TIME Military

Quadruple Threat: Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine, All Rolled Into One

Branched out: From Marine, Soldier, Sailor to U.S. Air Force Airman
Now-Air Force Staff Sgt. Jesus Yanez has also served in the Army, Navy and Marines since 1993. Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez / Department of Defense

Staff sergeant has served in all four branches of the U.S. military

Despite the Pentagon’s nonstop jawboning about joint operations—where the military’s four sister services cooperate to prevail on the battlefield—those with time in uniform will tell you that each service is like a foreign land to the other three.

That makes Staff Sergeant Jesus Yanez, currently manning checkpoints at the biggest U.S. base in Afghanistan, a genuine world traveler.

Since 1993, he has served in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

His skills pay dividends when he’s spending his day off getting pizza or walking around with military colleagues at Bagram air base, just outside Kabul. After his buddies spy an American sailor wearing foreign-looking insignia they don’t understand, the questions begin:

“They ask me, `What rank is that?’ And I’ll say `He’s a petty officer,’ and they ask: `What’s a petty officer?’” referring to the Navy’s non-commissioned officers. “They’ll ask me, `Do you salute warrant officers?’”—those in the Army between enlisted and officers—“and I’m like, `Yes, Army warrant officers get a salute.’”

But military life’s not all about rank. “The food in the Air Force is much better than in the Army, Navy or Marine Corps,” says Yanez, who is in the middle of a five-month tour in Afghanistan with the Air Force—and enjoying every bite. Marine chow, not so much: “You could throw a biscuit into the wall and make a hole through it.” But the Marines, he concedes, score high elsewhere: “Their uniforms are probably the best in the military.”

Yet he says he has learned from each of the services. “In the military, you’re like a family,” Yanez says. “It doesn’t matter what branch you’re in, if something happens to you, everybody’s going to be there for you. And the military gave me an education—I have an associate’s, bachelor’s and a master’s.”

Yanez as a Marine 20 years ago. USMC

Yanez, 39, hails from El Paso, Texas. He served as an active-duty Marine from 1993-97. “They always say the Marine Corps’ boot camp is the hardest one to go through,” he remembers thinking. “In my mind, when I was in high school, I’d think if I could be a Marine, I could do anything.”

He left the corps and spent a couple of years in the civilian world. “After awhile, I missed the military, just in general,” Yanez recalls. The single father of two wanted to stay in El Paso. He was looking for a reserve slot, and checked out, but rejected, the El Paso Marine Reserve unit. “I didn’t want to do artillery,” he says of their specialty.

So he ended up in a nearby Navy Reserve unit. “The Navy Reserve had a master of arms program, which is almost like an MP [military police], and that when I enlisted,” he says. “I wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement.” But Yanez says he found the Navy too informal—“I wasn’t used to the first-name basis at the reserve unit”—especially following his Marine service.

He traded the Navy for the Army in late 2001. “After September 11, I just felt that I needed to go back and do my part for my country,” he says. But he spent time stateside after his new reserve unit already had deployed to Iraq, which Yanez found disappointing. “The opportunity for me to deploy with the Army wasn’t there,” he says. In his reserve service, Yanez generally has drilled one weekend a month, with a two-week block of training annually.

But while working as a civilian Army police officer at El Paso’s Fort Bliss, he heard from Air Force reservists there that they routinely deployed overseas. So in 2006, he joined the Air Force as a member of the Texas Air National Guard’s 204th Security Forces Squadron, and spent part of 2010 in Iraq.

“It sort of just happened, being in all four branches,” Yanez, with the 455th Expeditionary Base Defense Squadron at Bagram, recently told an Air Force public-affairs officer. “I didn’t even think about it until one of my friends mentioned it.” Pentagon officials said Thursday that Yanez’s quad-service heritage is “highly unusual,” but don’t have data detailing just how rare it is.

Yanez doesn’t boast of his unusual military background. “I don’t have any stickers on my vehicle—I don’t even have any tattoos,” he says. But something betrays his past, at least to keen observers. “People always ask me, even though I’m in an Air Force uniform, if I was a Marine,” he says. “Because I still have a high and tight flattop” haircut. “Saves me a lot of money.”

