Friday, March 31, 2006

Today's Reading Assignment

From Matthew Scully at On the occasion of Hugh Hefner's 80th birthday, Mr. Scully takes a measure of America's best-known pornographer, and finds him lacking.

Do us a favor, Hef; enjoy the time you have left with your salaried "girl friends" and resist that inner urge to re-issue "The Playboy Philosophy." An oxymoron if there ever was one.

Turbulence Ahead for Airbus

Just a few months ago, the European aerospace consotrium Airbus was riding high. It outsold rival Boeing in 2005, and booked more orders for new aircraft than its U.S. rival.

But the tables have quickly turned on Airbus, which relies heavily on government subsidies to compete with Boeing. Earlier this week, Airbus's biggest customer, a U.S.-based aircraft leasing firm, called for a major redesign of the A350, designed to compete with Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner. Without sweeping design changes, experts warn, the A350 will be unable to compete with the 787, which will enter service in 2008--a full two years before the A350.

And, if that weren't bad enough, Dubai-based Emirates Air has delayed an order for 20 Airbus A340 wide-body jets. Emirates is requesting changes in the A340 which will make it as fuel efficient as the Boeing 777. As Business Week notes, these public rebukes by key customers will likely have an major impact on Airbus's efforts to market its newest passenger jets. The result could be fewer orders for the Europeans, and an opportunity for Boeing to make up lost market share.

With the A340 and A350, Airbus is facing a pair of critical problems. A few years ago, the outsized A340 appeared to be more than a match for the 777, offering similar capabilities over profitable, long-haul routes. But with oil prices hovering between $60-70 a barrell, Boeing's more efficient 777 has become the preferred option in its class.

Ditto for the 787. The Dreamliner's fuel efficiency has already attracted 291 firm orders, while the A350 has only 100. In fairness, the A350 has only been on the market since December, while Boeing began taking orders for the Dreamliner almost two years ago. But the A350 is largely perceived as a "leftover," essentially an upgraded A330--while the Boeing entry is essentially a new design. According to one estimate, the A350 will win only 25% of its market niche, ceding most of that territory--and the profits--to Boeing.

For now, Airbus is sticking by its guns, and says it plans no design changes. But most analysts believe the European manufacturer will be forced to re-engineer both the A340 and the A350. If they don't their recent gains against Boeing will evaporate, and European governments will be forced to dig deeper to subsidize the operation.

One final note: a potential saving grace for the Airbus might come (ironically) from the U.S. military. The Air Force is currently searching for its next-generation tanker aircraft, and Airbus is making a serious bid for the contract. With Boeing in the doghouse over a recent contracting scandal, a 767 tanker for the USAF is no longer a slam dunk. Airbus is already offering a tanker version of the A330, and could (potentially) upgrade their proposal with an A350 air-refueler. The A350 would offer a substantial increase in fuel offload from existing tankers, as well as the 767. But it is unclear if the Pentagon is prepared to buy its new tankers from a foreign supplier--something it has never done before.

Mommy Dearest

Another story that caught my eye during a recent trip to the Tampa Bay area. When a New Port Richey, FL woman learned that a neighborhood man had raped her seven-year-old son, she confronted him and threatened to call police. So far, so good, right? Maybe; I think most parents would have arrived with the cops in tow, along with Mr. Glock. Well, unfortunately, the woman quickly forgot about the cops (as well as her parental and moral obligations), and began "negotiating" with the pedophile.

The Tampa Tribune picks up the story from there. Read it, and you'll be angry. Very, very angry. This woman is no better than the pervert who raped her son, and deserves the same prison sentence.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Bureaucratic Wars

Passing through Tampa this morning, I came across this disturbing article in the Tampa Tribune. It details bureaucratic infighting, cronyism and back-stabbing within the intelligence directorate of U.S. Central Command, based at Tampa's MacDill AFB. According to the article, two senior civilian leaders within the intel directorate (also known as the J-2) used their authority to promote favorites and impede the careers of personnel who ran afoul of them. One of the civilian managers was recently targeted by an Army investigation, which concluded that he should be demoted or fired, but he remains on the job. The other civilian--deputy director of J-2 operations--is also being investigated, but he too, remains on the payroll.

A caveat: while I've participated in various conferences at MacDill and worked with members of the J-2 staff on a recurring basis, I have never been part of CENTCOM's intel staff, and my knowledge of its inner-workings are limited at best. But such occurences are not unusual within the intel bureaucracy, where senior civilians can amass tremendous power. As the Tribune article points out, civilians are supposed to be the "corporate knowledge" for a military organization. Commanders--such as the Brigadier General who is CENTCOM's top intel officer--come and go, but civilians stay forever. In that environment, it becomes easy for them to build powerbases, network, and create their own empires within the bureaucracy. By the time they reach a senior rank (GG-14 and above), they are often the powers behind the throne; efforts to improve or reform the organization often live or die through their support (or lack thereof).

