The P-51 Mustang is best known as a long-range escort fighter that helped the bombers of the Eighth Air Force blast Germany into rubble. But this plane’s first combat experience came in a very different form – as a dive bomber.
The United States Army Air Force didn’t originally buy the Mustang as a fighter, but as a dive bomber, according to aviation historian Joe Baugher. A 1995 Airpower Magazine article reported that the decision to buy a dive-bomber version was made to keep the line open because the Army Air Force had drained its fighter budget for 1942.
The A-36 was officially called the Mustang to keep the Germans from knowing about the dive-bomber variant. Some sources reported the plane was called the Apache or Invader – even though the latter name was taken by the A-26 Invader, a two-engine medium bomber. No matter what this plane’s name was, it could deliver two 500-pound bombs onto its target.
According to an Air Force fact sheet, the A-36 was equipped with an Allison engine similar to those used on the P-38 Lightning and P-40 Warhawk fighters as opposed to the Rolls Royce Merlin. This plane had a top speed of 365 miles per hour and a range of 550 miles. It also had same battery of six M2 .50-caliber machine guns that the P-51 had. The guns were in a different arrangement (two in the fuselage, four in the wings) due to the bomb shackles attached to the wings of the A-36.
Only 500 of these planes were built, and 177 were lost to enemy action. This is because, like the P-51, the A-36’s liquid-cooled engine was easier to disable than the air-cooled engine used on the P-47 Thunderbolt and F4U Corsair. However, the A-36 did score 101 air-to-air kills. This was despite being the Mustang with the “bad” Allison engine. One pilot, Michael T. Russo, achieved the coveted status of “ace” in the A-36, scoring five kills according to MustangsMustangs.net.
Ultimately, the A-36 saw some action in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations and in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. It eventually was retired and replaced, but in one ironic twist, eventually, the P-51, intended as a long-range escort, was equipped to carry the same two 500-pound loadouts the A-36 could carry. You can see a World War II-era newsreel on the A-36 below.
While it’s not a bad plane, for ground-attack missions, the P-47 and F4U were probably better planes for the job.
In April 1944, an intrepid pilot swooped into the jungle in Burma and scooped up three wounded British soldiers and began to fly them out. It would have been a grand escape, a small part of the growing story of air ambulances in World War II. But this story isn’t about that pilot, Tech Sgt. Ed Hladovcak.
An L-1A Vigilant similar to the plane piloted by Tech. Sgt. Ed Hladovcak before he went down.
They were alone behind enemy lines. Low-flying planes of the 1st Air Commando Group, of which Hladovcak was a member, found the struggling survivors. But while the air commandos had planes specially made for jungle and short airstrip operations, even those planes couldn’t get the four men out of the jungle they were in. So the order was given to send in a YR-4B, the first military production helicopter.
The YR-4B was an experimental aircraft, but it worked and went into production. The early models had bomb racks and were used in a variety of combat trials while the later R-4 had the racks stripped off. There were so few helicopter pilots in the world in 1944 that there was only one qualified pilot in the China-Burma-India Theater: 1st Lt. Carter Harman.
1st Lt. Carter Harman, standing at left, and other members of the 1st Air Commando Group medical evacuation mission.
(U.S. Air Force)
Harman had joined the Air Corps to avoid being drafted into the infantry, but fate steered him into helicopter flight. Despite Harman’s martial misgivings, he took to the “whirlybirds” and became just the seventh Army pilot to fly a helicopter solo. When he shipped to India, he was the only one who could fly the “eggbeater.”
And he was needed 600 miles away, over mountains and through thin air which his helicopter could barely traverse, as fast as possible if the four men on the ground were going to get away without being captured or killed by the Japanese troops already searching for them.
Harman packed the YR-4B with extra fuel and took off on a marathon flight, hopping through the terrain until he reached a jungle airstrip known as “Aberdeen.” Then, despite the jungle air inhibiting the performance of his air-cooled engine and the lift of his rotors, he took off over the trees.
A liaison airplane, one of those models built to perform in the jungle, led Harman to the downed airmen. But thanks to that jungle air mentioned above, Harman could only lift one patient at a time. So, he landed April 24 and spoke to Hladovcak, and Hladovcak helped load a British soldier. It was Hladovcak’s first time seeing a helicopter.
Harman carried him and then a second British soldier back to Aberdeen and came back for the third man, but his engine gave out under the strain. He was forced to land on a small sandbank as Japanese troops prowled the nearby jungle, searching for him. Alone behind enemy lines, Harman slowly repaired his engine. On the morning of April 25, he was back in the air.
He quickly got the third British soldier to a waiting liaison plane and then pulled out Hladovcak, flying his 1st Air Commando counterpart to Aberdeen. Harman would later receive the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions. This and other rescues in World War II proved the value of helicopter evacuation, leading to its extensive use in Korea and then Vietnam.
It was there, in the jungles of Vietnam, that the helicopter cemented its place in military aviation. It didn’t just serve medical evacuation; it was used extensively to move supplies and troops, and Bell Helicopters sold the Army its first dedicated attack helicopter, the AH-1 Cobra.
Once the Coast Guard has a suspect vessel in its sights on the high seas, there’s usually nowhere for it to go, but getting it to stop isn’t always easy.
The crew of the Coast Guard cutter James returned to Florida in November 2018 with nearly 38,000 pounds of cocaine seized by it and other Coast Guard ships in the Pacific. Stacked on some of the bales of cocaine were clear signs of the Coast Guard’s precision.
“So what you see here are some engine cowlings,” said Capt. Jeffrey Randall, commander of the James, referring to the half-dozen plastic covers perched on bales of seized drugs like trophies.
“We pair up the capabilities of the ship, the sensors of the ship, with our helicopter detachment that’s back there,” he said, referring to the helicopter parked behind the crew on the James‘ aft deck.