One more thing. Yanez doesn’t want those in the Coast Guard thinking he’s slighting them. Coasties always feel dissed when people talk about the nation’s four military services, because Coast Guard personnel insist they’re the fifth. The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, but can be commanded by the Department of Defense in times of war. “Maybe I’ll get a job with the Coast Guard,” he says, “when I retire.”

TIME Military

Lawyer: Bergdahl ‘Deeply Grateful’ to Obama

Bergdahl Being Treated At U.S. Military Hospital In Germany
Bowe Bergdahl, who was held by the Taliban for nearly five years before being released in May. U.S. Army / Getty Images

Army sergeant held by Taliban believes President’s decision “saved his life,” his attorney Eugene Fidell tells TIME

No one’s heard anything yet from Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the former prisoner-of-war freed in a May 31 swap for five Taliban leaders after nearly five years as a Taliban prisoner. He hasn’t spoken to the press—by all accounts, he hasn’t even spoken to his parents. But, in typical American fashion, he has retained—and spoken to—an attorney.

“Sergeant Bergdahl is deeply grateful to President Obama for having saved his life,” Eugene Fidell, retained a week ago by the soldier, told TIME on Wednesday.

Fidell has traveled to Texas—where Bergdahl has returned to active duty at a desk job in San Antonio following his “re-integration” back into the service—to discuss with his client the investigation into the circumstances leading up to Bergdahl’s abduction in 2009. The attorney declined to offer any insights into Bergdahl’s mood, legal defense, or relationship with his family. Bergdahl also has an Army lawyer.

Eugene Fidell Yale

But Fidell did suggest the case—now being investigated by a two-star Army major general—is more complicated than he originally thought. That’s saying something: Fidell is a prominent military-law expert who lectures at Yale Law School on the topic, and former president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

“Before I was in the case, I was skeptical that the investigation called for a major general,” Fidell says. “I thought that a talented lieutenant colonel would be more than enough horsepower—I thought it was overkill.” Army officials say Major General Kenneth Dahl has yet to interview Bergdahl.

Fidell said he has changed his mind as he has dived into the case. “Based on what I now know about the complexity of the issues, which are in a number of spheres that I’m not going to get into, I understand why the Army thought that a general officer should be involved,” Fidell adds. “I now understand why management thought that it was a good idea to have a two-star officer doing this investigation.”

The lawyer, who has taken the case pro bono—without pay—declined to discuss the specifics that led him to change his mind. But Bergdahl’s case is complex: according to the soldiers with whom he served, Bergdahl simply walked away from his combat outpost in June 2009 before being captured by the Taliban along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Some of those troops have called Bergdahl a deserter, and alleged that fellow soldiers died hunting for him.

Questions also surround the Army’s decision to allow Bergdahl to enlist, two years after he washed out of Coast Guard boot camp after only 26 days. And lawmakers on Capitol Hill have criticized Obama for giving up five senior Taliban leaders for Bergdahl, now 28.

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., told TIME on Tuesday that he doesn’t believe the swap was in the nation’s interest. “We were duty bound to bring him back, but I think we’re duty bound to bring him back in the right way,” said the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness subcommittee. “What other opportunities were there for us to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s release besides releasing these five high-ranking Taliban officials?…we did increase the risk to Americans and American interests by releasing these five.”

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said that Bergdahl is now free to come and go like any other soldier. “He’s free to leave base…he’s not under any particular restrictions,” Kirby said. “And I would remind you, he’s not been charged with anything.”

TIME Military

Navy Nurse Refuses Gitmo Force Feed Order

Guantanamo Hunger Strike
In this photo Nov. 20, 2013 file photo reviewed by the U.S. military, a U.S. Navy nurse stands next to a chair with restraints, used for force-feeding, and a tray displaying nutritional shakes, a tube for feeding through the nose, and lubricants, including a jar of olive oil, during a tour of the detainee hospital at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Charles Dharapak—AP

A detainee described the act as a conscientious objection

A Navy medical officer at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba has refused an order to continue force-feeding hunger-striking prisoners in what one detainee lawyer described as an act of conscientious objection.

