Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Next Nuclear Incident?













An Air Force WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft, like the one currently deployed to a U.S. base in Great Britian.  The jet's arrival last Friday--coupled with a spike in Iodine 131 levels in Europe--has touched off speculation about a possible Russian nuclear test or reactor mishap (USAF photo)  

***UPDATE/22 Feb/1130EST***

Various military tracking sites report the WC-135 departed RAF Mildenhall in the UK, on an apparent nuclear detection mission over the Barents Sea.  The Constant Phoenix aircraft was accompanied by an RC-135 Rivet Joint SIGINT platform, which monitored Russian reaction and provided threat warning, as required.  Aerial refueling support for the mission is being provided by 3 x KC-135 tankers.

***

President Tump's next National Security Adviser will have to hit the ground running.  Along with the litany of issues already on the plate, the new NSA may also inherit a nuclear incident involving Russia.

And we're not referring to Vladimir Putin's on-going efforts to expand his nation's nuclear arsenal, including the recent cruise missile deployment that violated the INF treaty. According to various media outlets, Moscow deployed the SSC-8 missile system last December, during the waning days of the Obama Administration.  While President Obama and his advisers were aware of the deployment, they did not respond, pushing that responsibility off on Mr. Trump and his fledgling national security team.

While the SSC-8 has the range to threaten European capitals and NATO bases from launch positions in Russia, it may not represent the most immediate nuclear issue.  Over the past month, there have been indications that Moscow may conducted some sort of small-scale nuclear test, probably in the Arctic Region, or suffered a reactor mishap in the same area.  A French nuclear safety institute recently released a summary of radioactive material detected across the continent:

Iodine-131 (131I), a radionuclide of anthropogenic origin, has recently been detected in tiny amounts in the ground-level atmosphere in Europe. The preliminary report states it was first found during week 2 of January 2017 in northern Norway. Iodine-131 was also detected in Finland, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, France and Spain, until the end of January. 

Iodine-131 is a radionuclide with a short half-life (T1/2 = 8.04 day). The detection of this radionuclide is proof of a rather recent release.

[snip]

It must be pointed out that only particulate iodine was reported. When detectable, gaseous iodine is usually dominant and can be estimated to be 3 to 5 times higher than the fraction of particulate iodine.

[snip]

The data has been shared between members of an informal European network called Ring of Five gathering organizations involved in the radiological surveillance of the atmosphere. In France, IRSN is responsible for monitoring the radioactivity of the atmosphere on a nation-wide scale. Its surveillance network OPERA-Air includes high-volume aerosol samplers (700 to 900 m3 of air per hour) and measurement equipment capable of detecting trace amounts of radioactivity.

No explanation has been given for the sudden detection of Iodine 131 across Europe.  There has been no confirmation of a resumption of nuclear testing by Russia, or reports of a reactor incident in the Arctic region.

But the area was once a key component of Moscow's nuclear research and development effort.  During the Soviet era, the Novaya Zemlya archipelago was the site of more than 200 nuclear weapons tests, both above and below ground.  In 1961, the Soviets conducted the largest atmospheric nuclear blast in history, the Tsar Bomba test, with an estimated yield of more than 50 megatons.  All told, the scores of nuclear blasts conducted at Novaya Zemlya had a collective yield of more than 265 megatons of TNT; for comparison, all detonations during World War II (including the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) had a combined yield of only two megatons.

The last official nuclear test at Novaya Zemlya occurred almost 30 years ago, but sub-critical experiments, involving only a few grams of weapons-grade plutonium, have been conducted on a yearly basis since the late 1990s.  Additionally, some analysts believe there may have been a larger test staged at the site in 1997, based on a small earthquake detected beneath the ocean.  The event, which occurred in mid-August of that year, may have been triggered by a small nuclear test, measuring between 100 and 1,000 tons of TNT.  Russia has long been interested in perfecting nuclear weapons with very small yields, perhaps for use in penetrating or silo-busting bombs and warheads.

There have also been rumors of renewed activity at Novaya Zemlya in recent months, ahead of the Iodine 131 release.  But so far, no linkage has been established between the reported activity and detection of Iodine 131 at monitoring stations across Europe.  The Russian Navy's Northern Fleet also maintains an extensive presence in the area, including nuclear-powered surface vessels and submarines stationed at bases on the Kola Peninsula.  But there has been no confirmation of any recent mishaps involving those units.

Whatever the source, the spike in Iodine 131 has attracted the attention of the Department of Defense, which dispatched a WC-135 Constant Phoenix "sniffer" aircraft to the U.K. on Friday.  Part of the 55th Wing at Offut AFB, Nebraska, Constant Phoenix is equipped to detect radioactive particulate and gases released after a nuclear explosion. There are only two WC-135s in the active inventory (and one of the aircraft is said to be in depot maintenance), making the deployment highly significant, particularly in light of on-going requirements to monitor nuclear activity in North Korea.  On occasion, the WC-135 has stopped at RAF Mildenhall before heading to the Far East, but there has been no indication the Phoenix bird that arrived Friday has continued a deployment flight to Asia.

Assuming the operational focus is Russia, the WC-135 will conduct collection flights in the coming days--if they're not already underway.  Data gathered by Constant Phoenix will help U.S. policy makers determine the source of the Iodine 131, and formulate a potential response.  Particulate iodine would be more consistent with some sort of low-level nuclear detonation, while the gaseous variant is often associated with a reactor mishap.  To date, levels of Iodine 131 detected in Europle have been well below those reported after the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980s, or the more recent Fukushima mishap in Japan.

If Russian has resumed low-level nuclear testing--and that's a very big "if" at this point--it will create another contentious issue between Moscow and Washington, landing squarely on the desk of the new NSA.  Confirmation of testing, coupled with the afore-mentioned cruise missile deployment, would demand a response from the U.S., while many at the White House favor a more collegial approach.  Threading that sort of needle will be Job #1 for Mike Flynn's replacement.  To be sure, this incident began unfolding while Barack Obama was still in office, but to no one's surprise, he punted to the incoming administration.

Welcome to the West Wing.

***ADDENDUM***
Strategic Sentinel, which covers a variety of military and intelligence topics, reports the WC-135 has not flown since deploying to the U.K. 
         


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Death in Malaysia

It sounds like something from a second-rate spy novel, or a B-grade gangster film.   But it's not the stuff of fiction; it's the story of family rivalry, money, political assassination and North Korea.  And it happened in Kuala Lumpur just hours ago.

Kim Jong-nam, half-brother to DPRK dictator Kim Jong-un, died at a hospital in the Malaysian capital, apparently after being poisoned by a pair of female North Korean operatives.  More from Reuters:

Malaysian police official Fadzil Ahmat said the cause of Kim's death was not yet known, and that a post mortem would be carried out.

"So far there are no suspects, but we have started investigations and are looking at a few possibilities to get leads," Fadzil told Reuters.

According to Fadzil, Kim had been planning to travel to Macau on Monday when he fell ill at the low-cost terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).

"The deceased ... felt like someone grabbed or held his face from behind," Fadzil said. "He felt dizzy, so he asked for help at the ... counter of KLIA."

Kim was taken to an airport clinic where he still felt unwell, and it was decided to take him to hospital. He died in the ambulance on the way to Putrajaya Hospital, Fadzil added.

