Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

Author's note: on this Memorial Day, as in year's past, we offer a column that was first published in another forum in 2007.  As we remember:


Slowly and sadly, Memorial Day is becoming just "another" holiday, better known for cookouts and retail deals than its intended purpose--honoring our fallen military heroes.  If you doubt this trend, watch TV for a few minutes this weekend.  There are plenty of ads for cars, furniture and clothes, (but unless you're watching Fox News), little is little mention of why Monday is a solemn, special day.  But for anyone who ever wore the nation's uniform--or those who understand the high price of freedom--Memorial Day will never lose its meaning.  For us, the last Monday in May brings memories of friends and family members who gave their lives on the battlefield, or died in service-related mishaps.  This may sound quaint, but their sacrifice (and the day that honors it) should not be a pretext for a mattress sale.

That's one reason I stay away from the malls and the beach on Memorial Day.  Instead, my thoughts usually focus on three individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice and touched my own life in the process.  For me, Memorial Day is about Walter, Ken and Mike.  
I never knew my Uncle Walter.  He was my mother's kid brother, a child of the Great Depression who grew up poor in a small Mississippi town.  After graduating from high school in 1942, he followed the path taken by many young men: he joined the Marine Corps.  Two years later, he was a trained rifleman, part of the 1st Marine Division that had been assigned to the invasion of Peleliu, in the southwestern Pacific.  
Seven decades later, the battle remains steeped in controversy.  Historians and military analysts argue that the invasion was unnecessary.  But General Douglas MacArthur argued that he needed the island to support the planned re-taking of the Philippines.  MacArthur's plans were eventually approved by FDR and the attack on Peleliu began on September 15, 1944.   
What followed was--arguably--one of the toughest battles fought by U.S. forces in World War II, complicated by countless blunders and miscalculations.  General William Rupertus, commander of the 1st Marine Division, confidently predicted that his crack unit would wrap up the battle in just three days.  Rupertus didn't know that his division was out-numbered by Japanese defenders (dug into a honeycomb of defensive positions), or that the preliminary naval bombardment inflicted virtually no damage on the enemy.    
General Rupertus was also unaware that the Japanese had changed their tactics, shifting most of their fortifications away from the invasion beaches.  As the Marines moved inland, they ran into an almost impenetrable wall of pillboxes, machine-gun nests and carefully-concealed artillery positions.  The invasion quickly bogged down--it would take U.S. forces more than two months to secure the island--and the Marines paid dearly for their commanders' mistakes.  
One of them was my Uncle Walter.  He died on the second day of the battle, as his regiment advanced under withering fire.  A fellow Marine later told my mother that Walter was literally vaporized by a Japanese artillery shell.  To this day, my uncle is classified as Missing in Action; graves registration teams couldn't find enough remains to confirm his death in battle.  
I met Ken during my own military career, some forty years later.  He was an F-4 driver in the same unit where I served as the intelligence officer.  In some respects, he was a typical fighter jock; supremely confident and highly skilled.  But he was also a genuinely nice guy, one of the most popular members of our squadron.  Though only a Captain, he was widely regarded as one of the best pilots in our wing.  His future seemed limitless.   
But like my uncle, Ken's future also went unrealized.  We lost him on a "routine" training mission, though that adjective is often misused.  Little is routine about taking high-performance combat jets on simulated combat missions.  En route to a bombing range in northeastern Georgia, four of our F-4s descended for the low-level portion of their flight, practicing skills they would use to evade Soviet air defenses in central Europe.  It was something our crews did on a daily basis.  
Ken's Phantom was the last in a four-ship formation.  As they flew over a river, a flock of birds suddenly lifted out of the tree line, directly into the path of the F-4.  Multiple bird strikes took out both engines, fatally crippling the aircraft.  Ken did everything right; he pulled back on the control stick to gain altitude, called "Mayday" over the radio, and started the ejection sequence for himself and his weapons system officer (WSO).
The back seater escaped unharmed, but something went wrong when Ken's ejection seat deployed .  Parachute Lines became wrapped around his upper body and snapped Ken's neck as the chute deployed.  Searchers found the faulty chute and his body about 24 hours later, hanging from a tree near the crash site.  The following week we gathered in the base chapel to remember our departed comrade.  I had the honor of reading "High Flight" at the end of the Memorial Service.  Even today, I cannot read or recite the lines of John Gillespie Magee Jr.'s epic poem without thinking about Ken, another pilot who died too young, in the service of his country.  
Sacrifice also defined the life of Mike, the third hero who occupies my thoughts on Memorial Day.  He originally hoped to become an Air Force officer through the ROTC program where I was an instructor, but struggled academically.  When it became apparent that Mike would not meet the required time line for graduation and commissioning, it became my job to release him.  Having never been a scholarship student, Mike didn't owe the Air Force--or the country--anything.  He had the option of simply fading back into the student population, earning a degree, and getting on with life.    
But Mike--predictably--had other ideas.  After learning that a commission was out of reach, He promptly asked about enlisting as an airman, and I put him in touch with a local recruiter.  In hindsight, Mike's reaction was anything but surprising.  He was always the first cadet to volunteer for a project and see it through.  His determination was inspiring, and Mike earned the respect and admiration of his fellow cadets and the detachment staff.   
A few months after Mike enlisted, I got a phone call from his recruiter.  He reported that Mike hit another academic buzz saw in the airborne radio operator's course, and had dropped out of that program.  I remember writing a letter of recommendation, urging the service to retain Mike, and assign him to a new career field.  Happily, the Air Force concurred and sent Mike to an Army base in Virginia, where he was trained as a Black Hawk helicopter crew chief. 
It soon became apparent that Mike had found his niche.  He became an outstanding crew chief in a search-and-rescue squadron, maintaining HH-60 Pave Hawks helicopters.  Mike's performance led to his selection as a flight engineer, part of a helicopter aircrew.  
On March 23, 2003, Mike and the other members of his crew were deployed to Afghanistan.  They received word that two young Afghan girls were in desperate need of medical evacuation and treatment at a U.S. hospital.  The girls' village was located high in the mountains; the weather was already bad and deteriorating.   
Despite those risks, Mike and his crew took off, in an HH-60 with the call-sign "Komodo 11."  They were accompanied by a second rescue helicopter.  En route to the distant village, Komodo 11 crashed, killing Mike and five other crew members.  He was 29 years old,    
You won't find the names of Mike, Ken and Walter on the list of America's revered military heroes.  But they are heroes nonetheless, brave men whose selfless sacrifice embodies the best of our nation.  On this (and every) Memorial Day, they deserve thanks, gratitude and remembrance from a nation whose freedom they helped secure.