“There was a recent instance of a medical provider not willing to carry-out the enteral feeding of a detainee. The matter is in the hands of the individual’s leadership,” a Pentagon spokesperson said in an email. “The service member has been temporarily assigned to alternate duties with no impact to medical support operations.”

It is the first known instance of a U.S. service member rebelling against the Pentagon’s force-feeding policy. An unknown number of the 149 detainees at Guantánamo’s Camp Delta have been on hunger strike for the past year and a half to protest their indefinite detention.

News of the refusal comes to the public by way of an attorney for one of the detainees, who, according to The Miami Herald, says his client described how some time before the Fourth of July a Navy medical nurse suddenly shifted course and refused to continue force-feeding prisoners. The nurse, he said, was abruptly removed from duty at the detention center. The attorney said his client described the nurse’s action as a conscientious objection.

The Herald reports that the prisoner who provided news of the incident described the nurse as a roughly 40-year-old Latino man most likely with the rank of lieutenant in the Navy.

Last year, civilian doctors writing for the New England Journal of Medicine declared that medical professionals taking part in force-feeding was unethical and called the Guantánamo medical staff to refuse to participate.

TIME Military

Building a Better Bullet

DARPA's Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) bullet may be precise, but its artist's rendering of the round is pretty vague.
DARPA's Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) bullet may be precise, but its artist's rendering of the round is pretty vague. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

The Pentagon wants the capability for its snipers, making their goal of "one shot, one kill" even more likely

Accuracy trumps terror every time. For good or for ill, that is why Israeli missiles have killed at least 160 Palestinians, while Palestinian rockets have killed zero Israelis. While killing innocents as well as terrorists, the Israeli strikes are precise. So is its Iron Dome anti-missile system, which appears to be doing a pretty good job destroying Palestinian rockets headed for Israeli population centers. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are left to launch unguided rockets, hoping to get lucky and kill Israelis.

Along the same lines, imagine if you could transform a dumb bullet into a guided missile?

That’s what the Pentagon did earlier this year, successfully firing .50-caliber bullets that steered themselves in mid-flight. It has just released a video trumpeting the tip-top targeting of its Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) program.

“This video shows EXACTO rounds maneuvering in flight to hit targets that are offset from where the sniper rifle is aimed,” the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency says. “EXACTO’s specially designed ammunition and real-time optical guidance system help track and direct projectiles to their targets by compensating for weather, wind, target movement and other factors that could impede successful hits.”

The Pentagon wants the capability for its snipers, making their goal of “one shot, one kill” even more likely. The April 21 test by DARPA contractor Teledyne Scientific & Imaging shows the new bullet homing in on its target by riding a laser beam aimed by the sniper team at the desired target. Vanes on its body—and an onboard optical receiver—allow it to maneuver in mid-flight.

The highly-classified EXACTO program began six years ago. “The ability to more accurately prosecute targets at significantly longer range would provide a dramatic new capability to the U.S. military,” DARPA’S original program description said. “The use of an actively controlled bullet will make it possible to counter environmental effects such as crosswinds and air density, and prosecute both stationary and moving targets while enhancing shooter covertness.”

Such a weapon, DARPA said when it launched the program, could employ “fire and forget” technologies including “fin-stabilized projectiles, spin-stabilized projectiles, internal and/or external aero-actuation control methods, projectile guidance technologies, tamper proofing, small stable power supplies, and advanced sighting, optical resolution and clarity technologies.”

The Pentagon wants the new gun to be no heavier than the combined 46-lb. weight of the current $11,500 M107 sniper rifle and all its associated gear (including ammo, tripod, scope and slide rules for target calculations).

Military sharpshooters require extensive and expensive training—all of which could be reduced with a better gun. Snipers “are unable to take a shot the vast majority of the time” because of wind or other weather factors, and a lack of confidence in their ability to hit the target or flee if detected, DARPA has said.

