Monday, May 23, 2016

Idiot of the Week (VA Edition)

It's been far too long since our dubious honor was bestowed and we appeared to have an easy winner in Bill Kristol, the neocon pundit who's been trolling for a third party candidate to run against Trump and Hillary.  So far, he's had no luck in finding anyone who's willing to waste six months (and hundreds of millions of dollars) in a futile bid against the presumptive GOP and Democratic nominees.

To be fair, the contest between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton is a bit like deciding between arsenic and hemlock; the outcome will be grim, perhaps fatal, regardless of your choice.  But the idea of recruiting a candidate who would personally deliver the White House to Hillary Clinton is nothing short of a suicide run.  For that alone, Dr. Kristol would normally be a slam-dunk for Idiot of the Week.

Luckily for him, VA Secretary Robert McDonald jumped into the gap and rightfully claimed the booby prize.  In case you haven't heard, the man charged with fixing our broken veterans' health care system told a Washington breakfast that wait times for medical services really don't matter; it's the experience that "counts:"

More from Sarah Westwood at the Washington Examiner:

[The] Veterans Affairs Secretary on Monday compared the length of time veterans wait to receive health care at the VA to the length of time people wait for rides at Disneyland, and said his agency shouldn't use wait times as a measure of success because Disney doesn't either.

"When you got to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what's important? What's important is, what's your satisfaction with the experience?" McDonald said Monday during a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters. "And what I would like to move to, eventually, is that kind of measure."

 [snip]

McDonald faced questions at the breakfast about the VA's lack of transparency surrounding how long veterans must wait to receive care at VA facilities around the country. The agency has weathered controversy over the past several years due to its struggle to provide timely care for many patients.

The VA secretary said most veterans report being satisfied with their care and argued that the average wait time for a veteran seeking VA treatment is only a matter of days.

He said he did not believe a measure called the "create date," which gauges a veteran's wait time by counting from the day the veteran first requests care, was a "valid measure" of a veteran's VA experience.

Of course, Secretary McDonald is wrong on all counts.  Perhaps he's forgotten why he was hired in the first place: because thousands of veterans spent months--sometimes years--waiting for health care that was never delivered and some of them died in the process.  Meanwhile, legions of VA bureaucrats created phony lists to hide the delays and made it appear that patients were being seen in a timely manner, so they could collect their annual bonuses.  

And things have actually gotten worse since McDonald replaced the equally hapless Eric Shinseki at the VA.  Less than a year ago, the Washington Post reported that wait times for some VA services have actually increased during McDonald's watch, despite the infusion of billions of dollars in new funding.

Making matters worse, the new VA Secretary has made little progress in weeding out the criminals and incompetents who populate the workforce at various veterans hospitals and other facilities around the country.  Testifying before Congress, McDonald claimed to have fired 900 workers, including many with ties to the appointment scandal.  But a closer examination revealed that most were probationary employees who were let go after one year on the job.  The same post investigation found that only 60 VA staffers had been disciplined in connection with the scandal, and most remained on the job.  

Even more disturbing: not a single VA employee has been faced criminal sanctions for the appointment scandal.  We're not federal prosecutors, but it would appear that creating falsified records to collect a bonus might be grounds for fraud charges, at a minimum.  But then again, no one at the VA seems particularly anxious to punish the guilty.  Lest anyone forget, the agency's inspector general, in an impressive feat of oversight gymnastics, determined in 2014 that excessive wait times "weren't directly responsible" for the deaths of scores of veterans.  Obviously, the long delays for service didn't exactly promote good health, but the IG's contortions bought the agency--and it's new director--a little daylight. 

Two years later, it's apparent that Mr. McDonald is playing out the string and has abandoned any hope at meaningful reform.  Not that the commander-in-chief is pushing him to make things better for those who wore the nation's uniform.  Having weathered the storm, Mr. Obama has long since moved on to other things.  In fact, the VA scandal is a model for all the controversies that have engulfed the Obama Administration, and how they are handled.  Faced with a crisis and/or potential activity, the White House adopts the "right" narrative, feeds it to a compliant media and hunkers down, waiting for the scandal to blow over.  

Indeed, the VA controversy was squarely on the back burner until McDonald opened his mouth this morning.  But don't look for the one-time Proctor & Gamble CEO to lose his current gig.  The President doesn't want to go through the hassle of finding another VA Secretary for the last six months of his term, and so far, we haven't found a single Republican politician who has called for McDonald to resign.  Better to use him as campaign fodder and let the agency keep lurching along.  If the "VA experience" kills a few more vets, no big deal.  The smart boys and girls in D.C. view veterans as a shrinking voting bloc--they're much more concerned about courting the federal employees who work at the VA, a much more reliable constituency for Democrats.  

In a sane world, Robert McDonald would already be on his way out the door.  You'd think that a former Titan of the Business World might have more of a clue about customer service.  Clearly, the stores that sell P&G products--and the consumers who buy them--would never tolerate the kind of "service" that McDonald is providing through the VA.  And for that matter, neither would the folks who run Disney.  Contrary to Mr. McDonald's assertions, the Mouse keeps very close tabs on wait times at its theme parks, because Disney understands that unhappy "guests" are less likely to return and spend more money.  Wait times for various Disney attractions is as close as the internet; you can even download an app and find out how long you'll wait in line for Space Mountain or Cinderella's Castle.  

