally to provide overwatch and maritime air support for boarding operations. Sending a ship on counter-piracy or irregular warfare missions without an embarked helicopter significantly degrades the unit’s capability.
The rapid response by the RN Lynx to the scene allowed for the development of early situational awareness which became a key factor for success. The follow on arrival of Bay Raider allowed the ISR net to be cast further away from the attacked vessel. It was able to find two skiffs, which they believed were the suspected “sea bandits.” Our Knighthawk remained overhead briefly as a visible deterrent, and the skiffs turned away from the shipping lanes and headed off at high speed. The two aircraft together could cover hundreds of square miles and help develop situational awareness far beyond the capability of a single surface combatant. When time came for the boarding, the ability to have Bay Raider provide armed overwatch and ISR while the Lynx conducted the insertion was an important element of protecting the boarding party and helping to ensure their success.
The MH-60S Block III Armed Helo’s that now deploy with amphibious assault ships like BATAAN come in the gunship variant. These aircraft have a wide range of armament options that make it a highly capable platform. You can buy nearly a squadron of them for the cost of one Joint Strike Fighter. The crews that fly them like LT Lee Sherman, LT Chris Schneider, AWS2 Joey Faircloth, and AWS3 Josh Teague, are trained in a number of mission areas that lend themselves to maritime security operations and irregular warfare. While the traditional mission of running the racetrack in the “Starboard D” holding pattern as the “SAR Bird” is still a central part of their job (after all, its where Bay Raider 45 started the day), the Armed Helo provides a widely expanded set of capabilities for Amphibious Ready Groups and is an ideal platform for naval irregular warfare.
The Knighthawk pilots and aicrewmen of the Helicopter Sea Combat community are trained for a wide range of missions and skills which lend themselves to successful naval irregular warfare. These include anti-surface warfare and special operations support, as well as the traditional rotary-wing missions of search and rescue and logisitics support.
It is important to note that the “deckplate” leaders of the operations were all junior officers that had been extensively trained and prepared to make combat decisions. Lt Harry Lane RM, commander of the Royal Marines boarding team, Lt Chris Easterling RN, aircraft commander of the Lynx, LT Chris “Texas Pete” Schneider USN, of Bay Raider, are three individuals quoted and identified in the press releases. That wasn’t simply because they were the ones that the PAO could find because they weren’t on watch. These junior officers, along with LT Lee “Chunk” Sherman who was the aircraft commander of Bay Raider 45, demonstrated that when tactical level leaders are given the ability to make decisions and to temper their aggressive nature with solid tactical risk management, operational level success is around the corner.
The partnership element to this operation is obvious. The USN and RN have been working together since nearly our service’s founding to combat piracy and threats to maritime security across the globe. During the First Barbary War the British bases in the Mediterranean were opened to American ships in support of our fight against the Corsairs. In the West Indies in the 1820’s and 1830’s American squadrons teamed with the Royal Navy to help fight the piracy from Cuba. At the end of the 19th century we supported one another in the rivers and coastal waters of China. Sharing the same battlefields over the past decade has helped bring tactics, techniques, and procdures closer together across the range of military operations.
What struck me was the quote from LT Schneider in the BATAAN article about the seamless nature of the combined operation. It mirrored a comment made by LT Sherman during debrief after the mission. He said that working together with the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, “was like we had done it all together before.” Seamless was a word used by both pilots. Our two ships have never seen one another, we never spoke before the moment that Bay Raider checked in with the Lynx over the radio, yet common procedures and decades of experience in combined operations allowed the junior leaders to adapt and flex for a rapid and effective operation.
There are other partnership elements of the mission that are also worth considering. The coastal states of the region are relatively quick to give permission for operations within their territorial waters when it is counter-piracy. This is a commonly overlooked element, during the 1820’s when the Spanish weren’t as cooperative off Cuba it made the work of the USN’s West Indies squadron much more difficult. The ability of the myriad of staffs and command organizations working in the region to work together is also vital. In today’s world of networked battlefields it can be easy for the networks to get overlayed on top of one another, and potentially tangled. With American and multi-national staffs all working the same geography and sea space, the ability to keep it straight and to respond efficiently in order to make decisions between the staffs is vital.
So Others May Live…Or Die.
