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The grades are in for America’s military strength

WASHINGTON — America’s investments in military readiness are paying off, particularly for the Army, but its armed forces would be stretched dangerously thin if they participate in more than one large war at the same time. That is the conclusion of the Heritage Foundation’s “2020 Index of U.S. Military Strength,” the think tank’s annual review…

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The grades are in for America’s military strength

WASHINGTON — America’s investments in military readiness are paying off, particularly for the Army, but its armed forces would be stretched dangerously thin if they participate in more than one large war at the same time.

That is the conclusion of the Heritage Foundation’s “2020 Index of U.S. Military Strength,” the think tank’s annual review of the past year’s defense policy issues. The Index assesses the global operating environment and U.S. military strength. It ranks all topics on a five-tiered scale of “very weak,” “weak,” “marginal,” “strong” and “very strong.”

This year’s index is the rosiest of the six that the Heritage Foundation — seen as influential on the Trump administration and congressional Republicans — has issued. Defense News was given an exclusive interview with Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow at the think tank who edited the 500-page report. The full document was released Oct. 30 and can be read here.

The Defense Department spent the last year “really focused on readiness. It reflects the services getting serious about that,” Wood said. “The services have gotten very serious about regaining these lost conventional combat sorts of skills and are also starting from a fairly new base [of troops], and rediscovering things that the Cold War force knew out of habit. And you’re doing that in a budget environment that is less helpful than what it needs to be, so I think the increase in readiness is a positive sign.”

However, America’s military still falls short of the ability to fight two major wars at the same time, with Wood calling it “basically a one-war force.” Wood praised the efforts of the Army and Marine Corps to transform themselves to face both a great power competition and a tighter budget environment, but said America must still address existing vulnerabilities.

“Our bigger message in the index is saying to the nation as a whole, and to Congress as its representatives, that we are not devoting the resources needed for the U.S. to be a credible player in the global world against more than one major competitor,” he warned.

The report judges each service in three categories — capacity, capability and readiness — before offering a final score. Overall the report ranks each of the four services as “marginal,” essentially a “C” grade. That’s an improvement for the Marine Corps from the previous year, when it was were ranked “weak” largely due to concerns about aviation readiness.

The most notable change in the rankings is the move of Army readiness from “strong” to “very strong,” the highest rank for any of the armed services. Readiness for the Air Force and Marine Corps each moved from “weak” to “marginal,” while the Navy stayed flat. None of the services lost ground compared to the 2019 report.

The Army’s readiness improvements come in the wake of what the report calls “significant” investment in building out brigade combat teams, or BCT. The service went from having 15 of its 35 BCTs at an acceptable level of readiness in the last index to 28 BCTs at an acceptable level of readiness in the 2020 index — a dramatic improvement driven by what Wood described as focused investments by Army leadership.

“The Army is focused on getting their brigade combat teams to the national training centers. It’s just dramatic,” Wood said. Meanwhile, the Marines have “really put a lot of money against improving their aviation readiness rates.”

The Heritage Foundation feels positive about U.S. Army readiness after improvements over the last few years. (Heritage Foundation)

Still, the services all fall well behind what Heritage believes is needed for two simultaneous major conflicts. The report calls for an Army of 50 brigade combat teams, a Navy of 400 ships, an Air Force of 1,200 fighter/attack aircraft and a Marine Corps of 36 battalions.

However, Wood acknowledged that those figures might be impossible to meet in light of the “political reality” of increased defense budgets, especially as the nation faces an election and a trillion-dollar deficit.

The Heritage Foundation found that total U.S. military end strength is below what is needed for a two-war construct. (Heritage Foundation)

“The focus of the services on current readiness is understandable because they can do that within the authorities and monies they have,” Wood said. “Expanding the force seems to be a bridge too far, and modernizing the force with all the new equipment you need to be able to conduct operations” would take long-term investments that are likely out of reach.

“There is a difference in acknowledging the reality of that and being supportive. Acknowledging the reality of the service’s challenges, I understand why they are making the decisions and I really can’t fault them for it,” he added.

On the nuclear side, the U.S. has seen noted improvement, with warhead modernization and the nuclear weapons complex receiving an upgrade from “weak” to “marginal,” largely due to increased budgets for the often-underfunded National Nuclear Security Administration.

Force readiness also moved from “marginal” to “strong,” as results from years of efforts to improve morale and manpower in the nuclear forces has begun to pay off.

Regional and fiscal realities

On the whole, the authors of the index conclude that the threat to U.S. interests from abroad remains “high,” as America faces challenges from the “4+1 threats” — Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and terrorism.