This seems completely alien to anyone in the corporate world, where even CEOs can be fired for poor performance or malfeasence. But the civil service ranks are a different matter entirely. Getting rid of a senior bureaucrat is a difficult, time-consuming task. Improper conduct (except for criminal behavior) must be carefully documented, and with the grievance and appeals process, it can take years to dismiss an upper-level senior servant. Understanding that, many commanders prefer to work around problematic civilians within their ranks, leaving that "problem" for their successors. As the Tribune points out, the CENTCOM J-2 is pre-occupied with the on-going conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he apparently entrusted day-to-day administrative and operational management chores to his civilian leaders. And some, apparently, used their power to punish subordinates unfairly.

The CENTCOM story provides yet another reason for rapid implementation of the National Security Personnel System (NSPS), Don Rumsfeld's effort to reform the DOD's civilian personnel system. Under NSPS, the military's civilian employees would be compensated and promoted based on their performance; factors such as length of service and time in grade would be less important, allowing DOD to find--and reward--civil servants who are doing their jobs and have earned a promotion. Predictably, various government employee unions are fighting NSPS, and a federal judge recently issued a ruling that will delay its introduction. One Pentagon personnel officer told me that NSPS won't be widely implemented until at least 2008--if it even survives.

In the meantime, senior civlians will continue to build their empires, and manipulate the system for personal gain. Believe me, this problem is not limited to CENTCOM's J-2 directorate. We can only wonder how much information isn't getting out because some bureaucrat decides it won't be helpful to his/her career. Maybe that's why the Saddam documents were gathering dust in some archive until Stephen Hayes and other conservative journalists began asking questions.

Jill Carroll is Free

American journalist Jill Carroll was released by her terrorist kidnappers in Iraq earlier today. She is reportedly in good health and spirits, and has been taken to a secure location in Baghdad. It is expected that she will return to the U.S. in the coming days. We should all say a prayer of thanks for her safe return.

Ms. Carroll, a free-lance reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, was abducted on 7 January in Baghdad, as she traveled to the office of an Iraqi politician for an interview. Ms. Carroll's Iraqi translator was killed in the abduction, which was attributed to a group called the "Revenge Brigades." Later, a senior Iraqi official indicated that Carroll was being held by the Islamic Army in Iraq, another terrorist group. At one point, Carroll's kidnappers threatened to kill her unless all female prisoners in Iraq were released. That deadline expired, with no word about her fate.

Details of Ms. Carroll's release are still sketchy. She has reportedly said that her kidnappers suddenly "came to me and said we're going." She was loaded into an automobile, driven to the offices of an Iraqi Political Party, and released. She contacted American officials by phone from the party's headquarters.

As a general rule, kidnappers release their captives only because (a) a ransom has been paid; (b) the captive's "usefulness" to the criminals--or in this case, a terrorist organization--has been exhasted, or (c) security forces are closing in, and the bad guys elect to cut and run. At this point, I'm leaning toward option three. Less than two weeks ago, terrorists released three Christian peace activists because they believed that U.S. and Iraqi forces were closing in. It's much easier for kidnappers to cover their tracks if they don't have a hostage in tow--or leave a corpse behind.

Additionally, there is no evidence (yet) that the U.S. government or the Monitor paid a ransom to Carroll's kidnappers, so that doesn't appear to be the reason for her release. And certainly, Ms. Caroll's potential value to the terrorists was far from exhausted. As the only female American hostage in Iraq, Ms. Carroll was a high-profile captive; the kidnapping generated tons of media coverage for both the victim and her captors. Why give up such a high-value asset unless you're worried that the Americans or Iraqi security forces are about to kick in the front door?

We'll learn more about Ms. Carroll's ordeal, her kidnappers, and the circumstances surrounding her release in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we should all be greatful that she's leaving Iraq alive and well.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Then What?

1127 EST/30 Mar 06

Iran is upping its rhetoric, just hours after the UNSC vote. According to Drudge (and the AP), an Iranian envoy has "definatly rejected" the call to halt its uranium enrichment efforts.

As we noted yesterday, a diplomatic demand (like the one issued by the Security Council) is meaningless and hollow, unless you're prepared to back it up. At this point, the UN appears reluctant to even discuss potential sanctions, let alone military action, so Iranian officials can be defiant--with little to fear, and (so far) nothing to lose.

The U.N. Security Coumcil has offically demanded that Iran cease it's nuclear enrichment efforts. Earlier this evening, the 15-member security council unanimously approved the carefully-worded statement, demanding Iranian compliance. The U.N. statement also asks the International Atomic Energy Agency to issue a report (in 30 days) on Iran's compliance efforts.

