Apocalypse Now. Full Metal Jacket. Platoon. Top Gun. Black Hawk Down. A Few Good Men. Saving Private Ryan. Kelly’s Heroes. Crimson Tide.
If you ask your circle of friends and family what some of their favorite military films are, you could get literally a hundred different answers. You’d probably have to ask a few more friends and listen to another hundred more before you get someone to organically name 2006’s The Guardian as a movie they’ve even heard of.
Just to get a few FAQ out of the way early on: yes, Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher did a film together. Yes, it is based on the military. Yes, it is about the US Coast Guard. Yes, the USCG is an arm of the US Armed Forces.
As you can imagine, there aren’t very many people who would dare call this a good film, but I ask that you pump the brakes a bit and read why The Guardian should be on your list of favorite military films.
The original DHS
(Image from MilitaryHumor.com)
A movie about the Coast Guard?
As stated above, yes, the Coast Guard is a branch of the military… kind of.
They aren’t, technically, a part of the Department of Defense so there is that odd “one of these things is not like the others” vibe going on, but they are our brothers and sisters, regardless. At one point they were Department of Transportation during peacetime and switched over to Department of Defense, falling under the umbrella of the Navy, during wartime.
They currently fall under the Department of Homeland Security, another departmental move that makes many of us lower-level peons scratch our heads.
Yes, the USCG got some badasses, too!
(Image from Outsideonline.com)
It features some unheralded badasses
Rescue swimmer seems like the most fitting name for this group of hardened heroes, but they have a much more official title: Aviation Survival Technician. Regardless of all of that, the AST of the US Coast Guard is a certified badass.
It is one of the US military’s most elite careers with about an 80% washout rate. For comparison sake, that’s about the same attrition rate as the Green Beret and Navy SEAL, and higher than the Army Ranger!
A bit of split in opinion between the critics and the audience
(Image from Rotten Tomatoes.com)
It’s better than you think
Sure it made less than m in profit (horrible for a major theatrical release). Yes, it is lambasted on movie critiquing platform, Rotten Tomatoes. However, have you seen it?
Give The Guardian a good, genuine, non-biased once over, and you’ll likely find yourself among the 80% of the audience who think this film is rated “fresh.” The film doesn’t tell any groundbreaking story. It is a completely fictionalized account but there are enough moments to draw you in, and that ending is truly special, if not a bit predictable.
(Image from 20th Century Fox’s Dude, Where’s My Car?)
It’s one of the few watchable Ashton Kutcher films
Look, Ashton Kutcher is a great man. He is involved in some of the most selfless causes in modern society. He has been instrumental in raising awareness, if nothing else, to the mainstream.
He also has a pretty decent track record when it comes to television. He was key in That 70’s Show, created and hosted Punk’d, replaced Charlie freakin’ Sheen on Two and a Half Men, and is currently putting out the Netflix Show, The Ranch. His television reputation is intact. Filmwise..not so much.
A bit of a holdover of a foregone era in a way, Kutcher doesn’t seem to have the same magic when selected for movie projects as he does with TV. Of the 20+ movies Kutcher has starred in The Guardian is one of about four films that is actually enjoyable without intoxicants.
Yea… he did this doozy too
(Image from Universal Pictures’ Waterworld)
It’s got Costner being Costner
Similar to his co-star, Kevin Costner has a bit of a checkered history when it comes to choosing movie roles. On the one hand you have films like Dances with Wolves and Hatfields McCoys, two productions that yielded major awards and nominations for Costner.
It was Sept. 27, 1901, and C Company of the 9th U.S. Infantry Regiment was stationed in the area Samar in the Philippines, specifically the town of Balnagiga. It was during the evening watch that the unit sentries noticed an unusual number of irregularly clothed women heading into the local church with baby-sized coffins. After a search revealed the coffins were carrying children killed by cholera, he let them pass on.
The United States had occupied the Philippines since it was wrested from Spanish control during the 1898 Spanish-American War. The people of the Philippines at first welcomed the Americans as liberators. As soon as they realized U.S. colonial ambitions, however, they turned on the Americans, launching an almost four-year long insurgency they would lose, becoming a U.S. possession until 1946.
Even after rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo surrendered to the U.S. in April, 1901, the fight wore on in places like Samar. The Americans stationed there should have been ready for anything.
Filipino insurgency leader Emilio Aguinaldo reports aboard the USS Vicksburg as a prisoner of war.
During that September night in 1901, the small coffins really were filled by children, presumably killed by a cholera epidemic that was sweeping the villages of the area. The inspecting sentry looked into one of the coffins, saw what was there, and even helped the woman nail the lid down again when he was finished. If he had looked underneath the corpse, he would have found cane-cutting blades hidden under the body.
