The U.S. Army hasn’t really flown fixed-wing combat aircraft since the Army Air Forces became the Air Force in 1947. An agreement on U.S. military policy written in Key West in 1948 divvied up the roles of aircraft used by the United States for air defense, interdiction of enemy land forces, intelligence, mine-laying, airlift, and pretty much anything else aircraft might have a role in doing.
Ever since, the Air Force is solely expected to provide close-air support, resupply, airborne operations, and pretty much everything else the Army might need fixed-wing aircraft for. Now one lawmaker wants to upend all that.
The top leadership of the world’s new superpower came together after World War II to form this gentleman’s agreement on whose air forces would perform what tasks because it was better than leaving it to Congress to codify it. Solving the problem before it became one also gives the Pentagon more flexibility in the future to control how it fights war, rather than forcing Congress to change legislation so it could get on with the business of defending America.
Seeing as how the Pentagon – and the Army in particular – need the tools required to execute that mission, one lawmaker is getting impatient with Air Force foot-dragging over a new close-air support attack aircraft. He’s ready to give the contract and the money to the Army if the project doesn’t get a move on.
Florida Rep. Michael Waltz is promoting his legislation to allow the U.S. Special Operations Command to get its own light attack aircraft, separate from the U.S. Air Force fleet. The House has already given the idea the green light (but not the money yet), and Waltz wants to extend that same courtesy to the Army. The reason is that the Air Force has been too slow in rolling out new, prop-driven attack planes for land interdiction.
“My frustration is almost palpable at why it is taking so long to get this platform out to where the warfighters need it,” Waltz said.
The Air Force has been working on the plane for the past 12 years, unsure if it really wants the platform over the A-10 or the newest F-35 fighters. The argument for the prop planes is that they provide better CAS coverage while costing much, much less than flying an F-35 for hours on end, all while carrying the same armaments. There’s only one problem – prop planes are really easy to shoot down.
The A-26 Super Tocano is just one of the types of light attack craft tested by the Air Force.
Waltz is a former U.S. Army Special Forces operator who believes low-intensity conflict will not go away in the coming years but rather will likely increase. He also believes the U.S. military’s main mission shouldn’t stray too far from its counterterrorism role.
“Whether it’s Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, South America, we are going to be engaged with our local partners on the ground in low-intensity conflict…” he said. “If we can’t move this program forward, then perhaps we need to explore if the Army needs that authority.”
The Air Force is looking to produce six A-29 Super Tocanos or six AT-6 Wolverines for training and advisory missions overseas and here at home. While the Air Force program has no set date for rollout, the legislation to give the Army the authority to roll out its own is part of the House version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.
Nestled inside infantry units moving against the enemy is often a single artilleryman who is arguably one of the most lethal fighters on the battlefield — the forward observer.
These soldiers, usually assigned to a Forward Support Team (the FiST), are known as “FiSTers” and are the eyes and ears for naval artillery and artillery gun lines across the world.
The fisters carry inside their helmets knowledge of every gun capable of reaching their areas of operation, including how fast the weapon can fire, what kinds of rounds it has at its disposal, and what effects those rounds have on targets.
They use this knowledge to support the infantry and other maneuver units. When the friendly element finds and engages the enemy, the fister gets to work figuring out how to best bring artillery to bear.
Often, this involves getting the machine gunners and riflemen to corral the enemy into a tight box that can easily be hit with airburst artillery, causing shrapnel to rain down on the enemy dismounts.
If enemy armored vehicles are rolling towards the line, the forward observers can call down specific rounds for penetrating a tank’s top turret armor or for creating a smoke screen to block friendly vehicles from view.
Many observers go through training to learn how to best use weapons deployed from helicopters, jets, and other aerial platforms. This allows them to start targeting enemies with hellfire missiles and the 30mm cannons of A-10s and AH-64s.
Marine observers and Army observers trained in joint fires can call for help from naval ships. While the Navy has decommissioned its massive battleships, there are still plenty of cruisers and destroyers packing missiles and 5-inch guns that are pretty useful for troops ashore.
It’s the forward observers that get those missiles and shells on target.
Forward observers direct the fires of all the big guns that can’t see their targets. And that’s what makes them so lethal.
The Littoral Combat Ship has been nothing short of problematic for the US Navy. Engineering and mechanical issues have repeatedly sidelined a number of active LCS warships, sometimes in foreign ports for months at a time. Oddly enough, as much as the LCS has been a pain in the figurative neck, it’s far from the worst frigate-type vessel afloat in today’s modern navies.
In fact, that dubious distinction goes to the yet-to-be-accepted F125 series of “super frigates” commissioned by the German Navy.
Though the first of the F125 ships, the Baden-Württemberg, has already been built and has sailed under its own power, it was returned to its builder by the German government — which isn’t a very good sign.
The German military originally sought a replacement for its Bremen-class frigates in the early 2000s. While the Bremen boats were still fairly young at the time, they were rapidly walking down the path toward obsolescence. With operational costs steadily climbing at a time when the German military planned to make deeps cut in spending, a plan formed in the minds of the country’s highest-ranking civilian and uniformed defense officials.
Instead of ordering frigates that could fulfill just one or two types of missions, they would order and commission the largest frigates in the world to serve as multi-mission platforms. They would, hypothetically, be able to operate away from their German home ports for up to 24 months at a time, function using a smaller crew, and serve on humanitarian and peacekeeping operations around the world as needed.
Additionally, similar to the LCS frigates, these new surface combatants would be able to field modules for various missions, quickly swapped out in port as varying objectives demanded. Special operations forces could also use the new ships as floating staging areas, with the ability to carry four smaller boats and two medium-lift NH90 helicopters.
In 2007, the first contracts for the new frigates — dubbed the F125 class — were inked, outlining an order for a batch of four ships with the potential for more in the future. The deal tallied up to nearly $3 billion USD with an expected delivery date of 2015-2016.
