With most troops learning hand-to-hand combat in the military, it’s not surprising that some would end up getting really good at it.
UFC legend Randy Couture is a former 101st Airborne Division soldier, while Brian Stann was a decorated Marine Corps platoon commander before entering the Octagon. As it turns out, veterans have a history of fighting in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Former Marine Sgt. Liz Carmouche has a 10-5-0 record in mixed martial arts and famously fought Ronda Rousey for the Women’s Bantamweight title in 2013. Rousey admitted before the fight that fighting Carmouche would be different.
“She’s a Marine, I’m not going to be able to intimidate this girl,” Rousey said in an MMAFighting.com interview. “The prefight intimidation stuff won’t work.”
The Ranger and Sapper-qualified infantryman currently serves as a combatives instructor in Fort Hood, Texas, but has said he’s interested in a special operations assignment soon.
4. Tim Kennedy
Like Colton Smith, Tim Kennedy began his UFC career while on active duty. The Ranger-tabbed Green Beret was a sniper before he transitioned from active duty to the Texas National Guard to focus on his MMA career. He currently serves as a Special Forces Weapons Sergeant, and holds an 18-5-0 record in mixed martial arts.
Russia announced today that they are pulling most of their forces out of Syria because Russian air and missile strikes there over the last six months have allowed the Syrian government to push back rebels in many key areas.
“I hope that today’s decision will be a good signal for all parties to the conflict,” Putin said on state television. “I hope that this will considerably increase the level of trust between all parties of the Syrian settlement and will contribute to a peaceful resolution of the Syrian issue.”
Russia will keep forces at its new air force base in Latakia, Syria. The base was carved out of Bassel Al-Assad International Airport in 2015 and has been the central hub for Russian air operations in Syria. Russian forces will also remain at the Cold War-era naval base in Tartus, Syria.
The Syrian government was teetering on the edge of collapse before the Russians intervened, but now it has forces surrounding the rebel stronghold of Aleppo. In February, government forces took sections of the city before their supply lines were cut by ISIS attacks.
Putin’s announcement that Russian forces were withdrawing came the same day that peace talks resumed in Geneva, Switzerland. Earlier talks had resulted in a shaky ceasefire but the Syrian government was accused multiple times of breaking the terms of the deal. The timing has led to speculation that Putin’s announcement was timed to place pressure on President Bashir Al-Assad to seek a peace deal.
Any deal would not directly affect operations against ISIS as the terror group is not party to the negotiations. But, a truce between government forces and moderate rebels would allow both groups to focus more resources and manpower against ISIS.
With backing from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, paperwork to upgrade the Navy Cross awarded to then-Marine Gunnery Sgt. John Canley to the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Battle of Hue City in 1968 was forwarded to President Donald Trump on Jan. 18.
“After giving careful consideration to the nomination, I agree that then-Gunnery Sergeant Canley’s actions merit the award of the Medal of Honor,” Mattis said last month in a letter to Rep. Julia Brownley, D-California, Canley’s chief sponsor in Congress.
Mattis noted that Congress would first have to waive the five-year limit for recommending the Medal of Honor, but once that happened, “I will provide my endorsement to the president.”
In a statement Jan. 19, Brownley said the House waived the time limit on Dec. 21 and the Senate took similar action Jan. 18.
All that is needed now is Trump’s signature to give the nation’s highest award for valor to the 80-year-old Canley, of Oxnard, California, who retired as a sergeant major and is reportedly battling cancer, Brownley said.
In the brutal battle to retake Hue City in 1968, Canley’s “valorous actions and unwavering dedication to his fellow service members is the reason so many of the men who support his nomination are alive today to testify on his behalf. His incredible gallantry and selflessness is an inspiration to us all,” Brownley said.
In his account published last year — “Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam,” Mark Bowden, author of “Black Hawk Down” about the Battle of Mogadishu, cited Canley’s actions in the house-to-house fighting more than 30 times.
In a statement to Brownley on the MoH recommendation, Canley said, “I want to profusely thank Congresswoman Brownley for her continued work helping me with this honor.”
“The credit for this award really should go to all the young Marines in Vietnam who inspired me every day. Most of them didn’t receive any recognition, but they were the foundation of every battle in the Vietnam War,” he said.
John Ligato, who served as a private first class under Canley in Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, in Hue, said the Medal of Honor was long overdue.
Canley served several tours in Vietnam from 1965 to 1970. “The sheer cumulative effect of Gunny Canley’s actions and deeds over this continued period rank with the acts of America’s greatest heroes from the Revolutionary War to this present day,” Ligato said. “This man is the epitome of a Marine warrior.”
Others agreed. “I spent nine months in the St. Albans hospital, required numerous surgeries and am disabled, but I would have died if [Canley] had not risked his life for mine,” said Pat Fraleigh, another Marine who served under him.
The battle of Hue “was not the first time I saw Gunny Canley act heroically,” Fraleigh said.
In previous fighting at the Con Thien Marine base near the demilitarized zone, Canley “not only carried Marines to safety, but also exposed himself to enemy fire. He was always leading and attacking the enemy and always standing up and encouraging us,” he said.
Canley’s Navy Cross cites his actions from Jan.31 to Feb. 6, 1968, during which he took command of Alpha Company when the company commander was wounded.
“On 31 January, when his company came under a heavy volume of enemy fire near the city of Hue, Gunnery Sergeant Canley rushed across the fire-swept terrain and carried several wounded Marines to safety,” the citation states.