They deserve nothing less.  .

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Rear Guard





















British soldiers are marched to the rear after surrendering to the Germans at Dunkirk.  Members of the rear guard delayed the German advance for a week, permitting the evacuation of more than 330,000 Allied troops.


This week marks the 75th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, the "miracle of the little ships" that plucked thousands of British and Allied soldiers from the French port and its adjacent beaches, allowing them to escape, and fight again another day.

Dunkirk remains one of the early turning points of the Second World War.  More than 400,000 Allied troops faced certain annihilation on the beaches of northern France, following the German blitzkrieg through the low countries and the Ardennes, by-passing the defenses of the famous Maginot Line.  As Nazi armored columns rushed ahead, elements of the French Army began to collapse; what could have been an orderly retreat became a full rout, as the allies fell back towards the channel ports, with the Germans closing in to administer the coup de grace.

Instead, more than 300,000 members of the British Expeditionary Force and the French Army were rescued from the area around Dunkirk, the small port that remained in Allied hands, and still able to support an evacuation.  The British, like all armies in 1940, were poorly prepared for amphibious warfare, and lacked sufficient numbers of landing craft to deliver men and supplies onto a beach, or (in the case of Dunkirk) transport them to safety.  Planners initially believed that a small number of troops (perhaps 45,000) could be rescued through the port; the decision to mobilize small, shallow-draft vehicles allowed evacuation from the beaches as well. 

That's one reason Dunkirk is so often associated with the flotilla of fishing boats, pleasure craft, coastal steamers and lifeboats that were requisitioned by the British Admiralty, and pressed into service during the operation.  Some of the vessels were used to ferry hundreds of soldiers back to the U.K.; others had the dangerous job of transporting evacuees from the beach to larger ships off-shore.  The smallest craft was a 15-foot fishing vessel named Tamzine that is now preserved at the Imperial War Museum.  Virtually all were skippered by Royal Navy personnel or experienced merchant seamen; only a handful of civilian boat owners actually sailed their vessels to France and back, a myth popularized in the film  Mrs. Miniver and war-time propaganda.

But Dunkirk was more than a miracle of little boats, braving a perilous journey to France and back.  The seeds of the successful rescue mission were sown when the BEF Commander, Lord Gott, decided not to support a French counterattack to the south, aimed at cutting off the panzer columns of General Heinz Guderian, who had raced across France to the sea.  Gott understood the French had missed the window for a launching a successful offensive; instead, he ordered the BEF to begin moving back towards Dunkirk on 25 May, realizing it was the only hope for saving the core of Britain's regular Army.

The Germans would also play a critical role in the ultimate success of Dunkirk.  Guderian was chastised for pressing ahead to the coast by his superiors, who believed it left their flanks badly exposed.  There was also concern about mounting losses of tanks and other armored vehicles among panzer units.  When Hitler visited the headquarters of General Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group A, which led the German push through the Ardennes and across France, he suggested halting the armored forces west of Dunkirk, leaving it up to the infantry--and the Luftwaffe--to destroy what was left of the BEF. 

Hitler agreed, and it proved to be the decisive point in the campaign, though it's not completely clear why Hitler went along with the plan.  Certainly, there was the issue of terrain (the Germans believed marshy ground around Dunkirk was unsuited for tanks); the need for panzer units to rest and resupply after the dash across France, and worries about renewed Allied counter-attacks. Just three days earlier, on 21 May, the BEF mounted a strong push near the city of Arras in northeastern France, destroying dozens of German tanks and inflicting over 400 casualties before they were forced to retreat.





















Dunkirk campaign map, depicting the steadily shrinking Allied perimeter in late May and early June 1940 (United States Military Academy via Wikipedia) 


With Arras fresh in his mind--and other tactical considerations influencing his thinking, von Runstedt grew hesitant.  He issued a Halt Order on 24 May and it was validated by Hitler several hours later.  Panzer units were directed not to advance past the Lys Canal; the job of finishing off the BEF would be left up to the infantry and the Luftwaffe, at least initially.  After the war, von Runstedt and other German generals tried to blame the halt directive on Hitler but it is clear the order began with the military and der Furher merely endorsed their plan.  Incredibly, at the time the halt order was issued, lead panzer elements were actually closer to Dunkirk than most of the BEF troops who were later evacuated  (emphasis ours).  In a later diary entry, even Hitler admitted that thousands of British and French troops escaped "under our noses."

The successful evacuation needed two more elements: air cover, and perhaps most importantly, troops who would fight the rear guard action, holding off the Germans long enough for most of their comrades to escape. Air support had been a thorny issue in the weeks before Dunkirk; the RAF had been criticized for withholding Spitfire squadrons from the fight during the Battle of France.  Fighter Command's CIC, Air Marshal Hugh "Stuffy" Dowding calculated (correctly) that his best fighter units would be needed to defend England in the months ahead.  But as the evacuation got underway, Dowding threw all available resources into the fray; soldiers trapped on the beaches complained they saw more German aircraft than RAF fighters, but the British provided enough air cover to allow the operation to succeed.  Enemy dive bombers and other aircraft managed to sink scores of ships--including several Royal Navy destroyers--but the operation, nicknamed "Dynamo"--continued.