During the construction program, problems began to manifest, and with them came delays and cost overruns. By the time of the lead ship’s christening in 2013, German officials anticipated a commissioning date in 2016 or 2017 at the latest. However, by 2017, the situation had worsened when scores of defects were discovered during testing and evaluation.
The F125 class is far closer in size and constitution to a destroyer than a frigate. Coming in at around 7200 tons, the weight of the vessel (which includes its mission systems, propulsion, machinery, etc.) makes for a major speed disadvantage. The Baden-Württemberg can’t go faster than 26 knots (30 miles per hour) while underway. By comparison, Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which are just 15 feet longer than the F125s and are in a similar weight class, has been known to achieve speeds in excess of 30 knots (+35 miles per hour) with its engines are cranked up.
Not only does this have an impact on the F125’s performance, it also makes the ship considerably more expensive to operate in the long term.
Hardware and software woes are among the most damning issues plaguing the F125s. Defective mission-critical systems means that the ship is unreliable when at sea and probably completely unusable in combat situations. At this point, the F125s are more like extremely expensive military yachts than they are warships.
To top it off, the Baden-Württemberg has a consistent list to starboard, meaning that the ship is on a permanent lean to the right side.
In late December, 2017, the German military refused to accept the Baden-Württemberg for active service, citing the above flaws and defects. This is the very first time in German history where a warship was actually returned to its builder because it didn’t meet minimum operating standards and requirements.
There is no timeline on when the German Navy will finally accept the F125s into its surface fleet. That won’t happen until all four ships have been refitted and repaired to the satisfaction of German defense officials. Before that, millions of dollars will have to be reinvested into the already highly-expensive program.
As a young girl, Angie DiMattia knew softball would be her way out of an impoverished life.
Growing up, she lived with her parents and shared a room with her older sister inside a crammed 500-square-foot mobile home in Phenix City, Alabama.
“I remember stray animals coming into the house from the holes in the floor,” said Angie, now a first lieutenant. “It was rough.”
Her father worked hard delivering mail to make ends meet, she said. But, one day, her mother, who suffered complications from Type 1 diabetes, told her they’d never be able to afford to send her to college.
She saw softball as her golden ticket. It also fed her competitive side that later forged her into a chiseled bodybuilder and United States of America’s Ms. Colorado.
The strong work ethic that blossomed from her humble roots pushed her to keep practicing softball. Yet, she needed extra lessons to be a better pitcher, her favorite position. With no money to pay for them, she decided to work for her coach, who owned a batting cage.
A young Angie DiMattia poses for a photograph before a dance recital.
She picked up balls and swept the batters’ boxes in between customers. And at the end of the day, the coach helped with her form.
“That’s how I figured out how to pitch was through his lessons,” she said. “But I earned it.”
She also earned each of her wins with a used glove she had bought for 25 cents at a flea market. She pitched well with it throughout high school and got a scholarship to a nearby community college.
“That glove, and obviously my work, earned a college scholarship,” she said.
Angie shelved her lucky glove, but still used her industrious attitude in other competitions.
Now 34, Angie has raced in several marathons, Iron Man triathlons and often advises other soldiers on how to achieve their fitness goals.
Her motivation to care deeply for her own body partly stems from witnessing her mother suffer with hers.
“I just watched what life was like when your body fails you,” she said.
With her mother’s dietary restrictions, sugar was banned in the house and Angie learned how to eat healthy at a young age. She also saw sports and fitness as an outlet that taught her leadership, teamwork and camaraderie — skills that continue to resonate in her Army career.
“My life has definitely been geared toward taking care of my body, which takes care of my mind that takes care of everything else in my life,” she said.
Her efforts recently bore fruit.
Earlier this year, she competed in the Arnold Sports Festival, a massive competition with about 22,000 athletes. Out of nearly 20 contestants in her category, she finished second place.
First Lt. Angie DiMattia is seen volunteering for the Soldier Marathon in Columbus, Georgia.
The road to get there was not easy. On top of her routine physical training for the Army, she added two more hours of cardio in addition to a weightlifting session every single day for numerous weeks.
“I’d be so tired, I’d plop down,” she said of when each day ended.
While preparing for the competition, the endurance runner-bodybuilder also tried something out of the ordinary — a beauty pageant.
“I’m the complete opposite of a pageant girl,” she said, laughing.
While at a volunteering event, she met the state director of the USOA Miss Colorado pageant who convinced her to sign up. The prize that finally persuaded her — if she won, she could use her title to highlight issues she cares about on a wider platform.
“The pageant was never my goal,” she said. “To serve military families and Gold Star families, that was my goal.”
To her surprise, Angie became the first active-duty soldier to ever win the “Ms.” category for single women over 29 years old.
After being crowned, she has been able to collect more donations for Survivor Outreach Services at Fort Carson, Colorado, where she once served as a family readiness leader with 4th Infantry Division.
To her, volunteerism is her life purpose. She sees competitions as “selfish goals” because it saps a lot of her time from selfless endeavors.
“I don’t do a lot of community service because I’m really busy,” she said of when preparing for contests. “But it’s good sometimes to balance life. You have to grow individually before you’re able to help others.”
That passion was ignited a decade ago when she began to serve as a fallen hero coordinator for the Soldier Marathon in Columbus, Georgia. Proceeds from the race benefit the National Infantry Museum and other military-related nonprofit groups.
“It isn’t just me, it’s this team of people who all have the same mission,” she said. “We all love to run and we all love to serve our community and our military.”
Cecil Cheves, who is the race director, said that Angie has been an integral part of the annual event.
Then-2nd Lt. Angie DiMattia conducts a dumbbell workout Feb. 23, 2018, at Fort Carson, Colorado.
(Photo by Staff Sgt. Neysa Canfield)
She’ll research and produce a list of fallen soldiers from the local area and place their names on paper bibs that runners can run with in memory of them.
