In 2002, the U.S. military tapped Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper to lead the red opposing forces of the most expensive, expansive military exercise in history. He was put in command of an inferior Middle Eastern-inspired military force. His mission was to go against the full might of the American armed forces. In the first two days, he sank an entire carrier battle group.
The exercise was called Millennium Challenge 2002. It was designed by the Joint Forces Command over the course of two years. It had 13,500 participants, numerous live and simulated training sites, and was supposed to pit an Iran-like Middle Eastern country against the U.S. military, which would be fielding advanced technology it didn’t plan to implement until five years later.
The war game would begin with a forced-entry exercise that included the 82nd Airborne and the 1st Marine Division.
When the Blue Forces issued a surrender ultimatum, Van Riper, commanding the Red Forces, turned them down. Since the Bush Doctrine of the period included preemptive strikes against perceived enemies, Van Riper knew the Blue Forces would be cominfor him. And they did.
But the three-star general didn’t spend 41 years in the Marine Corps by being timid. As soon as the Navy was beyond the point of no return, he hit them and hit them hard. Missiles from land-based units, civilian boats, and low-flying planes tore through the fleet as explosive-ladened speedboats decimated the Navy using suicide tactics. His code to initiate the attack was a coded message sent from the minarets of mosques at the call to prayer.
How did 19 ships and some 20,000 U.S. troops end up at the bottom of the Persian Gulf? It started with the OPFOR leadership.
Van Riper was the epitome of the salty Marine Corps general officer. He was a 41-year veteran, both enlisted and commissioned, serving everywhere from Vietnam to Desert Storm. Van Riper attended the Marine Corps Amphibious Warfare School, The College of Naval Command and Staff, Army War College, and the Army’s Airborne and Ranger Schools.
In fact, the three-star general had been retired for some five years by the time he led the Red Forces of Millennium Challenge. He was an old-school Marine capable of some old-school tactics and has insisted that technology cannot replace
human intuition and study of the basic nature of war, which he called a “terrible, uncertain, chaotic, bloody business.”
Van Riper told the story of Millennium Challenge to journalist Malcolm Gladwell, he said the Blue Forces were stuck in their own mode of thinking. Their vastly superior technology included advanced intelligence matrices and an Operational Net Assessment that told them where the OPFOR vulnerabilities were and what Van Riper was most likely to do next out of a range of possible scenarios. They relied heavily on that. When the Blue took out Red’s microwave towers and fiber optics, they expected his forces to use satellite and cell phones that could be monitored.
Not a chance. Van Riper instead used motorcycle couriers, messages hidden in prayers, and even coded lighting systems on his airfields — tactics employed during World War II.
“I struck first,” he said in ”
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” written by Gladwell in 2005. “We did all the calculations on how many cruise missiles their ships could handle, so we simply launched more than that.”
In fact, Van Riper hated the kind of analytical decision making the Blue Forces were doing. He believed it took far too long. His resistance plan included ways of getting his people to make good decisions using rapid cognition and analog but reliable communications.
The other commanders involved called foul, complaining that a real OPFOR would never use the tactics Van Riper used — except Van Riper’s flotilla used boats and explosives like those used against the USS Cole in 2000.
“And I said ‘nobody would have thought that anyone would fly an airliner into the World Trade Center,'”
Van Riper said in reply. “But nobody [in the exercise] seemed interested.”
In the end, the Blue Forces were all respawned and Van Riper was prevented from making moves to counter the Blue Forces’ landing. He had no radar and wasn’t allowed to shoot down incoming aircraft he would have otherwise accurately targeted. The rest of the exercise was scripted to let the Blue Force land and win.
Van Riper walked out when he realized his commands were being ignored by the exercise planners. The fix was in.
The three-star wrote a 21-page critique of the exercise that was immediately classified. Van Riper spoke out against the rigged game anyway.
“Nothing was learned from this,”
he told the Guardian in 2002. “A culture not willing to think hard and test itself does not augur well for the future.”
A US Navy F-14D Tomcat aircraft flies a combat mission in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom | U.S. Air Force photo by SSgt. Lee O. Tucker
While the requirement for a carrier-based long-range strike capability is a frequent subject of discussion around Washington, the U.S. Navy’s need for improved air superiority capabilities is often neglected.
The service has not had a dedicated air-to-air combat aircraft since it retired the Grumman F-14 Tomcat in 2006. But even the Tomcat was adapted into a strike aircraft during its last years in service after the Soviet threat evaporated.
Now, as new threats to the carrier emerge and adversaries start to field new fighters that can challenge the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, attention is starting to shift back to this oft-neglected Navy mission — especially in the Western Pacific.
“Another type of new aircraft required is an air superiority fighter,” states a recent Hudson Institute report titledSharpening the Spear: The Carrier, the Joint Force, and High-End Conflict, which is written by The National Interest contributors Seth Cropsey, Bryan McGrath and Timothy A. Walton. “Given the projection of the Joint Force’s increased demand for carrier-based fighter support, this capability is critical.”
The report notes that both the Super Hornet and the F-35C are severely challenged by new enemy fifth-generation fighter aircraft such as the Russian-built Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA and Chengdu J-20.
Indeed, certain current adversary aircraft such as the Russian Su-30SM, Su-35S and the Chinese J-11D and J-15 pose a serious threat to the Super Hornet fleet. It’s a view that shared by many industry officials, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force and even U.S. Marine Corps aviators.