Then-Army Captain Keith Bell, former commander of the Army sniper school at Fort Benning, Ga., told TIME five years ago that he couldn’t wait to get his hands on the new bullet. “The EXACTO would be revolutionary,” he said from Mosul, Iraq. “It will more than double our range and probably more than double our accuracy.”

Current sniper rifles can regularly hit trucks at 2,000 meters, but not bad guys. (The record kill is 2,430 meters, just over 1.5 miles. It was charted by Canadian army corporal Rob Furlong against a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan’s Shah-i-kot valley during Operation Anaconda in March 2002—but his first two shots missed.) “There’s no limit as far as I can see so long as the bullet’s stable—I think 2,000 or 2,500 meters is very attainable,” Bell said. “Right now, anything past around 800 meters is an extremely tough shot.”

TIME Pentagon

U.S. Stepping Up Scrutiny of China’s Military Moves

Uotsuri Island
This is one of the disputed Senkaku islands, controlled by Japan but sought by China. The U.S. has a treaty obligation to Japan to defend the islands. Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Seeks status quo in region without “containing” Beijing

Sometimes, the delicacies of diplomacies require lying. Or, as the foreign-service set puts it, diplomacy.

“Let me emphasize to you today: the U.S. does not seek to contain China,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday at the two-day China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing.

That was hard to square with the headline atop a story in Thursday’s Financial Times newspaper: Pentagon plans new tactics to deter China in South China Sea. U.S. officials say increased air and sea patrols in the region should be expected as part of President Obama’s “pivot” to the Pacific.

Neither Washington nor Beijing can get all it wants.

“The U.S. has carved out a limited number of steps that it is willing to take to signal the Chinese that the U.S. has an interest in preventing coercion, and in trying to compel a peaceful resolution of disputes,” says Bonnie Glaser, a Chinese military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The U.S. wants to keep playing the key cop in the western Pacific, a beat it has sailed since World War II. It wants to preserve the status quo. Many nations in the region appreciate the U.S. military presence, given their bloody histories with the Middle Kingdom.

But China has made clear it has expansionist aims, as its economy grows and it seeks small islands, reefs and atolls long claimed by Japan, the Philippines and other neighbors. Any one of these claims could spark shooting that could trigger war.

Thomas P.M. Barnett, a former Pentagon official and now the chief analyst at the private Wikistrat intelligence firm, says the U.S. needs to raise the price for such Chinese mischief. “Every great power goes through its reckless `teenage years,’” he says. “Beijing will persist in these 19th century behaviors for some time, but it needs to be educated—as unimperiously as possible—that such tactics come with great costs in the 21st-century interdependencies that define globalization.”

The Obama Administration has been making that clear. “In recent months, China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in Singapore in May. “It has restricted access to Scarborough Reef, put pressure on the long-standing Philippine presence at the Second Thomas Shoal, begun land reclamation activities at multiple locations, and moved an oil rig into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands…we firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert those claims.”

Yet despite Kerry’s claim that “the U.S. does not seek to contain China,” the U.S. has made clear it is willing to go to war to keep China from gaining control of what Japan calls the Senkaku islands, known in China as the Diaoyus. The stakes, in terms of geography, could hardly be smaller: the Senkakus consist of five uninhabited islets and three barren reefs in the East China Sea. But they’re surrounded by waters rich in fish, natural gas and oil.

The Chinese claim Japan stole the islands from them in 1895, based on ancient texts and maps suggesting the islands were theirs; Japan says they were unclaimed by any nation when it took them over. Nationalists in each country insist they belong to their side. Tensions over the islands’ fate have been steadily rising, and spiked in 2012 after Japan’s government bought three of the islands from a Japanese family.

U.S. officials repeatedly stress they have no opinion on the islands’ “ultimate sovereignty.” China is well aware of such American ambiguity. But Hagel said last fall the U.S. is willing to go to war to preserve Tokyo’s control over them: “Since they are under Japan’s administrative control, they fall under United States treaty obligations to Japan.”