Canley then “assumed command and immediately reorganized his scattered Marines, moving from one group to another to advise and encourage his men. Although sustaining shrapnel wounds during this period, he nonetheless established a base of fire which subsequently allowed the company to break through the enemy strongpoint.”
On Feb. 4, “despite fierce enemy resistance,” Canley managed to get into the top floor of a building held by the enemy. He then “dropped a large satchel charge into the position, personally accounting for numerous enemy killed, and forcing the others to vacate the building,” the citation states.
A view from a Marine machine gun position on the outer Citadel wall of Hué City during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
The battle raged on. Canley went into action again on Feb. 6 as the company took more casualties in an assault on another enemy-held building.
“Gunnery Sergeant Canley lent words of encouragement to his men and exhorted them to greater efforts as they drove the enemy from its fortified emplacement,” the citation reads. “Although wounded once again during this action, on two occasions he leaped a wall in full view of the enemy, picked up casualties, and carried them to covered positions.
“By his dynamic leadership, courage, and selfless dedication, Gunnery Sergeant Canley contributed greatly to the accomplishment of his company’s mission and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service,” the citation states.
The Air Force is looking at possible plans to retire the F-15C/D Eagle as early as the mid-2020s, officials told lawmakers Wednesday.
While the decision would mean divesting an entire aircraft class, officials said the F-15 capability would be replaced by the F-16 Fighting Falcon, a potential cost-saving measure that would allow pilots to train on fewer platforms.
Air National Guard Director Lt. Gen. L. Scott Rice said the Air Force as a total force is in “deep discussions” and will further assess the F-15 inventory next year.
“The F-15C [has] served our nation well, as have its pilots for decades. And it was our air superiority fighter; now F-22 has taken that role,” said Maj. Gen. Scott D. West, director of current operations and deputy chief of staff for operations for the service at the Pentagon.
Air Force officials were testifying before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness on Capitol Hill.
“We do have capacity in the F-16C community to recapitalize that radar to serve the same function as the F-15 has done and thereby reduce the different systems that we have to sustain and operate, so that makes it more efficient,” West said about the effort to minimize the number of systems pilots operate.
Taking questions from reporters after the hearing, Rice elaborated, “It’s a bigger picture. There’s a balance between capability and capacity — capacity being, do we have … 1,900 to 2,000 fighters in our inventory? But at the same time, we also look at capability. Does it have all the right radar on it [at] the right time? Certainly, an F-15 right now is a very capable platform … [but] as we move into maintaining our capacity and keeping our capability, we have to address those needs.”
Rice said “planning choices” for the F-15C within the 2019 budget started last fall.
The F-15 is all-weather, tactical fighter; the now-retired F-15A made its maiden flight in 1972. The single-seat F-15C and two-seat F-15D models entered the Air Force inventory beginning in 1979, and have been in almost every theater across the globe, according to the service.
American F-15s are stationed at overseas bases such as RAF Lakenheath, England, and Kadena Air Base, Japan. A deployment of F-15s moved across Europe last summer as a deterrent for Russia during Operation Atlantic Resolve, and F-15E Strike Eagles have been used throughout the air war against the Islamic State.
Rice said planned F-15 upgrades will be fulfilled. However, the Air Force may want to look at the next block of upgrades to save on future sustainment and operational costs, he said.
Rep. Martha McSally, a former Air Force pilot and advocate for the A-10 Thunderbolt, questioned the choice to scrap the F-15 — a capable fighter, “the best in air-to-air” as a fourth-generation aircraft.
“The F-16 kind of fills in those gaps, [but] comparing the capabilities side-by-side we have to be careful through that analysis,” the Arizona Republican said. “But I realize the funding challenges that you have as you go through this decision process — but it doesn’t bring the same capability.”
Rice said he believes the Air Force is getting beyond comparing aircraft platforms “especially in the digital age” when looking at the platforms as systems and “how they integrate is as important and, in the future, will be even more important than the platform itself,” he said.
The Air Force wants more manpower, more maintenance, more pilots to ramp up readiness and sustain the force for a high-end fight with a near-peer adversary.
West, Rice and Lt. Gen. Maryanne Miller, chief of the Air Force Reserve, testified they need pilots to sustain each part the force: at least 800 for the Guard; 300 for the Reserve; and nearly 1,500 — including 700 fighter pilots — for the active-duty component.
When asked if retiring the F-15 is a good idea amid a push to ramp up pilot — especially fighter pilot — production in the next few years, Rice said, “That’s true that is a challenge, because it’s not just capability-capacity, it’s all sorts of things. The readiness, the training, the people, the equipment. They all have to be at the right balance.
“So as we look at potentially doing a ‘what if’ drill [with the F-15 retirement] … over a certain period of time, ‘How much will that hurt? How much do we have to fill in the gap? Where do we go to gain that capability back at the right time, in the right place?’ ” he said.
It will be about “fitting into a system of systems,” Rice said.
Museums are great places to learn about history. Exhibits and displays bring the past to life and can transport visitors back in time. The First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, Illinois, near Chicago does this for the division’s history. It also has a dozen tanks on outdoor display, and yes, you can climb all over them.