Those threats remain similar in capability and aggressive behavior to the previous report, with one change: Heritage says the threat of terrorism from the Middle East has dropped since the collapse of the Islamic State group’s physical caliphate.

A heat map shows how threats to the U.S. have evolved since 2015. (Heritage Foundation)

Though Iran dominated the news throughout the summer, with the U.S. minutes away from striking Iranian military targets, the index did not move up Iran’s threat rating. “Iranian influence actually increased, just because they’re more mature through Iraq and into Syria,” Wood said, but “the Yemen war, a bit of a proxy war between Saudis and Iranians, kind of settled somewhat. It’s just not as news-capturing; it’s this ugly kind of stasis that it’s currently in.”

Russia and China were already ranked as the highest capability on Heritage’s scale, and so had no room to move up, but both nations continued to improve their respective capabilities, according to the report. And capacity remained an issue, as Russia and China have massed their respective forces in particular regions while the U.S. attention is spread across the globe.

A comparison of naval power in the Pacific shows the U.S. is dramatically outnumbered. (Heritage Foundation)

Given the expected future fiscal environment, Wood said, the Pentagon should consider difficult choices and gamble on which competitor is more likely to evolve into a military foe.

“The fiscal realities say the United States really can only seriously think about one major war,” Wood said. “So pick your opponent. Is it a war against China, or a war against Russia? Because if I’m going to focus on China, that’s a different Army. If I focus on Russia, it’s a different Marine Corps and Navy.”

Those fiscal realities may quickly hit home, as Congress appears headed for a stopgap spending plan that could be needed into February or March. Under a continuing resolution, or CR, the military would be barred from launching new programs, and funding would be locked at the previous year’s level.

A six-month CR might drop capability in Heritage’s rankings, which weighs the age of systems, Wood said.

“Right now, the average Air Force fighter aircraft is 28 to 29 years old. If that gets to 29 to 30, because [the Defense Department] is not replacing or buying new gear, that number can bump across the threshold which our scoring system tips from ‘marginal’ to ‘weak,’ ” he said. “ Also you can see some losses in capability because of continued aging and questionable health of modernization programs because those programs are not getting the funding they need to stay on track.”

If Congress’ inability to navigate an election year and a contentious impeachment process yields an extended CR, Wood expects to see the services continue their focus on capacity at the cost of modernization.

“I don’t believe the services will shrink because manpower is a fixed cost and the people I have are the people I have,” he said. “The additional training needed for this increase in readiness is less expensive than trying to start a new multibillion-dollar acquisition. And so I think within the services, if it’s a yearlong CR, they will claim to continue with their focus on readiness.

“Again, if I have a small force, I have to make sure that at least it is ready for combat.”

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US sends mechanized troops back into Syria

Bradley fighting vehicles have headed back into eastern Syria, the Pentagon announced Friday, a move that comes after a tense encounter with Russian forces left four U.S. troops lightly injured last month. The return of mechanized units also comes as the U.S. military deployed Sentinel radar and increased the frequency of fighter jet patrols over…

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US sends mechanized troops back into Syria

