Up From Nifty Nugget

Aug. 29, 2008

The United States finally seems to be rounding into shape to mobilize, if need be, for war. Pentagon officials who plan for mobilization officials who plan for mobilization are hardly overconfident, though. The myriad dimensions of assembling and deploying immense measures of manpower and material on very short notice, under stress, are enough to daunt the senses and preclude perfection. Shortages of supplies, bottlenecks of production, logjams of logistics, and confusions of communications still threaten. But it is clear that the US has come a long way n the past five years.

That time frame is germane. In October 1978, the US conducted its first full-scale simulated mobilization exercise in many years. Called Nifty Nugget, it was a twenty-one-day marathon involving twenty-four military commands and thirty civilian agencies in an attempt to reinforce US combat units in Europe. It might better have been called Fool’s Gold for the fiasco it was. Its lesson was inescapable: The US was simply not prepared to sustain combat in Europe. Line outfits would have gone begging for lack of backup. Something had to be done about that. Now, to all appearances, a great deal has been done.

Substantial Progress

“We’ve made substantial progress since then,” Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger told Air Force Magazine. “There has always been a mobilization plan – who does what and goes where. Now we have, in addition to the plan, the means of carrying it out. Our units are combat-ready, our spare parts and ammunition situations are much better. None of that translates automatically into mobilization capability. But if you don’t have it – if you don’t have readiness – then you can’t mobilize. If you do, you can.”

Fred C. Iklé, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Chairman of the Defense Department’s Military Mobilization Steering Group, is also upbeat, with caveats. “We’re doing better,” Iklé affirms. “We have a good team working on mobilization. Things have improved quite a bit in the Air Force, for example, with respect to airlift capacity, mobility, and spare parts. But we haven’t moved as fast as we’d hoped, and we still have quite a way to go.”

After Nifty Nugget, there was no way to go but up. That exercise should stand forever as the mobilization model for Murphy’s Law. Almost anything that could have gone wrong did. It laid bare, as one high-ranking DoD official recalls, “an awful lot that was wrong – terrible mismatches between our deployment requirements and our ability to manage them, no central mechanism for implementation and coordination of policy.”

Yet the exercise ranks high, historically, among national blessings in disguised. From not-so-Nifty Nugget have come some nifty developments. It influenced the executive branch and Congress to stop taking mobilization for granted and to start tending to its prerequisites. Thus it led directly to draft registration; a realistic look at—and remedial actions for—the dwindling defense industrial base; much greater attention to airlift, sealift, and military readiness across the board; and the scheduling of biennial mobilization exercises to pinpoint problems recurrent or new.

All such developments were driven, too, by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the taking of US hostages in Iran, both in 1979. The Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force came into being to protect US interests in that part of the world, and its creation sharply underscored the need for much more airlift and sealift. However, Nifty Nugget had already spotlighted US airlift and sealift shortfalls, not only with regard to reinforcing NATO, but also in the context of war in Europe probably spreading to Southwest Asia, or the Far East, as well.

That is why Nifty Nugget gets the main credit in Air Force circles for having justified the panoply of USAF airlift and air mobility programs—C-141 stretch, C-5A wing modification, C-5B development, KC-135 reengining, and KC-10 procurement. “Nifty Nugget,” asserts an Air Force officer, “conveyed the importance of those programs to OSD civilians and Congress. It gave us great political leverage.” Adds another officer: “The military had known for a long time that there were big shortcomings in mobilization capability. Nifty Nugget brought them home to the civilian sector of the government. It woke some sleeping giants.”

Airlift and Other Deficiencies

Well it might have. The nitty-gritty of Nifty Nugget remains classified. But Pentagon officials confirm reports that US airlift incapacity was a major reason for its grisly outcome. The paper-cum-computers JCS exercise (no troops or supplies actually moved) postulated that US line units in Europe – many of them under-strength to begin with – be reinforced by some 400,000 men, 350,000 tons of ammunition, and what not, from heavy weapons to medical supplies, from CONUS. Much of all that never got there. What did arrive was expended in a war that was lost, hypothetically, because of too little, too late.

USAF officials acknowledged afterward that in order to have ferried all the outsize equipment destined for the battlefronts via airlift, Military Airlift Command would have needed maybe ten times its seventy-seven C-5As. Spare parts for the Galaxys were found to be in surprisingly short supply in Europe, contributing greatly to poor turnaround performance. The airlift part of the exercise, all of a piece with the rest of it, suffered from foul-ups of logistics coordination as well.

