Friday, July 28, 2017

USMC Order of Battle: How it's Budgeted

Second Battalion, First Marines Supply Section
I joined the Marines when I was a naive teenager. I didn't know an officer from an enlisted person and I had no idea of how the military operated. Of course, I began learning all that on Parris Island. But, it wasn't until nearly ten years later, when I was a supply and fiscal officer for an infantry battalion (1/9 and 2/1) where I learned how military budgets worked. One supply chief I worked with used to tell me, "Sir, just take last year's budget and add 10%." While that was a great estimate, I still had to submit detailed calculations to support our budget requests.

Order of Battle

In our infantry battalion, we had close to 1,000 people, nearly all Marines except for about 70 U.S. Navy personnel for medical and religious support. Unlike the other services of the U.S. Armed Forces, every Marine is a combatant, so the Navy would support us with non-combat specialties. (There is one case that comes to mind of when a Marine would be considered a non-combatant and that's if they are captured and classified as prisoner of war.)

The Marine Corps likes to organize maneuver elements into groups of three:
Three Marines form a fireteam (plus a fireteam leader).
Three fireteams form a squad.
Three squads form a platoon.
Three platoons form a company.
Three companies form a battalion.
Three battalions form a regiment.
Three regiments form a division.

In practice, each unit requires leadership and support. A squad has a squad leader. A platoon has platoon commander, a platoon sergeant, and a guide (the guide marches at the front of the platoon carrying the guidon). The larger the unit, the more leadership and support is required.

Our infantry battalion had the typical five companies. Three were line companies used as maneuver elements, meaning that they'd engage in combat as a single unit on the front lines. The other two companies were support units. One was the weapons company, which is a maneuver support unit that provides organic fire support to the three line companies. The weapons company wouldn't see action as an entire company. Rather, they'd be split up into smaller elements (detachments) and attached to the line companies (as reinforcements) with their crew-served weapons (weapons requiring more than one person to operate such as a heavy machine gun or mortar).

Supply Support

H&S Company organizational chart (c. 2017)
As a supply officer, I was a part of the other support unit, Headquarters and Service Company (H&S). This company is where the commanding officer and his staff, which I was a part of, were organized. Supply officers are sometimes referred to as secondary staff officers since they usually report to the logistics officer who was considered primary staff. (For details on staff work see #Leading vs Staff Work.)

As a supply officer, I typically had one to two dozen Marines reporting up to me. On the battlefield, moving supplies around requires coordination via a trained logistics expert. Whereas, on a ship in the Navy the reverse is typically the case; a naval supply officer oversees logistics operations since it's not as challenging to move supplies from one part of a ship to another.

In addition to the commanding officer's staff and the supply section that I previously mentioned, an H&S company is also comprised of communications, motor transport, maintenance, armory, and cook sections that are administrative or technical. H&S does have one tactical unit, the scout sniper platoon, used for organic reconnaissance and engaging select targets.

The beauty of the Marine Corps is that every Marine's a rifleman. So, it's fairly common for cooks or communications Marines to go on patrol or be used to provide security around a base.

So, how is all of this budgeted and paid for?

Paying for War

As a second lieutenant, I learned, on the job, how budgets work but my knowledge was limited to the scope of my experiences.

There are two basic forms of military budgeting that I was involved with. Baseline budgeting, for training during peacetime, and contingency budgeting for wartime.

Contingency Budgeting

4th LAR Supply Section
Contingency budgeting is simple. Simply buy what you need, regardless of cost. It's like throwing out the checkbook register. Since it's war, money is not a big concern, especially at the battalion level. I experienced this when I served with 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion (4th LAR) after their return from the "March to Baghdad" in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. We simply ordered all the repair parts we needed to refit our battalion. I don't recall how much that totaled, but the division headquarters was keen to let us know that we ran up the highest bill of any other unit in 4th Marine Division. But, that was expected since we were the only "heavy" (mechanized) battalion that was entirely mobilized from the Marine Corp Reserves.

