Have you ever wondered how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on hardware to fight the Empire? Me too. My guess is that those Star Wars guys stole their X-wings when the fecal material hit the breeze maker in their galaxy far, far away. If that's what happened, can you blame them? Shouldn’t capital goods be returned to their owners when an enterprise fails? What if that enterprise is your government?
This narrative is going to be either Exhibit A at my court martial, or one of many stories told about how America's Second Civil War kicked off. One of my history professors once said: "Difficult, but necessary decisions made during a crisis may not yield immediate consequences, or easily recognized benefits, but they had to be made anyway. The men and women who made them made the history we study today."
If I’m helping to make history, I didn’t ask for the job. I’m doing what I believe is right based on the available information and to make a record that absolves my men of any blame. This was my idea. What happened was done under my orders.
It started with a visit by my maintenance chief. I was about to be subjected to a diatribe for the umpteenth time about our logistics problems. I like cranky mechanics. The good ones tend to be perfectionists. And my maintenance chief was a very good and very cranky mechanic. I am, at least right now, the commanding officer of the 190th Fighter Squadron. We fly A-10s. Our squadron is attached to the Idaho Air National Guard’s 124th Fighter Wing, out of Gowen Field near Boise.
"Colonel, I can’t get Logistics Command on the phone. They don’t answer my emails. And the Northwest Military Regional Network servers have been down for some kind of software upgrade for the past 30 days. This is beyond normal levels of crazy. My section leaders are dipping into coffee funds to buy flashlight batteries at Costco. What can we do?"
I asked, "Have you tried your brother over at Hill?" That was Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
"Begging your pardon, sir, he’s not my brother. My sister marrying an Air Force puke doesn’t make that desk-jockey my brother."
My maintenance chief came to my command after serving 20 years as a Marine Aviation wrench. He kept hardware in the air for the Corps and had experience and motivation for meeting the demands of close air support for ground troops. I think he resented that the Marines never got the Warthogs.
He got bored with hunting and fishing the Sawtooth Range in retirement and joined the Air National Guard here in Idaho. The National Guard and Marines use the same rank structure, so he was technically a Master Sergeant. And his interservice rivalry patter was mostly reflexive. I’ve been on the houseboat he and his brother-in-law have up on Lake Cascade. They run fishing camps for "troubled" young boys and girls three times a year up there. His personality is exactly the same when he’s disciplining civilian delinquents and drilling his own troops. Tough, but fair.
It irritated him when I called him "chief," a hold-over from my own naval aviation days. Sergeants in the Navy are chiefs. And don’t get a Marine started on the Navy. Anyway, I guess I got bored with hunting and fishing too. That’s how we both ended up working for the State of Idaho, with hand-me-down military gear from the U.S. Air Force.
He rolled his eyes.
"Chief, the Defense Logistics Agency is literally up the road from Hill, AFB. I've heard Air Force isn’t getting much materiel either. Maybe your brother-in-law has heard something backchannel. Use my personal cell phone and see what you can find out."
I could tell the chief was genuinely frustrated. He took a lot of pride in making sure our Hogs could hoot and holler on demand. Keeping them fed with 30mm Gatling gun rounds, wing ordnance, and JP-8 aviation fuel is what made our A-10s so lovable. It was all they needed. The plane could operate out of airfields that would make a crop-duster nervous, and still be able to spit death and destruction against enemy armor and help out our friendlies on the ground.
But these Warthogs need to be fed. Their pilots have perishable skills that simulators can’t maintain. We already had to stop target practice in the high desert south of Boise. We even had to stop making practice runs because we were running low on fuel. The situation was somewhere between dismal and bleak.
Creative bookkeeping kept a reserve of hog-juice and Gatling ammo on base. Flying hogs are earthbound pigs if they can’t deliver fireworks. I was already worried about having to cough up an explanation at the next command inspection if some bean-counter found out that I was hoarding JP-8 and 30mm rounds. They were easier to hide than pricey specialty missiles, though I had some of those stashed away too.
In a way, this is a very old story. When isn’t the military expected to work miracles with tired old equipment because some new wizbang weapon system sucks out more than its share of money from the Pentagon? That cost-benefit analysis was above my pay grade. But if you ask the ground pounders who take and hold land in a hot war, they'll confirm that the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, affectionately known as the Warthog, has been an excellent return on investment for American taxpayers.
Lately, though, it’s been a struggle to get enough "official" fuel to log the minimum flight hours for my pilots to qualify for flight pay. And my pilots get grumpy when they can’t ride their hogs and get paid for the privilege.
