Monday, May 25, 2009
An old soldier's bittersweet last laugh
The last few years of my military service in the National Guard were difficult to say the least with me pretty much just going through the motions until I retired in 2005 with twenty-one years of service. I had long since been surpassed by young, ambitious types far better able to endure the demands put on both civilian life and jobs that I honestly believe the National Guard viewed as secondary and detrimental to the overall mission. What pained me the most was that the young ambitious types often viewed us “old timers” as dinosaurs and irrelevant to the evolving and faster paced National Guard. For the longest time I sort of shared that view just glad that I was able to jump off that evolving and faster paced train and fade away into civilian oblivion. That is until now, but I will need to explain the back story for it all to fit together.
This story began on a typical Saturday morning during a weekend National Guard drill a few years before I retired. I had been promoted to Staff Sergeant pretty much by accident the year before but I was outranked by time in grade by two other Staff Sergeants (E-6 ) and a Sergeant First Class who were my platoon sergeant. What I mean by being outranked by “time in grade” is that those guys had received their staff sergeant rank before me so on the hypothetical totem pole they were higher than me and could order me around. The kicker was that I had far more time in service than them and the guy who was now my platoon sergeant. In simpler terms what this means was that I had already enlisted and was wearing the uniform while they were still popping zits and worried about a date for the senior prom. The explanation for that is a confusing mess. I was in an over strength unit for too many years without a chance for promotion. There was also the fact that I didn't want not to piss my civilian boss off by going to the required two week summer camp and then the mandatory army development schools required for promotion. The nasty little thing National Guard recruitment commericals avoid telling is that while American patriotism is a nice sentiment shared by many, the actual depth of that commitment is often very shallow. And I'll be honest by this point I had a textbook case of burnout and I simply wasn't in the mood to play the hyper-motivated game any longer and kiss higher ranking ass.
Staff Sergeant Mike Ward, one of the young studs, did not have any of those concerns and in fact relished his National Guard duties to a near fanatical level that often irritated the living shit out of me but since he outranked me, I had to deal with his zeal. One such time was over a class on the army Global Positioning System receiver and his belief that the GPS was untouchable and completely permanent making other methods of land navigation obsolete. Ward loved to make a huge production out of his classes and came to them in a perfectly pressed Battle Dress Uniform (more commonly just called BDU’s) and boots spit shined to the point they could be used as mirrors. His presentation and confidence in the knowledge of the material would have sent most army leadership instructors into orgasm.
The class that showed how old and obsolete I was dealt with how to operate and use the army GPS hand receiver to both locate your position on a map successfully and use it to navigate across terrain. Being a non-commissioned officer myself I was able to sit back and observe without being required to say much which suited me fine. All the lower enlisted sat close to Ward both in complete and fearful attention. Now giving Ward his due the class was to the point and did not digress into other subjects not relevant to the overall Global Positioning System and its use in the field.
Somehow I had either missed the GPS class in my active army years or the system had not been established enough for there to be a class at all. Nevertheless, I found myself fairly involved and interested in Ward’s class and wondering about a point that at least to me seemed material to the subject. During my active army years land navigation had involved the use of a lensatic compass, a map, understanding terrain features, and using a pace count to keep track of the distance a person can walk. The GPS receiver, with the use of the GPS satellites in orbit, could pinpoint a person’s position within a few meters seemly eliminating most of the techniques I had been taught. Therefore, when a question section of the class started despite my well groomed soon-to-be-retired indifference I raised my hand to settle a point in my mind.
“Sergeant Ward”, I began showing respect, “what allowances are being made if the GPS system is destroyed by either weapons or electronic-counter measures?” My point was that Russia had anti-satellite weapons and China, despite a heavy amount of self-righteous posturing, was reported to be heavily researching and developing its own anti-satellite weapon system. However, the look on Ward’s face shown through with a nice amount of puzzlement and condescension over what I thought was at least a plausible inquiry.
