Tags: Ballistic Missile Defense, BMD, Morale
Of all the missions the Surface Navy does, Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) might be the least sexy. It involves sitting in a small box in the middle of the ocean for weeks, usually far away from land or even any commercial shipping traffic. Ships on station need to be in a specific engineering and combat systems configuration at all times so they can track or engage a target at a moments notice. This means there aren’t many opportunities for training, ship handling, gun shoots, swim calls, and other evolutions. Sometimes, a poor middle-of-the-ocean satellite uplink makes the internet unusable, and “River City” could be set (meaning the internet is turned off completely) for bandwidth constraints or upholding Operational Security (OPSEC) due to mission sensitivities. Depending on the ship’s heading and location, TV-DTS (the Navy’s satellite TV connection) could go down as well. Hopefully the seas aren’t rough, because there’s little chance to get a modified location (MODLOC) to divert for better weather. If it’s a nice day, fishing from the fantail seems to be the most exciting thing to do; although there never seems to be much luck in getting a catch (it seems most fish know how to avoid the BMD box at all costs). Forget port calls, but even when ships aren’t on station, they could still be on a formal or informal “tether” which prevents them from going anywhere too far away from the BMD Theater (yes that means no Australia!).
Crew morale takes a huge hit, but it’s not just from the things that the ship can’t do; Sailors become frustrated because there are no tangible benefits and success is very hard to quantify. There’s no submarine to track, no target to shoot at, no aircrafts to launch, no vessels to board, no drugs to seize, etc. Our Navy’s Sailors can accomplish all sorts of unimaginable feats, but they still need ongoing satisfaction to know that their job has a meaningful purpose contributing to the overall mission – this is what real morale boils down to! Unfortunately, shipboard leadership doesn’t have a truly effective tool to demonstrate this. During one long BMD deployment, I had a Commanding Officer who would even go on the 1MC every night and tell the crew how important the mission was and they all played an essential role. It was good leadership but it simply wasn’t enough to make every Sailor a believer. Moreover, the tedious and seemingly fruitless duty has caused BMD to be seen as a stigma, and many Sailors are given advice to stay far away from the BMD mission, despite the invaluable experience one may gain in an up-and-coming warfare area.
The irony is that although it may never seem like it from the deckplates, the BMD mission is very vital – and quickly becoming one of the most vital missions. Rogue states like North Korea and Iran have to understand that their brinkmanship doesn’t match up against America’s ability and willingness to shoot down a threatening missile with our proven Aegis BMD System (ABMD). This credibility all starts with the Sailor – whether it’s Ship’s Servicemen restocking the vending machines, Culinary Specialists cooking quality meals, engineers finding quick and innovative ways to fix casualties, or the Fire Controlman at the Missile Systems Supervisor Console (MSS) staying alert in order to launch a Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) at a moment’s notice.
What is needed is a real way to recognize BMD service to the fleet, starting with the most junior Sailor. In fact, we need to do more than recognize it; we need to make it prestigious among the Surface Warfare community. One platform with a comparable mission is the Strategic Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBNs). Besides the fact that SSBN patrols are much more predictable in terms of deployment schedule, their missions are similar. Like BMD ships, they go on patrol for several weeks at a time, in a small box, at a secret location in the ocean, waiting for an order to shoot a missile that most likely will not come. However, because the Navy have taken basic steps to appreciate them in their past, the importance of their deterrence mission, as an integral part of the nuclear triad, is without question. SSBN Sailors are awarded a special uniform device, called the SSBN Deterrent Patrol Insignia (more popularly known as the “Boomer Pin”). This device is the only of its kind in the Navy and can be worn even in addition to their submarine warfare devices on all their uniforms.To add to that, in 2012, every single Sailor assigned to a SSBN or SSBN supporting command any time after 2007 was awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation (MUC). Compare this to BMD Ships that have very little in terms of recognition to show for their BMD service – even long BMD deployers to 5th Fleet seldom get any type of unit award or citation. Ribbons and awards mean something different to everyone; as cheesy and trivial some may say the “Boomer Pin” or a “Blanket MUC” is to some, it’s a matter of pride to many junior Sailors. Moreover, it’s a material way to show appreciation to a special mission and duty.
I believe BMD is worthy of having its own special uniform device like the Boomer Pin, but creating a new BMD Service Ribbon is more realistic since it would probably require less red tape to be implemented. Similar to the eligibilities of other service ribbons, one award of the BMD Service Ribbon could be given to all personnel who are on station for 30 consecutive or 60 non-consecutive days over the span of one deployment or every one year if forward-deployed. We shouldn’t stop there. As a special type of duty, enlisted personnel successfully completing a tour on eligible BMD ships should be given one extra point to be factored into their promotion point calculation. Extra points can already be given for other special duties, such as completing an Individual Augmentee tour, or in past cases, being assigned to certain Military Sealift Command ships or recruiting duty. As an additional incentive, both enlisted and officers should be given special preference or priority points by their detailers when selecting future orders.
There is no doubt that the implementation of a few simple measures like the abovementioned proposals will set a very positive outlook for the future of BMD. Sailors will be able to say with pride that they serve in a BMD Ship and serving in one may even become a rite-of-passage. As the perception starts to change, so will unit cohesiveness and morale, and along with it, battle readiness, efficiency, and personnel retainment!