All the coffins were filled with them.
James Mattis and Philippines Ambassador Jose Manuel G. Romualdez shake hands in front of the Bells of Balangiga display at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Nov. 14, 2018. The ceremony in Wyoming signaled the start of an effort to return the bells to the Philippines.
(Wyoming Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jimmy McGuire)
The next morning, the Americans went to breakfast as the local police chief sent his prisoners to work in the streets. As an American sentry, Adolph Gamlin walked by the Chief in the plaza, the Chief, Valeriano Abanador, grabbed Gamlin’s rifle, butt-stroked the private across the face and unloaded it into the men in the mess tent. The town church bells began to ring, signaling the attack on the surprised American company.
Two guards posted at the entrance to the local convent were killed by locals. The Filipinos then broke through, into the convent, and killed the unit’s officers. Simultaneously, the Bolo fighters began an assault on the local barracks. The locals had gotten the drop on the Americans, but the victims had one advantage — there weren’t enough attackers to get them all.
Some Americans in the mess tent and barracks escaped the initial surprise, regrouped, and retook the municipal hall where their arms were held. Now armed, the tide turned in favor of the Americans. Behind the Filipinos, Pvt. Adolph Gamlin (the sentry) regained consciousness as well as his rifle, and was wreaking havoc in the attackers’ rear. Gamlin had the whole plaza as a field of fire, and the attackers had no cover to hide behind.
Abanador was forced to pull his insurgents out.
The bells arrived in Wyoming sometime in 1904.
Company C collected their dead, 48 of 74 men were killed in action. A further 26 were wounded and eight of those men would die later of those wounds. Not able to hold the town with their reduced numbers, they escaped by sea. The Filipinos could not hold the town either. They returned to bury an estimated 26-36 of their dead and then faded away before the Americans could come in and punish them.
The 11th infantry arrived in Balagiga on Oct. 25, 1901, and found the buried Filipinos. They burned the town and took the church bells, sending two of them to Fort Russell, now F.E. Warren Air Force Base. A third bell ended up with the 9th Infantry at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea.
A solider poses with the third Bell of Balangiga at Camp Red Cloud, South Korea, ca. 2004.
The bells were ordered to be returned to the government of the Philippines by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. On Dec. 11, 2018, a U.S. Air Force C-130 landed in Manila, carrying the bells back to the people of the Philippines 117 years after they were taken as war booty by the U.S. Army.
Amazon Studios along with Lionsgate shows the inspirational power of brotherhood amongst service members in Richard Linklater’s film “Last Flag Flying.”
The film sheds a charismatic light on Larry “Doc” Shepherd, a former Navy Corpsman and Vietnam veteran who loses his only son while serving in the Iraq war.
Faced with this surprising tragedy, Shepard looks to reunite with his former Marine brothers for their most crucial mission yet: to bury Shepherd’s son and ultimately reconnect the brotherhood they shared 30 years ago.
“Last Flag Flying” stars Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne and chronicles an uplifting cross-country adventure and the genuine strength of the military fraternity.
Monument to the Colombian veterans from the Korean War. Incheon, South Korea.
While the Korean War Battles of Old Baldy, Triangle Hill, and Geumseong may not be the first battles that come to mind when we think of the Korean Conflict, for Colombia, they were certainly important. Like their Brazilian neighbors in World War II, the Colombians saw the importance of stemming the advance of an aggressor as essential to the world’s collective security. Three Colombian frigates along with more than 5,000 troops saw action alongside their U.N. allies there.
While the country’s then-President, Laureano Gomez, was also looking for economic support from the West, the Colombians were also eager to remove the pro-German brush that had painted them during the Second World War. By 1951, for the first time in 127 years, Colombia was fully engaged in the fighting on the Korean Peninsula, attached to the U.S. 7th and 24th Infantry Divisions.
Over the course of the rest of the war, Colombia would send battalion after battalion over to fight, numbering more than a thousand men each. They were eager to prove Colombia’s bravery to the rest of the world, like the Turkish and Ethiopians before them. They were unlike any Colombian soldiers who came before them, but when returning home, they found a cold indifferent world.
Their service went largely unnoticed when they returned home. Colombians rejected many of the ideals the Korean War veterans held as they fought to earn their respect in the halls of the U.N.. They suffered the way many veterans the world over suffer after their wars end. While abroad and fighting, they found themselves honored and beloved by veterans from every nation they fought. When they came home, they found it was hard to win over their own nation.
They received no benefits, no pension. Many wounded veterans would come home and one day die without so much as a thank you from the nation for which they were willing to give their lives.