“Both F/A-18E/Fs and F-35Cs will face significant deficiencies against supercruising, long-range, high-altitude, stealthy, large missile capacity adversary aircraft, such as the T-50, J-20, and follow-on aircraft,” the authors note.
“These aircraft will be capable of effectively engaging current and projected U.S. carrier aircraft and penetrating defenses to engage high value units, such as AEW aircraft, ASW aircraft, and tankers. Already, the F/A-18E/F faces a severe speed disadvantage against Chinese J-11 aircraft, which can fire longer range missiles at a higher kinematic advantage outside of the range of U.S. AIM-120 missiles.”
Nor does the F-35C—which suffers from severely reduced acceleration compared to even the less than stellar performance of other JSF variants — help matters. “Similarly, the F-35C is optimized as an attack fighter, resulting in a medium-altitude flight profile, and its current ability to only carry two AIM- 120 missiles internally [until Block 3] limits its capability under complex electromagnetic conditions,” the authors wrote.
“As an interim measure, the Navy and Air Force should significantly accelerate the F-35C’s Block 5 upgrade to enable the aircraft to carry six AIM-120 missiles internally.”
The F-35C was never designed to be an air superiority fighter. Indeed, naval planners in the mid-1990s wanted the JSF to be a strike-oriented aircraft with only a 6.5G airframe load limit with very limited air-to-air capability, according to one retired U.S. Navy official. Indeed, some naval planners at the time had discussed retiring the F-14 in favor of keeping the Grumman A-6 Intruder in service.
During this period, many officials believed air combat to be a relic of the past in the post-Cold War era. They anticipated most future conflicts to be air-to-ground oriented in those years immediately following the Soviet collapse. Together with a lack of funding, that’s probably why the Navy never proceeded with its Naval Advanced Tactical Fighter or A/F-Xfollow-on program.
The Navy’s F/A-XX program could be used to fill the service’s air superiority gap — which has essentially been left open since the F-14’s retirement and the demise of the NATF and A/F-X programs. But the problem is that the Navy is pursuing the F/A-XX as a multirole Super Hornet replacement rather than an air superiority-oriented machine.
“The danger in its development is that it suboptimizes the fighter role in the quest for a hybrid fighter/attack jet,” the Hudson Institute report notes. “This would leave the Joint Force without a carrier-based sixth generation air superiority fighter.”
As the Navy’s current director of air warfare, Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, has stated in the past, the authors also note that such “an aircraft could feature large passive and active sensor arrays, relatively high cruising speed (albeit not necessarily acceleration), could hold a large internal weapons bay capable of launching numerous missiles, and could have space to adopt future technologies, such as HPM [high-powered microwaves] and lasers.”
“This air superiority asset would contribute to Outer Air Battle integrated air and missile defense requirements and would be capable of countering enemy weapons, aircraft, and sensor and targeting nodes at a distance.”
Outer Air Battle, of course, refers to a Navy concept from the 1980s to fend off a concerted attack by hordes of Soviet Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire bombers, Oscar-class nuclear-powered guided missile submarines and surface action groups lead by warships like the Kirov-class nuclear-powered battlecruisers — as now deputy defense secretary Bob Work [he was the CEO of the Center for a New American Security at the time] described to me in 2013.
These Soviet assets would have launched their arsenals of anti-ship cruise missiles from multiple points of the compass.
As Work described it, the Navy was relatively confident it could sink the Oscarsand surface ships before they could launch their missiles. They were far less confident about their ability to take out the Tu-22Ms before they could get into launch position.
The Tomcats, under Outer Air Battle, would try to “kill the archers” — the Backfires — before they could shoot and attempt to eliminate any cruise missiles that they launched. But, Work notes, no one knows how well it would have worked during a shooting war with the Soviet Union — and it’s a good thing we never got to find out. But with China’s emerging anti-access/area denial strategy, the threat is back.
While the F/A-XX and the Air Force’s F-X are in their infancy, it has become clear that they will be different aircraft designs that will probably share common technologies. The Navy does seem to be focusing on a more defensive F-14 like concept while the Air Force is looking for a more offensively oriented air superiority platform that could replace the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.
“As you’ll see over the coming years, the differences between the primary mission and the likely threats will drive significant differences between the F/A-XX and F-X programs as well as legacy systems like the F-22 and F-35,” one senior defense official told me.
The U.S. Navy said it did not deploy the USS Carl Vinson to the Korean Peninsula as originally stated, but instead sent the aircraft carrier to participate in joint exercises with the Australian navy in the Indian Ocean.
During an appearance on Fox News last week, President Donald Trump said he was sending an “armada” to deter the regime of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
“We are sending an armada, very powerful. We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier,” Trump said. “We have the best military people on Earth. And I will say this: [Kim Jong Un] is doing the wrong thing.”
But White House officials on April 18 said the USS Carl Vinson and its three support ships were sailing in the opposite direction to train with the Australian navy about 3,500 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula.
The White House said the error in the administration’s original statement about the aircraft carrier’s location occurred because it relied on guidance from the Defense Department.
Officials said a glitch-ridden sequence of events, such as an ill-timed announcement of the deployment by U.S. Pacific Command and a partially erroneous explanation by the Defense Secretary James Mattis, perpetuated a false narrative that the aircraft carrier was racing toward the waters off North Korea, The New York Times reported.