The First Division Museum should not be confused with the Army-curated First Infantry Division Museum at Fort Riley, Kansas. In fact, the First Division Museum was established by the Robert C. McCormick Charitable Trust. Known today as the McCormick Foundation, the trust was established by McCormick’s will following his death. A former colonel and First Infantry Division WWI veteran himself, McCormick fought during the Battle of Cantigny. Upon his return to Illinois, he renamed his Wheaton farm after the battle for the French city. The park that hosts the museum was also established by the McCormick Foundation and is so-named as well.
The first sight that museum visitors see is the expansive tank park. On display are First Infantry Division tanks ranging from the WWI-era M1917 Light Tank to the modern M1 Abrams main battle tank. The park is even home to the only surviving T26E4 Pershing experimental tank, of which only 25 were ever produced. As mentioned previously, all the tanks in the tank park are free to be climbed on, including the Pershing. The museum even installed the tanks on bouncy compressed rubber mulch so that guests can easily jump down from them.
Once guests have climbed on the tanks in the tank park, the museum offers an in-depth history of the First Division’s wars. The museum’s two wings are called First in War and Duty First. The former goes through the division’s history in WWI, WWII, and Vietnam while the latter details modern missions like counterinsurgency, deterrence, military assistance, and peacekeeping. Guests will be transported to the trenches outside of Cantigny, Omaha Beach at Normandy, the forests of Bastogne, and the jungles of Vietnam.
Aside from the museum, Cantigny Park offers visitors gardens, playgrounds, and plenty of well-maintained open space to enjoy. There’s even a golf course on site. Aside from tee time, the park’s $5 parking fee gets you access to all that it has to offer. However, Armed Forces Day, Constitution Day, Veterans Day, and the first Wednesday of every month are free days at Cantigny Park. Due to COVID-19, timed reservations for the museum are required for entry. Veterans, active duty, reserve, and National Guard members are eligible for the Honor Club at no charge. Upon verification of service, Honor Club members enjoy complimentary parking, a 10% discount at restaurants and shops, and discounted golf rates.
Colonel McCormick believed in fostering communities of educated, informed, and engaged citizens. Cantigny Park and the First Division Museum are the embodiment of this belief. If you’re ever in the area, it’s well worth your time, even if you just want to climb on some tanks.
Boeing just announced that the U.S. Navy awarded the company a more than $12 million contract for “non-recurring design and development engineering for an engineering change proposal” to transition the Blue Angels from Hornets to Super Hornets. This prospect is exciting for aviation aficionados and air show fans nationwide — not to mention the Blue Angels pilots themselves — so how soon will the change happen?
To find out WATM spoke with Navy Capt. David Kindley, the Naval Air System Command’s program manager for both Hornets and Super Hornets. Not only is Kindley the man in charge of supporting the Navy’s Hornet and Super Hornet fleets with engineering updates and maintenance improvements, during his Navy flying career he amassed almost 3,400 flight hours in both the old and new versions of the airplane.
Kindley started the conversation by making it clear that the contract “is by no means the transition taking place. We don’t have a specific date. It could take years.”
However, he explained that the genesis of the current effort was a desire from Radm. Del Bull, the Chief of Naval Air Training (the Blue Angels’ parent command), to “move the transition to the left,” as Kindley put it.
“There’s a perception in the fleet that NAVAIR moves too slowly,” Kindley said. “We see this as an opportunity to show we can go faster.”
The first challenge for the program office and relevant fleet commands is to identify 11 Super Hornets (including a couple of two-seat F/A-18Fs) that can be turned into Blue Angel assets. (The Blue Angels only take 7 airplanes — not including “Fat Albert,” the C-130 they use to ferry parts and support personnel — on the road with them, but they have 11 in their possession.) Boeing isn’t manufacturing new Super Hornets specifically for the demonstration team, so the Navy will have to “rob Peter to pay Paul,” as the old saying goes, to make it happen.
“Super Hornets are a precious commodity,” Kindley said. “This transition is competing with the fact that the fleet is desperate for them.”
Kindley explained that the early version of the Super Hornet didn’t incorporate the advanced mission software used by fleet squadrons, and therefore those jets are only good for training new pilots on basic handling and not the full warfighting capability of the airplane. That makes them good candidates for use by the Blue Angels who don’t need drop bombs and shoot missiles while they’re flying their air show routine.
Kindley isn’t concerned about the basics of transitioning a squadron from “legacy” Hornets to Super Hornets. “We do this all the time,” he said. “This isn’t hard.”
But he allows that the Blue Angels aren’t just another Navy squadron, and he sums up their specific challenges to NAVAIR as “springs, smoke, and paint.”
“Springs” refers to the mechanical device that Blue Angels jets have attached to the control stick that creates 7 pounds of forward pressure, which allows pilots more positive control and allows them to fly smoother. However, there’s an air conditioning duct in the Super Hornet cockpit that doesn’t exist in the regular Hornet right where the spring should attach, so the engineers have to figure out a workaround.
During the show, Blue Angels jets do something other fleet jets don’t do under normal circumstances: They trail smoke. That dramatic effect is created when special chemicals mix with the air behind the plane. Creating that effect is the “smoke” part of Kindley’s concerns.
The real estate required to make smoke is realized by taking the gun out of the nose and replacing it with a tank. After conducting the initial engineering investigation, NAVAIR engineers discovered two things: The subcontractor’s production line for making the tanks is shut down, and it doesn’t matter anyway because the old tank won’t correctly fit into the Super Hornet’s nose, so they have to have new ones made.
