The Best Defense

The crazy plan to change the longtime mission of the U.S. Naval Institute

By Capt. John Byron (USN, Ret.)
Best Defense nautical correspondent

The United States Naval Institute has been around for 137 years, serving the nation and the naval profession with honor and accomplishment. Its Naval Institute Press and Naval History Magazine perform well for the academic community. Its defense conferences are top-notch. But the crown jewel is Proceedings, the internationally renowned naval professional journal. (Full disclosure: I've written around 100 pieces for Proceedings and am a life member of the Institute.)

I'm worried about the Institute.

Some years ago it was headed for bankruptcy, the bounty from publishing The Hunt For Red October and Flight Of the Intruder gone, its journals no longer fueled by Cold War advertising, its leadership - good, honorable - perhaps over their heads in the economic world it found itself. The CEO was asked to resign and a new leader, Major General Tom Wilkerson, USMC (ret.) named for the top job. Tom put the Institute on sound footing, though not without pain and retrenchments. But he succeeded and it now has a good balance sheet and strong sponsorship, editorial excellence, and continued contribution to those who take warships to war, all credit to General Wilkerson's leadership and the staff's wonderful performance.

So what's the worry? This: the Institute's Board wants to wreck all that. New players on the Institute's Board of Directors -- retired Navy flag officers and Board civilians who they've taken in -- are proposing to drop the Institute's stated mission and timeless role as the

"Independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense"

in favor of a new statement saying that the Institute exist to be

"An Independent Forum advocating the necessity of global sea power for national security and economic prosperity."

Rephrased: "Let's forget about the Institute as it has been for 137 years and turn it into a lobbying organization like the Navy League." Now I love the Navy League...and the Air Force Association and the Association of the US Army. But none of these outfits have the depth, credibility, and independent excellence of the Institute. None would let 'gently outspoken' guys like me and serving sailors and officers of all ranks write and publish the sharp criticisms and cranky new ideas that sparkle in Proceedings, driving forward our nation's Navy.

How's this grand scheme playing out? In the naval blogosphere the comments are universally against; I've yet to see anyone in favor. And the community is getting fired up to fire the Board, at least those pushing this harmful initiative. I hope we do show them the door.

I join my fellow officers who urge members of the Naval Institute to vote down the proposed change to the organization's bylaws. And the Board members who dreamed this up? Check six.

The Best Defense

The Caldwell information ops allegations: It's just military office politics gone wild

Over the weekend the estimable Rajiv Chandrasekaran had a good rebuttal piece about the Caldwell info ops situation. Says the complaining lieutenant colonel was a Texas National Guard guy who wasn't used for psyops anyways.

Here's a view from the staff trenches written by a guy who went through his own 15 minutes of fame as an unhappy camper in the U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan. He sees this basically as an instance of office politics in wartime:

By Lawrence Sellin
Best Defense guest columnist

It might be even sillier than you imagined.

Rolling Stone 's Feb. 23 article, "Another runaway general: Army deploys psy-ops on U.S. senators," by Michael Hastings, claims that Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the commander of NATO Training Mission Afghanistan (NTM-A) illegally employed psychological operations to manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war. According to the article, a military cell devoted to what is known as information operations (IO) was repeatedly pressured to target visiting senators and other VIPs who met with Caldwell. When the unit resisted the order, arguing that it violated U.S. laws prohibiting the use of propaganda against American citizens, it was subjected to a campaign of retaliation. Ultimately, Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, the leader of the IO unit, received a potentially career-ending General Officer reprimand.

Here is how it likely happened. 

Holmes and his highly trained four-man IO team arrived in Afghanistan in November 2009. Their mission was to assess the effects of U.S. propaganda on the Taliban and the local Afghan population. A Washington Times editorial asserts that after assuming command of NTM-A, Caldwell stated that he did not need IO assets because he did not conduct IO or psy-ops and reassigned those troops to do other staff work.

There is nothing unusual about that. I did two tours in Afghanistan and both times I was reassigned after arriving in theatre. The first reassignment worked out very well, the second not so well.

Being a highly trained team of professionals, the IO unit undoubtedly wanted to carry out their originally-assigned mission and perhaps balked at being diverted to public affairs duties. There is nothing unusual about that either. Holmes as the unit leader was correct to point out the possible illegality of using IO personal for public affairs. It appears that an Army lawyer supported Holmes' objection and the orders were re-written.

It would have likely all ended at that point, if Caldwell's staff had not initiated an investigation against Holmes and issued the General Officer reprimand. Was he disgruntled? Of course, who wouldn't be? 

In my opinion, the entire Holmes' affair boils down to very poor personnel management by Caldwell's senior staff. A little flexibility and creative staffing could have gone a long way. The entire episode also encapsulates a particularly corrosive military mindset, the compulsive desire to demonstrate progress, where the appearance, rather than the substance of success, is often a satisfactory outcome. 

The dilemma for Caldwell resides less in the politics of Washington, D.C., than in the capability of the force he is responsible for creating, the Afghan Security Forces. It is one thing to train and equip members of an army, it is quite another to lead and sustain them. Without effective logistics, close air support and better leaders, the Afghan Security Forces will likely dissolve in the face of Taliban tenacity as they did last summer in Barg e Matal and Bad Pakh.

Inundated by the news deluge from the psy-ops story was a more serious report by the New York Times headlined "U.S. pulls back in Afghan valley it called vital to war." The US military has begun to pull back most of its forces from the Pech Valley, a remote region in Kunar Province. This follows the American withdrawal from the Korangal Valley last year, from where insurgent attacks into the Pech Valley have increased sharply. Officials say that Afghan units will remain in the Pech as a test of their military readiness. 

The Soviet Army's withdrew from the same area in 1988. Within six months of that withdrawal, the Soviet-backed Afghan Army lost the Pech Valley to the mujahedeen. America's Afghan war appears to be heading down the same road. In the mean time, we can report that progress is being made. We keep getting better at doing the wrong things. 

Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired colonel with 29 years of service in the US Army Reserve. He is a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq and the author of the article "Afghanistan and the Culture of Military Leadership." He can be reached at lawrence.sellin@gmail.com.