She also has a “vivacious personality” that she reveals as an announcer when runners cross the finish line.
“She gives off energy that draws others to her,” Cheves said.
But she is not self-focused, he noted, and is very interested in people.
“She’s the kind of person every organization, like the Army, would want,” he said. “She’s very much a team player.”
Angie also strives to use her current role as Ms. Colorado to raise awareness of fallen service members during other events, such as motorcycle rides that honor veterans.
Similar to the marathon, she hands out bibs with the names of deceased troops for riders to wear. If someone donates money for a bib, she gives it directly to Survivor Outreach Services.
“I’ve never taken a dime from it, not even to pay for my gas, not to pay for the printing materials, anything,” she said. “I pay it out of my own pocket.”
In 2012, Angie first joined the Georgia National Guard as an enlisted truck driver so she could be assigned to a unit that was close to her ailing mother.
But soon after she completed training, her mother passed away.
“I was only here so I could be next to her,” she said.
She decided to enroll in the ROTC program at Columbus State University and earned a bachelor’s degree. She became an intelligence officer, then a strategic communicator and is now preparing to switch careers to be a space operations officer in Colorado.
As a child, she was obsessed with space. She painted her ceiling black and mapped out the night sky with stars and planets that glowed in the dark.
“It isn’t something you hear about very often,” she said of the Army’s space career field. “When I realized that this was an opportunity, I was so excited.”
Being able to rise above the “rough patches” she was dealt with as a child has also made her a better leader, she said.
The strong work ethic that blossomed from her humble roots in Alabama has pushed 1st Lt. Angie DiMattia to accomplish many goals in life.
To her, she’s not embarrassed of the way she grew up. It actually shaped her desire to assist others facing their own challenges.
“I can influence beyond the chain of command with my community service and charity work,” she said. “But then I can relate to my junior soldiers through me being real. I know what it’s like to struggle a bit in life.”
When she gives advice to her soldiers, she says to seek mentorship from someone different from them and that way they can learn more.
She also likes to recite a quote on achieving goals that a Buddhist teacher once told her: “You just need to be yourself, but be all of you.”
But, perhaps, the greatest lesson she has learned is time management. If things in one’s life do not bring added value, she said, they need to be eliminated.
“My time is more important than my money,” she said. “You can invest money and get a return, but you cannot invest time and get time back.”
She suggests soldiers need to first define who they are and where they want to go before they try to conquer a goal in life.
“Let’s start mapping out these stepping stones,” she said, “that are going to be crucial to getting you to that next goal.”
A YouTube video emerged on May 18, 2018, showing a Saudi C-130H flying very low over a soldier’s head in Yemen, The War Zone first reported.
The video appears to show the soldier trying to slap the underside of the C-130H with an article of clothing, but it’s unclear where exactly in Yemen it was shot, and how much of it was planned, The War Zone reported.
C-130s are large transport aircraft, which are vital to Saudi Arabia’s operations in Yemen, The War Zone reported. Part of a $110 arms deal, the US sold Riyadh 20 C-130Js and three KC-130 refuelers in 2017 for $5.8 billion.
Being an infantry Marine stationed in Hawai’i is a blessing and a curse. If you get stationed out there, civilians will sarcastically tell you how hard your life is and fellow service members will glare at you with jealousy, but they don’t know the truth — not unless they read Terminal Lance, that is.
When you get orders to Hawai’i, you’ll probably feel excited right off the bat. If you grew up in the mainland United States and you’ve never visited, you’ve likely heard of it as a beautiful, tropical vacation spot. Once you get there, you’ll start to realize that, in some ways, it’s far from an island paradise.
So, to get you prepared, here are a few things you should know about being stationed out there:
Luckily, you’ll get compensated for the cost of living.
Everything is expensive
Mentally prepare yourself now for paying insane prices for things like milk or gasoline. If you’re a smoker, you might as well kick the habit now because you’ll be paying for every pack at the exchange on base. If you ever plan on leaving to explore the island, you’ll pay much more than that.
The facilities suck
Marine Corps Base Hawai’i is small and its size can likely be attributed to the fact that it was originally built to be a Marine Corps Air Station. Only after the fact was it then turned into a full-fledged base equipped to house with infantry battalions and artillery batteries. As you might imagine, there aren’t many options for shopping or entertainment on base.
You’ll become well acquainted with those humid jungles, don’t worry.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Aaron S. Patterson)
It’s always humid
Hawai’i is an island nation covered with a lush rain forest and surrounded by ocean. Not only is the heat intense, but the humidity is thick, making matters much worse. Not a day will go by where you won’t sweat — unless you spend the whole day in an air-conditioned building.
At least the sun will be gone for a bit of time.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Isabelo Tabanguil)
It’s always raining
Remember how it’s always humid? It’s because it constantly rains. If you’re infantry, you already know that rain is somehow magically, meteorologically attracted to where you are in the world so, don’t expect that to change at all in Hawai’i.
The locals hate you
A good amount of them, anyway. If they’re not a tattoo artist or business owner, they’ll probably have a disdain for you being a part of the United States military. Don’t take it personally and just ignore it because there’s no point in getting yourself into trouble when, at the end of the day, you’re not there by choice, anyway.
It won’t take long before you start to feel the claustrophobia.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Luke Kuennen)
You’re stuck on an island
Your ass belongs to the Corps, so you best believe you can’t leave that island chain without permission. You can’t really even leave O’ahu unless you do some paperwork, so get used to those islands feeling like a prison.
The awards that decorate a troop’s dress uniform have meaning. If a troop does something extraordinary, there are plenty of awards they might earn, depending on the specific heroics. There are medals for more mundane actions, as well. If they serve at a specific location, like going overseas or even to Antarctica, in support of a military campaign, they’re likely to earn a medal. Enlisting at a certain time during conflict adds the National Defense Service Medal to your ribbons rack. However, there’s one award that sticks out as ridiculous — the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal (MOVSM).