And we're talking about an amusement park, not a vast health care network whose service level can mean the difference between life and death.  That's one reason why there will never be a smart phone app for wait times at the VA; those are still measured with a calendar and no one at the agency wants to admit that the situation may be worse than before.  Leading that parade is a West Point grad who ought to know better, but sadly, he's just our Idiot of the Week.              

                   




 

        

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Wiped Out


Few people realize it, but the U.S. Air Force has been at war for 25 years.  Beginning with Operation Desert Storm in January 1991 and continuing through the current conflict against ISIS, the USAF has been continuously deployed, enduring an exhaustive operations tempo that has taken its toll on aircraft and personnel. 

And, making matters worse, the Air Force is much smaller than it was a quarter-century ago.  Many of the squadrons that took the fight to Saddam have been inactivated; their aircraft now sit in the "Boneyard" at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, baking in the Arizona sun.  Thousands of airmen who flew, maintained or supported those aircraft have moved on as well; the service has trimmed more than 100,000 personnel from its ranks over the past 25 years, and sequestration-mandated cuts have accelerated that trend. 

Now, with on-going operations in the Middle East, a resurgent Russia and growing threats from China and Iran, the Air Force finds itself in an increasingly precarious position.  Some airmen openly question whether their service could carry out missions it performed only five years ago, during the limited air campaign against Libya.  As Fox News reports:

Many of the Airmen reported feeing “burnt out” and “exhausted” due to the current pace of operations, and limited resources to support them. During the visit to Ellsworth earlier this week, Fox News was told only about half of the 28th Bomb Wing’s fleet of bombers can fly. 

“We have only 20 aircraft assigned on station currently. Out of those 20 only nine are flyable,” Pfrommer said.  

“The [B-1] I worked on 20 years ago had 1,000 flight hours on it.  Now we're looking at some of the airplanes out here that are pushing over 10,000 flight hours,” he said.  

"In 10 years, we cut our flying program in half," said Capt. Elizabeth Jarding, a B-1 pilot at Ellsworth who returned home in January following a six-month deployment to the Middle East for the anti-ISIS campaign.  

In fairness, the aircraft at Ellsworth are undergoing a major systems upgrade that required the B-1 to take a break from the war on terror.  The "Bone" (as its known to aircrews and maintainers) will return to the fight, but in the interim, a number of airframes will be grounded as the aircraft acquires new and improved capabilities.  

But it's not just the B-1 fleet that is facing operational problems.  At Shaw AFB, South Carolina, home to the 20th Fighter Wing, mission-capable rates for the assigned F-16CJ squadrons remain abysmally low; of the 79 Vipers at the base, only 42% can actually deploy.  The CJ model is viewed as a critical resource by air planners, since it performs the suppression of air defenses (SEAD) mission.  Obviously, ISIS doesn't have much in the way of AD assets, but in a conflict against a regional power, the F-16CJ would play a vital role.   The problems at Shaw are identical to those at Ellsworth:

That's because they, too, are missing parts. One F-16 squadron that recently returned last month from a deployment to the Middle East had a host of maintenance issues. 

“Our first aircraft downrange this deployment, we were short 41 parts,” Chief Master Sgt. Jamie Jordan said.  To get the parts, the airmen had to take parts from another jet that deployed, leaving one less F-16 to fight ISIS. At one point, Jordan said they were taking parts from three separate aircraft.

When asked about the efficiency of taking parts from expensive fighter jets, Jordan said the costs were not just in dollars: “From a man-hour perspective, it's very labor intensive and it really takes a toll.”

 Overall, the Air Force has 30% fewer airmen, 40% fewer aircraft and 60% fewer fighter squadrons than it did 25 years ago.  The average "age" of a USAF aircraft is 27; many are older than the pilots who fly them and the maintenance troops than maintain them.  

Responding to a query from FNC, Pentagon press spokesman Peter Cook was asked if Defense Secretary Ash Carter believed the maintenance and budget issues affecting flying units was widespread.  "No, I don't think so," Mr. Cook replied.  He claims the issue has been discussed "at length" and is being addressed.  

That exchange probably left a lot of Air Force commanders scratching their heads.  If talk equated action, then every squadron in the USAF would have a Fully Mission Capable (FMC) rate approaching 100%.  But the reality is reflected in those numbers at Ellsworth, Shaw and virtually every other Air Force installation.  Aging jets are breaking more frequently; the service doesn't have the money to fully fund its maintenance program, and in some cases, spare parts can't be found because production stopped years ago, or the vendor is no longer in business.  And, at the same time, aircrews and maintainers burned out by non-stop deployments are voting with their feet and leaving the service.  

It's a vicious cycle that is compromising America's dominance in the skies, with damning consequences for future military campaigns.  It's also worth remembering that any solution to this problem will require time and a massive investment of defense dollars.  The timeline from the hollow force of the late 70s to the military juggernaut that smashed Saddam stretched out over 10-15 years.  Even if this administration--and the next one--were truly interested in fixing this problem, the airmen at Ellsworth, Shaw and other bases won't see any relief for years to come.   
 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Calling the Air Police, Redux
















 A Russian transport is shadowed by an RAF Typhoon of NATO's air policing force near the Baltic coast (UK MoD photo via Sky News)




Recently, we've taken a few shots at NATO's "Air Policing" mission in the Baltics.  And, we think the crews of the USS Donald Cook and USAF RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft would probably agree.  Fighter detachments from the UK and Portugal, which recently assumed the air police mission, were noticeably absent when Russian SU-24 strike fighters buzzed the Cook in the Baltic Sea and SU-27 interceptors did barrel rolls around RC-135s on two different missions off the Baltic coast.

