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Private security contractors killed a Somali pirate Wednesday–and no one seems to know how to react.

Roger Middleton from the British think tank Chatham House commented that there’s currently no regulation of private security on board ships, no guidelines about who is responsible in case of an attack, and no industrywide standards. So what’s next?

“This will be scrutinized very closely…The bottom line is somebody has been killed and someone has to give an accounting of that,” said Arvinder Sambei, a legal consultant for the U.N. In other words, security contractors should standby to be investigated for their actions. It’s just not clear who will be doing the investigation–the ship’s flagged nation (Panama), the owners’ home nation (UAE) or the nation from which the contractors have citizenship (unknown).

All of this is making me wish I attended an open lectureheld here at the Academy by LCDR Berube on private security contractors as a possible solution to the piracy question held here at the Academy a few weeks ago. (LCDR Berube was recently spotted on Midrats talking about DADT.)

Do we want private security contractors helping secure ships from piracy? Sure, ships have the right to defend themselves. The follow-up questions of how closely their actions are monitored (a huge investigation every time there’s an incident could prove unwieldy) and who holds them accountable have yet to be answered. Any thoughts?

While we usually don’t cover the Army on this blog, this piece by Elizabeth Samet, a West Point professor, reflecting on the death of one of her students in Afghanistan, touches on some themes not partisan to any one service.

In the years since his graduation, Dan had become a correspondent–someone whose messages I welcomed, whose insights I valued. When I asked what he needed, he would say he needed nothing: “No specific needs or desires right now, but I’ll let you know if I lose/break anything.” When I asked him how he was, he would say, “[L]ife is good. Except the whole Afghanistan thing.”

On Thursday The Department of Defense issued a memorandum setting the ground rules for accessing social media sites. All components of the DoD “shall be configured to provide access to Internet-based capabilities” which include “collaborative tools such as SNS [social networking services], social media, user-generated content, social software, e-mail, instant messaging, and discussion forums (e.g., YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Google Apps).”

In short, social media sites shall remain unblocked. The most interesting part of the policy concerns the maintenance of “personal, corporate or subject-specific” blogs, to which the DoD now grants access service-wide. As long as servicemembers pay due respect to operational security, the policy formally allows them to update and run a blog. However, commanders are allowed to temporarily restrict activity to “address bandwidth constraints,” a clause which might prove vague enough to allow arbitrary blocking of sites.

I’m excited that the DoD is defaulting to “yes” when it comes to social media; however, we’ll see how the policy becomes enforced.


Arctic Training

February 2010


Lots of snow this week in Annapolis and conditions are perfect for some arctic warfare training.

Two Regiments of Midshipmen Participate in the Brigade Snowball Fight

Two Regiments of Midshipmen Participate in the Brigade Snowball Fight

The reflective bands were the markings of 2nd Regiment.

Mids Snowball Fight video.


Wild Idea

January 2010


A late night rumination…

I was recently in Philadelphia, attending (of all things) a West Point Society meeting. The meeting was held at a restaurant on the water near the SS United States, the world’s fastest cruise liner, maintaining 30 knots as it regularly cruised across the Atlantic (38 knots max). Moreover, it could hold 1,900+ passengers during its speedy journey. And it’s for sale.

Fast ship + capacity to hold large amounts of people = super-expeditious hospital ship? Acquiring the SS United States and converting it to a hospital ship would give the Navy and even greater ability to rapidly respond to humanitarian crises. Thoughts?

This past Friday I had the great opportunity of attending the 12th Annual American Veterans Center Conference at the Navy Memorial in Washington DC. With its mission to “preserve and promote the legacy of America’s servicemen and women from every generation,” the American Veterans Center had an amazing array of speakers. Moreover, my fellow attendees ranging from World War II veterans to JROTC high school students demonstrated the center was remaining true to its motto, “From the greatest generation to the latest generation,” although GEN Petraeus would later challenge this notion.

The day started with a panel on the current operations of SeaBees. It’s really quite amazing to see all the work that’s being done by this small force 16,000. CDR Odenthal, Assistant Chief of Staff for Logistics, First Naval Construction Division, spoke about his time in Southwest Asia where SeaBees served in 13 countries on 4 continents. Now that’s keeping busy! During their time in Asia, SeaBees were responsible for building schools, clinics, and other structures to satisfy local needs. During the Q&A portion, one audience member asked, “Who provides security for you while you’re building?” Those who are familiar with the SeaBees know they build and fight, but this question highlighted to me just how incredible their capabilities are.

GEN Petraeus spoke next. FbL at The Castle Argghhh! has already given a complete play-by-play of GEN Petraeus’s talk and I won’t repeat it here. The most interesting point GEN Petraeus made was regarding the surge of 2007. In his opinion this was most importantly a “surge of ideas not just troops.” Ideas such as living in the community, instead of only in the large, luxorious bases went a far way in GEN Petraeus’s opinion. For example, Coalition Forces took to 77 additional locations in Baghdad–77 of the most violent spots. GEN Petraeus emphasized that the key to success in Iraq was the increased risk we were willing to take, a sentiment echoed by the battalion commanders at the Counterinsurgency Leadership event I attended in September.