All that’s required by this medal is that a troop (active duty, reserve, or national guard) performs a substantial volunteer service to the local community. The idea behind establishing the award in 1993 was to incentivize troops to do great deeds that would reflect highly on military service. In reality, it’s often seen as just another box to check.
We’re not disparaging charitable action, especially when it shines a good light on military service, but here’s why the award itself is silly.
5. The Humanitarian Service Medal already exists
The Humanitarian Service Medal is given to troops who participate in acts like disaster relief or the evacuation of refugees from a hostile area. The difference between this medal and the MOVSM is that this one is earned while on duty.
The HSM goes to the troops who were sent, let’s say, to New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The MOVSM, however, might go to the troop who helped put together a few potluck dinners. Both are the reward for doing a good deed but, according to the military, both nearly as prestigious as the other…
…which leads troops to not care about helping. (Image via GIPHY)
4. The criteria for earning one is vague
Every other award has clean-cut requirements. Have you been to this location or not? How does this act of heroism compare to other selfless acts? Were you able to be a good troop for three years or at least not get caught? This medal is an exception.
If a troop spends every weekend for a decade helping train the Boy Scouts, that’s a Volunteer Service Medal. If a troop says, “yeah, I got time. I can help you with that.” That act might be just as worthy, according to the nebulous criteria.
3. Standards range from impossible to non-existent
Many units see this award as ridiculous and put unreasonable restrictions on it. According to Army Regulation 600-8-22, to earn the MOVSM, one must exceed 3 years and/or 500 hours of service. Many times, a unit will ask for a proof-of-hours sheet that highlights how each of those hours was spent.
On the other side of the coin, the only definitive requirement — as outlined by the DoD — is that the good deed has tangible results and is not a single act. Many troops can tell you that they’ve earned this act simply by preparing and then attending a charity event. Boom. Instant award. Meanwhile, the Soldier who became his son’s Scout Leader has two years, 11 months, and three weeks to go to earn the same accolade.
Chances are that it’ll still get denied. (Image via GIPHY)
2. There’s no citation
The Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal is still a service medal. The award gets put in and, if it’s approved, the troop receives it. A commendation medal, on the other hand, is reflective of a specific, heroic action.
Technically speaking, there doesn’t need to be a formation and award ceremony for a MOVSM. The troop should just add it to their record and move on.
No need to waste everyone’s time with a BS award. (Image via GIPHY)
1. You can do the paperwork yourself and not need proof
By now, you’re probably already thinking about this point. If all that’s required is an hours sheet, how can you make sure a troop actually did what they claim? You can’t, really.
Troops who make a habit of volunteering, time and time again, over the course of three years are clearly not doing it for a single award worth five promotion points. They genuinely care. The guy who put on a couple of community potlucks doesn’t care about the volunteer service — they’re in it for the pat on the back.
Without a uniform standard on how to earn one, the award means almost nothing.
You don’t need to confess. Just know if you lied to get one, you suck. (Image via GIPHY)
The U.S. military’s uniform history is one of tradition and tactical purpose. Many tiny details on our uniforms date back centuries. The different colors in the Army’s dress blues are a call back to the days when soldiers on horseback would take off their jacket to ride, causing their pants to wear out at a different pace. The stars on the patch of the U.S. flag are wore facing forward as if we’re carrying the flag into battle.
Something that always stuck out was why the ACUs have the button and zipper locations opposite of civilian attire. All Army issued uniforms had buttons until the M1941 Field Jacket added a zipper with storm buttons on the front. Shortly after, many other parts of the uniform including pockets, trousers and even boots would start using zippers as a way to keep them fastened. The zippers, like many things in the military, were made by the lowest bidders until the introduction of the Army Combat Uniform or ACUs in ’04.
The zipper on the ACU blouse is heavy duty and far more durable than zippers on a pair of blue jeans. The zipper is useful on the blouse for ease of access but it also has a tactical reason for its use. A zipper allows medical personnel to undo the top far easier than searching for a pair of scissors or undoing all of the buttons. The hook-and-loop fasteners (Velcro) is to help give it a smooth appearance.
Buttons on the trousers serve a completely different purpose. The buttons keep them sealed better than a zipper. Think of how many times you’ve seen people’s zipper down and you’ll get one of the reasons why they decided to avoid that. Buttons are also far easier to replace than an entire zipper and a lot quieter when you need to handle your business.
Dress uniforms take the traditional route to mirror a business suit. The Army Aircrew Combat Uniform is on it’s OFP.
At this spot on the western side of the Dnieper River in central Ukraine, some 30,000 Soviet soldiers died under Nazi artillery during World War II. Yet, on this hot June day, there’s nothing to suggest that this particular place was once on the deadliest front of the deadliest war in human history.
“What horrors happened here,” says my 55-year-old Ukrainian father-in-law, Valeriy Deriy, who is a Red Army veteran of the Cold War. “Can you imagine?”
We’ve hired a zodiac boat for the day, embarking from a yacht club in the riverside town of Horishni Plavni. To get to the so-called Island of Death, our captain weaves through narrow, overgrown channels that branch off the main course of the Dnieper River.
Tucked away in a dense forest on the island, there’s an old Soviet war memorial. You’d hardly notice it from the water, unless you knew what to look for. Valeriy explains that one can still find evidence of war in the surrounding woods. Old artillery pieces, bullets, rifles, and boots. That sort of stuff.
“Some people want to forget the past. But it’s impossible,” he tells me. “It’s always there.”
Between August and December 1943, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union fought the battle for the Dnieper River. It was one of World War II’s largest battles, comprising some 4 million soldiers stretched along a nearly 900-mile-long front.
After Nazi Germany’s defeat at the Battle of Kursk, the Soviets pressed their advantage and pushed the Nazis back across Ukraine. The third longest river in Europe, the Dnieper — which runs roughly north to south down the middle of Ukraine to the Black Sea — was a natural physical obstacle for the advancing Red Army.