Bradley fighting vehicles have headed back into eastern Syria, the Pentagon announced Friday, a move that comes after a tense encounter with Russian forces left four U.S. troops lightly injured last month. The return of mechanized units also comes as the U.S. military deployed Sentinel radar and increased the frequency of fighter jet patrols over U.S. forces in that part of Syria, according to U.S. Central Command spokesman Navy Capt. Bill Urban. “These actions are a clear demonstration of U.S. resolve to defend Coalition forces in the [Eastern Syria Security Area], and to ensure that they are able to continue their Defeat-ISIS mission without interference,” Urban said in an emailed statement. “The Defense Department has previously deployed Bradleys to northeast Syria pursuant to these goals.” Bradleys from the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team were last sent to Syria in late October 2019 to guard oil infrastructure from Islamic State militants, officials said at the time. They were quietly pulled out after roughly a month when combined patrols with Turkish forces “never materialized” and the “mission requirements changed,” a military official in the region previously told Army Times. The armored vehicles sent back this month belong to 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, out of Fort Bliss, Texas. The unit is deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Spartan Shield, which is based in Kuwait. Sign up for the Army Times Daily News Roundup Don’t miss the top Army stories, delivered each afternoon (please select a country)United StatesUnited KingdomAfghanistanAlbaniaAlgeriaAmerican SamoaAndorraAngolaAnguillaAntarcticaAntigua and BarbudaArgentinaArmeniaArubaAustraliaAustriaAzerbaijanBahamasBahrainBangladeshBarbadosBelarusBelgiumBelizeBeninBermudaBhutanBoliviaBosnia and HerzegovinaBotswanaBouvet IslandBrazilBritish Indian Ocean TerritoryBrunei DarussalamBulgariaBurkina FasoBurundiCambodiaCameroonCanadaCape VerdeCayman IslandsCentral African RepublicChadChileChinaChristmas IslandCocos (Keeling) IslandsColombiaComorosCongoCongo, The Democratic Republic of TheCook IslandsCosta RicaCote D’ivoireCroatiaCubaCyprusCzech RepublicDenmarkDjiboutiDominicaDominican RepublicEcuadorEgyptEl SalvadorEquatorial GuineaEritreaEstoniaEthiopiaFalkland Islands (Malvinas)Faroe IslandsFijiFinlandFranceFrench GuianaFrench PolynesiaFrench Southern TerritoriesGabonGambiaGeorgiaGermanyGhanaGibraltarGreeceGreenlandGrenadaGuadeloupeGuamGuatemalaGuineaGuinea-bissauGuyanaHaitiHeard Island and Mcdonald IslandsHoly See (Vatican City State)HondurasHong KongHungaryIcelandIndiaIndonesiaIran, Islamic Republic ofIraqIrelandIsraelItalyJamaicaJapanJordanKazakhstanKenyaKiribatiKorea, Democratic People’s Republic ofKorea, Republic ofKuwaitKyrgyzstanLao People’s Democratic RepublicLatviaLebanonLesothoLiberiaLibyan Arab JamahiriyaLiechtensteinLithuaniaLuxembourgMacaoMacedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic ofMadagascarMalawiMalaysiaMaldivesMaliMaltaMarshall IslandsMartiniqueMauritaniaMauritiusMayotteMexicoMicronesia, Federated States ofMoldova, Republic ofMonacoMongoliaMontserratMoroccoMozambiqueMyanmarNamibiaNauruNepalNetherlandsNetherlands AntillesNew CaledoniaNew ZealandNicaraguaNigerNigeriaNiueNorfolk IslandNorthern Mariana IslandsNorwayOmanPakistanPalauPalestinian Territory, OccupiedPanamaPapua New GuineaParaguayPeruPhilippinesPitcairnPolandPortugalPuerto RicoQatarReunionRomaniaRussian FederationRwandaSaint HelenaSaint Kitts and NevisSaint LuciaSaint Pierre and MiquelonSaint Vincent and The GrenadinesSamoaSan MarinoSao Tome and PrincipeSaudi ArabiaSenegalSerbia and MontenegroSeychellesSierra LeoneSingaporeSlovakiaSloveniaSolomon IslandsSomaliaSouth AfricaSouth Georgia and The South Sandwich IslandsSpainSri LankaSudanSurinameSvalbard and Jan MayenSwazilandSwedenSwitzerlandSyrian Arab RepublicTaiwan, Province of ChinaTajikistanTanzania, United Republic ofThailandTimor-lesteTogoTokelauTongaTrinidad and TobagoTunisiaTurkeyTurkmenistanTurks and Caicos IslandsTuvaluUgandaUkraineUnited Arab EmiratesUnited KingdomUnited StatesUnited States Minor Outlying IslandsUruguayUzbekistanVanuatuVenezuelaViet NamVirgin Islands, BritishVirgin Islands, U.S.Wallis and FutunaWestern SaharaYemenZambiaZimbabwe Subscribe × By giving us your email, you are opting in to the Army Times Daily News Roundup. “The mechanized infantry assets will help ensure the force protection of coalition forces in an increasingly complex operating environment in northeast Syria,” said Col. Wayne Marotto, spokesman for the Inherent Resolve mission. “The coalition forces remain steadfast in our commitment of ensuring the enduring defeat of Daesh [ISIS].” U.S. and Russian officials traded blame in late August after troops from both countries collided in northeast Syria while on patrol. A Russian vehicle sideswiped a light-armored American one, injuring four U.S. troops, while two Russian helicopters flew about 70 feet over top the altercation, U.S. officials said following the incident. For their part, Russian officials said U.S. troops were blocking their ground patrol and Russian military police “took the necessary measures to prevent an incident and to continue the fulfillment of their task.” Though the U.S. and Russian militaries have protocols to prevent such incidents, there have nevertheless been less worrisome altercations periodically over the past year. Russian forces are in the country backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and have long called for U.S. troops to leave. “The United States does not seek conflict with any other nation in Syria, but will defend Coalition forces if necessary,” Urban added in his statement. Despite the loss of ISIS’ territorial caliphate and the slaying of its leader last year in a U.S. raid, the extremist group has continued to launch deadly attacks in Iraq and Syria. There are roughly 500 U.S. troops in Syria’s northeast guarding oil fields from ISIS and working alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces.

