Analysis Military

Ramrod — If you’re born to be hanged, then you’ll never be drowned.

There are going to be hundreds of novels and memories written about Afghanistan in the coming years. Most will come from former military members, a few will be penned by diplomats, fewer still by professional correspondents. But the interesting ones are going to come from contractors. The reason for that has to do with the absolute insanity associated with the business of military contracting. It is impossible to make up stories that come close to the situations contractors find themselves in on a routine basis.

Imagine you are a former United States Air Force helicopter pilot hired by an Afghan company to supervise a contract that provides helicopters to NATO forces in Afghanistan. You are wedged into a fold down navigators’ seat on an ancient MI-8 Soviet-era helicopter because the pilots cannot speak English. Nor could they navigate to the many different FOBs seeded throughout southern Afghanistan.

The lead pilot has a considerable amount of alcohol in his blood stream, the build and attitude of Conan the Barbarian, and is wearing bathroom slippers and a bathrobe. He ignores your navigation inputs and misses a difficult landing zone, hitting the ground hard on a downward slope well short of the LZ. He lets the helicopter (the MI-8 is big bird) slide down the cliff he just plowed into and hits the disk brakes just before the tail rotors make contact with the boulders at the bottom, pushes the tachometer well into the red, lifts off and barley makes it over the lip of the LZ. He then says, “We land now…” and lands, gets out and stands to the side of the LZ while the bird is unloaded, calmly smoking a cigarette.

How did a former U.S. Air Force pilot end up in that situation? What are former Soviets flying ancient helicopters doing, transporting NATO equipment and personnel around the battlefield? The new book Ramrod, written by Steven Athanas, answers those question.

Steven is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and a pilot, which means he has a large, deep well of dark humor. Pilots are like that. Humor is a weapon employed by those who deal in the currency of trauma. I’ve been an EMT in the civilian world, a grunt in the military, and have a graduate’s degree in dark humor. But I know from professional experience, that pilots are, by far, the funniest subgroup of the trauma merchant trade. Steven Athanas does his tribe proud, because his book is every bit as humorous as it is alarming.

I say alarming because, when you read Ramrod and get past the humor, the story he is telling is beyond bizarre. It is just one small facet of the consequences we in the West have to face for the complete and total strategic failure of the ruling class in both Europe and North America. They have set up large militaries that are designed to fight other nation-state uniformed defense forces using firepower and attrition. When inserted into remote countries with poor infrastructure they responded by setting up bases far and wide that needed to be resupplied. Resupply by road was costing them in the loss of personnel and equipment to roadside IEDs and direct fire ambushes. The answer to that dilemma was to resupply all garrisons by air, but they lacked the aircraft to do that… so they started hiring contractors.

The lowest, technically acceptable bid won these multi-million-dollar contracts and many of those companies failed to perform and were terminated. Others could not obtain the number of airframes they said they would and, after a few months of servicing the contract with less than half the airframes they were paid to provide, were fired. Even the most conscientious American firms who were able to fulfill the correct number of aircraft and English speaking pilots still struggled to keep flying in the harsh conditions of southern Afghanistan. They lost birds and air crew in accidents caused by mechanical failures, despite being in compliance with American maintenance schedules.

Contract pilots fly up to 10 hours a day, six days a week in helicopters (like the 50-year-old Sikorsky S-61) that had no A/C and sometimes no heaters. The fine dust of the Afghan deserts clogs engines and other moving parts, and they are flying in mountainous terrain with highly changeable weather and extreme temperatures — from below freezing with horizontal snow to 120 degrees. Contract helicopters are parked in the open where all maintenance is conducted, regardless of the weather conditions. The helicopters fly hard — from 100 to 270 hours a month. The avionics, for the most part, are VFR basic: upgraded radios and GPS (if they are lucky). The pilots, crew and staff live on the same bases as the troops and eat the same food, housed in everything from furnished barracks to bare-bones tents with no indoor plumbing.

Why is this man smiling? Because he’s just finished writing a good book. Someday I might smile like this too, but I got to write a book first. Steven Athanas, author of Ramrod.

How could such a lash up work? There is only one way, and it is the way all major military contracts in Afghanistan worked, find a former American military officer, put him in charge and tell him he will have everything he needs to accomplish the mission as long as it does not require the expenditure of one stinking penny more than he has been given in his budget. That is assuming he even has a budget… which is not always the case.

This task is not easy to accomplish. It requires the ability to use mental Jujitsu to fight with the officers who are the “customers” of these contracts over issues like adequate food, rest and quarters for flight personnel (something the military goes to extraordinary lengths to provide for its own flight crews). It requires the identification and cultivation of world-class scroungers who spend their days on the Kandahar Airbase making friends and making drug deals (that’s a term, I’m not talking actual drugs) to obtain things of great value to the contractors (lubricants, tools, spare parts, etc.). It requires straight up, lead from the front, leadership along with the most critical attribute for a leader in this situation: A sense of humor.

