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I recently commented on a friend’s Facebook post that there is no political party that represents me; there are things I agree with in both of the major parties, and things I disagree with in both.  Rarely is *anything* as black or white as either party tries to make it sound.  Rarely is it the case that the things that are being denounced do not also have an element that their side would or could favor, that isn’t even being looked at by the people doing the denouncing.

For example, if you’re on the liberal side, you might see the military as a waste of money; without realizing that it also serves a lot of liberal aims too.  What college or social program will actually pay someone (and house and feed them as well) to learn a highly technical skill, provide their healthcare (and their family’s) 100%, and then give them college money on top of that, for as little as a 3 year commitment?  Granted everyone does not qualify for or is not cut out for military service, but for those who are, it’s a very good alternative path to an education and/or a marketable skill that they otherwise might not have had.  It is in one way one heck of a social program, and there is a definite human factor to the military that is often overlooked completely in the denouncement of military spending.

On the other side, a conservative may not see the value of education, social programs, environmental concerns.  What they may not realize is how much we can all reap the benefit of them.  Better education and a healthier population result in more productivity and creativity, which ultimately makes all of our lives better.  It might seem counter-intuitive for a workplace to give employees a paid hour for the gym three times a week for example, but employers who have done it have found that their employees take fewer sick days; which means the employer benefits as well as the employees.  Some things it’s a bit harder to see the cause/effect, but just because it’s not readily visible doesn’t mean it’s not there at all.

Those are just random examples, but nearly everything that one side or the other denounces, there’s also a benefit somewhere in it that they aren’t seeing.  Few things actually break out neatly into if it’s good for one, it’s automatically bad for the other.  In a lot of cases there are good and bad for both sides in anything being discussed.

But to look at Congress, you’d think that everything is actually (and only) that black and white.  This article from last year foreshadowed today’s issues; that Congress just votes party lines at this point, rather than each member coming to their own conclusions about the things that are before them.

http://www.pressherald.com/news/analysis-shows-congress-shifting-toward-extremes-_2012-03-04.html?pagenum=full

From the article:

“We are becoming more like a parliamentary system, where everyone simply votes with their party and those in charge employ every possible tactic to block the other side,” Snowe said Friday. “At some point you have to develop solutions for the country. You have to talk to people with whom you disagree.”

Snowe’s retirement has highlighted a trend that University of Georgia political science Professor Keith Poole has been tracking for 30 years. He helped create a computer program that shows Congress is more polarized now than at any time since Reconstruction, the result of issues such as race, morality and economics that have pulled the parties apart in recent decades.

“The country is basically becoming fundamentally dysfunctional due to this polarization, and people are finally starting to notice,” Poole said. “It has to stop at some point. It has to break. I think we’re getting close.”

Fundamentally dysfunctional…I’d say that describes the current situation pretty well.  Doesn’t matter what side of it you happen to be on, who you happen to blame; both sides have their valid points.  But even more troubling to me than Congress being divided so solidly along party lines, is seeing my entire Facebook feed divided so solidly along those same lines.  People on both sides who are intelligent and well-educated, yet who don’t seem to consider or even want to consider any middle ground whatsoever.  If a Republican said it, it’s automatically wrong or automatically right, no matter what ‘it’ is – agree, or GTFO.  Or if a Democrat said it, it’s automatically wrong or automatically right, no matter what ‘it’ is; agree, or GTFO.

Also from the article:

“This is being reinforced from the bottom up. Americans have become increasingly well-sorted into their proper parties,” he said.

And that, I think, is the basic root of the issue.  Can we really blame Congress for being so divided, when we ourselves seem to have also become so divided?  I see very little moderate views anymore; everything is solidly Red or Blue.  It seems lately as though there’s no room possible, ever, for a Purple blend between the two; even just between us as individuals.  No room for either side to look for any potential benefit in something the other side has proposed; it’s automatically got to be bad for US if it’s good for THEM.  And there also seems to be little consideration of the drawbacks of any given proposal.  If you don’t agree with it, you’re [insert appropriate slur on your thinking/parentage/whatever here].

