Roland Emmerich’s long-awaited Midway opens with a clear statement that the film to follow is a true account of events.
The events of the Battle of Midway are well known. The smashing American victory was built on superior radio intelligence and crypto-analysis, of determination and courage, and a will to give battle. Emmerich’s film captures much of it, but it falls short of recounting one of the most important naval battles in world history in a way those who fought it truly deserve.
Emmerich opens Midway by setting the stage for the battle. Prewar tensions, the Pearl Harbor attack, the shocking Doolittle Raid, and the Coral Sea setback that caused Japan to realize the urgency of seeking battle to put the American carriers on the bottom, now.
Here the character of Edwin Layton is introduced. In a superb performance, actor Patrick Wilson portrays Nimitz’ Intelligence Officer as capable and prescient, which he was. Woody Harrelson delivers a matching interpretation of Admiral Chester Nimitz, and, with well-done historic accuracy, the two prepare to meet the Japanese off Midway.
The computer-generated images (CGI) that Emmerich is known for dazzle as a December 7th scene pans from the sea to the massive bow of USS Enterprise (CV-6) that steams right into the viewers lap. However, as the camera pans up further, the view becomes a flight deck covered with crew in t-shirts and shorts doing morning calisthenics, a full-motion cliché. When Midway hero and legend Lieutenant Richard Best (played by Ed Skrein) is introduced slipping his SBD Dauntless toward Enterprise, scaring his nervous radioman-gunner, pulling out just above the wake and plopping his CGI plane aboard the ship like a dog jumping into a pickup truck, knowledgeable viewers may wince.
Sadly, much of the movie may be characterized as cliché. We see tension and drama aboard ship, which is good, because it certainly exists. However, variations of the lines, “That’s a direct order!” and “I’m your superior officer!”, on the American side, are repeated more than once throughout the movie, and are distracting. In Emmerich’s defense, hokey-sounding lines like, “Here’s the man we should have listened to,” and “I’m gonna drop a bomb right down his smoke stack” were actually spoken by American officers at Pearl Harbor and Midway and are part of the historic record.
What may further grate on those familiar with the military is the robotic saluting, the atrocious appearance of the actors’ service dress khaki uniforms (certainly Hawaii and Enterprise had dry cleaning and starch in 1942), the whiny atheist Sailor, whiny and cowardly fliers (one named, a real life hero whose name is besmirched), the brusque “my-way-or-the-highway” chest-thumping of fliers discussing their manner of attack – on the American side. It reminds one of American wartime propaganda films of the period, which featured similar two-dimensional and stereotypical characters.
Emmerich’s interpretation does have its moments. Students of the battle will detect numerous tidbits of historic fact sprinkled throughout the film. The CGI is spectacular, and indispensable to bring the battle to life for today’s audiences. In his story, Washington is proven wrong, and the use of subtitles during scenes of Japanese dialogue enhance realism as they struggled with their difficult decisions that involved the realities of rearming and when to launch and recover their planes. The faces of young actors playing pilots in the ready room is a sobering reminder of the dangers our young fliers faced and the courage they displayed – repeatedly – during the battle and throughout the rest of 1942. Featuring the heroism of little-known radioman gunner Bruno Gaido, played by Nick Jonas, was refreshing.
However, CGI tracers and antiaircraft explosions filled the screen in a manner that distracted from the action. Historical accuracies – and there are many – merely flashed past the viewer while laborious scenes of overwrought dialogue in the wardroom, flight deck, and ready rooms fill long minutes of the two-hour film. The inaccuracies may be overlooked. After all, Midway is meant to entertain the movie-going public, not historians. But Emmerich claims that his film is a true account of events. If so, it failed to recount the most vital actions and dramatic dialogue of 3-7 June 1942, events that need no embellishment. Regrettably, the portrayals of Joseph Rochefort drinking on the job, of Raymond Spruance as nervous and severe, of a weak Wade McClusky, and even Richard Best’s surly arrogance amped up for gratuitous effect, do a disservice to them, their descendants, and ultimately, us.
While Midway falls short of what it could have achieved, Emmerich and Hollywood took a risk and made a film about something other than the usual fare movie audiences are fed. In that sense, the better-than-expected opening weekend box-office is encouraging, and while there is a time and place for escapism, audiences respond to historic films too. We learn through stories, and we can hope for more like this.
