Sunday, March 01, 2015

The Hollow Shoot-Down Threat

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads to Washington--and his speech to a joint session of Congress--the charges and recriminations between the U.S. and Israel are flying fast and furious.  It's no secret the Obama Administration is furious about Mr. Netanyahu's accepting the invitation to address Congress (which was extended by House Speaker John Boehner, without White House approval).  Likewise, the Israelis are upset over Mr. Obama's determination to reach a nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that will (by most accounts) be a very bad deal for everyone except Tehran, putting the entire Middle East and eventually, the world, at grave risk from an Iranian regime with nuclear weapons.

So, it's no surprise that both Washington and Jerusalem are trying to undercut each other in the run-up to Mr. Netanyahu's address on 3 March.  On Friday, senior administration officials made themselves available for a session with reporters, attempting to refute the Israeli leader's planned critique, claiming that Netanyahu has failed to present a "feasible alternative" to the American plan for containing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

From The New York Times:

"...senior administration officials contended that even an imperfect agreement that kept Iran’s nuclear efforts frozen for an extended period was preferable to a breakdown in talks that could allow the leadership in Tehran unfettered ability to produce enriched uranium and plutonium.

“The alternative to not having a deal is losing inspections,” said one senior official, who would not be quoted by name under conditions that the administration set for the briefing, “and an Iran ever closer to having the fissile material to manufacture a weapon.”

And if that doesn't work, there's always the option of presenting Mr. Netanyahu as a hot-head, anxious to ignite a regional conflict that would engulf Israel, Iran, various Arab countries and even the United States.  

To underscore that possibility, a rather interesting--albeit implausible--story has been making the rounds in recent hours.  According to a Palestinian news agency, citing a Kuwaiti newspaper, President Obama supposedly thwarted an Israeli attack against Iran's nuclear facilities in 2014, vowing to shoot down IAF jets before they could reach their targets. The U.S. supposedly learned of the attack plans from an Israeli cabinet minister, who relayed the information to Secretary of State John Kerry.  The Secretary, of course, notified the commander-in-chief, allowing Mr. Obama to deliver his ultimatum.  

Needless to say, this account is somewhat dubious--and that's being charitable.  Hard to imagine that an obscure Kuwaiti paper would get such a scoop, although it's possible a senior U.S. diplomat in that country--or someone from Kerry's staff--decided to plant the story with that publication.  That creates a certain degree of plausible deniability that wouldn't be associated with a report in a pro-Obama American publication like the Times or the Washington Post.  

On the other hand, using a Kuwaiti paper does ensure the message will reach a significant Middle Eastern (read: Muslim) audience, which the administration is clearly trying to reach.   "Getting tough" with the Israelis always plays well in certain quarters, although if recent media reports are accurate, a number of Arab regimes would welcome an Israeli raid on Iran's nuclear facilities.  More than two years ago, Israel was said to be working with Saudi Arabia on a plan that would allow the IAF to use the kingdom's airspace for a raid against Iran.  While those reports were never fully confirmed, some military accounts suggest that Israeli warplanes used Saudi airspace to strike Iraq's nuclear facility in 1981.

As for Mr. Obama's vow to down IAF jets before they could reach Iran, that is little more than a hollow threat, for a variety of reasons.   First, there are the matters of basing, geography and routing.  Flying across Iraq offers a direct flight path to Iran, saving both time and fuel.  But the Iraqi Air Force has only a handful of F-16s (and qualified pilots), and it is clearly no match for the IAF.  

Of course, U.S. airpower remains a dominant force in the region, with USAF fighters based at various locations (including Qatar) and at least one aircraft carrier always deployed to the Persian Gulf.  American combat aircraft are supported by AWACS, airborne early warning and intelligence-collection aircraft, allowing U.S. commanders to maintain a comprehensive air picture that spans an area from Afghanistan to the Levant.  

But the availability of these assets does not guarantee that we could detect--let alone intercept--an Israeli strike package heading to Iran.  As we've detailed in the past, the IAF could employ a number of deceptive measures and/or basing options that would prevent detection of their plans, or delay it long enough that the U.S. could not respond.  

We'll start with the marshaling of Israeli air assets and their launch.  It's no secret where IAF F-15s and F-16s are based, and the same holds true for KC-707 tankers (which would provide in-flight refueling), search-and-rescue platforms and other support aircraft.  U.S. intelligence assets monitor these installations on a daily basis and monitor flight activity.  

How would the IAF conceal the launch of their strike package?  By simply staging a large-scale exercise, with dozens of aircraft launching, recovering and conducting training activity over a period of several days.  Against that backdrop, it would be difficult to pick out dedicated strike aircraft, which could "arm-up" in their shelters, launch and head to a range area over the Mediterranean, before switching off their transponders and turning towards Iran.  