Chief’s call was a bust. "Nothing doing, sir. I got him on the phone. He’s tried his own snooping around and he’s getting the same run-around."
"Sir, It seems like all Air Force units anywhere near the mountain states are hurting. From the Pacific to the Dakotas, supply chains are gone. No spare parts. Everything's rationed. Ordnance is being treated like precious metal. At least out here. I'm not sure about the east coast."
"Colonel, I’ve been around the block a few times. When the pinkos take power and try to cash the peace dividend by closing military bases, they shout it from the rooftops and then squabble about which congresscritter will lose the gravy train in which district. But they eventually go ahead and close bases. This unit has been on the chopping block for years. Everybody knows that. But something else is going on. It’s like our supply chain has been told to ignore us. And not just us."
No argument there.
It was time to use my personal phone to make some calls. Rank has its privileges. At first I didn't understand—still don’t—the Pentagon's new Armed Forces-wide order directing that only base commanders and officers with a rank above O-7 were allowed personal phones on military installations. Military comms were authorized, of course. But bringing a personal cell phone onto a military base after that order could get you kicked out of the service.
Bill was my combat flight instructor a decade or three ago. He was also a top-notch tactical commander with experience. Shots-fired-on-a-battlefield kind of experience. He got himself retired and ended up living near his grandchildren in the hills of western Pennsylvania. It wasn't Idaho, but there were state game lands. And he likes fishing for crappies on Glendale Lake.
I wanted to find out what was happening to Army supply lines, but without going through anyone's chain of command. "Bill, does your son still command that Apache squadron near Tacoma?"
The pause was so long I thought the call got dropped. "He does, or did. He’s been reassigned. Temporary duty in Alabama. What's going on?"
This time I was the one who paused for a moment. "What I’m going to tell you is not classified, not exactly. Just a nervous nelly—me—worrying about unit readiness. My unit."
Bill was curious but wary. "That's what we taxpayers pay you for. You get to worry. I don’t have to anymore. Been there. Done that. Look, if you’d have to kill me after you tell me, that's fine, but the problem is that you're a little far to make a clean kill shot with a rifle, and I’d hate for you maim me. How about I promise to kill myself if I can’t keep the secret? Will that work?"
I laughed. We both knew that there was a difference between make-believe secrecy and legit operational security. Bill knew that I had already decided to take him into my confidence before I placed the call. He was waiting for me to acknowledge that. I did. Then I told him about the belly-aching from my maintenance chief this morning, along with what little else I knew.
Bill's response was not reassuring. "Army is in a pickle too. Those Apaches are in worse shape than you guys. The official story is that JP-8 is being phased out for biological fuel. It's some unholy mix of algae and deep frying oil. Millions for stealth technology and the enemy will find us because our aircraft smell like burnt French fries. The catch, though, is that the old fuel is no longer available. And the new fuel isn't arriving. Those Apaches have been grounded."
I thought for a moment. "That's not surprising. We aren’t being told the cupboard is bare. We’re being ignored. If it were only Idaho, or only Air National Guard, I'd say it's some pencil-pushing screwup. But why would all of these units in our area be gutted across service branches? It doesn't make sense."
Bill sounded uncharacteristically tense. "A bunch of their Apache pilots who grew up in the area were transferred out a few weeks ago," Bill said. "Something about unscheduled training at Fort Rucker. They're being replaced with younger guys from the northeast states. There are jokes about political commissars. It could be nothing. But my son says he's never seen anything like it." Fort Rucker is in Alabama.
"Nate, be careful. This new lot of politicians are particularly vicious. That may not really be new, but the military brass they’ve surrounded themselves with are a pragmatically pliable bunch. They aren’t the type to quietly retire their enemies. They get a thrill out of prosecuting, caging, and humiliating old warriors like you and me."
I agreed, thanked him, and signed off.
More research turned up few useful details. Staff at Idaho Air National Guard HQ knew less than I did. They had responded to a routine query from the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics at Andrews AFB asking about our readiness, and they had reported that our hogs were grounded. I think I may have forgotten to correct them.
Unfortunately our new brigadier general was in Singapore, which had a dozen F-15SG aircraft stationed at Mountain Home Air Force base south of Gowen Field. Uncle Sugar gave the Singapore pilots some training and open space to fly around that they didn't have at home, and in return their government bought expensive planes from McDonnell Douglas. I couldn't reach him, and being on a different continent made it difficult to fly over and buttonhole him in person. Warthogs aren’t exactly trans-Pacific airliners.