The USS Carl Vinson will arrive near the Korean Peninsula next week.
“At the end of the day it resulted in confused strategic communication that has made our allies nervous,” Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., told The Wall Street Journal. “If you don’t have a consistency with your actual strategy and what you’re doing with your military, that doesn’t seem terribly convincing.”
Initially, U.S. Pacific Command said it “ordered the Carl Vinson Strike Group north [from Singapore] as a prudent measure to maintain readiness and presence in the Western Pacific.”
U.S. Pacific Command’s statement created some ambiguity, as it named North Korea but did not specifically say it deployed the ships to waters off North Korea.
“Third Fleet ships operate forward with a purpose: to safeguard U.S. interests in the Western Pacific. The No. 1 threat in the region continues to be North Korea, due to its reckless, irresponsible, and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability,” U.S. Pacific Command said.
The U.S. Navy released an image of the USS Carl Vinson traveling on the Sunda Strait near Indonesia on April 15, thousands of miles away from where the ship was widely expected to be.
Ben Affleck will direct and star in “Ghost Army,” a movie about the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops who tricked the Nazis in the weeks leading up to D-Day in 1944.
The film features a screenplay by “True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto, and it’s based on “The Ghost Army of World War II: How One Top-Secret Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sound Effects, and Other Audacious Fakery,”the outstanding 2015 book by Rick Beyer & Elizabeth Sayles. The script is also based on the PBS documentary “The Ghost Army.”
The “Ghost Army” used military “special effects” to mislead Germany into deploying its troops in the wrong locations to fight non-existent armies. The unit included future fashion designer Bill Blass, fine art painter Ellsworth Kelly, wildlife artist Arthur Singer, photographer Art Kane and designer Jack Masey. It’s a fascinating group of soldiers who went on to become some of the most influential artists and designers of the 20th century.
Remembering The Ghost Army that Saved US Lives in WW II
The unit is credited with saving thousands of lives during the war, and their story seems tailor-made for the kind of free-wheeling, all-star, upbeat WWII movie that we haven’t seen much lately.
Affleck’s most recent movie is Netflix’s special ops heist thriller “Triple Frontier.” He won an Oscar for producing the 2012 CIA Iran hostage thriller “Argo” (which he also directed and starred in) and another for writing the 1997 drama “Good Will Hunting.”
This article originally appeared on Military.com. Follow @militarydotcom on Twitter.
President Barack Obama commuted the majority of WikiLeaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s prison sentence on Tuesday, with only three days left in office.
Manning was convicted of violating the Espionage Act, among other charges, in 2013 after she stole secret documents from a computer system she had access to while working as an intelligence analyst in Iraq and leaked them to WikiLeaks in 2010.
She received a 35-year sentence for the leak and has served seven years in Fort Leavenworth. She will now be freed in five months, on May 17.
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, told The New York Times on Tuesday that there’s a “pretty stark difference” between Manning’s case and that of former government employee Edward Snowden.
“Chelsea Manning is somebody who went through the military criminal justice process, was exposed to due process, was found guilty, was sentenced for her crimes, and she acknowledged wrongdoing,” Earnest said. “Mr. Snowden fled into the arms of an adversary, and has sought refuge in a country that most recently made a concerted effort to undermine confidence in our democracy.”
Snowden declared his support for Manning on Twitter.
“In five more months, you will be free. Thank you for what you did for everyone, Chelsea. Stay strong a while longer!” Snowden tweeted.
The president has not granted clemency to Snowden.
Obama pardoned 64 other people on Tuesday and shortened the sentences of 209 prisoners. Over his two terms, Obama has commuted the sentences of 1,385 people and granted 212 pardons.
Arthur Tien Chin was born in Portland, Oregon in 1913. He would die there in 1997, but not before being recognized for the incredible life he led.
The man would spend much of his life as an everyday postal worker started his adult life as a skilled fighter pilot and the first American ace of what would become known as World War II – he would even be recognized for his contributions.
Chin was born to Cantonese parents who immigrated to Oregon from Taishan, in China’s Guangdong Province. When the Japanese Empire invaded Manchuria in 1931, Chinese-Americans were shocked and outraged. From the safety of their new country, they decided something had to be done.
Chin began flight school with a class of around a dozen other Americans of Chinese descent, paid for by the Chinese expatriate community in Oregon. The only stipulation was that the students return to their homeland to fly against Japanese aggression.
He returned to Guangdong and joined the provincial air forces, as much of China was ruled by warlords at the time and many provinces had their own armies. He soon defected to the Kuomintang central government’s air force and was selected for advanced fighter training, from the Nazi German Luftwaffe.
Before the Axis Pact split the world into Axis and Allies with Germany and China on opposite sides, China was a major buyer of German weapons, especially aircraft. Upon his return to China, he was training other pilots in the use of the planes China actually had, outdated as they may be.
Chinese pilots were still fighting with fabric-covered Curtiss biplanes with open cockpits and rifle-sized machine guns in 1937. That’s the year Japan began a full-scale war with China. Chin and his fellow Americans went to work, despite the technological disadvantage of fighting against modern bombers and fighters.
His first kill came that year when he took down a Japanese Mitsubishi G3M2 twin-engine bomber, on his first day at an airfield near Nanjing. But the plane he was flying took heavy damage and he was forced to the ground. His second kill against the same bomber came the very next month, September 1937.