The operation to secure the M/V Caravos Horizon demonstrates the critical role of the amphibious fleet and rotary-wing aviation to maritime security and American policy around the world. It also reinforces the idea that the right platforms, purposely trained and led people, and strong global partnerships are central to success in naval irregular warfare and in the hybrid maritime conflicts that the United States Navy may face in the coming decades. It must be said that for each aircraft and pilot there are dozens of maintenance professionals and supporting personnel that make our Navy’s global reach possible. Maintainers are the bedrock of the rotary-wing team that successfully completed this mission.
The motto of HSC-28 Detachment TWO is “So Others May Live…Or Die.” Whether as a search and rescue aircraft or a helicopter gunship, DET 2 is a best friend to mariners in distress, worst enemy to those who aim to disrupt maritime security in the regions where we operate. The pride that I feel in being associated with DET 2’s maintenance team, naval aircrewmen, and our pilots is endless. After four and a half months supporting maritime security and contingency operations off the coast of Libya, we have moved southeast, and for the foreseeable future we remain on station…
“The study of history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice.”
- CAPT Alfred Thayer Mahan
The quote above is one of the most commonly repeated statements from the writings of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan. It comes not from his classic “The Influence of Seapower Upon History” but instead from the less well known book “Armaments and Arbitration: The Place of Force in the International Relations of States ,” published in 1912 (page 206). More than policy or naval strategy, Mahan believed in teaching officers the best ways to approach the challenges of command. He saw his job as a Naval War College plankowner in those terms, about teaching command, and to do so he turned to history. But, it wasn’t just senior officers who needed grounding in our naval past. He wrote in his very first published article, winning third place in “Proceedings” annual essay contest, that history was also a key foundation for learning at the Naval Academy.
When he said that history “lies at the foundation,” it wasn’t just a convenient turn of phrase. He believed that before subjects like gunnery, engineering, or even cyber-warfare, could be taught a Midshipman needed to know why he was learning them. Why did any of it matter? The best way to show a student why hitting the target in gunnery class was important was to teach him the history that showed what happened when crews weren’t drilled properly. Perhaps he would teach the Midshipman about Captain James Lawrence sailing Chesapeake out of Boston harbor with a green and undrilled crew in 1813 to face HMS Shannon, a short time later uttering his final command, “Don’t give up the ship” just before he succumbed to his wounds and the British boarding party swarmed aboard in victory. Maybe the Midshipman would recognize the words…from the battle flag bearing the phrase in Memorial Hall that was flown at the Battle of Lake Erie. Mahan felt that once a Midshipman understood the importance of mastering the craft, of studying their trade, a subject like weapons systems engineering would become important even to the lowly humanities major.
The second part of Mahan’s statement is also important, “all sound military conclusions and practices.” In our age of checklist leadership and officers educated as engineers there is a desire to approach leadership challenges as equations where certain inputs are guaranteed to give you the desired results. But Mahan doesn’t say all “correct” military conclusions and practices, he says “sound.”
Mahan recognized that both naval strategy (conclusions) and combat leadership (practices) were art, not science. In his book “Naval Strategy: Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practice of Military Operations on Land,” published in 1911, Mahan compared naval officers to artists. He wrote that artists had to learn certain techniques, mediums and certain skills, but that wasn’t what made their artwork great. In the end “art, out of materials which it finds about, creates new forms in endless variety,” artists take those foundation basics and then mix and match them based on inspiration and experience to create a masterpiece. History helps us understand that frequently there are no right answers to military questions of strategy or leadership. There are only “sound conclusions,” which are drawn from understanding basics and history. Demonstrating this great truth to Midshipman early in their education, say as a Plebe before they have taken three years worth of engineering classes that teach them there is always an equation and a correct answer, is much more valuable than having them learn it after years of service.
A well designed training plan, whether it is on the deckplates by the Damage Control Training Team or in an Annapolis classroom by a defined core curriculum, is not simply a matter of plugging course titles in time slots. It must involve thought, understanding, and above all recognition of the end goal of that plan for the Midshipman …”to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty.” The movement of HH104 from the Plebe year at the United States Naval Academy is not “in keeping with the highest ideals” of the greatest military thinkers of the past. It ignores the teachings of not just the intellectual godfather of the United States Navy but also Napoleon, Clausewitz, Corbett, as well as less well known Americans as Casper Goodrich or Fox Conner.
Taking a fresh look at the curriculum in Annapolis, as West Point has done (removing some hard science and engineering from the core in order to add history, strategy, and counterinsurgency courses that Cadets will use in 21st century), is valuable. However, it must be a holistic approach and it must keep its final purposes at the forefront. When you ask yourself “What would Alfred Thayer Mahan Do?” we can answer it easily, knowing that he believed that “The study of history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice.”