In fairness, we should point out that the primary mission of the air police contingent is to protect NATO's Baltic members, which lack their own air forces.  The Cook and the RC-135s were in international territory when they were harassed by Russian aircraft.  Perhaps NATO commanders determined that RAF Typhoons and F-16s from Portugal were too far away to respond, or they simply didn't want to escalate the incident.  So, the Rivet Joint crews were on their own, as were the men and women manning the Cook.

But we are happy to report that the air police contingent is doing more than sitting on the ramp at their deployment bases in Estonia (where the Typhoons are based) and Lithuania, home for the Portuguese detachment will spend the next four months.  The UK MoD has proudly announced that its fighters conducted intercepts of three Russian transport aircraft in recent days, including an IL-76 Candid, the Russian equivalent of our long-retired C-141.

Interestingly, the Typhoons were scrambled because the Russian aircraft were not transmitting a recognized IFF code.  That's the same excuse Moscow has used for those recent, aggressive intercepts of the RC-135s.  According to an RAF officer, intercepts of those lumbering transports were carried out in textbook fashion.

Well, jolly good, old boy.  Unfortunately, no one has yet answered why the air policing force won't respond to incidents like those involving the Cook and the RC-135s.  While a UK official described the transport flights as "acts of aggression," they pale in comparison to Russian harassment of the U.S. destroyer and aggressive maneuvering in close proximity to RJ aircraft.  Those episodes have the potential for disaster and you'd think the Atlantic alliance would be a little more forceful in its response.  But at least we can keep up with the Candids, Coots and Curls.

At this point, we're guessing the Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians are wondering what it would take to field their own air forces.  NATO's intercept program--which appears to be a bit selective in nature--doesn't inspire confidence.  

         

             

"We Could Have Been There"

The Benghazi scandal might have passed quickly from public memory had it not been for the work of two journalists at Fox News, Catherine Herridge and Adam Housley.  Ms. Herridge, who covers the intelligence beat, has generated a number of scoops on the story; she discovered, for example, the 16 August 2012 cable from the U.S. compound in Benghazi to the State Department, describing "imminent danger" to the facility and warning that the consulate could not defend itself against a coordinated attack.  Eventually, it was disclosed that Ambassador Chris Stevens (who died in the attack) sent scores of messages voicing security concerns, but they were ignored by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.    

She also confirmed that the American government was deeply involved in the flow of weapons into Libya, long before opposition forces in that country were "recognized" and the transfer of weaponry was approved.  Ms. Herridge was also among the first to confirm that the intelligence community knew the Benghazi attack was terrorism "within 24 hours," as senior administration officials discussed a media strategy to shift blame on a little-seen internet video which was offensive to Muslims.

Mr. Housley has been working another story angle, reaching out to current/former military personnel who were on the scene, or privy to some of the decision making that occurred on that fateful night in September 2012.  Housley first disclosed that military assets were available to assist American diplomats and security contractors on the ground, including a 40-member special operations team that was participating in an exercise in Croatia.  Had a "go" order been given, the team could have been on the ground in Libya in three to four hours, while the attack was still in progress. Such reporting contradicted another key talking point from the administration which insisted that forces were not available, or could not arrive in time to make a difference.

Now, Mr. Housley is back with more information on the military response.  He interviewed a member of the U.S. Air Force who was stationed at Aviano AB in northern Italy at the time of the Benghazi attack.  The source is identified as a member of "one of the squadrons" at the base; presumably, that's a reference to the 510th or 555th Fighter Squadrons, the F-16 units which form the backbone of the 31st Fighter Wing.

The airman, who asked not be be identified (because he fears potential retribution), described a beehive of activity on the Aviano flightline that night, in preparation for a possible contingency operation:

His squadron got the alert: a “real world mission was going down.”  
The team – at Aviano Air Base in northeastern Italy – raced to the field and was briefed, as planes were armed and prepared to launch. Hundreds of miles away, fellow Americans were under attack in Benghazi.

"There were people everywhere,” said the witness, who was on the ground that night but wished to remain anonymous. “That flight line was full of people, and we were all ready to go” to Benghazi. 

Only they were waiting for the order. It never came.

[snip]

he said, that a team was ready to go that night to help protect Americans under fire in Benghazi – an account that runs counter to multiple official reports, including from a House committee, a timeline provided by the military and the controversial State Department Accountability Review Board investigation, which concluded the interagency response to Benghazi was “timely and appropriate.”

The source said: "I definitely believe that our aircraft could have taken off and gotten there in a timely manner, maybe three hours at the most, in order to at least stop that second mortar attack … and basically save lives that day."

The source also refuted claims that an airstrike against terrorists attacking US personnel in Benghazi was "unfeasible" due to the lack of air refueling tankers.  Aviano is just over 1,000 miles from the Libyan city; even with two external fuel tanks, F-16s from the Italian base would need to stop enroute and refuel.  The most logical destination is NAS Sigonella, Sicily, 600 miles from Aviano.  If Sigonella is equipped for "hot pit" refueling (with aircraft engines running), the process would be expedited.  Without that capability, the F-16s would be forced to shut down their engine and refueling would take a bit longer.  

By some estimates, a small element of F-16s could have reached Benghazi within three and a half to four hours after departure from Aviano--including the fuel stop at Sigonella.  That would put the Vipers overhead before the attack on the CIA annex, where Glen Doherty and Ty Woods were killed.  Most analysts believe a low-level, afterburner pass by the F-16s would send the terrorists scurrying and could have prevented the assault on the annex.  