By February 1938, Chin and company were flying British Gloster Gladiator fighters, which were still biplanes but not cloth covered. Chinese fighter pilots were able to down significant Japanese Imperial planes at first, but when the Zero, the Mitsubishi A6M, was introduced to the skies over China, the Gladiator’s days were numbered. Despite the Gladiator’s shortcomings, Chin would score 6.5 kills in its cockpit.
Chin himself would be shot down by intercepting Zeros while flying an escort mission in Guangxi. Outnumbered and outgunned, he rammed his biplane into one of the Japanese fighters, taking it down. He flew his failing plane back to friendly territory and landed in a rice paddy. His face now badly burned from the incident, he waited until friendly troops came by to return to base.
He and his family were bombed shortly after, as Chin recovered from injuries sustained during his shootdown incident. When his Liuzhou home was bombed by the Japanese, his wife was killed as she covered his body to protect him from shrapnel and debris. He was moved to Hong Kong to recuperate.
But no rest came. It wasn’t long before Japan came for Hong Kong too. He was evacuated and moved to New York City for skin grafts. He left the Chinese military after he recovered in 1945. After a stint promoting the purchase of war bonds, he was sent back to China, this time as a civilian aviator. His mission to fly supplies over “the hump” – an air route over the Himalayas from India into China.
At the time, it was one of the most dangerous air routes in the whole war. But when the war ended in 1945, he returned to the US. Since he couldn’t find work as a pilot back in his home state of Oregon, so he became a postal officer.
In 1995, the United States recognized Chin as a veteran of World War II, awarding him the Distinguished Service Cross and the Air Medal for his service. A month after his 1997, he was inducted into the American Combat Airman Hall of Fame of the Commemorative Air Force Airpower Museum for his 8.5 kills, making him America’s first fighter ace of World War II.
San Francisco’s housing shortage has gotten so dire that developers are increasingly eyeing old military sites.
For the last several years, the development company Lennar has been building a 12,000-home community at the Hunters Point Shipyard, the former site of a top-secret nuclear-testing facility operated by the US Navy. Across the bay, Lennar is also participating in a joint venture to add 8,000 residential units to Treasure Island, another former Naval base.
Now the company has set its sights on a naval weapons station in Concord, a city less than an hour from San Francisco. The land is scattered with dozens of empty bunkers that once housed World War II munitions, but Lennar wants to turn it into a full-fledged community with 13,000 homes.
2006 aerial view of the former San Francisco Naval Shipyard at Hunters Point.
The plans call for many of the bunkers to get torn down, but a few could be transformed into pop-up cafés or beer halls.
The idea is just a proposal for now, but here’s what the community could look like when it’s finished.
The Concord Naval Weapons Station spans 12,800 acres, but developers plan to renovate less than one-fifth of that land.
More than 7,600 acres are currently occupied by the US Army. Another 2,500 acres have been set aside for a regional park. Lennar intends to use around 2,300 acres for its planned community.
“In terms of the Bay Area, this is certainly one of the largest contiguous pieces of land that is available for this kind of planning,” Craig Hartman, the project’s lead architect, told Business Insider. Hartman’s firm, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, was hired by Lennar to create an architectural vision for the site.
The station is technically just north of Concord, but developers hope the new community would be an extension of the city.
Developers want to build a hiking trail that connects the community to Concord. Hartman said it would be the first time the two areas were physically linked since the Navy occupied the site.
But developers also don’t want to alter the land too much.
“It still has this beautiful rolling form of typography,” Hartman said. “That is a really, really important part of the history of the site.”
Most of the bunkers would need to get removed to make way for new development, but a few could be converted into neighborhood hangouts, like bars or cafés.
“Our intention is to examine them and, to the extent that some of them could be used, that will be the goal,” Hartman said. “We certainly would not be trying to save all of them.”
Developers already know that the structures are sturdy and that no more weapons are stored inside.
“They’re designed to actually withstand major blasts,” Hartman said.
But the bunkers will have to be inspected to see if they’re waterproof.
Once the structures are torn down, the concrete could be repurposed and used to build new roads.
The bunkers sit along 150 miles of defunct railroad tracks. Steel from these tracks could help finance some of the project.
The tracks were built by the Navy, but they’re no longer operational.
They were the site of a notable anti-war incident: In 1987, an Air Force veteran sat in the middle of the railroad to protest the United States’ participation in a war in Nicaragua. The train ran into him going 17 miles an hour, fracturing his skull and slicing both his legs. In solidarity, a group of anti-war protesters dismantled some of tracks.
The new community could have 13,000 homes, including apartments and single-family units.
A quarter of the residences would be affordably priced, according to the plan; that means the prices would be set so that lower-income families, veterans, teachers, and senior residents would spend less than 30% of their total income on housing.
The prices of the remaining units would range in order to cater to multiple income levels, Hartman said.
“This will not solve the Bay Area’s problems by a long shot, but the density and the mixture of housing is important,” he added.
Hartman expects that most of the residents who move in would be relatively young.
The development could also include a new sports complex and public schools.
The developers’ plan sets aside more than 6 million square feet for commercial space, including offices and retail stores. Another 2.3 million square feet would be for an academic campus that might eventually house a university or research and development center.
Separately, developers plan to build six public schools — or as many as the local school district requires.
Pedestrian walkways and bicycle lanes would run through the community like a spine.