GEN Petraeus also spoke fondly of today’s servicemember. While the event used the phrase “From the Greatest Generation…to the latest generation,” GEN Petraeus suggested that sacrifices and efforts of the newest generation have deemed the worthy of the title “the Next Greatest Generation.”

It was extremely humbling to witness the panel of Marines who fought on Iwo Jima. It was also interesting to see how each of them shared a different impression of the battle. COL Caldwell, who was the commanding officer of F Co., 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines, which suffered the highest KIA rate of any unit in Marine Corps history, was present. COL Caldwell recalled one incident in which a Japanese soldier came running ablaze in fire at his men. The soldier was promptly shot by Caldwell’s men and upon searching his body, the Marines found a picture of the man with his five children standing at attention. This scene caused Caldwell’s “salty,” tough gunnery sergeant to break down in tears. Ralph Griffiths was a veteran of E Company, 28th Marines and served with the flag raisers of Iwo Jima. Unfortunately, he was wounded by the same shell which killed flag raisers Sgt. Strank and Cpl. Block. He also spoke of how hellish the island itself was.

After COL Caldwell and Mr. Griffiths spoke, Mr. Donald Mates and Mr. James White recounted their time together on Iwo. Part of an eight man team sent to disable Japanese mortars, White was credited with giving aid to a severely wounded Mates as well as beating back a Japanese attack. Laughter broke out in the audience as White recounted dispatching Japanese soldier after soldier. It was quite a different tone than the talks by COL Caldwell and Mr. Griffiths!

For me one of the most interesting moments of the day was Maj. Theodore Van Kirk’s presentation. As the navigator of the Enola Gay, Maj. Van Kirk dismissed any arguments against the dropping of the bomb. While he noted the nuclear bomb and war are terrible things, it was his firm belief that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved Japanese and American lives. Members of the audience who lived through World War II broke out into applause. In an academic setting it’s great to discuss President Truman’s decision, but as I sat there it became even more clear that this was the right decision. It ended a war through which many members of the audience suffered.

History and heritage seemed much more alive and personal to me, a midshipman, as the veterans of wars past and present shared their experiences at the American Veterans Center’s Conference. It was a fulfilling experience and a great reminder of the wisdom our veterans have to share.

———– has put video of the event online:
Click here to watch the remarks by the veterans of Iwo Jima. The first speaker is COL Caldwell, followed by Mr. Donald Mates.

Here for remarks by GEN Petraeus and here for a presentation by LT Thrun of the Civil Engineering Corps who served on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan.

With Veterans Day here and the Marine Corps Birthday having just passed, I thought it would be appropriate to share an excerpt of an interview and conversation I had with a Marine aviator. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Elliot Billings a 96 year old former Marine aviator and dive-bomber pilot. His remarks certainly help give some flair to the early days of military aviation!

When were you in the Marines?
In 1934. I was looking at a luncheon menu from Washington DC in 1935; a four course meal was $.85…I got to be a 1st LT in the Marine Corp–$254/month!

BG-1 (US Navy)

BG-1 (US Navy)

Did you ever hear of a BG-1? No? Well, I was on the front end of that group where they discovered dive bombing. It hadn’t been professionalized you might say. Nobody knew a hell of a lot about it. But the idea was these BG Great Lakes were built specifically for dive bombing by the Great Lakes Aviation Company, no longer in existence.

So when I reported into Quantico. None of the older, more experienced pilots, you know the people who were 35 years old, they didn’t think much of these airplanes. They were too damn hot.


They were fast and maybe cranky to fly. They didn’t understand the airplanes and there hadn’t been enough of them to go to the factory to talk with the people who told them about it. But we were all new, fresh out of Pensacola, and we didn’t care—we could fly anything. And this BG had more struts, it was the toughest airplane I ever flew in my life because this thing was going to be going 300 mph. That was speed.

I went by Quantico a couple years ago with my one of grandchildren; I just couldn’t believe it! I asked, “Do you know where Brown Field is?” The guard at the gate said, “Is that an airfield?” I said “Yes, that is where the aviation department resided.” Of course now they have an airport that covers 10 miles of the edge of the Potomac River. But that field had a dirt runway 3000 feet long. It was kind of a marginal performance to get these planes in there if you made a carrier landing, you know hard to get in and hard to get out. We didn’t know that.

So one of our guys one day when he knew the whole damn brass was out there—MAJ Geiger, Mokahe (sp?), and various others, all at the airfield all watching to see what these young folks do. So old Dick Scott a good friend, but instead of coming in for a carrier approach…he just came in like he was a fighter—he didn’t roll 200 feet! That was a good airplane but people didn’t understand in dive bombing, you can start anywhere…but if you get right over your target…the one thing that’s got to happen is you’re going to have to be on your back because the top of the wing is longer than the bottom…the first thing you know in order to keep it under control is that you’re upside down!

But those were great days.