And then there’s the paint. “Painting an airplane isn’t hard,” Kindley said. “But un-painting an airplane can be really hard.”
What he means is as Boeing strips a Super Hornet to bare metal, corrosion could be discovered. That sort of discovery demands that the contractor reach back out to NAVAIR with a “request for engineering investigation.” That potential makes it hard to scope a contract because there’s no way to know exactly how much corrosion an airplane might have until the paint comes off. And, of even greater concern to Kindley, it’s tough to predict how much time the entire process of repainting 11 jets might take.
And when it gets down to the nitty-gritty of transitioning the Blue Angels to new jets, time will matter a lot. The team’s show season ends each year in early November. The pilots, maintainers, and other support personnel have a few weeks off over the holidays, and then they start training for the next season the follow February, operating out of NAF El Centro in California’s Imperial Valley about an hour east of San Diego. That means whatever refresher training pilots and maintainers need has to occur before the show routine training starts — basically, the time between Thanksgiving and Valentines Day.
While the justification for all of this effort is that Super Hornets are easier to maintain and cheaper to fly than legacy Hornets, anyone who’s flown both types, like Kindley, knows that the Super Hornet has a lot more thrust available. That performance improvement alone should make for a more dynamic Blue Angels show in the future with faster climbs and tighter high-G turns.
But before they push the current show’s envelope, Blue Angels pilots wanted to see how the Super Hornet performed doing the current routine. Last year the team’s commanding officer, Capt. Tom Frosch, and the opposing solo pilot, Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss (who was killed in a mishap while launching on a practice sortie out of Nashville two months ago), successfully flew their parts of the routine using a Super Hornet simulator.
“The Super Hornet was designed to fly inverted for twice as long as the legacy Hornet can,” Kindley explained. “There was only one move — “the double Farvel” — that we were concerned about, but we found we won’t have to modify the airplane at all.”
Kindley would also like to see the crowd-pleasing “high alpha pass,” where the lead and opposing solo planes fly down the show line at very slow speed while cocked up at an extreme angle, flown even slower and more cocked up.
“The Super Hornet flies slower better than any airplane I’ve ever seen,” Kindley said. The legacy Hornet flies with about 60 knots of forward airspeed at 25 alpha (the angle between the line of the fuselage and the direction of the airplane’s travel); the Super Hornet can fly even slower at 60 alpha. But, Kindley warns, the engines on a Super Hornet are spread farther apart than a legacy Hornet and so flying in a maximum alpha regime close to the ground could cause a controllability problem if a Super Hornet pilot loses an engine.
Kindley also described the legacy Hornet’s flight control response as “crisper,” meaning the airplane took fewer control inputs to get exactly where the pilot wanted it — obviously an important detail considering how close together the Blue Angels fly in the diamond formation — but he said that would be a training issue for the team and not something that required NAVAIR engineers to rewrite the Super Hornet’s flight control laws.
Overall, Kindley characterized the Blue Angels approach to modifying the show with Super Hornets as “walk before you run.”
“I don’t speak for them, but I imagine they’d start by flying the current routine and then, once they got comfortable, seeing how the show could be adjusted to accommodate the Super Hornet’s performance,” he said.
When asked by WATM what the current Blue Angels pilots thought about the potential for Super Hornets, Lt. Joe Hontz, the team’s public affairs officer, said in an email, “We know there are discussions about the possibility of an upgrade down the road. Until a decision is made, we will continue to fly a safe demonstration on the reliable F/A-18 Hornet, which has been a strong platform for the team since 1986.”
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Former Army Ranger and West Point grad Matthew ‘Griff’ Griffin isn’t your average vet entrepreneur. He came up with the notion of building something of value when he was serving in Afghanistan during the early phases of the war, way before there was much of a logistics footprint in place. He saw that the Afghan people were in need of more than protection from the Taliban. They needed basic goods and services.
“I saw Afghanistan as a place to leverage the power of small business owners making a difference,” Griff said. “The region could benefit from more micro loans and fewer armored vehicles.”
When Griff left active duty he returned to Kabul doing some clinic work, but beyond that he wanted to find a way to assist with the country’s stability by creating a manufacturing base, starting with a single factory he stumbled across on the east side of the capital. The factory had the infrastructure; it was just a matter of what to manufacture.
As he was leaving the factory he found a flip flop on the floor — it was unique and a little funky, the kind of design Griff thought might resonate with fashion-minded millennials. He held it up and asked the factory manager if he could make them, and the Afghan local said sure. Combat Flip Flops was born.
Griff and his brother procured the materials from a far eastern supplier and got everything set up, but they’d no sooner returned to the U.S. than they were informed that the factory was shutting down — a casualty of the volatile socio-economic climate of Afghanistan. But the brothers were undeterred, plus they had a lot of money wrapped up in the materials sitting in the factory in Kabul.
Without any U.S. military assistance — the most effective way to operate, according to Griff — they went back in on a private spec ops mission of sorts, one designed to salvage what they could from their investment and work that had been accomplished already.
“We rented a ‘Bongo’ truck and packed the inventory of flip flops into bags designed to hold opium,” Griff said. “We were riding around the streets of Kabul trying to look inconspicuous, two white guys sitting on a pile of opium bags.”
They stored the 2,000-some pairs of flip flops in a warehouse on the outskirts of Kabul, and as they did a closer inspection of their wares they realized that the quality was such that they couldn’t be sold. They wound up giving all of them away to needy Afghans, which was better than nothing but not up to the standards of Griff’s vision.