Israel's mastery of tactical deception is matched by their knowledge of U.S. intelligence assets and collection patterns.  The start of any strike against Iran would--likely--coincide with gaps in American satellite coverage and periods when airborne assets (such as the RC-135 and EP-3) are not present.  Those factors would decrease our chances for early detection of an IAF long-range strike against Iran.

As we've noted in the past, one of the greatest limitations faced by the IAF is their limited number of air refueling assets.  With only seven KC-707s in the Israeli inventory (and no more than 4-5 dedicated to the Iran mission), the size of the strike package is limited by the number of fighter aircraft that could be supported by the tankers.  Various estimates put the number of F-15s and F-16s at somewhere between 24 and 42.  However, not all of those aircraft will be putting bombs on target; at least some of the Eagles will be assigned to offensive counter-air missions, performing fighter sweeps ahead of the strikers, to ensure that hostile fighters do not interfere with strike aircraft.

But Israel may have other options that would preclude a round-robin, non-stop bombing mission.  Some sources suggest that Saudi Arabia might be willing to let the IAF utilize some of its installations as a post-strike refueling stop.  That would reduce tanker support requirements and allow the Israelis to dispatch more attack aircraft, but there are no assurances such a deal has been reached, and cooperation with Jerusalem would come at a high cost for the Saudi government.  Still, given the alternative (a nuclear-armed Iran), Riyadh may decide the risk is worth taking.

Another--and more likely--forward basing option is located north of Iran, in Azerbaijan.  Relations between Jerusalem and Baku have grown close in recent years; Israel is a key customer for Azeri oil exports and the IDF has helped Azerbaijan upgrade its military forces and provides critical intelligence information on Iran.  The Baku government has long been suspicious of Tehran, accusing the Iranians of trying to inflame Azerbaijan's Shia majority, who live under one of the few remaining secular governments in the Islamic world.  Almost three years ago, we noted the growing relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan, and most experts agreed that Baku would have no problem with Israel using its bases to support a strike against Iran, provided the IAF presence was limited and not widely publicized.

How important is forward basing for a potential Israeli strike?  According to one study, the availability of Azeri bases would allow strike aircraft to top off in Israeli airspace, fly to the target and land at fields south of Baku.  That would not only reduce the tanker "profile" for the mission, it would also allow the KC-707s to focus on supporting the F-15s, which would need more fuel, particularly if they are engaged by Iranian jets, or those from another Air Force.

And how do you get the strike package from Israel to Iran without being detected?  One scenario frequently discussed by intelligence analysts is assigning commercial call-signs and IFF squawks to the tankers, and sending them along established air routes.  Strike aircraft would fly in close formation with the KC-707 (a technique known as "resolution cell") so the radar return appears as a single, large aircraft.

Using a combination of these measures, the IAF is more than capable of getting a strike package off the ground, across one thousand miles of hostile territory and into Iranian airspace--without U.S. detection.  At that point, President Obama would be faced with an array of unappealing choices, including the prospect of sending American fighters (and their pilots) into a combat environment to "deter" the Israelis.  Not only would we likely lose aircraft and crews, the effort would be classified as the U.S. going to the defense of an arch-enemy, against one of its oldest and closest allies.  Not only is that strategically stupid, it would also represent Mr. Obama's political death warrant.

If the IAF uses forward bases in Saudi Arabia or Azerbaijan, we would be confronted with equally difficult choices.  Do you enter the airspace of other allies to confront or engage the Israelis?  Or, if we decide to punish either country for supporting an Israeli strike against Iran, the regional consequences would be devastating, with a further erosion of American prestige and credibility.

Suffice it to say, Mr. Obama's promise to "shoot down" Israeli war planes heading for Iran was like much of his bluster, unsupported by ground truth and rooted more in rhetoric than reality.  More importantly, virtually everyone who would be impacted by an Israeli strike knows that Obama's vow is just another empty threat, another sign of America's grand retreat on the world stage.                                      






Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Lone Survivor

On June 6, 1944, Bob Sales--and many other soldiers from central Virginia--were on landing craft heading for the beaches of Normandy and an appointment with destiny.  They already knew their units would help form the first invasion wave at a place called Omaha Beach.  Scales and his fellow Virginians quickly discovered they had drawn one of the toughest assignments on D-Day, and few of them would make it back alive.

Mr. Scales, who passed way Monday at the age of 89, described his experiences in a 2011 interview with the Lynchburg (VA) News and Advance:

Unlike anything he could have imagined, German machine guns began to unload “like bees” as they landed, he said. His captain was struck instantly.
Sales said he remembers thinking, “My God, we done lost the captain! What are we going to do now?”
A radio operator for the company, he said he shed the heavy communication device in the water to keep from drowning. He turned and saw that “everybody coming off that boat was being cut down” by bullets. He knew he had to make it to the beach.
Dead bodies were all around and he crawled from one to the next.
“Nothing like this ever crossed my mind,” he said of the horrific scenes unfolding in front of his eyes.