Still, there are a number of details missing from the Fox report.  Was a recall issued by the 31st Fighter Wing commander for personnel to report to base and begin preparations?  When was the recall received?  How many F-16s were readied for possible launch on a Benghazi mission?  What was the planned munitions load?  Did pilots actually receive a briefing for the mission, either in the squadron or in the cockpit? Was Sigonella notified to provide refueling support for a possible strike in Libya?  More details about these elements would provide a better idea about the level of preparation at Aviano on the night of September 11, 2012.  

But this latest account is important, for a couple of reasons.  First, it contradicts administration claims that military options were considered and quickly rejected, due to time and distance considerations.  The airman who spoke with Adam Housley indicates the 31st Fighter Wing was leaning forward as events in Libya unfolded and could have launched a strike package, had the order been given.  

Secondly, the story affirms that a number of other military commands were involved that night.  The senior officer responsible for our forces in Libya that night was General Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).  As luck would have it, General Ham was in Washington that evening and coordinated with his Germany-based staff from the Pentagon. 

It has been widely reported that General Ham quickly proposed a military response for Benghazi, but was rebuffed by administration officials.  Exactly who vetoed the plan remains unclear; President Obama's whereabouts on the night of 11 September 2012 remain unknown.  He received an initial brief from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and JCS Chairman General Martin Dempsey around 5:30 pm and was incommunicado until departing for a campaign trip to Nevada the following morning.  

While the president took a powder, other officials were on the job.  Secretary Panetta's chief of staff sent an e-mail to four senior Hillary Clinton aides that evening, announcing that DoD had identified assets which could be dispatched to Benghazi and they were "spinning up."  That claim certainly jibes with the activity at Aviano that night.

The F-16s at that base were being readied to support AFRICOM.  But they are a part of U.S. Air Forces in Europe (headquartered at Ramstein AB, Germany) and 3rd Air Force, also based at Ramstein.  Getting the 31st Wing ready for a possible mission would require the concurrence of all the air commands supporting AFRICOM.  But, to our knowledge, there has been no formal query about the roles played by Lt Gen Craig Franklin (3rd Air Force Commander, now retired); General Phillip Breedlove (USAFE Commander at the time and later served as the leader of EUCOM before retiring two weeks ago).  None of these officers have testified before the Congressional Committee on Benghazi, and it's unclear if they have been interviewed as a part of the investigation.  Ditto for Brigadier General Scott Zobrist, who was Commander of the 31st Fighter Wing in the fall of 2012, and (presumably) supervised the preparations referenced in the Fox report.  General Zobrist recently received his second star and a new assignment as Deputy Commander for the Air Component for CENTCOM. 

Responding to these latest claims about possible military action at Benghazi, Congressman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina said it was "deeply troubling there are individuals who would like to share their stories, but have not because they are afraid of retaliation from their superiors."  Mr. Gowdy, Chairman of the Select Committee looking into the Benghzi debacle, also criticized the Obama Administration for "stonewalling" on certain witness requests.  

But Mr. Gowdy and his fellow Republicans bear certain responsibilities as well.  As we've noted in the past, his investigators have demonstrated a certain tardiness in tracking down witnesses like the airman from Aviano, or a special forces operator who was also interviewed by Mr. Housely.  The special ops vet expressed "frustration" at watching events unfold and realizing that nothing would be done to assist Americans at the consulate, or the CIA annex.  

If a reporter from Fox News can locate these individuals, you'd think Congressional investigators could do the same.  It's not like General Zobrist is in the witness protection program, and with a little more digging, they can find the grunts who were preparing for a possible military response.  


                   


      



  

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Grounded

Our friends in Western Europe can sleep well; NATO's air forces are on guard, and ready to defend the alliance against potential airliner threats.

For the second time in less than a week, NATO fighters scrambled to intercept a commercial jetliner that lost radio contact in European skies.  In the latest incident (which occurred yesterday), a pair of RAF Typhoons escorted an Air France jet traveling from Paris to Newcastle after it developed a radio problem.  The British jets triggered at least two sonic booms across northern England as they rushed to intercept the commercial flight.

Last week, passengers on a British Airways jet over Hungary were surprised when a pair of JAS-39 Gripen fighters appeared alongside their aircraft.  The Gripens, which serve as front-line interceptors for the Hungarian Air Force, were dispatched after controllers lost contact with the Boeing 777, enroute from Dubai to Heathrow Airport in London.  Both airliners landed safely, and aside from a few nervous passengers, no further problems were reported.

Post 9-11, intercepting a jetliner that loses its transponder or doesn't respond to ATC communications has become standard practice--and rightfully so.  But these incidents also highlight an apparent dichotomy in dealing with airborne threats, both potential and real.

While NATO was quick to react to those non-responsive jetliners, it's air assets were noticeably absent during Russia's recent harassment of a Navy destroyer and RC-135 reconnaissance jets operating in the Baltic Region.  Last week, Russian SU-27 fighters flew dangerously close to an RC-135 on a routine collection mission over the Baltic; the pilot capped his intercept with a barrel roll around the lumbering recce jet, a move the U.S. described as "dangerous" and "unprofessional."  It was the second time in less than a month that a Russian fighter conducted that maneuver while shadowing an RC-135.