“That helicopter has what we call an aerial-use-of-force capability. So we can shoot from the aircraft with precision marksman fire, and we direct it at the engines of the vessel to stop the vessels when they fail to heave to.”
A helicopter crew from the Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron Jacksonville trains over the St. Johns River on Sept. 22, 2009.
(US Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Hulme)
Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Paulo Cheng, a maritime enforcement specialist and student of the Precision Marksmanship School, shoots at known distance targets with an M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System during the Precision Marksmanship Course at the Spartan Ranch Tactical Training Center in Maysville, July 26, 2018.
(US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Nicholas Lubchenko)
Petty Officer 1st Class Jesse Pitrelli and Petty Officer 1st Class Peter Purcell at Army Sniper School at Fort Benning, Georgia, February 16, 2016. Pitrelli and Purcell are the first active-duty Coast Guardsmen in history to graduate from Army Sniper school.
(US Coast Guard photo)
“We conduct training on the flat range weekly, do various range and yard lines, concentrating mostly on snaps and movers,” a Coast Guard Maritime Security Response Team member told Military.com, referring to targets that appear suddenly and change position. “Because that’s where your bread and butter is. I mean, shooting moving targets is it.”
“The relationship between the shooter and the spotter is extremely important. The spotter’s job is probably the hardest He’s evaluating the factors with the wind,” the MRST member said. “The spotters responsibility is to actually see what the wind is doing and give the shooter the correct information so that he can make that accurate shot.”
Pitrelli and Purcell participate in training during Army Sniper School at Fort Benning, Georgia.
(US Army photo)
Petty Officer 2nd Class Anthony Phillips, a precision marksman at Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron, displays the weaponry used by a HITRON during missions, Feb. 23, 2010.
(US Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Bobby Nash)
Coast Guard marksmen have also shown their prowess in head-to-head competition. In 2017 and 2018, Coast Guard teams finished 3rd and 9th, respectively, in the International Sniper Competition hosted by the US Army. In both those years, the Coast Guardsmen beat out the Marines, who finished 7th in 2017 and 10th in 2018.
A gunner in an MH-68 Stingray helicopter from the Helicopter Interdiction Squadron from Jacksonville, Florida, patrols a drug transit zone alongside the Coast Guard cutter Gallatin from Charleston, S.C.
(Photo by Chief Warrant Officer Donnie Brzuska)
A Coast Guard aerial marksman from Air Station San Francisco sights in on a target during counter-terrorism training, in San Pablo Bay, California, June 11, 2009.
(US Coast Guard photo)
On shared waterways of ports and rivers, the Coast Guard has to determine who is just a boater and who has malicious intent. “We have a continuum, what we call a use-of-force continuum,” Capt. Jason Tama, commander of Coast Guard sector New York, told Business Insider in October 2018. “The last thing we want to do is, certainly, use deadly force, but we’re prepared to do that if we have to.”
Coast Guard marksmen are often armed with Robar RC-50 anti-material rifles, which are designed to take out machinery and are also used by US Special Operations Command.
Coast Guard helicopters and surface vessels, like the 45-foot small boats used in the use-of-force demonstration in New York Harbor in October 2018, can be armed with mounted M240 machine guns.
“Our first move, we’ll move out to intercept them, try to determine their intent and get the vessel to stop, using lights and sirens just like you would on any street in America,” Lt. Cmdr. Devon Brennan, head of the Coast Guard’s Maritime Safety and Security Team in New York, said during a use-of-force demonstration in October 2018. “If radio call-outs and communications doesn’t work, the next step will be to deploy the warning shots. … If they still don’t comply, then we escalate the steps to disable their engines.”
The Coast Guard’s Maritime Safety and Security Teams, or MSSTs, and Maritime Safety and Response Teams, or MSRTs, were set up after the September 11 to respond to terrorism and other threats to US ports and waterways.
There are now 11 MSST teams whose assignments include security for UN General Assemblies, national political conventions, hurricane-response efforts, and major sporting events.
MSRTs are a ready-alert force for the Coast Guard and Defense Department combatant commanders for both short-notice operations and planned security needs. MSRTs provide subject-matter expertise for security, training, and disaster-response events and recent operations include presidential inaugurations and NATO summits.
The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Harriet Lane approaches a suspected smuggling vessel while a helicopter crew from the Coast Guard Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron monitors from the air on Feb. 25, 2018.
(US Coast Guard photo)
A helicopter crew from the Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron Jacksonville demonstrates warning shots fired at a non-compliant boat off the coast of Jacksonville, Sept. 24, 2009.
(US Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Hulme)
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II spent his last hours holed up in a fort near the Red Sea town of Maqdala. He was under siege by British troops who had just routed his numerically superior force and tore through his lines. With the British storming his fortress, the Emperor shot himself in the head, ironically using a gun gifted to him from Queen Victoria.
British forces had a field day with the fort. They would eventually destroy it before heading back to England, but first, they had to plunder everything of value from the captured prize. Their victory train required 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry all the gold, gems, and artifacts back to where they came from. But the British took more than that, they presented the Emperor’s seven-year-old son to Queen Victoria and kept locks of Emperor Tewodros II’s hair as a prize.
Not my first prize choice, but whatever.
Tewodros’ legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of Ethiopians to this day. More than 150 years later, the defiant Emperor’s spirit of independence inspires some of Ethiopia’s finest writers and artists. He is now a symbol for the potential of the country, a forward-thinking leader that would not bow to outside pressure or simply allow his people to be colonized. His star was on the rise as he worked to keep his country away from the brink of destruction, only to be brought down in a less-than-glorious way.
The Christian emperor was busy reuniting Ethiopia from various breakaway factions as the power and force of Islam and of Islamic nations put pressure on him to push back. Tewodros expected help from the Christian nations of the world but found none was forthcoming. He tried imprisoning British officials to force an expedition to come to Ethiopia’s aid. He got an expedition, but the 12,000 troop-strong force was coming for him, not his enemies.