The neighborhood could also feature shuttles and buses that connect residents to a BART station (the Bay Area’s main public transportation system). Residents also have the option to walk to the North Concord BART station, which would be less than a quarter mile away from some of the development’s offices, shops, and homes.
“You could live in this place and, if you wish, not even own a car,” Hartman said.
But there are some environmental concerns to address before any residents could move in.
The naval station is a Superfund site — a label given to hazardous waste sites that pose a risk to human health or the environment.
In 1944, a load of munitions exploded at the station as the weapons were being loaded onto a cargo vessel. The Navy has been working to clean up the land since 1983, when it identified around 1,200 acres that had been contaminated. The soil at the site contains chromium, a radioactive isotope, and the groundwater contains industrial chemicals like trichloroethene and tetrachloroethylene.
The Environmental Protection Agency says the land doesn’t present a risk to human health, but levels of contamination in the groundwater still aren’t considered safe. Last year, Concord’s former mayor, Edi Birsan, said the land was “not suitable for public habitation.”
Construction could begin next year, but the entire project would likely take up to 35 years to complete.
Concord’s city council still needs to vote on the development plan, but the city already has a roadmap for how to move forward: Nearby sites like Treasure Island and Hunter’s Point were also cleared for development despite a legacy of Navy weapons tests in those areas.
If the new Concord community follows in their footsteps, it could soon offer new homes and a refurbished set of bunkers.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
An amazing underwater graveyard near the Marshall Islands is filled with the eery remains of World War II aircraft, and these photographs from Brandi Mueller give us a closer look.
“They call it the ‘Airplane Graveyard,” Mueller, a scuba instructor, boat captain, and photographer, told the Daily Mail. “They aren’t war graves or planes that crashed. They were planes that were taken out over the reef and pushed off intact after the war ended.”
The U.S. dumped them after the war since it would’ve been too expensive to bring them back home. On the sea floor in the lagoon of Kwajalein Atoll rests approximately 150 planes and parts, which include F4U Corsairs, B-25 Mitchells, F4F Wildcats, and many more, according to Mueller.
“I find diving [to see] the airplanes really exciting,” Mueller told Mashable. “It’s a strange thing to see airplanes underwater. Shipwrecks you expect, but not airplanes.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry has outlined draft legislation that would allow Russian forces to shoot down civilian passenger planes within the country’s airspace.
The draft document placed on the government’s list of proposed legislation says passenger planes that cross into Russian airspace without authorization and do not answer warning signals or respond to warning shots can be shot down if they are deemed to pose a threat of mass deaths, ecological catastrophe, or an assault on strategic targets.
Dressed in civilian clothes with long hair, the men looked like any other on the streets of East Berlin.
Their German accents didn’t give away their true identities as American Special Forces soldiers, part of a clandestine military unit operating during the Cold War.
Berlin, a divided city located 100 miles behind the Iron Curtain, was a focal point in the tensions that developed between NATO forces and the Soviet Union after World War II.
With a literal line drawn between the forces — American troops and their allies in West Berlin and Soviet troops and their supporters in East Berlin — the city became the “Grand Central Station of East-West espionage” and a “playground for all sorts of secret agents,” according to Bob Charest, a retired Army master sergeant and former Green Beret.
It was there that, for nearly 30 years, an elite Special Forces unit operated. Today, those veterans are decades removed from their secretive mission, but are only now receiving recognition for their efforts.
The little-known unit, called Detachment A, held various missions during its short-lived history, but the longest-standing was the “stay behind” mission.
In the event of World War III — with Soviet forces expected to come pouring across the Berlin Wall — members of the detachment, who never numbered more than 100 men, were expected to blend into the city and make life difficult for the much larger Communist force.
Teams were assigned sabotage missions, ready to destroy key transportation lines, military equipment, and other targets. They also would be expected to train and lead guerrilla forces that would then be tasked with harassing the Soviet troops from behind enemy lines, buying important time to allow NATO forces to mount a counterattack.
Charest, twice a member of Detachment A, recalled one of his team’s forays across the Berlin Wall recently during a visit to Fort Bragg.
Despite the soldiers’ efforts to go unnoticed, it was not unusual for the men to realize they were being followed, Charest said.
When that happened, the soldiers were trained to evade the extra attention and disappear into the city. Failure was not an option.
“You’re a spy,” Charest said, decades after having served in the city. “You didn’t have any dog tags. You weren’t there, officially.”
“If they caught you, they would either kill you or put you in jail,” he said.
Despite the high stakes, Charest said, the men were highly trained and able to stay calm under pressure.
Part of that training involved how to surveil targets amid the busy city and, if needed, lose the enemy when under unwanted scrutiny.
“We knew we were being watched,” Charest said.
Luckily, the men also knew their way around the city. Unlike other American troops in Berlin, these soldiers were trained to blend into Berlin. They had to immerse themselves in the city, becoming as knowledgeable on its nooks and crannies as the locals.
As the team led their tail through the city, Charest said, the soldiers made their way to a train station, part of the city’s subway, or U-Bahn, network.
Instead of stepping onto a train, the men let the first one pull out of the station. A second train arrived and the men were seemingly set to let that one pass, too.
But at the last moment, just before the doors closed, Charest said, the soldiers stepped onto the train.
He turned just in time to lock eyes with the man who had been following them. Charest is unsure who he worked for. It could have been the East German Secret Police, known as the Stasi, or the Soviet KGB.
As the train pulled out of the station, Charest looked at the man. Then he smiled, and as he pulled out of sight, Charest waved goodbye.