At the premier held at Washington’s Navy Memorial, actors Wilson and Skrein, humble to portray the men they did and honored to help tell this story to the public, conveyed their appreciation for the veterans of the battle and to those who serve today. They and all involved with the film performed their roles from the heart. At the end of his film Emmerich pays tribute to Best, Layton, McClusky, Nimitz and others. Despite its shortcomings, Midway may inspire those unfamiliar with the story to dig deeper about this fascinating battle and its meaning in world history.
Bottom line: Go see the flawed Midway with family and friends, and reward Hollywood for making a movie about naval history. Perhaps someone else will make another one.
Published in Fall 2018 issue of Hook Magazine. Republished with permission.
Captain Kevin P. Miller USN (ret.)
Carrier aviation is designed as a raiding force, self contained and quick reacting. Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s carriers participated in several limited pulses of national power to include Operations Urgent Fury, El Dorado Canyon, Deliberate Force, and Allied Force. These code names evoke memories of distant times and places — Grenada (1983), Libya (1986), Bosnia (1996), Kosovo (1999)— and ships like USS Independence (CV 62), Coral Sea (CV 43), America (CV 66) and Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71).
Among these historic combat operations is Operation Desert Fox, a series of joint and combined airstrikes into Iraq which took place in December, 1998 involving the carriers Enterprise (CVN 65) and Carl Vinson (CVN 70). Desert Fox was concurrent with Operation Southern Watch, which for twelve years enforced the no-fly zone in southern Iraq. When Iraqi President Saddam Hussein refused to allow UN inspectors into his WMD sites, a coalition of the United States and Great Britain acted to degrade his WMD capability. The operational pace was comparable to Desert Storm seven years earlier, delivering roughly 10% of the weapons tonnage in four nights that Desert Storm expended in forty. However, Desert Fox was a transitional bridge to today’s precision, exacting training standards, and C2 connectivity that were among the lessons learned from Desert Storm.
By late 1998 carriers and carrier air wings had undergone numerous upgrades in materiel and training that made carrier aviation much more lethal and efficient since Desert Storm. During that conflict the United States operated six aircraft carriers in restricted waters, some air wings flying hundreds of miles from the Red Sea while others conducted single-cycle sortie generation from the Northern Arabian Gulf.
For carrier aviation, Desert Storm was characterized by high-dive deliveries of iron bombs and the use of paper. While stand-off precision weapons were employed and to good effect, naval aviation lagged behind the U.S. Air Force in precision guided munitions (PGMs) and sensors to deliver them. The strike-fighter concept was proved early when two VFA-81 Sunliner F/A-18s downed two Iraqi MiGs before delivering their bombs on target moments later. However, shortfalls in positive identification hindered the use and effectiveness of the F-14. Meanwhile, S-3 Vikings from each carrier had to fly daily trips to the beach to pick up and deliver the ponderous Air Tasking Order back aboard ship, where strike leads dissected the tasking. With limited ability to query the sometimes ambiguous tasking, and strike planning with imagery that was not the latest, aviators did the best they could.
Another shortfall was in the area of training. Something as simple as comm-brevity was a challenge, and again USAF and coalition air forces were not only dominant but also aligned on this matter. Almost all of the carrier aviators had experienced a Fallon “Strike University” air wing training detachment, but the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (today’s Naval Air Warfare Training Center) had only been in existence for five years, formed when training deficiencies where identified from Grenada and Lebanon operations in the early 80’s. Carrier aviators performed admirably throughout Desert Storm, but unequal to Air Force weapons, sensors, and training standardization…and naval aviation’s leadership knew it.
Former Tailhook Association Chairman VADM Marty “Streak” Chanik, USN(Ret), was the commanding officer of VF-84 during Desert Storm. A career Tomcat pilot, he was enthusiastic about the air-to-ground capabilities inherent to the F-14 when introduced to the fleet in 1974, capabilities that had atrophied during the Cold War focus on the Outer Air Battle and traditional fighter escort missions. “The fighter community saw this coming, and in the fall of 1990 there was a move afoot to revive the air-to-ground capability of the Tomcat. We loaded up inert Mk-84’s and dropped them on a nearby range as proof of concept. The accuracy of the F-14 was pretty good, but higher-ups precluded us from participating in the strike mission over Iraq.”