Tehran greeted the resolution with defiance, and why not? Like most U.N. statements, this one has no teeth. What if Iran doesn't comply? The U.N. won't say. But sanctions are highly unlikely; Iran's friends in Moscow and Beijing have already said so.

If the Iranians hold true to form, they'll make a few empty gestures toward compliance, such as dismantling a few centrifuges, or temporarily halting work at a site, pehaps Bushehr--whose role in the nuclear program is actually quite minimal. This will start a game of nuclear rope-a-dope between the U.N. and Iran, designed to by time for Tehran to build atomic weapons.

Secretary of State Condolezza Rice calls today's statement "an important step." Perhaps, but I'm guessing that the mullahs in Tehran won't lose any sleep over it. Meanwhile, in Israel, Mr. Olmert will soon face the ultimate decision for his nation: take decisive action, or let the diplomats dabble a while longer, and hope for the best.

The Usual Blather

As a reformed broadcaster, I still check in on my former business (from time to time) by visiting TV Shoptalk, a site devoted to television news. Among today's articles posted on the website, there's an editorial from the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal, rebutting President Bush's recent criticism of media coverage of the War in Iraq.

One sure method for getting journalists riled up is to accuse them of being biased, getting a story wrong, or both. And that's essentially what Mr. Bush did last week, noting that the ground truth in Iraq is often far different than what media outlets report. The Journal claims that President Bush's charges are nothing more than "another phony attack on the media," and it quickly resorts to sophomoric reasoning in trying to make its case:

We've got several questions to ask these two who led us into this poorly planned, unjustified and costly war:

How many Bush insiders have died in Iraq? None; but at least 67 journalists have died covering the initial fighting and the insurgency.

Has either Cheney or Rumsfeld been injured in Iraq? No, but dozens of journalists have, including the ABC-TV anchor Bob Woodruff.

And who among the war's Washington-based architects has been taken hostage in Iraq? No one. But many journalists have, including Jill Carroll of The Christian Science Monitor, who remains in captivity.

Predictably, the editorial writers at the Journal ignore some salient facts. If you define "Bush insiders" as the President, his cabinet, and senior administration officials, then it is true--none have died in Iraq. But the days of a President or King leading his forces into battle ended centuries ago; (apparently they missed that news flash in Winston-Salem). By the paper's logic--and I use that term loosely--every President since the Mexican-American War is guilty of the same crime, since they and their cronies failed to lead our troops into combat.

It is also true that dozens of journalists have been injured or killed covering the war. To the Journal, this is a badge of honor, proof that members of the fourth estate are willing to risk all to get the story. Okay, but how many of those reporters were forced to go to Iraq? None that I'm aware of. They volunteered for the job, just as the men and women of our military. Reporters understood the danger they faced in Iraq, and went there to do their jobs. I commend them for that, but only to a point. Most journalists don't spend days on end in combat, getting shot at or facing the hazards of IEDs. In fact, some do much of their reporting from the relative safety of the Green Zone, or the balcony of a secure hotel. So much for courage under fire.

As for Ms. Carroll, I applaud her courage and wish only for her safe return. But like other journalists, she knew the risks involved and accepted them. But that doesn't make her morally superior to our political and military leaders in Washington. The Journal's argument is the same sort of convoluted logic that gives Cindy Sheehan a free pass in her nut-job rants about Iraq. Because her son died in Iraq, Ms. Sheehan has an authority and gravitas that none of us can match. So if she says that the U.S. is run by a Jewish-led cabal (an assertion Ms. Sheehan made last summer), why, she must be correct and we can't challenge her her wisdom and authority.

The Journal's litmus test on Iraq begs an obvious question: if genuine knowledge and expertise can only be conferred by those reporting on the ground in Iraq, then how many of the paper's reporters and editorial writers have reported from Baghdad? To match the credibility of a Jill Carroll or bob Woodruff, you would think that the paper needs to shuttle its entire staff to Tikrit, Tal Afar, or Mosul. I'm guessing that few reporters from the Journal have been to Iraq, and probably none of their editorial writers. Hypocrisy is alive and well in the offices of the Winston-Salem Journal.

And that brings us back to Mr. Bush's recent assertion, that the press is getting it wrong in Iraq. Military analyst Ralph Peters (a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer) recently returned from Baghdad, and wrote a lengthy op-ed for Real Clear Politics that offered a long list of media distortions and inaccuracies. Incidentally, Peters spent one day during his visit criss-crossing Baghdad almost two dozen times, escorted by only a single Army officer. I haven't heard of a single reporter duplicating that feat, despite the fact that many travel with their own bodyguards.

What's missing in much of the press reporting from Iraq is any sense of balance or perspective. Covering the carnage from the latest IED explosion, it's easy to ignore the fact that half of all IEDs are now found and cleared before they can be detonated, and that the number of terrorist attacks (and U.S. casualties) is on the decline. That's exactly the kind of story the American public needs to see, but it's all but absent in the MSM, including a certain paper in North Carolina.