A contract MI-8 that crashed at Kabul airport

Because of the leadership attributes described above, and the military madness described above, Steven produced a work of fiction. In all honesty, the only way to write about personal experiences for contractors is fiction. Here is one reason for that: Early in the book, Steven’s character is working as the project manager for an Afghan company. Asked by the senior customer, a Canadian Major, if he had a current security clearance, he answered in the affirmative. He added that his Russian pilots, when they show up, will obviously not have clearances. Troop and equipment movements are, by their very nature, classified… so what to do?

The answer was to look the other way and it wouldn’t matter if the Russians were in reality cleared Americans, because an Afghan company has no way of picking up and managing American security clearances. That capability requires a dedicated facilities management component to the operation that has cleared a DoD inspection for the management of security clearances and the associated classified paperwork. That is a ton of expensive overhead that only American companies can afford.

A list of avation accidents from Afghanistan reveals companies like Air Freight Avation (UAE), Vertical-K (Russian), Pectox Air (Moldavian), Pacific Helicopters (Australian) — and these are just the companies who crashed and lost people. Since 2004 there have been 13 crashes of contract helicopters that resulted in 64 deaths and 100s of injuries.

Steven Athanas should be included in that number, but isn’t… despite losing a helicopter when the rotor head failed and crashing miles short of the intended FOB. Because the crew had not yet received arming authority, they were down in enemy-controlled territory without any weapons (save an illegal hand grenade that a soldier had given the lead pilot days before). To be clear, having a single frag grenade means you are essentially unarmed.

What normally happens to pilots who survive a helicopter crash in enemy lands? I remember watching a video about that. The pilot’s name was Lyubomir Kostov. He survived an MI-8 crash some 12 miles north of Baghdad. In the video, a badly injured Kostov was limping away when local Iraqis showed up, shot him dead and then posted the video on YouTube. The story is here, but I can’t seem to find the video anymore. Which is OK by me, as I hate watching it anyway. My point being that if Steve’s incident isn’t on the list than it is a safe bet that most of the crashes are not on that list either.

Ramrod is great story, with humor, adventure, danger, interesting women and a little sex to keep the interest up. It’s a good read, but why should you, the average American, care about tales from contractors working war zones on the other side of the planet? Because this is the face of future war.

The days when uniformed state-sponsored militaries fight other uniformed state-sponsored militaries has passed us by. We now have pockets of durable disorder where combatants and the local population are indistinguishable. Our high-tech, network-centic warfare is almost useless in these scenarios with one exception; that is using it for a Carthaginian solution.

Have you ever met or heard of a Carthaginian? You have not because around 146 BC the Romans, having won the third Punic War, razed the city of Carthage, sowed its fields with salt and sold the surviving population into slavery. There are no more Carthaginians, and unless we are willing to unleash the full might and fury of the American military against a place like Afghanistan with the intention of wiping its people and culture off the face of the earth, our current force structure is less than optimal.

In other words, we have the military ability to do something not one sane person in the world would consider appropriate, but anything less than the complete destruction of our adversaries is beyond our current capabilities.

Ramrod was the name of the FOB the novel’s protagonist was heading toward on his last mission in Afghanistan. It should have been the main character’s call sign, because to make a dangerous contract work you need to ramrod the damn thing through with guile, leadership and humor.

“If you’re born to be hanged, then you’ll never be drowned,” is an old proverb that means if you escaped one disaster you are destined for a different disaster. It also serves as a warning to not gloat over escaping near disaster. Steve uses the proverb to great effect, but he’s not gloating in his book, he’s giving us a glimpse of the future. There will be a lot more ramroding of dodgy contracts in the areas of durable disorder for many more years to come.

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Susan B
2 years ago

Thanks for the review, Tim. I am very familiar with a man that would go to great lengths to scrounge, borrow, or steal parts and supplies to keep his helo flying under diverse circumstances. He and his crew also had pretty dark humor. This book would be an informative and fun read for me. I saw it on Amazon and that it was printed in July of 2018. I will have to attain a copy. Thanks, again.

2 years ago

Thank you for the review. I am excited to read this.

2 years ago

Your references to Carthage are spot on. A few books in my library are devoted to Hannibal of Barca.

Joni Smith
Joni Smith
2 years ago

I look forward to reading Steven’s book. Fiction based on a lot of truth. I like it. The description of the Russian helicopter pilot reminds of the Russian Astronaut in the movie “Armageddon..” “American components, Russian components. All made in Taiwan.” Though today you might say China. Hah Hah.. Basically, figure it out and make it work. Parts, landings, food, whatever.

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