South Korea's TV Chosun, a cable-TV network, reported that Kim had been poisoned with a needle by two women believed to be North Korean operatives who fled in a taxi and were at large, citing multiple South Korean government sources.

Claims that Kim Jong-nam was poisoned could not be verified by Reuters.  A spokesman for the ROK foreign ministry declined comment on the matter and there was no immediate reaction from South Korean intelligence agencies.  

But the "hit"--if it can be confirmed--would hardly be surprising.  Since taking power after the death of his father in 2011, Kim Jong-un has ordered the execution of more than 40 high-ranking officials and family members, including his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was appointed to guide him through the transition process.  Some of the executions have been particularly brutal, even by Pyongyang's standards.  Two officials were killed with anti-aircraft guns; another was murdered with a mortar.  

Despite this bloody history, the assassination of Kim Jong-nam is puzzling.  He was something of a black sheep in North Korea's ruling family.  The son of one of Kim Jong-il's mistresses, Kim Jong-nam was only briefly viewed as a serious contender for power--and whatever chance he had vaporized in 2001, when he was detained in Japan, after trying to enter the country on a forged passport.  

Instead, Kim Jong-nam spent much of his time outside the DPRK, traveling to countries like Malaysia, which allows North Koreans to enter without a visa.  He also made periodic excursions to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Macau, home to some of the banks which handle the money of the DPRK's ruling elites.  Kim Jong-nam was conspicuously absent from his father's funeral six years ago, and said publicly that he opposed "third generation succession," an obvious reference to his half-brother, the latest member of the Kim dynasty to lead North Korea's oppressive, communist government.  

Still, Kim Jong-nam was more of an embarrassment or public relations problem than a threat to North Korean leadership.  So, why go to the effort of dispatching an assassination team to Malaysia to bump off the 'ner-do-well half brother?  Some analysts believe that Kim Jong-un and
"regime loyalists" had him marked for death long ago.  But the real answer may lie in Kim Jong-nam's lifestyle, and how that presented a potential threat to the regime.  


By North Korean standards, Kim Jong-un's half-brother lived a luxurious lifestyle, with the freedom to travel wherever he chose.  And someone had to pick up the tab.  That "someone" was the North Korean treasury, run by the current dictator.  There are reports that Kim Jong-nam's "allowance" was terminated in 2012, for criticizing its succession policy.  He was reportedly kicked out of a luxury hotel in Moscow (another favorite haunt) after running up a $15,000 bill he was unable to pay.  Yet, he still lived a nomadic existence, and at least some of his travel and living expenses were still being paid.  

Yet, it is also noteworthy that the hit occurred in the economy terminal of the Kuala Lumpur airport, suggesting that Kim Jong-nam wasn't enjoying the jet set style he once lived.  And that raises an obvious question: if Kim Jong-il's older son was experiencing cash flow problems, was he exploring a potential solution to those ills, namely a defection?  Traditionally, South Korea has payed handsomely for high-ranking political and military defectors from the North.  Securing the defection of a member of the ruling family would be an enormous propaganda victory for Seoul--and provide ample reason for Kim Jong-un to dispatch his assassins.  

And, for a man long out of favor in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-nam might have something else of value: details on the Kim family fortune and how North Korea's ruling establishment hides their wealth.  Such information would be extremely helpful in future sanctions against the DPRK; if senior political officials and military officers couldn't access their money, it would weaken Kim Jong-un's hold on power.  A recent diplomatic defector--the former number two diplomat at the North Korean embassy in London--told ROK debriefers that Kim Jong-un's grip is slipping, although there is little outward evidence to support that claim.  

Was Kim Jong-nam about to flee to South Korea or the west?  We may never know.  Available evidence suggests that any contacts between Kim Jong-nam and foreign intelligence services was tentative--if they existed at all.  He was apparently traveling alone, with no handlers or protection, allowing DPRK operatives to get close enough to administer a lethal dose of poison.  

This much we know: Kim Jong-nam did enough to get himself killed, simply by being a perennial embarrassment to Pyongyang, or engaging in activities deemed far more dangerous by his younger brother.  And, an accurate accounting of  those "activities"--if it ever comes--may provide a much better picture of North Korea's newest tyrant and what's really going on inside the hermit kingdom. 
***ADDENDUM**
  
Updated media coverage has offered a few more details, but those "revelations" must be taken with a large grain of salt.  Outlets in South Korea suggest that Kim Jong-un signed off on his half-brother's assassination back in 2011, shortly after taking power.  That raises obvious questions as to why the hit took so long.  True, Kim Jong-nam traveled a lot, but his whereabouts weren't exactly a state secret.  If nothing else, North Korean operatives only had to trail Japanese journalists to find Kim Jong-nam; reporters from various publications in Japan had no trouble locating Kim Jong-il's oldest son, yet the assassination didn't occur until this week.  

Other reporting suggests that DPRK operatives "approached" Kim Jong-nam a few days before the hit and invited him to return to Pyongyang, an invitation he declined.  Given the number of high-ranking officials executed in recent years, Kim Jong-nam decided to take his chances outside North Korea.  His refusal set in motion the long-ordered assassination plot.  

One final note: in an interview with a Japanese reporter, Kim Jong-nam said he made his living from "investments."  That would affirm that he had access to at least a portion of the Kim family fortune, and had details on how much money there is, where it's invested and how it's spent.  That's the kind of information that Kim Jong-nam might have offered to ROK intelligence or a western service, in exchange for asylum, protection and a sizable financial bounty.  Obviously, there's no evidence of such contacts (at least not publicly), but something happened in recent weeks that made Kim Jong-nam's elimination a priority.  We still believe the answer lies in his financial dealings and the billions plundered by the Kim family.             
                            


Monday, February 06, 2017

The Week's Most Under-Reported Story

Amid the hoopla over the Patriots epic Super Bowl comeback and the on-going legal battle over President Trump's executive order on immigration, there was a third story over the weekend, one that deserves much more attention than it's getting.

So far, coverage of this developing scandal appears has belonged largely to the Daily Caller, where investigative reporter Luke Rosiak provided a major update on Saturday.  He learned that three Capitol Hill IT staffers--all brothers--have been "relieved from their duties" for allegedly accessing Congressional computer networks without authorization.  Previous accounts suggested the three were under investigation only for stealing computer equipment from the various Congressmen who employed them. 

Three brothers who managed office information technology for members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and other lawmakers were abruptly relieved of their duties on suspicion that they accessed congressional computers without permission.

Brothers Abid, Imran, and Jamal Awan were barred from computer networks at the House of Representatives Thursday, The Daily Caller News Foundation Investigative Group has learned.

Three members of the intelligence panel and five members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs were among the dozens of members who employed the suspects on a shared basis. The two committees deal with many of the nation’s most sensitive issues and documents, including those related to the war on terrorism.

Also among those whose computer systems may have been compromised is Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida Democrat who was previously the target of a disastrous email hack when she served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 campaign


The brothers are suspected of serious violations, including accessing members’ computer networks without their knowledge and stealing equipment from Congress.

All there were "shared staffers," working for multiple Congressional offices which contributed towards their salary and benefits packages.  Along with Wasserman-Schulz, Imran Awan also worked for two members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), Democratic Representatives Andre Carson of Indiana and Jackie Speier of California.  