Carriers were still returning home from Desert Storm as the fighter community – with remarkable speed – jump-started the F-14 iron-bomb circuitry and aircrew training. By fall 1991, the VF-142 Ghostriders and VF-143 Pukin’ Dogs on board Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) deployed with Tomcats that routinely flew with practice ordnance and aircrews trained in their delivery. When the Navy retired the venerable A-6 Intruder, the F-14 community assumed its precision bomb delivery mission. Martin Marietta, in an unsolicited proposal, demonstrated how a USAF Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting-Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) pod could be rapidly integrated onto the Tomcat. The VF-103 Jolly Rogers deployed with LANTIRN in June 1996.
It was also during this time the WTI program was birthed. Exchange tour cross-pollination that put junior tactical aviators from the three American air arms in squadron environments led to training standardization and a framework for qualifications – today’s Air Combat Training Continuum – was also established. Fleet Weapons Schools embraced this concept, and the first SFWTI aviators were selected and designated as such in 1994.
Carriers also received upgrades. Challenge Athena was outfitted aboard USS George Washington in time for her 1994 maiden deployment which allowed for broad satellite bandwidth to facilitate data download, plus a boost in crew morale with the ability to “call home” from the ship. Carrier Intel Centers received banks of workstation computers for strike planning and videotape players for Bomb Hit Assessment. Indeed, if an aircrew could not produce an image of their bomb hit, it didn’t happen, and squadron Intelligence Officers held their aviators to high standards. More and more JOs learned and made improvements to the Tactical Automated Mission Planning System (TAMPS). During Desert Storm, aircrews entered waypoints once strapped inside their cockpits before taxiing to the cat. Later in the decade the practice of “loading bricks” full of required navigation information became the norm. By the time of Desert Fox, computers printed color strip charts with equivalent quality to Tactical Pilotage Charts and Operational Navigational Charts produced by the Defense Mapping Agency.
Such was the state of carrier aviation as Enterprise, with CVW-3 embarked, operated in the Arabian Gulf. Arriving in late November 1998, CVW-3 spent the three weeks prior to Desert Fox flying double-cycle OSW patrols and “strike fams” into Iraq. The situation at the time was tense; earlier in November Dwight D. Eisenhower had loaded jets taxiing to the catapults when word was passed to cancel what would have been Operation Desert Thunder. VADM Cutler Dawson, USN(Ret), who today is the CEO of Navy Federal Credit Union, was then Commander, Enterprise Battle Group, and knew offensive action was possible. “We deployed from Norfolk in early November and made a high-speed transit to the Arabian Gulf, relieving Eisenhower as we did. En route, CNO (ADM) Jay Johnson called me and said to be ready on arrival.”
We Own The Night
The night operations showcased the improvements made in this arena of air warfare. CDR Guy “Beav” Varland, USN(Ret) fought in Desert Storm and was the commanding officer of the VFA-37 Ragin’ Bulls during Desert Fox. “Night vision goggles were the biggest difference between my two combat experiences.” Too late for Desert Storm combat, early-90s deliveries of Lot 12 and subsequent “Night Strike” Hornets and the first generation “Cats-Eyes” Night Vision Goggles transformed naval tac air. With the increased situational awareness NVGs provided and the upgraded AN/AAS-38A laser targeting forward-looking infrared (TFLIR) pod and improvements in the inertial navigational system and color displays, the Hornet now had true all-weather precision night strike capability, and laser-guided training rounds were introduced and allocated. At the same time the A-6 and F-14 communities provided NVGs for their aircrews.
In Desert Fox, all the strike aircraft had laser targeting capability, and the weapon of choice was the laser-guided bomb (LGB). Using self-escort tactics, the weapons were delivered from altitude. Single-seat pilots released and controlled their weapons until impact, recorded the hits, and egressed, all while maintaining formation with NVGs affixed. Indeed, Desert Fox weapon deliveries were conducted at night, and “we own the night,” a slogan heard in the 1980’s, was validated.