A few days later, after another dismal update from the chief, whose temper was not improving with age, I received a call from the 202 area code. It was my friend Mike Peterson.
"Mikey, what up?"
"Nate, sorry, but I've got to cancel my trip," he said. "I already have the tickets booked and everything, but all vacations are canceled starting the second week in December. Looks like we'll have to try for next year." We had planned a hunting trip near the Snake River. Elk season runs through December 31, though you better not mind the cold. I don't, or at least I don't admit it.
I spent a little time in the D.C. area at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. Never liked the place or the people. Somehow Mikey survived there. He met a girl and got hitched, which must have helped.
I met Mikey when I was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base, outside of Spokane. He used to work on the law enforcement side of the U.S. Forest Service. Even back then, Spokane's suburbs were spilling over into the countryside, and you can guess what happened. A Spokane gun range where I made frequent lead deposits was being forced to close its doors because of noise complaints and litigation. They were looking for a new home. The noise complaint argument never really made sense to me. The range had been there since the 1930s, before most of the new residents were born. Who moves next to a gun range and then whines about noise?
Mikey was willing to help the range guys find some land in the Panhandle National Forest. One area had been used as an informal shooting range for years, but it was a mess. It had become a dumping ground for people without enough pride or common sense to clean up after themselves. The eventual deal was a win-win for everyone. Responsible shooters got a spot with lake views and their very own special use permit on National Forest land. The Forest Service got the place cleaned up and were heroes to the locals. Mikey got a promotion out of it.
Now his official title was something like interagency law enforcement liaison, but he drew his pay from ATF. Only in our nation's capital do government agencies need interagency cooperation agreements and personnel to manage that cooperation. At least he was civil service and not a political appointee.
"Sorry you can’t make it," I joked. "I'll try to manage without your sub-standard marksmanship. Barn doors everywhere will be safe." Mikey was a better shot than me, and both of us knew it. "Though you might want to try to get out here before your new and possibly improved president limits us to .22s. At this rate we might be hunting native-American style with obsidian spears and arrows in a few years."
Despite the rhetoric of the 2019 primaries, I hadn't heard any talk about firearm crackdowns since the election. Joe Biden's last-minute promise to protect hunters probably got him Pennsylvania. Like many of us in the military, I thought that the riots, looting, and mayhem, plus the millions of new gun owners, had persuaded our politicians to move on to something else. With the economy struggling and the controversy around Pelosi's Commission on Presidential Capacity, there was a lot going on. Then there was the fuss around Biden and the correct way to invoke the 25th Amendment. It had been interesting to watch Republican politicians try to defend Biden’s mental acuity, but given the Democrats' push for the first woman president, it was probably doomed from the start.
Mike got real serious. "Biden was savvy enough to not push it, or maybe he was a different generation. Harris is different. Word is she has a visceral hatred of any gun in the hands of someone not wearing a government uniform. Trust me on this. I sat in on an interagency task force meeting a few weeks ago where her chief of staff was pounding the table about getting 'something done' on guns."
Before the riots, there was talk about banning semi-automatic rifles, even popular sporting rifles. There was that fathead politician from California who seemed to think that any civil war started could be resolved by using nukes on other Americans. And that guy who ran for senator who promised door-to-door visits by law enforcement to confiscate rifles less powerful than any self-respecting big-game hunter would use. But all of that seemed like ages ago.
"The meeting was at the Old Executive Office Building, in a corner office with a really nice view of the South Lawn," Mikey said. "It was one of those interagency task forces with principals from all of the relevant agencies, you know, the people that get stuff done. No assistants. The chief of staff asked for suggestions on how the administration could ban AR-15 and other 'assault rifles' by executive order. It sounded like the White House counsel's office was OK with the legal niceties. They wanted to know the practical aspects of 'getting assault weapons off the streets'—all hypothetically speaking, of course."
"I told them if the guns really were 'on the street' at least we wouldn’t need warrants. My joke went right over his head."
"Homeland Security and Commerce were wishy-washy," Mikey said. "But the FBI and the top guys at ATF seemed OK with it. I was only there because of my liaison status with FBI and ATF. So I bit the bullet to inject some reality. Besides, I already have enough years in to retire."
"I told 'em that it would not just be difficult, even if you forget the constitutional stuff. Too many rifles in private hands. If even three percent of your targets start shooting back, things'll get bloody fast. And citizens who believe they are defending their God-given rights may not fight fair."