Eventually, the Colombian government would relent and offer a pension to Korean War veterans who could prove they were indigent. By then, many of those fighting men were well into their 60s and 70s. Some of those veterans were never recovered and remain in Korea to this day. The unit also suffered 213 dead and 567 wounded. They were the last force to arrive but the 9th largest to join in the effort to keep the South free. Still, the men who fought there don’t hold regrets about going.
“It was a really extraordinary experience,” said General Álvaro Valencia Tovar. “I never regretted going, despite the hardships suffered during war, the bitter winter we lived through there…resisting subzero temperatures, but that was all part of a chapter in my life that I’ve always regarded with great sympathy and with pleasant memories.”
In the middle of a war, the most crucial information is just how much of the enemy’s territory is captured by the other side. But the United States isn’t engaged in the kind of war that has a front, a rear, and can be delineated on a map somewhere. Even in the counterinsurgency kind of war, one might think it’s still important to track which areas are more or less under control. According to U.S. military commanders, they would be wrong.
For years, the U.S. military was happy to tell the American public just how much of Afghanistan it controlled and how much fell to the Taliban.
“Just shoot in any direction, I guess.”
For years, the government provided data on how much of the country is under control of the Afghan government and the ISAF mission, and how much is under the control of the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Between 2015 and November 2018, the percentage controlled by the Taliban is up. Way up.
In 2015, the Afghan government controlled 72 percent of the country. Since then the resurgent insurgency has fought back, causing that number to dwindle to 54 percent in October 2018.
An Afghan security force personnel fires during an ongoing an operation against Islamic State.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction; the body designated by Congress to monitor American spending in Afghanistan reported that the NATO-led mission, Resolute Support, “formally notified SIGAR that it is no longer assessing district-level insurgent or government control or influence.” The United States military in Afghanistan backed SIGAR on the move, saying district stability data “was of limited decision-making value to the commander.”
The report from SIGAR that announced the decision was released on May 1, 2019, and did not explain why the data was of no use to the commander. The only clue is that the United States has long questioned the accuracy of the models produced by SIGAR and is only based on unclassified data, which is not what the U.S. military is likely to use.
U.S. Army soldiers from the 1-320 Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, watch helicopters at Combat Outpost Terra Nova
John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction, told Morning Edition:
“The enemy knows what districts they control, the enemy knows what the situation is. The Afghan military knows what the situation is. The only people who don’t know what’s going on are the people who are paying for it, and that’s the American taxpayer.”
Perry Yee knew there was a way he could help his fellow veterans but wasn’t sure how. There are plenty of charities and programs out there that claim to help veterans with issues like PTSD, anxiety, loneliness and isolation, and the sometimes difficult transition into the civilian world. The call to do something was there, but he wasn’t sure what the path was.
So Yee and his wife, Jamie, did what a lot of people who want to help do….they prayed.
Soon after, the idea for Active Valor was born.
Active Valor is a non-profit that pairs veterans with Gold Star children. Based out of San Diego county, veterans apply to be a mentor for a child that belongs to a Gold Star family. The intent isn’t to take the place of the father who has passed away, but to be a mentor, guide, confidant and teacher while honoring the parent that passed away. Active Valor does this in several ways. First, they host events throughout the year that keep veterans engaged. This is not a once a year event. This is not a one time meet up. Once paired with a kid, the veteran commits to participating in events throughout the year, and most go further developing a relationship with the child and family. They will end up having weekly conversations, taking the child to sporting events, and being involved with the kid’s life. But more than a “Big Brother” program, Active Valor serves the veteran too and helps them with their struggles.
Yee himself knew all about that struggle. He enlisted in the Navy in 2005 on a BUDs contract. Twice he went through Hell Week and had to be rolled back. Once for nerve damage to his arm, and once for pneumonia. But like most warriors, Yee didn’t give up, and in true “third times the charm fashion” graduated in Class 262. He was eventually assigned to SEAL Team 7 out of Coronado, Calif.
Yee did a combat tour and earned himself a Navy Commendation with “V” and Army Commendation with “V.” He left the service in 2011 and embarked on the next chapter of his life. After flirting with college, Yee ended up with the Competitor Group, which runs the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathons nationwide. After a year, he ended up as a Range Safety Officer in Poway, Calif., before getting a job at the Warfighter Academy in Escondido, Calif.. It was here that Yee taught classes in CQB and other warfighting techniques. It was also here where he started connecting with veterans and learned that his rough journey into the civilian side wasn’t just his own experience. Yee learned that many other veterans struggle to connect with coworkers, classmates, family and spouses, and few had outlets which they could express themselves and connect with others.