But the real heroes of Dunkirk were the British and French soldiers who took up positions to protect the port and the thousands of troops awaiting evacuation.  Theirs was a thankless task; running short on food, ammunition and medical supplies, they were supposed to hold off the advancing Germans as long as possible, facing almost certain death or capture at the end of their mission.  General Alan Brooke was ordered to mount a holding action with the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 50th divisions along the Ypres-Comines Canal while the rest of the BEF retired towards Dunkirk; General Ronald Adam, the III Corps Commander, was put in charge of establishing perimeter defenses around the port.

Between 27 May and 1 June, the men of the BEF rear guard mounted a determined defense, slowing the German advance (which resumed on the 26th).  Their valiant stand allowed the bulk of British forces to make their way to Dunkirk, where they were evacuated by the Royal Navy.  While many historical accounts focus on the small boats ferrying soldiers from the beaches, most of the troops departed via the sea walls (or "moles") that protected the harbor, since Dunkirk's damaged docks could no longer handle ships.  Under the direction of Royal Navy Captain (later Vice Admiral) Bill Tennant, the evacuation quickly gathered steam; at its peak, on 31 May, just over 68,000 soldiers were rescued from the sea walls and the beaches on a single day.

Further inland, between 30-40,000 British troops, along with a larger French contingent, fought desperately to stem the German tide, buying more time for their comrades to escape.  While a few members of the rear guard were able to reach Dunkirk (and make their way onto one of the final evacuation ships), most were forced to surrender.  Near the village of Le Paradis, in the Pas-de-Calais region, member of the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf massacred 97 British POWs from the Royal Norfolk Regiment.  Most of the BEF troops who surrendered were transported to detention camps in Poland where they would remain for the next four years.  Unfortunately, their suffering was not over; in the winter of 1944-45, with Russian forces advancing from the east, thousands of British and French POWs were forced-marched to other prison camps in Germany.  Hundreds more died from disease and exhaustion in the bitter cold.

To this day, historical accounts of Dunkirk tend to focus on the remarkable evacuation, which saved so many Allied troops who were instrumental in later victories in North Africa, the Far East, and in the European campaigns that finally liberated the continent.  Yet, the "miracle" of Dunkirk came at a high price; hundreds of troops and sailors died at sea, when their ships were sunk by the Luftwaffe or the German Navy; the RAF lost more than 100 aircraft (and dozens of badly-needed fighter pilots) during engagements over France or the English Channel.  But the greatest sacrifice was paid by the men who held the line so that other troops would live and carry the fight in future battles.  Their orders were simple and to the point:

‘You will hold your present position at all costs to the last man and last round. This is essential in order that a vitally important operation can take place.’

History records that the troops of the Dunkirk rear guard did just that, setting the stage for the miraculous evacuation that was playing out just a few miles away.                                    

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

So Long, Letterman

David Letterman leaves The Late Show tonight, capping a 33-year career as a TV talk host.  Amid the hagiography about his comedic genius and flowery tributes to a record run in late night television, there is another side to the Letterman legacy--one that adds a bit of tarnish to the halo.

For starters, the "man who changed TV" (as USA Today suggests in today's front-page article) was an also-ran for much of his career.  From the mid-1990s until his final show, Letterman has usually finished second or third in the late-night ratings, behind Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon on NBC's Tonight Show (which has dominated the time slot), and on multiple occasions, he has trailed ABC's Jimmy Kimmel as well.  Over the past 20 years, the only times when Letterman consistently beat the competition were 2009-2010, when NBC made the ill-advised decision to put Conan O'Brien behind the desk on Tonight, and in recent weeks, when more viewers have been tuning in to watch one of Letterman's final broadcasts.

Otherwise, Letterman has trailed the pack at 11:30 for years.  His periodic drops into third place actually began when ABC's Nightline was still going head-to-head against the talk shows.  With the retirement of Ted Koppel (and installation of a cheaper, rotating anchor format), it was assumed that Nightline would fold, particularly in an era of cable news and on-line platforms.  But the news broadcast still exceeded ratings expectations, even though it was eventually replaced at 11:30 by Kimmel.  One TV wag suggested that ABC laughed all the way to the bank; Nightline is far less expensive to produce than a talk show--some of the talent earns about two percent of the $30 million in annual salary that CBS paid Letterman--but the news show often attracted as many viewers, and could still generate significant advertising revenue.

As for NBC, the executives who picked Jay Leno over Dave more than two decades ago can pat themselves on the back for making the right choice.  After early struggles, Leno found his footing and blew past Letterman in 1994, maintaining the ratings lead until he left Tonight (for the first time) in 2009.  Following the O'Brien debacle, Leno returned to the show and re-established his lead; by the time he retired last year, ratings for the Tonight Show were 25% higher--both overall and in the coveted 25-54 demo--than the Late Show.  Since then, new host Jimmy Fallon has maintained the lead.

Why does that matter?  Because ratings mean money, and the late night talk shows have historically been cash cows.  Despite the emergence of cable (and further fragmentation of the TV audience), the Tonight Show still adds $125 million a year to Comcast's bottom line, though that figure is down from Leno's peak years, when the program generated more than $200 million in annual profits.  By comparison, the Late Show is believed to be less profitable that its NBC rival, in part because the program is produced by Letterman's production company (which shares in the profits), and the fact that Letterman commanded a higher salary than Leno--who also had a production deal--and Jimmy Fallon, who works for NBC.

Put another way: Jay Leno generated upwards of $1 billion more in profits for his network than Letterman did at CBS, and that's the bottom line for any entertainment corporation, broadcast, cable or on-line.  And while the CBS suits have always bragged about Letterman's critical reception, they are also relishing the chance to make more money with his departure.

