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Earlier this month, a Russian Su-27 Flanker came dangerously close – within 10 feet – of a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon operating within international airspace over the Black Sea. This latest incident adds to an alarming pattern of aggressive interactions by Russian forces with NATO naval and air assets. Such interactions are reminiscent of Cold War behavior and the dangerous incidents between U.S. and Soviet naval forces. This parallel allows us to examine the past to gain insights in dealing with these incidents on and above the sea, though we must not lose sight of the vastly different world we now operate in.
At a time when Russian military activity is unquestionably higher than any point since the end of the Cold War, these actions, labeled by the Pentagon in its September 7th press release as “clearly unprofessional,” are symptomatic of a Russia desperate to reestablish itself as a major power. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has made clear his intent to restore Russia to its previous great power status – or at least to reclaim its historical sphere of influence in the ‘near abroad’ as a regional hegemon. This has translated to rising military spending, improved research and development, snap exercises and drills, airstrikes in Syria, and the operational use of innovative hybrid warfare. Russia’s navy is engaged in exercises from the South China Sea to the Baltic Sea. The Russian military is rebuilding, dusting off the rust, and flexing its newfound muscle to achieve the domestic and foreign policy goals of the State.
While carefully avoiding a direct confrontation with NATO – even Putin must realize the foolishness of a direct conflict given his military’s current state –the Russians are continuing to test allied forces. Russian fighter aircraft have harassed U.S. navy ships, including the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) incident in the Baltic Sea this spring. The Russian frigate Yaroslav Mudry aggressively approached the USS San Jacinto (CG-56) while it was operating with the Dwight D. Eisenhower Strike Group in late June. Only a few weeks earlier, the same frigate had maneuvered unsafely around the Harry S Truman strike group and faced off with the guided missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG-107).
Though all of these incidents ended relatively peacefully, the alarming frequency combined with provocative profiles indicate a potential time bomb. The commanding officers of those ships – designed to handily eliminate such air threats – demonstrated restraint and calm judgment in not taking defensive action. Future Russian pilots and ships who create a dangerous situation may not encounter the same response. Continued testing of the established norms and boundaries while operating at heightened tensions may invariably lead to mistakes or perhaps an unintended escalation.
It was exactly this type of concern over mistakes and faulty judgment calls that prompted American and Soviet leaders during the Cold War to enter discussions intended to prevent an inadvertent entry into World War III. While it is true that our geopolitical world today is barely recognizable from the bi-polar era of the Cold War, we would be well served to use a particularly successful tool from the Cold War playbook. In March 1968, following a succession of incidents between U.S. and Soviet naval forces – including threatening profiles, flying in close proximity, and ships aggressively shouldering each other – the U.S. proposed talks focused on preventing such escalatory incidents at sea. The Soviet Union accepted the invitation and negotiations were conducted in October 1971 and May 1972. The final “Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas,” more commonly known as INCSEA, was signed in Moscow in 1972 by then Secretary of the Navy John Warner and Soviet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov.
INCSEA sought to reduce the risk of misunderstandings by providing measures to help avoid collisions, protocols for maintaining safe distances from surveillance ships, prohibiting interference in formations or simulating attacks on the other party’s ships or aircraft. It further mandated the use of international signals when ships maneuvered in the vicinity of each other to increase communication and reduce surprises. In addition, the agreement provided for advance notice of three to five days for any projected actions which could ‘represent a danger to navigation or to aircraft in flight.’ The initial effectiveness led both sides to agree to a protocol the following year, building on the premise of INCSEA by pledging not to make simulated attacks against nonmilitary ships of the other state.
By the early 1980s, INCSEA had proven to be an effective tool to enhance mutual understanding and reduce the potential for conflict fueled by misunderstanding. Secretary of the Navy John Lehman credited INCSEA for improving Soviet –U.S. relations at sea, observing that the number of incidents had declined dramatically. The INCSEA agreement had established clear guidance for interactions at sea which both sides largely adhered to. This framework thus served to improve safety at sea and helped prevent inadvertent misunderstandings.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the agreement was assumed by the Russian Federation and still ostensibly remains in effect today. In fact, delegations from both the U.S. and Russia hold annual Prevention of Incidents On or Over the High Seas (INCSEA) discussions. The most recent was held in Moscow on 8 June of this year. While this forum offers an opportunity to address our contemporary issues – and indeed, the delegations did discuss recent Russian air and surface ship interactions with U.S. naval forces – it is clearly inadequate. One only has to look at the dates of the HST CSG and IKE CSG incidents to realize the lack of influence the chosen delegations have on Russian military actions. Delegates clearly have little power to influence military policy and are merely fulfilling the requirements of a long-standing agreement rather than working towards the intended purpose of the forum as a mechanism to reduce tensions.