The Nazis took to the heights on the western bank to set up their artillery, which they used to devastating effect. The Red Army crossed the river under heavy fire, improvising makeshift means to get across. Soviet losses were staggering — accounts vary, but roughly 400,000 Red Army soldiers died in the Dnieper River battle of 1943.
The Other Side
Earlier, Valeriy and I stand at a spot on the opposite, eastern bank of the Dnieper River.
“My great-grandfather said the water ran red with blood in the war,” Valeriy says as we stand on the riverbank, looking to the other side.
Valeriy explains that his great-grandfather fought in that Dnieper River battle, and he crossed the river at this very spot. Right where we’re standing. I’m left a bit speechless.
His great-grandfather couldn’t swim, Valeriy continues, but Soviet commanders would have him shot if he’d refused the crossing. So he held on to a log for flotation and kicked his way across. Somehow, he survived.
“It was October, and the water was already very cold,” Valeriy says, shaking his head. “What a nightmare.”
Today, at this spot where so many died in World War II, there’s a simple old Soviet memorial crumbling, halfway reclaimed by the forest. A dilapidated Soviet tank and artillery piece sit in the foliage, too. But that’s it. You have to rely on your imagination to appreciate what happened here.
There’s not a cloud in the sky and the hot breeze feels good on my face. On a day like this, it’s hard to appreciate what happened here about 77 years ago. I can hardly imagine the fear felt by Soviet soldiers as they stood at that same spot on the river shore, looking to the far side like lost souls about to cross the River Styx.
And then I remember what it was like to stare across no man’s land in eastern Ukraine. I remember the fear I felt under the Russian artillery and sniper shots. And I imagine, at least a little, what those Soviet soldiers must have felt.
The trench lines in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region — where Ukrainian troops have fought a war since 2014 to keep a Russian invasion force at bay — are only about five hours away by car. We could be there by dinner, if we wanted to.
True, we’re much too far from the trenches to hear the daily rumble of battle, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The war is always there.
Standing on the riverbank, Valeriy says to me: “History has been hard on Ukraine. But things will get better. We’re fighting for our democracy, just like your country did. And we’ll win it, too. Just like you did. I still have hope that my daughter and my grandchildren will see an amazing, free Ukraine.”
Still looking across the river, facing the same divide his great-grandfather once faced, Valeriy adds: “We’ll get there.”
Valeriy never served in Afghanistan. He was posted instead to East Germany and worked in signals intelligence, a specialty that paved the way for his future civilian career as a German language interpreter.
“It was an unwritten rule in the Soviet army that only one brother would have to be in Afghanistan at a time,” Valeriy explains. “And my brother went in my place.”
Valeriy’s older brother, Sergiy, was drafted into the Red Army and served in the war in Afghanistan from 1982 to 1984.
In fact, both brothers had volunteered for the war. But their mother had secretly gone to military officials and asked that only one son be allowed to go. Sergiy ultimately volunteered without Valeriy’s knowledge. It wasn’t until their mother died in December 2012 that Valeriy learned the truth.
Sergiy was a sergeant in a signals unit deployed near the Salang Tunnel in the Hindu Kush Mountains. The combat he experienced was terrible, Sergiy tells me, but he doesn’t go into much detail about the war very often. And when he does, his eyes adopt a distinctly distant look, as if he’s looking past me, in an attempt to articulate memories that no words could ever really recreate.
Today, both Deriy brothers live in the town of Horishni Plavi — it’s where my wife, Lilya, grew up.
On a warm June afternoon, our family gathers at a park by the Dnieper River to grill shashlik — Ukraine’s version of a barbecue. Both Sergiy and Valeriy are wearing NASA baseball caps, gifts from me and my wife.
It’s the first time we’ve all been together since the coronavirus lockdown was lifted on June 5, and we’re in good spirits. We make toast after toast until our legs are a little wobbly. We’ve brought along an iPhone speaker and grill the meat while we cycle through a playlist of staple rock hits — songs by bands like the Scorpions, Led Zeppelin, Metallica. That’s my in-laws’ favorite kind of music. Mine too.
We end up cooking more meat than we could ever hope to eat in a day. And we maintain a steady pace with the cognac toasts. And, as it’s prone to do, the conversation between Valeriy, Sergiy, and myself returns to the ongoing war in Ukraine’s east.
“The Russians were never our friends. Stalin invaded us, and now Putin has, too,” Sergiy says. “The only county that ever really cared about us was the United States.”
“We’ll never forget what your country has done for us,” he adds, speaking specifically about America’s delivery of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.
Then Valeriy abruptly stands.
“Please,” he says, beckoning me to shake his hand, “I want to shake the hand of a citizen of the country that put a man on the moon.”
I stand and shake my father-in-law’s hand and feel proud of my country. And I’m particularly proud that he’s proud of my county, too.
A generation ago, we would have been enemies. Our countries were poised at opposite ends of the earth, ready to unleash nuclear Armageddon to destroy one another.
Today, we are a family.
No One Forgets
Located on the east bank of the Dnieper River, roughly 190 miles southeast of Kyiv, Horishni Plavni was founded by Soviet youth volunteers in 1960 as a place to live for workers in the nearby iron-ore mines.
Originally, the city’s name was “Komsomolsk,” a reference to the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, or “Komsomol.” The town was renamed Horishni Plavni in 2016 as part of Ukraine’s decommunization laws—a set of measures that went into effect in 2015 to curb Russia’s cultural influence.
Across the country, all Soviet-era names of settlements and roads have been changed to new Ukrainian ones. All reminders and relics of the Soviet Union have been removed or made illegal — including playing the Soviet national anthem and displays of the hammer and sickle flag.