Earlier this year, CBS President Les Moonves told an investor conference the network will make more money on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert at the helm, since the new host will earn less than Letterman, and CBS will retain sole ownership of the program.  In fact, one early indication that Dave's reign was ending came when Craig Ferguson announced he was stepping down as host of the Late, Late Show more that a year ago.  Part of Letterman's production deal gave him control of the show that followed him, but with Ferguson's departure, CBS moved quickly to take full control of the time slot. They did not consult with Dave--or his company--about the revamped Late, Late Show, now hosted by British actor James Corden.

So, while Letterman was profitable for CBS, he wasn't the ratings or financial bonanza the network originally envisioned.  To be fair, his show was a vast improvement over the old movies and failed news programs that previously aired in the 11:30 timeslot, but $1 billion is still real money in the TV business and when Letterman announced his retirement a few months ago, Les Moonves didn't beg him to stay.

On a personal level, Letterman was prickly--some would say downright mean--to anyone who didn't follow his particular brand of liberalism.  As a parting tribute, Salon proudly lists "11 Times Letterman Humiliated the Right," including the host asking former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan if "George Bush or Dick Cheney had any humanity in them."  He also opined that President Bush "pretty much put Haliburton in business, repeating a tired--and demonstrably false--Democratic Party talking point.  Guess Dave never heard--or cared--that his good friend Bill Clinton gave more no-bid contracts to the company than the Bush Administration ever did.  Letterman also took frequent shots at Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly (an occasional guest on his program) and others in conservative media, while heaping praise on Democrats, including Barack Obama.   

But none of that really mattered, since Letterman mastered the art of survival in a 1,000-channel universe.  At some point, the CBS host apparently became the Willy Loman of late night, deciding it was more important to be well-liked and have friends than beat the competition.  And Dave had plenty of friends, especially among TV critics and the media elites.  Network anchors frequently appeared on his program, and Letterman's shows received 67 Emmy nominations, winning 12.  Letterman was always portrayed as the coolest guy on TV, even if he generally avoided the press.

And, at one point he was.  Back in the 80s, as the original host of Late Night on NBC, Letterman was fresh, funny and inventive.  But somewhere along the way, after Leno gained dominance at 11:30, Letterman started phoning it in.  For viewers, it was readily apparent that Cranky Dave in the Ed Sullivan Theater wasn't the same guy who brought a new snark to late night TV.  That's one reason Letterman never recovered, ratings-wise, after Leno blew past him in 1994.  In one of his rare interviews, Letterman said that people "liked the way Leno did his show" better than the way I did mine," but there was no speculation from the host as to why Leno came out on top.

The answer, as John Nolte suggests, may be quite simple.  Along the way, the one-time TV weatherman from Indiana lost touch with his Middle America audience, many of them switched to Leno, and never looked back:

It was sometime around 2003 when I began to realize Letterman didn’t like me anymore. His anger was no longer subversive and clever, it was bitter and mean-spirited and palpably real. He was a jerk playing to his loyal audience — urban, cynical, elite, Blue State jerks. The humble, self-deprecating Dave had become the nasty, arrogant Letterman, an unrecognizable bully who reveled in pulling the wings off those he saw as something less.

Chris Christie’s weight; Rush Limbaugh’s personal life; everything Bill O’Reilly; Bush, Cheney, Palin, and the last straw, a statutory rape joke about Palin’s 15 year-old daughter. Suddenly you were a dangerous idiot for protecting the most Indiana of things — your gun.

The man who could make you laugh at yourself now wanted to hurt and humiliate.
      
Yet, the steady decline in ratings (and revenue) was somehow unimportant, outside the sales department at CBS.  We were supposed to enjoy the comedic mastery on display every night after the local news. Letterman still had his moments from time-to-time, but he often looked like a guy just going through the motions, reserving his real venom for anyone on the right side of the political spectrum.

To use one of his favorite terms, Dave was also a little creepy on a personal level, as his audience learned in late 2009.  Letterman was forced to admit multiple affairs with female staffers on his program, just months after marrying his long-time girl friend Regina Lasko. There was also the matter of sexual harassment; after all, Letterman was also the head of a production company that employed the women.  And the host made his confession reluctantly; the boyfriend of his latest conquest had attempted to blackmail Letterman and he went to the police.  The NYPD was on the verge of making the whole thing public when Dave offered his pre-emptive admission.

Not surprisingly, he survived the episode with hardly a scratch--at least publicly.  The media depicted Letterman as a victim, and not a leech who preyed on young women employed by his show.  CBS never wavered in its support, and Letterman caught another break when the Tiger Woods sex scandal broke at the same time.  His friends in the media decided that Woods was a bigger story and Letterman's serial indiscretions were quickly forgotten.

Now, the longest-running host in late night television is preparing to sail off into the sunset, unsure about his future plans.  Not that he really has to worry; Letterman's lengthy tenure as an also-ran made him a wealthy man, with a personal fortune somewhere around $400 million.  He now has more time to spend with his 11-year-old son, and there's speculation that Letterman will follow the example of his idol (Johnny Carson) and disappear from TV.  After retiring from the Tonight Show in 1992, Carson only appeared on television once more, a brief walk-on with Letterman two years later.

There are millions of viewers who won't be disappointed if Dave pulls a similar vanishing act.

***ADDENDUM***
After finishing this post, I was surprised to find similar thoughts in the Washington Post, of all places.      
Finally, any summation on Letterman's career would not be complete without a look back on Leno being named Carson' successor on the Tonight Show, the decision that sent Dave to CBS.  While that episode has been dissected at great length (most notably in Bill Carter's book The Late Shift), it still highlights some of the personal traits of both men that set events in motion, and defined late night TV for a generation.