Baseline Budgeting

Baseline budgeting is a bit more tedious than contingency budgeting since we had to figure out how much our training was going to cost, ahead of time. Luckily, we had the Redbook. The Redbook is a manual of cost factors used to "cost out" training events. There is a lot of paperwork involved when repairing anything in the military, and for a good reason. Maintenance Marines typically don't realize it when they're filling out the repair forms, but the paperwork they submit captures specific details of the maintenance costs for every item repaired, from an M-16 to a tank. All of these costs are captures and averaged across the First Marine Division. The Redbook would give me, as the supply and fiscal officer, a reference to know that, on average, for every day an M-16 is used, we should plan to spend 2¢ on maintenance (not counting the ammunition) or for each day an M-1 Abrams tank is used it would cost $185.

With the Redbook, I would simply layout our peacetime training plan and figure out which units and equipment would participate in each event. Unfortunately, I had create the spreadsheets from scratch and keypunch the data, myself; this would typically take about ten days to complete. Luckily, I didn't have to budget for payroll and food since that was a fixed cost managed by the Marine Corps, at the highest level (there's no overtime in the military). Ammunition was budgeted for in terms of numbers of rounds, but not dollars, so that, too, wasn't a concern of mine.

Although baseline budgeting was tedious, it was a rewarding document to send up the chain of command. If we were short funds, we had hard data to make our case for additional money. Since Marines change billets every two to four years, most everyone is new to their current job position, including the commanding officer. Presenting this level of detail to my commanding officers made them keenly aware, if they were asked to participate in an unscheduled exercise or task force, that their first question should always be, "Who's paying for this?" Even in the Marines, it was pay-to-play. Semper Fi.

Monday, July 24, 2017

How Not to Answer a Press Question

Erik Prince: Founder of Blackwater
This morning, I heard an NPR interview, "Blackwater Founder Backs Outsourcing Afghan War-Fighting to Contractors," with Erik Prince. Although Prince quit the Naval Academy, I completely respect his reason: He loved the Navy but disliked the Academy. I also had thoughts about quitting the Academy to return to the Fleet as a corporal. It's an oppressive place where we joked that all of your human rights were taken away and slowly returned to you over the course of four years, and called privileges. The fact that Prince went on to earn a commission, became a Navy SEAL, and is now a multi-billionaire earns my respect as a professional.

In this morning's interview he sounded like he had a well-thought-out solution to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. He wasn't the most eloquent speaker, but that's OK since eloquence can sometimes be fluff that makes a bad idea sound good.

Prince's solution to the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan seemed viable until the last question, "Does your company... want any part of this business?" It was a simple yes or no question and he tried to be deceitful while speaking the truth in his convoluted answer (answered in a style that he probably would not accept from one of his operators). He wasn't deceitful on his facts or opinions, rather he was deceitful as to the motivation for his idea. There are times when it's OK to lie or be deceitful, but this wasn't one of them. His answer sounded more like a politician. Great politicians are some of the the smartest people, in the context in which they operate. A typical politician will take the question they are asked and not directly answer it – instead, they answer the question which they wished they had been asked. This is called spin, which, at it's most extreme, is the ability to highlight the truth in a lie, or the lie in a truth.

The problem with Prince's answer to the final NPR question was that he was caught off guard, without a prepared answer, and threw out some distractions; all of which were facts describing what kind of work his company, Frontier Resource Group, does and what he wants for his sons. His first response to the question was so off-topic that the NPR interviewer had to re-ask the question, specifically pinning him down and making him appear to lose credibility on this topic. The last word he spoke was, "Absolutely." That should have been the first word he spoke.

This is how the final question should have been answered...
NPR: "Does your company... want any part of this business [in Afghanistan]?"
Prince: Absolutely! I want our company, Frontier Resource Group, which excels at the logistical support needed in Afghanistan, to be a part of a better and cheaper solution to save money and lives. Especially as a taxpayer and as a father of sons, I don't want my sons going abroad into what has been a poorly conducted war, so far.

Sure, it's easy for me write this blog post after I've had time to think about it and tweak my words to say exactly what I want to convey. However, his answer might go deeper into the personality of a person, whom I've never met; it might be a tell that he'll dodge an unpleasant truth by burying it under facts and emotions. But, I could be wrong.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Me, Apple, and the Marines

Podcast interview: I’m always excited to talk about Apple, WebObjects, my time in the Marines, and working with Guy Kawasaki, Dave Winer, and It's Borrowed:

TMO Background Mode Interview with the CTO of It’s Borrowed Joe Moreno

Too Much Security at USAA

Click to enlarge the USAA mobile app security steps.
Typically, security is a tradeoff with convenience. But, it doesn't have to be. However, it's far too easy for lazy companies to fall back on poor user experience by citing security or some other limitation while pointing fingers. One thing I love about companies like Apple is that they're fantastic at handholding a customer through a support issue, even if it's beyond their area of responsibility.