While the U.S. has vigorously protested these incidents (you can almost hear the laughter from the Kremlin), we've been less aggressive in taking steps to protect our assets in the region.  Specifically, there is still no evidence that NATO's vaunted Baltic "Air Policing" force was ever scrambled in support of the RC-135 missions, or to assist the USS Donald Cook, the destroyer that endured dozens of dangerously low passes from Russian SU-24 attack jets in early April.

As we've noted previously, the air policing mission was implemented when the Baltic states--Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia--joined NATO more than a decade ago.  With no air forces of their own, the Baltic countries rely on rotating packages of aircraft, pilots and ground crews to provide some semblance of air defense protection against Russian incursions.  Currently, the air policing mission is being handled by six RAF Typhoons and four F-16s from Portugal's Air Force.  The UK dispatched two additional Typhoons to the region after the recent incidents involving U.S. assets.

Of course, these detachments are little more than a token force which could offer modest resistance if Vladimir Putin decided one day to retake one--or all--of the Baltic countries.  But they could be effective in chasing off Russian fighters that are harassing other NATO assets.  The Typhoon, for example, is an advanced, fourth-generation fighter that is more than a match for the Flankers and Fencers that have been buzzing US ships and aircraft.  But an aircraft like the Typhoon isn't much good if it's sitting on the ground while, not far away, a Flanker is closing to within 25 feet of an RC-135, endangering the lives of all crew members involved.

And, it's not that NATO was unaware of these episodes.  Senior officers watched them unfold at the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Ramstein AB, Germany, which has melded situational displays of all activity in the alliance's northern tier.  Yet, as far as we can discern, no scramble order was given; the sailors on the Cook and the crews of those RC-135s were on their own.

That's not to say NATO's "air police" are purely a ground-bound force.  Earlier this year, it was disclosed that alliance fighters in the Baltic scrambled back on the night of March 29, 2013, when a pair of Russian TU-22 Backfire bombers (escorted by four SU-27s) flew a simulated nuclear strike profile against Sweden.  Stockholm was caught completely surprised by the move; the Swedish Air Force apparently had no aircraft, pilots or crews on ground alert, so a pair of Danish Air Force F-16s, assigned to the air policing mission, intercepted the Russian package as it flew over the Baltic.

Curiously, we can't find a single instance where the media--particularly the so-called "defense press"--has bothered to ask about the rules of engagement for the air police mission, and the criteria used for scrambling those assets.  Sending the F-16s up in support of Sweden made sense, but leaving them on the ground while Russian fighters harass U.S. aircraft and ships left many observers shaking their heads.

These latest provocations from Moscow came as NATO prepared to welcome a new Supreme Allied Commander.  U.S. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti assumed the post yesterday, replacing Air Force General Philip Breedlove, who is retiring.  Before relinquishing his final command, General Breedlove sat for an interview with Stars and Stripes, advocating that U.S. forces in Europe (along with the rest of NATO), get back into the business of war planning.

Breedlove said more work needs to be done to lift EUCOM out of its post-Cold War mindset, which resulted in "building partner capacity," military parlance for training missions. EUCOM is a "mere fraction" of what it was a generation ago, a downsizing that occurred when the U.S. was trying to make a partner out of Russia.

"We changed EUCOM based on that paradigm," Breedlove said.

Reorienting EUCOM into a warfighting headquarters likely would demand more resources, more troops and new contingency plans to conduct combat operations within Europe.

But re-orienting NATO and its American component towards warfighting won't be easy--or cheap.  Only a handful of alliance members spend more than 2% of their GDP on defense, and most have made major cuts in their armed forces over the last 15 years.  Restoring even a portion of those capabilities will require herculean efforts, and there are no guarantees that our European allies will make those investments.  

Meanwhile, President Obama is proposing a significant increase in defense spending in Europe, and the U.S. is deploying additional assets in the region.  A squadron of F-22 Raptors from Tyndall AFB, Florida began a month-long rotation to the UK in April.  While deployed, small numbers of Raptors have paid visits to bases in eastern Europe, including a brief stopover in Lithuania last week. A squadron of A-10s from Moody AFB, Georgia recently began a six-month rotation to the region and the U.S. is supporting a NATO proposal to maintain four infantry battalions in the Baltics and Poland, to further deter Russian aggression.  

Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin isn't really impressed by these recent demonstrations of resolve.  He knows the Baltic states have no hope of defending themselves without NATO assistance, and the alliance currently lacks the resources (and some would say resolve) to protect its most vulnerable members against the sort of asymmetrical conflict that Moscow waged against Georgia and has been conducting against the Ukraine.  

This doesn't mean a Russian invasion of Estonia is imminent.  Putin prefers to play all the cards in his hand, so we can expect more veiled threats and intimidation against NATO's eastern frontier, along with additional harassment incidents, aimed at depicting the Atlantic Alliance as a paper tiger.  He will also take advantage of the influx of Middle Eastern refugees, which have forced many NATO countries to focus security efforts internally.  Putin is betting that nations like Germany, France, Belgium, Italy and the UK won't spend the money required to deal with a rising terror threat and beef up their armed forces to counter his expansionist agenda. 

The Russian leader also understands that NATO's weakness begins in Washington, D.C.  Mr. Obama's feckless policy in Syria opened the door for Putin, and he is seizing the opportunity in the Middle East and Europe.  Media reports indicate that Obama and Putin held one of their periodic phone calls last month, just days after one of the harassment incidents.  Mr. Obama never raised the issue in his conversation with his Russian counterpart.  It doesn't take an expert to understand that Putin viewed that rectitude as a green light for more adventurism.  