"If the first raids go down that way, good luck finding volunteers for the next round. In the mountain states, sheriffs won't play ball, and might even cooperate with locals. There are Republican governors in Idaho, Utah, Montana. What do you do if those states declare themselves Second Amendment 'sanctuaries?' We’ll be viewed as bad guys. You can call on the military, but they may have a different definition of 'lawful order' than a bunch of White House lawyers. I was more diplomatic when I said it, but that's the gist."
"I half-assed joked that the only way it would work is to have non-Americans doing door-to-door raids to take guns away from Americans. I quipped: 'Maybe you could ask the Chinese Army to help you out.'"
"Nate, I expected a nervous laugh, or slack-jawed stare. But the son-of-a-bitch nodded at me and wrote 'China' and 'PLA' on his legal pad."
"That agenda item ended with the chief of staff and the White House team tabling it, so I thought that rationality prevailed. The discussion moved on to other stuff. I put it down as a trial balloon, but I had that whistling-past-the-graveyard feeling for a few days. Lots of new presidents propose policies in their first few months without enacting them. But my mind’s eye kept seeing that son-of-a-whore write 'China' in the margin of his notes. I wasn’t invited to the next meeting."
I liked Mikey, but there are things you don't talk about on the phone. Especially on a call that was probably coming through an ATF switchboard. Plus I was starting to wonder whether he was going native. It's never a good idea to spend too many years in Washington, and he was showing no signs of wanting to leave.
"Thanks for fighting the good fight back in Washington," I said. "Better you than me. I hope you were able to derail Civil War 2.0. Now I need to get back to tending my Warthogs. Got to keep America safe from invading Mongol hordes driving tanks through road construction traffic on I-84."
We rang off amid promises to reschedule for 2022.
Next call was to my older brother. "Mel. How are you?"
"Nate, good to hear from you. What’s cooking?
"Mel, do you ever drive near that General Electric plant where they make the cannon ammo for my A-10s?"
"Sure. Any reason why you're asking?"
I had changed my mind about sharing my supply-line concerns more broadly. Besides, he was my brother. "I've got a favor to ask. Can you drive by and let me know whether the employee parking lot is full, half-full, or not?"
"Nate, what’s this about? You trying to boost your government pay by taking a flyer on some stock? You know something I don't about the next war brewing?"
I laughed. "Nothing like that. What I'm trying to find out is whether the plant is operating at full capacity, short-shift or all quiet. The reason is that we are having supply issues and getting the runaround from the bean counters at the Pentagon."
"That I can help you with," he said. "I don’t have to make a special trip. I drive by the plant at least once a week to visit Mom at the rest home. Parking lot looks full to capacity. Every time, same thing. Are you sure nothing’s cooking?"
"No, Mel. Nothing’s cooking, I just needed to get some ducks in a row for my meeting with a certain supply officer, that’s all. My best to Mom."
Mel is a good older brother. A rare blood disorder kept him out of the military. He conquered Wall Street instead. The whole family is better off thanks to his financial genius.
Thanks to Mel, the tumblers were falling into place. The bakers are baking the bread, but it isn’t making it to store shelves. Army and Air Force units are being intentionally grounded. Unscheduled "training" is happening outside the northwest and mountain states. Politically reliable commanders are being appointed. And now Mikey's "trial balloon" in D.C.
The report of Mikey’s suicide a few weeks later hit me hard. He didn’t seem the type. Then the press release from the White House a day later was the last tumbler. Time to put Operation Four Winds into operation. I glanced at the calendar: December 8, 2021. Had it really been 80 years? Maybe this is what it's like to feel old.
Operation Four Winds might be the modern equivalent of crossing the Rubicon. It felt odd. I was taking steps to camouflage what I was doing, if anyone was paying attention, but that only helps so much.
"Gentlemen, I want you to consider this briefing Top Secret," I said. I had asked my pilots to bring bathing suits and join me in my indoor pool to provide a cushion for operational security. "There are no electronic signals entering or leaving this building, and that status is being actively monitored by an electronic warfare specialist. You were ordered to leave your cell phone and any electronics equipment home before coming here. I sincerely hope you followed those orders."
"At the conclusion of this briefing, you'll be permitted to make one phone call from the landline in my home office to your wife or significant other. Please inform them that you will be on a training mission for the next two weeks and should expect to be out of touch during that time. You'll be leaving immediately. You may tell them that I have personally guaranteed that this training mission will be no more dangerous than our usual crop-dusting. Don't tell them anything else. Your call to them will be monitored by me."
"The purpose of this exercise is to test whether we can maintain a communication black-out during a real emergency."