Sales was the only one of the 30 men in his landing craft to survive the day. He said “the blood ran together” with Company A and others that suffered heavy casualties.

At the time of the landing on Omaha Beach, Sales was only 18 years old.  He lied about his age to join the Virginia National Guard before Pearl Harbor.  As the nation geared up for World War II, the guard's 116th Infantry was absorbed into the 29th Division and eventually shipped out for England.  Three companies of the 116th--A, B, and C were drawn from small towns in the Blue Ridge foothills around Lynchburg.  

Company A was largely comprised of soldiers from Bedford.  They were among the first Allied troops to hit the beaches on D-Day and they paid a heavy price.  Mr. Sales estimated that Company A was about "10 minutes ahead" of his unit, and by the time he arrived, many of the Bedford boys were already dead.  A total of 19 were killed approaching the shore, or in their first moments on Omaha Beach.  By the time Allied forces secured a foothold on the Normandy coast, 22 soldiers from Bedford had died.  

For a town with a pre-war population of 3,000, it was a staggering sacrifice--the highest, percentage-wise, of any community in America.  The price paid in blood and lives by the men of Bedford is now commerated in the National D-Day Memorial, which is located near the intersection of Highways 460 and 122, south of town.               

As for Mr. Sales, he survived that terrible day on Omaha Beach, and served in combat for another six months.  His luck finally ran out as Allied forces approached the western bank of the Rhine; Sales was wounded leading a small team of infantry, supported by a tank, against German defenders near the town of Setterich.  For his actions that day, Mr. Sales received the Silver Star.  

By that time, the war was already over for the Bedford veterans of Company A.  As recounted in Alex Kershaw's superb book, The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice, the last man from the town assigned to Company A was evacuated after being wounded in combat near the German-Dutch border on 29 September.  He had missed the D-Day invasion due to ankle injury, suffered in training while in England.  It was a mishap that likely saved his life.

Funeral services for Mr. Sales will be held Thursday at Fort Hill Memorial Park in Lynchburg.  While he lost an eye in combat and spent almost 18 months recovering from his wounds, Sales considered himself lucky.  More than 100 men from Company B died in combat between D-Day and Germany's surrender in May 1945. 
ADDENDUM:  If you're traveling through central or southwestern Virginia, a stop at the D-Day Memorial is worth a stop, and the price of admission.  It's a fitting tribute to the 150,000 Allied troops who stormed ashore n June 6, 1944, and began the final liberation of Europe.  The memorial features the most complete listing of all who died that day, including the boys from Bedford. 

Mr. Kershaw's book is also worth a read.  Not only does he capture the combat experiences of the men in the 116th, Mr. Kershaw also describes war's impact on the home front.  Particularly haunting is the passage when the telegrams began arriving in Bedford, announcing that a local soldier had been killed in combat or was missing in action.  The first telegrams weren't received until mid-July (more than a month after the invasion), and they came in a terrible wave.  There were no military notification teams during World War II to comfort a grieving family; just a telegram from the war department, delivered by a pastor, friend or the Western Union delivery boy.     


Monday, February 23, 2015

Our take on the Academy Awards (in 140 Characters or Less)

From our Twitter feed (@NateHale)

"Brave men like Chris Kyle protect the right of Hollywood libs to feel good about themselves by voting against "war pictures." 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Hollywood's Forgotten Hero

Lt Wayne Morris in the cockpit of his F6F Hellcat during World War II.  The Hollywood actor served as a Navy fighter pilot in the Pacific, shooting down seven Japanese planes (U.S. Navy photo) 

On the weekend when Hollywood celebrates itself--and its "values--it is worth remembering that the film community was once populated with patriots, men and women who actually believed in America and what it stands for.

Such traits were on full display in World War II, when scores of actors--and literally thousands of production staffers--gave up lucrative careers in the entertainment industry and volunteered for military service.  Some became heroes while in uniform; Jimmy Stewart actually joined the Army Air Corps before Pearl Harbor, quickly earned his wings and later served as commander of a B-24 bomber squadron and group, flying more than 20 combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe.  He earned both the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

Eddie Albert, best known for the 60s sitcom Green Acres, commanded a section of landing craft during the invasion of Tarawa in 1943.  His boat rescued at least 40 Marines who were wounded while trying to cross 500 yards of open water and reach the shore.  Military planners had failed to account for a neap tide that left the waters too shallow for landing craft to cross, and put the Marines on the beach.  Mr. Albert, a two-time Academy Award nominee, received the Bronze Star for his actions.