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It’s been a bad week on social media for military appreciation

For a nation enamored with yellow ribbons, PDA for men and women in uniform, and shouting “Support Our Troops” into the void until our lungs collapse, we sure seem to know very little about the individuals being supported. At least that’s one takeaway from a series of recent military-themed social media gaffes on the part…

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It’s been a bad week on social media for military appreciation

For a nation enamored with yellow ribbons, PDA for men and women in uniform, and shouting “Support Our Troops” into the void until our lungs collapse, we sure seem to know very little about the individuals being supported. At least that’s one takeaway from a series of recent military-themed social media gaffes on the part of accounts run by government departments and U.S. officials. Friday yielded multiple mistakes of the sort when, first, the U.S. Department of State extended the U.S. Air Force a happy 73rd birthday wish that was accompanied by an image featuring F/A-18 Hornets flown by the Navy’s Blue Angels. The image, which depicts the obvious blue and gold color scheme unique to the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, includes one plane that even shows the underside of its wings, a part that universally includes “US NAVY” painted in size 11-million block font. The U.S. Navy Blue Angels demonstrate the capabilities of the F/A-18 Hornet at the 2019 Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Air Show on MCAS Miramar, Calif., Sept. 28. (Pfc. Mackson/Marine Corps) Echoing the State Department, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sent the Air Force some birthday well wishes that, again, were accompanied by the Navy’s world-renowned team. Never a state to be outdone, Texas Congressman John Carter ramped up the Air Force birthday-Blue Angels whoops parade with a jumbled image featuring an F-22 Raptor, the Blue Angels, and his campaign insignia. Even the mistakes are bigger in Texas. Sign up for the Early Bird Brief Get the military’s most comprehensive news and information every morning (please select a country)United StatesUnited KingdomAfghanistanAlbaniaAlgeriaAmerican SamoaAndorraAngolaAnguillaAntarcticaAntigua and BarbudaArgentinaArmeniaArubaAustraliaAustriaAzerbaijanBahamasBahrainBangladeshBarbadosBelarusBelgiumBelizeBeninBermudaBhutanBoliviaBosnia and HerzegovinaBotswanaBouvet IslandBrazilBritish Indian Ocean TerritoryBrunei DarussalamBulgariaBurkina FasoBurundiCambodiaCameroonCanadaCape VerdeCayman IslandsCentral African RepublicChadChileChinaChristmas IslandCocos (Keeling) IslandsColombiaComorosCongoCongo, The Democratic Republic of TheCook IslandsCosta RicaCote D’ivoireCroatiaCubaCyprusCzech RepublicDenmarkDjiboutiDominicaDominican RepublicEcuadorEgyptEl SalvadorEquatorial GuineaEritreaEstoniaEthiopiaFalkland Islands (Malvinas)Faroe IslandsFijiFinlandFranceFrench GuianaFrench PolynesiaFrench Southern TerritoriesGabonGambiaGeorgiaGermanyGhanaGibraltarGreeceGreenlandGrenadaGuadeloupeGuamGuatemalaGuineaGuinea-bissauGuyanaHaitiHeard Island and Mcdonald IslandsHoly See (Vatican City State)HondurasHong KongHungaryIcelandIndiaIndonesiaIran, Islamic Republic ofIraqIrelandIsraelItalyJamaicaJapanJordanKazakhstanKenyaKiribatiKorea, Democratic People’s Republic ofKorea, Republic ofKuwaitKyrgyzstanLao People’s Democratic RepublicLatviaLebanonLesothoLiberiaLibyan Arab JamahiriyaLiechtensteinLithuaniaLuxembourgMacaoMacedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic ofMadagascarMalawiMalaysiaMaldivesMaliMaltaMarshall IslandsMartiniqueMauritaniaMauritiusMayotteMexicoMicronesia, Federated States ofMoldova, Republic ofMonacoMongoliaMontserratMoroccoMozambiqueMyanmarNamibiaNauruNepalNetherlandsNetherlands AntillesNew CaledoniaNew ZealandNicaraguaNigerNigeriaNiueNorfolk IslandNorthern Mariana IslandsNorwayOmanPakistanPalauPalestinian Territory, OccupiedPanamaPapua New GuineaParaguayPeruPhilippinesPitcairnPolandPortugalPuerto RicoQatarReunionRomaniaRussian FederationRwandaSaint HelenaSaint Kitts and NevisSaint LuciaSaint Pierre and MiquelonSaint Vincent and The GrenadinesSamoaSan MarinoSao Tome and PrincipeSaudi ArabiaSenegalSerbia and MontenegroSeychellesSierra LeoneSingaporeSlovakiaSloveniaSolomon IslandsSomaliaSouth AfricaSouth Georgia and The South Sandwich IslandsSpainSri LankaSudanSurinameSvalbard and Jan MayenSwazilandSwedenSwitzerlandSyrian Arab RepublicTaiwan, Province of ChinaTajikistanTanzania, United Republic ofThailandTimor-lesteTogoTokelauTongaTrinidad and TobagoTunisiaTurkeyTurkmenistanTurks and Caicos IslandsTuvaluUgandaUkraineUnited Arab EmiratesUnited KingdomUnited StatesUnited States Minor Outlying IslandsUruguayUzbekistanVanuatuVenezuelaViet NamVirgin Islands, BritishVirgin Islands, U.S.Wallis and FutunaWestern SaharaYemenZambiaZimbabwe Subscribe × By giving us your email, you are opting in to the Early Bird Brief. (Screengrab @JudgeJohnCarter) Navy officials eventually caught on to the trend of gross misidentification. “Happy birthday @usairforce, but we’re not giving you the @BlueAngels,” the Navy Chief of Information account tweeted. “Aircraft carriers are also only @USNavy.” Most of the proofreading-free accounts wisely deleted their misguided well-wishes once they arrived at the realization that a plane in the air