Letterman, the critics' favorite (and Johnny Carson's personal choice), seemed to believe the job was his by acclamation.  Leno, the dark horse candidate, lobbied relentlessly for the chair.  If NBC needed someone to host an event for its new prime time line-up, Leno volunteered.  And, as Carson's designated fill-in, he taped scores of promos for local NBC affiliates and made it a point to meet with station managers while on the road doing stand-up.  Leno's campaign has been described as "scheming" (and in far less generous terms) but it proved to be a winning strategy.  Letterman waited for NBC to give him the big job and it never came.  Leno worked for the opportunity and it paid off.  He took on the toughest job in show business--replacing Carson--and succeeded.  Letterman had to settle for the consolation prize.

As the Post trenchantly observed today, a silver medal seems to be in order.  Obviously, no one at the paper had a young, female relative working at Worldwide Pants.                       

 

                                               

 

    

Monday, May 18, 2015

Policing the ISIS Threat

Barely a week ago, the Defense Department increased security at military installations in the United States, amid concerns about ISIS-related threats.  Officials quickly pointed out there was no specific plot or information that prompted the change, just "general concerns" about the terror group and its growing ability to strike targets inside the CONUS.

The change in force protection condition levels at military bases was the latest indication of a gorwing ISIS threat inside the United States.  Earlier this year, the FBI reported it had opened ISIS-related cases in 49 states, and is said to be monitoring "several hundred" individuals with ties to the group, including American citizens who have fought with the terrorist organization overseas and returned home.  And, in the wake of the attempted attack on the Muhammad cartoon exhibition in Garland, Texas, several senior officials--including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson--warned about the growing risk of "lone wolf" attacks by home-grown jihadists.

But it's also clear that some law enforcement organizations are preparing for something beyond isolated, small-scale attacks.  New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced Sunday that he wants to assign another 350-400 officers to his department's counter-terrorism division.  The additional manpower would supplement officers assigned to the NYPD's intelligence division, and units trained to respond directly to terrorist incidents:

“We need to be very concerned about terrorism … The significantly increased threat from ISIS using social media to recruit people not only to go to Syria to fight, but encouraging people … to attack police, to attack government officials, to basically brainwash them under their screwed-up ideology. That threat has expanded significantly in the now 16 months I’ve been police commissioner,”

[snip]

“We are entering a new era where we cannot live in fear, but we have to live increasingly aware of our surroundings … This crazy hijacking of the Muslim religion by these fanatics, twisting it into an ideology that’s all about hate and murder and killing.” 

The NYPD is already the nation's best-prepared police force for counter-terrorism operations.  Under former Commissioner Ray Kelley, the department built impressive intelligence collection and analytical capabilities, assigning more than 1,000 officers to those tasks.  At least one member of the intel division is at the scene of every major crime or incident in the city, looking for information that may be related to other, on-going investigations.  Kelly also improved anti-terror training for his officers and invested in new technology for dealing with the threat.

Obviously, the NYPD was well-prepared for terrorism before these recent revelations, but Commissioner Bratton wants to assign one percent of his officers to the ISIS beat.  To be fair, there may be budgetary and operational considerations; emphasizing the "new" threat could be a hedge against potential cutbacks under the administration of "Comrade Bill" DeBlasio, the city's ultra-liberal mayor. Mr. Bratton may also use the ISIS threat to head off further restrictions on police powers, best illustrated by efforts to end the department's controversial "stop-and-frisk" program. 

Or, the commissioner may simply be taking prudent steps, realizing his city remains a prime target for terrorists.  There's also the possibility that the domestic ISIS threat is worse than we've been told, and Bratton is preparing for the inevitable: a major attack in New York City that his officers must defeat or respond to.
***ADDENDUM***
Commissioner Bratton's request for more officers to deal with ISIS isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of the FBI, which is supposed to play a leading role in domestic anti-terrorism efforts.  We're guessing he wasn't impressed with the bureau's response to the Garland incident (where the FBI sent a routine bulletin warning of the possible threat--but did nothing to mobilize field resources to look for the prime suspect, who had been on their terrorism "radar" for almost a decade).   





Thursday, May 14, 2015

Priorities

One by one, the next generation of senior military leadership is taking shape.

Last week, President Obama nominated Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford to the be next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Dunford, the current Marine Corps Commandant and the former Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has won wide-spread praise, both in Washington and on the battlefield.  If confirmed by the Senate--and that appears to be a virtual certainty--Dunford will become the second Marine to serve as the nation's senior military officer.

For the Vice-Chairman's position, Mr. Obama selected Air Force General Paul Selva, the current Commander of U.S. Transportation Command.  Selva, who ran Air Mobility Command (AMC) before moving to the TRANSCOM job, also has Washington connections.  From 2008-2011, he served as the military advisor to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Before that assignment, General Selva was a tanker and transport pilot, a background similar to General Norton Schwartz, the last Air Force Chief of Staff who was a serious contender for the JCS Chairmanship.  

Selva's nomination was also viewed as a minor rebuff to the "fighter pilot mafia" which has dominated the USAF for the past 30 years.  Eleven of the last 13 Air Force Chiefs of Staff (including officers who held the post on an "acting basis) have come from the fighter community.  But during that same period, only one Air Force officer, General Richard Myers, has served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and two others (General Robert Herres and General Joseph Ralston) have served as Vice-Chairman.  Both Myers and Ralston were fighter pilots; General Herres had a varied career that included time in both fighter and bomber aircraft.

Why haven't more airmen made it to the very pinnacle of military leadership?  Some have suggested that our long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--and their focus on ground operations--put senior Army and Marine Corps officers in the spotlight.  But, as Michael Hoffman at Military.com observes, that didn't prevent the selection of Admiral Michael Mullen as JSC Chairman in 2007, or the elevation of two other admirals to the Vice-Chairman's post since 2005.