The fort at Maqdala overlooks a deep valley. The British did not have an easy time of it here.
The Emperor imprisoned those officials at Maqdala, where he himself was holed up, along with 13,000 of his own men. The British force coming to the fort was comprised of only 9,000 men, but they were carrying superior firepower with them. When the redcoats completely tore up the Abyssinian army, Tewodros decided to take his own life, rather than submit to the humiliations that the British would surely subject him to.
That small act of defiance earned him immortality in Ethiopia, who remembers Tewodros today as one of the country’s most prominent cultural and historical figures.
And for decades, the Ethiopians have demanded the return of Tewodors’ hair. Only now, after decades and a French push to restore captured colonial artifacts to their home countries, has England ever considered giving in.
When most people retire from the military, they look forward to spending more time with family, relaxing, and maybe pursuing their hobbies.
Neall Ellis isn’t most people.
After a successful career in both the Rhodesian and South African militaries, Ellis became bored with civilian life. Rather than sit back and relax, he decided to pursue the only hobby he knew — kicking ass.
With plenty of strife and a need for fighters throughout the African continent, Ellis decided to become a mercenary. He wasn’t going to be just any mercenary though. Ellis recruited a team and procured an Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunship.
Ellis’ mercenary work eventually brought him to Sierra Leone, which was in the midst of a civil war in the late 1990s. The government of Sierra Leone, backed by the British, was attempting to quell a rebellion by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
Ellis saw things differently. Though the rebels were attacking at night, and he had no night vision devices, he proposed that he and his crew fly out to meet them and try to drive them off. To his crew, this sounded foolish and none would agree to fly the mission. Unperturbed, Ellis, piloting his helicopter alone, flew against the rebel onslaught.
In the dead of night, with no crew and no night vision, Ellis fought off the rebel advance. When the rebels came again, Ellis once again flew alone and turned them back from Freetown. Only when his helicopter broke down and he was unable to fly did the rebels finally take the city.
But Ellis wasn’t done fighting. Even though the government of Sierra Leone had lost the capital and could no longer pay him or his crew, they kept flying.
In an interview with the Telegraph, Ellis told them, “I have not been paid for 20 months. I do it because I don’t know what else to do. I enjoy the excitement. It’s an adrenaline rush.”
His staunch defense of Freetown had also drawn the ire of the RUF. His actions had so angered the RUF that they sent him a message: “If we ever catch you, we will cut out your heart and eat it.”
Ellis’ response was epic.
Ellis loaded up his bird and flew out to deliver a message of his own.
Arriving over the rebel camp they proceeded to drop thousands of leaflets, with a picture of their helicopter and the words “RUF: this time we’ve dropped leaflets. Next time it will be a half-inch Gatling machine gun, or 57mm rockets, or 23mm guns, or 30mm grenades, or ALL OF THEM!”
And he meant it. Although heavily outnumbered, Ellis kept fighting the rebels.
Eventually, his efforts drew the attention of the British, who decided not only to return to Sierra Leone, but also to provide support to Ellis and work in conjunction with him.
His vast knowledge of the country made him a valuable asset to the British and he actively participated in operations.
In September 2000, Ellis flew his helicopter in support of Operation Barras, a rescue mission of several soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment who had been captured. He would also flew missions with the British SAS.
Ellis and his crew would stay in Sierra Leone until the defeat of the RUF in 2002.
Ellis’ reputation earned him a trip to Iraq working with the British during the invasion in 2003.
In 2017, Puerto Ricans battled economic hardship and the lasting effects of Hurricane Maria at home as they celebrated 100 years of American citizenship. On March 2, 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act was passed by Congress, making the island a U.S. territory and guaranteeing citizenship to all Puerto Ricans born after April 25, 1898. With citizenship came all the requirements of citizenship: serving on juries, paying taxes, and being drafted for military service.
Just in time for World War I.
Welcome to the party, pal.
It was just twenty years after the United States usurped the island’s Spanish rulers in the Spanish-American War and annexed Puerto Rico as a territory of the United States. By the end of the United States’ participation in World War I, the Selective Service Act would draft some 2.8 million men, sending an estimated 10,000 troops to France every day. The U.S. Army had come a long way from the third-rate militia it was before the war. To meet the requirements of becoming a great, global power, it needed the manpower of one.
American territories, which at the time included Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, and others, were exempt from the draft. The legislature of Puerto Rico immediately asked Congress to extend conscription to American territories – namely Puerto Rico. But this was purely at the request of the Puerto Ricans.
Puerto Rican Cpl. Ricardo LaFontaine in 1917.
In all, some 236,000 Puerto Ricans from the island signed up for selective service for a potential draft notice. Of those, 18,000 would go on to serve in the war. But they weren’t always welcome. African-American Puerto Ricans, like many minorities in the U.S., weren’t entirely welcome and ended up in segregated units. For those Puerto Ricans not of African descent, they would be assigned to some regular units in the U.S. military. Still, President Wilson, in the face of discouragement from the War Department, created a Puerto Rican Division.
A full 70 percent of those Puerto Ricans who signed up for service in World War I were rejected for no other reason than the War Department didn’t know what to do with them in a segregated Army. Despite this, there has long been a conspiracy theory that held Puerto Rico was only granted citizenship so they could fight in the war. If that were true, the U.S. would have sent a lot more Puerto Ricans than it did.
When a group of hot-shot fighter pilots praise computers over speed, it’s clear times have changed. Fifth generation aircraft, such as the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II, aren’t just powerful — they’re exponentially superior tactical machines.
When he first flew the F-22, Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Berke, who flew the Raptor as an Air Force exchange pilot and now flies the jump-jet F-35B, remarked, “I was enamored by just how powerful the airplane is … but [that’s] the least important thing about the F-22.”