Jamal Awan handled IT functions for Texas Democrat Jaoquin Castro, who serves on both the intelligence and the House Foreign Affairs committees.  He also worked for Louisiana Democrat Cedric Richmond, a member of the Homeland Security Committee.  Abid Awan was an IT specialist for Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who was elected to the Senate in November.  He performed similar duties for Florida Congresswoman Lois Frankel, who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee. 

The Daily Caller account differs significantly from a brief item in Politico, which appeared on Thursday.  That initial report emphasized the theft element of the allegations, mentioning the illegal access of Congressional systems only in passing.  As Mr. Rosiak's report indicates, that latter charge could be far more serious, given the classified material that some of the representatives have access to.  

And for that matter, federal officials still haven't revealed which systems were breached.  Members of the intelligence committee, for example, are cleared for information to the Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI) level and various special access programs (SAP), which include the crown jewels of American intelligence.  Members of the foreign affairs panel are also typically cleared to the TS/SCI level.  

That means the Congressmen (and women) who employed the Awan brothers had access to at least three computer networks; the Congressional version of NIPRNET, used for routine, unclassified information; SIPRNET (which handles information up to the Secret level), and JWICS, which is cleared for material at the TS/SCI level.   

At this point, we don't know if the three men held security clearances, or the current status of their access to classified information.  Media coverage suggests the brothers were among five Hill staffers under investigation since last year; in many cases, the opening of a criminal inquiry is sufficient grounds to suspend a clearance, and with it, access to information stored and transmitted on SIPRNET and JWICS.  

As with any other governmental organization, classified material may be accessed or reviewed at only designated places on Capitol Hill.  But if the Awan brothers had security clearances--and the ability to access SIPRNET or JWICS accounts assigned to members of Congress--they could review or even copy extraordinarily sensitive information, material that (if revealed or passed to a hostile power), could cause extremely grave damage to national security.  

At this point, it must be cautioned that the clearance status of the three men has not been revealed.  But, given the committee assignments of the Congressmen they worked for, it would be unusual for the brothers not to have a security clearance (emphasis ours).  And, if the brothers had active clearances, they would have access to areas where Congressmen and their staffers review classified material, including Sensitive Compartmentalized Intelligence Facilities (SCIFs) where TS/SCI information is retained.  With the user IDs and passwords of Congressional representatives and/or staff members, they could access and even download reams of classified material.  

Again, no federal official has stated publicly that the Awan brothers used this technique.  But it's a convenient and effective means of gaining access to the nation's secrets.  According to The New York Times, investigators looking into the activities of  NSA traitor Edward Snowden determined that the system administrator likely used the passwords of colleagues or supervisors to access classified information, and to partly cover his tracks.  Snowden also used "web crawler"  software to "scrape" information out of NSA archives, following links in classified documents, and copying everything in its path.  The insider attack was relatively simple, but devastatingly effective, allowing Snowden to gather vast amounts of intel secrets, which he later shared with Wikileaks and Russian intelligence services.  

So far, there is no confirmation that the Capitol Hill IT staffers engaged in similar activities.  But with the right clearance, need-to-know and access to the login info for superiors and colleagues, they were in a position to access highly classified information.

Unfortunately, there are a number of unanswered questions about this incident, and it's unclear if more information will be forthcoming.  A number of issues related to this investigation strike us as curious, to say the least.  Among them:

1)  Where is the FBI?  Obviously, Congress operates by its own rules, but the unauthorized access of government computer systems is a federal crime, and falls under the bureau's purview.  But limited press coverage suggests the investigation is being run by the Capitol Hill police.  Perhaps Mr. Rosiak can do a little additional digging and determine what role--if any--if being performed by the bureau.  

2)  Exactly what systems were accessed?  The Daily Caller specifically refers to IT systems, in the plural, based on information provided by the Capitol police and the House Sergeant-at-Arms.  In this case does "systems" refer to computers in each members' office (which are linked to the wider, unclassified network), or unclassified and classified systems?  

3)  How did the Awan brothers gain employment on Capitol Hill?  The youngest, Jamal, is only 22 years old and began working in the House when he was only 20.  What particular IT skills did the men offer that landed them high-paying jobs working for members of Congress?  Records show each of the men had annual salaries of $160,000 each, roughly three times the average IT salary on the Hill. 

4)  Why did House security managers ignore warning signs about Abid Awan?  His car was re-possessed in 2009 and he declared bankruptcy in 2012, facing multiple lawsuits.  Recurring financial problems are among the most common reasons for suspending (or terminating) a security clearance, but there are no indications that Mr. Awan lost his clearance--assuming her had one--or access to Congressional IT systems until the investigation began last year.  

5)  Finally, what is the role of Hina Alvi in all of this?  Ms. Alvi is a female House IT staffer who works for many of the representatives that employed that Awan brothers, along with the House Democratic Caucus.  She is also their landlord, listed as owner of the Lorton, Virginia home where them men have lived in recent years.  Public records indicate there are multiple mortgages on the property. She is also the wife of Imran Awan.     

Currently, the Capitol Hill IT scandal is barely a blip on the D.C. radar scope.  But don't be surprised if it metastasizes into something far beyond a "procurement" matter.

***ADDENDUM***

PJ Media reports that some of the IT staffers under investigation are still working.  The reason?  As "shared employees," they must be terminated by all members of the House who employ them.  Imran Awan and Alvi remained employed by at least one Congressman as of Monday evening, though their access to House IT systems has been blocked.   

And We're Back....

...despite popular demand, after a two-month sabbatical.  We'll try to be more diligent in posting, while offering other opinions at the rate of 140 characters per message.

Don't say you weren't warned.  

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Final Justice for Major Anderson



















 USAF Major Rudolf Anderson, who died when his U-2 was shot down over Cuba on 27 October 1962.  The event pushed the U.S. and the Soviet Union closer to nuclear war; intelligence information discovered later suggests that Fidel Castro may have played a key role in the incident (USAF photo via Wikipedia)


Various pundits and politicians--as they often do--made fools of themselves over the weekend, offering effusive praise for Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who finally assumed room temperature at the age of 90.

El Commandante was a hero to leftists around the world, who conveniently ignored his real record as a brutal despot who killed thousands in his gulag, and thousands more through the deprivations that come with a failed, socialist economic system.  Castro was hailed for Cuba's "advances" in education and health care, but such claims masked the reality of everyday life in Fidel's Workers Paradise. The Cuban leader gave everyone a taste of poverty, with little access to basic consumer goods and services that were readily available in other Latin American countries.  No wonder that so many took to the seas in rickety boats, trying to escape Castro's living hell.  We may never know how many drowned attempting to cross the Florida Strait, or disappeared in the regime's prisons after being recaptured by the Cuban coast guard.

Of all the tributes to Castro, none was more pathetic than the eulogy offered by Justin Trudeau, Canada's liberal prime minister.  In a statement released shortly after the dictator's death, Mr. Trudeau noted that the Cuban dictator was a "controversial" figure, but praised his "tremendous dedication and love for his people."  That was too much for Senator Ted Cruz of Texas; the son of a Cuban immigrant who was forced to flee the island because of Castro's tyranny.  As Mr. Cruz tweeted:



Unfortunately, President Obama's comments on Castro's passing weren't much better.  In an official statement, Mr. Obama whitewashed the dictator's decades of killing and enslaving the Cuban people, unwilling to say anything that might jeopardize the recent "normalization" of relations between Havana and Washington.