Not all the deliveries of Desert Fox were of the level LGB variety. Some aimpoints were weaponeered for high-dive deliveries of iron bombs…with unsatisfactory results similar to the majority of Desert Storm visual deliveries. However, recorded LGB hits had a success rate of over 80%, unheard of seven years earlier. Even the F/A-18 autopilot relief modes added to the tactical effectiveness of these deliveries, as pilots could “couple” the jet and concentrate on their TFLIR designation. The “Bombcat” came of age as VF-32 Swordsmen F-14s with LANTIRN delivered their LGBs on challenging aimpoints.
The 1998 threat environment was permissive, with aviators seeing nothing more than high-caliber anti-aircraft artillery. CAPT Eric Rasmussen, USN(Ret), then in the VFA-105 Gunslingers, was also a nugget Hornet pilot in 1991 aboard America. “In Desert Storm, we didn’t know what to expect. There was apprehension at the Iraqi threat, and the fear of Chem/Bio attack. However, that abated after several days. We would sometimes dive with a peel off roll-in like Pappy Boyington. Delivering LGBs in Desert Fox on goggles was easier, and JDAMs in the last decade easier still.”
Despite their relative ease, LGB deliveries require pre-strike study and active control by the aircrew. Breaking out the aimpoint seconds prior to release was the norm with TFLIRs of the day, and during the time-of-fall, formation position-keeping competed for time “sweetening” the aiming diamond on the DMPI. Some strikes were assigned multiple DMPIs separated by tens of miles. Giving each target the commensurate pre-strike planning and briefing attention before pickling the weapons proved to be a challenge. In post-9/11 combats, widespread use of the GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) mitigates this challenge. Far from denigrating today’s aircrew professionalism, JDAMs may be released “in the basket” (Ed. Note: The region that the aircraft must be in to launch the weapon and hit the target.) which is much easier, more accurate, and serves to enhance survivability. Precision results evidenced during Desert Fox became the new normal, and soon Pentagon requirements officers and planners spoke of, “one bomb, one aimpoint.” Alas, US air power today finds itself victim of its own precision success, as “one bomb, one aimpoint” is the perfect expectation every time, with anything off-aimpoint a political failure.
To an extent not seen in Desert Storm, surface ships and submarines participated. The Tomahawk Land Attack Missile was used to great effect in Desert Storm, but mission planning was a challenge. With planning software improvements and strike leader training to incorporate the cruise missile as part of their strikes, the TLAM was employed against targets sets directed by Washington and individual strike leaders from a carrier. During Desert Fox, aviators observed TLAM impacts in and around the targets they were prosecuting. The “finality” of the Tomahawk – no ability to recall – made an impression on all who saw them launch from combatants near Enterprise.
CDR Kendra “Yukon” Bowers (nee Williams), USN(Ret), was a nugget in VFA-105. Knowing how Ike had stood down at the last minute, she was overhead Enterprise with a load of bombs when she witnessed bright TLAM launches from Battle Group ships. Only then was she convinced that Desert Fox was a go. She formed up with her division and attacked an Iraqi surface-to-air missile site, a portable system that she was able to find with her TFLIR, one partially hidden in a tree line. She released her weapons and destroyed the system, which was key for follow-on strikes. She then checked into marshal and recovered. Unknown to her at the time, she had just become the first female U.S. fighter pilot to expend weapons in combat.
Before she could remove her flight gear in the squadron paraloft, Bowers became the sought-after media “get” of the operation, with outlets from US News and World Report to People Magazine vying for her time. With professional grace and humility she touted the teamwork of carrier aviation and that she was just doing her job. After several days she declined any more interviews. When the Secretary of the Navy called Cutler Dawson to ask if his lieutenant could be made available, Dawson respectfully declined. The Secretary withdrew the request, and “Yukon’s” proverbial 15 minutes ended.
Combat assignments opened to female aviators in 1993, and by 1998 both fleets fielded one “integrated” air wing. Today, virtually the entire Navy is integrated, and approximately 15% of fleet personnel are female. However, a quarter of a century later, fewer than 5% of Navy tactical aviators are female; the number is approximately 10% for all Navy aviators. The daughter of a Vietnam War F-8 Crusader pilot, CDR Bowers is philosophical about these numbers. “There’s no need to force quotas. In my case aviation was available, and I was privileged to serve and do my job.”