What the heck has happened to us?  Have we completely stopped thinking and evaluating things on their own merits (or lack of), but instead rely on the party we most identify with to decide what’s good, and therefore anything that benefits the other side *has* to be bad?  If we can’t see any side but the one we believe is always right, and will shout down even our friends and family to defend it, how can we possibly blame Congress for doing the same?  Aren’t they ‘representing’ us pretty faithfully, if they’re basically doing the same thing in DC that we’re doing with one another via social media, or even face to face?

I’m not ‘well-sorted into my proper party’.  There is no party that represents me.  Because I don’t think there is one right answer to every issue.  One size does not fit all no matter how many times you try to tell me it does.  Businesses are not always right.  Social programs are also not always right.  Both are not always wrong either.  But the number of people I see anymore, who automatically reject anything to do with one or the other lately seems to far outnumber the people who are willing to look at the merits and drawbacks of any given thing, to actually take the time to look at it from all sides rather than just follow a particular party line on it, whatever ‘it’ may be.  So, can we really blame Congress for doing that, if we’re doing it ourselves?  Their job is to represent us; and it seems like they are pretty well representing the lines we’ve drawn between ourselves.  They seem to be the reflection of what I see around me every day; especially via social media.  It’s disheartening, to say the least.

We are never going to get out of the situation we’re in, either in the near term or the long term, without some middle ground.  What we need is not more Democrats or Republicans; what we need are more people willing to find that middle ground.  People who can look at *both* sides of a given issue, rather than only looking at their party line on it.  People who can see the benefits and the drawbacks to an equal degree, on any given issue, whether that issue is traditionally left or traditionally right.  People who understand that anything to do with business also has a human element, unless that business is a business of one.  And that social programs can also have an impact on business.  People who understand cause and effect, who can see the total picture and not just ‘their’ slice of it.   I think we have lost that ourselves at this point, and I think the people we’ve elected reflect it.  Probably too accurately.

 

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Based on a lot of comments I’ve been both hearing and getting because of the sequestration, it has occurred to me that John Q. Public (and the media) really aren’t aware of just how much Defense really has been cut before now, and for how long before now as well.  To understand where we are and even where we could go from here, it probably is important to understand where we’ve been also.  This is just my own slice of history, just what I’ve seen…but nearly everyone in the armed services or associated with them will have similar stories to tell.

I joined the Navy in 1991, during the first Gulf War.  I went to boot camp in Orlando, FL.  At that time, there were three operating boot camps; now there is only one, the other two were closed in BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) rounds.

I went to initial Avionic Technican training in Millington, TN.  At that time, three aviation electronics ratings (AT, AQ and AX) were being merged into one – one of the first signs of my times, of  ‘doing more with less’.  Millington also got hit by BRAC later, though part of the base is still being used (they moved the detailers there, from Washington DC; and moved the schools down to Pensacola; and gave up the airfield).

I attended two schools for the AT rating; the first was 26 weeks long, and the second was 13 weeks long.  Now, the training for the first one is under 15 weeks (cost-cutting), and the second one I went to no longer exists at all (cost-cutting).  (http://usmilitary.about.com/od/enlistedjob1/a/at.htm)

In 1992 I graduated the last of the initial-training schools and went on to the school for the aircraft I’d be working on in the fleet, the P-3 Orion.  At that time there were two schools for P-3 pilots, naval flight officers, aircrew and maintainers; one on the west coast at Moffett Field, and one on the east coast at Jacksonville.  There were also multiple operational squadrons at Moffett at the time.  Word came down even before we graduated that Moffett (along with the rest of the bases in the San Francisco area such as Alameda and Treasure Island) was hit in the BRAC and would be closing.  Some of the squadrons would be moving to join the ones based in Hawaii at NAS Barbers Point, some to Whidbey Island Washington, and the others would be disestablished.  One of the last things I did at that base was to work its final airshow.

