Tuesday, January 20, 2015

And Now A Word From Our Sponsors...

I didn't pay much attention to the Robert Scales Atlantic hit piece on the M4 initially. "OMG, teh AR sux!" is kind of the cosmic background radiation of the gunternet and you have to filter it out if you want to pick up any meaningful signals. It wasn't 'til I saw it referenced (favorably, I might add) here that I went and read it.

This led to Facebook discussion about it, and then to one of my 'net friends doing a bit of Googling of Scales' history of editorializing on military topics, and that led to... Well, here, without further ado, let me present the first and maybe only ever guest post at VFTP, because it needs to be read. Take it away, Terence Nelan:
"In the final days of 2014, The Atlantic magazine published an article by Major General Robert H. Scales (retired) which called the U.S. Army's main infantry weapon, the M-4 carbine, "badly flawed."

General Scales begins with President Lincoln and his famous test of the 7-shot Spencer repeater, hoping to show that the right rifle can bring decisive advantage on the battlefield. Skipping a few hundred years, he then blames the finicky M-16 -- the precursor to today's M-4 -- for the death of three of his men in a night attack on his artillery positions at Firebase Berchtesgaden in 1969. This was part of the famous battle for Hamburger Hill.

With his bona-fides thus established, Scales -- sorry, General Scales -- pauses to invoke the troubled F-35 program as an example of military mismanagement, then proceeds to recycle nearly every boneheaded piece of gun-store drivel there is in his attempted indictment of the M-4.

Far more qualified writers than I have taken General Scales' critique of the M-4 apart. Our hostess Tamara Keel delivered an excellent primer and also linked to WeaponsMan's 2-part evisceration of General Scales here and here.  The guys at Firearm Blog got in on the action too

If you need more, you can mine the comments on those articles or wander over to Ballistic Radio's torture test in which an (admittedly expensive) AR-15 fired 20,000 round without cleanings or malfunctions. It shot nice groups, too.

After all that, there's nothing fiskable left of the General's original Atlantic article, but there's still a big question still outstanding:  why? Why did he take every rusted-out half truth, lie, and cliché he could find on the M-4,  and package them as journalism and himself as a Noble Reformer? As Tam herself pointed out, the Atlantic piece results in calls to the Diane Rehm show by well-intentioned listeners wondering  "why our soldiers weren't being given the best guns?"

You can't really blame the editors of The Atlantic, who couldn't tell an M-4 from an harquebus. After all, their chosen illustration for the article was a civilian AR-15, tricked out with a Slidefire stock, which is about as useful on a select-fire rifle as a screen door on the space shuttle.  That leaves General Scales himself. He hasn't commented anywhere that I can find on the substance of his work or his motivation for writing it, but a review of his other recent work provides some clues.

On December 6, 2013, he wrote a rebuttal of Dana Milbank's opinion piece in the WaPo that called for the reinstatement of the draft.  The article is mostly tepid, prosaic stuff, but includes a rather astonishing claim.
"Thus, it should surprise no one that better trained and acculturated German soldiers had a field day killing Americans with great skill in the hedgerows of Normandy."
Setting aside for the moment that the Wehrmacht was also a draftee army, the US actually won the battle of Normandy, and drove the Germans out of the bocage. In fact, it was the Allied  drive deep into France that  pushed desperate German generals into the failed plot to kill Hitler.  It's true that the Allies took heavy casualties, but any army attacking into prepared defenses in the Normandy hedgerows would have been bloodied.

We now start to wonder, will General Scales say anything at all to make his point?

Another article, dated October 8, 2013, is pegged to the Medal of Honor award ceremony for Captain William Swenson, who was ambushed by the Taliban in Kunar Province on Sept 8, 2009 . Scales tells us that he broke down in tears during the ceremony. He believes the ambush and the subsequent US casualties could have been avoided  if "some soldier-saving technologies" had been in the field with Swenson and his unit.

He begins with the cell phone. First he scornfully points out the bulky radio shown in Capt. Swenson's helmet cam video, and asks "Why can’t our fighting men and women have cell phones in combat?"

At this point, it is important to note that General Scales bills himself as an intellectual, a thinker, technologist and a 'military futurist.'

It's astonishing then, that he considers cell phone communications a valid choice for military communications, as they are fragile,  insecure, and utterly unreliable. Does General Scales imagine that the US would set up cell towers all over Afghanistan, and that the Taliban would leave them alone?

Police departments, fire departments, military units, hell, even power companies all use radios because they deliver superior range, security and reliability. Although anyone who has seen Lone Survivor knows that even the radios can fail.

The shopping list that follows is even more bizarre.

Although Captain Swenson did have a helmet cam, General Scales wonders why he didn't have a helmet cam capable of sending live video back to the screens in the operations center. Surely that would have convinced the command authority that Swenson's pleas for supporting artillery were valid?