For most of its history, Detachment A — sometimes known simply as “the detachment” or “Det ‘A'” — was as elusive as the men who served in the unit.
When it was formed in 1956 with the cover story of a “security platoon” assigned to another US Army unit in Berlin, only about 10 officers knew the true makeup of the unit, according to James Stejskal, a Special Forces veteran who spent two tours of duty in Berlin and later served with the CIA.
Stejskal, a retired chief warrant officer 4 who now lives in Alexandria, Virginia, has written what might be the only definitive history of Detachment A.
His book, “Special Forces Berlin: Clandestine Cold War Operations of the US Army’s Elite, 1956-1990,” was published this year by Casemate Publishers, following a two-and-a-half-year effort to research and write the book and another year-long review by the Department of Defense.
Stejskal was one of dozens of Detachment A veterans who gathered on Fort Bragg earlier this month.
Once covered in shadows — to the point that even the US Army has little official documentation on the unit — the veterans of Detachment A are becoming increasingly vocal, with the hopes of bringing the unit the recognition it deserves before all of its former members are gone.
Charest, who now lives in Campobello, South Carolina, has been a key part of those efforts.
Since Detachment A was first publicly acknowledged in early 2014, he has worked to tell the unit’s untold story.
Previously recognized by veterans of the unit as “The Man Who Brought Detachment A In From the Cold,” Charest is the group’s webmaster, maintaining a website — detachment-a.org — along with his wife, Linda. He’s also become their organizer, facilitating annual reunions.
The most recent gathering was at Fort Bragg, the same place where veterans of the unit unveiled a monument stone honoring Detachment A outside of U.S. Army Special Operations Command in early 2014.
Detachment A has long been a small, elite group. Over its nearly 30-year history, an estimated 800 men served among its ranks or with the Physical Security Support Element-Berlin, a similar unit that replaced the detachment from 1984 to 1990.
Charest said the annual gatherings, which once attracted more than 100 veterans, are starting to dwindle. Detachment veterans are growing older. They’re dying, he said. Or they don’t travel as well as they used to.
“We’re starting to slow down,” Charest said. “I can see the handwriting on the wall.”
That makes his mission to spread the word about the unit even more important.
“We’re getting the recognition we didn’t have,” he said.
In the years after the Cold War, the Army declassified many of Detachment A’s secrets. But its veterans were largely unaware that they were now free to speak about their experiences.
The breaking point came in 2014, Charest said. The ceremony outside the USASOC headquarters was a first for Detachment A.
In addition to unveiling the monument stone, the veterans also took the symbolic step of casing the unit’s colors, a flag used to identify the detachment, for the first time.
“No force of its size has contributed more to peace, stability, and freedom,” Army Special Operations Command officials said during the ceremony.
Lt. Gen. Charles T. Cleveland, then-commander of USASOC, said the men operated amid untold risk, fraught with uncertainty.
“Detachment A was literally in the eye of the Cold War hurricane,” he said.
The next day, a story about the ceremony was on the front page of The Fayetteville Observer.
Charest said it was the first public exposure for the unit, whose existence and missions had been highly classified secrets. It began a flurry of queries from veterans of the detachment, some of whom had never even told their families about the unit.
“We were out of the cold,” Charest said. “This unit — nobody knows about it. Nobody knew we ever existed.”
Stejskal, who interviewed 65 veterans of Detachment A for his book and dug through what little information was available from official sources, said it was long past due for the unit to receive its recognition.
“No one became famous because of his exploits in Berlin; they were classified,” he said. “The Army has no history on us. They know of it, but they don’t know anything about it.”
Stejskal said that when he visited the Army’s Center for Military History to research his book, the organization had six pages of documents and little information. Most of the unit’s actual documents have been lost or destroyed.
“After 25 years, I figured it was about time,” Stejskal said of his decision to put together a history of the unit. “We’re on the verge of dying out and losing it all, all that historical knowledge.”
Detachment A, also known by its classified name — the 39th Special Forces Operational Detachment — was formed in August 1956 from carefully screened and selected members of the 10th Special Forces Group based in Bad Toelz, Germany. The unit was first housed at McNair Barracks and later, at Andrews Barracks in West Berlin.
Over the years, the men assigned to Detachment A remained a select group. They were highly trained, often with experience in World War II or, later, in Vietnam.
Members of the unit had to be Special Forces qualified. They needed to have a top-secret clearance. And they needed to be able to speak fluent German or another Eastern European language.
In the early days, nearly half of the unit came from soldiers who joined the Army under the Lodge Act — often refugees from Europe whose families remained under Soviet rule. Those immigrants provided important knowledge to the detachment members, who needed to appear to be German.
Charest, who served with the clandestine unit from 1969 to 1972 and again from 1973 to 1978, said the slightest mistake could blow a soldier’s cover.
“The Germans handle a knife and fork different than we do,” he said. “They count with their fingers different.”
Detachment members had to study the habits of locals, Charest said. They needed to dress like a local, wear their hair like a local, and talk like a local.
They carried paperwork provided by German authorities or passports from Eastern European nations that supported their cover stories. Even their ranks were classified, Charest said. Instead, members usually referred to each other by their first names.
Even within the Special Forces community, Charest said, the detachment was largely an unknown.
Some soldiers were assigned to the unit assuming it was a conventional support unit. They wouldn’t learn the truth until they were in Berlin being debriefed by leaders.