No wonder the "air police" are nowhere to be found when a Flanker jock barrel rolls around an RC-135, or a pair of Fencers repeatedly buzz a US destroyer in international waters.  Decades of defense cuts, coupled with the failure to recognize a resurgent Russia and weakness among key alliance members have put NATO in quite a hole.  And there are few indications that NATO is serious about climbing out.  

      
   

                    

 

         

Friday, April 15, 2016

Calling the Air Police















 A Russian SU-24 Fencer roars over the USS Donald Cook earlier this week (US Navy photo via CBS News). 

 
Many observers were stunned by video and still images of Russian SU-24s buzzing the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea this week.  According to the Navy, SU-24s made low passes over the Arleigh Burke class destroyer on successive days (11 and 12 April) as it operated off the coast of Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave located between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Coast.  During the first encounter on Monday, a pair of SU-24s (Russia's answer to our long-retired F-111) made at least 20 near the American ship, flying within 1,000 yards and at altitudes as low as 100 feet.

The following day, two Russian KA-27 Helix helicopters circled the vessel, apparently taking photographs.  Then, the SU-24s (NATO code name "Fencer) returned, executing dangerously low passes over the Cook, flying a simulated attack profile.  A senior defense official told CBS News the Fencers were so low, their jet exhaust created wakes in the water.     

But members of the Cook crew took the incident in stride.  After all, the Norfolk-based DDG experienced a similar encounter in 2014, while patrolling in the Black Sea.  After returning to port, the ship's skipper affirmed U.S. plans to operate in international waters, a claim that was echoed up the chain of command.  A spokesman at U.S. European Command headquarters criticized the Russians for their "unprofessional" and "aggressive" conduct.

Surprisingly, Secretary of State John Kerry went a step further, claiming the American vessel had the right to shoot down the Russian jets because of their provocative actions.  But Navy officials quickly down-played that possibility, noting the Cook never received electronic indications that the SU-24 crews were preparing to employ weapons against the destroyer. 

And, given the restrictive rules of engagement often employed by the Obama Administration, there are legitimate questions about the commander's authority to engage the SU-24s, given the lack of attack indicators (other than some extraordinarily aggressive flying).  Navy skippers don't want to start World War III--or lose their careers--because of aggressive maneuvering by Russian ships and planes. 

During the Cold War, such behavior was commonplace; Soviet intelligence "trawlers" routinely interfered with U.S. carrier groups, trying to interrupt flight operations.  During one legendary episode off the coast of North Vietnam, a fed-up naval aviator named John Wunche decuded to get even.  Preparing to land in a KA-3 tanker, Commander Wunche got the wave-off from his LSO on the USS Bon Homme Richard and prepared to go around.  Meanwhile, the Russian intel collector--known as an AGI--tried to maneuver in the carrier's path.

Wunche spotted the intel collector dead ahead and in just a few seconds, became a Navy hero.  He leveled his KA-3 at about a hundred feet and opened all the fuel dumps, spraying the Soviet vessel with a generous coat of jet fuel as he thundered overhead.  Wunche roared away as the intelligence trawler slowed to a dead stop, and the carrier passed astern.  The Russians had to shut down all power systems and break out the fire hoses, to prevent an idle arc from igniting the jet fuel and turning their ship into an inferno.

Unfortunately, there wasn't a carrier--or a pilot like John Wunche--on-scene to assist the Donald Cook earlier this week.  But NATO air assets were in the region, and their apparent inactivity remains one of the mysteries of the "buzzing" episode.  For more than a decade, NATO members have maintained an aerial quick reaction force, to protect the airspace of its Baltic members.  At any given time, small detachments of NATO fighter aircraft and support personnel are stationed at bases in Lithuania and Estonia.

In the past, elements of the so-called "Air Policing Force" have responded to Russian provocations.  Earlier this year, NATO admitted that its fighters reacted when Russian aircraft conducted a mock nuclear strike against Sweden in 2013, and Stockholm's air force was caught unprepared.  The air police detachment is controlled through the NATO Combined Air Operations Center at Ramstein AB, Germany.  CAOC personnel have access to a melded, all-source surveillance picture, utilizing air, land, naval and even space centers.  It's a given that the radar picture from the Cook was a part of the display, so NATO knew what the Russians were up to, and tracked them long before they passed near the U.S. vessel.

So, why were the RAF Typhoons and Portuguese F-16s (currently assigned to the air policing mission) never vectored to assist the ?USS Donald Cook?  Or if they were, why did controllers keep them away from the Fencers that were buzzing the ship?  The SU-24 is not an air-to-air platform; it's designed to attack targets low and fast and only carries short-range IR missiles for self-defense.  Scrambling the Typhoons and/or the F-16s might have persuaded the Russians to head for home--and demonstrated a bit more resolve from the Atlantic alliance.

But the Russians have learned that NATO doesn't match aggression with aggression.  So, the Fencers (and other elements of Putin's air force) will return.  When the first arrow in your quiver is the sharply-worded diplomatic protest, this type of problem tends to persist.                

 

                       

   

Thursday, April 14, 2016

(Not Quite) Ready for Launch

**UPDATE/15 April** U.S. and ROK defense officials report the test of North Korea's intermediate range missile ended in failure.  The missile, believed to be a BM-25 Musudan, exploded shortly after launch.  The South Korean Defense Ministry reported the failure shortly after it was detected, and U.S. Strategic Command confirmed that assessment.