No pilot who flies a fifth generation fighter “will tell you that what’s impressive is what’s on the outside,” Berke said during a Nov. 7 conference sponsored by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
Although fourth generation fighter pilots might have felt a “need for speed”, now information is what wins battles. In a high technology war, Berke suggests that the fastest airplane could be the first to die.
Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Gunn said the F-35A that he now flies “is a lot of sensors and computers … a processing machine that has an aircraft wrapped around it.”
Air Force Maj. David Deptula, who flew the F-22 in combat in Iraq and Syria, said what was “particularly useful” to U.S. and allied air forces was the Raptor’s ability “to detect targets in the air and on the ground and distribute that information in near real time.
“With that information, you’re enabling everybody else,” he said.
As potential adversaries field more advanced defensive systems, Berke said a key question about new airframes is “how survivable they are, and how lethal.” The information processing capabilities of fifth generation fighters “improves both of those, exponentially,” he said.
And with their ability to share the information, the fifth generation planes also “make the fourth gen aircraft more survivable,” he added.
Several of the pilots noted that the F-22 and F-35 not only collect massive amounts of data on the threats and other elements of the combat environment, they process the data and present it as crucial information that the pilot can use to make decisions.
“The big thing is not so much the sensors on the airplane, it’s the computers,” Gunn said. Instead of the pilot having to devote a lot of effort operating the sensors and analyzing data, “the airplane is doing that. I’m the one who gets to make the decisions.”
Major Andrew Stolee, an F-22 instructor at the Air Force Weapons School, said an increased speed of decision making is an important factor “in how we conduct air warfare. The biggest gain we get out of these airplanes is what they allow the human to do.”
Although the F-22 currently has problems sharing its sensor information digitally with fourth generation aircraft, Gunn said the F-35 has a Link 16 system that allows it to share battlespace information with the older airframes.
“In a recent exercise,” he said, “when the F-22s ran out of missiles the older fighters asked them to stay to help them find targets.”
“Enabling all the fifth generation aircraft to share battlespace information with the older aircraft, which will make up most of the fighter forces for decades, is one of the major requirements for the future,” said Maj. Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the Air Force Air Combat Center.
Another “bill to pay,” VanHerck said, is the need to greatly improve the current air combat training ranges, which cannot adequately duplicate the integrated air defense threats the new fighters must be able to handle. “We’re going to see a lot of our training in the virtual, simulated environment,” he said.
With their unmatched technological advancements and superior aerodynamic designs, fifth generation fighters don’t just exceed air domination capabilities–they define them.
The famous HMMWV’s days are numbered. The Army has made its fifth order for the new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, officially coming in four versions: the M1278 Heavy Guns Carrier, the M1279 Utility, the M1280 General Purpose, and the M1281 Close Combat Weapons Carrier.
According to a release by OshKosh Defense, this order consists of 748 vehicles and over 2,350 installed kits. The vehicle is currently in Low-Rate Initial Production, and the first units are expected to be equipped with the vehicle by the middle of Fiscal Year 2019,with a planned Initial Operating Capability by the end of 2020.
The HMMWV has served for over 30 years, but like the Jeep it replaced in the 1980s, it was proving to be incapable of meeting the demands of a modern battlefield. For the Jeep, the problem was keeping up with armored fighting vehicles like the M1 Abrams tank and the M2/M3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
During the War on Terror, the HMMWV proved it could keep up with vehicles, but it was also very vulnerable to a favored tactics of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan: the improvised explosive device. Up-armored HMMWVs were developed, but they still proved vulnerable and eventually the military bought Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, including the M-ATV from OshKosh, for use on many missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
OshKosh notes that the JLTV is 33 percent smaller and 33 percent lighter than the M-ATV. The company stated that the program remains on time and “on budget” in the release. A decision on full-rate production is reportedly pending.
It will still take a long time for the JLTV to replace the HMMWV: Over 281,000 Humvees have been built since it entered service in 1985. This order represents less than one half of one percent of the total Humvee built.
Few American veterans will ever officially earn both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the title of Crow War Chief. Joe Medicine Crow might be the only one. His other awards include the Bronze Star and the French Légion d’Honneur. How he earned the title of War Chief of the Crow tribe is a feat unheard of for decades before World War II started.
But for all his feats, he was still a Private in the U.S. Army.
“Promote ahead of peers.”
There are four criteria to become a Crow War Chief, all of which Joe Medicine Crow accomplished during two years of service with the U.S. Army in Europe:
Touching an Enemy Without Killing Him
Taking an Enemy’s Weapon
Leading a Successful War Party
Stealing an Enemy’s Horse
The Crow did not likely think this would be so difficult in the age of machine guns and tanks, but as Joe Medicine Crow showed, it was clearly not impossible.
Also, that’s Dr. Joe Medicine Crow. Just sayin.
The Native American GI was working in a shipyard in Washington state for the first part of World War II. In 1943, he decided to join the U.S. Army. He came from an incredible nomadic warrior tradition. He was the last person to hear a first-hand account of the Battle of Little Bighorn and his grandfather served as a scout for Gen. George Armstrong Custer before the general’s last stand. Joe Medicine Crow would carry this tradition forward, as well as many others.
Before he left for the war, a medicine man provided him with a painted eagle feather he would wear under his uniform before fighting. He would also paint traditional war paint under his uniform, placing two red stripes on his arms. And then, he became a War Chief, the last Crow War Chief.
Crow lived to the ripe old age of 102.
While fighting at the Siegfried Line, the border fortification that would take the U.S. Army into Germany, the warrior was ordered to take a team – a war party, if you will – and cross a field under a hail of bullets to retrieve some dynamite from a previously destroyed American position. Joe Medicine Crow and seven fellow GIs crossed a field of devastating fire that probably should have killed all of them, grabbed the explosives and blew a huge hole in Hitler’s vaunted line. No one was killed. One down.