To preclude tippers and remain as covert as possible, the first night of Desert Fox consisted of air strikes and cruise missiles launched from the Enterprise Battle Group. U.S. air power in the region was and remains today extensive, but in the span of little more than seven hours Enterprise launched four strikes, each with 12-14 strikers and self-contained airborne early warning (AEW), signals intelligence (SIGINT), tanking, and electronic attack. Touted as an “All Navy” show, it was actually a Navy and Marine Corps show with the VMFA-312 Checkerboards embarked with CVW-3.
The big-wing tanking of carrier-based aircraft was the new normal in Desert Storm joint power projection. However, the “iron maiden” basket attached to KC-135 Stratotanker booms in order to refuel carrier aircraft was sub-optimum for both USAF providers and USN receivers. With NATO allies and carrier aviation as regular customers, a method to flow more aircraft across a hose was needed. Operational flexibility also drove the development of the Wing Aerial Refueling Pod (WARP). KC-135’s with WARP systems could tank two probe-equipped aircraft simultaneously and still refuel USAF aircraft on the same sortie. This system was used with great success in Desert Fox.
Electronic warfare was another area that had changed since Desert Storm. By the time of Desert Fox both the EF-111 Raven and the F-4G Wild Weasel had been retired from USAF service. The USN/USMC EA-6B Prowler provided the only U.S. Airborne Electronic Attack capability, along with Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18s fitted with HARMs and crews trained in their delivery. During the operation, Air Force F-16s, RAF Tornados, and notably the B-1B bomber enjoyed the benefits – coordinated by embarked strike leads – of carrier-based EW suppression.
The B-1 participation is noteworthy as Desert Fox was the first time the strategic bomber was used in combat. With Cold War alert requirements loosened, the Bone was now available for these types of conventional operations. In Desert Fox, B-1s dropped impressive stiks of iron bombs on point targets. Since Desert Fox, Air Force bombers have been tasked in all manner of routine combat operations to include close air support.
Several intra-service stovepipes that hindered tactical efficiency were removed. Tailhook Vice President CAPT R.W. “Brick” Nelson USN (Ret.) was then CVW-3 Deputy CAG. “The Warfare Commander construct was a big plus. The CO of the Aegis cruiser had a better air picture and it made sense for him to task our fighters in that role. The Wing Commander was responsible for Strike, and we could task combatants for TLAM employment and more.”
Desert Fox reinforced the “ready-on-arrival” ethos of naval forces. RDML Dave Crocker, USN(Ret) sprinted his carrier USS Carl Vinson at a flank bell to join in the operation on the last night. With coordination between Battle Group Commander VADM Al Harms, USN(Ret), and Air Wing Commander, CAPT James “Gyro” Knight, USN(Ret), and their Enterprise counterparts, CVW-11 launched a long-range strike from the bottom of the Arabian Gulf into southern Iraq, demonstrating the long arm and self-sufficiency of naval aviation.
The changes to carrier aviation that occurred in the seven years from 1991 to 1998 were indeed remarkable, all the more so when compared to previous eras. For example, in 1965 A-4 Skyhawks and F-4 Phantoms launched from Yankee Station were rolling in on targets with iron bombs in dive deliveries. Seven years later, Skyhawks and Phantoms (albeit later model) launched from Yankee Station were rolling in on targets with iron bombs in dive deliveries. Carrier Air Wing Three is another prime example; the only difference in the aircraft make-up of 1971 aboard Saratoga (CV 60) and the air wing of 1991 aboard John F. Kennedy (CV 67) was that F-14s had replaced F-4s, plus the addition of the S-3. To be sure, many improvements to carrier aviation occurred in the ~20 year span between Vietnam and the First Gulf War, notably in training and readiness, but they were not game-changers like NVGs and precision laser-guidance in every strike cockpit, Joint C2 coordination at the embarked strike-lead level, reliable encrypted communications and digital mission planning.
One constant during this period is the adaptability of the aircraft carrier itself. Five of the six carriers that participated in Desert Storm combat had the Vietnam Service Ribbon displayed on their bridge wings. Remarkably, four Vietnam veteran carriers brought the fight to the enemy over Afghanistan and Iraq early this century. Built tough, with inherent flexibility and sustainment of operations and programmed to serve for five decades, these indispensible ships remain the asymmetric warfare game-changers they were 75 years ago. The aircraft, weapons, and human beings that make it all happen come and go, but the ability of a carrier to deliver sustained combat power on arrival – like Enterprise and especially Carl Vinson proved 20 years ago – and to deliver it precisely hundreds and hundreds of miles inland, is an ability we too often take for granted.