“They knew it existed, but nobody knew what they did,” Charest said.
At first, Detachment A had about 40 soldiers, but it would grow to about 90 troops for most of its history. Most soldiers stayed in Berlin for three years.
Amid the backdrop of the Cold War, the detachment would have been little more than a speed bump against Soviet forces in a conventional fight.
But Charest said the detachment never intended to “fight fair.”
With Berlin more than 100 miles behind enemy lines, encircled by what could have become the front lines of a war, those allied forces stood little chance at stopping the Soviet forces.
Stejskal wrote that the city would likely have become the world’s largest prisoner-of-war camp. He compared the hypothetical plight of the detachment to the 300 Spartans who faced a superior Persian force at the legendary Battle of Thermopylae.
“If the Russians decided to roll across the wall, that would have been World War III,” Charest said. “It was a suicide mission.”
“The odds were against us,” he added. “But that’s part of the game.”
The most the detachment could hope for, Charest said, was slowing the Soviet juggernaut.
Stejskal described the detachment mission as a “Hail Mary plan.”
He said the soldiers were there to buy time and disrupt the enemy, much like World War II’s famed Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the modern CIA.
Charest said the soldiers were constantly “poking and prodding” German and Soviet defenses. Sometimes, that would mean sneaking into East Germany via canals and tunnels.
“We were constantly trying,” he said. “If you heard the stories, you wouldn’t believe them.”
As the Cold War stayed cold, the detachment would see its missions expand.
It was tasked with probing and testing allied security vulnerabilities across Europe.
At the same time, it would become more of a counterterrorism force, training to respond to hijacked airplanes and participating in the famed Operation Eagle Claw — the failed mission to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980.
Detachment soldiers were tasked with rescuing three diplomats being held by Iran, and two detachment members were stationed in Tehran, providing information on the target buildings and preparing to receiving the rescue force.
When the mission was scrapped and disaster struck a staging site — resulting in the deaths of several troops — the detachment members in Iran were left to escape the country on their own.
Retired Maj. Gen. Sidney Shachnow, who commanded Detachment A from 1970 to 1974 and later commanded all American forces in Berlin, said the city was full of spies and the Soviet KGB had known about the detachment since the late 1960s.
But, Shachnow said, the Soviets greatly overestimated the size of the unit, assuming it was about 500 men instead of less than 100.
“They knew our capabilities but did not know what our targets were,” he said.
Shachnow is a Holocaust survivor who was born in Lithuania and spent three years imprisoned in a Germany concentration camp as a young boy. He moved to the United States in 1950 and became a legend in the Special Forces community.
He said he had the privilege of deactivating the Special Forces presence in Berlin.
“It was a sad ceremony in an empty room with only about 12 guest spectators seated in folding chairs,” he said. “I awarded some medals, made some short remarks, and the ceremony was over in a matter of minutes.”
“Det A was a small, covert unit staffed with incredibly talented people willing to make the ultimate sacrifice,” Shachnow said on Fort Bragg earlier this month. “They served on the front lines of the Cold War and never fired a shot in anger. No force of its size in history has contributed more to peace, stability, and freedom.”
The United States Air Force primarily used three jets to fight the Korean War. The F-80 Shooting Star from Lockheed held the line in the early stages of the conflict, handling a wide array of missions. The North American F-86 Sabre then took control of the skies and dominated over “MiG Alley.” But there was a third jet — one that proved to also be very valuable not only in Korea, but for NATO in general.
The jet was the Republic F-84 Thunderjet. In a way, it makes sense that Lockheed, Republic, and North American all developed an impactful airframe. After all, each of these manufacturers was responsible for a classic, WWII-era plane (the P-38, the P-47, and the P-51, respectively) that arguably filled the same roles as these more-advanced jets did in Korea. The P-38 and F-80 held the line early in their respective wars, while the F-84 and F-86 split the ground-attack and air-superiority duties the way the P-47 and P-51 did before them.
The F-84, however, gets a lot less attention than its contemporaries in discussions about the Korean War.
Why is that? As a ground-attack plane, it played a crucial role on the battlefield. The simple fact is, however, that dogfights sells newspapers. While air-superiority planes were making headlines, ground-attack planes were doing the real heavy lifting — and the F-84 did a lot of lifting in Korea.
A F-84 releases rockets at the enemy during the Korean War. It could carry up to two dozen five-inch rockets.
It was well-suited for the role. The F-84 could carry up to 6,000 pounds of external ordnance, which was comprised of either two bombs or tanks of napalm or up to 24 five-inch rockets. The F-84 also packed six .50-caliber machine guns, which claimed nine MiG-15s over Korea.
A F-84 Thunderjet takes off for a ground-support mission. This plane, in particular, did not survive the war. It was shot down by flak in August, 1952.
The straight-wing F-84 Thunderjet was retired by the end of the 1950s. Swept-wing versions, including the F-84F Thunderstreak and the RF-84F Thunderflash, served through the 1960s in the Air National Guard.
They may have never generated headlines like the F-86, but they still served effectively. Learn more about this forgotten jet in the video below!
Women have played a part in war and the military ever since the birth of our nation, whether it be disguising themselves as men to secretly join the Army during the Civil War, tending to the wounded on the battlefield as nurses in WWII, or, more recently, taking up arms alongside their brothers in combat positions.