Horishni Plavni’s main thoroughfare was once called Lenin Street. Now it’s named Heroes of the Dnieper River Street. The statue of Vladimir Lenin that once stood in the city center is gone. Only an empty pedestal remains — a common sight in Ukraine these days.
Yet you can’t totally erase the past. World War II is too deeply ingrained in Ukraine’s national psyche, and its physical environment, to ever be forgotten.
Soviet-era war memorials still stand around Horishni Plavni. At a riverside park, children play on the marble ramps of a towering, Soviet-era war memorial. In a nearby field, a row of Soviet tanks are on permanent display. Teenagers sit in the shade of the turrets and drink beer and listen to music.
Despite all their years living under Soviet propaganda, my father-in-law and uncle-in-law have a surprisingly pro-American perspective on the war.
“The Soviet Union could have never won without American help under lend-lease,” Valeriy tells me, referring to the American policy from 1941 to 1945 to provide materiel assistance to the Soviet Union’s war effort.
“And thank God the Allies landed in France,” Valeriy adds. “Otherwise Stalin would have taken over all of Europe.”
No War Ever Ends
After our shashlik picnic is over, Sergiy visits his brother’s apartment, where my wife and I are staying. He brings with him a photo album from his time in the Soviet army, including his deployment to Afghanistan in the 1980s.
I’m thrilled to have a look and listen to his stories from the war.
Sergiy recalls how his commander in Afghanistan justified the Soviet war by the need to defend the Soviet Union from U.S. nuclear missile strikes.
“We were told that America was evil, and that we were fighting in Afghanistan to defend the world from America,” Sergiy tells me. “It was all a lie, of course.”
Incredibly, Sergiy bears no ill will toward the country — my country — that was responsible for the death of many of his comrades.
“The Soviet Union did the same to America in Vietnam,” Sergiy says of America’s covert effort from 1979 to 1989 to arm and finance Afghanistan’s mujahideen fighters to fight against the Soviets. “It was the Cold War, and we were enemies. And that’s what enemies do to each other.”
Now, Sergiy has welcomed me — an American veteran of another war in Afghanistan — into his family with open arms. More than that, I’d even say that Sergiy and I share a special bond because we share a common battlefield. We remember the same places, and in some cases, the same enemies. Sometimes, as I’ve learned, former enemies actually have more in common with each other than they do with their fellow citizens who know nothing about war.
As he goes through the old photos, Sergiy’s face flashes with various contradictory emotions. Pride and pain. Nostalgia and regret. For Sergiy, war was both the worst and the best experience of his life. Therein lies that great paradox that faces all soldiers who’ve home to live in peace.
If war was so terrible, why do we sometimes miss it?
Sergiy, for his part, remembers his friends from the army fondly. But there’s a dark cloud, too, that hangs over every good memory.
“The Soviet Union lied to me. They lied to all of us,” Sergiy says as he flips through the photo album’s pages.
He pinches his lips and slowly shakes his head.
“They wasted so many lives,” he adds.
Soldiers rarely fight for the reasons dictated to them by the governments that send them to battle. Rather, once the bullets start flying, a simple sense of duty to defend one’s friends, and to not disappoint their expectations, is what inspires one to act courageously.
Yet, once soldiers are separated from their wars for a while — either by time or by distance — the moral clarity of duty may erode, leading them to question the justice of their individual actions in combat. The simple kill-or-be-killed morality of combat no longer shields them from thoughtfully considering the consequences of the things they did in war.
In many ways, life in peace is much more complicated than life in war. That was certainly true for my uncle-in-law. Although Sergiy came through the war in Afghanistan physically unscathed, he was left irrevocably jaded about Soviet communism.
In 1985, just a year after his discharge from the Soviet Army, Sergiy began law studies at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, Ukraine’s premier university.
“I felt so at peace. Finally, no war, no suffering. Only a bright future,” Sergiy recalls of his arrival in Ukraine’s capital city to begin his studies.
But it didn’t last. In April 1986, an explosion ripped through reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
The Chernobyl plant is located only about 60 miles north of Kyiv. And so, spooked by the threat of radiation, Sergiy was unsure whether he should stay in Kyiv to finish his law degree. The reborn optimism and happiness he’d felt just a year earlier, fresh from his wartime service, quickly gave way to feelings remembered from the war — dark feelings that he’d wanted to forget forever.
“When I was in Afghanistan, I always felt like death was chasing me,” Sergiy remembers. “And when I came back to Ukraine, I thought I could be free from that fixation on death. But Chernobyl happened, and here death finally caught me. A long and painful death. I remember I said to myself, ‘How ironic, death didn’t catch me in the war, but it did in civilian life.'”
Sergiy ultimately stayed in Kyiv to finish his law degree. After graduating from law school in 1991, he returned to his hometown of Horishni Plavni (then called Komsomolsk). The Soviet Union broke apart that year, further upending his world.
When Ukraine’s economy subsequently collapsed in the 1990s, Sergiy ultimately abandoned his law career and took up work as a hired hand. It was his only option to make a living. He never went back to practicing law.
My uncle-in-law, who is a devoutly religious man, has struggled with his demons from Afghanistan. And his family life has had its ups and downs. But he’s never given up hope for his country, even as Ukraine has gone through revolutions and an unfinished war to finally free itself from Russian overlordship.
“I try to stay positive, despite everything that’s happened to our country,” Sergiy says. “It would be so wrong not to believe in our future. I always have hope. It’s just a matter of time. Our future generations will be truly happy and free.”
As young men, Soviet propaganda told Valeriy and Sergiy that America was their mortal enemy. Yet, as older men, they’ve both shown the remarkable moral courage to abandon their former worldviews and embrace the promise of democracy.
Above all else, Valeriy and Sergiy now believe in the justice of freedom and democracy rather than conformity and communism. And the two Red Army veterans wholeheartedly believe that the United States is a force for good and a beacon of hope for freedom-loving people around the world.