Others have pointed to a lack of Air Force generals leading combatant commands, positions that often lead the JCS chairmanship, or the number two job.  But you can also make a case that the USAF hasn't exactly helped its cause, thanks to long-running problems in its nuclear enterprise.  It has been eight years since nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were mistakenly transported between bases in North Dakota and Louisiana, but missile and bomber units have been plagued by failed inspections, low morale, cheating scandals and allegations of drug use among crew members.   Never mind that the nation's nuclear forces had suffered from decades of under-funding and neglect; the Air Force's inability to get its strategic house in order didn't exactly inspire confidence in the halls of power.

There were also political battles that went the wrong way.  Squeezed by sequestration, the Air Force decided to retire its dwindling fleet of A-10 attack aircraft--which have been extraordinarily effective in supporting ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Money saved from the A-10 retirement would be diverted to the F-35 program, which has been plagued by long lead times and cost overruns.  Unfortunately for Air Force leaders, the A-10 has lots of friends in the Army, Marine Corps and on Capitol Hill.  Ultimately, the service's retirement order was rebuffed by Congress; the "Hawg" is still in the inventory and USAF leadership had another black eye.

General Selva's nomination as Vice-Chairman of the JCS may also offer some idea as to how the service is viewed by political leaders.  Obviously, he's an outstanding officer, but when an airlift/tanker officer is nominated for such a high-ranking post, it suggests that civilian leaders believe his expertise in those areas is essential--and to some degree, they have a point.  If you want to move troops and equipment quickly to the far corners of the earth, you call TRANSCOM, and more specifically AMC.  And if you need in-flight refueling, the tankers of Air Mobility Command provide the bulk of our capabilities in that area.

But focusing on those platforms has a negative connotation as well.  If you view the Air Force largely in terms of airlift, air refueling and other support functions, there may be less money down the road for other priorities, including the new bomber and nuclear modernization.

That's not to say General Selva isn't capable of advocating for the F-35, the next generation bomber, or any other program supported by the JCS.  But when the President and his new SecDef reach past legions of fighter pilot generals and pick a career airlift and tanker officer, it definitely sends signals.

If you don't believe us, just ask the Navy.  A lot of sailors are still in shock over today's announcement that Admiral John Richardson will be the next Chief of Naval Operations.  

Like Selva, Admiral Richardson is an exceptionally capable officer.  But he also has a rather atypical background for someone selected to run the Navy.  Richardson currently serves as director of the Navy's nuclear propulsion program, a key position, though little-known outside the Navy.  Created by the late Admiral Hyman Rickover, the director of nuclear reactors serves an eight-year term--exceptionally long for any flag officer--and it's typically the last stop before retirement.  Rickover, who knew how to get things done in Washington, designed the post to be insulated from service and Congressional pressures.

Admiral Richardson's operational background is in submarines, and there was immediate concern over his ability to represent other elements of the Navy, including the surface fleet and aviation.  "Let's  make sure he's not just the CNO of undersea," one Congressional aide told Breaking Defense.  Virginia Republican Randy Forbes, widely recognized as one of the ranking experts on naval affairs in Congress, voiced support for Admiral Richardson, saying he would focus "holistically" on the Navy's strength, from reinvigorating the surface fleet, to charting the future of naval aviation.

Why did a dark horse candidate like Richardson wind up with the CNO job?  Aside from his personal qualifications, there's the matter of replacing our Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines.  Current estimates peg the cost of each new boomer at $4.9 billion each--and that price is likely to rise.  Defense Secretary Ash Carter has indicated that nuclear modernization is one of his top priorities, and the next-generation SSBN is a key part of those plans.  Admiral Richardson, who has decades of experience in the submarine fleet, will be a forceful advocate for a costly--though essential--program.

And that presents a challenge for the Air Force.  Work on the new bomber is already underway and in a sequestration-driven military budget, that aircraft will eventually compete with the Ohio replacement for funding.  Simply stated, there won't be enough money to buy all the new bombers the Air Force would like to have, or the new SSBNs on the Navy wish list.  In fact, there will be growing pressure to consolidate our nuclear triad into a dyad, or (perhaps) put all of our strategic strike capabilities into a single platform.  To some degree, the consolidating is already underway; our Minuteman III ICBMs are in their fifth decade of service and there are no plans to replace them.

Which brings us to the next JCS-level appointment that's on the horizon: a successor for General Mark Welsh III, the Air Force Chief of Staff whose term expires next year.  His replacement will speak volumes about how the service is perceived, and where it is headed.  This much is certain: the next CSAF will need tremendous organizational abilities and salesmanship skills.  Not only will they have to squeeze more flying hours out of an aging aircraft fleet and dwindling personnel base, the new CSAF must also bring the F-35 to full operational capability, and find the money for the next generation bomber.

It's a tall order, and the Navy's "doubling down" on the Ohio-class replacement--by elevating Admiral Richardson to CNO--won't make the top Air Force job any easier.  The looming budget battle was illustrated in yesterday's Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) mark-up of the defense priorities bill.  Led by the committee chairman, Senator John McCain of Arizona, the SASC trimmed $860 million from three top-priority Air Force programs, and moved it to pay things the service doesn't want.  The aforementioned long range strike (LRS) bomber, now in the early stages of development, took one of the biggest hits, losing $460 million. 

Meanwhile, the Navy had a good day in the Senate, securing $1.2 billion for 12 additional F/A-18 Super Hornets; $1 billion for six more F-35Bs and almost $200 million in jamming upgrades for the Hornet fleet.                              

               

           

Monday, May 11, 2015

Endorsing a Bad Deal

As we've noted in recent weeks, Congress and the Administration are rushing headlong to reform the military retirement system.  Late last month, the House Armed Services Committee rejected an amendment that would delay implementation of reform plans, now scheduled to take effect in 2017.  The final vote on that measure was 55-8; the only Congressmen who voted for the delay were all veterans of the conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan.  One member of that group, New York Republican Chris Gibson, pushed for a year-long review of the reform plan.  "We're in no rush to do this," he told USA Today, "We're better off listening first."