There were celebrations in Miami (and elsewhere) when Castro's death was announced, and rightfully so.  Virtually everyone in the Cuban exile community--or a member of their family--experienced Fidel's terror first-hand.  For them, his appointment with the Grim Reaper was long overdue, and they can take some solace in the thought that Castro is receiving his eternal punishment.

The same holds true for the friends and family of U.S. military members who perished as a result of Castro's actions.  That list includes eleven airmen who were crew members on RB-47 reconnaissance aircraft that went down during and after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.  The same holds true for members of the Alabama Air National Guard who were shot down during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.  On temporary assignment to the CIA, they flew B-26s that provided air support for Cuban exiles trying to establish a beachhead and begin the liberation of their country.  The Alabamians died while President Kennedy refused to commit a much larger American force to the fight.  Their sacrifice wasn't acknowledged by the CIA until almost 20 years later, and the agency refused to comment publicly on their mission until the late 1990s.    

Castro's passing may also offer some closure for the family of USAF Major Rudolf Anderson, who found himself literally in the cross-hairs of the missile crisis, and became the only American to die in action over Cuba.  A graduate of the Air Force ROTC program at Clemson University, Anderson earned his pilot wings and flew F-86s during the Korean War.  Five years later, he was selected for the U-2 program and quickly established himself as one of the best at piloting that difficult and unforgiving aircraft.

When the missile crisis began, Anderson was part of the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, based at Laughlin AFB, Texas.  With more than 1,000 hours in the "Dragon Lady," it was a given that Anderson would be among the pilots flying the daily, high-altitude missions over Cuba.  Launching from their base in west Texas, the U-2s would head east across the Gulf of Mexico.  Over Cuba, the U-2 pilots would typically fly a long, looping track over suspected missile sites and other facilities before heading north and recovering at McCoy AFB, near Orlando, Florida.  Missions staged from McCoy followed a similar path, with the pilot flying on to Laughlin after photographing targets in Cuba.

The U-2 missions began in early October and by the mid-month, photographs collected by the U-2 confirmed what the CIA had suspected.  Russia had placed nuclear-capable, intermediate range missiles in Cuba, placing much of the CONUS under the threat of nuclear attack.  As tensions mounted and the U.S. implemented a naval blockade, the U-2 flights continued, providing valuable intelligence for President Kennedy and his military advisers.

But there were growing concerns about the potential vulnerability of the U-2s and their pilots.  Along with the nuclear delivery systems, the Russians had also deployed SA-2 surface-to-air missiles.  Two years earlier, an SA-2 downed a CIA U-2 over the Soviet Union, leading to the capture of pilot Francis Gary Powers and an embarrassing international incident.  As the crisis wore on, there was mounting fear that a Cuba-based SA-2 would again engage a U-2.  At altitude, there was little a pilot could do, except fly an S-shaped maneuver, designed to increase the "miss" distance between his aircraft and the early-generation SAM.

Anderson was on the flying schedule for 27 October, one of four U-2 flights scheduled for that day.  Electronic intelligence (ELINT) information confirmed a growing threat to American recce aircraft and three of the U-2 missions scrubbed.  But senior officers at Strategic Air Command (which controlled Air Force U-2 assets) decided to go ahead with Anderson's sortie.  He launched from McCoy, following a mission profile that would carry him over key locations in eastern Cuba, then on to Laughlin.

In the early 1960s, most military pilots had nothing more than their eyeballs to detect enemy missile launches.  The CIA had developed and installed an early radar warning receiver (RWR) in the cockpit of their U-2s.  When a tracking radar (like the one associated with the SA-2) was detected, a yellow light illuminated on the device.  A missile launch was indicated by a bright red light.

American ELINT assets detected a spike in SA-2 radar activity from eastern Cuba, including the site near Banes.  But the RB-47s and other platforms monitoring the signals had no way of providing warning to the U-2 pilots.  Given the escalating SAM threat, the Air Force "borrowed" RWR-equipped U-2s from the CIA, and it is believed Anderson was piloting one of those aircraft on the 27th.

Unfortunately, the spooks were missing key pieces of the puzzle--information that would have likely prompted cancellation of Anderson's mission.  The night before his flight, Fidel Castro visited Russian air defense headquarters in Cuba and urged commanders to put the network on combat status.  Russian officers, increasingly worried about a potential U.S. attack, needed little encouragement.  That's why American ELINT operators noted an increase in "Spoon Rest" and "Fruit Set" radars at SA-2 sites, as Anderson passed overhead.

But Castro's involvement in the U-2 incident may have gone beyond that meeting with Russian air defense commanders.  In 1964, almost two years after the missile crisis, cryptologists at NSA broke a Soviet military cipher and began working their way through old message traffic, hoping to glean additional insights about Russian operations.  A number of messages originated with Soviet forces in Cuba, during the nuclear face-off with the United States.

Some of that traffic provided new--and startling--insights about the status of Soviet air defenses in Cuba.  Several messages alluded to a firefight at the SA-2 site at Los Angeles, near the Cuban naval base at Banes.  Russian commanders at the scene reported the SAM complex had come under fierce attack and their troops responded.  The attackers were never identified, but with no reports of internecine combat among Soviet troops on the island, the assault was almost certainly carried out by Cubans, presumably under the orders of Fidel Castro.

Other reports suggest that Cuba gained joint control of the SAM sites about the same time, a significant change from established Russian operating procedures.  Was the sudden change a product of Fidel's visit to Soviet commanders and the apparent attack on the Banes SA-2 complex?  The answer to that question remains unclear, as does the issue of who was in control when the site launched a pair of missiles against Anderson's U-2.  At least one exploded near the aircraft; shrapnel punctured the pilot's pressurized flight suit; the rapid decompression killed him in a matter of seconds.  Wreckage of the spy plane landed near the SAM complex; some of it remains on display to this day at military museums in Cuba.  Major Anderson's body was returned to the U.S. a few weeks later, after the crisis ended.  He is buried in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, where an F-86 on static display serves as a monument to Anderson's life and sacrifice.

The issue of who was in charge at Banes on that fateful day is critical.  Word of the shoot down quickly made its way to the White House, where JFK and his advisers assumed the Russians made the decision on their own, dramatically escalating the crisis.  And to be fair, the order to fire was made by Moscow's senior air defense officer on the island.  But if his decision was influenced by Castro's lobbying--or a Cuban assault on the Banes complex--it puts his directive in a completely different context.  Subsequent interviews with Cuban and Russian participants have provided confirmation--and denials--of the attack on Banes, and the role of Fidel Castro.  It remains one of the unanswered questions regarding the darkest moment of the missile crisis.  

Despite the loss of the U-2 and Major Anderson, the U.S. never lost interest in aerial reconnaissance over Cuba, and tweaking Fidel whenever the opportunity arose.  In the 1980s, as a junior intelligence officer, I met an F-4 squadron commander with a background in the SR-71.  On one occasion, he amazed us with 8mm "home movies," shot from the cockpit of the Blackbird (amazing).

And, he would gladly tell the story behind another of his prized possessions.  It was a photograph of Castro, greeting Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev as he stepped off the plane in Havana.  Both men are shaking hands, but they are looking straight up.  Their skyward gaze was caused by our squadron commander, who was at the controls of an SR-71 over Cuba that day.  Brezhnev's arrival ceremony was interrupted by the distinctive double sonic boom of the Blackbird, leaving Fidel to explain why the Yanqui air pirates were operating with impunity in his airspace.