Addressing the airlift dilemma, a June 1980 Defense Department postmortem report on Nifty Nugget said:

“Nifty Nugget highlighted … problems with strategic airlift. For example, when plans for several [geographical] regions had to be implemented simultaneously, aircraft had to be reallocated. Collectively, these plans called for many more aircraft than could be made available. …

“A strategic airlift shortfall was apparent, even after MAC was augmented by Reserve Component crews and by US commercial aircraft drawn from the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF). Further exacerbating the problem is a current shortage of spare aircraft engines and other maintenance items, which are needed to maintain the MAC fleet at the high rate of usage, assumed in the [US mobilization] plans. There is also a significant shortage of the materials handling equipment required for efficient aircraft loading.”

The DoD report also noted that Nifty Nugget’s airlift capacity “was reduced by the unplanned need to return aero-medical evacuation equipment. A lack of adequate intheater medical treatment forced the evacuation of many casualties who should have received their entire car there. … For every three-evacuation missions to CONUS, on aircraft was required to return aero-medical kits to Europe. After all available kits had been used, many patients were evacuated in aircraft configured for inflight medical care but lacking galleys, latrines, and airline seats.”

Such are the shambles of war, even when run on computers. But there was a great deal more to be discerned in the rubble of Nifty Nugget. As related by the report, in summary:

Inadequacies of ships and ports for taking on cargo in CONUS and offloading it in Europe; haphazard liaison among DoD’s three Transportation Operating Agencies (TOAs)—MAC, Military Sealift Command, and Military Traffic Management Command; civilian agencies “not prepared for a Nifty Nugget emergency” because they had regarded mobilization cavalierly and knew too little about its demands; and ditto for the military service secretariats and the OSD staff.

Moreover, said the report, emergency authorities given to DoD and the civil agencies were “neither comprehensive nor balanced,” and could not be implemented, in any event, short of a declaration of national emergency. “No comprehensive nor balanced,” and could not be implemented, in any event, short of a declaration of national emergency. “No comprehensive document describes all the options available for executive action,” and “the President does not have balanced authorities to mobilize manpower.” Lacking a Selective Service registration system, there was no way to draft civilians quickly or, indeed, at all. Furthermore, no one seemed to have any idea of how a quick-fix draft or call-up of reserves would affect the labor market, vital industries, and the nation’s economy.

Problems with the labor market and the industrial base had begun coming to the fore in Petite Nugget, a week-long exercise immediately predating the onset of Nifty Nugget. It examined industry’s ability to tool up and amass long-lead items for wartime surge production. That ability simply wasn’t there.

Industry,” declared the DoD report, “probably cannot provide additional new equipment during the early months of a short-warning conflict. We concluded that industry response to DoD’s needs was slow, and that sizable expenditures would have to be obligated in peace-time to speed it up.”

There was a bright side. USAF Gen. David C. Jones, then the JCS Chairman, expressed it the was: “We learned many valuable lessons by exercising the system in a no-fault [meaning no one gets fired for failure] climate,” Jones said, “We have a much better appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of our national mobilization apparatus, and a clearer understanding of where to focus our efforts for further improvement.”

The First Fixes

The first steps on the long road to rectification were creation of the DoD Mobilization Deployment Steering Group under Iklé’s predecessor, Robert W. Komer, and the Joint Deployment Agency as an arm of the Joint Staff. The MDSG went right to work on a new Master Mobilization Plan; the JDA, on integrating the plans of all three TOAs into a single transportation management system called the Joint Deployment System. Its main function was to match MTMC’s movements of military units and material to embarkation air bases and seaports with MAC and MSC schedules for departures and arrivals of airlifters and sealifters. Such coordination is so crucial to the success of mobilization that many Pentagon officials single out the JDS as, in the words of one, “our most important heritage from Nifty Nugget.”

The same can be said, on the civilian side of the government, for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Created in 1979, FEMA has much broader jurisdiction and greater power than had its predecessor, the Federal Emergency Preparedness Agency. It is structured to be the action agent of the White House in time of crisis. Its first assignment, in concert with the National Security Council, was to put together a Federal Master Mobilization Plan – the first of its kind in more than twenty years – for expeditious reference by all hands, from the President on down.

Proud Spirit

All such innovations were scarcely in place when, in November 1980. US mobilization prowess was put to another test. This second JCS-DoD exercise was called Proud Spirit 80; the REMA exercise, Rex Bravo 80. They lasted thirteen around-the-clock days. Once again, the scenario was one of heightening tension in Europe. But the 1980 exercises put less pressure on the system. For example, they did not embody simulated combat in Europe, only a crisis atmosphere. Nor, obviously, did they raise the specter of a European war spreading into another region. The mobilization gamers wee given other breathers too.

Proud Spirit was conceived in the assumption that most US civilians in Europe had come home in an orderly manner at the onset of tensions. This arbitrary setup let the Proud Spirit mobilizers give the slip to one of Nifty Nugget’s most horrendous happenings – the hurry-up, helter-skelter evacuation of nearly 1,000,000 US civilians from Europe, and their arrival, en masse, at US air bases already laboring under logistical duress.