Given that U.S. pledge, it may be easier to understand Beijing’s leeriness toward Kerry’s claim the U.S. doesn’t seek to contain China.

TIME Pentagon

U.S. Military Sends Scouting Party Into the Twitterverse

The Twitter Inc. logo is shown with the U.S. flag during the company's IPO on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York
Lucas Jackson—Reuters

Pentagon wants to learn how to mold social media to prevent “adverse outcomes”

The first warriors fought on the ground. Then, someone hollowed out a log and naval warfare began. Aircraft came next, followed by space—and now, cyberspace. So it should come as no surprise that the exploding corner of cyberspace—social media—is the next battleground.

The fog of war now includes rolling clouds of Tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram photos that the Pentagon wants to filter, track and exploit. Enveloping the globe, from friends and foes alike, the torrent of data can serve as an early-warning system of trouble brewing—or a leading indicator of imminent action by a potential troublemaker.

That’s why the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency has spent three years and $35 million, plumbing pixels as part of its Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program. Makes sense that DARPA’s in charge: the agency basically invented the Internet. “Events of strategic as well as tactical importance to our Armed Forces are increasingly taking place in social media space,” DARPA says. “We must, therefore, be aware of these events as they are happening and be in a position to defend ourselves within that space against adverse outcomes.”

Britain’s Guardian newspaper suggested Tuesday that the program might be connected to papers leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden showing “that US and British intelligence agencies have been deeply engaged in planning ways to covertly use social media for purposes of propaganda and deception.”

But Peter W. Singer, a strategist with the independent New America Foundation, sees it more as Defense Department due diligence. It appears to be “a fairly transparent effort, all done in the open, following academic research standards, aiming to understand critical changes in the social, and therefore, emerging battlefield, environment,” Singer says of DARPA’s efforts. “I am not deeply troubled by this—indeed, I would be troubled if we weren’t doing this kind of research to better understand the changing world around us.”

DARPA says researchers have to take steps to ensure that “no personally identifiable information for U.S. participants was collected, stored or created in contravention to federal privacy laws, regulations or DoD policies.” It issued a statement Wednesday declaring it was not involved in the recent Cornell University study of Facebook users, and that the work it has funded “has focused on public Twitter streams visible and accessible to everybody.”

The program’s aims, according to DARPA:

  • Detect, classify, measure and track the (a) formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes), and (b) purposeful or deceptive messaging and misinformation.
  • Recognize persuasion campaign structures and influence operations across social media sites and communities.
  • Identify participants and intent, and measure effects of persuasion campaigns.
  • Counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations.

The goal is to win without firing a shot. The agency cited, without elaboration, an incident that it said occurred solely on social media as an example of what it wants to do:

Rumors about the location of a certain individual began to spread in social media space and calls for storming the rumored location reached a fever pitch. By chance, responsible authorities were monitoring the social media, detected the crisis building, sent out effective messaging to dispel the rumors and averted a physical attack on the rumored location. This was one of the first incidents where a crisis was (1) formed (2) observed and understood in a timely fashion and (3) diffused by timely action, entirely within the social media space.

DARPA’s lengthy research roster (at least those publicly available; there’s no link to IBM’s Early Warning Signals of System Change from Expert Communication Networks, for example) doesn’t detail anything about waging war. It’s all about tapping into those who use social media, how to figure out who their leaders are, and perhaps sway their thinking. Academics and computer scientists, working for major universities and outfits like SentiMetrix (which says its “sentiment engine has been proven to work in predicting election outcomes, conflicts, and stock price fluctuations”) have written more than 100 papers on a wide range of topics:

Cues to Deception in Social Media Communications

Well-crafted deceptive messaging is difficult to detect, a difficulty compounded by the fact that people are generally naïve believers of information that they receive. Through studying modern forms of communication, as that found in social media, we can, though, begin to develop an understanding of how users’ expectations lead them to detect deception and how deception strategies are exhibited through linguistic cues.