The events the Active Valor puts on helps veterans do just that. They are specifically tailor-made to allow the veteran to use skills and experiences he/she learned in the military and put them to use in a setting that allows the kids to have fun.
By hosting amazingly fun and badass events.
One of the events Yee organized was a treasure hunt for the kids. However, this particular treasure hunt required veterans to use their land nav skills so that kids could find the treasure. Veterans taught their kids how to read maps, use a compass, use a pace count and other tricks so that they could find the treasure that was buried. For those of us that served, it is a bit more fun to do land nav when it helps a kid win a prize as opposed to the torture of doing it as part of training.
Other events include a capture the flag event, field day events, jewel heist adventures where the kid has to recover stolen property, and the most popular of all….’The Zombie Hunt.’ This was a one-off event, where Gold Star kids and their veteran mentors navigated a course full of zombies. Armed with Nerf guns and lots of close combat experience, the pairs went around killing zombies and making memories. The event is so popular it went from a one-off to an annual event (although next year might feature aliens instead of zombies).
Seriously how fun is this:
For the Gold Star families, the events and mentorship provide fun events for the kids while giving them a chance to develop a rapport with someone that walked in their dad’s shoes. A big piece of why the events are successful for both the kids and the veteran is simple. The vet gets to teach the kids about the skills they learned in the military – the same skills their dad knew. That lays the cornerstone to a bridge between their fathers’ life and their life now.
For many Gold Star families, when they lose their loved one, they lose the one connection they had with military life. Active Valor helps reestablish that connection too. Perry has had a lot of positive feedback from mothers saying their kid was in a shell or detached after losing their dad. Having an Active Valor mentor and participating in the activities, give the child an outlet and someone they can talk to. Yee and his wife want to make it clear; Active Valor is not about bringing up the trauma the child had in losing a parent. It is about giving them a day of fun to celebrate the parent and, well, be a kid.
Active Valor is a two-person show. Perry is the CEO and does most of the leg work when it comes to organizing the events. His wife Jamie uses her media and design background from her job to do all the marketing, social media, and photo and video work that is needed to spread the word. They are local to San Diego right now, but bring in kids from Northern California, Arizona and Texas. Perry and Jamie are working on expanding the program and engaging more veterans and Gold Star families as they have seen the positive benefits of their program and know they can do more. Right now, they have 45 kids paired with 45 veterans. The process of signing up revolves around the families. Once they sign up, they are then paired with a veteran based on several factors, including interests and hobbies. The key is to make sure the kid feels trusted, and the veteran is going to be a long-term positive influence on the child in the years to come.
The biggest obstacle they face is funding and getting the word out to Gold Star families that this program exists for their kids. If you would like to learn more and if you want to get involved, visit here!
The U.S. military does a lot of good around the world, but it also maintains a few quirks. Usually stemming from the mindset of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” some items common to the military experience don’t make much sense. These are those items.
Here is how this went down: The Navy was wearing its completely blue working uniform, and then the Marine Corps and Army went to new and improved digital patterns. The admirals got together and thought of how to best to spend the budget.
They got into a big room with presentations about cool laser beams that can destroy an entire terrorist compound, missiles for fighter jets that can travel 300 miles, and new GPS navigation systems that can tell you where you are with pinpoint accuracy and you can hit one button to call in naval gunfire. And then they decided to spend a bunch of money on uniforms that make no sense.
2. Wearing reflective belts everywhere
Yeah, we know. They reflect light from car headlights so that you don’t get flattened like a pancake when you’re on your run. So maybe that makes sense. But they are overused to the point of absurdity. You need to wrap a reflective belt around your pack on this hike, because drivers may not notice the 900+ people around you with flashlights and making lots of noise.
Make sure you also wear your reflective belt around your forward operating base so that Johnny Taliban can make that mortar fire more effective.
3. Those brown dive shorts that only Navy SEALs wear
The UDT SEAL swim shorts come in khaki, have an included belt, and are short enough to show how terribly untanned your legs are. According to NavySEALs.com, the shorts were issued to the original frogmen of World War II, and now all SEALs are issued them as part of that tradition.
Holding to traditions is important, but we’re talking 1940s-era fashion here. SEALs aren’t shooting at Taliban fighters with M1 Garands, because times, trends, and technology has changed. Which leads us to …
4. Marine Corps “silkies” physical training shorts
We can officially conclude that the military has a serious problem with short shorts. The worst offender is the U.S. Marine Corps, with their “silkies.” While Marines have been issued updated physical training uniforms, the silkie shorts that looked like they were stolen from Larry Bird’s locker room still prevail. And sadly, there’s always at least one weird guy in your platoon who actually enjoys wearing them.