Today, it is routine for carrier aviators to fly 1,000 miles to deliver their weapons with an accuracy that battle group commanders of 1991 would never expect, and they do it the next night and the night after that, with digital displays and instant communications. And with highly trained aviators, “strategic” lieutenants and lieutenant commanders, captains and majors, who make real time decisions when called for involving tremendous national import. VADM Mike Shoemaker, USN(Ret), recently retired as naval aviation’s “Air Boss,” was the executive officer of VFA-105 and led strikes during Desert Fox. “Bulk precision and Night Strike improvements characterized Desert Fox, but we also saw the early benefits of a highly structured training regimen for our aviators. Today, all from wing commanders to nugget wingmen must progress through qualification wickets that squeeze the most from each training sortie and produce professional aviation warriors of a quality far superior to my cohort of the 1980’s and 90’s.”
Modern Strike Group Commanders expect that when, say, 32 weapons are sent over the beach on fighter weapons pylons, 32 separate aimpoints will be serviced with 100% accuracy, and this expectation is largely met. Incomprehensible 50 years ago, the foundation of today’s high standards of kinetic effectiveness and aircrew training has its foundation in the missions flown over southern Iraq in Operation Desert Fox.
This photo of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson returning to her San Diego home early on an autumn morning is dramatic. Many see grandeur and commitment. Others see human service. Others see mind-boggling dollar signs. Some see a force to be resisted, or sadly, not trusted. And others, many others, do not have any idea of what they are seeing.
It is said that of the five (let’s count the Coast Guard here) American military services, the United States Navy is understood the least. All understand the role of an Army. The Air Force flies planes, of course. The Coast Guard guards the coast and rescues people. The Marine Corps? A few good men, our 911 force.
That leaves the Navy. In public messaging, it’s a force for good. It’s around the world, steaming under giant red dots. You can join it and see the world. It’s TOPGUN…or is that an Air Force movie?
Congress has raised armies and maintained a navy since the beginning. Our Navy’s mission calls for prompt and sustained combat operations at sea. While its history is storied, since the end of World War II the U.S. Navy has been dominant throughout the seven seas, and has underwritten free trade on those seas that has led to economic development and higher living standards for billions the world over. Considered a birthright for Americans, free trade on the high seas benefits everyone on earth. This benefit faces severe challenges.
America is fated to lead, and the costs of words like presence and deterrence, response and credible, increase every year. The costs are staggering. That carrier in the photo above? Billions of dollars for one ship, and we won’t even count the billions of dollars for the airplanes that fly from it it, and billions in personnel costs for the 5,000 human beings inside it. One ship.
And here, on the other side of Coronado, is an oiler, with another carrier in the background. Both are undergoing refit and replenishment, repair and upgrade, and ships need that on a routine basis. To me, that crane is representative of our industrial base. How many naval shipyards do we have, and where are they located, and can they handle increased demand, or are they at the breaking point, beyond what even billions of dollars thrown at them could change? Right now…we’re good, but what if we really, really needed them to step it up like the Arsenal of Democracy did to produce the materiel that defeated tyranny so long ago? And once produced, how will our materiel get to the scene of combat, where we want it to be? Ninety percent of it will travel aboard ship. Do we have enough cargo ships, properly manned, and state-of-the-art efficient?
Look at this desert wasteland in the American mountain west. Actually, down there is an overland training range for our front line air crews. Some of our citizens don’t like it there, even some that live far away from it. They just don’t want it to exist. Is the desert wasteland down there important to our national defense? Don’t we have plenty more? Must we argue over that piece of wasteland?
Recently I was in Portland at the annual Navy League of the US convention. One morning I walked along the Willamette River where the cutter Steadfast was moored. On the bridge wing is depicted Steadfast’s record of drug busts on the high seas. Cocaine and marijuana. Extremely dangerous. The young Coast Guardsman standing watch on the quarterdeck was proud of his ship and their mission. I thanked him and wished him a fun time during the port visit, knowing that what this one cutter could do to interdict the drug trade – what every cutter in the Coast Guard could do – is a mere fraction of what is shipped to criminal elements here and then distributed into our society, causing untold damage. Our Coast Guard needs help, and yes, the irony of the cutter moored in Portland given the societal views of much of its populace was not lost on me.