Maybe General Scales -- although he says he was present at the award ceremony -- didn't hear President Obama say "as he returns fire, Will calls for air support. But his initial requests are denied – Will and his team are too close to the village."

Let's assume for a moment there was no village. What sort of infrastructure does General Scales (military futurist!) imagine is required to wirelessly transmit live video streams from the battlefields of Kunar province to the operations center? How much might that equipment weigh? He does not share this with us, as he's too eager to report that one can buy helmet cams at Walmart. This prompts the question "would you go to war and depend on a helmet cam you bought at Walmart -- even if it could broadcast a video stream?"  We are not favored with an answer.

General Scales goes on to complain that Captain Swenson's unit didn't have any drone coverage. He speculates that "had a drone been overhead the Taliban would never have dared to open fire." Drones are slow, lightly armored, and not particularly maneuverable. That's why they fly so high that they are almost invisible and inaudible to people on the ground. Even if there had been one, the Taliban would never have known it, which is of course, the whole point.

General Scales further suggests that the army should have seen fit to equip Captain Swenson with a "sensor that detected movement or the metabolic presence of humans nearby." The military should have this, because such devices have "been in use by civilian security companies for years." Maybe there's a difference between locking down a warehouse in Passaic, NJ and walking a trail up a mountain in Afghanistan. Maybe this is the sort of distinction that falls away when one becomes a military futurist.

The last of General Scales' articles is a long and passionate argument for the creation of special instruction and curriculum focused on strategy and strategic leadership at the new Army University. AU is an Army initiative intended to "build an education enterprise that brings all schools from basic training to the staff college under single management."

This is the sort of thing that a former head of the Army War College might really groove on. Scales gets right down into the weeds in this lengthy article and puts a big emphasis on the creation of distance learning and the creation of new standardized testing, which he compares to the GRE.  He says that a " key assessment would be a 'GRE'- like test of verbal and writing skills provided perhaps by a civilian testing service like ETS in Princeton."

This sounds pretty innocuous. Scales is recommending a technology solution here, but unlike his blithe suggestion that the Army magically transmit live video across Afghanistan, distance learning in offices is a Real Thing that People Do.

So why make an issue out of it?

Because General Scales was made president and CEO of Walden University  -- a private, for profit institution -- in the year 2000, and  promoted to Senior Vice President of Sylvan Learning Systems in December of 2002.  (Source: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Robert_H._Scales,_Jr.) This is not mentioned in the article.

Suddenly, his enthusiasm for distance learning and civilian testing services seems less selfless. Does he also consult for any other companies that make, say, cell phones, or helmet cams, or rifles?

What else has General Scales been up to?

Back in 2008, he was the president of a consulting company named Colgen, which described itself somewhat immodestly as "America's Premier Landpower Advocate."   The Colgen.net site is no longer available, unless you go dig for it at web.archive.org (Link: https://web.archive.org/web/20120622230733/http://www.colgen.net/products.html).

On the site back in 2008, Colgen's business was to assist "landpower Services in creating future warfighting doctrine and operational concepts" and it "translates these concepts into useful strategies and actions for industry, the media, and the congressional and executive branches of government."
 Colgen's "products targeted to these marketing elements including: media commentary, congressional testimony, advice to the executive branch, published works, seminars and conferences."  [emphasis mine] Colgen's "growing list of satisfied clients" includes defense contractors such as General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin.

Note that Colgen clearly states that published works are a marketing product.

If that weren't enough, General Scales played a minor role in a controversial Pentagon program where former military consultants were given preferential access and briefings with the likely expectation that they'd carry water for the Pentagon during their media appearances. How you feel about that program -- described in great detail here -- probably depends on how you feel about the war.

The program was called "psyops" by its detractors, and after it garnered too much attention, it was quietly closed down. The NYT coverage of the program stated that "most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air. Those business relationships are hardly ever disclosed to the viewers, and sometimes not even to the networks themselves. "

The NYT coverage included an email exchange from 2008 which the Times claimed was an implicit trade of good access for favorable coverage. "Robert H. Scales Jr., a retired Army general and analyst for Fox News and National Public Radio whose consulting company advises several military firms on weapons and tactics used in Iraq, wanted the Pentagon to approve high-level briefings for him inside Iraq in 2006. 'Recall the stuff I did after my last visit," he wrote. 'I will do the same this time.'"

Scales says his email was taken out of context and it just meant he'd continue to do a good job as an analyst and consultant.

Was General Scales caught red-handed trading access for positive spin? He claims he never "drank the Koolaid" and he pointed out that he didn't always agree with the administration, or the other analysts.

Maybe so, but when there's money involved, he seems to agree just often enough."
(We were not the only ones to wonder about advertorials, either.)