There’s a reason Gen. Mattis banned the use of Powerpoint briefings when he was in charge at CENTCOM. Creating slideshows are boring, huge wastes of time, and as he so famously said, they “make you stupid.”
We’re absolutely certain there are other things out there. What can you think of? Add it to the comments.
Hollywood loves to make old fashion bloody war movies that have plenty of entertaining explosions and dramatic death scenes. While entertaining, these can hit pretty close to home for someone who’s been in the fight.
The graphic ones can be particularly realistic, but no matter what, they all represent the sucktitude of war.
Here are five you may want to stay away from before deploying to a combat zone.
1. Saving Private Ryan
Known as one of the most authentic and gruesome openings to a film ever, this Steven Spielberg-directed classic put audiences inside the minds of war-hardened characters as they storm the beaches of Normandy.
I think that guy had eggs for breakfast. (Image by Giphy)
2. Casualties of War
Marty McFly, I mean Michael J. Fox, plays an Army soldier who is coerced by Sgt. Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) to take advantage of a Vietnamese hostage-turned-sex-slave. When he refuses, the whole squad turns against him.
We guess they missed those team building exercises stateside. (Image via Giphy)
3. Hamburger Hill
John Irvin’s 1987 war epic depicts one of the most disastrous friendly fire accidents in the military in the Vietnam war.
Could you imagine that sh*t. (Image via Giphy)
4. The Deer Hunter
Because no one wants to think about the dangers of being a prisoner of war and playing Russian roulette at the same time.
No one wants to get left behind and eventually gunned down by the bad guys.
WHY ME?! (Image via Giphy)
Bonus: Pearl Harbor
This is a good one if you join the service with a buddy. In Micheal Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” two childhood friends join the military as pilots. As one is off fighting in an aerial dogfight, the other stays back keeping his girlfriend company — eventually knocking her up.
Spoiler alert — he takes about a half dozen bullets for his buddy to buy himself some redemption. That is all.
It’s actually a good way to make things even. (Image via Giphy)
The Air Force said on May 2, 2018, that the new B-21 Raider bomber will go to three bases in the US when it starts arriving in the mid-2020s.
The service picked Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri as “reasonable alternatives” for the new bomber.
The Air Force said using existing bomber bases would reduce operational impact, lower overhead, and minimize costs.
“Our current bomber bases are best suited for the B-21,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a release. Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota has said Ellsworth is a candidate to be the first to get the new, next-generation bomber.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jazmin Smith)
The B-21 will eventually replace the B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit at those bases, as well — though the Air Force doesn’t plan to start retiring those bombers until it has enough B-21s to replace them.
Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota will continue to host the B-52 Stratofortress, the workhorse bomber that was first introduced in 1952 and is expected to remain in service until the 2050s.
A final basing decision is expected in 2019 after compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act and other regulations.
“We are designing the B-21 Raider to replace our aging bombers as a long-range, highly survivable aircraft capable of carrying mixed conventional and nuclear payloads, to strike any target worldwide,” Air Force chief of staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said in the release.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Carl Schaefer, commander of the 412th Test Wing, said in March that the B-21 will head to Edwards Air Force Base in California for testing “in the near future.” His announcement appeared to confirm that the Raider would undergo operational testing sooner than expected.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Zachary Hada)
The B-21 is being engineered to have next-generation stealth capability to allow it to elude the most advanced air defenses in the world, and it has been developed under a high level of secrecy.
There are no known photographs of the bomber, and few details about it have been released. A report in November 2017, suggested the Air Force could have been preparing Area 51 to host the bomber for testing.
The name “Raider” was selected from suggestions submitted by airmen in a contest in early 2016. The name refers to the daring Doolittle raid over Tokyo on April 18, 1942.
The raid was the first US strike on Japan in World War II, and it boosted morale in the US and led the Japanese military to divert resources for defense of its homeland. Lt. Col. Richard Cole, who was Lt. Col. James Doolittle’s copilot and the last surviving member of the raid, announced the new name in September 2016.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
It all began when the entrenched British forces recognized the “Silent Night, Holy Night” Christmas carol coming from the German side. “Our boys said, ‘Let’s join in.’ So we joined in with the song,” Francis Sumpter told the History Channel.
Confused by the pleasant, yet awkward moment, the British troops didn’t know how to react to what was happening on the German side. So they began to pop their heads over the trench and quickly retreated in case the Germans started shooting.
“And then we saw a German standing up, waving his arms, and we didn’t shoot,” said Pvt. Leslie Wellington, who witnessed the moment.
