War is different these days

By Ray Sullivan

For two days last week, 25 civilians from this area were given a whirlwind glimpse of how war is fought today. We saw how breathtakingly complex it is and will be. And we were reminded of how deadly simple it always has been: Kill first, kill often and you win.
Our visit to Air Force facilities in Colorado Springs and Las Vegas, Nev., involved 24 New Mexicans and a Texan. Leading us on this “Civic Leader Tour” was the commanding officer of Cannon Air Force Base’s 27th Fighter Wing, Col. John Posner and several of his staff. The big-picture purpose was to show us how air warfare is developed and used to protect us and our communities before, during, after and in between wars.
More important to me, having been a Marine for three years back in the 1960s, was the personal pictures of our warriors and what they do for Americans and the world. No military force is perfect, just as no business or other human enterprise is. But we saw how our military strives for perfection. It means freedom for us and less dying for them.
Last Tuesday and Wednesday, when the generals’ stars were flying and the war birds were plentiful (and both were impressive), we saw that America is in good hands overall.
I don’t write that because I was blinded by the stars’ glitter. Humans in authority don’t impress me easily. But we heard from two generals, Ed Eberhart and Steve Wood, whose capabilities were evident from their first words to their last. I could follow either man into combat, maybe even walk point again, if I still had the mobility of my youth.
Any military’s first job is to win wars. Warriors learn how in realistic, repeated training missions. In combat’s ever-present fog and fear and speed, efficiency and accuracy often equal victory and living longer. Luck is a factor, but knowing how to fight creates luck.
On this trip, Eberhart, Wood and their staff officers spoke not just of the big picture but the small ones their people encounter as they perform the exacting technical tasks required to win battles, silence the battlefields and end the bloodshed.
Our Colorado Springs tours involved the interlocking air and space defense missions inside Cheyenne Mountain, home of NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command; and at Peterson AFB’s NORTHCOM, U.S. Northern Command. Gen. Eberhart commands there.
A neophyte forward air controller during Vietnam, this tall, silver-haired four-star exudes leadership. His answers to our questions went beyond what many senior officers can voice and they helped us know what that meant to — and required of — a lone warrior of any rank in his command.
NORAD is a 50-plus-years-old joint command of the U.S. and Canada that is responsible for aerospace attack warnings and defense. NORTHCOM was formed after 9-11 to run the Defense Department’s homeland defense work and to lead military efforts tied to civilian needs, particularly in times of domestic disasters and drug-busting operations.
Our Las Vegas stops at sprawling Nellis AFB gave us a snapshot of its famed Air Warfare Center, begun 38 years ago; a familiarization tour of the Thunderbirds’ headquarters/hangar; and an up-close look at the oldest and newest war birds, including the Predator unmanned air vehicle. Heading all this up is Maj. Gen. Steve Wood. You could sense that his gregarious and witty style had helped develop the loyalty clearly given to him by his commanders and enlisted people.
The trip gave us civilians and, I believe, our 27th Fighter Wing hosts the chance to see how Cannon and its people fit into the big picture explained in briefing after briefing. How our airspace here and over at Melrose ties in to the bigger airspace needs of our newest combat jets became clearer to me.
The big picture is pieced together in layers, from satellite images and reconnaissance aircraft pictures and on-the-ground intelligence. From it, the leaders develop tactics and battle plans later shared with the pilots and crews of hundreds of aircraft and ground troop commanders. At Nellis and in Colorado Springs, they practice those plans repeatedly, with new and inexperienced people. They do so in simulated and real training spaces that appear amazingly large and clear on maps, but which become quickly crowded and deadly in real time.
As enriching as it was to hear and see in our many briefings how practice and plans are perfected, meeting those who do the grunt work on flight lines and in cockpits generated the most inspiration for me and others.
They sure get to use great toys, of course, including the Air Force’s newest, the F-22 fighter. Well into the next half of this century, the F-22 is sure to protect our families with stealth and lethality unimaginable when the Wright Brothers first soared off the ground under engine power nearly 101 years ago.
Then there is the Predator, the first unmanned aerial vehicle of significance in American history. As pilots note, it is a robotic vehicle, not a pilot-less craft. Crews in Afghanistan and Iraq put the birds in the air and land them, but pilots sitting in buildings at Nellis actually fly the missions and guide ordnance to hit within a few feet of the targets.
For old grunts like me, who were happy when their M-16 didn’t jam and the napalm and bombs hit the enemy and not us, that’s near impossible to fathom. I was privileged to fly a Predator trainer simulation on a takeoff and landing, and am happy to report the tires bounced a couple of times on landing but I didn’t crash.
That aside, my favorite craft weren’t the F-22 or the Predator, or even the great F-16 we fly here at Cannon. I most enjoyed seeing an A-10 “Warthog” and a Pavehawk helicopter and meeting their crews. I have long admired the Warthog for its tank-killing and close-air support capabilities; like the B-52, it is one bad dude even after decades in the air.
The Pavehawk drops and retrieves special operations combat teams and rescues downed pilots in bad country. It reminded me of a few chopper flights of my own in Vietnam, in birds that certainly were slower and whose M-60 machine guns and rockets were no match for the Pavehawk’s modern rockets and miniguns. But the crews’ role is similar: They go where groundpounders fight and live and die. So these men and women hold special places in my heart.
When we arrived home in our spacious C-17 cargo jet Wednesday night, just after the thunderstorm that drenched the area, we assessed the trip’s value. As we sang for the third or fourth time of the day to honor Col. Posner on his 46th birthday, we knew the bigger picture was much clearer. The singing told us that so too were the personal ones.