The Language that Gets People to Give: Phrases that Predict Success on Kickstarter

Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter—where entrepreneurs and artists look to the internet for funding—have quickly risen to prominence. However, we know very little about the factors driving the “crowd” to take projects to their funding goal. In this paper we explore the factors which lead to successfully funding a crowdfunding project. We study a corpus of 45K crowdfunded projects, analyzing 9M phrases and 59 other variables commonly present on crowdfunding sites. The language used in the project has surprising predictive power— accounting for 58.56% of the variance around successful funding.

Understanding Individual’s Personal Values from Social Media Word Use

The theory of values posits that each person has a set of values, or desirable and trans-situational goals, that motivate their actions. The Basic Human Values, a motivational construct that captures people’s values, have been shown to influence a wide range of human behaviors. In this work, we analyze people’s values and their word use on Reddit, an online social news sharing community. Through conducting surveys and analyzing text contributions of 799 Reddit users, we identify and interpret categories of words that are indicative of user’s value orientations.

The Digital Evolution of Occupy Wall Street

We examine the temporal evolution of digital communication activity relating to the American anti-capitalist movement Occupy Wall Street. Using a high-volume sample from the microblogging site Twitter, we investigate changes in Occupy participant engagement, interests, and social connectivity over a fifteen month period…the Occupy movement tended to elicit participation from a set of highly interconnected users with pre-existing interests in domestic politics and foreign social movements. These users, while highly vocal in the months immediately following the birth of the movement, appear to have lost interest in Occupy related communication over the remainder of the study period.

A Computational Approach to Politeness with Application to Social Factors

We use our framework to study the relationship between politeness and social power, showing that polite Wikipedia editors are more likely to achieve high status through elections, but, once elevated, they become less polite.

If it seems difficult to discern a pattern here, that’s because the agency engages in basic research. It only builds the tools that others will use to build the next war (or disinformation) machine. There’s no telling which of these reports—if any—contains a glimmer of military utility. The only way to find out is to continue such research until it yields a breakthrough, or until the Pentagon goes broke.

 

TIME Military

Pentagon Grounds Entire F-35 Fleet

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A U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, taxis in to its new home with the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Stocktrek Images—Getty Images/Stocktrek Images

After runway fire at Florida air base

The Department of Defense grounded the United States’ entire fleet of F-35 fighter jets after a fire at Eglin Air Base in Florida raised questions about the safety of the aircraft, officials said Thursday.

The cause of the June 23 runway fire, which occurred as a pilot was preparing for takeoff, remains under investigation, the Pentagon said. The pilot was not hurt in the incident.

“Additional inspections of F-35 engines have been ordered, and return to flight will be determined based on inspection results and analysis of engineering data,” the Pentagon said in a statement late Thursday.

With a price tag of $400 billion, the single-seater F-35 fighter jet is the single most expensive weapon ever built. The program has been plagued by cost overruns and scheduling delays.

TIME Pentagon

The $100 Billion Helicopter Dogfight

The AVX entry in the Pentagon's $100 billion chopper competition. AVX

The original story of David and Goliath took place on the ground, and involved five smooth stones. But there’s a new airborne version of that ancient Biblical tale involving a pair of Davids battling three Goliaths—and a chance to land up to $100 billion in Pentagon business.

It’s all because the Army is looking to revamp its helicopter fleet over the coming decades, replacing thousands of its trusted UH-60 Black Hawk and AH-64 Apache choppers with something that can fly heavier, faster and further: the trifecta of flight. The industry heavyweights—Bell Helicopter and a Boeing-Sikorsky team—are in the running.

But so are two pipsqueaks: AVX Aircraft and Karem Aircraft.

While Karem is offering a tilt-rotor design like the Bell-Boeing V-22 now being flown by the Marines, AVX’s entry is what’s called a compound coaxial helicopter. It has a pair of rotors spinning in opposite directions atop its carbon-fiber fuselage to lift it, and two ducted-fans at its rear end to push it.

The Army wants its next-gen chopper to be able to fly 265 mph (426 kph), 50% faster than a Black Hawk, and to travel 2,100 miles (3,400 km) from California to Hawaii on its own. And to be able to make that flight autonomously—with no pilot at the controls.