The Germans approached the British trench calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. At first the British troops thought it was a trick, but when they saw that the Germans were unarmed, they began to climb out of the trenches. Slowly and cautiously, both sides approached each other and began to shake each other’s hands. They exchanged gifts and sang carols together, and even played soccer. For a moment, in the middle of the “Great War,” there was peace on earth.
“By Christmas 1914, every soldier knew that the enemy was sharing the same misery as they were,” Dominiek Dendooven of the Flanders Field Museum in Ypres, Belgium, told the History Channel.
The troops on both sides knew that engaging with the enemy in this manner is treason and grounds for court martial and even punishable by death. This fear alone would motivate both sides to resume fighting.
Both sides would retreat to their trenches that night wondering if they would continue to defy the war the next morning. Pvt. Archibald Stanley remembers how his officer resumed the fighting, “Well, a few of them knocking around, this fella come up the next day. He says, ‘You Still got the armistice?’ He picked up his rifle, and he shot one of those Germans dead.”
The so-called Christmas Truce of 1914 came only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe and was one of the last examples of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare. It was never repeated—future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action—but it served as heartening proof, however brief, that beneath the brutal clash of weapons, the soldiers’ essential humanity endured.
Air Force officials have been warning about the force’s dire pilot shortage, and a recent Government Accountability Office report illustrates just how bad the shortfall has gotten.
The report assesses the gaps between the actual number of fighter pilots that the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy have and the number of positions they are authorized to have.
Each service branch reported fighter-pilot shortages that have grown worse in recent years. “Service officials attributed these gaps to aircraft readiness challenges, reduced training opportunities, and increased attrition of fighter pilots due to career dissatisfaction,” the report says.
The Air Force had at least 92% of its fighter-pilot positions filled between 2006 and 2010, an 8% gap, and 104% of what it needed in 2011, a 4% surplus. But the gap has grown since 2012 and is currently the biggest of the three military branches, at 27%.
The Air Force, which has undertaken a number of training and retention initiatives, projected its shortfall to last through fiscal year 2023.
Growing shortfalls and falling retention
(U.S. Air Force photo)
Each branch has different levels at which the difference between authorized positions and actual staff levels becomes a shortage. Air Force officials told the GAO that “their established practice is that pilot communities with less than 100 percent of authorizations are considered to be insufficiently staffed.”
Changing authorization levels led to an excess in some Air Force career fields in 2011, but an increase in authorized positions in the past few years has led to a growing shortfall among fighter pilots — from 192, or 5% of authorized positions, that year to 1,005, or 27% of authorized positions, in 2017. (The Air Force said at the end of 2017 that its total shortage was “around 2,000” pilots.)
“According to briefing documents prepared by the Air Force, this gap is concentrated among fighter pilots with fewer than 8 years of experience,” the report notes.
Air Force officials told the GAO that between 2006 and 2017, “fighter pilot gaps were generally limited to non-operational positions, such as staff assignments at Air Force headquarters or combatant commands.”
But the GAO also found that the Air Force had been unable to fill all its operational positions since fiscal year 2014, with the gap between the operational positions it needed to fill and the actual staffing levels it had growing from 39 pilots, or 1% of authorizations, in 2014 to 399 pilots, or 13%, in 2017.
Several factors have contributed to these shortfalls, in particular reductions to overall active-duty military end strength.
Service officials said that personnel reductions after the 2008 drawdown in Iraq and cuts to funding stemming from the 2011 Budget Control Act both helped reduce the number of fighter pilots in the military.
The Air Force shed 206 fighter pilots in order to meet initial demand for pilots of unmanned aerial systems in 2011 and 2012 and then lost 54 more to early-retirement incentives in 2014 and 2015. That was compounded by changes to force structure — the decline in active and reserve Air Force fighter squadrons from 134 in 1989 to 55 in 2017 has reduced the opportunities newly trained pilots have to gain flying experience.
These factors have helped create a bottleneck in the Air Force’s training pipeline. The service has more pilots entering than it has resources to train. According to the GAO report, between 2006 and 2017 the Air Force trained 12% fewer new fighter pilots than its target amount.
“Fighter pilots told us that the need to prioritize the staffing of experienced pilots to deploying squadrons has limited the number of experienced personnel available to train newer pilots at home stations,” the report says.
A fighter pilot needs about five years of training to be qualified to lead flights, which costs between about $3 million to $11 million depending on the type of aircraft they’re being trained to fly, according to Air Force officials.
Those training issues are exacerbated by the reduction in aircraft, as longer maintenance times for legacy aircraft, like the F-16 or F-15, leave fewer aircraft available for training. (A shortage of maintainer crew members has also hamstrung the Air Force, though it has made progress adding more of those personnel.)