After penetrating the line, Joe Medicine Crow and the 103d Infantry advanced on a nearby town that turned out to be heavily defended. As a scout, Joe was ahead of most of his unit. After they were ordered to flank some German defenders, Joe was separated and decided to take a shortcut. That’s when he ran right into a Nazi defender while running at full sprint.
For anyone else, this might have been embarrassing at the least and deadly at the most, but this is Joe Medicine Crow. He sent the Nazi flying and the Nazi’s rifle across the lawn. The American was still standing as he bent over and grabbed his enemy’s weapon. Two down.
Instead of killing the German, Joe decided to drop the weapon and let his warrior skills take over. The two men fought hand-to-hand for what seemed like hours. When Joe finally got the upper hand and started to kill the Nazi soldier with his hands at the man’s throat. But the German began to whimper, and Joe let him go. Three down.
Then, there’s the task of stealing a horse.
Joe Medicine Crow was scouting a farmhouse behind enemy lines one night when he realized it was full of high-ranking SS officers. They all rode there on horses, which were corralled under guard near the house. Joe Medicine Crow snuck through the guards with only his M1911 to protect him. Having grown up learning to ride horses bareback, mounting one of them in Europe was no problem. He let out a Crow war cry and sang a song as he herded all the horses out of the corral and into U.S. Army lore.
During the Cold War, an Army Special Forces unit was tasked with sabotaging Soviet infrastructure and crippling an invasion force to buy NATO time should war break out. The mission was so secret that the entire thing was almost forgotten — until a few veterans of the unit stepped forward.
We spoke to two of these veterans to find out what it was like serving as clandestine soldiers in an occupied city on what was likely a suicide mission if the seemingly-imminent war ever started
U.S. and Soviet forces standoff across Checkpoint Charlie in 1961, one of the many Cold War flare-ups that occurred in occupied Berlin after World War II.
Master Sgt. Robert Charest is a veteran of Detachment A who has started the push for recording the unit’s history. Chief Warrant Officer 4 James Stejskal is the man who literally wrote the book on Detachment A.
The specific mission of Detachment A changed over the years, but the overarching goal was always preparing to counter and stall a Soviet invasion.
“If the Soviets decided to come across Checkpoint Charlie, we would just try to slow them down so that the rest of the folks, they’d get out of Berlin and all that stuff,” said Charest while describing the mission.
This meant that Charest, Stejskal, and others assigned to the unit — which had about 90 people in it for most of its existence — had to know what infrastructure to hit and how best to reach it. They also had to maintain all of the materials and weapons needed to complete their mission.
Berlin was criss-crossed by a network of trains, like this train for travelers on the U-Bahn. Another railway ran around the outside of the city carrying heavy freight, and Detachment A members were prepared to blow up train engines on the railway in case of war.
Some of the targets were obvious, like the railroad that ran around divided Berlin.
“Around Berlin, there was a railway network, basically called the Berliner Ring,” said Stejskal. “It was that railway network that would carry the majority of the Russian forces from east to west. So, you got the guys that are on the ground already and then you got all these troops that are going to be coming from Poland and the Czech Republic and then you’re heading for the Fulda Gap.”
Shutting down the railroad would slow the Soviet advance, but the teams that made up Detachment A needed a way to do it without getting caught. The more stuff they could break before getting captured and killed, the better chance NATO forces would have in building a defensive line and eventually launching a counter attack.
So, they rigged up pieces of coal, filled with explosives. Were these ever loaded into a train, the engineer would eventually blow up his own engine, blocking the rail line with a shattered train until authorities could clean up the mess, drastically slowing reinforcements.
Other targets included factories and other centers of manufacturing, transportation, and command and control.
To supply these missions, Detachment A relied on a series of spy-like gadgets and hidden caches of conventional weapons buried deep all over West Berlin. But the targets were in East Berlin, and Detachment A had to plan on how to strike across the city and, later in the war, across the Berlin Wall, to hit targets.
Special Forces sergeant Robert Charest while assigned to operation in Berlin, clearly rocking a different grooming standard than most soldiers in the Cold War.
(Photo courtesy of Bob Charest)
This required missions deep into Soviet-held Berlin. While Detachment A members usually enjoyed relaxed grooming standards and wore civilian clothes, spying across the wall was done in uniform surprisingly often.
“You put on a uniform, shaved your hair, got in the military vehicles, went through Checkpoint Charlie, and you had access to East Berlin,” Charest said, “Alexanderplatz and stuff like this. You drove around and that was your cover story. The Russians would do the same thing in West Berlin. They had their little system. That was how we conducted surveillance of our targets.”
The men had a huge advantage when spying on the East, though. Thanks to the 1950 Lodge Act, foreign nationals could obtain U.S. citizenship after a five-year stint in the military. This allowed Detachment A to recruit people from the neighborhoods and areas where their targets were without rousing suspicions. These recruits and leaders proved invaluable.
Soviet workers build the Berlin Wall, breaking up the city and reducing Detachment A’s ability to surveil its targets.
(U.S. National Archives)
“Our commander was great,” said Stejskal. “Our commander was Czech Officer who had served in the Resistance during World War II. Our Sergeant Major was a German who had served in the German Army, sort of, at the end of World War II. Just, nothing like you could imagine.”
“… several of the guys that reconned these targets were the actual Lodge Act people that lived in Berlin and had come from Berlin,” said Charest. “They knew where these targets were and the intel, G2 and above, knew what targets would be best to slow the Soviets down if they decided to come across.”
Detachment A practiced crossing the wall, swimming through deep canals with SCUBA gear, or making their way through sewer and water pipes under the city. One recon of the sewer pipes even got a senior officer in trouble.