Like many, I’d always thought of the military as having the best/newest of everything; the P-3 was a real eye-opener in that regard.  Originally put into service in the 1960’s (and based on a 1950’s commercial-airliner airframe, the Lockheed Electra), this aircraft was already scheduled for service-life replacement by the early 1990’s; some of them were already older than both the people flying them and maintaining them (while Lockheed did continue to make them for foreign militaries, the last one delivered to the US military was in 1990).  However, the replacement (the P-7) was cancelled (cost-saving) and efforts were instead turned to keeping the existing ones going as long as possible.  According to Wikipedia, “during 2012, it (P-3) joined the handful of military aircraft including the B-52 and KC-135 that have served 50 years of continuous use by the US military”.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P-3_Orion and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_P-7).  The follow-up replacement is just now hitting the fleet with three delivered in the past year, but cuts could threaten it as well (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P-8_Poseidon)

So – I graduated P-3 maintenance school and was given orders to VP-22, NAS Barbers Point, Hawaii.  Went immediately on deployment, and when we returned from that deployment in 1993, we were told that we were getting the axe, the squadron was being decommissioned.  The personnel and aircraft were divided up among other squadrons; some older aircraft were retired or put in mothballs and many personnel were given an ‘early out’ option (option to leave the Navy before their enlistment was up).  High-year-tenure and being passed for promotion (move up or move out) also became an issue at this time for both officers and enlisted, further reducing manpower.

I went to VP-17 after the decommissioning, and right back out on deployment; and just before the 1994 deployment, we got word that VP-17 was also getting decommissioned.  Same story, different day…personnel and aircraft were again divvied up between the remaining squadrons, with some again getting out of the Navy in the process.  (A good picture of just how many Navy squadrons have been deactivated can be found here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_inactive_United_States_Navy_aircraft_squadrons)

Went to VP-9 and again immediately back out on deployment.  This time the squadron didn’t get axed from under me, but the base did; NAS Barbers Point was selected in the next BRAC round, and the remaining squadrons were slated to be moved in with the Marines at MCAS Kaneohe Bay.  By this point, we were not ‘at war’ but the drawdowns meant that the operational tempo was more grueling than it was when we had been – even when not on deployment, we had very little time off and 6-7 day workweeks even at home were the rule rather than the exception.  (Sailors typically work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week while on a deployment; and of course do not get paid overtime).

Naval aviation as a whole also trimmed down significantly across the board during this period; phasing out aging single-role aircraft in favor of multi-role versions.  The F-14 Tomcat and A-6 Intruder were both replaced with the F/A-18.  Different models of helicopters across all services were replaced with the xH-60 (Blackhawk, Seahawk).  The S-3 Viking was eliminated.  This streamlining attempt has also continued into the present day, with the Joint Strike Fighter; an attempt to provide the same aircraft to all services, in all types of roles.  These combinations and standardizations were also intended as a cost-cutting measure; it’s nearly always cheaper to stock replacement parts for one or two aircraft types than for five or six.   The tradeoff of course is that a multi-role aircraft is rarely as good as a single-role one; just as with home electronic devices, really.  A camera integrated into a cell phone (multi-function device) is not going to be as good taking photos as a digital camera (purpose-built for that one function), a multi-function scanner/printer is rarely as good as a dedicated flatbed scanner and printer by themselves are, etc.

I got out of the Navy in 2000, and went to work first as a contractor (to the Navy) and later as Civil Service (at the same command where I took my own initial aviation electronics training).  It actually took six years for my job to become permanent, however; multiple hiring freezes and budget cuts were the reason.  Being under a Commercial Activities Study was another reason for the delay (CA study, sometimes called A-76 studies after the OMB circular that calls for them; basically they are a periodic ‘competition’ for government jobs that are not defined as inherently governmental in nature, and typically result in job cuts even if the government ‘wins’ the competition and jobs are not outsourced to contractors), and a reorganization and attempt to streamline/consolidate Navy support commands was yet another reason.  The number of students we train for their Navy jobs hasn’t been reduced significantly in the past ten years; but our manpower (military and civilian) across the board definitely has been.

The point of all the above is not to say that there is nothing possibly left to be cut; it is just to illustrate that cuts have been happening all along (which it seems like many were completely unaware of, understandably if not directly affected).  And also to illustrate that the Dept of the Navy at least hasn’t just been getting ever more bloated over the past two decades; all along the way it has been reducing and streamlining both its equipment and personnel.  Some of today’s costs are in fact a direct result of putting off past repairs and replacements, due to past budget cuts.  Some of tomorrow’s costs will be the direct result of putting off today’s repairs and replacements as well.  The P-3’s replacement figures prominently in the current budget (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_budget_of_the_United_States), and the reason it’s there now is a direct result of cuts that were made 20 years ago.