In today’s world we see challenges to seaborne trade. History returned on 9-11, and the 20-year peace dividend is long gone. Prompt and sustained costs money. We need more, better, newer and everything faster. What can be done? What can you do to help address the reality of serious challenges to our sea services?
President Theodore Roosevelt founded the Navy League in 1902 to educate the public about the importance of the sea services and sea power. Today’s Navy League describes itself as “a civilian organization dedicated to the education of our citizens, including our elected officials, and the support of the men and women of the sea services and their families.” There are nearly 50,000 members who advocate for a strong and credible Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine.
It is a civilian organization, with an independent voice. While former military are certainly welcome, the Navy League not only educates and advocates, but serves the fleet by adopting ships and hosting events such as commissioning ceremonies. It serves society by affiliating with the Navy Sea Cadet Corps, a vital pathway for young people learn about and oftentimes enter the Sea Services. If nothing else it enhances their citizenship. Chapters award and honor the enlisted personnel in their communities, and help support families when the military member is deployed.
The Navy League is a way to give back, to express appreciation, to advocate for the sea services and stress their importance to our nation and the world. As our national “guns-and-butter” debate rages as it has for decades, our sea services are stressed across the board. With a broad swath of our public that has little understanding of their value, Navy Leaguers are there to gently inform, to invite, to support.
Join the Navy League. Be informed. Lend a hand. Throw a party. Whatever your area of expertise or desire, there’s a place for you.
Think the sea services, our merchant marine, and the industrial base to support them is expensive? Try life on this planet without them. And the carrier that costs billions? A bargain.
Ever hear of the Spratly Islands? If you haven’t, don’t feel too bad. They are a group of small islets, coral reefs, cays, sandbars and exposed rocks in the bottom half of the South China Sea. They are located in a large area off The Philippines and Malaysia, with shallow banks and sea mounts teeming with life, and evidence of oil deposits below. Seafarers know it as “The Dangerous Ground” with numerous shoals that have claimed many a wayward vessel over the millennia. In addition to The Philippines and Malaysia, the Spratly’s are claimed by Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam and one significant country some 500 miles to the north, The People’s Republic of China.
Not only does the PRC claim the Spratly group, it claims the entire South China Sea, from Taiwan down to the Sunda Shelf north of Singapore, from Vietnam in the west to the PI’s Palawan Island in the east. To put this in perspective, lets think of the South China Sea as equivalent to the United States east of the Mississippi River. Using this example, China claims from the Canadian border with Maine to Atlanta, over to Jackson, MS, then up to Chicago. According to international law, in this example China is entitled to only 12 miles south of Canada, granting it greater Buffalo, Erie, and Detroit. That’s it.
How do they “get away” with this? Well, China, which was a sovereign country in Biblical times, claims the SCS as their own from some 1,400 years ago. Dynasties came and went, but the 19th and early 20th centuries were quite troubling times for China, characterized by the “Opium Wars” and “Treaty Ports.” Humiliated by foreign occupiers from Britain to Japan, and with a long memory, China emerged in 1949 with the rise of the communists and a focus on claiming what they feel rightly belongs to “the people.”
In 1947, even before the PRC had defeated the Nationalists, future Prime Minister Zhou Enlai drew a nine-dash line which is viewed as the historical background of PRC claims of the vast SCS. China was impoverished and unable to back this claim, which was ignored by the West anyway as absurd. But the People’s Republic, suspicious of the West and under no obligation to assert their claims, didn’t give it a second thought.
In 1996 an incident occurred off Taiwan that in my view is quite similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The PRC fired missiles near Taiwan when Taiwan flexed its political muscles. The United States sent the carriers Independence and Nimitz to waters off Taiwan to send a signal of resolve. The Peoples Liberation Army Navy was then a coastal patrol force and in no position to confront the U.S Navy off their shores. The PRC backed down, as the Soviet Union did in 1962 when faced with the American blockade of Cuba, turning their ships around. The Soviets then embarked on constructing a blue-water navy that by the 1970’s was a peer competitor to the U.S. fleet. In much the same manner China, on the cusp of an economic boom the world had not seen since the rise of the industrial United States some 100 years earlier, set out to build a blue-water navy to control not only their “near seas” such as the SCS, but one that today is deployed to the Horn of Africa and the Seychelles in order to secure the “Road” in China’s Belt-and-Road economic initiative.