“Well Sergeant”, stressing the pronunciation of my rank like it was a question itself, “I’m sure such a possibility has been taken into consideration by authority much higher than either of us and suitable measures were begun to assure continued use of the GPS in the most dire of times.”
Sergeant Ward’s long winded response touched the line of disrespect just enough to cause a smattering of giggles from the collection of younger hot shots both in the very junior NCO and enlisted ranks. Instead of getting mad my cynical attitude reasserted itself and I graciously smiled and thought to myself that Ward should go do something anatomically impossible to himself. Truly it would have been a losing battle for me right from the start to challenge him. Ward was in the clique with the first sergeant, company commander, and even the battalion commander grooming him for far greater things. For the same senior leadership I was a known quantity who had long since burned out on the “dog and pony show” and was just trying to get my retirement paperwork processed without any unusual situations arising.
After thinking it over I almost convinced myself that Ward was probably right. However in the end I figured with my approaching retirement whatever the answer was that pompous bastard would be someone else’s problem. So, despite putting the subject behind me I had a very good laugh recently after reading the following article:
It has become one of the staples of modern, hi-tech life: using satellite navigation tools built into your car or mobile phone to find your way from A to B. But experts have warned that the system may be close to breakdown.
US government officials are concerned that the quality of the Global Positioning System (GPS) could begin to deteriorate as early as next year, resulting in regular blackouts and failures – or even dishing out inaccurate directions to millions of people worldwide.
The warning centres on the network of GPS satellites that constantly orbit the planet and beam signals back to the ground that help pinpoint your position on the Earth's surface.
The satellites are overseen by the US Air Force, which has maintained the GPS network since the early 1990s. According to a study by the US government accountability office (GAO), mismanagement and a lack of investment means that some of the crucial GPS satellites could begin to fail as early as next year.
"It is uncertain whether the Air Force will be able to acquire new satellites in time to maintain current GPS service without interruption," said the report, presented to Congress. "If not, some military operations and some civilian users could be adversely affected."
The report says that Air Force officials have failed to execute the necessary steps to keep the system running smoothly.
Although it is currently spending nearly $2bn (£1.3bn) to bring the 20-year-old system up to date, the GAO – which is the equivalent of Britain's National Audit Office – says that delays and overspending are putting the entire system in jeopardy.
"In recent years, the Air Force has struggled to successfully build GPS satellites within cost and schedule goals," said the report. "It encountered significant technical problems … [and] struggled with a different contractor."
The first replacement GPS satellite was due to launch at the beginning of 2007, but has been delayed several times and is now scheduled to go into orbit in November this year – almost three years late.
The impact on ordinary users could be significant, with millions of satnav users potential victims of bad directions or failed services. There would also be similar side effects on the military, which uses GPS for mapping, reconnaissance and for tracking hostile targets.
Some suggest that it could also have an impact on the proliferation of so-called location applications on mobile handsets – just as applications on the iPhone and other GPS-enabled smartphones are starting to get more popular.
Tom Coates, the head of Yahoo's Fire Eagle system – which lets users share their location data from their mobile – said he was sceptical that US officials would let the system fall into total disrepair because it was important to so many people and companies.
"I'd be surprised if anyone in the US government was actually OK with letting it fail – it's too useful," he told the Guardian.
"It sounds like something that could be very serious in a whole range of areas if it were to actually happen. It probably wouldn't damage many locative services applications now, but potentially it would retard their development and mainstreaming if it were to come to pass."
The failings of GPS could also play into the hands of other countries – including opening the door to Galileo, the European-funded attempt to rival America's satellite navigation system, which is scheduled to start rolling out later next year.
Russia, India and China have developed their own satellite navigation technologies that are currently being expanded.
Making this last laugh of mine even more bittersweet to the extreme my friend Sergeant Ward marched himself, with a good bit of help from his higher ranking benefactors, off to Officer Candidate School and the last time I saw him was on the fast track to his army captain's bars. I just hope his mind is a little more open to what might be out there ready to bite him, or his troops. on the ass.