In some respects, those flights--which went on for years--provided a measure of justice for Major Anderson and the other U-2 pilots who risked their lives over the island during the missile crisis.  Our departure from Cuban skies was only temporary.  When we returned, it was with a vengence, and there was nothing El Commandante could do about it.                                       

 

   

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Prepare to Board!















J.M.W Turner's famous painting of the Battle of Trafalgar (1805).  The Royal Navy's pending loss of anti-ship missiles on surface combatants will force a return to closer-range engagements, with potentially deadly consequences (Wikipedia image)  



Just another, sad, reminder that Britannia no longer rules the waves.

The Royal Navy--which set the sea power standard for centuries--has announced plans that will further reduce its combat power and leave its ships vulnerable in potential engagements with Russian, Chinese and even Iranian vessels.

From the UK Telegraph:

Royal Navy warships will be left without anti-ship missiles and be forced to rely on naval guns because of cost-cutting, the Ministry of Defence has admitted.

The Navy’s Harpoon missiles will retire from the fleet’s frigates and destroyers in 2018 without a replacement, while there will also be a two year gap without helicopter-launched anti-shipping missiles.

[snip]

Harpoon missiles are unlikely to be replaced for up to a decade, naval sources said, leaving warships armed only with their 4.5in Mk 8 guns for anti-ship warfare. Helicopter-launched Sea Skua missiles are also going out of service next year and the replacement Sea Venom missile to be carried by Wildcat helicopters will not arrive until late 2020.

Without the Harpoon, the strike range of Royal Navy frigates and destroyers will be effectively reduced by 75%.  The U.S.-built Harpoon, introduced more than 30 years ago, can hit surface targets up to 80 miles away.  Without that capability, RN combatants will be forced to rely on their deck guns, which have a maximum range of 17 miles.   

Needless to say, senior British naval officials, past and present, are more than a bit concerned:

Rear-Adml Chris Parry, said: "It's a significant capability gap and the Government is being irresponsible. It just shows that our warships are for the shop window and not for fighting."

Lord West of Spithead, a former First Sea Lord, said: “This is just another example of where the lack of money is squeezing and making the nation less safe.

“We will have this gap of several years without missiles. Well, that’s fine if you don’t have to fight anybody in the meantime.”

The problem, of course, is that we're entering an era when global sea lanes are becoming a contested environment.  Russia is rebuilding its fleet from the ruin of the early 90s and recently deployed a carrier battle group to the eastern Mediterranean, to support operations in Syria.  China is building its own blue-water navy, and will have 4-5 carrier battle groups (with commensurate power-projection capabilities) within the next 10 years.  Even regional powers like Iran and North Korea have sea and shore-based anti-ship missiles that can out-range the deck guns of Royal Navy surface vessels.  

To be fair, the Royal Navy still has strike options beyond a 4.5-inch naval round.  British attack subs, like their USN counterparts, are equipped with Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM), with a maximum range of up to 1,500 miles, depending on the variant.  But the TLAM is most effective against fixed targets, not maneuvering ships, and U.S. plans to halt its production will limit availability for the RN in the future.   

Another strike option is based on Great Britain's two, new fleet carriers, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and the HMS Prince of Wales.  The largest warships ever built in the UK, the carriers will embark an air wing that includes F-35 Lightning IIs and helicopters capable of attacking surface targets.  But the weapons employed on those fixed and rotary-wing assets are range-limited, and the aircraft would have to run the gauntlet of advance air defenses (on Russian and Chinese ships) to deliver their ordnance.  And there are a number of operations where Royal Navy destroyers and frigates will not be operating with a carrier.  

What to do in the decade between retirement of the Harpoon and the arrival of replacement weapons? The Brits can increase joint ops with the U.S. Navy, which will retain an anti-ship missile capability for the foreseeable future.  But even the USN's position is far from optimum; the Harpoon variants in widest service are older models and vulnerable to anti-missile defenses.  Work on a replacement (the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM) is in development, and won't reach the fleet for years.  

Making matters worse, the range of naval strike aircraft is also dropping, thanks to limitations of the F/A-18 airframe and dwindling tanking capabilities within the fleet, so USN Super Hornets and the F-35 will have to run the same air defense gauntlet to get a crack at the surface combatants of peer/near-peer competitors.  Meanwhile, both Russia and China have fielded advanced, supersonic anti-ship missiles (most notably, the SS-N-22 Sunburn) and Beijing has invested heavily in the DF-21, a ballistic system widely touted as a "carrier killer."  Collectively, these systems could create operational "no go" zones for U.S. and allied naval groups, impacting our ability to control global sea lanes. 

That's not to say that deck guns are completely worthless.  They're still quite useful in supporting troops ashore--as long as you can dodge anti-ship missiles launched from coastal batteries.  But even "revolutionary" gun technology has its limitations.  Case in point?  The Long-Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP), developed for the 155mm main gun on the USN's Zumwalt-class destroyers.  While LRLAP is extremely accurate, it's also very pricey at roughly $1 million a round.  

The projectiles are so expensive, in fact, that the Navy has cancelled the planned buy of 2,000 rounds, to be divided among the three Zumwalts that will be built.  A small number will be produced for testing, but the idea of using the weapon to support Marines ashore seems like a pipe dream. Needless to say, the Royal Navy won't be looking at its own version of LRLAP to compensate for Harpoon's retirement.  

In the interim, the RN may have to dust off employment manuals from the eras of Lord Nelson and Admiral Jellicoe.  As we noted on Twitter (@NateHale), Royal Navy surface engagement tactics from 2018 on may look something like this:

1.  Form battle line.

2.  Engage with main guns

3.  Lure enemy into CIWS range

4.  Distribute cutlasses, small arms and prepare to board!  

And the USN doesn't have much room to brag.  As our favorite naval blogger, Cdr Salamander, recently observed, the number of Burke-class DDGs that can no longer fire a Harpoon is both surprising and alarming.                                              
   
    

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Winners and Losers (Election Edition)

The earth is spinning backwards on its axis.  Aliens have landed.  Donald Trump has been elected the 45th President of the United States.

Until about 3 am Wednesday morning, most of the media nobility and political elites would have given you better odds on the first two scenarios.  Mr. Trump, the real estate billionaire and reality TV host was someone who could never be allowed to occupy the Oval Office--especially if it denied the presidency to Hillary Clinton, acclaimed by the same elites to be the "best-qualified candidate of all time."  Never mind that she is (arguably) the most corrupt individual ever to seek the nation's highest office, someone who has clearly committed serious crimes that would send an ordinary person to prison for decades.

Trump was also a flawed candidate, described at various turns as a misogynist, bigot, charlatan, liar and worse--an orange-haired carnival barker with no relevant who experience who offered a "dark vision" (to use a favored Democrat talking point) and appealed to our worst fears.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Mrs. Clinton's appointment with inevitability. Despite having huge advantages in organization, fund-raising and decades on the political stage, she was a terrible candidate.  Clinton couldn't run on her record as a senator (she accomplished nothing) or secretary of state, where, in league with President Obama, she literally set the world aflame.  And if that wasn't enough, she promised more of his policies; fixing Obama care, another bloated stimulus, higher taxes and more government regulation.  Her legal and ethical issues were just rancid icing on a rotten cake.