Regional powers that claim the Spratly group – and the Paracels and Scarborough Shoal – have built up austere “outposts” to cement their claims. However, in recent years the PRC, seeking no one’s permission and for the most part ignored by the wider world, have built significant installations in the Spratly’s, installations with deep-water ports and runways capable of operating all manner of aircraft, the so-called Great Wall of Sand.
In the 19th century the United States built Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas off Key West, on a beautiful and pristine cay set on a turquoise sea. This is unthinkable today. While we have the technology to build, gathering the political will to do so in the face of strident environmental objections is just this side of impossible.
Not so for today’s China. The Spratly Islands are no less pristine and unspoiled, and are vital fishing grounds for countries that neighbor them, but China – in a matter of months – has poured dredge sand on coral reefs and built islands capable of supporting thousands of people and runways of 9,000 feet in length. A giant B-52 bomber could land safely on such a runway, and the fact that the pristine coral reef is destroyed is of no consequence. The PRC has the political will, and the usually strident protests of global environmentalists are meek compared to transgressions they find elsewhere in the world, none of which are on the scale of a newly-constructed Spratly outpost.
The People’s Republic ignores what meager protests are lodged, considering the waters their own, their “blue-territory.” China does not feel pressure to allow anyone use of waters it considers theirs. The West cannot understand this, but that’s the situation today. China wants to control trade in its near seas, and considers the fish under the surface and resources under the seabed as exclusively theirs. Still not familiar with the Spratlys? I believe that Chinese schoolchildren are.
Enter the United States Navy. Our Navy is the guarantor of free trade on the worlds oceans, and has been since 1945. China is a huge beneficiary of this trade, but now that they have built their own fleet up into a legitimate blue-water force, it is taking great control of international waters on its periphery that the rest of the world considers international. Today there is big-time tension in the South China Sea, and a careless spark can ignite it.
This is my premise for Fight Fight. Set today, such a spark occurs. Pol-Mil denizens around the world consider such a conflict to be inevitable, much the way the U.S. Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy viewed each other in the early 1930’s. How will a modern Air-Sea battle be fought there today, and who will fight it? Is it inevitable?
My interest in writing my novels is to explore how the human beings at the tips of both – both – national spears deal with combat in support of national tasking. Such a battle will be fought with missiles – right? How will the expected loss of communications and navigation satellites affect them? The Western Pacific puts the “T” and “D” in Tyranny of Distance, and ships must steam for days and aircraft need in-flight refueling – there and back – to transit vast open-ocean expanses. How will the humans on both sides deal with these challenges?
I’m in good company. Techno-thriller authors of great and lesser renown are publishing their novels of how this notional fight will occur, from cyber to kinetic. For research I spoke with subject matter experts from four-stars to two stripes, read about the geopolitics of the region and social construct of China, read their history, and imagined being inside their ships and aircraft and living on their outposts. My memories of time spent on flight decks and inside cockpits are vivid, and just sitting quietly thinking “what if?” is what techno-thrillers are made of.
Another benefit of novels such as ours is to inform. I could point out the reference materials I used for this novel, but how many readers would read them? Always greater than the sum of the research materials, a novel allows the writer to bring the reader into the world, into the minds of the characters dealing with the man vs. man/machine/nature conflicts in a way that entertains and resonates with the reader, whether familiar or unfamiliar with the subject. After reading Fight Fight you’ll have a feel for the South China Sea and todays geopolitical challenges. Fiction has it’s place, as do war games…and sitting quietly.
Fight Fight, like my others, has what a friend calls a “leadership challenge” that involves one of the seven deadly sins. Each of my novels have subplots centered around our human flaws, and those flaws when placed under the pressures of combat can, well, you be the judge.
I’ve never been to the “Far East” but found my study and the experience of writing this novel fascinating. After Fight Fight was complete, then edited by Linda and tweaked by Jeff, I said wow. Hope you do too, and enjoy this fictional story about what could happen on The Dangerous Ground this autumn of 2018.