Needless to say, North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-un is probably displeased at this turn of events, so there are probably a few more rocket scientists in the gulag this morning, or anti-aircraft gun crews have some new targets to work with.

But the failure will not deter Pyongyang.  Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia program at the James Martin Non-Proliferation Center in California, told the Washington Post that North Korea will still gain valuable data from the test, figure out what went wrong, and eventually achieve success.  The younger Kim and his ruling clique are merciless, but they are also patient in pursuit of their WMD and ballistic missile goals.

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It remains one of the biggest mysteries of the North Korean ballistic missile program.  Since 2010, the DPRK has ocasionally exhibited an intermediate range, road-mobile missile, nicknamed the Musudan. Leaked intelligence reporting also suggests the system (sometimes referred to as the BM-25) has been exported to Iran, giving that country another potential delivery platform for conventional or nuclear warheads.

Still, our knowledge of the Musudan--and its operational status in North Korea and Iran--remains limited, for a simple reason.  The BM-25 has never been flight-tested by Pyongyang or Tehran.  Some analysts believe the missiles displayed by Pyongyang are actually decoys or mock-ups, suggesting that development of the operational system has lagged behind.

But that intel gap may soon be filled.  Pentagon sources tell CBS News and the Associated Press that North Korea is expected to conduct a test launch of the missile, possibly within the next 12 hours:

The missile in question is a Musadan, which is road mobile and has enough range to reach the Aleutians and Guam. It's never been tested before, so this is another step toward being able to threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon. 

Friday, April 15 marks the birthday of Kim Il-sung, the "Great Leader" who rule North Korea from 1948 until his death in 1994. 

Given Pyongyang's penchant for conducting military demonstrations on key historical dates, the Friday launch window is hardly surprising.  It's also clear that the Pentagon's prediction is based on more than Kim Il-Sung's birthdate.  Apparently, our intel systems have detected late-stage launch preparations which suggest the BM-25 will make its first flight in the next day or so.  Those preparations likely involve fueling of the missile; the Musudan (like many older systems) utilizes a liquid fuel; once the tanks have been filled, the missile must remain at the launch site because it lacks the structural strength to be safely transported to another location.  

A fueled BM-25 can remain in that configuration for up to several weeks.  Expectations for a near-term launch may be based on other indications, such as the expected arrival of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (and other VIPs), or the establishment of airspace closure areas near the test site.  That location has not been disclosed by US officials but in the spring of 2013, two Musudans, mounted on their mobile launchers, were observed along the DPRK's east coast, raising speculation about a possible launch.  However, the missiles were eventually removed from that site, and the launch was never conducted.  

The expected Musudan test comes amid escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, and a recent string of provocations by Pyongyang.  North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test earlier this year; launched a long-range missile from the Sohae Space Center in February, and fired an ICBM engine at the same complex last week.  A successful BM-25 launch would be evidence of continued progress in the DPRK's efforts to field missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons against targets in the Far East and the CONUS.  Most experts still believe North Korea lacks the ability to produce a "miniaturized" nuclear warhead that can fit on the Musudan, or longer-range missiles like the KN-08 and KN-14, believed capable of hitting targets in the western United States.  

Mastering that technology is just a matter of time.  Technology sales to Iran help fund development efforts, and North Korea has long-established ties with Pakistan, which have helped it obtain (and advance) nuclear technology.  There are also questions about how much "help" Pyongyang may have received from Russia.  The BM-25 is based on the SS-N-6, an old, Soviet-era SLBM design which was designed to carry three nuclear warheads, and deployed on Yankee I class ballistic missile subs.  Moscow claims that nuclear technology was omitted from the blueprints and other technical data that was sold to Pyongyang.  Given the current level of technical competence in the DPRK, it wouldn't be difficult for North Korean scientists to develop a nuclear version of the Musudan.  
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ADDENDUM:  Reporting from South Korean media, including the semi-official Yonhap news agency, indicates the BM-25 being prepped for launch was observed near the port city of Wonsan, on North Korea's east coast.        

                

 

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

The Missing Element

Eric Engberg passed away last week at his retirement home in Palmetto, Florida.  The former CBS News correspondent was 74.

Depending on your perspective, Mr. Engberg was either an accomplished and revered member of the Fourth Estate, or a journalistic hack, the embodiment of what's wrong with today's news media.

Not surprisingly, many of Engberg's peers described him in glowing terms.  Dan Rather, anchor of the CBS Evening News during much of Engberg's career at the network, called him "one of the best TV correspondents of his generation, “tough but fair, and that rarity: a hard-nosed reporter with a sense of humor.”

Mr. Engberg was also praised as an innovator.  During the early 1990s, he created a segment called Reality Check that sought to uncover the real truth behind changes and counter-charges leveled during a presidential campaign.  After the race ended, the segment often targeted government waste and corruption.  Memorable exposes included his report on an $18 million subway built to carry Senators a few hundred yards from their offices to the U.S. Capitol, and an unnoticed change in federal election laws that allowed members of the house to buy radio ads with taxpayer money.

In 1998, Engberg aired his most famous report, presenting compelling evidence that the Vietnam veteran buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns was actually Air Force 1Lt Michael Blassie, who was shot down in 1972.  The segment resulted in the exhumation of his remains, a positive identification, return to his family, and reburial at a national cemetery in St. Louis, not far from his boyhood home.