does not automatically render it an Air Force plane. But thanks to Politico editor and dad joke connoisseur Dave Brown, there remains a treasure trove of commemorative screenshots. Aim high pic.twitter.com/VUsN1TOfO8— Dave Brown (@dave_brown24) September 18, 2020 Still, the Air Force’s birthday was just another example of a profound lack of basic military understanding by those who so often boast of military adoration until blue in the face. A campaign arm of the Republican National Committee and President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, for example, recently circulated a “Support Our Troops” graphic featuring silhouetted Russian soldiers — one holding a Russian-made AK-74 rifle and another a German-made G36K — underneath three Russian MiG-29 fighter jets, a slip-up first reported by Politico. In theory the sentiment is not incorrect, since there was no specification on which troops are being supported. Still, it was just one of the litany of military-related social media fallacies to emerge during this week alone. The image, which was poached from a Shutterstock photo, was created by Russia-based photographer Arthur Zakirov, who confirmed to Politico that the campaign image was “a completely recreated scene from various photographs of mine.” “Today you hear about the Kremlin’s hand in U.S. politics,” he joked. “Tomorrow you are this hand.” In Soviet Russia, troops support you. The image marked another foreign service miscue for the administration, which, in 2015, tweeted a campaign graphic featuring Nazi Waffen SS World War II reenactors in the bottom right corner. [email protected] has deleted the tweet (finally) but here’s the pic, Waffen-SS very clear at bottom pic.twitter.com/Kv1GsdKQkw— John Schindler (@20committee) July 14, 2015 But don’t fret about a politicized slant on military-themed miscues — these inaccuracies on the part of politicians are a bipartisan pastime. Presidential hopeful Joe Biden made headlines recently for exhibiting a concerning pattern of recounting military stories that never actually happened. In 2019 Biden recalled a harrowing tale of a Navy captain in Afghanistan that was flooded with acts of extraordinary valor. “This is the God’s truth,” Biden told the meeting hall in New Hampshire. “My word as a Biden.” Interviews conducted by the Washington Post of more than a dozen troops, commanders and Biden campaign personnel, however, revealed that nearly every detail of “God’s truth” was false. Biden, the Post reported, appeared to combine portions of three separate events into a single story. Then there was 2012, when the Democratic National Convention showcased glorious footage of Russian ships steaming powerfully across open seas as a way to honor U.S. troops and their service. (As our friend Paul Szoldra over at Task and Purpose points out, there truly is a tweet for all occasions.) No surprise. @DNC displayed Russian ships in tribute to vets http://t.co/Q6BpWj0I Did they mean to honor the Russians?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 12, 2012 Military-centric miscues on social media may occur relatively often, but seldom is the source of the mistake the military itself. On September 16, the U.S. Army’s official Twitter account tweeted a composite graphic featuring a soldier flanked by the words “I will never quit,” a line taken from the service’s Soldier’s Creed and Warrior Ethos. The U.S. Army tweeted and deleted this graphic from its official account on September 16, 2020. It features a British soldier, a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter (center), and several South African helicopters (background). The text of the tweet asked, “How do you live the #WarriorEthos?” Twitter users may have found the message more inspiring if the soldier, or any of the helicopters, actually belonged to the U.S. Army — or even the United States. Thanks to the blue patch on his right shoulder and the bullpup-style –– a distinct design in which the rifle’s magazine is located behind the trigger assembly –– SA80 assault rifle, Twitter users quickly identified the figure in the foreground as a British Army soldier. Noting the helicopters in the image, Darren Olivier, a South African military analyst and director of the African Defence Review, tweeted that that “the foremost helicopter is a USMC CH-33 and the helicopters in the background are all from a South African Air Force flypast featuring two Oryxes, two Rooivalks, three A109s, a BK-117 and a [South African Air Force Museum] Alouette III.” The Twitter account Angry Staff Officer, a semi-pseudonymous page operated by Maine National Guard officer Jonathan Bratten, tweeted, “A photo of a British soldier, a USMC helo, and some other foreign rotary winged aircraft? C’mon y’all, this isn’t that hard.” “Sometimes people make mistakes, and that is what happened in this case,” an Army spokesperson said in reference to the since-deleted tweet. Sgt. Maj. Mike Lavigne, sergeant major of Army Public Affairs, responded to the gaffe, saying, “Thank you for the dozens of DMs and tags. This is not the way the Army does business. 99% of our social media game is strong, but when it’s not, someone is held accountable and from today on, that’s me. See something wrong? I’m your POC.” Lavigne might be your POC for social media mishaps, but if you need articles that elicit a response of, “This isn’t news,” I’m your huckleberry.