That's why Trump is making plans for his inauguration while Clinton gave a concession speech that supposedly outlined a "way forward."  You read that right.  Is that a hint at another run in 2020?  One shudders at the prospect of another Hillary campaign, but with the Clintons, you can never rule anything out.  Our guess is that Mrs. Clinton and her husband may have some legal matters to work out between now and then, thanks to that little pay-for-play scheme they perfected during her tenure at State.  A new FBI Director and a de-politicized DOJ may have something to say about that.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  There's still the post-election autopsy, complete with our list of those who succeeded beyond expectations and those who failed ignominiously.

WINNERS

Donald J. Trump.  That may seem like a no-brainer, but the president-elect's road to the White House was anything but conventional--or easy.  Despite his vast wealth, Trump was dismissed as a side-show candidate when he entered the race in 2015.  The "experts" predicted he would fade quickly against the likes of political pros like Jeb (!) Bush.  But Trump knows a little bit about staging, marketing and image-making, thanks to those years on The Apprentice and his successful real estate career.  But more importantly, he championed the issues that resonated with ordinary Americans--illegal immigration; stagnant wages, the failure of Obamacare, the mass-exporting of U.S. jobs to locations overseas.  At times, his effort looked like a dumpster fire (Trump went through three campaign managers) and could be his own worst enemy on the stump.  But in the words of one pundit (more on them in a bit), Trump was the candidate who never quit; he hammered his opponent relentlessly and touted his vision relentlessly.  It paid off last night, in spades.  He not only won the presidency, he reshaped the Republican electoral map and re-ordered the adopted party.  Quite a feat for someone who had never run for elected office.

Kellyanne Conway.  Ms. Conway has been a fixture in Republican campaigns--and on the talking-head circuit--for years.  When she was elevated to the post of campaign manager in early summer, she became the third person to hold that title in less than a year.  While acknowledging her competence, most of the experts doubted that Conway and campaign chairman Steve Bannon could keep Trump on track.  There were inevitable problems--and gaffes.  Trump wasted time in dust-ups that could have been better spent touting his message.  But Conway brought a discipline to the campaign that Trump previously lacked; stream-of-consciousness speeches were replaced with teleprompter addresses that helped eliminate unforced verbal errors.  Ms. Conway is also one of the architects of Trump's "rust-belt strategy" that led him to narrow victories in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and (likely) Michigan that shattered the so-called "blue wall" and gave Trump his electoral win.  Regardless of what happens in the White House, Conway's campaign management was a marvel.  Honorable mentions to staffers like Jason Miller and Jessica Ditto, who played leading roles in Matt Bevin's election as Kentucky governor one year ago.  The parallels between Bevin's triumph and Trumph's winning campaign are strikingly similar.  

The Forgotten Man (and Woman).  Many of the voters targeted by Team Trump were outside the demography of post-modern political coalitions.  Mr. Trump aimed his appeal at individuals who had been cast aside in the rush towards a globalist, post-modern world, including thousands of factory workers who have watched their jobs move overseas since the 1980s.  Or those still at work who haven't had an actual pay raise in 20 years; endured the erosion of their savings during last decade's financial collapse of 2008-2009, and now face skyrocketing healthcare costs under Obamacare.  The forgotten men and women of America cast their lot with Trump and paid a price for their support.  As Michael Goodwin wrote in the New York Post:

"...Trump’s voters often took great risks and were routinely insulted and demeaned for their passion.
But they wore those insults as badges of honor, proudly calling themselves the “deplorables” and the “irredeemables.”

The factory workers, the veterans, the cops, the kitchen help, people who plow the fields, make the trains run, pick up the trash and keep the country together and keep it moving — they are all now winners. As one, these cogs of our daily life rose up in a peaceful revolution, their only weapons the ballot box and their faith in the future.

Trump voters had the courage of their conviction to go against all their betters, all the poobahs and petty potentates of politics, industry and, above all, the fraudulent hucksters of the national liberal media."

And for once, their voice was heard.  

Pat Caddell.  While most members of the pollster and pundit class took a beating this cycle, Mr. Caddell was one of the exceptions.  A veteran of presidential campaigns since the Jimmy Carter era, Caddell has been predicting a middle class uprising against the elites since at least 2012.  In various appearances on talk radio and Fox News, Caddell noted the growing anger from working and middle class Americans over declining economic opportunities, including the loss of jobs, and perceptions that the system is "rigged" against them.  Not sure if Donald Trump listened to Caddell or met with him at some point, but many of the arguments from the Democrat pollster made their way into this year's GOP platform, and netted millions of votes, particularly in the upper Mid-West.  

The Homeless.  This might seem like a strange choice until you remember that members of this group virtually disappear during a Democratic administration.  That doesn't mean there are fewer homeless, it's simply that the media doesn't cover the story as often when a Democrat is in power.  Beginning in January (if not sooner) any homeless person living Trump Tower stands a good chance of getting on the evening news, while the press speculates about the new president's sympathy for the downtrodden. 

Roger Wicker.  The Republican Senator from Mississippi had the herculean (some would say thankless) task of supporting re-election efforts for GOP incumbents in the upper chamber this year.  Republicans had to defend 24 seats, and a number of those were considered vulnerable.  Wicker and his team worked tirelessly to support GOP Senate candidates and their efforts were largely successful.  Incumbents like Ron Johnson (Wisconsin); Roy Blunt (Missouri) and Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania) were considered all-but-dead just a few weeks ago.  All won re-election.  As of this writing, Republicans have lost only two Senate seats, Kelly Ayotte's in New Hampshire and Mark Kirk in Illinois.  Senator Kirk was considered dead meat a year ago, and Ayotte lost by less than 1,00 votes.  But along with the plaudits, Wicker also deserves some darts for missing opportunities.  Darryl Glenn, the retired Air Force officer who took on Michael Bennett in Colorado, ran an underfunded campaign in a light-blue state and lost by only three points.  Glenn didn't get a dime from the RSCC.  

Trafalgar Research. The Atlanta-based polling firm was very accurate throughout the campaign and they did something no one else could--proved there was a reservoir of "hidden" Trump votes, which was completely missed by Trafalgar's competitors.  Company CEO Robert Cahaly discovered a novel way to identify undetected or "under-developed" Trump voters.  Realizing that many supporters didn't want to admit they were voting for the GOP nominee, Cahaly also quizzed voters on who their neighbors were voting for.  When he found someone with two or more neighbors supporting Trump, he assessed the respondent was in the Trump camp as well.  Mr. Cahaly estimates the hidden vote could have been worth up to three points for the Republican candidate and may have provided the margin of victory in the Rust Belt.  

In fairness, we should also salute two surveys that also got it right, polls from the Los Angeles Times daily tracking and the Investors Business Daily.  The LA Times used a different approach, surveying the same sample group throughout the campaign, and they showed a consistent Trump lead.  IBD has had the most accurate poll for the last four election cycles.  There are lessons to be learned from IBD's approach.