And the list goes on.  Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., developed tactical deception techniques as a Naval Reserve officer, used to great effect in the Mediterranean and Pacific theaters; Sterling Hayden actually completed British commando training but was medically discharged after injuring his leg in a parachute jump.  Undeterred, he returned to the U.S., enlisted in the Marine Corps, earned an officer's commission and went on to fight with the OSS behind the lines in Yugoslavia.  Character actor John Howard--best known as Katherine Hepburn's fiance in The Philadelphia Story--served as executive officer on a Navy minesweeper.  Howard was credited with saving the vessel and its crew after it struck a mine off the southern coast of France, killing the Captain.  for his heroism, Howard was awarded the Navy Cross.

Yet, among all from Hollywood who served, only one became a fighter ace.  That distinction belonged to actor Wayne Morris, who seemed headed for stardom in the late 1930s, after his performance in Kid Galahad, alongside Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis.  At 6'2" with an athlete's physique, Morris looked the part of a heavyweight boxer.  Critics praised his "natural, realistic performance."

Three years later, Morris decided to learn to fly in preparation for "Flight Angels," a "B" feature from Warner Brothers, where he was under contract.  While the film was largely forgettable, Morris discovered an affinity for aviation.  He earned his private pilot's license and with America's entry into World War II, he joined the Naval Reserve.  Morris completed military flight training in 1942 and (like Jimmy Stewart) was initially assigned as a flight instructor.

Determine to fly fighters--and serve in combat--Morris contacted Commander David McCampbell, a relative through marriage who was Commander of Air Group 15, and would become the Navy's leading ace of all time.  "Give me a letter," McCampbell told Morris and few months later, the actor found himself flying F6F Hellcats off the USS Essex.  During his tours in VF-15, Morris flew 57 combat missions, shot down seven enemy aircraft and helped sink five enemy ships.  For his actions, Morris earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

When he returned to Hollywood in 1946, Morris found his acting career had stalled.  Making matters worse, Warner's didn't put him back on the screen until a year later, and for most of the following decade Wayne Morris found himself relegated to low-budget westerns.  He maintained his military connections, remaining in the Naval Reserve (where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander) and performing drill tours between acting roles.

Almost a decade later, Morris mounted a career comeback, receiving good notices for playing a washed-up boxer on Broadway in William Saroyan's The Cave Dwellers.  That same year (1957), Stanley Kubrick cast Morris in Paths of Glory, as a drunken, cowardly French infantry officer in World War I.  Movie-goers who knew of Morris's record as a brave, tenacious fighter pilot appreciated the irony of Kubrick's decision, and the actor delivered: his performance as Lt Roget is remembered as one of his finest.

Sadly, Paths would mark one of final screen appearances.  During a reserve tour on the carrier Bon Homme Richard in 1959, Morris suffered a massive heart attack and died a short time later at a navy hospital in Oakland, CA.  He was 45 years old.

Fifty-five years after Wayne Morris's passing, Hollywood is speculating about this year's competition for Best Picture, which includes American Sniper.  There is general consensus that Clint Eastwood's film about Chris Kyle will lose to one of the other entries, since many academy voters are squeamish about his depiction of the Navy SEAL sniper, who killed 160 enemy combatants with a dedication and determination that some (falsely) depict as racism.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.  Chris Kyle understood the savagery of war, as did Wayne Morris.  It's one more reminder of how much Hollywood has changed over the past 70 years, and not for the better.                                        

Religious Science

Ever wonder why the Muslim world has contributed relatively few scientific breakthroughs since the 13th century?  Or that the number of Nobel laureates from Trinity College, Cambridge (32) is far greater than the total from the entire Islamic universe (10)?

If we were aiming for a show at MSNBC (there are vacancies), or a spokesperson gig at the State Department, we could offer the usual blather about centuries of colonial occupation, oppression, and lack of access to education.  However, this doesn't explain the large number of Muslims who have earned advanced degrees in a variety of fields--and often use their education and skills as a ticket to places that are less oppressive and violent.

Maybe the real answer lies in how some Islamic states utilize their scientific talent.  In countries like Pakistan and Iran, nuclear physics and rocket science have been the "hot fields" for decades, to advance the cause of developing nuclear weapons and the means to drop them on your enemies.  If all of your R&D efforts are focused on creating a thermonuclear device and an ICBM, there won't be much left over for new cancer cures.     

Or perhaps a better explanation can be found in the influence of religious leaders who have dominated the Muslim world since the days of the prophet.  Folks like Saudi cleric Sheikh Bandar al-Khaibari, who recently told a university audience in the United Arab Emirates that the earth does not rotate, and sits at the center of the universe.  According to Al Arabiya, students were "stunned" by al-Khaibari's discovery, including his assessment that planes could never reach their destination if the earth rotated on its axis.  Take that, Galileo and Copernicus!