They found another factory, and once again secured a supplier (and paid for it using Griff’s credit card), and this time failure came even faster and the factory closed down before any materials for the order of 4,000 pairs had been shipped. It was time for a more dramatic pivot in the business plan.
“We wound up taking the guerrilla manufacturing route and assembling the sandals in my garage in Washington state,” Griff said.
The company’s potential big break came in the form of a phone call from one of the producers at ABC’s “Shark Tank” TV show. Griff and a couple of his co-workers will appear on the episode scheduled to air on February 5. (Check your local listings.)
“We’re stoked to bring the Combat Flip Flops mission to the tank,” Griff’ said. “Every Shark has the ability to expand the mission, inspire new recruits to join the Unarmed Forces, and manufacture peace through trade. Over the past few years, we’ve survived deadly encounters to create an opportunity like this. Attack Dogs. Raging Bulls. If we need to jump in the water with Sharks, then it’s time to grab the mask and fins.”
“We’ve all seen and heard Shark Tank success stories,” Donald Lee, Combat Flip Flops’ CMO and co-founder, added. “We set our minds to getting on the show and in true Ranger fashion, we accomplished the objective. We hope this is the catalyst our company needs to provide large scale, peaceful, sustainable change in areas of conflict.”
In 2015, Combat Flip Flops’ sales increased 150 percent over the previous year. In keeping with Griff’s original corporate vision, the company donated funds for schools to educate Afghan girls and cleared 1,533 square meters of land mines in Laos, which keeps the local population — especially children — safer.
Griff has leveraged his service academy pedigree and military experience in incredibly productive ways. His entrepreneurial sense and — even more importantly — his worldview defies most veteran stereotypes and associated bogus narratives. His outlook and drive are distinctly that of the Post 9-11 warfighter — “the next greatest generation.”
Combat Flip Flop’s mission statement captures it:
To create peaceful, forward-thinking opportunities for self-determined entrepreneurs affected by conflict. Our willingness to take bold risks, community connection, and distinct designs communicate, “Business, Not Bullets”– flipping the view on how wars are won. Through persistence, respect, and creativity, we empower the mindful consumer to manufacture peace through trade.
From their outpost on Iraq’s westernmost edge, U.S. 1st Lt. Kyle Hagerty and his troops watched civilians trickle into the area after American and Iraqi forces drove out the Islamic State group. They were, he believed, families returning to liberated homes, a hopeful sign of increasing stability.
But when he interviewed them on a recent reconnaissance patrol, he discovered he was wrong. They were families looking for shelter after being driven from their homes in a nearby town. Those who pushed them out were forces from among their “liberators” — Shiite militiamen who seized control of the area after defeating the IS militants.
It was a bitter sign of the mixed legacy from the United States’ intervention in Iraq to help defeat the militants. American-backed military firepower brought down the IS “caliphate,” but many of the divisions and problems that helped fuel the extremists’ rise remain unresolved.
The U.S.-led coalition, which launched its fight against IS in August 2014, is now reducing the numbers of American troops in Iraq, after Baghdad declared victory over the extremists. Both Iraqi and U.S. officials say the exact size of the drawdown has not yet been decided.
U.S. and Iraqi commanders here in western Iraq warn that victories over IS could be undercut easily by a large-scale withdrawal. Iraq’s regular military remains dependent on U.S. support. Many within Iraq’s minority communities view the U.S. presence as a buffer against the Shiite-dominated central government. Still, Iranian-backed militias with strong voices in Baghdad are pushing for a complete U.S. withdrawal, and some Iraqis liken any American presence to a form of occupation.
That has left an uncomfortable limbo in this area that was the last battlefield against the extremists. Coalition commanders still work with Iraqi forces to develop long-term plans for stability even as a drawdown goes ahead with no one certain of its eventual extent.
Hearts and minds — again
“Let’s go win us some hearts and minds,” Sgt. Jonathan Cary, 23, joked as he and Hagerty and the patrol convoy set off from a base outside the town of Qaim, evoking a phrase used in American policy goals for Iraq ever since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
U.S. Army military police provide crowd control while Iraqi citizens line up for food and water being distributed to citizens in need in April 2003. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Arlo K. Abrahamson.)
After just a few hours moving on foot across farmland and orchards to a cluster of modest houses, Hagerty realized the families he thought were returnees to the area were in fact newly displaced. Their homes in Qaim had been confiscated by the government-affiliated Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, made up mainly of Shiite paramilitary fighters backed by Iran.
“Our end goal is a stable Iraq, right?” Hagerty said later, back at the base. “But when you see stuff like that, it makes you wonder if they are ever going to be able to do it themselves.”
After victories against IS, the PMF has built up a presence in many parts of Sunni-majority provinces, including western Anbar. It formally falls under the command of the prime minister, but some Iraqi commanders accuse the PMF of being a rival to government power.
PMF flags line highways crisscrossing Anbar. At a PMF checkpoint outside al-Asad airbase — a sprawling complex used by both Iraqi and coalition forces — U.S. convoys are regularly stopped for hours while busloads of PMF fighters are waved through.
U.S. Marine Col. Seth Folsom works closely with the branches of Iraq’s security forces — Sunni tribal fighters and the Iraqi army — who are increasingly concerned about the rise in power of the PMF. Iran has given no indication of dialing back its support after the defeat of IS extremists.