It is time that we take the principles and ideals behind the original INCSEA agreement and start anew. The naval forces of the Cold War were different than the modern fleets patrolling the high seas today. While it is clear that the world has evolved significantly from the bi-polar era of the Cold War, so too have the military forces of both the U.S. and Russia. Tactics, training, and strategies have changed to accommodate the modern global challenges. Even communication methods, sensor systems, and weapons capabilities are vastly different than those in the Cold War and must be accounted for in an updated agreement. It is further necessary to draft an agreement that Russia’s current leadership embraces as mutually beneficial, instead of relying on a Cold War relic agreed upon by their Soviet Union predecessors. The basic premise of INCSEA is solid, but lessons can also be garnered from the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium, where the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) was agreed to by member states. The new protocol should extend beyond just the U.S. and Russia, to include other states in the region in a manner more akin to CUES than INCSEA.
Given the tensions in today’s world – with a resurgent Russia desperate to prove its military prowess and reclaim its spot at the great power table – there must be a serious effort to address incidents at sea before an unexpected escalation occurs. Reducing misperceptions and the chance for inadvertent conflict is a small, but crucial, element of our broader strategy. It is time to reconvene talks aimed at the development of a modern INCSEA protocol. Initial talks should occur directly between U.S. and Russian Federation delegates. Subsequent talks should include NATO, and EU representatives, as well as interested regional states. An agreement will not be reached overnight – indeed, the INCSEA process was lengthy. But we must start now in order to provide a better framework to guide potentially dangerous interactions.
It is what it is. Over the years we laughed at the use of this phrase, a catch-all Marine Corps-ism that regularly worms its way into briefs, emails, and conversations around the Corps. Even as young Marines, “It is what it is” stood out to us for its inanity. During endless staff briefs, annual training sessions, and mandatory safety standdowns, we would play bingo with common Marine Corps catchphrases, and “it is what it is” was an easy one to get. Alongside other ubiquitous sayings like “where the rubber meets the road” and “needs of the Marine Corps,” “it is what it is” is often used to represent practicality, realism, or the acknowledgement that funding, imagination, and time are all scarce resources, a la Rumsfeld’s “you go to war with the Army you have.”[i]
But that’s not what “it is what it is” really means in today’s Marine Corps. Instead, its default, knee-jerk use has come to symbolize bureaucratic laziness and ignorance, the epitome of the Corps’ default response to any request that demands a difficult choice, any observation that strays from the norm, or any attempt to work smarter versus harder. “It is what it is” represents an institutional shrug and a yearning for the path of least resistance. Each use, nearly incontestable by individual Marines, reflects and strengthens the Corps’ aversion to change.
But what happens when the needs of the Marine Corps – those very needs cited to justify outdated personnel policies, training requirements, or performance evaluations – aren’t actually being best served by an institutional shrug? For exhibit A, we’d like you to direct your attention to the importance and relevance accorded a Marine’s family, particularly his or her spouse.
The Marine Corps loves its families. It tells us this over and over again, in big banners hung on bases, in the Commandant’s FRAGO, and on www.marines.mil. We even have Family Readiness Officers, those nice individuals who assess the needs of Marine Corps families in order to ensure that each unit is ready to deploy if the balloon goes up. We’ve come a long way from those sepia-toned days when a young Marine was advised that if the Corps had wanted him to have a wife, he would have been issued one.
Or have we? Actions speak louder than words, and many personnel and family policies still reflect that narrow, obsolete mentality today, despite evidence that military families have decidedly changed from the 1950s. And when actual, real-life Marines and their families push back against those policies, they often get told, “it is what it is; the needs of the Marine Corps take precedence.” This is where “it is what it is” gets stupid.