Watching clips of the exchange, it appears that al-Khaibari received only the mildest of challenges from his audience.  We're guessing the absence of derision or outright laughter wasn't the product of ignorance--it was the fear of ridiculing a respected Saudi cleric and the consequences it might generate. So, students and faculty members stayed quiet.

To be fair, every religion has its share of crackpots and idiots.  And there's never any hesitancy in calling out Christians, Jews, or members of other faiths who offer theories that defy scientific fact (and no, we don't include climate change in that category).  But a different standard applies to the leaders of Islam, and there's the rub: if you can't criticize your theological scholars for something as basic as the earth revolving around the sun, how can you challenge them on scriptural foundation for beheading non-believers, or strapping a bomb to your child's body, so they can kill the infidels? 



Friday, February 13, 2015

The Fabulist and the Reporter

Then and now: Bob Simon in Vietnam; Brian Williams in Iraq.   

There were a couple of reminders this week regarding the state of American journalism.  One reminded us of what it could be, the other of what it has become.

An example of the former could be found in the long career of Bob Simon, the veteran CBS News correspondent, who died tragically in a Manhattan car accident Wednesday night.  He was 73 and there was a certain, bitter irony in his passing, in the back of a livery cab that slammed into a median.  Over a 45-year career at CBS, Simon had reported from more war zones and escaped more close calls than he could count.  But his luck finally ran out on the West Side Highway, far from a distant battlefield.

At the time of his passing, Mr. Simon was celebrating his 16th year with 60 Minutes, where his work won praise and admiration.  A segment from 2012 was one of his best: Simon traveled to the Congo to profile a former airline pilot who decided form a symphony orchestra.  When he launched the enterprise, none of his musicians could read music and few had instruments, but they were undeterred.  For more than a decade, they pursued their passion with an admirable determination.  The piece concluded with the orchestra performing Beethoven's last symphony in a rented warehouse.  As Mr. Simon, noted (fittingly) at the end of the segment, the symphony "has been performed with greater expertise before, but with more joy...hard to imagine."

It was vintage Simon; beautifully written and expertly voiced, the product of decades of experience and patience.  Journalism wannabes who covet the big chair at a broadcast network or cable outlet might remember that Bob Simon was a reporter at CBS for 29 years before that promotion to 60 Minutes.  Before that, he cut his teeth as a foreign correspondent, often reporting from the Middle East.  Covering the first Gulf War in 1991, Simon and his CBS crew were captured by Iraqi security forces near the border with Saudi Arabia, after venturing away from a military-run press tour.

For their troubles, the CBS team spent more than a month in the same prison with Allied prisoners of war, experiencing the same deprivations and abuse as their military counterparts.  Mr. Simon later chronicled the experience in a book, 40 Days, but sometimes expressed guilt over the project, noting that his release (roughly) coincided with the return of western hostages from Lebanon, who spent years in captivity.  Simon's book is a thoughtful, straight-forward account of his time in captivity.  An honest book by an honest reporter.  What a concept.

The current state of journalistic affairs is reflected in the current travails of disgraced NBC anchor Brian Williams.  Anxious to polish his skimpy credentials as a "foreign" correspondent, Williams traveled to Saudi Arabia ahead of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and well, we know what happened next.  The fictitious "downed chopper" incident took on a life of its own, with Mr. Williams telling it over and over again, with new embellishments to enhance his reputation.  The NBC anchor didn't stop telling his whopper until he was called out by crews on the Army chopper who were involved in the incident.

You know what happened next.  As his employer--and the rest of the media--began to dig into Williams's tales of derring-do, they found more lies, including his account of watching a dead body float by his New Orleans hotel during Hurricane Katrina.  Never mind that his luxury digs were in the French Quarter--which did not flood--and no one could support his other claims of contracting dysentery from accidentally ingesting water from the storm, or being rescued from street gangs which stormed the hotel.

And the hits just keep on comin'.  While Mr. Williams has been suspended for six months (without pay), and his name has been literally scrubbed from NBC News, his superiors are still wading through reports of additional lies, supposedly told by their former star anchor.  On at least two occasions, Williams publicly bragged about flying into Baghdad with members of SEAL Team 6, and claimed that a member of the elite unit sent him a piece of the helicopter that was lost on the bin Laden raid.  The Pentagon refused comment on the matter, but former SEALs dismissed it as another fabrication, noting that special ops units "don't take embeds [embedded journalists]" on their missions.