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Special tactics airman drowned after ‘buddy pair’ system not followed in 2,000-yard swim

The training swim test in which a special tactics airman drowned March 19 was conducted without the usual “buddy team” system typical for such swims, an Air Force investigation found. The report did not reach any conclusions about exactly what caused Airman 1st Class Keigan Baker to drown in St. Andrews Bay, Florida, near Panama…

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Special tactics airman drowned after ‘buddy pair’ system not followed in 2,000-yard swim

The training swim test in which a special tactics airman drowned March 19 was conducted without the usual “buddy team” system typical for such swims, an Air Force investigation found. The report did not reach any conclusions about exactly what caused Airman 1st Class Keigan Baker to drown in St. Andrews Bay, Florida, near Panama City, while attempting to swim 2,000 yards. But, it said, the rules of the combat dive course stipulate that such 2,000-yard swims should be conducted with each swimmer paired up with and tethered to another swimmer of comparable ability to ensure a swimmer doesn’t get separated and into trouble. That was not done in this case. Baker had also taken two Unisom, an over-the-counter sleep aid, the night before the swim without medical authorization, in violation of Air Force instructions and the dive class policy. Its ingredients were still present in his blood at the time of his autopsy, the report said. Baker, 24, was a combat controller who enlisted in the Air Force in June 2018 and was assigned to the Special Tactics Training Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida, in January 2020. He was originally from Longview, Washington, and received a bachelor of arts degree from Eastern Washington University. He was on temporary duty to the Air Force Combat Dive School at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center at Naval Support Activity Panama City, Florida. The dive school, officially known as the 350th Special Warfare Training Squadron, Detachment 1, teaches students basic diving, advanced rescue diving principles and advanced combat diving fundamentals. Students at the dive school are required to finish a 2,000-yard surface swim — more than a mile — in simulated combat gear, to check each student’s swimming ability. Like his classmates, Baker wore a mask, a load-bearing vest with a pair of 2-pound weights to simulate ammunition magazines, a personal flotation device, a dive tool and a rubber AR-15. The swim in which Baker drowned took place on the fourth day of his class. Baker and his classmates took part in multiple physical activities, including a 1,000-yard surface swim while wearing gear, during the first three days. Sign up for the Air Force Times Daily News Roundup Don’t miss the top Air Force stories, delivered each afternoon (please select a country)United StatesUnited KingdomAfghanistanAlbaniaAlgeriaAmerican SamoaAndorraAngolaAnguillaAntarcticaAntigua and BarbudaArgentinaArmeniaArubaAustraliaAustriaAzerbaijanBahamasBahrainBangladeshBarbadosBelarusBelgiumBelizeBeninBermudaBhutanBoliviaBosnia and HerzegovinaBotswanaBouvet IslandBrazilBritish Indian Ocean TerritoryBrunei DarussalamBulgariaBurkina FasoBurundiCambodiaCameroonCanadaCape VerdeCayman IslandsCentral African RepublicChadChileChinaChristmas IslandCocos (Keeling) IslandsColombiaComorosCongoCongo, The Democratic Republic of TheCook IslandsCosta RicaCote D’ivoireCroatiaCubaCyprusCzech RepublicDenmarkDjiboutiDominicaDominican RepublicEcuadorEgyptEl SalvadorEquatorial GuineaEritreaEstoniaEthiopiaFalkland Islands (Malvinas)Faroe IslandsFijiFinlandFranceFrench GuianaFrench PolynesiaFrench Southern TerritoriesGabonGambiaGeorgiaGermanyGhanaGibraltarGreeceGreenlandGrenadaGuadeloupeGuamGuatemalaGuineaGuinea-bissauGuyanaHaitiHeard Island and Mcdonald IslandsHoly See (Vatican City State)HondurasHong KongHungaryIcelandIndiaIndonesiaIran, Islamic Republic ofIraqIrelandIsraelItalyJamaicaJapanJordanKazakhstanKenyaKiribatiKorea, Democratic People’s Republic ofKorea, Republic ofKuwaitKyrgyzstanLao People’s Democratic RepublicLatviaLebanonLesothoLiberiaLibyan Arab JamahiriyaLiechtensteinLithuaniaLuxembourgMacaoMacedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic ofMadagascarMalawiMalaysiaMaldivesMaliMaltaMarshall IslandsMartiniqueMauritaniaMauritiusMayotteMexicoMicronesia, Federated States ofMoldova, Republic ofMonacoMongoliaMontserratMoroccoMozambiqueMyanmarNamibiaNauruNepalNetherlandsNetherlands AntillesNew CaledoniaNew ZealandNicaraguaNigerNigeriaNiueNorfolk IslandNorthern Mariana IslandsNorwayOmanPakistanPalauPalestinian Territory, OccupiedPanamaPapua New GuineaParaguayPeruPhilippinesPitcairnPolandPortugalPuerto RicoQatarReunionRomaniaRussian FederationRwandaSaint HelenaSaint Kitts and NevisSaint LuciaSaint Pierre and MiquelonSaint Vincent and The GrenadinesSamoaSan MarinoSao Tome and PrincipeSaudi ArabiaSenegalSerbia and MontenegroSeychellesSierra LeoneSingaporeSlovakiaSloveniaSolomon IslandsSomaliaSouth AfricaSouth Georgia and The South Sandwich IslandsSpainSri LankaSudanSurinameSvalbard and Jan MayenSwazilandSwedenSwitzerlandSyrian Arab RepublicTaiwan, Province of ChinaTajikistanTanzania, United Republic ofThailandTimor-lesteTogoTokelauTongaTrinidad and TobagoTunisiaTurkeyTurkmenistanTurks and Caicos IslandsTuvaluUgandaUkraineUnited Arab EmiratesUnited KingdomUnited StatesUnited States Minor Outlying IslandsUruguayUzbekistanVanuatuVenezuelaViet NamVirgin Islands, BritishVirgin Islands, U.S.Wallis and FutunaWestern SaharaYemenZambiaZimbabwe Subscribe × By giving us your email, you are opting in to the Air Force Times Daily News Roundup. This surface swim was supposed to begin at 6 a.m. March 19, but a fog forecast prompted instructors to push it back three hours. Baker’s classmates said he appeared to be in good spirits, and they noticed nothing out of the ordinary, aside from mentioning soreness in his hip flexors the previous few weeks. During this swim, eight instructors and a safety diver took part — two more instructors than the minimum requirement. But there were a few changes from standard procedure, the report said. The ammunition pier that usually serves as the finish point was under construction, so the instructors instead used a floating barge about 100 yards east of the ammo pier to drop the buoy marker that served as the finish line. They also shifted the starting buoy marker 100 yards to the east of its usual location. There was also a privately owned, 65-foot yacht anchored in the swim path, the report said. An instructor checked to make sure there were no fishing lines coming from the yacht, and did not ask the yacht to move. There was also more boat traffic than usual during the swim, which the report said was attributed to the later than usual start of the swim, as well as people trying to get out on the water due to the coronavirus stay-at-home restrictions. At one point, an instructor on a boat broke away from the group of student swimmers to stop two civilian boats from entering the training area. Another instructor on a boat also directed a fishing boat away from the swim lane, and later directed swimmers around the 65-foot yacht. The students began the swim at about 10:15 a.m. Almost immediately, the swimmers noticed the current was pushing them northwest, though it wasn’t strong enough to present a safety risk. The student who was closest to Baker said he seemed to be having no trouble swimming, but after about 100 yards, that student lost track of who was swimming near him. Another student swimmer followed Baker, who was the stronger swimmer, for a while without noticing anything wrong. Baker pulled away from that student around the time they approached the yacht, and the student lost sight of him. One by one, a little after 11 a.m., the students began to reach the finish point. The instructors first realized something was wrong when two students still had yet to report their times, but only one student could still be seen swimming. The instructors took head counts, but Baker was nowhere to be found. The instructors began looking for him, and soon called the dive school superintendent to report a student was missing and ask for search and rescue help. In all, 87 personnel on 18 boats, a police helicopter, and a C-130 — including five dive teams and assets from the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Bay County Sheriff’s Office — searched for Baker for hours. A Fish and Wildlife Conservation boat ultimately detected something underwater on sonar at about 4:15 p.m. A diver soon found