"Each of you will be handed an envelope with a written copy of these verbal orders. Please note that the orders are marked Top Secret. Once you leave here, and after you make your call to your family, there will be no further electronic communication of any kind for the duration of the mission. You will board the bus you all took to get here and head straight back to the flight line."
One thing Idaho and Montana have is lots of rural airstrips. Same for Alaska. In remote areas that's the only fast way in and out, especially at certain times of the year. In the flatter areas, lots of big ranches have their own grass strips and hangers. Those were going to come in handy.
Our hogs may be slow and fat, but these porkers were designed to operate in sub-optimal conditions. Treat them real well, and you can even stretch the operational envelope a little bit.
"Gentlemen. Included in these envelopes are the charts with your destinations highlighted. You've flown GPS-denied training sorties before. This will let you practice that technique again. Your plane will have a full combat load with 30mm live ammo and will be fully fueled. Your destination is an airfield somewhere in Idaho or Montana. These are unimproved but adequate landing strips. I've personally inspected them and have landed and taken off from these airfields." My guys had done what were called Red Flag missions before to simulate degraded combat environments without GPS.
"Your tower clearance and runway designation will be handled by your ground crew. Your ground crews have been briefed and they will maintain operation and communications security. Your aircraft radios are temporarily disabled along with all electronic gear that can transmit a signal. Once you get your clearance and runway designation, proceed directly to the destination in your envelope. Maintain an altitude and flight profile that is designed to keep you off of civilian radar as much as possible."
"Land your A-10 at that site. You'll be greeted by the owner of the field who will direct you to a makeshift hanger where you will park your Hog and await further instructions. You will be a guest of the people who greet you for two weeks. Please do not embarrass yourself or me. Many of these ranchers are personal friends of mine. Use the two weeks to rest, meditate, hike, whatever you like."
"If I need to reach you, I'll contact your hosts or send a messenger. If, at the end of two weeks, calculated starting at the hour you landed, you do not receive new orders from me, you will be handed another envelope from your host with instructions on how to re-enable your radio and other comms. Do not attempt to re-enable your radio on your own during the two weeks. If you attempt such a task, my maintenance chief will detect that attempt, and then we can talk about the consequences for disobeying a direct order. Once your radio is working again, proceed back to base. I'll greet you when you land and provide further details about the mission during our debrief."
"This is a simple operational security training mission. All you need to know is that you are getting a two-week paid vacation in our beautiful and stunning mountains, with a comm blackout. Enjoy the scenery. Do not try to use your hosts' phone. Do not try to communicate electronically, or in any other manner, with anyone other than your hosts during this two-week mission. Again, if I need to reach you, I'll call your hosts or send a messenger who you'll recognize."
"The All-Military rule about no personal cell phones while on the clock for Uncle Sam is still in effect. And after I get through with you, if you break this rule, you will be disciplined. The consequences will be severe."
"I will entertain questions about tactics, flight ops, or any ambiguity in your orders." I was surprised that there weren't many, as unusual as my orders were.
Just a few more phone calls to make. Hill AFB has been alerted through my maintenance chief's private backchannel. Bill skipped the birthday party for one of his grandchildren so he could pitch in from Pennsylvania.
If my hunch is wrong, I'll get branded a kook and involuntarily retired for the good of the service. That's the best case. At least it's unlikely that my men will be blamed.
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 7, 2021
Washington, DC—President Kamala Harris today announced a joint military exercise with China that will take place over the next two weeks in the continental United States. The U.S. Navy, Air Force, and select Army units will conduct a simulated mutual defense and assistance exercise with the Chinese Army in the Northern Pacific Ocean, the Pacific Northwest, and the Intermountain West.
"We welcome our friends from the People's Liberation Army on this historic occasion," President Harris said today. "The United States eagerly anticipates this unprecedented opportunity for cooperation toward our joint goals, and we look forward to closer collaboration in the future."
A White House spokeswoman denied unfounded rumors that U.S. Army bases would permanently host units of the People's Liberation Army. The Department of Defense has been directed, however, to invite Chinese observers, their armored vehicles and helicopters, and their logistics support equipment to participate in the exercise at select military installations in Washington, Montana, and Idaho.
"This new era of cooperation between our two great nations fulfills the far-sighted foreign policy initiatives begun by former President Biden before his unfortunate departure for health reasons after a lifetime of government service," Harris said.
Separately, President Harris announced the appointment of former congressman Robert Francis "Beto" O'Rourke as acting head of the new National Law Enforcement Agency, which centralizes vital law enforcement, regulatory, and compliance functions previously performed separately by the FBI and ATF.