In the world according to the Marine Corps, the (generally male) breadwinner earns the living wage for the family, and the family obediently follows in support. Spouses (generally women) function to support their Marine, and any outside work or career that they have should be flexible, uncontroversial, and secondary to the primary career of the Marine. Spouses’ careers and educations are viewed as subordinate, as a “personal choice” that the Marine Corps does not need to consider in its personnel policies and moves. Despite recent lip service to the contrary, that Corps-wide ideal is still the gold standard: attendees at the most recent commander’s conference this past spring were reminded of this fact by the Commandant and his wife.
The life of a Marine simply has to be this way, we are assured. The Marine Corps demands constant readiness, so the message to spouses is to show up, shut up, and support your Marine. The Corps pays enough to support you, and if you stick around and pay your dues long enough to retire, you’ll be taken care of. So stop complaining, that’s just the life of a Marine. It is what it is.
Except…that is not the way it is. Families today don’t look like they did back in the 1950s, economic realities are radically different than they were even thirty years ago when our senior leaders entered service, and a military career does not have to be the inflexible, cookie-cutter, unimaginative template that it is today. But the Marine Corps doesn’t want to hear this. Acknowledging such heresy would invite drastic changes, making things messy and unpredictable. The Corps’ bureaucracy would prefer things to remain stagnant, enabling personnel assignment, command selection, and everything in between to remain as it is today…forever. It is what it is. Existing policies best serve the needs of the Marine Corps.
Well, let’s talk for a minute about what “it” truly is. “It” is the fact that the cost of raising and putting a child through college has grown by as much as 500% since 1980,[ii] so families today must earn more and work harder for longer than they did three decades ago, so spouse employment and education is a necessity for many families today. “It” is the fact that 90% of military spouses who do work are underemployed or overqualified for positions they hold, which not only hurts families today but will continue to hurt them for decades post-service.[iii] “It” is the fact that on top of that, given similar careers and qualifications, military spouses earn 38% less than their civilian counterparts and are 30% more likely to be unemployed.[iv] And “it” is the fact that in 2016, economic necessities aside, the odds are high and growing that a spouse will have their own career anyway. As time passes and those crazy Millennials fill all of the ranks, Marines and their families will be increasingly unwilling to conform to the mold that presently exists. As if they aren’t already.
Basically, “it” is a world that’s a far cry from the one that codified the male breadwinner ideal, that world of unicorns and rainbows where a Marine Corps wife works only because she wants to in a career that is traditional and flexible. In Darwinian fashion, the reality that families face today, the reality that “it” is, directly affects the retention of members with professional spouses, creating a near-homogeneous collection of senior leaders with little empathy or understanding for those they lead. The gap between the male breadwinner ideal and the reality that families face today will continue to grow unless the Marine Corps acknowledges this fact and acts now.
Our own personal “it is what it is” moment recently surfaced, and we are struggling through it right now. To be accurate, it’s far from the first such moment in our 17+ years of marriage and combined 36 years of Marine Corps service, but it’s the one that will hurt us the most. Time and again over the past year, we were told “it is what it is,” that we were outliers. But that’s just it. That isn’t what it is, we are not outliers, and more of us are rising up through the ranks. The Marine Corps fails to see reality and the impacts of demographic changes on its families and its future recruiting pool, which dangerously limits its appeal to an ever-shrinking, homogenous group. Take a look at any gathering of senior leaders – you’ll hear and see it firsthand. While “it is what it is” hurts our family and families like ours today, in the name of serving the needs of the Marine Corps, it really hurts the Corps more.
The irony is that while telling families like ours “it is what it is,” the Marine Corps doesn’t recognize what it is. The Corps’ stance ignores the reality families face today, where holding down a job or earning a degree is overwhelmingly not a personal choice for a spouse but a necessity, and personnel policies that risk spouse employment and education will increasingly limit the appeal of the Marine Corps to the very demographic it should most target. The Corps’ incessant tendency to fight personnel reform efforts like the Military Family Stability Act (S.2403), the expansion of the Career Intermission Pilot Program, and every individual Marine family’s effort to survive and flourish in competitive world merely serves to cripple its future.
The bottom line? If the Marine Corps wants a diverse force that can chart our future and navigate our complex world, it must change to capitalize on the broad base of human capital that it spends so much energy to recruit. Holding the line on decades-old retention, promotion, education, and assignment policies does not best serve the needs of the Marine Corps, and that is what it is.