I've been a USAA member for 25 years. USAA began in the early 1920s as the United States Automobile Association offering insurance to military officers. About 20 years ago, the company expanded their services to enlisted service members and also offers insurance to other federal special agents. In 2009, USAA was one of the first companies to allow consumers to deposit checks by taking a photo of a check via a mobile app. One of the problems I've encountered with their mobile app is authentication.

The USAA mobile app utilizes a Quick Logon and Touch ID as a means of authentication. Instead of entering my password, the app can scan my fingerprint much like my Schwab mobile app. But, unlike my Schwab mobile app, it seems that when my USAA app is updated, I must re-enter my username, password, PIN, and then answer a security question. After that's completed, I have to re-enable Touch ID.

Here are the steps to enable these features...

Quick Logon
1. Enter Logon and password.
2. Enter ATM PIN.
3. Answer security question.

Hurray, I'm logged in and I can deposit a check, view my balance, download insurance documents, etc. Next step is to re-enable Touch ID.

Touch ID
4. Tap your profile image to get to your profile.
5. Tap Settings and Profile.
6. Enter your mobile phone number to receive a temporary passcode via SMS text message.
7. Enter the temporary passcode.
8. Activate Touch ID by tapping the Activate button.
9. Check the box to confirm finger print consent.
10. Tap View Document (PDF) to read the USAA Fingerprint Consent form.
11. Click the final button to activate Touch ID.

Hurray, the "You've successfully enrolled in Touch ID" message confirms that you can logon using your fingerprint until the app is updated. Yes, that is a huge pain to do every couple months, or so.

But wait, there's more. I contacted USAA via Twitter about this issue. As you can see from their reply, they said, "Yes and thanks for the update. Please reach out to tech support at: 877-632-3002 They are able to troubleshoot and provide help."

Calling USAA Tech Support

I called USAA tech support. "We’re currently experiencing a high number of calls. You may have to wait longer than normal," was the recorded message that I heard. Whenever I hear that plain vanilla (sometimes default) message I know that less-than-stellar customer service awaits me. A few minutes later a CSR picked up and I explained the issue. She told me that she'd have to escalate the issue to their web support team. After a couple more minutes of "We’re currently experiencing a high number of calls. You may have to wait longer than normal," another CSR picked up. I told her that I was transferred to her and asked her if she had been briefed on my issue. Unlike Schwab customer service which does a warm handoff, she had not been briefed; so I quickly explained the issue. She told me that I should delete the app and reinstall it. She added, since I was on an iPhone, that I'd have to uninstall the app from iCloud, too. Uninstall the app from iCloud? Now this was something I never heard of, before.

"How do I uninstall the app from iCloud?" I asked.

"Unfortunately, we're not trained in how to uninstall an app from iCloud," she responded.

I suddenly felt like I was talking to Microsoft tech support hearing the typical uninstall and reinstall instructions and "Oh, that's not my problem" deflection.

So, I asked if I did that, then would I still need to reauthenticate Quick Logon and authorize Touch ID. She said, once I uninstalled the app, deleted it from iCloud, and reinstalled the app, that I'd need to re-setup my Quick Logon and biometrics (Touch ID). So, my unasked question, to myself, was, "What problem did we just solve by deleting the app from my iPhone, iCloud (I still don't know what that meant), and reinstalling it?" But I realized, at this point, that asking would be fruitless since USAA CSR training is not up to par, much like their mobile app UX.

Is this blog post complaining, on my part? Yes, it sure is. But I'm hoping that it's coming across as constructively suggesting what USAA can do to improve their customer service for their military members and veterans. With a little luck their UX will be similar to Schwab.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Benefits Before Features

Steve Jobs: And then they tried "Got Milk..."
On this day in 1804, the Vice President of United States mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton in a duel in New Jersey (on the same spot where Hamilton's son was also killed in a duel, three years earlier).

Fast forward to 1993 when the first "Got Milk" commercial aired about the duel.

Four years later, Steve Jobs referred to this successful commercial when launching the "Think Different" ad campaign since it was about brand and benefits, not features.