Elsie Ott, for example, made a name for herself in the world of flight nursing. Ott was born in 1913 in Smithtown, New York, and attended nursing school at Lenox Hill Hospital School of Nursing in New York City right after high school.
It was 1941 when Ott joined the Army Nurse Corps, and she became a true trailblazer for women in the military. She was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. and stationed in Louisiana and Virginia before flying on a mission that would make history.
Take Elsie Ott, for example, who was one such woman that made a name for herself in the world of flight nursing. Ott was born in 1913 in Smithtown, New York, and attended nursing school at Lenox Hill Hospital School of Nursing in New York City right after high school.
It was 1941 when Ott joined the Army Nurse Corps, and she became a true trailblazer for women in the military. She was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. and stationed in Louisiana and Virginia before flying on a mission that would make history.
During WWII air evacuation of casualties was in its infancy and procedures, as well as training of flight nurses, was not perfected. Before aeromedical evacuation, the injured would have to wait weeks and often months, to be sent back home to the U.S.
The Army Air Corps started to spin up a program for flight nurses in 1941 in order to aeromedically evacuate patients from the field.
Ott had never even been on an airplane, nor had training on the aircraft when she was assigned to fly a week-long mission. On Jan. 17, 1943 the flight originated in Karachi, India, and was to fly to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Five patients were assigned to the flight and Ott was only given a simple first aid kit to care for all of them.
It was a week later when Ott reached Walter Reed with the patients, all of them alive and well. She made sure to take detailed notes throughout her journey to improve the procedures and training for future flight nurses. Some of the suggestions she noted included, oxygen bottles, blankets, more medical supplies, and a change of uniform from skirts to pants.
Above, Army nurses tend to patients on aircraft.
Ott’s contributions didn’t go unnoticed and were used to improve aeromedical evacuation processes, to this day. Two months after her groundbreaking first flight she was awarded the U.S. Air Medal. She was the first woman in U.S. Army history to obtain such and honor.
Brigadier General Fred Borum presents the Air Medal to 2nd Lieutenant Elsie Ott
(Photo by the U.S. Air Force).
Due to Elsie Ott’s unwavering persistence while caring for her patients and individual contributions, flight nurses today can give their patients the highest level of care in the air while returning them safely home.
Presidents of the past had some interesting hobbies. Abe Lincoln could kick your ass if he wanted to — and that’s exactly what he did wrestling in more than 300 matches. He only lost once. Calvin Coolidge installed an electric horse at the White House because he missed the joy of riding. And Dwight D. Eisenhower was a prolific painter, often giving his latest magnum opus to his closest friends. But before that, the OG President George Washington put them all to shame with his thriving whiskey empire in the final years of his life.
As was the norm during the 18th century, Washington was known to sip low-alcohol “Small Beer” for hydration — including while leading the Virginia militia in the French and Indian War. He wrote his own recipe upside down on the last page of one of his notebooks. He also famously ran up an epic bar tab in celebration of writing the Constitution. So when James Anderson, Washington’s Scottish farm manager, approached him with an offer he couldn’t refuse, it was only natural for Washington to transform Mount Vernon into the epicenter of whiskey making in the United States.
Anderson leveraged his expertise distilling grain in Scotland and told Washington that Mount Vernon’s crops and copious water supply could produce a profitable whiskey business. The construction began over the winter of 1797 to 1798, and the distillery was built with large river rocks taken from the Falls of the Potomac and sandstone cut from Mount Vernon. Inside the 75-by-30-foot walls were five copper pot stills, a boiler, and 50 tubs for cooking the mash. It had a second floor for storing extra equipment needed for a sophisticated whiskey production and had sleeping rooms for the workers.
Under Anderson were six enslaved men named Daniel, Hanson, James, Nat, Peter, and Timothy, who brought Washington’s whiskey into being. They were all trained specifically for this operation, and it wasn’t out of the norm for other slaves to be skilled in the trades. On Washington’s gristmill-distillery complex, more than 50 enslaved men and women worked as coopers mending metal, carpenters building and repairing tools, blacksmiths for locks and horseshoes, grooms for the horses, textile workers for clothing, dairy maids to care for the estate’s cows, and gardeners for Mount Vernon’s gardens and orchards.
The average distillery of the era had only one or two stills and stilled for a month — Washington’s operation produced whiskey year-round. Washington was able to do this by favoring the innovation of Oliver Evans’ automated gristmill system, which mechanically milled grain and flour without the need of manual labor. This enabled the gristmill to produce 5,000 to 8,000 pounds of flour and cornmeal per day. And nothing went to waste. Even the slop from the distillery was given to Washington’s hogs in a pigpen located just outside.
The recipe for Washington’s most common whiskey was 60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% malted barley. Rather than being aged, bottled, and branded like the spirits of today, it was poured into wooden whiskey barrels and distributed to merchants at their request. By 1799, the same year of Washington’s death, his side hustle was producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey and pulling in a $7,500 profit.
Washington’s distillery was re-created in 2007 thanks to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, and it’s become an iconic tourist attraction where visitors get the chance to taste George Washington’s Rye Whiskey in person. It took a silver medal in the 2019 American Craft Spirits Association Awards and is recognized as the official spirit of the commonwealth of Virginia. If whiskey isn’t your thing, they also offer brandy and rum, suitable options for anybody looking to toast one of America’s founding fathers. At the very least, treat yourself to some of Washington’s pancakes.