Both of the rotorcraft whippersnappers are run by aircraft heavyweights: AVX’s come from Bell, while Abe Karem is the engineer responsible for the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones, being built by another company.

These small bidders consist only of a relative handful of engineers and have no experience producing manned aircraft. But they seem to think of themselves more as designers and integrators who would buy the components they need from others, and perhaps team with a major partner for final assembly.

The U.S. military has upgraded its existing helicopter fleet for decades, but there is only so much improvement that can be bolted onto Reagan-era airframes. “We’ve never had the opportunity to start over fresh across [the Department of Defense] to bring a new fleet to bear that takes innovation into account,” the Army’s Dan Bailey said at a Tuesday briefing on the program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Army wants to buy up to 4,000 of the choppers beginning in the mid-2030s. It plans to narrow the four contenders down to perhaps two in about a month. If the Army scratches AVX and/or Karem from the program, they could team up with—or be bought by—one of the winners.

“It is thrilling to see how new ideas broad by a startup aircraft company, few people ever heard before, will stack-up against the arrogance of the U.S. defense establishment,” DefenceTalk.com said of AVX. “Competition cleans out inefficiency and incompetence, and the U.S. defense establishment is in need of it.”

There’s betting inside defense circles that the upstarts have scant chance against the combined clout and experience of Bell, Boeing and Sikorsky.

Of course, that’s how Chrysler, Ford and General Motors felt about newcomer Tesla, before Consumer Reports rated its battery-powered Model S the best car of the year in February.

TIME Military

Iraq Reinforcements: Return of the ‘5 O’Clock Follies’?

A U.S. AH-64 Apache helicopter fires a missile during a live fire gunnery exercise with the South Korean army at the U.S. army's Rodriguez range in Pocheon
AH-64 Apache helicopters like this one arrived in Baghdad on Sunday. Jo Yong hak / Reuters

Evolving U.S. troop numbers raise questions about "mission creep"

Was it fair to tweet the Pentagon announcement late Monday afternoon that 200 more U.S. troops are headed for Iraq — bringing the total there about 750 — as the “5:34 O’Clock Follies”?

That’s a reference to the infamous “5 O’Clock Follies” conducted by the U.S. military in Ho Chi Minh City’s Rex Hotel during the Vietnam War. It was where the Pentagon’s local spokesmen offered up enemy body counts and other data suggesting that the U.S. was winning the war in Southeast Asia. “Early in the US phase of the war, the principal daily US press briefing became known among US newsmen as the ‘5 O’Clock Follies,’” a 1979 Army study said. “Nothing the best of the public affairs officers could do could ‘sell’ what the majority of the press had decided was a bad or at least a suspect policy.”

The term has become shorthand for the messy business of trying to sell war: a natural desire to try to put the best gloss on imprecise numbers, impossible to nail down as the situation on the ground evolves. But the Pentagon can contribute to that narrative by appearing to play “catch up” with what’s happening on the ground. That’s always a problem when the enemy appears to be succeeding, especially after the Pentagon pulled all of its forces out in 2011 (there’s a fair amount of debate over whether a residual U.S. force could have been left behind if the U.S. had pressed harder … and if President Obama hadn’t been so eager to leave).

The phrase has been popping up since Obama’s June 19 announcement that he’d ordered up to 300 U.S. troops to Iraq to advise the military of U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki amid the pounding it was taking from the rebels of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

But there’s a lot more going on, as the Pentagon explained Tuesday:

  • An initial 270 U.S. troops were ordered to Iraq on June 16; 170 of them arrived in the country that day.
  • In a June 26 letter to Congress, the President ordered up to 300 advisers to Iraq; 180 were there within 24 hours, divided between those advising the Iraqis and those setting up a command post.
  • On Monday, the Pentagon ordered 200 more troops to Iraq, along with AH-64 Apache helicopters, primarily to defend U.S. personnel already there. All arrived in Iraq within a day.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. had 650 of a total of 770 newly authorized military personnel on Iraqi soil. There also are about 100 additional U.S. troops who were already in Iraq working on arms sales and military cooperation.

