American civilians go off to war, too

Military often needs trained experts to help a mission succeed

May 26, 2002|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The Pentagon needed the best intelligence it could get from the skies over Afghanistan, and it needed it immediately. And so it asked for Avis Anderson.

The Air Force called on Anderson late last year, and by Thanksgiving had him on the ground fighting the war on terrorism. The Global Hawk, the nation's newest and most sophisticated surveillance plane, was spying on al-Qaida and Taliban forces, with Anderson and a small team of specialists like him in control.

"Certainly there was a fear of the unknown, going into a strange place and not knowing what you would encounter; nobody wants to go to a war," said Anderson. "But we had to go. The Air Force needed the system experts."

Anderson is not a member of the Air Force, however. He is a civilian employee of Northrop Grumman Corp., trained to fix and maintain one of the many complex battle systems used by the modern military.

As the weapons and equipment in the American arsenal become more complex, the Pentagon is relying increasingly on teams of civilian contractors such as Anderson to maintain, repair and even operate military hardware. These civilians often live and travel alongside uniformed troops, eating the same food, sleeping in the same camps - and facing many of the same war-zone dangers.

The war on terror is being fought with a higher concentration of civilians than perhaps any other conflict, defense analysts say. The Global Hawk - one of the most celebrated new systems in use in Afghanistan - was initially operated almost entirely by civilians. And the trend is expected to endure.

"We're using the most advanced technology in the history of the world to wage wars, and sometimes the people who built it are the only ones who know how to fix it," said Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank.

"As a practical matter, with war-fighting becoming increasingly automated and the line of fire moving farther and farther away from most of the U.S. personnel who are actually engaged in the fighting, it's going to be happening more and more."

Civilians are not new arrivals to warfare. They have long been called on for logistical support and to help maintain fickle machinery such as jet engines and helicopters.

Civilian contractors are often assigned to work aboard large ships in the U.S. Navy. An aircraft carrier might have dozens of civilians onboard during a routine deployment, performing tasks as varied as repairing catapults, training mechanics, even taking photographs for the ship's yearbook.

Hundreds of civilian technicians traveled with American troops and sailors during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The Baltimore-area division of Northrop Grumman Corp. - then a division of Westinghouse Electric Corp. - had more than 50 civilian engineers in or near Saudi Arabia, repairing and assisting with radar systems and electronics.

Jack Martinez, a Boeing technician for the CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter, recalls flying into Iraq on a mission to deliver food to American troops then flying back loaded with Iraqi prisoners and bodies.

"If you work for a defense contractor, you're really working for the government, essentially," said Martinez, now 59 and living near Philadelphia. "My job is to help keep the aircraft in the air. If that means going to Iraq, then that's what I do."

But in past conflicts, civilians have served almost exclusively in behind-the-lines support roles. Today, with the battle lines blurred by the use of long-range weapons and remote-controlled hardware, civilian technicians often find themselves right beside the uniformed service members who are fighting the war.

"They are messing and bunking with the troops, generally living the life of an active military person," said Richard Zimmerman, manager of the contractor support division at AAI Corp. in Hunt Valley, which makes the Pioneer unmanned spy plane. "We've had people deployed on battleships and other Navy ships, on the ground with the Marines. We generally go where the action is."

Doug White, an AAI technician, works full time with a Marine Corps squadron in Cherry Point, N.C., that operates the Pioneer. White acts as a consultant mostly, training Marines and helping to troubleshoot problems. When the unit goes somewhere, White goes with it - even to war.

The job's not for everyone, he says. It requires him to travel nearly half the year - he is currently in Spain participating in a NATO exercise - and demands a high tolerance for remote locations and pre-packaged food. Civilian technicians are almost always young men, often with previous military experience.

"I don't do their formations, I don't [do physical training] with them, but otherwise it's like being in the military, without having to put up with a lot of the Marine Corps stuff," said White, 29, who served six years in the Marine Corps before taking the job with Pioneer.

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