So, what would I identify as issues myself?  Obviously I’m not high up enough in this system to have the total picture from where I am, but there are a few things that I think we could improve on.  One was the huge push towards contracting (jobs, services, etc) in the 2000’s, partially as a result of all the manpower cuts before that, and partially as a future-savings initiative (not having to pay pensions to contractors).  An interesting article from 2007: http://nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2007/June/Pages/MoreServLess2623.aspx

On the face of it, contracting a job or service often seems like a big cost savings; you don’t have to pay a contractor a retirement, or offer them healthcare coverage like you do a civil servant or military member.  On paper, they can appear to save lots of money.  The reality however is that there will be costs that never show up on paper, or don’t show up until much later.  A defense contractor is in business to make money, full stop.  They’re not going to pay their employees in proportion to what the government is paying to have them as employees; because they are in business to make a profit.  One article I found while researching the overall personnel makeup of the service indicates that overall, contractors actually cost 3x more than civil service civilians do:  http://pogoblog.typepad.com/pogo/2012/11/dod-contractors-cost-nearly-3-times-more-than-dod-civilians.html

And the employees themselves are presented with divided loyalties upfront; do they do their best to please the client, or their direct employer?  Which side should they support if there is a conflict between what the direct employer (the contract company) says, and what the government client wants done?  They have less job security (always a tense time whenever contracts are up for renewal), less pay and benefits, and are given virtually no incentive to provide a level of work (quality or amount) beyond the basic.  Contractors also require oversight and QA that regular gov’t employees do not (because regular employees are already overseen by their direct chain of command).  And if you need something extra done, you can task a servicemember or civil servant with it; but you cannot do the same with a contractor, not without first negotiating extra payments for the extra work.  (Which is actually there to protect the contractor, really – to keep the government from requiring more from them than was bid/agreed upon in the contract.)

There certainly are jobs and services that contractors can provide as efficiently as (or even more efficiently than) military or civil service can; the problem is that too often only the bottom line is looked at (the numbers on paper) and not the overall benefit/drawback when considering whether a job or service is best provided by a servicemember, a civilian or a contractor.  Sometimes the bottom line is actually just what pot of money it will come from; this pot has a bit more in it this time, so we’ll go this way regardless of whether it’s actually better.

The next is, stop underestimating the dollar value of human traits such as loyalty when calculating ‘efficiency’.  That speaks to the above (contracting) as well as to past and future efforts to consolidate jobs/services.  A good example; after I got out (thankfully!), an idea was put forth and implemented in the P-3 community; consolidated maintenance.  Instead of having maintenance personnel assigned to specific squadrons, and aircraft assigned to specific squadrons, instead all aircraft and maintainers were put into one pool.  Having 100 maintainers in one pool certainly sounds more efficient than having 25 of them in four separate pools does; but in reality, it isn’t for several reasons.  One is the loss of pride of ownership.  Another is not getting to know the quirks of ‘your’ birds (aircraft) as well when you’re maintaining 36 of them vs. 9 (and they all have their own quirks, just as cars do).

But the biggest potential factor again is divided loyalty.  When your squadron skipper’s flight is being delayed because of unscheduled maintenance, the ripples reach down to the maintainers in that squadron very quickly (you can’t provide much more by way of motivation if you are in the military, than to have your Commanding Officer literally standing over you while you’re working and asking when you’re going to have his airplane fixed).  But when that same squadron skipper isn’t ‘your’ skipper any longer, and when you have four of them all wanting the same thing at the same time, it’s pretty natural to feel a bit more detached about whether they all get what they want as quickly as you can give it to them.  It sort of becomes not your problem, because you’re not part of the same team in the same way any more, and it can turn into ‘us vs. them’.  The same is true anywhere else in the military that separates support services from the commands they are supporting, really.  Any who were in the service themselves can tell you which was typically better – the support you got from a PSD that is serving multiple commands (and answers to none of them), or the support you got from admin personnel who were actually assigned to your command.  It might seem on the surface that idle time can be minimized by consolidating and having 20 people in one command support 800 people in 4 commands, but overall I’m not sure any efficiency is really gained there over just having 5 people supporting 200 when it is within the same organization.  When you take people off the ‘team’, you can’t expect them to retain the same view of the ‘team goal’ that they had when they were actually part of that particular team.  You can’t expect them to still care as much about what another team’s goal is once they’re completely outside it, that’s just not part of basic human nature.  And team goals are a very essential part of how the military gets things done in the first place, and always has been.