The services have also struggled to retain pilots.
The GAO found that the number of Air Force pilots signing retention contracts fell from 63% in 2013 to 35% in 2017 — despite the service increasing its maximum aviation bonus contract to $225,000 at the start of 2013, which was the highest amount offered by any of the military service branches.
Officials from the service branches told the GAO they had used various tactics to address their pilot shortfalls, including longer and more frequent deployments, putting senior pilots in junior positions, and “prioritizing staffing fighter pilots to flying positions that require fighter pilot-specific technical skills.”
The service branches has also tried to compensate for fighter-pilot shortages by drawing on pilots from other career fields.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen)
The Air Force, for example, has drawn on mobility pilots — those that fly cargo and refueling aircraft — to fill instructor roles for basic training to free up fighter pilots for duties elsewhere.
But fliers and squadron leaders told the GAO that these measures have had deleterious effects. Pilots and squadron leaders also said that some of these efforts to mitigate pilot shortages had helped drive down retention
A high operational tempo has limited the opportunities senior pilots have to train with junior pilots, which in turn limits the opportunities the service branches have to grow the number of pilots with specific qualifications. This also cuts into the services’ ability to rebuild readiness. Air Force officials said “high deployment rates … have resulted in less time for squadrons to complete their full training requirements because high deployment rates mean that there are fewer aircraft available for training at home stations.”
Moreover, increasing individual deployments undercut family stability, pilots said, affecting satisfaction with their careers.
The Air Force has taken steps to mitigate the effects the pilot shortage has had on pilots’ quality of life.
It has stood up teams dedicated to finding and implementing dozens of initiatives to reduce the fighter-pilot shortage.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez)
“For example, as the result of one initiative, 126 contractors have been placed in fighter squadrons to assist with administrative tasks and reduce workload for fighter pilots,” the GAO notes.
Air Force training squadrons have also taken steps to better apportion resources, including consolidating instructors among training units and altering the training process and syllabus, according to a February 2018 report by Aviation Week, but those shifts still put a strain on pilots and aircraft and represented “a leap into the unknown” for the units.
The GAO report also noted that the service branches had not reevaluated fighter-squadron requirements to reflect change conditions, the increased workload, and the effects of the increasing use of unmanned aircraft.
“Air Force officials told us that metrics that inform squadron requirements … have not been increased because the Air Force is instead prioritizing the effort to recapitalize its fleet of fighter aircraft,” the report said, adding that officials said they were also reassessing fighter-pilots’ nonoperational requirements, focusing on finding which ones could be reassigned to other pilots.
The report made recommendations for each branch, advising the Air Force to reevaluate those squadron requirements, “to include updating current assumptions of fighter pilot workload, and assessing the impact of future incorporation of [unmanned aerial systems] platforms into combat aviation.”
When Maj. Gen. William Westmoreland took command of the 101st Airborne in 1958, he noticed a severe lack of proficiency in small-unit tactics and patrolling.
So he immediately created a school to fix the problem.
When he took command of all American forces in the Vietnam War, he once again created a school to teach long-range patrolling and small unit tactics with a Ranger-qualified cadre of instructors from the 5th Special Forces Group. To graduate from this school, you had to bet your life on it.
Dubbed “Recondo” school, Westmoreland claimed it was an amalgamation of Reconnaissance, Commando, and Doughboy. Recondo training emphasized both reconnaissance and standard infantry skills at the small unit level.
In 1960, Army Magazine described the Recondo tactics as “dedicated to the domination of certain areas of the battlefield by small aggressive roving patrols of opportunity which have not been assigned a definite reconnaissance or combat mission.” From these graduates, the 101st developed the Recondo Patrol.
This patrol type was meant to allow a Recondo to create as much havoc as possible in their area of operations. The patrol could be used against a disorganized enemy, as a screen for retrograde operations, to develop a situation or conduct a feint ahead of an advancing force, or to eliminate guerrilla activity.
It was the last ability that Recondos would put to great use in Vietnam.
The Recondo school was set up at Nha Trang and was inspired but the highly successful Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol training conducted by detachment B-52 from 5th Special Forces. This program, known as Project Delta, was originally intended to train Special Forces and their Vietnamese counterparts in guerrilla-like ambushes.
The course became so popular that within two years over half of the students were from regular Army units. Westmoreland expanded the school to teach Recondo tactics to as many LRRPs as possible.
In order to qualify for the MACV Recondo school, participants had to be in-country at least one month and have at least six months remaining on their tour upon completion. Students also had to have a combat arms MOS and an actual or pending assignment to an LRRP unit. Finally, they had to be in excellent physical shape and be proficient in general military knowledge.