It’s true that history hasn’t been kind to Ukraine, and my in-laws have not led easy lives.
Yet in spite of everything, their faith in America remains unbroken. And, with America’s promise lighting the way, they still extoll the justice of their own country’s democratic path, no matter its attendant hardships.
In the end, they choose to reject their Soviet past but not forget it. When the work of building a democracy gets tough, as it so often does, they look to the past to remember what they’re working so hard to achieve.
“Democracy hasn’t been easy, but I’d rather live as a free man than go back to the way things were before,” my father-in-law says.
Freedom, after all, usually means more to people who’ve experienced the alternative.
Jay Leno has a truly historic engine that he wants to show you: A Merlin 1650-1 engine used in fighters like the P-51 Mustang and Lancaster Bombers used across Europe to drive Germany back toward Berlin.
The engine got its start before the war. It underwent initial testing in 1933 and first took to the skies in 1935. Early models generated about 800 horsepower but increasing requirements in the pre-war years caused Rolls Royce to keep redesigning it, giving it more power and reliability.
The De Havailland Mosquito was powered by two Merlin engines.
(Photo by Wallycacsabre, CC BY 2.0)
Aircraft manufacturers in England kept reaching for the Merlin for their new designs. In 1939, the first production Spitfire rolled off the line packing a Merlin Mk. II engine capable of 1,030 horsepower.
This engine would go on to be used in everything from the Lancaster bomber, which sported four of these beasts, to the De Havilland Mosquito and the P-51 Mustang.
Still, the engine was a literal lifesaver for RAF pilots, and both the Brits and Americans wanted to buy more of them.
A P-51 flies over Virginia. The P-51 was first built with an Allison engine but quickly transitioned to the Merlin with great results.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Ben Bloker)
Britain inked a deal with Ford motor company to start mass producing the engine on the American side of the Atlantic, but Ford later backed out of the deal. The offer was made to Packard, then a luxury car brand in the U.S., who turned out their first Merlin engines in August 1941.
It’s one of these early Packards that Leno is showing off in his garage. They were delivered across the Atlantic both in boxes and already installed in planes like the P-51.
The P-51 was originally ordered by the Royal Air Force in 1940 and sported an Allison engine that produced 1,200 hp, but proved unreliable above 15,000 feet. Since it was supposed to escort bombers, that was a huge issue. The switch to the Merlins greatly increased their power and altitude ceilings.
And, in a lucky coincidence, the Merlin changed the center of gravity of the plane, shifting it slightly back. The engineers added a fuel tank to the front to level it out, also increasing the plane’s range.
World War II buffs love the engine for its effect on the war, but gearheads like Leno can find a lot to love in the engine’s massive power output and throaty sound. As Leno points out in the video below, he actually bought two cars built around the Merlin engine — and both are massive hotrods.
If you ever watched “The Jetsons,” an animated sitcom (1963-1964) about a family living in fictional Orbit City in the 2060s, you likely remember the iconic depiction of a futuristic utopia complete with flying cars and robotic contraptions to take care of many human needs. Robots, such as sass-talking housekeeper Rosie, could move through that world and perform tasks ranging from the mundane to the highly complex, all with human-like ease.
In the real world, however, robotic technology has not matured so swiftly.
What will it take to endow current robots with these futuristic capabilities? One place to look for inspiration is in human behavior and development. From birth, each of us has been performing a variety of tasks over and over and getting better each time. Intuitively, we know that practice, practice, and more practice is the only way to become better at something.
We often say we are developing a “muscle memory” of the task, and this is correct in many ways. Indeed, we are slowly developing a model of how the world operates and how we must move to influence the world. When we are good at a task—that is, when our mental model well captures what actually happens—we say the task has become second nature.
‘WHAT A PIECE OF WORK IS A MAN’
Let’s consider for a moment several amazing tasks performed by humans just for recreational purposes. Baseball players catch, throw, and hit a ball that can be moving faster than 100 miles per hour, using an elegant fusion of visual perception, tactile sensing, and motor control. Responding to a small target at this speed requires that the muscles react, at least to some degree, before the conscious mind fully processes visually what has happened.
The most skilled players of the game typically have the best mental models of how to pitch, hit, and catch. A mental model in this case contains all the prior knowledge and experience a player has about how to move his or her body to play the game, particularly for the position.
The execution of an assumed mental model is called “feed forward control.” A mental model that is incorrect or incomplete, such as one used by an inexperienced player, will reduce accuracy and repeatability and require more time to complete a task.
We can assume that even professional baseball players would need significant time to adjust if they were magically transported to play on the moon, where gravity is much weaker and air resistance is nonexistent. Similarly, another instance of incorrect models can be observed in the clumsy and uncoordinated movements of quickly growing children; their mental models of how to relate to the world must constantly change and adapt because they are changing.
Nevertheless, humans are quite resilient to change and, with practice, they can adapt to perform well in new situations.
A major focus of much current research going on now at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) is moving toward creating a robot like Rosie, capable of learning and executing tasks with the best precision and speed possible, given what we know about our own abilities.
NOT QUITE ‘INFINITE IN FACULTY’
In general, we can say that Rosie-like robot performance is possible given sufficient advances in the areas of sensing, modeling self-motion, and modeling interactions with the world.
Robots “perceive” the world around them using myriad integrated sensors. These sensors include laser range scanners and acoustic ranging, which provide the distance from the robot to obstacles; cameras that permit the robot to see the world, similar to our own eyes; inertial measurement sensing that includes rate gyroscopes, which sense the rate of change of the orientation of the robotic device; and accelerometers, which sense acceleration and gravity, giving the robot an “inner ear” of sorts.
All these methods of sensing the world provide different types of information about the robot’s motion or location in the environment.
Sensor information is provided to the algorithms responsible for estimating self-motion and interaction with the world. Robots can be programmed with their own versions of mental models, complete with mechanisms for learning and adaptation that help encode knowledge about themselves and the environment in which they operate. Rather than “mental models,” we call these “world models.”