Allied troops in West Berlin were deep behind Soviet lines. When the Soviets attempted to cut off re-supply to those troops, America launched the massive “Berlin Airlift” to keep them alive. The airlift was a success, but it drove home for many just how vulnerable West Berlin was.
(U.S. Air Force)
“He, along with somebody else, went into the sewer system to check the situation out for crossing points, okay,” Charest said. “Well, little did he know that the CIA had these things monitored with all kinds of stuff. They triggered the alarms.”
While the plans were well laid, they still relied on brave men willing to take on huge risks to make the mission a success. After all, West Berlin was still deep inside East Germany.
“It’s a strange feeling,” said Stejskal. “We were 110 miles behind the East German border, about 12,000 allied troops inside West Berlin surrounded by close to a million Russian and Warsaw Pact soldiers. Oddly enough, I think most of us were very energized to be where we were.”
And the men had a good idea of how dangerous that situation was.
Soviet forces prepare to leave Hungary. If the Cold War had gone hot, Detachment A members, like the rest of the allied troops in Berlin, would have been outnumbered and outgunned over 100 miles from friendly forces.
(RIA Novosti Archive, CC-BY-SA 3.0)
“Well, it was basically a suicide mission,” Charest said. “If we got in and hit anything and then we had to face escape and evasion, all right? You were on your own. There was nothing set up, formally, for escape and evasion, yet. You were on your own. That’s why you spoke the language, that’s why you were familiar with the countryside. You knew, essentially, you had to get to the coast or wherever NATO withdrew to and stuff like this. But, you had nothing formal, you were on your own.”
“I think we would’ve been hard-pressed to survive more than 72 hours, but you never can tell,” Stejskal said. “How did the OSS agents feel when they parachuted France or into Yugoslavia during World War II? Same kind of feeling. You’re anticipating that you’re going in to a very bad situation, but you got the best tools, the best cover, and everything else.”
Luckily, Detachment A never had to slow a Soviet invasion, despite flare-ups, like the tank standoff at Checkpoint Charlie. Instead, they spent their time training and conducting surveillance, preparing to save American forces in a war that never came and quietly saving American lives while building the framework and doctrine for units that followed them, like SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force.
For centuries, many civilizations have tried (for one reason or another) to subdue or kill the Russian Bear.
Most of them failed.
To successfully plant their flag atop the Kremlin, an invader must consider a few things that’ll certainly affect the outcome before mobilizing forces and gassing up the fleet.
1. The Russian Winter.
Pro Tip: Pack your woobie.
In 2014, Vice’s Oscar Rickett askedIHS Jane’s military expert Konrad Muzkya just what it would take to conquer Russia and just how a nation might go about it. His first question is one that sticks in the minds of any student of military history: How does anyone beat the Russian winter?
With Napoleon and Hitler waiting with bated breath in the next world, Muzkya replies with his belief that guided munitions, nuclear weapons, and modern power projection capabilities nullify this historical advantage.
“Any potential conflict with the West would most likely be fought in the air, space, and sea,” he told Vice. “Any use of land forces would be limited to capturing strategically important facilities — bridges, airfields, and the like.”
2. The size of Russia.
To give the failed invaders a little credit, the Russia conquered by the Mongols was a fraction of the size it was during the 19th and 20th centuries. But a little secret to the Mongols success might be preparation. The Khans took 17 years to finish off the Russians.
It wasn’t a lack of manpower, either. At the time of the French Invasion, Napoleon’s Grande Armée numbered 680,000 troops.
To give some perspective, that’s like deploying half of all the active U.S. military troops as riflemen. Which is a terrible idea.
Trying to conquer Russia is the equivalent of invading the U.S. twice, in terms of land mass. Just moving from St. Petersburg to Moscow is 400 miles. It took the Allies more than two months to reach Paris from the Normandy — which is just 167 miles away.
Russia is 6.6 million square miles of cold, cold, cold, nothing. Which presents another problem entirely.
3. There’s nothing there.
Everything after Moscow is flyover country. An invading country can’t just not go into the steppe. Once the Russian people figured out the occupiers won’t go into the wilderness, that’s exactly where the insurgency will take root.
Even getting to all the nothing will take a Herculean effort. The Russian Army mans an estimated 280,000 effective fighting soldiers. When the going gets tough, it has to be assumed they will use the same human wave-style tactics used against the Nazis in WWII.
What was a problem in the past for armies who had to forage for food or move supplies by train is not a problem for a global power like the U.S. military. All the same, after Moscow, there isn’t much in the way of infrastructure for things like tanks or places suitable for airfields — all things insurgent partisans in the area will have a field day targeting.
4. One thing at a time.
Anyone who wants to invade Russia should probably clear their schedule. The Mongols drove through the country because it was on the way to where they were going anyway. The Nazis were still fighting in North Africa and preparing for the invasion of Britain when Hitler launched Barbarossa. Napoleon was fighting an insurgency of his own in Spain.
The United States and NATO, if they were to invade Russia, should probably withdraw from all the other conflicts they have around the world and concentrate on the problem at hand. Once there, keeping a unified front would be of the utmost importance.
An invader shouldn’t expect to actually conquer anything. In almost every invasion of their motherland, the Russian people have resorted to scorched-earth tactics — burning or otherwise destroying everything that might be of use to an enemy. As Muzkya notes in the Vice article, the Russians still move troops using trains. That hasn’t changed since WWII. It’s likely not much else has either.
5. Bring some friends … and an Air Force.
Muzkya cites an estimate of a half-million troops being necessary to properly subdue Afghanistan. He also notes that Russia is 26 times the size of Afghanistan and has a population of 143 million. Afghanistan has just 30 million. Even the Chinese military with its massive available manpower would have a difficult time creating a sustainable drive across Russia.