The school was open to soldiers and marines of the Free World Military Assistance Forces, including the South Vietnamese, Koreans, Australians, and Filipinos. Many U.S. Marines also attended the training.
The curriculum of the school included improving students’ skills in the areas of map reading, intelligence gathering, weapons training, and communications. Weapons training included a variety of American weapons as well as weapons used by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army. Particular attention was also given to mines and booby-traps. Communications covered the use of several different radios, field expedient antennas, and proper message writing techniques.
The school also gave advanced training in medical treatment, including the use of Ringer’s lactate solution and intravenous and intramuscular injections. Schooling also focused on air operations – especially the use of the UH-1 Huey helicopter for insertions and extractions. Forward Air Controller techniques were taught with students calling in live ordnance on a target.
Most importantly, the school taught patrolling.
Students learned different patrolling techniques, preparation, and organization. Proper patrol security was taught along with intelligence-gathering techniques. The students trained heavily in immediate action drills to react to or initiate enemy contact.
After over 300 hours of training, averaging over 12 hours per day, it was time for the students to take the final exam: an actual combat patrol.
In the early days of the program, the area the prospective graduates patrolled was relatively secure and quiet. As the war progressed, however, contact with the enemy became a given. This led to students saying “you bet your life” to graduate from Recondo School.
At least two students died in Recondo training with many others wounded. An unknown number of Viet Cong were also killed in the skirmishes during the “you bet your life” patrol. This led to the school itself receiving a nickname of its own: “the deadliest school on earth”.
In just over four years of operation, over 5,600 students attended Recondo school. Just 3,515 men graduated, not quite two-thirds of all who tried. Each student who graduated was awarded a Recondo patch, worn on the right breast pocket, and an individual Recondo number that was recorded in their 201 personnel file. The Honor Graduate from each class was also given a specially engraved Recondo knife.
Despite the school and its graduates’ success, Westmoreland’s successor, Gen. Creighton Abrams, officially closed the school on December 19, 1970. The Recondo name and training lived on, as some divisions continued to host their own Recondo schools until they were eventually closed too.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States led a coalition of forces to invade Afghanistan. The mission, known officially as Operation Enduring Freedom, was intended to destroy the al-Qaeda terrorist organization that had masterminded the 9/11 attacks and to topple the Taliban regime that had sheltered Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda within its fundamentalist stronghold. The Taliban had held most of Afghanistan in thrall since 1996, imposing its extreme version of Islam on the populace and perpetrating a well-documented list of human rights abuses.
The invasion began on Oct. 7, 2001 with air strikes against Taliban defensive positions and al-Qaeda training grounds in Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad. Most of the Taliban’s outdated surface-to-air missiles, radar, and command units were destroyed on the first pass, along with its modest fleet of MIG-21 and Su-22 fighters. Having crippled the Taliban defensive response, the Coalition Forces Command gave the Afghan Northern Alliance the go-ahead to begin a ground invasion, with U.S.-led coalition forces providing air and ground support.
The groundwork for large-scale military action in Afghanistan had been laid in secret in the weeks following 9/11 by a small CIA liaison team codenamed ‘Jawbreaker.’ The team had staged covertly in the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, in order to coordinate with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. During the same period, President George W. Bush formally demanded that the Taliban relinquish bin Laden to the U.S. for prosecution and destroy al-Qaeda bases, brooking no discussion nor negotiation of terms.
They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate.
By November 12th, the Taliban was routed in Kabul. Three weeks later, Kandahar, the last Taliban stronghold, was captured, driving Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar into hiding and the remaining al-Qaeda forces into the mountains of the Tora Bora region. Skirmishes continued between al-Qaeda and anti-Taliban indigenous forces, as U.S. Special Forces teams worked to locate the mountain caves into which al-Qaeda leadership had retreated. However, by the time the caves were captured, Osama bin Laden had escaped into neighboring Pakistan. He would remain at large until 2011, when he was finally apprehended and killed by SEAL Team 6.
In the vacuum of governance left by the expelled Taliban, a grand council of Afghan tribal leaders was assembled under the leadership of Hamid Karzai. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established by the U.N. Security Council to handle security in the region. Karzai was elected President in 2004 in Afghanistan’s first ever democratic elections. But even as Afghanistan began to take its first wobbly steps as a young democratic nation, the Taliban was regrouping on the Pakistan border. Soon they launched a wide-ranging insurgency, conducting guerilla-style attacks on Afghan Security Forces and targeting members of the new administration. Despite the continued intervention of U.S. military might in the region, the insurgency continues.