Morale: Left Behind

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October 8, 2007: The U.S. Department of Defense is moving quickly to use the Internet as a way to keep from sending lots of support troops overseas. Military units these days use computer networks, lots of flat screen displays and satellite links. This last feature allows a lot of "reach back" capability. That means many support jobs can be performed by troops back in the United States, as the commanders "reach back" via satellite link to communicate. Thus, rather than having some administrative functions performed by troops in a tent, or ship compartment a few feet away from you, the clerks are back in the United States, keeping the field units even smaller and easier to move and set up.

There are some problems, however. You lose a certain amount of unit spirit. U.S. Air Force UAV units, for example, only send the UAV maintenance personnel overseas with the aircraft. The UAV pilots and sensor operators, as well as lot of administrative staff, stay back in the states. Everyone keeps in touch via Internet like communications. The irony of the ground crews living in rougher, and more dangerous, conditions, than the pilots, took some getting used to.

The navy is particularly eager to get people off ships. That leaves more room (and high morale) for the people left. The navy is transferring most payroll and personnel staff to shore based facilities. More administrative jobs are to follow. The people so moved no longer really belong to the ships "company," even though some, technically, still do. You are either at sea with the ship, or you ain't.

Marines are particularly unhappy with this "reach back" stuff. Marines are eager about getting into the fight. Moreover, marines or soldiers so separated from their units, begin to feel they aren't exactly part of the unit. The trend is to make these "reach back" detachments part of larger "support" entities, and skip any pretending that some members of the units stayed behind. This causes some awkward situations because, in the past, when troops had problems with some administrative matter, they could see a person in their unit who could take care of it. Now it's some stranger on the other end of the phone or Internet connection. And before long, some of these functions will be outsourced to civilian firms. Then the perplexed will be dealing with someone in India, just like the rest of us. Well, I suppose it will all work out.

But "reach back" will save billions of dollars a year, and make military units more nimble. More of the people being dispatched overseas will be fighters, not support. That makes a big difference.

 


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