Obituaries of Mr. Engberg mention the DuPont-Columbia Award he won for the Blassie segment; his willingness to pose tough questions to politicians (and pressing them when they refused to comment) and that distinctive, booming voice.  At one point in his career, Engberg was asked to take a hearing test because the VU needles pegged whenever he recorded a voice-over or stand-up.  "You're not deaf," the audiologist told him, "just loud."

But there's at least one, important element missing from recollections of Mr. Engberg's career.  During the 1996 presidential campaign, he delivered an infamous "Reality Check" on GOP candidate Steve Forbes and his plan for a flat tax.  Ostensibly, it was supposed to reveal the flaws in Mr. Forbes proposal.  But Engberg's segment was nothing more than a hit piece, masquerading as fact-based journalism.  A few days later, his colleague Bernard Goldberg took it apart, in an equally-famous op-ed published by The Wall Street Journal:

He starts out saying: "Steve Forbes pitches his flat-tax scheme as an economic elixir, good for everything that ails us." Sure, the words "scheme" and "elixir" are loaded, conjuring up images of Doctor Feelgood selling worthless junk out of the back of his wagon. But this is nothing more than a prelude--warm-up material to get us into the right frame of mind. 

The report shows Mr. Forbes saying the U.S. economy can grow twice as fast if we remove "obstacles, starting with the tax code." Mr. Forbes may be right or wrong about this, so Mr. Engberg lets us know which it is. "Time out!" he shouts in his signature style. "Economists say nothing like that has ever actually happened."

He then introduces us to William Gale of the Brookings Institution, who says: "It doesn't seem plausible to think that we're going to have a whole new economy or economic Renaissance Age due to tax reform."

CBS News instructs its reporters and producers to identify people in a way that will help the audience understand any political bias they might have. We are told, for example, to identify the Heritage Foundation as "a conservative think tank." I have done this on more than one occasion, myself. It's a good policy.

But where was the identification of the Brookings Institution as "a liberal think tank"? Might that influence Mr. Gale's take on the flat tax? Instead, Mr. Gale was presented to America simply as an expert with no tax ax to grind.

[snip]

Mr. Engberg concludes his piece à la David Letterman by saying that "Forbes's Number One Wackiest Flat Tax Promise" is the candidate's belief that it would give parents "more time to spend with their children and each other." 

Can you imagine, in your wildest dreams, a network news reporter calling Hillary Clinton's health care plan "wacky"? Can you imagine any editor allowing it? 

You probably remember what happened next.  CBS never reprimanded Mr. Engberg for his thoroughly biased report, and never issued an apology or correction.  In fact, Dan Rather and the suits at CBS News saw nothing wrong with the segment.  Mr. Goldberg, on the other hand, became personna non grata at the network; he vanished from the airwaves and narrowly escaped being fired.  After sensitive negotiations, he was allowed to remain on the payroll until he became eligible for a pension.  Engberg remained a regular contributor to the Evening News until he retired in 2003. 

While he remained a pariah at network, Mr. Goldberg enjoyed something of a career renaissance after leaving CBS.  His book that grew out of the op-ed, Bias, topped The New York Times best-seller list for many weeks and he's won multiple Emmys reporting for HBO's Real Sports.  Engberg disappeared into retirement, resurfacing (briefly) last year for a public dust-up with Bill O'Reilly over conditions in Buenos Aires during the Falklands War.  Both reported from there for CBS News; Mr. O'Reilly described riots in the Argentine capital, and claimed that other network staffers "hid in their rooms."  Engberg refuted those assertions, saying the city was "more of an expense account zone."  

Interestingly, O'Reilly's recollections were largely supported by Don Browne, a former NBC bureau chief who went on to become an executive for the network and served as president of Telemundo before retiring in 2011.  Engberg declined an invitation to appear on the air with O'Reilly, but he did make the rounds of other media outlets, repeating claims that the Fox News anchor embellished (or even lied) about his experiences in Buenos Aires.  

Some of Mr. Engberg's obits in the MSM mention his feud with Bill O'Reilly, but I haven't found any that highlight his completely biased "Reality Check" on Steve Forbes.  Hardly surprising; in less than three minutes of airtime, Engberg managed to provide an inadvertent "reality check" on the real state of network news and Goldberg's subsequent critique helped hasten their decline.  Not the sort of legacy that mainstream journalists want to recall in memorializing one of their elders.  
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ADDENDUM:  In recounting the Engberg episode, Mr. Goldberg is always careful to note that he missed the segment when it first aired.  The man who spotted the obvious bias in Engberg's piece was Jerry Kelley, a building contractor from Alabama who was a friend of Goldberg's.  "You got too many snippy wise guys doin' the news," Kelley told him, suggesting that Goldberg take a look at the segment. The rest, as they say, is history.  

Bernard Goldberg delivered the eulogy when Mr. Kelley passed away in 2014 at the age of 71.  "Jerry Kelley changed the American culture," he told the mourners, and it's hard to disagree.  

"Jerry knew more about bias and fair play than any of those journalistic “geniuses” did who put that piece of garbage about Forbes on the air back in 1996. And Jerry was a building contractor, not a journalist.  Still, he saw the bias that the CBS News Washington correspondent who reported the Forbes story didn’t; that his producer didn’t; that the senior producer in Washington didn’t; that the top evening news producers at CBS News in New York didn’t; that the president of CBS News didn’t; and that Dan Rather, the anchorman and managing editor of the broadcast, didn’t.