Have you seen the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico?

Who was the first guy you saw as you went in?

I can’t–
Hank Elrod, we called him R-rod. He was the last one to fly an airplane out of Wake Island in World War II. And he knew he was going to get killed, but it didn’t make any difference to him. They gave him the Congressional Medal of Honor. When I walked into that museum the first time, I’ve been there twice…I saluted him when I came in because I knew him very well, flight school and so forth…Here he is surrounded by dozens of Japanese airplanes and only one airplane left and he took it out and shot down three of them before getting shot down himself. That’s a pretty good museum they have.

More to come!

Correction: Mr. Billings is 96 years old not 90 as previously stated.

Up late working on homework, but came across the Navy’s new slogan: “America’s Navy- A Global Force for Good.” Seems a little too international to me; good is so bland.

What do you think? Also, if you are in the Navy or former Navy post which slogan you joined under if you remember.
Accelerate your life!

Departing USNA grounds at 0600 this past Tuesday, I interviewed for nuclear submarine duty at Naval Reactors (NR) in Washington DC. The process consists of 2 technical interviews, which tested my skills in calculus, physics, and electrical engineering among other subjects. Following the round of technical interviews, I had a ~5 minute interview with ADM Donald, Director, Naval Reactors.

Arriving at NR at 0700, my group of 20 fellow midshipmen, interviewing for either submarines or surface warfare nuclear option, shuffled into a conference room where we were briefed on the plan of the day. We then had a quick breakfast where I ran into USNI blog reader “BWalthrop” who wished me luck…it’s a small world!

Around 0800 the first round of technical interviews started. “Come on in, Mr. Withington. Imagine you and a friend were doing a science experiment…”and I was asked how the velocity of my friend’s plane in terms of my car’s velocity. Something I don’t do too regularly with my friends or as a history major! I was peppered with other questions for the rest of the hour and walked out a little shell-shocked. The second interview went a little better and I was dismissed for lunch.

Then it was time for the interview with the “ADMIRAL” (all caps according to our instructions for the interview). My last name landed me the last interview with the ADMIRAL for the day. We moved to another holding room and one by one we were called out. By the time 3 of us were left, we anxiously paced the room and awaiting the interview and decision.

Then I was called to wait outside his office door; I was getting pretty nervous by this point. An officer opened the door and beckoned me in the room. As soon as I passed the doorframe into the room I began my scripted introduction, “Good afternoon Admiral, I’m MIDN 1/c Jeff Withington from West Chester, Pennsylvania. In high school I participated in debate and cross country,” I was sitting in “The Seat” by this point, “while at the Academy I have participated in Masqueraders and Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference. I am currently company honor adviser. I am interviewing for submarines.” My wait for the first question lasted about .001 sec after I completed my intro: “Tell me about what you do as company honor adviser.”

OK, this is good, I thought; I didn’t receive the expected and more confrontational “How are you majoring in history and are interested to do nuclear power?” As soon as I finished my answer, he probed for more details about what I exactly did. He then began to ask how I would punish those found to violate our honor concept. More whys followed. “OK, well thank you.” And that was it.

I waited outside and a commander in service dress blues came up to me, offered his hand, and said MIDN Withington, welcome to the program.”

I am set to enroll in a course entitled “Readings in Grand Strategy” next semester. The course description features many of the “greats” of strategy: Bismarck, Clausewitz, Philip II, etc. I began to wonder: as America struggles to find the way forward, are we searching for a great man or many good men?

I am fascinated by the knowledge problem in strategy. It’s the same problem which faces societies as they struggle to create an economic order. In “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Friedrich Hayek wrote brilliantly on this issue,

“The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.”

Knowledge within an organization (or society) is decentralized. If America wants to make the “best” grand strategy, it has to somehow utilize all the dispersed bits of knowledge. Yet, we have an overwhelming amount of knowledge, which only serves to swamp decision-makers. For example, 50,000 intelligence products are created every year, to which Thomas Fingar, former DNI deputy director for analysis, concedes, “There can’t possibly be a market for.”

How do we aggregate the sum knowledge at our disposal? I would submit one brilliant mind cannot do this as well as many good minds. George Kennan’s “Long Telegraph” on the Soviet Union is an excellent example– one brilliant mind dominated policy discussion. Instead of asking one super-expert about the USSR’s intentions, we could have bet on it.

What if we were to have a large pool of experts and ask them to wager on a series of questions? One example, “In 5 years or less, will Russia have another armed conflict with Georgia?” The experts would then use virtual money to gamble on the outcome. It’s called a prediction market and they’re eerily accurate at forecasting. By tapping into the power of many minds, we can detect bits of information which would have previously gone unnoticed.

In many instances, the prediction market uses prices to represent probablilties. For example, if a Russian invasion of Georgia in the next five years were selling at $.20, then the market is forecasting a 20% likelihood of the invasion occuring.

Private companies already use them. Google found they gave “decisive, informative predictions” on “product launch dates, new office openings, and many other things of strategic importance to Google.”

It Works!

It Works!

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