“The biggest question I get now is, ‘how long can we count on you being here?'” Folsom said of his conversations with Iraqi commanders and local politicians.
That decision ultimately rests with Iraq’s political leadership, he said.
“I guess some people could see that as a cop-out, but at the same time it’s not my place as a lowly colonel to define how long the U.S. presence is going to be.”
‘Forward line of freedom’
For the senior officers leading the current fight against IS, decades of U.S. military intervention in Iraq has defined their careers.
The top U.S. general in Iraq — Lt. Gen. Paul Funk — served in Iraq four times: in the Gulf war in 1991; in the 2003 invasion; in the surge when some 170,000 American troops were serving in Iraq in 2007; and most recently in the fight against IS.
“It will definitely be positive,” Funk said of the legacy of the U.S. role against IS in Iraq. “People see their young men and women out here defeating evil. That’s a positive thing.”
On a recent flight from Baghdad to a small U.S. outpost in northern Syria near Manbij — a trip that traversed the heart of the battlefield with IS for the past 3½ years — Funk described the future of the fight as ideological and open-ended.
“The problem is people believe it’s already over, and it’s not,” he said. “Beating the ideology, destroying the myth, that’s going to take time.”
Touching down outside an orchard on the perimeter of the Manbij base, Funk exclaimed: “Welcome to the front line of freedom!”
Funk predicts the ideological fight could take years and easily require U.S. troop deployments elsewhere. He said that is one reason he believes it’s so important to visit U.S. troops on the current front lines — to show them “the American people believe in their purpose.”
“We have got to recruit the next generation,” he said.
Many of the young U.S. troops interviewed by The Associated Press said they didn’t know anything about the Islamic State group when they enlisted.
Rayden Simeona, a 21-year-old corporal in the Marines, enlisted in 2014, when all he knew about the U.S. military was from movies and video games.
“I felt like I wasn’t going anywhere with my life, I had no idea what IS was. I just knew I wanted to go to war,” he said. Once deployed, he said talk rarely broached the big questions of “What we are doing here?” or “Why?”
“But I do wonder all the time: Why are we spending all this money in Iraq?” he said. “There’s probably some greater plan or reason that someone much higher up than me knows.”
Is the juice worth the squeeze?
Along Iraq’s border with Syria, the two Iraqi forces charged with holding a key stretch of territory lack direct communication. Because one force falls under the Defense Ministry and the other under the Interior Ministry, their radios are incompatible.
Instead, the troops use Nokia cellphones in a part of the country where network coverage is spotty to nonexistent.
At the nearby coalition outpost near Qaim, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Brandon Payne spends much of his time filling communications gaps by relaying messages between different branches of Iraq’s military.
“The coordination is not where we hoped it would be,” Payne said. “But they do talk to each other, and we see that as a sign of progress.”
Tactical shortcomings within Iraq’s military are partially what fueled the expansion of the coalition’s footprint in Iraq in the past three years. As Iraqi ground forces demonstrated an inability to communicate and coordinate attacks across multiple fronts, U.S. forces moved closer to the fighting and sped up the pace of territorial gains.
Despite the caliphate’s collapse, those weaknesses have persisted. Iraqi forces remain dependent on coalition intelligence, reconnaissance, artillery fire, and airstrikes to hold territory and fight IS insurgent cells.
Payne regularly shuttles between his base, Qaim and the Syrian border, meeting with different members of Iraqi forces to coordinate security and repel IS attacks from the Syrian side.
“I would say we are still needed,” Payne said. “We are getting great results with this model, but you see how much goes into it.”
The base, once a small, dusty outpost, now houses a few hundred coalition troops and is a maze of barracks, gyms, a dining facility, laundry services and a chapel.
“At some point, someone much higher up than me is going to decide the juice is just not worth the squeeze,” Payne said, referring to the cost of such a large outpost in a remote corner of the country.
Iraqi army Lt. Col. Akram Salah Hadi, who works closely with Payne’s soldiers at the Qaim outpost, said coalition training and intelligence sharing have improved the performance of his unit. But overall, the U.S. effort in Iraq gives him little hope for the future.
Corruption in the military, Hadi said, remains as bad as it was in 2014, when it was seen as a major reason why entire Iraqi divisions simply dissolved in the assault on Mosul by a few hundred IS fighters.
Young Iraqi soldiers with ambition and talent can’t rise through the ranks without political connections. Top ranks are bloated with officers who have bought their promotions. Within his division alone, Hadi said he can think of 40 officers with no military background who attained their rank because of their membership in a political party.
“With leadership like this, the rest will always be rotten,” he said.
Coalition programs that have trained tens of thousands of Iraqi troops have largely focused on the infantry, not the junior officers needed to lead units and instill a culture of service that will make a professional force.
Folsom, the U.S. Marine colonel, said military power will not root out corruption or heal Iraq’s longstanding divisions.
“I have a saying out here,” he added, “‘You can’t want it more than them.'”
Soldiers must be ready and capable to conduct the full range of military operations to defeat all enemies regardless of the threats they pose. But bad sanitation can keep them from the mission.
According to a 2010 public health report from the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health, “Influenza and pneumonia killed more American soldiers and sailors during the war [World War I] than did enemy weapons.” The pandemic traveled with military personnel from camp to camp and across the Atlantic in 1918, infecting up to 40 percent of soldiers and sailors. In this instance, the enemy came in the form of a communicable disease.