The Kremlin. It was obvious early on that V. Putin had a dog in this year's presidential fight, and his name was Donald Trump.  The GOP nominee tirelessly advocated for closer relations with a Moscow regime that annexed Crimea; is actively supporting an insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and conducted an armed intervention in Syria, in support of the Assad regime (and did we mention that most of the Air Force bombing runs have been conducted against U.S.-backed rebels instead of ISIS).  Better yet, a senior Putin aide admitted yesterday that Russian intelligence services "helped a bit" with the stream of Wikileaks revelations unleashed on Democrats over the past six months.  It looks like Putin has his guy in the White House and the impact of U.S. national security policy could be dramatic.    

Losers   

Hillary Clinton.  Difficult to underestimate the scope of Mrs. Clinton's defeat.  As the Washington Post noted, the former senator and secretary of state looking like a "President-in-waiting" just two years ago, with vast advantages in fund-raising, party support and organization.  Now, she's just another failed presidential candidate, with serious legal problems that will dog her in retirement.  And she has no one but herself to blame.  Following the time-honored Clinton tradition of flaunting rules, regulations and the law, Mrs. Clinton elected to create her own e-mail system, triggering the scandal that tainted her campaign, and amplified public perceptions that she is corrupt and untrustworthy.  She offered little in the way of solutions for the nation's problems and by her campaign's own admission (via Wikileaks), Clinton was badly out of touch with middle class voters.  People in places like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennnsylvania already knew that and cast their ballots accordingly.  

The Clinton Foundation.  For decades, the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative were hailed as models of modern philanthropy, delivering financial support and needed services to poor communities arond the world.  But that was a scam, first exposed by author Peter Schweitzer (Clinton Cash) and later by Wikileaks revelations.  Both unearthed a trail of coruption, with Bill and Hill gladly selling access to the U.S. government in exchange for multi-million dollar donations to their charities.  Financial records suggest the organizations were little more than slush funds for the Clintons and their friends.  The list of current/former employees reads like a list of former administration and campaign officials.  Meanwhile, other documents suggest the Clinton charities delivered only 6% of their proceeds to designated programs and there are new revelations that Chelsea Clinton used the foundation to help pay for her lavish $3 million wedding and funded her living expenses for a decade.  While the Clintons touted the FBI's decision not to recommend prosecution for her illegal e-mail activities, they are also aware the agency's probe into the foundation is continuing, and potential indictments/prosecution could shutter the foundation for good.  

Obama's Legacy.  Voters chose Trump to repudiate the Obama agenda.  Eliminating Obamacare, enacting a pro-growth economic plan and restoring America's military strength will go a long way towards reversing the Obama legacy and (rightfully) relegating him to the dustbin of failed presidents.  

Democratic Party.  While Democrats basked in the glory of Obama--and awaited the "third term" with Hillary--something was happening to their party outside of D.C.  Republicans have redoubled efforts to take over more governorships and state legislatures since 2008, and they've been hugely successful.  As Obama and Hillary exit the stage, the GOP controlls 33 governorships and both houses of the legislature in more than 30 states.  Not only does that provide a tremendous advantage in enacting low-tax, low-regulation, pro-growth legislative agendas that are popular with voters, it also gives the GOP a leg up on re-districting and provides a tremendous incubator for rising talent.  Losses at the state level have dramatically thinned the Democratic bench.  As of today, the leading Democratic contenders to take on Trump in 2020 are Hillary Clinton (who will be 73); retiring Vice President Joe Biden (who turn 77) and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who will be 79.  The "kid" of the bunch is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who celebrates her 71st birthday in 2020.  To be fair, Trump will be 74 at the time of a re-election bid, but he presents a far more vigorous image than his Democratic challengers.  And beyond Trump, there is a wide and deep pool of experienced Republican governors and senators who have their own oval office ambitions and many are only in their 40s and 50s. 

Media, Pollsters and the Pundit Class.  This is the post-mortem equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, but there isn't a more deserving group.  Over the past 36 hours, members of the political press; the number crunchers that drive their coverage and "analysts" of all stripes have been forced to admit they got campaign 2016 completely wrong.  We'll begin with polling that offered up a steady diet of surveys based on 2012 turnout models that assumed members of the Obama coalition would turn out in similar numbers for Hillary Clinton.  Even a Poly Sci 101 students would have a hard time buying that argument, but flawed turnout predictors gave us polls that (at varying points) told us the election was in the bag for Clinton.  The LA Times and IDB were viewed at outliers, and could not be trusted. Making matters worse, virtually all pollsters missed the "hidden" Trump vote that carried him to victory.  

As for the media, their coverage was blatantly slanted, at least when it came to Trump and his supporters.  Since Election Night, there have been a fair number of mea culpas from more honest members of the press, confessing they missed the year's biggest electoral trend--the disaffected, working class voter--and didn't do much to look for it.  To be fair, there were exceptions; Salena Zito of the New York Post drove more than 70,000 miles across battleground states and spoke with hundreds of residents who were angry and fed up with politics as usual.  Back in August, she offered growing evidence of a rising Trump tide in places that usually go Democrat:

"..In interview after interview in all corners of the state, I’ve found that Trump’s support across the ideological spectrum remains strong. Democrats, Republicans, independents, people who have not voted in presidential elections for years — they have not wavered in their support.

Two components of these voters’ answers and profiles remain consistent: They are middle-class and they do not live in a big city. They are suburban to rural and are not poor — an element I found fascinating, until a Gallup survey last week confirmed that what I’ve gathered in interviews is more than just freakishly anecdotal.

[snip]

The study backs up what many of my interviews across the state have found — that these people are more concerned about their children and grandchildren.

While Trump supporters here are overwhelmingly white, their support has little to do with race (yes, you’ll always find one or two who make race the issue), but has a lot to do with a perceived loss of power.

Not power in the way that Washington or Wall Street boardrooms view power, but power in the sense that these people see a diminishing respect for them and their ways of life, their work ethic, their tendency to not be mobile. (Many live in the same eight square miles that their father’s father’s father lived in.)

Thirty years ago, such people determined the country’s standards in entertainment, music, food, clothing, politics, personal values. Today, they are the people who are accused of creating every social injustice imaginable; when anything in society fails, they get blamed.

Ms. Zito will testify that evidence of these trends was abundant and readily observable.  So, why did so much of the media miss it?  For starters, there's the inconvenient fact that virtually all of the national media was in the tank for Hillary.  Remember this little happy snap from inside her campaign plane a few weeks ago?  

    



        
                    








Take a look; you may see some familiar faces, including NBC's Andrea Mitchell on the right.  Most of the reporters are wearing looks of absolute adulation, affirming that Secretary Clinton was, indeed, their candidate.  There were also surveys indicating that 86% of donations from reporters (and other members of the media) went to Democrat.  It's more difficult to provide fair and honest coverage when you're already invested in one particular party.   

The other problem stems from the media "bubble" that envelops the press contingent on the campaign plane. Many grew up aspiring to be one of the boys or girls on the bus, and having achieved that goal, they don't want to give it up such a plum assignment.  So, they travel with the candidate from one stop to another, fed a constant diet of leaks, press releases and statements from the campaign.  They arrive at the event site, gather their information, then it's on to the next stop.  There is often minimal contact with the ordinary folks who show up to the candidate, though many reporters expressed "concern" after some Trump supporters yelled crude comments at members of the press, accusing them of being unfair (among other things).  There wasn't much effort--at least, until after the election--to find out why those average Americans were also mad at the media.  