‘IN FORM AND MOVING HOW EXPRESS AND ADMIRABLE,’ SORT OF
Consider a robot acting while assuming a model of its own motion in the world. If the behavior the robot actually experiences deviates significantly from the behavior the robot expects, the discrepancy will lead to poor performance: a “wobbly” robot that is slow and confused, not unlike a human after too many alcoholic beverages. If the actual motion is closer to the anticipated model, the robot can be very quick and accurate with less burden on the sensing aspect to correct for erroneous modeling.
Of course, the environment itself greatly affects how the robot moves through the world. While gravity can fortunately be assumed constant on Earth, other conditions can change how a robot might interact with the environment.
For instance, a robot traveling through mud would have a much different experience than one moving on asphalt. The best modeling would be designed to change depending on the environment. We know there are many models to be learned and applied, and the real issue is knowing which model to apply for a given situation.
Robotics today are developed in laboratory environments with little exposure to the variability of the world outside the lab, which can cause a robot’s ability to perceive and react to fail in the unstructured outdoors. Limited environmental exposure during model learning and subsequent poor adaptation or performance is said to be the result of “over-fitting,” or using a model created from a small subset of experiences to maneuver according to a much broader set of experiences.
At ARL, we are researching specific advances to address these areas of sensing, modeling self-motion, and modeling robotic interaction with the world, with the understanding that doing so will enable great enhancements in the operational speed of autonomous vehicles.
Specifically, we are working on knowing when and under what conditions different methods of sensing work well or may not work well. Given this knowledge, we can balance how these sensors are combined to aid the robot’s motion estimation.
A much faster estimate is available as well through development of techniques to automatically estimate accurate models of the world and of robot self-motion. With the learned and applied models, the robot can act and plan on a much quicker timescale than what might be possible with only direct sensor measurements.
Finally, we know that these models of motion should change depending on which of the many diverse environmental conditions the robot finds itself in. To further enhance robot reliability in a more general sense, we are working on how to best model the world such that a collection of knowledge can be leveraged to help select an appropriate model of robot motion for the current conditions.
If we can master these capabilities, then Rosie can be ready for operation, lacking only her signature attitude.
DR. JOSEPH CONROY is an electronics engineer in ARL’s Micro and Nano Materials and Devices Branch. He holds a doctorate, an M.S. and a B.S., all in aerospace engineering and all from the University of Maryland, College Park.
MR. EARL JARED SHAMWELL is a systems engineer with General Technical Services LLC, providing contract support to ARL’s Micro and Nano Materials and Devices Branch. He is working on his doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Maryland, College Park, and holds a B.A. in economics and philosophy from Columbia University.
This article will be published in the January – March 2017 issue of Army ALT Magazine.
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Sure, we all love the “Brrrrrt” of America’s A-10 Warthog — the legendary close air support plane that’s become the terror of Taliban insurgents and Iraqi bad guys alike.
But before the A-10 was the OV-10 Bronco. And while not a 100 percent close air support plane and tank killer like the A-10, the Bronco could deliver it’s own version of hurt when soldiers and Marines were in a pinch.
It’s rugged, powerful and can land just about anywhere with its beefed-up landing gear and high wing. In fact, it was even tested aboard the carrier USS John F. Kennedy in 1968 — without arresting gear.
Since it was retired in the 1995, the OV-10 has experienced a bit of a resurgence these days, with many in the special operations community, Army and Marine Corps calling for a “low and slow” light attack aircraft that can carry more, fly faster and orbit for longer than a helicopter, at a lot less cost than a sophisticated fighter like the F-35 Lightning II or even the aging A-10.
Heck, it even has a small cargo bay for gear and troops.
While there are other options out there, the OV-10 had been in the post-Vietnam inventory for years and still has a solid following in the services. In fact, U.S. special operations troops tested a NASA-owned Bronco recently for several of its missions and, according to an active duty aviator with knowledge of the tests, they loved it.
And if the Marine Corps or Navy says the OV-10 isn’t for them because it can’t land on a carrier? Well, here’s the evidence that it can.
The Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne is one of the greatest what-ifs in helicopter history. This unique chopper was arguably decades ahead of its time, reaching an incredible top speed of 245 miles per hour. Although it never made it past the prototype stages, the Cheyenne’s potential was obvious from the beginning.
The Cheyenne was originally intended to replace the AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter, which entered service in the 1960s. Unfortunately, the project’s development was marred by multiple technical delays and a fatal crash during testing. The original planned production run was then cut from 600 to 375. Despite the fact that this futuristic helicopter packed a powerful punch — provided by a 30mm cannon and the BGM-71 TOW missile — it was cancelled.
From behind, you can see the push-rotor that gave the Cheyenne its impressive performance.
But the Cheyenne didn’t just have powerful weapons. The Cheyenne was also intended to carry an array of sophisticated sensors, including a laser rangefinder, infra-red systems, and night vision capabilities. Its navigation suite was also extensive, including a terrain-following radar, Doppler radar, and an inertial navigation system. The helicopter was capable of flying at high speed at altitudes as low as fifteen feet.
In essence, the Cheyenne, which had a maximum range of 629 miles, was more than just a killer of enemy tanks, it could also fulfill reconnaissance roles deep behind enemy lines. The Cheyenne could not only attack targets itself, but could also direct attacks from other Army assets, like artillery batteries.
The AH-56 Cheyenne had impressive performance, sensors, and firepower.
While the Cheyenne never saw front-line service, its cancellation did lead to the funding and production of the universally loved A-10 Thunderbolt, as well as the competition that eventually produced the AH-64 Apache. Furthermore, the push-rotor that was the signature of this advanced recon/attack helicopter made a comeback on the S-97 Raider.
Learn more about the incredible capabilities of the Cheyenne in the video below.