Another past and future issue is one of leadership and promotion, and this one is rather thorny in nature.  Stay in or around the service long enough, and you’ll see all kinds of ‘ideas’ come and go as the upper-echelon leaders come and go; and stay around long enough and you’ll even see some of the same ideas come around a second time.  A lot of this probably goes back into the ‘move up or move out’ concept – how does one Admiral/General distinguish his/her leadership from their predecessor?  How do they make their mark?  And unfortunately, the issue that rarely gets as much scrutiny is – how much is them ‘making their mark’ going to cost us in the end, and is/was it really necessary at all?  What about, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?’  But of course, not ‘fixing’ something isn’t going to look that great to a promotion board.  How do you tell the difference between ‘this person was smart enough to realize that things were working smoothly and were as efficient as they could be already, and that messing with it would likely be counterproductive, so they wisely left it alone’, and ‘this person was too lazy/incompetent to look for improvements, so none were suggested or made’?  Unfortunately I don’t have a good answer for that either, all I can say is that it has in the past wasted a whole lot of Defense money.  Money will be poured into some new idea to ‘fix’ something that really wasn’t broken to begin with; and then even more money will be poured into putting it back the way it was before.  We’ve seen it happen repeatedly.

Another issue that I found in an article, given by a past Secretary of the Navy and a past CNO was procurement (http://defense.aol.com/2013/02/26/john-lehman-gary-roughead-fix-procurement-to-save-the-navy).  Can’t really comment on it much since I’ve never been involved in that process; but I’d expect the folks quoted to have a good enough idea of what they’re talking about; and at this point, they shouldn’t have any personal axes to grind nor particular pet projects to protect.

Yet another issue is one where the cost is saved in one place and really can’t be easily quantified in the place where the cost is being passed on; and that is, training vs. how those personnel are used when they get to the fleet.  If you have permanent TAD (Temporarily Assigned Duty) positions and you are filling them with junior personnel who were trained for another job specialty entirely, you’re wasting a lot of those training dollars.  When you have standing requirements to provide a body to the base fuel farm, and a body to base Hazmat, and a body to the wash rack, and bodies to the line shack, tool room, galley, etc – find ways to fill them that don’t waste the training dollars you spent on those people.  You only have a limited time to get the specific work out of them that you trained them for as it is.  Depending on their sea/shore rotation and the promotion potential for their rate, you may only have one or two sea tours for them to actually be turning wrenches – because by the time they get to their second or third tour, they could be an E-6 (I was myself, by my second tour if I’d stayed in).  At that point, you do still get the benefit of their expertise/experience, but you’ll be using them in supervisory/auxiliary roles, they won’t be out there turning wrenches in most cases.  They’ll be a shop supervisor, or QA rep.  If you want better efficiency, just cutting training time isn’t much help if you’re not having them put that training to use 100% when they get to the fleet.  By the time they’ve spent 3 to six months (or more) working TAD completely outside their rating specialty, how much do you think they’ll even remember of their training?

And for the Navy and Marine Corps especially – for God’s sake find a way to bite the bullet and get rid of NMCI.   Stop dismissing the very real problems and very real loss of productivity from it as being merely ‘disgruntled users’ who were simply unhappy with the level of standardization and control that came with it.  Even outside IT professionals are not impressed with what billions of dollars are getting us IT-wise: http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/08/hp-holds-navy-network-hostage/.  You can’t tell me that the Navy can’t do a better job on its own, and more cheaply too.

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