Our guess is the introspection won't last very long.  The media elites who live and work in places like New York, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles really don't have much appetite for dealing with the common folk, who are contemptuously viewed as Bible-thumping, ignorant hayseeds or worse.  Much better to retreat to the comfortable suburbs that surround their urban bubble and start focusing on what a hash Donald Trump will make of things, and tell voters their 2016 insurrection was a mistake.  After all, the folks who anchor and appear on cable news shows or write for Politico are so much smarter than the rest of us, and those rubes in Jesusland will never learn.  

Just one more sign of how divided this country is between the elites and everyone else.  And why members of the chattering class may have been the biggest losers on Tuesday.                                                        

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Gathering Storm (Russia Edition)

This post is being written late Sunday afternoon, about three hours before the second presidential debate from Washington University in St. Louis.  At this point, we (officially) don't know what questions will be posed to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump by moderators Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC, along with members of the studio audience.  But you don't need to be a political pundit to discern that many of tonight's queries will focus on Mr. Trump and his contemptible remarks about women, made to Billy Bush (then a co-host of "Access Hollywood") almost 12 years ago.

Conversely, we'll be greatly surprised if Mr. Cooper, Ms. Raddatz and the audience questioners spend much time outside the realm of the salacious, and actually inquire about issues that actually matter to the nation's security.  And we're not referring to the border, immigration or other issues that are clearly security-related, and have dominated much of the campaign season.  Instead, it's time for a discussion on equally-pressing matters that are reaching the crisis level at hot spots around the globe.

The logical starting point is Russia.  As John Schindler recently noted in the New York Observer, we are facing a likely nuclear standoff with Russia in the Baltics region, probably before President Obama leaves office.  It's no secret that Vladimir Putin has no regard for the American leader, and he is determined to inflict another humiliation on Mr. Obama before he leaves office.

It’s long been obvious that Vladimir Putin and his inner circle view Barack Obama with utter contempt. To the hard men in Moscow, who got their schooling in the KGB, our diffident, wordy Ivy League lawyer president is a weakling—almost a caricature of everything they despise about the postmodern West.

Here the Kremlin mirrors most Russians, who find Obama a puzzling and contemptible man. This is nothing new. I’ve heard remarkable put-downs of our commander-in-chief for years, going back to 2008, even from the mouths of highly educated Russians. Their comments are invariably earthy, insulting, and nowhere near politically correct.

It’s therefore no surprise that Russians view Obama with contempt—and so does their leader. As our president winds up his second term and prepares to move out of the White House, the Kremlin simply isn’t bothering to hide that contempt any longer, even in high-level diplomacy, where a modicum of tact is expected.

Of course, Mr. Obama hasn't exactly helped his cause by ignoring Russian provocations and refusing to make tough choices--and stand behind them.  That non-existent "red line" in Syria was followed by Putin making (and keeping) his own vow to support long-time ally Bashir Assad.  Pentagon analysts claim Russia's military efforts in Syria have been far from a victory, but that misses the central point.  Putin didn't go to war to defeat ISIS; his primary objective was to prevent Assad's military collapse and weaken the U.S.-backed rebel groups trying to depose his regime.  By those metrics, the deployment has been successful.

The Russian President has derived additional benefits by showing off his modernized arsenal, and vowing to challenge the U.S. and NATO.  In recent months, Moscow has deployed two advanced surface-to-air missile systems to Syria, to protect its forces and Assad's troops from western air attack.  Shortly after the second system (the SA-23) arrived, a senior Russian military official vowed to attack U.S. aircraft over Syria, if they pose a military threat.  

And, upping the ante even more, Putin is dispatching a carrier battle group to the eastern Mediterranean, extending his air defense network well beyond the Syrian coast, and posing a potential threat to U.S. naval forces in the region. Defense analysts have speculated that any American attack against Assad would likely be a cruise missile strike, mounted by ships and submarines assigned to the 6th Fleet. 

Mr. Putin is also on the move in Europe.  Elite airborne units--potentially useful in operations against Ukraine and the Baltics--have been training west of Moscow, near Russia's borders with Poland, Latvia and Estonia.  In some instances, airborne elements have deployed out of garrison with a full complement of equipment, rehearsing mobility skills that would be useful during future operations.  The most recent airborne drills come on the heels of a command post exercise involving many of the same units; it's a textbook example of the building-block approach favored by the Russian Army (and other military elements around the world).  Start off with the command units, then broaden the exercise to include troops in the field.  

But the airborne drills aren't the most disturbing aspect of Russia's on-going military activity.  Concurrently, Moscow is holding a massive civil defense drill, involving more than 20,000 Radiological, Chemical and Biological defense troops and other first responders, along with upwards of 40 million civilians.  The exercise scenario is reportedly based on a limited nuclear conflict between Russia and the west, a concept Russia has embraced in military doctrine developed over the last 20 years.  With the loss of massive conventional forces that were disbanded with the fall of the USSR, Russian doctrine is now built around the potential first use of nuclear weapons, and employment of defensive measures to protect key military, economic and leadership assets.  

While this doesn't mean a nuclear conflict is Miminent, there are other, troubling signs that should give everyone pause.  In recent days, Moscow has deployed SS-26 Iskander ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave that lies between Poland and Lithuania.  The SS-26 has a maximum range of 435 NM; it is extremely accurate and (as you might have guessed) it can carry a nuclear warhead.  From launch positions in Kaliningrad, the Iskander can strike targets throughout Poland and even reach Berlin--a fact that isn't lost on our increasingly nervous NATO allies.  

This is not the first time the SS-26 has been dispatched to Kaliningrad, but given the current tensions, Putin is using the deployment to send a very clear signal.  With Obama in the White House, he views NATO as rudderless and weak, and Putin ratchet up the pressure to further divide the alliance during the run-up to our presidential election.  

So far, the response from Washington has been muted, to say the least.  There was a blistering comment from the Army Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, who warned "those who wish to do us harm" that the U.S. military, "despite all our challenges," will stop you, and we will beat you harder than you have ever been beaten before."  But Milley's superiors, including the Commander-in-Chief, have been remarkably silent in the face of Russia's latest provocations.  

Maybe it's the long holiday weekend (our hard-working federal bureaucrats are enjoying a three-day break for Columbus Day).  Or perhaps the president's political advisers counseled against a high-level statement ahead of last night's debate.  Or maybe our latest bluster over Syria will go the same way as that infamous red line of a few years ago.  Put another way: we don't have anything beyond rhetoric, and Mr. Obama leaves office in less than 100 days.  He is quite happy to play out the string and leave the Baltics as yet another mess for his successor.  

But he may not get off that easy.  Putin is quite aware of how America is now perceived on the world stage and he understands the potential impact of one last humiliation before Obama exits the White House.  A Baltic version of the Cuban missile crisis?  Don't discount that possibility.
***
ADDENDUM:  As predicted, the Baltics didn't make the cut for questions in last night's presidential debate.  Russia was mentioned, in the context of hacking and trying to influence the U.S. election next month.  But the looming crisis on NATO's eastern flank was conveniently ignored--rather curious considering that one of the moderators, ABC's Martha Raddatz, has reported extensively on national security issues.  Then again, Ms. Raddatz (along with CNN's Cooper) seemed to abandon at pretense at impartiality, interrupting Trump five times more often than they challenged Clinton.  Against that backdrop, it's no surprise that Russian moves in the Baltics never entered the debate.