But the committee chairman, Congressman Mac Thornberry of Texas, dismissed Gibson's concerns. In fact, he rejected Gibson's claims that some retirees will actually receive smaller pensions under the new plan, claiming the combination of new investments and other changes will actually give troops more money--in some cases.  "The time to act is now," he said.

The reform plan has also picked up support from powerful advocacy groups, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and most recently, the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  Last month, the VFW and four other veterans groups sent a letter to Congress, endorsing reform proposals that will create a 401k-style retirement plan for individuals who join the military in 2017 and beyond.  Representatives from those advocacy groups--and other organizations--note that the current system provides no benefits to individuals who don't serve for at least 20 years.

Under the new plan, service members would contribute up to five percent of their base pay toward the plan, with the federal government matching those contributions up to three percent.  Participants would be vested during their first enlistment, so virtually everyone who serves would have a small nest egg from their military service.  Since most VFW members did not serve for 20 years, the group sees it as a boon for future military personnel, who (presumably) will join the organization when they leave the armed forces.

Not surprisingly, the "benefits for all" proposal comes at a price.  To receive a full pension, most military retirees would have to wait until age 62--roughly 20 years after many leave the service.  Former service members who want their money sooner could take a lump sum payout when they leave the military (a bad idea for almost any retiree), or take a smaller annuity payout over a longer period, beginning with their retirement from the military.

To "sweeten" the deal, the new system would offer a small "bonus" at the 12-year point, equaling 2-3 months of basic pay for service members.  That would supposedly persuade military personnel to re-enlist and serve another eight years (or longer), ensuring that the armed forces retain experienced leaders and allowing them to keep building adding to their 403b-style nest egg.

But you don't need to be a personnel officer to understand that "bonus" will become separation pay for many service members.  As the military continues to downsize, the 12-year mark is a convenient point to get rid of "excess" personnel, saving the government millions in matching contributions to the retirement plan, along with reduced training costs and all other expenses related to keeping someone in uniform.  For thousands of future E-5s, E-6s and O-3s, their 12-year bonus will come with a pink slip.

It's also worth noting that the new compensation scheme will have an impact that goes far beyond the retirement program.  Retired Air Force Colonel Talbot Vivian, a former medical administrator, did an excellent job of summarizing the burden being placed on service members in a recent letter to Air Force magazine (subscription required).  Colonel Talbot accurately calls the reform proposal for what it is--an effort to "find more money to buy stuff and pay for flying hours by shifting the cost of services and benefits to airmen and retirees."

He offers the example of an Air Force Staff Sergeant (E-5), stationed in the CONUS, with a stay-at-home spouse.  Before taxes, the Sergeant's base pay is $2,951.40; when you add in their allowing for housing ($889.20) and subsistence, their gross pay rises to $4,202.52.  But if the airmen and his/her family live in older-style, federally-owned base quarters, they lose the housing allowance and when you deduct that (and federal taxes), the E-5s take-home pay is about $2,952.15 a month, or just over $35,000 a year.

From that modest salary, the government will deduct $147.57 for the Sergeant's contribution to the new retirement plan.  Meanwhile, the NCO will be paying more to feed his family, since the compensation commission has recommended eliminating commissary subsidies.  That means military families will pay the same prices for groceries as their civilian counterparts; the SSgt in Colonel Vivian's example will be paying roughly $1,037.50 a month for groceries, leaving him or her with $1,767.07 in spendable income to cover all other expenses.

But before the Sergeant can make his car payment, fill his tank with gas or pay the credit card bill, there's the matter of health insurance for his family.  Wait a minute--aren't military dependents and retirees covered under the TRICARE program?  They are (for now), but the compensation panel has recommended eliminating that option and replacing it with a choice of "commercial insurance options," read: Obamacare.  With commercial options drying up, it's a likely bet that dependents and retirees now covered by TRICARE will be forced into the exchanges, with higher premiums, deductibles and other out-of-pocket expenses.

A quick look at the Obamacare exchange shows a number of plans with monthly premiums between $100-$200.  However, the copays average 30% and the deductibles are $1000-$2500.  As Colonel Vivian observes, many military families will be forced to put aside thousands of dollars to cover potential medical emergencies, before they can save for other contingencies, or put aside money for a child's college education.  And remember: we're talking about a family with a gross income of $35,000 a year.

Among the various military advocacy groups, the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) has been largely alone in opposing the new compensation scheme.  MOAA observes--correctly--that radical changes in pay and benefits has a direct impact on military readiness, as illustrated by the failed REDUX plan of the 1990s:

"Past reform proposals have been enacted into law, including conversion of retired military base pay into a high 36-month average base pay in 1980 and introduction of the so-called REDUX system for new entrants after October 1986.  The REDUX plan envisioned a reduced formula for service members who retire with less than 30 years of service and a CPI-1% COLA system and a one-time retired pay "catch-up" recalculation at age 62.

When Congress was considering REDUX legislation, senior defense officials expressed concern that the reduced career pull of lower retirement pay compared to the sacrifices inherent in military service would eventually undermine retention.  Those concerns proved justified in the 1990s, as surveys of separating service members highlighted REDUX as a significant reason behind their decision to leave the service." 

REDUX was eventually repealed, but rejection of the "new" compensation reform bill appears unlikely.  The politicians understand that military members, dependents and retirees represent less than 1% of the nation's population.  With the exception of a handful of Congressional districts, the military voting "bloc" isn't large enough to influence the outcome of elections, so it's convenient (and safe) to push the burden of retirement and benefits on current and former service members and their families.