The dribbling out of deployments makes the situation on the ground appear grim. Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, declined to say on Tuesday if al-Maliki’s forces have gained the upper hand against ISIS.

He disputed any notion that the U.S. is getting sucked into an expanding role. “There’s no mission creep because the missions have been clearly defined from almost the outset,” he said. “The situation on the ground continues to change. It’s very fluid. It’s dynamic.”

But Kirby also declined to put a ceiling on the ultimate number of U.S. troops the expanding Iraq mission might require. Obama “said he was going to send up to 300 for an assess and advisory mission … and before that, it was up to 275 for static security assistance, and then he added another 200,” Kirby said. “Is there a grand total? No.”

The Commander in Chief, he said, “needs to have the freedom to make those decisions as he and the military commanders and the civilian leadership here in the Pentagon advise him to.”

TIME Military

Pentagon Sending a Message to Iraq by Dragging Its Boots

US Fighters patrol the No Fly Zone over Iraq
A heavily armed U.S. F-16 patrols the "no-fly" zone over northern Iraq in 1998. USAF / Vincent A. Parker / Getty Images

Slow-motion U.S. reaction is designed to push Baghdad to compromise

During the first lull—1991 to 2003—in the now-23-year-old Iraq war, U.S. war planes would routinely destroy missile sites operated by Saddam Hussein’s forces if American pilots deemed them threatening.

Now that the U.S. is amid a second lull, since pulling its forces out in 2011, it has adapted a different strategy. While it’s flying 30 or more manned and unmanned airplanes daily over Iraq to chart the progress of the rebels belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, as they bulldoze across western Iraq and threaten Baghdad, the U.S. has numbed its trigger finger.

“No truth to rumors in media today that US drones struck [ISIS] targets in Iraq,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, tweeted to his 27,000 followers mid-day Tuesday.

What’s going on here?

It’s simple: the U.S. military generally “sends messages” by attacking. Now it is sending messages by not attacking. And its target this time around isn’t the enemy, but its purported ally running the country.

While the Pentagon officially denies it, the U.S, government is dragging its feet when it comes to defending Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki’s government in Iraq. This Goldilocks approach surfaced at Tuesday’s Pentagon briefing, where Kirby said ISIS is a “legitimate threat to Baghdad,” and said the first 90 U.S. troops have arrived in the Iraqi capital to set up a command post and figure out how the U.S. might be able to help. President Obama said Thursday that as many as 300 advisers could end up in Iraq offering intelligence and guidance to the Iraqi security forces trying to defeat ISIS.

“This is a measured, deliberate approach to help us and [the Iraqi government] get better eyes on the situation,” Kirby said. “This isn’t about making assistance and advice hinge purely and solely on political gains.”

But Kirby described a Pentagon that is in no rush to save the Iraqi capital:

The teams will begin their assessments immediately and provide their findings through the chain of command within the next two to three weeks…we continue to fly routine and regular ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] missions over Iraq to the tune of about 30 to 35 flights per day to help us gain better insight about the security situation on the ground. This continued effort will no doubt aid our assessment teams as they begin their important work…then we’ll make decisions, follow-on decisions, about the second joint operations center in northern Iraq at a later date…Right now we’re sort of in the assessment phase, and standing up the joint operations center is a key part of that. Eventually we’ll move to, you know, a more active advise-and-assist phase.

Washington is trying to hit the sweet spot: promise to deliver enough help in the form of air strikes and on-the-ground advisers to preserve Maliki’s government, but make sure it arrives slowly enough that he feels compelled to compromise with the Sunnis and Kurds who are now tearing the country apart.

It’s a gamble, for both Obama and Maliki.

It isn’t clear yet whose side time is on. The final U.S. troops left South Vietnam on Mar. 29, 1973. Saigon fell to North Vietnam, and South Vietnam ceased to exist, 762 days later, after the U.S. Congress refused to pay for additional fighting. It has been 919 days since the last U.S. troops stationed in Iraq, to wage the war that started with the 2003 invasion, headed for home.

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