But a military campaign is more than just people these days. The Russian Navy can’t project power in the same way the U.S. can – or anyone else, really. The country has only one aircraft carrier, and that deploys with a tugboat in case it breaks down.
The Russian air force, however, is still on the relative cutting edge, even if that edge isn’t as sharp as it once was. It has a fighter that can compete with the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor. Russia’s bomber force isn’t relevant in a defensive war because it’s more likely they’d use a nuclear attack before a conventional bombing campaign on their own soil.
6. Be prepared to die.
As for the use of nuclear weapons, Muzkya says that Russia has the right to use them to defend itself and any invader needs to be prepared for that.
“Russia possesses second-strike capability,” he says. “And unless you’re ready to take a nuclear hit from Russia — which no one can — you need to embrace the notion of a total annihilation of your country.”
He predicts that Russia – all 6.6 million square miles of it – would be turned into a nuclear wasteland in the event of an invasion from China or the West, so talking about who wins is irrelevant.
Zeppelins, as it turns out, are slightly more durable than your average dollar store water balloon. Maybe that’s why they were a staple of the U.S. military of the time. The Hindenburg Disaster aside, 20th-Century airships were built to go the distance – and they did.
The United States was the only power to use airships during World War II, and they used them to great effect. Some 89,000 ocean-going ships were escorted by K-series airships during the war, and only one was lost to the enemy, the Panamanian oil tanker Persephone. The U.S. used them in both theaters of war, conducting minesweeping, search and rescue, photographic reconnaissance, scouting, escort convoy, and anti-submarine patrol missions.
The massive hanger No. 2 near Tustin, California filled with six airships. Each airship is nearly 250 feet long.
For their anti-submarine missions, K-class airships were equipped with two .50-caliber Browning M2 machine guns and 4 Mark-47 depth charges. The ships flew on helium (the Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen, and thus became a fireball), which the United States had a monopoly on at the time, and was able to operate them safely. Airships were not just a child’s balloon, they were made with solid, vulcanized rubber to hold air in. But just shooting a blimp wouldn’t take it down, their gas bags were much more effective and could take a few shots.
Other airships that were used by all forces included barrage balloons. These unmanned aerial vehicles pulled double duty in both obscuring the target cities or ships from incoming fighters and bombers while protecting the area around them using the metal tethers that kept them attached to the earth. The tethers would tear through enemy aircraft as they attempted to buzz by the balloons.
A Navy K-class airship at Gibraltar, 1944. The 1400-foot Rock of Gibraltar is in background.
For the entire duration of the war, only one K-ship was ever lost to the enemy. K-74 was shot down by a German U-boat in the Straits of Florida in 1943. Of the 10-man crew who went down in the airship, nine survived, and the only lost crewman was eaten by a shark awaiting rescue. The U-boat was assaulted by Allied bombers trying to limp back to Germany and was sunk.
The Navy continued to use blimps to patrol the American coastline until 1962, despite their unique abilities to stay aloft for more than a day at a stretch and the ability to sniff out submarines better than any alternative at the time. The U.S. even tested the effects of a nuclear blast on its K-ships, believing it could be armed with nuclear depth charges.
Western models of spycraft are failing. Traditional models of spycraft seek to inform decision-making based on predictive analysis, but this is no longer effective in today’s environment. By nature, closed and authoritarian regimes, such as Russia and China, have an easier job of spying on their more progressive and open adversaries — the United States and the West — and currently possess the advantage. What follows is the author’s abridged philosophy of intelligence on this revolution in spycraft.
Last year, Foreign Policy magazine introduced a provocative thought piece highlighting the ongoing revolution in espionage: namely, that intelligence agencies must adapt (or die) to disruptive changes in politics, business, and technology.
At the risk of irrelevance, Western intelligence agencies are learning that traditional models of spying are outdated and losing out to more nimble, collaborative, and less fragile adversaries. As the article adeptly notes, “the balance of power in the spy world is shifting: closed societies now have the edge over open ones. It has become harder for Western countries to spy on places such as China, Iran, and Russia and easier for those countries’ intelligence services to spy on the rest of the world.”
Circumstances such as unprecedented levels of legislative and judicial scrutiny, technological advances in mobile phones and electronic data, public skepticism of domestic and international intelligence activities, and general political scrutiny in liberal democracies are symptomatic of such difficulties. They represent an underlying revolution that is significantly disrupting traditional notions of Western spycraft.
Standards of Cold War-era surveillance detection disintegrate when applied to modern cities rife with CCTV cameras, such as Beijing or even London. The absence of an online “footprint” (i.e. social media or other publicly available data) instantly warrants additional scrutiny.
Thus, we must examine several philosophical nuances of this intelligence revolution, based on the premise that the Western way of spying is indeed losing out to oftentimes less sophisticated but more effective adversaries, who possess fundamentally less fragile models of spycraft than do Western counterparts.
Lest the author receive undue credit, it must be noted that the framework for this analysis is derived from several schools of thought, ranging from the Roman Stoics to economist-turned-philosopher Nassim Taleb. Indeed, the reader may be familiar with the latter’s concept of anti-fragility, or things that gain from uncertainty, chaos, or randomness. Western models of spycraft certainly do not fit this notion and are, in the author’s opinion, quite fragile.
Western intelligence, and other such similarly traditional systems, are based largely on the value of predictive analysis that can be used to inform decision-making and thereby shape understanding and policy. But what if, as we are now seeing, environments far outmatch capability in complexity, speed, or scope? It is the author’s opinion that the U.S. Intelligence Community is designed on an outdated and fragile premise and, in the face of overwhelming environmental dissonance, must be re-assessed in the framework of anti-fragility.
Put differently, the present U.S. model of spycraft plays to the margins. Western spycraft invests inordinate amounts of manpower and resources into its Intelligence Community only to yield arguably disproportionate and marginal gains in understanding. It is not enough that the intelligence is gleaned in the first place (which remains an altogether impressive feat and a testament to the dedication and professionalism of its practitioners).