As for the "readiness" issues created by the new plan, those won't become apparent until the mid-career NCOs and officers make their "stay or go" decision a few years down the road.  By that time, the "wise men" (and women) who created this scheme will be long since retired, and with a far better plan than the one being foisted on those who wear the uniform.   
***
FLASHBACK:  Another take on this issue in an earlier post, "The Problem With Petty Officer Gurney" from 2010.  Then as now, we were told that the "typical" military retiree--an E-6 collecting about $1700 a month (after taxes) was breaking the DoD budget and reform was imperative.  Did we mention that the head of the compensation panel, a retired Major General in the Marine Corps Reserve--earned $2.9 million during his last year of employment before retiring from SAIC?  As we observed at the time, that tidy package was far more than Petty Officer Gurney will ever collect in his military pension--even if he lives to the age of 90.                                 

  

    

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Outgunned

















A Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) launcher.  North Korea's growing missile threat has led some analysts to suggest a THAAD deployment on the Korean peninsula (U.S. Army photo)




As Stalin was fond of saying, "quantity has a quality all its own," and that certainly applies to missile defense.

One of the more effective counter-measures against advanced defensive systems like the Patriot, Aegis and S-300 is old-fashioned brute force: simply launch more missiles than the interceptors can handle.  As a war-gamer for the Air Force in the late 90s, I recall some simulations of a PRC missile attack against Taiwan; the more optimistic estimates predicted that Taipei's Patriot batteries would last for a few minutes before running out of missiles and becoming targets for the next wave of CSS-6 and CSS-7s from the mainland.

The picture may be almost as grim in Korea.  Former Pentagon analyst Van Jackson tells Breaking Defense the current array of American and South Korean Patriot batteries, supplemented by Aegis-equipped ships of U.S. and ROK navies, couldn't defend our own bases, let alone major population centers like Seoul.

Once again, it's a matter of quantity.  North Korea has as many as 1,000 missiles available for use against targets below the 38th parallel and in Japan.  While many are older Scud-series missiles, they could (when launched in massive volleys) overwhelm missile defenses on the peninsula.

Dr. Jackson and other experts believe the U.S. should deploy a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery to South Korea.  With a more powerful radar (and longer-range interceptor missiles), THAAD could play a useful role in negating Pyongyang's more capable missiles, at greater distances.  And, because of China's heavy-handed lobbying against a THAAD deployment, Seoul is growing more receptive to the idea.


“The Koreans are much more favorable about THAAD,” [Jackson] said, “than they were six months ago.” That’s not because of any brilliant strategy on America’s part — the US hasn’t even made an official proposal to deploy new missile defense, he said — but because of “heavy-handedness” on the part of the Chinese. In a twist that must make Sun Tzu spin in his grave, China has lobbied South Korea so hard against the THAAD deployment that Koreans, as a backlash, are now more in favor of it.

Even so, said Jackson, “I wouldn’t anticipate South Korea asking for a deployment of THAAD without some kind of precipitating event, [such as] maybe a fourth nuclear test” by the North. Of course, if there’s one thing we can count on in the unpredictable peninsula, it’s that Pyongyang will do something provocative, given time.

Indeed, even Beijing has voiced recent concerns about the North Korean threat, but they want the U.S. to use diplomacy to deal with the problem, rather than a military build-up.  The PRC has even claimed the THAAD radar could be used to "spy" on their activities, a charge that is downright laughable.  THAAD is a purely defensive system, but that doesn't stop the Chinese from campaigning against additional deployments in the Far East.

Clearly, PLA leadership is concerned that THAAD technology will eventually make its way into the defense forces of South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, following the examples of Patriot and Aegis.  With ballistic missiles forming a key element of its regional strategy, Beijing will clearly reject any moves that would lead to better missile defense capabilities among its neighbors.

For now, it looks like China will get its way.  The Obama Administration goes out of its way to avoid antagonizing our adversaries, and the PRC certainly falls in that category.  While the White House approved a THAAD deployment to Guam in 2013--and that presence has been sustained for more than two years--there are no plans to send other batteries to South Korea.  That raises a couple of interesting scenarios, namely how Washington would respond to a fourth nuclear test by Pyongyang, or the first launch of a BM-25 Musudan, or the KN-08, which is capable of reaching targets on the U.S. West Coast.

There's also the matter of limited assets and military budgets in an era of sequestration.  Earlier this year, senior Army officials warned that air defense artillery units are facing the same problems caused limited funding and frequent deployments.  While ADA elements don't rotate to Afghanistan, they are currently supporting a number of deployments around the globe.

Earlier this year, the Deputy Commander of the Army's 32nd Air and Missile Defense Command reported that, on any given day, roughly half of the nation's Patriot batteries are deployed outside the CONUS.  The Army Chief of Staff, General Ray Odinero has stated that the current pace of missile defense deployments is "unsustainable."  Equipment is wearing out, highly-trained soldiers are getting out and needed upgrades are being delayed by the current ops tempo.

That must be music to Pyongyang's ears.
***
ADDENDUM:  These types of discussions always demand an important caveat: BMD is not based entirely on shooting down missiles in flight.  Destroying launchers on the ground is always effective and our capabilities to locate and target mobile missiles has improved since the first Gulf War, along with our ability to pass that information to airpower assets.

Unfortunately, the number of aircraft available for SCUD hunting has declined dramatically.  At the start of Desert Shield, the U.S. Air Force had more than 180 fighter squadrons.  Twenty-five years later, that total is at 54, and it will soon decline to 49--and not all of those units are trained or equipped for taking out ballistic missiles.  Drones can fill part of that gap, but their payload is limited and UAVs are more vulnerable to the large volume of AAA fire that North Korea can generate.

Finally, it's worth noting that Dr. Jackson is a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Defense, a think tank founded by Democratic security and policy experts.  When he describes missile defense capabilities in South Korea as "inching towards a crisis," the situation may be worse than we think.