Additionally, questions are being raised about Williams's reporting during the fall of the Berlin Wall.  At various times, he has credited his predecessor, Tom Brokaw, as being the only anchor present when the wall came down in 1989, but on other occasions, Williams (then a reporter for WCBS-TV in New York) has suggested he was there with Brokaw when the wall first began to crumble.  According to a widely-accepted timeline of events (and Williams's own reporting for WCBS) he didn't arrive until 12-24 hours after Brokaw's first broadcast from the wall.

Once upon a time, there were a number of men (and women) at broadcast news organizations with the same skill set as Bob Simon.  They knew how to tackle complex stories, write a script and narrate it flawlessly, all against deadline pressure.  They reported from battlefields without a huge entourage or military minders, and without inserting themselves into the story.   

Unfortunately, many of today's media stars have followed a career track closer to Brian Williams than Bob Simon.  This is not to say they have lied about their accomplishments, or embellished elements of a story.  But like Mr. Williams, many could be described as ambitious and more concerned about climbing the TV news ladder than learning their craft.

As we noted in a recent post, Brian Williams resume was a bit thin when he joined NBC News in 1992; in fact, he was barely a decade removed from being fired from his first reporting job in Pittsburg, Kansas. Yet, that early setback was followed by an improbable, seemingly meteoric ascent which included stops at the Carter White House and extended on-the-job training at a station in Washington, D.C.  From there, it was on to Philadelphia, New York and the network.

By comparison, Bob Simon began his CBS career on the assignment desk, after graduating from Brandeis, studying abroad as a Fulbright scholar and working as a foreign service officer.  In the early days, CBS wasn't sure if Simon had the right stuff to be a broadcast reporter, given his rather pronounced Bronx accent.  Mr. Simon lost the accent and made it on the air covering the news in places like Vietnam, Cyprus and Lebanon.  But he was never viewed as anchor material and didn't get the 60 Minutes gig until he was 57 years old, when the CBS bench had been depleted by budget cuts, layoffs and retirements.

Brian Williams was already the primary substitute for Tom Brokaw--and heir apparent for the anchor chair--when Simon finally got the coveted slot at 60 Minutes, after 30 years of distinguished work.  That alone speaks volumes about the evolution of television news, and what it takes to reach the very top of that profession.  By the time Brian Williams arrived, it was all about finding someone glib and good-looking enough to bring in the maximum number of eyeballs at 6:30.  Reporting skills and personal integrity were clearly optional.
ADDENDUM:  Bob Simon's sojourn in that Iraqi prison provided a brief moment of levity for the detainees.  Among those being held was then-Captain Dale Storr, an A-10 pilot shot down by an Iraqi missile.  Storr had only seconds to escape his stricken jet--no time to get off a Mayday call, and his wingman assumed the flight lead was dead.  Predictably, Saddam's thugs had no interest in providing a complete roster of prisoners, so Captain Storr was listed as KIA; his squadron even held a memorial service for him at their base in Saudi Arabia. 

But the A-10 pilot had survived the shootdown and was taken--along with the other detaineess--to a complex in Baghdad that the Iraqis hoped the coalition would bomb.  And sure enough, it was targeted by Allied aircraft.  Miraculously, all of the prisoners survived unhurt, as the multi-story building collapsed on itself.  Kevin Graman of the Spokane  Spokesman-Review picks up the story from there:

As Storr dug himself out of the rubble he heard American voices, including that of CBS newsman Bob Simon.

“Bob Simon!” Storr thought. “Tell everybody I’m alive.”

“I would,” Simon told him, “but I’m a prisoner, too.”

Storr and other POWs reported the guards sometimes passed on opportunities to beat them, but they never missed a chance to beat Simon.  By various accounts, the CBS correspondent survived in his ordeal (in part) because his Red Cross-issued ID card identified him as Protestant (he was Jewish).  The mistake was eventually uncovered--and Simon was roughed up even more---but the trajectory of the war was already clear, and the Iraqis knew they would have to return captured prisoners.  Their window for killing Bob Simon had passed.







Thursday, February 12, 2015

Loose Lips (You Know the Rest)

The gang at The New York Times is back again, with another breathless exclusive that jeopardizes American strategy--and lives--in a war zone.

According to reporters Matthew Rosenberg and Eric Schmitt, data from a captured Al Qaida laptop has led to a spike in raids against terrorist leaders in Afghanistan over the past four months:

"As an October chill fell on the mountain passes that separate the militant havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a small team of Afghan intelligence commandos and American Special Operations forces descended on a village where they believed a leader of Al Qaeda was hiding.

That night the Afghans and Americans got their man, Abu Bara al-Kuwaiti. They also came away with what officials from both countries say was an even bigger prize: a laptop computer and files detailing Qaeda operations on both sides of the border.

American military officials said the intelligence seized in the raid was possibly as significant as the information found in the computer and documents of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, after members of the Navy SEALs killed him in 2011.