Given such relaxation of rules and conditions in the 1980 exercises, their results were difficult to assess in comparison to those of Nifty Nugget. But it is fair to call them disappointing. While there were some improvements of logistics, personnel, and coordination, problems of amassing and staging manpower and supplies seemed almost as profound. For example, according to one report, M-16 rifles were in such short supply, and so inflexible of pace in US production, that Proud Spirit’s procurement managers considered ordering them from a plant in South Korea. It wasn’t necessary only because there was no “war.”

Proud Spirit was also fraught with problems peculiarly its own. One featured a computer in the World-Wide Military Command and Control System (WWMCCS). Under the crush of military commanders’ questions about the readiness or whereabouts of a wide range of units, the computer sidetracked such queries into its storage “buffer” to await retrieval after the rush hour. But it took twelve hours for the computer technicians to call up the information, which meanwhile had become yesterday’s news. What’s more, the WWMCCS network perpetuated Nifty Nugget-type mix-ups in synchronizing the simulated availability of airlifters and their loads at US bases.

Withal, the Pentagon considered Proud Spirit a plus; if for no reason other than the practice it provided the players. Shortly after it ended. Defense Secretary Harold Brown reported that “it verified the validity of many of the remedial actions undertaken as a result of Nifty Nugget,” and “highlighted some additional areas in which improvements are needed.”

“The Joint Deployment Agency’s ability to manage deployment planning and execution is an improvement over [that of] our previous, fragmented system,” Brown declared. “Although we have considerable work yet to do—especially in automated support systems—we are headed in the right direction.”

Brown appears to have been correct. Reagan Administration officials are enthusiastic about the Joint Deployment System for having “straightened out,” says one, “the airlift and sealift coordination problems of Nifty Nugget and Proud Spirit.” He adds: “Those kinds of problems are behind us now. We are confident we can manage what we’ve got. We can maximize our lift assets, our manpower, and our matériel.”

The main reason for such mounting confidence is, by all accounts, the gelling of the JDS. But in broader context, the Reagan Administration’s attitude and actions clearly have a lot to do with it. The Administration has elevated mobilization to four-star status among national security priorities. As Secretary Weinberger noted in his Fiscal Year 1984 posture statement early this year: “This Administration places great importance on creating a capability to respond, with appropriate military measures, to a set of geographically dispersed, simultaneous emergencies.”

Proud Saber

Therein lies the key to Proud Saber 82 and Rex Bravo 82, the military-civilian mobilization exercises conducted in tandem through ten days of November 1982. “Global crisis” was their game. They came off, from all that can be gleaned about them, very well indeed. At a post-exercise briefing, a senior Pentagon official offered the conclusion that “we’re in a markedly better position for a major mobilization and deployment of forces.” Among other things, Proud Saber showed “very extensive improvements” in rallying Reserve and Guard units, and in the ability of the Pentagon’s civilian mobilization hierarchs to “man their battle stations.”

DoD and the JCS had invited the services to lend flesh-and-blood flavor to Proud Saber by carrying out, simultaneously, real-life mobilization exercises on their own. All did. The Air Force exercise, called “USAF Special Project–Proud Saber,” was devised by the Exercise Branch of the USAF operations directorate under Maj. Gen. Robert D. Beckel at the Pentagon. Its stated purpose was to “examine and evaluate USAF capabilities to conduct combined, simultaneous mobilization/mobility operations during a crisis” and “USAF ability to receive, process, and support Air Reserve units as they reported and were placed on active duty.”

It was some workout. It involved people-moving, aircraft-flying, cargo-loading, equipment-repairing, communications, and security operations at air bases from Florida to California and overseas. All told, 882 passengers and thirty-four tons of cargo were airlifted in thirteen MAC missions. Ten MAJCOMs and eight SOAs convened full battle staffs, and got with it as wing and squadron levels. All 452 USAF Reserve and most Air National Guard units had roles. Active, Reserve, and Guard units took part at eighteen CNUS bases, four USAFE bases, and on PACAF base.

Air Force Logistics Command at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, was the cynosure. But a great deal of the action took place or originated at Kelly AFB, Tex., because of its extraordinarily rich combination of MAJCOM, Reserve, and Guard units, including logistics and communications outfits, a MAC Reserve squadron, and a Guard fighter squadron. A Red Horse (Heavy Engineering Unit) construction team was ferried from Kelly to Tyndall AFB, Fla., and then convoyed to Hurlburt Field, Fla., to repair runway simulating combat damage. Other highlights:

• Ten Combat Logistic Repair Teams, an air-transportable clinic, and ad a Prime Beef cargo handling team deployed to Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz.

• Teams from all Air Logistics Centers repaired six F-101s and eight F-105s that had been hot up, on the ground, with 23-mm ammo.