Preventative measures and risk mitigation work to impede history from repeating itself, keeping the Army both ready and resilient. One such preventative measure implemented in Jordan was a week-long Field Sanitation Team (FST) Certification Course last month at Joint Training Center-Jordan.
U.S. Army Spc. Shelby Vermeulen, with 1st Squadron, 303rd Cavalry Regiment, 96th Troop Command, Washington Army National Guard, works through the steps of water purification during a Field Sanitation Team Certification Course.
(Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Shaiyla Hakeem)
U.S. Army Sgt. Matthew A. Kolenski, with 898th Medical Detachment Preventative Medicine, 3rd Medical Command (Deployment Support) “Desert Medics,” has been an Army preventative medicine specialist (68S) for more than seven years. He said 68Ss and FSTs help mitigate unnecessary illnesses, allowing soldiers to focus on their mission.
U.S. Army Spc. Shelby Vermeulen, with 1st Squadron, 303rd Cavalry Regiment, 96th Troop Command, Washington Army National Guard, drops a chlorine tablet into water during a Field Sanitation Team Certification Course.
(Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Shaiyla Hakeem)
Army regulations require certain units to be equipped with an FST, preferably a combat medic (68W), but any military occupational specialty can fill this position. The 40-hour certification covered areas such as improvised sanitary devices, testing water quality, identifying appropriate food storage areas, placement of restrooms, controlling communicable diseases, proper waste disposal, dealing with toxic industrial materials and combating insect-borne diseases.
U.S. Army Spc. Shelby Vermeulen (center), with 1st Squadron, 303rd Cavalry Regiment, 96th Troop Command, Washington Army National Guard, tests a water sample for chlorine residuals during a Field Sanitation Team Certification Course.
(Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Shaiyla Hakeem)
The goal of the course was to “enable soldiers to maintain combat readiness and effectiveness by implementing controls to mitigate DNBI [disease non-battle injury],” said Kolenski.
He said environmental testing and figuring out how to mitigate problems before they start can drastically decrease DNBIs. These injuries can include heat stroke, frostbite, trench foot, malnutrition, diarrheal disease — anything that can take a service member out of the fight. Sometimes reducing risk can be as simple as washing hands or taking out the trash.
“If you reduce the trash, you’ll mitigate the flies, which reduces the chance that you’ll get a gastrointestinal issue,” explained Kolenski, “Because you can’t fight if you’re in the latrine [restroom].”
A week-long Field Sanitation Team Certification Course, spearheaded by U.S. Army Sgt. Matthew A. Kolenski (far right), with 898th Medical Detachment Preventative Medicine, 3rd Medical Command (Deployment Support) “Desert Medics,” was held from Dec. 9 – 13, 2019 at Joint Training Center-Jordan.
(Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Shaiyla Hakeem)
Hazards are identified by sampling air, water, bacteria, pH levels, chlorine residue in water and bugs in the area.
“It was interesting to learn about the different standards for food facilities and rules on the preparation of the food,” said U.S. Army Spc. Shelby Vermeulen, with 1st Squadron, 303rd Cavalry Regiment, 96th Troop Command, Washington Army National Guard, who serves as a combat medic at JTC-J.
The Army is fast-tracking an emerging program to engineer a longer-range artillery cannon able to out range enemy ground forces by hitting targets at more than twice the distance of existing artillery.
The service is now prototyping an Extended Range Cannon Artillery weapons with a larger caliber tube and new grooves to hang weights for gravity adjustments to the weapon — which is a modified M777A2 mobile howitzer.
Existing 155m artillery rounds, fired with precision from mobile and self-propelled howitzer platforms, have a maximum range of about 30km; the new ERCA weapon is designed to hit ranges greater than 70km, Army developers said.
“When you are talking about doubling the range you need a longer tube and a larger caliber. We will blend this munition with a howitzer and extend the range. We are upgrading the breach and metallurgy of the tube, changing the hydraulics to handle increased pressure and using a new ram jet projectile — kind of like a rocket,” a senior Army weapons developer told Warrior Maven in an interview.
The modification adds 1,000 pounds to the overall weight of the weapon and an additional six feet of cannon tube. The ERCA systems also uses a redesigned cab, new breech design and new “muzzle brake,” the official explained.
“The ERCA program develops not only the XM907 cannon but also products, such as the XM1113 rocket assisted projectile, the XM654 supercharge, an autoloader, and new fire control system,” an Army statement said.
Marines fire an M777A2 155 mm howitzer.
(United States Marine Corps photo)
As part of an effort to ensure the heavy M777 is sufficiently mobile, the Army recently completed a “mobility” demonstration of ERCA prototypes.
The service demonstrated a modified M777A2 Howitzer with an integration kit for the mass mock-up of the modified XM907 ERCA cannon at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona.
“Their [user] concern is that when the self-propelled program is done they will be left with a towed cannon variant that they can’t tow around, which is its number one mode of transportation,” David Bound, M777ER Lead, Artillery Concepts and Design Branch, which is part of the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, or ARDEC, said in an Army statement.
The ERCA is currently being configured to fire from an M109a8 Self-Propelled Howitzer, using a 58-Cal. tube; the existing M109a7, called the Paladin Integrated Management, fires a 39-Cal. weapon.