Baker’s body, which was then recovered. He was declared dead at 4:30 p.m. His dive gear was intact, the report said, and there was no sign he tried to activate his personal flotation device. There was also no sign of trauma or broken bones. The report concluded there was confusion among the dive school staff on the necessity of the buddy-pair system during 2,000-yard surface swims. The rules say buddy pairs should be used, and “buddy lines” are standard training equipment, the report said. But some instructors at the school felt swimming in pairs was inappropriate when they were supposed to be individually evaluating students. Two weeks before Baker’s death, the report said, several dive school instructors discussed using buddy pairs, and the “prevailing sentiment” was that they should be used for the 2,000-yard swim. Two days before the fatal swim, an instructor briefed the students on surface swims. The approved slide presentation listed buddy pairs and buddy lines, but the instructor told the students neither would be used for surface swims. This contradiction during the briefing contributed to instructors’ confusion, the report said. An instructor brought it up with the staff superintendent, who confirmed that buddy lines would not be used for surface swims and that they were to be individual assessments. The report said Baker was in good physical and mental health, though he was reported to use over-the-counter medication to help him sleep. He had some musculoskeletal problems common to special warfare airmen, the report said, but performed well at the fitness test and swims conducted earlier that week. “As a community, special warfare operators are driven, highly motivated individuals who strive to push themselves to the limits of their physical abilities,” the report said. Baker “was no exception, and fellow classmates classified him as one of the smartest and strongest in the class.” The report does not reach a firm conclusion as to what caused Baker to become incapacitated and drown, but lists several factors that may have contributed to it. Baker told an instructor that morning he had taken two Unisom capsules the night before the swim, and commented at breakfast that morning that he felt fatigued, the report said. His autopsy showed he had diphenhydramine levels in his blood of 54 nanograms per milliliter, the report said, more than the levels required to produce sedative effects. Diphenhydramine, or DPH, is the active ingredient found in Unisom. However, the report acknowledged that post-mortem changes can affect blood concentrations of substances between the time someone dies and the autopsy, and the blood measurements cannot reliably indicate the actual levels of DPH in his blood at the time of his death. Baker wore a full wetsuit during the swim for increased buoyancy, the report said. The wetsuit also would keep swimmers warm in cold conditions, but carried the risk of the swimmer becoming uncomfortably warm when swimming aggressively in warm weather. The weather and water conditions that day were mild, the report said, but an exertional heat injury could not be ruled out as a potential cause of his incapacitation. Exertional heat injuries typically happen when someone is strenuously exercising in a warm environment, the report said, as well as when loaded up with clothing, equipment and protective gear. The possibility of a heat injury can be increased by drugs and other substances that impair sweating, the report said. “Development of fatigue from exercise in the heat is multifactorial and associated with several physiologic processes, but the probability is amplified when combined with gear that both inhibits heat release and adds weight/drag, substances that can alter thermoregulation and psychomotor performance (antihistamine), and drive to perform at maximal effort,” the report said. Baker’s autopsy found no signs of head trauma, bone fractures or trauma to anything other than his lungs, which showed the effects of drowning. There was no evidence he had suffered a heart attack, stroke, or pulmonary embolus, had a seizure, or vigorously struggled while drowning, the report said. The autopsy findings did not support a diagnosis of heatstroke, the report said, but heat could not be ruled out as a factor.

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