Alas, it is growing increasingly challenging to properly inform policy-making in an aggressively partisan and politicized environment. One only need reflect on the overall character of the ongoing Russian bounties discussion as evidence of this model and its debatable effectiveness. And such debatable effectiveness is certainly not for a lack of trying. The effectiveness of the Intelligence Community is a reflection of the broader environment in which it operates.
In the spirit of ancient Roman Stoic philosophers, we must acknowledge that environments cannot be changed and that at best significant national effort is required to “shape” them (and even then, with limited “control” of the exact outcome). In this instance, it is perhaps useful to examine U.S. strategy (or lack thereof) over the course of 20+ years of engagement in Afghanistan in an effort to reflect on any unilateral or coalition efforts taken to shape any semblance of “success” in the country.
Let us introduce a more tangible instance: That brief electronic communication from a foreign diplomat’s privileged conversation? That was probably the result of many factors: Of 17 years of technological research and development; of several successful (and more failed) recruitments to identify and gain sufficient placement and access for an exploit; and immeasurable bureaucratic “churns” to actually manage and manipulate the complex systems and processes in place designed to collect, process, analyze, exploit, and disseminate the information to its consumers. Entire professional careers are the substance of such churns.
While environments cannot be changed, one’s disposition within an environment most certainly can be. Thus, it is perhaps more useful to explore an intelligence model that divorces success from the ability to accurately predict the future. But then, what does this model look like and how is it employed?
In the author’s opinion, an effective spycraft model would maintain the intent to inform policy-making but disregard traditional models of operational risk management in favor of a more aggressive operational culture. In short, the change intelligence agencies must make is largely cultural, but also procedural.
Rather than embark on “no-fail,” highly sensitive (read: events that would cause inordinate damage if learned, i.e. fragile) operations, and futile attempts to accurately predict the future (read: failure to predict or act upon 9/11, Pearl Harbor, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and countless other so-called intelligence failures), it is more useful to focus efforts on intelligence activities that have, in Taleb’s words, more upsides rather than downsides.
This model would remove, within reason, attempts to mitigate risk and would instead truly accept failure and mistakes — regardless of their perceived damage if made public — as a natural feedback mechanism. Rather than the frenetic New York banking system, we have Silicon Valley’s “fail fast” mentality. Rather than the Sword of Damocles, we have Hydra. Rather than post-traumatic stress, we have post-traumatic growth. Instead of isolated muscle hypertrophy, we have complex, multi-functional movements. The comparative benefit of this model is clear and can apply to intelligence systems as well.
So what does this new model of spycraft look like?
For one, it harnesses the power of publicly available data and information to leverage the power of public opinion and access to technology. What previously was known only to few becomes known to many, and with that knowledge comes the ability to influence. Information, which is the bane of closed societies, but also its favorite weapon against open ones, is harnessed to dismantle closed societies from within.
Here’s the bombshell: such a system, albeit in incomplete and slightly “impure” form, already exists in the form of the Russian intelligence apparatus. Indeed, there is a benefit to be gained by examining the nature and relative effectiveness of this chief U.S. adversary.
While far from a perfect comparison, the oftentimes blunt nature of Russian security services does lend itself to a somewhat anti-fragile system. Namely, despite numerous “failures” (in the sense that its operations are consistently made public), the Russian model is such that its public mistakes do not appear to significantly impact the system’s ability to continue to iterate, adapt, and pester its Western opponents.
An additional example can also be found in the spirit of the CIA’s historical predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Known affectionately as the “glorious amateurs,” the OSS was the first of its American kind that weathered many failures but also effectively operated in complex environments. By nature of relative American intelligence inexperience, the OSS succeeded in exploiting the upside of its activities simply by being a young, nimble, and discovery-based (i.e. tinkering, iterating, or “risk-bearing”) organization. The OSS was an anti-fragile organization.
Thanks to many of the same advances in technology, politics, and business that challenge Western espionage efforts, Russian spies have been caught on CCTV footage, publicly outed or arrested, appropriately accused of dastardly acts, and of possessing an intolerable appetite for disinformation targeting open societies and liberal democracies. However, it was presumably in Russia’s best interests that, knowing full well the possibility of such downsides, it chose to pursue such activities given the major upsides they produce (discord, division, polarization, etc.).
Indeed, as Foreign Policy magazine adeptly wrote, and as the reader can observe by way of reflecting on other seeming successes reaped by Russian active measures, there is an unrefined yet effective nature to the blunt manner in which Russian security and intelligence services operate.
It must be stated that this model does not advocate for recklessly “burning” any sources and methods, nor for engaging in renegade covert activity that lacks oversight or grounding in well-formed policy. However, it does require a significant cultural paradigm shift that will provide more space for downsides that have not been historically well-received (e.g. temporary injury to bilateral relationships, strained diplomatic interactions, etc.).
The U.S. Intelligence Community is already a complex system, comprised of 17 unique agencies that seek to inform policy-making. It is a long cry from the “glorious amateur” days of the OSS. Thankfully, we do not require complicated systems, regulations, or intricate policies to ensure the community’s success. The more complicated a system, the more we experience “multiplicative chains of unanticipated effects.” In other words, less is more; simpler is better.
The competitive edge of traditional, risk-based intelligence operations is growing smaller. The state of affairs is such that closed societies find it easier to spy on open adversaries more than the opposite. As such, it benefits Western intelligence to undergo aggressive changes that evolve or significantly alter this paradigm. It is time for the Intelligence Community to become a risk-bearing system, rather than a risk management system. It must experience a culture shift that will make it open to accepting failures. This may create short-term downsides for U.S. statecraft but will allow the system to iterate and improve. In the end, it must become anti-fragile.