ERCA changes the Army’s land war strategic calculus in a number of key respects, by advancing the Army’s number one modernization priority — long-range precision fires. This concept of operations is intended to enable mechanized attack forces and advancing infantry with an additional stand-off range or protective sphere with which to conduct operations. Longer range precision fire can hit enemy troop concentrations, supply lines and equipment essential to a coordinated attack, while allowing forces to stay farther back from incoming enemy fire.
A 70-kilometer target range is, by any estimation, a substantial leap forward for artillery; when GPS guided precision 155mm artillery rounds, such as Excalibur, burst into land combat about ten years ago – its strike range was reported at roughly 30 kilometers. A self-propelled Howitzer able to hit 70-kilometers puts the weapon on par with some of the Army’s advanced land-based rockets – such as its precision-enabled Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System which also reaches 70-kilometers.
In a modern threat environment, wherein near-peer and smaller-level rivals increasingly possess precision-guided land weapons, longer-range C4ISR technology and drone weapons, increasing range is a ubiquitous emphasis across the Army and other services. Russia’s violations of the INF treaty, new S-500 air defenses, new Armata tanks and fast growing attack drone fleet – all point to a growing need for the US to outrange and outgun potential adversaries.
An M109A6 Paladin fires a gas propelled 155mm Howitzer round.
In fact, senior Army developers specifically say that the ERCA program is, at least in part, designed to enable the Army to out-range rival Russian weapons. The Russian military is currently producing its latest howitzer cannon, the 2S33 Msta-SM2 variant; it is a new 2A79 152mm cannon able to hit ranges greater than 40km, significantly greater than the 25km range reachable by the original Russian 2S19 Msta – which first entered service in the late 1980s, according to data from globalsecurity.org.
In early 2018 statements from the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation said that 2S19 Msta-S modernized self-propelled howitzers were fielded near Volgograd, Russia. The 2S19 Msta-S howitzers are equipped with an automated fire control system with an increased rate of fire, digital electronic charts, ballistic computers, and satellite navigation systems, the report says.
Therefore, doing the simple math, a 70km US Army ERCA weapon would appear to substantially outrange the 40km Msta-S modern Russian howitzer.
While senior Army weapons developers welcome the possibility of longer-range accurate artillery fire, they also recognize that its effectiveness hinges upon continued development of sensor, fire control, and target technology.
“Just because I can shoot farther, that does not mean I solve the issue. I have to acquire the right target. We want to be able to hit moving targets and targets obscured by uneven terrain,” the senior Army developer said.
Multi-domain warfare is also integral to the strategic impetus for the new ERCA weapon; longer range land weapons can naturally better enable air attack options.
Operating within this concept, former Army TRADOC Commander Gen. David Perkins and Air Force Air Combat Command Commanding General James Holmes launched a new series of tabletop exercises several months ago — designed to to replicate and explore these kinds of future warfare scenarios. The project is oriented toward exploring the kind of conflicts expected to require technologically advanced Army-Air Force integration.
In a previous Pentagon report, Holmes said the joint wargaming effort will “turn into a doctrine and concept that we can agree on.”
Such a development would mark a substantial step beyond prior military thinking, which at times over the years has been slightly more stove-piped in its approach to military service doctrines.
Interestingly, the new initiative may incorporate and also adjust some of the tenets informing the 1980’s Air-Land Battle Doctrine; this concept, which came to fruition during the Cold War, was focused on integrated air-ground combat coordination to counter a large, mechanized force in major warfare. While AirLand battle was aimed primarily at the Soviet Union decades ago, new Army-Air Force strategy in today’s threat environment will also most certainly address the possibility of major war with an advanced adversary like Russia or China.
(Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation)
In fact, the Army’s new Operations 3.0 doctrine already explores this phenomenon, as it seeks to pivot the force from more than a decade of counterinsurgency to preparedness for massive force-on-force warfare.
Jumping more than 40 years into the future beyond AirLand Battle into to today’s threat climate, the notion of cross-domain warfare has an entirely new and more expansive meaning. No longer would the Air Force merely need to support advancing armored vehicles with both air cover and forward strikes, as is articulated in Air-Land Battle, but an Air Force operating in today’s war environment would need to integrate multiple new domains, such as cyber and space.
After all, drones, laser attacks, cyber intrusions, and electronic warfare (EW) tactics were hardly on the map in the 1980s. Forces today would need to harden air-ground communications against cyber and EW attacks, network long-range sensor and targeting technology and respond to technologically-advanced near-peer attack platforms, such as 5th-generation stealth fighters or weaponized space assets.
In a concurrent related effort, the Army is also engineering a adaptation to existing 155mm rounds which will extend range an additional 10km out to 40km.
Fired from an existing Howitzer artillery cannon, the new XM1113 round uses ram jet rocket technology to deliver more thrust to the round.
“The XM1113 uses a large high-performance rocket motor that delivers nearly three times the amount of thrust when compared to the legacy M549A1 RAP,” Ductri Nguyen, XM1113 Integrated Product Team Lead.” “Its exterior profile shape has also been streamlined for lower drag to achieve the 40-plus kilometers when fired from the existing fielded 39-caliber 155mm weapon systems.”
Soldiers can also integrate the existing Precision Guidance Kit to the artillery shells as a way to add a GPS-guided precision fuse to the weapon. The new adapted round also uses safer Insensitive Munition Explosives.
This article originally appeared on Warrior Maven. Follow @warriormaven1 on Twitter.