• At Robins AFB, Ga., a SAC Aircraft Reconstitution Team loaded eleven tractor-trailers with equipment to support B-52 base operations, and went off on a ten-mile convoy.

• A total of 250 Air Training Command Security Police were convoyed from Laughlin AFB, Tex., to Kelly, processed, and redeployed by air.

• The Army at Fort Sill, Okla., convoyed more than 600 troops and fifty tracked vehicles, including 155-mm howitzers and Lance missile launchers, ninety-plus miles to Tinker AFB, Okla., for static loading aboard twenty-seven C-141s and five C-5As. Within thirty-six hours, all the troops and 940 tons of equipment had been stowed aboard. Moreover, elements of a Fort Sill helicopter battalion flew to Tinker and were processed for airlifting.

All the time, the air Force Manpower and Personnel Center, and Reserve Personnel Center were computer-deep into Proud Saber.

Enhancing Industrial Surge

Now the Air Force is laying plans to do in every future JCS mobilization exercise just what it did in correlation with Proud Saber, but with variations. “We look at it,” says an air Force officer involved in exercise planning, “as the JCS throwing a party, and inviting us to come.” He adds: “We made our part of Proud Saber as realistic as we possibly could. It really tested our go-to-war capability. We think we did well, and we expect to get even better.”

From the Defense Department’s standpoint, not all was rosy, however, in Proud Saber. In generalities, Secretary Weinberger acknowledged nagging deficiencies of logistics and equipment stockage. Furthermore, said he, “We will require a much greater effort… to enhance our [industrial] surge and conversion capabilities.”

On that score, much has been happening. For example, one of the Administration’s first moves was to set up the Defense Department Industrial Task Force under Iklé. Working with contractors to transform “surge” from a dirty word to a byword in mobilization, it has come up with a novel “rolling inventory” approach to surge production.

To get around industrial base bottlenecks at subcontractor levels – for such long-lead items as machined metal parts and castings – the task force proposed providing the Pentagon’s prime weapon system contractors with additional upfront funding. They would spend it on components and the sub-assemblies, in quantities commensurate with predictable wartime production-surge demands on their systems.

It would be a one-time expenditure. The selected prime contractors would buy, all at once, maybe twice as much as they would normally need for a year of peacetime production. Then they would return to normal buys in each of the following years, and roll their reserve inventories ahead each year. If they had not used up their surge backup supplies by the final year of their production runs, they would simply not buy any more for that year’s production, and would use up their inventory instead. Meanwhile, the dollar value of the inventoried materials would have appreciated.

The Administration has asked Congress to approve rolling-inventory appropriations for some weapons procurement programs in Fiscal 1984. For the sake of stabilizing the defense industrial base, it is also dual-sourcing major weapon systems wherever possible, and is giving high priority to multiyear contracting, as in the F-16 program.

The Total-Force Look

In several other areas, too, the Administration is extrapolating from lessons learned, and changes made, during the post-Nifty Nugget Carter years. Selective Service registration now is a fait accompli, and Congress has given permission to call up 100,000 reservists instead of 50,000 prior to declaration of a national emergency. Accordingly, the Defense Department has honed its Wartime Manpower Planning System (WARMAPS) into a much quicker, more effective instrument.

Out of Proud Spirit came the Emergency Mobilization Preparedness Board. Now under William P. Clark, the President’s National Security Advisor, The EMPB has set up twelve mobilization working groups throughout the government. The Defense Department is a member of ten of those groups, and chairs two.

At the Pentagon, there has been a noticeable invigoration of the Mobilization and Deployment Steering Group under Iklé. Composed of high-ranking representatives of OSD, the JCS, and the military departments, this group has been instrumental in the Administration’s planning for “conflict on a global scale,” as Weinberger described it in his posture statement this year. Such planning is necessary, he claims, because It just might happen – and if it does, the Administration must know, beforehand, what kinds and sizes of forces would be needed to fight it, and “the demands that expanding our force structure would make on the nation’s economy and resources.”

In keeping with this, says one Defense Department mobilization planner, “We’ve transitioned into a total-force look. The scope and realism of our exercises will increase. We’re much more sophisticated now, and as the mobilization system becomes better under stress, we’ll stress it more, in different ways.”

Just how far have we come since Nifty Nugget? “If we had to mobilize for war tomorrow, we would have to work hard at it and have some luck,” this official says. “But I now believe we could hack It.”

About the Author

James W. Canan has been Defense Correspondent for Business Week since 1966, and prior to that worked for the Gannett Newspaper chain. Born in New Castle, Pa., he received his A.B degree from Westminster College, New Wilmington, Pa., and attended the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Mr. Canan is the author of two books—The Superwarriors (published by Weybright and Talley) and War in Space (Harper & Row). He will join the staff of Air Force Magazine as a Senior Editor this month.