In the months since, the trove of intelligence has helped fuel a significant increase in night raids by American Special Operations forces and Afghan intelligence commandos, Afghan and American officials said."

The increase in missions against enemy leadership is hardly unsurprising.  The "trove" of material taken from al-Kuwaiti's hideout generated plenty of actionable intelligence, giving special forces teams critical information on terrorist locations, communications networks and planned operations.  Obviously, the data was perishable; if SF personnel and the CIA didn't act quickly, they would miss golden opportunities to kill or capture terrorist leaders and disrupt their networks.  

Equally unsurprising is the NYT's decision to run with the story.  The paper rarely gets a leak it doesn't like--or publish--with little regard for the military consequences.  Mr. Schmitt, you may recall, was among the reporters who first exposed NSA's domestic surveillance program.  The merits of that program (and its impact on civil liberties) are open for debate, but the NYT's revelations made it more difficult to track terrorists within our borders, giving them a primer on the scope and scale of electronic collection efforts.        

Indeed, the head of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division, Michael Steinbach, told Congress yesterday that the threat posed by Americans who have fought with ISIS is "far from being under control."  The Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and the senior intelligence official for the Department of Homeland Security also testified, and agreed with Steinbach's assessment.  

Of the dozens of Americans who have gone to Syria or Iraq and trained with terrorists there, “a small group” of them have returned to the United States and are now being tracked by the FBI, sources previously told ABC News. 

But today, Steinbach told lawmakers: "It would not be true if I told you that we knew about all of the returnees. … We know what we know.”

Nevertheless, authorities are “doing the best we can” to keep tabs on Americans and others traveling to Syria or Iraq, and to develop new “processes” to identify travelers, Steinbach said. He suggested automated searches of social media could help deal with the problem. 

Steinbach described ISIS’ online efforts as “dangerously competent like no other group before,” using social media and other Internet forums “to both radicalize and recruit.” 

Apparently, no one asked Mr. Steinbach (or the other officials) about the impact of intelligence leaks on counter-terror efforts.  But it's a fair bet that some of the Americans who fought with ISIS received training on how to cover their trail overseas and upon returning to the United States.  And that process becomes much easier with more information on how we gather intelligence information--and act on it.  

Back in Afghanistan, someone ought to ask if there's been a decline in the number of terrorists killed and captured since the raid that netted al-Kuwaiti.  To be fair, there is always a bit of a falloff when a major Al Qaida or Taliban leader is taken down; other individuals in the network often go to ground, realizing their identities (and place in the operation) may soon be exposed.  But the Times' expose will make it even more difficult to track down other terror figures in the weeks ahead.  Even in Afghanistan, word gets around.  

Additionally, stories like the one published today may increase the risk to U.S. and Afghan personnel assigned to carry out such raids.  Al Qaida and its allies are certainly capable of mounting major deception operations, like the one that killed seven CIA operatives in 2010.  Kicking in the doors of suspected terrorist dens became even more dangerous, since the NYT was kind enough to confirm that we're hot on the trail of al-Kuwaiti's key associates.  

But we shouldn't place all of the blame on reporters and editors who printed the story.  Without the required leaks (this time from "military officials") there would be no exclusive.  And that begs other questions, namely, who are these individuals and why in the hell are they talking to The New York Times while the operation is still underway?  

We're guessing--and it's pure speculation--that the U.S. officials who talked to the paper are civilians and political appointees.  With President Obama's re-formulated strategy against ISIS already under fire, the administration wanted to show it's still mounting aggressive efforts against our enemies.  This is (apparently) an illustration of how Mr. Obama's policies--heavy on SOF and drone strikes, light on conventional forces--can successfully counter terrorists.  

Unfortunately, that theory has a couple of problems.  First of all, Al Qaida, ISIS and other terror organizations have always demonstrated a fair amount of resiliency.  Whack a leader here, and a new one emerges.  And secondly, these decapitation missions--while expertly planned and executed--have little impact on the environment that supports terror networks, particularly those as large as ISIS.  

It will be interesting to see if anyone is punished for this latest leak.  As we've noted in the past, the Obama Administration has been extremely aggressive in going after individuals who divulge classified information--except when they happen to be senior officials.  Last December, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa excoriated Pentagon officials after it was revealed they bungled an inquiry into a leak by former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.  Mr. Panetta was accused of discussing classified information relating to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden with producers of the film Zero Dark Thirty. 

If the latest disclosure goes unpunished, you can assume it came from one of the "big boys" (and girls) who speak without fear of consequences.  Too bad we can't put them at the head of the next SF "stack" entering a terrorist compound in Afghanistan or Iraq.  With their perfumed and pampered asses in the line of fire, they might take a different view on leaks.                                 



Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Closer to the Action

With the recent execution of that captured Jordanian pilot by ISIS, the U.S. is taking steps to improve survival prospects for other aviators who are downed in terrorist-controlled territory.

According to Military Times, American commanders have moved search-and-rescue aircraft and personnel to northern Iraq, placing them closer to areas where U.S. and coalition aircraft fly combat missions.  That will reduce response times, and (hopefully) allow SAR forces to reached downed aircrew members before the bad guys.

Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said some aircraft were recently deployed into northern Iraq as a precaution.

"It increases our ability to respond rapidly," Warren said.

Warren declined to identify the number of troops or aircraft. Reports suggest it includes a detachment of V-22 Ospreys.

The United Arab Emirates, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, halted direct participation in the American-led bombing campaign in December shortly after a Jordanian aircraft crashed in Syria.

There are reports that the UAE, which flys state-of-the-art Block 60 F-16s, halted its participation because of concerns about SAR procedures.  Specifically, UAE officials questioned the basing of key rescue assets in Kuwait, including HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters; HC-130 tanker/C2 platforms and CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.  Even with those crews on heightened alert (probably a 15-minute scramble time), they still faced long missions to target areas in northern Iraq and even greater distances to operating areas in Syria.  

The Pentagon hasn't disclosed where the SAR forces have moved, but it's a fair bet they are co-located with A-10s from the Indiana Air National Guard's 122nd Fighter Wing, which had been operating in Afghanistan.  A total of 12 A-10s from the wing moved to southwest Asia late last year, and have been flying almost daily missions against ISIS targets.  A-10s not only provide close air support for rescue missions; the lead Warthog pilot also typically serves as on-scene commander, coordinating the aerial ballet required to retrieve a downed airman from bad-guy land.  Initially, A-10s were limited to missions in Iraq, but more recently, they have begun operating over Syria as well.  

Describing USAF SAR crews as extraordinarily skilled would be an understatement.  Combat search-and-rescue tactics were developed in Vietnam and since that time, the Air Force has made every effort to rescue aircrew members brought down by enemy fire. A number of rescue pilots, chopper crews and pararescue jumpers (PJs) have given their lives for the SAR mission, in Southeast Asia and the conflicts that followed.  While the basics of the mission remain largely unchanged, the availability of A-10s, the Pave Hawk, night vision equipment and advanced navigation aids allow rescue forces to operate in all conditions.  In fact, most rescue commanders prefer to operate at night, when advanced gear provides a distinct advantage.  

Perhaps the only disconcerting element of the recent SAR controversy was the delayed decision to move assets closer to the fight.  To be fair, there are certain diplomatic requirements that must be met before moving more aircraft and personnel into another country.  Still, it's surprising that SAR elements didn't move at the same time as the A-10s (late November).      

There may be other explanations as well.  Creating an effective SAR operation requires thorough training in rescue procedures--for all aircrew members--and developing a database that can be used to identify downed personnel.  As anyone who's been through SERE (survival, evasion, resistance and escape) training can attest, the chopper crew isn't coming to get you until your ID has been confirmed, and it's safe enough to make the pick-up ("safe" being a very relative term in the rescue world).  If a crew member can't provide the info to verify their identity, or the Pave Hawk crew believes the threat  is too risky, the downed airman will be on the ground for a bit longer. 

At the time the Jordanian pilot punched out in December (reportedly due to mechanical problems) it was unclear if SAR assets were launched in a rescue attempt.  The Pentagon has also been tight-lipped about the familiarity of non-western pilots with our rescue procedures, and if we had the required data to identify a Saudi, UAE or Jordanian pilot in a SAR situation.  

With the re-positioning of rescue assets, those issues have likely been addressed.  It's also quite probable that some of the A-10s are now in northern Iraq, given its role in SAR missions.  However, the Air Force has disclosed little about the Indiana Guard's combat mission against ISIS; when the A-10s and support personnel moved in late November, their new bed-down base was believed to be in Kuwait.  To date, the only footage of the Hawgs in action has come from Iraqi sources, which recorded an A-10 going after ISIS targets in Anbar Province in mid-December

So far, the threat environment over Iraq and Syria has been permissive (readers will note the Warthog in that December video is not dispensing flares as it maneuvers for a target run).  But all it takes is one "golden BB" to bring down a jet, or in the case of the Jordanian F-16, an errant missile from your wingman.  That's why moving SAR assets closer to the action makes a great deal of sense, particularly if you're an aircrew member going after ISIS targets. 
ADDENDUM:  Sources tell Reuters the rescue aircraft, crews and support personnel are operating from an airfield near Irbil, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.  If the A-10s aren't based at that location, they are probably using the field as a forward operating base, landing there to refuel and rearm between sorties against the terrorists.