Leadership: Why You Cannot Trust Sailors Or Pilots

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March 28, 2012:  One of the many aftereffects of the Arab Spring uprisings was the discovery that many of the dictators overthrown were so corrupt that they allowed relatives and cronies to plunder and greatly weaken the armed forces. Now this is nothing new, it has been going on for thousands of years. One cause of the Arab Spring uprisings was the massive corruption that made life miserable for ordinary people, while making the dictator and his buddies rich and hated. But it was surprising when it was revealed, in detail, just how much corruption there was in the military, which made the armed forces largely ineffective. This was particularly true of the air force and navy, both of which rely on expensive maintenance of complex equipment (ships and warplanes) to be effective. At the same time, it's easy to just keep the aircraft on the ground, the ships tied up at a dock and issue press releases about how powerful the air force and navy are. Friends of the dictator can steal the money provided to maintain, and use, the ships and aircraft. While people in the air force and navy will know the truth, this news does not spread very far because of government control of the media and a scary secret police. This will ensure that this embarrassing information does not cause any problems.

Sometimes the corruption in the armed forces becomes a serious problem for a dictator. This was seen recently in Yemen, where the air force, commanded by a half-brother of dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, went on strike last January to protest the years of corruption. This had rendered most of the 250 aircraft and helicopters inoperable. Air force personnel, especially the troops who maintained the aircraft and the pilots trained to fly them, were angry about how Saleh's brother stole most of the money provided for maintenance and flying. After months of widespread protests against the dictator, the majority of air force personnel organized a strike. This meant that the few bombers and helicopters that could fly were grounded. In effect, the air force ceased operating since January. This was one of many reasons why president Saleh left office in February.

The commander of the Yemen Air Force had, for years, stolen funds meant for maintaining aircraft. To make matters worse, pilots were often ordered to fly the unsafe aircraft, which crashed more and more often. The usual solution to this was to keep aircraft on the ground most of the time. But heavy use of the air force against rebels and al Qaeda in the last year has led to more crashes and, eventually, the strike.

In all countries air force and navy personnel tend to be better educated and more aware of the outside world. They have to be, in order to maintain and operate their highly complex equipment. As a result, dictators usually pay more attention to monitoring air force and navy personnel. This usually means putting more secret police and spies in these services and putting trusted men, usually relatives, in charge. This does not always work and it's been fairly common, in the past, for the air force to be the first among the armed forces to rebel. This often leads to warplanes bombing the presidential palace, something which has almost become a cliché whenever the military gets involved in a rebellion.

Meanwhile, many of the Arab countries that did not rebel have been able to maintain a façade of military competence. Don't be fooled. If you run into an expatriate American or European who has worked for an Arab military organization (usually to take care of maintenance and training) they will tell you, off the record, about all the corruption, lax discipline, and general incompetence that is hidden behind expensive PR and propaganda.

 


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