Journalists who report from combat zones should be lauded for their courage. But that doesn't excuse them from reporting all sides of the story, and offering a little balance and perspective in their coverage.

Another Story You Won't See in the MSM

From today's Washington Times: FISA Judges Say Bush Within Law. A panel of five former FISA court judges told the Senate Judiciary Committee that President Bush did not act illegally when he authorized the expanded NSA domestic surveillance program.

Judge Allan Kornblum, one of the authors of the 1978 FISA law, said the president would be "remiss" in his duties if he ceded approval authority for all domestic surveillance to the FISA court:

"If a court refuses a FISA application and there is not sufficient time for the president to go to the court of review, the president can under executive order act unilaterally, which he is doing now," said Judge Allan Kornblum, magistrate judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida and an author of the 1978 FISA Act. "I think that the president would be remiss exercising his constitutional authority by giving all of that power over to a statute."

Keep working on that censure resolution, Senator Feingold. Given yesterday's testimony from the former FISA judes (and opinions from other legal scholars) you may be the only person in Washington who believes the Bush Administration actually broke the law. That position may help you tie up the Daily Kos/liberal kook vote, but it won't work with millions of Americans who want the government to do all it can to protect us from terrorists.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Today's Reading Assignment

After remaining silent for almost two weeks on the Iraqi documents story, The New York Times finally weighed in today, trying to downplay the significance of the documents, which (among other things) confirmed links between Saddam's regime and Al-Qaida prior to 9-11.

The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes, one of the first journalists to write about the documents (and illustrate their importance) nicely deconstructs a Times news article and op-ed on the subject. As he reminds us, the publication of these documents liberates us from the "opinion of former intelligence officials, who obviously knew little about Iraq before the war. Well said, Mr. Hayes. Well said, indeed.

The Israeli Vote

Results of the Israeli elections are in, and the new Kadima Party (led by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert) seems to have carried the day, although it won fewer seats in Parliment than expected.

According to the Israeli television, Kadima will win 29-32 seats in the new Kenesset; the Labor Party will have 20-22 seats, while the conservative Likud Party won only 11-12 seats. The results were a dramatic defeat for Likud, which has dominated Israeli politics for more than two decades.

Olmert is expected to form a coalition government with Labor and other, minor parties. He also intends to pursue former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan of withdrawing from the West Bank, and continuing peace talks with the Palestinians. Likud hoped to capitalize on security concerns among Israeli voters, spared by Sharon's incapacitation, Hamas's victory in Palestinian parlimentary elections, and the looming Iran nuclear threat.

But conservatives in Israel are divided. The ultra-right Beitenu Party, led by a one-time aide to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, increased its representation in the Kenesset from two seats, to as many as 14, eclipsing Likud. Beitenu favors, among other things, redrawing Israeli borders to exclude its Arab citizens.

Turnout was low for an Israeli election, particularly one where the stakes we so high. That suggests that some Israelis couldn't stomach any of the candidates, and expressed their dissatisfaction by staying home. I haven't seen any detailed exit polls, but I'm guessing that many of the no-shows were conservative voters, turned off by Kadima's expected triumph, the prospect of giving back more land to the Palestinians, and the split within their own ranks.

On the other hand, Kadima's win suggests that enough Israelis are willing to give Ariel Sharon's strategy for peace a little more time. It will now be up to Olmert to make that strategy a reality. I'm not sure that the new Prime Minister has a mandate, but he has enough breathing room to keep advancing the "peace process," until Hamas launches another terrorist offensive, or Iran reaches the point of no return in its efforts to build nuclear weapons. At that point, the bloom may be off the Kadima rose, but fortunately for Mr. Olmert, conservatives are in no position to effectively challenge him until they get their own house in order.

You've Got to be Kidding

Today's howler comes from Secretary of State Condolezza Rice. She's asked her Russian counterpart for a "serious investigation" into claims that Moscow passed information on U.S. battle plans to Saddam Hussein just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

We already know what the Russians answer will be--and so does Secretary Rice. Her request is the equivalent of a "strongly worded diplomatic note," designed to create the impression of official action and concern. In a few weeks or days, the Russians will respond politely, assuring the U.S. that they didn't pass intelligence to the Iraqis in the run-up to the war, and they didn't have a spy (or spies) at our forward headquarters in Qatar (wink, wink). Meanwhile, our counter-intelligence officials will begin a quiet (and serious) search for potential moles within the military command structure.

The Russians, of course, have a long history of recruiting spies within our military and intelligence services. CIA turncoat Rick Ames and FBI traitor Robert Hanssen betrayed U.S. operatives overseas (among other secrets) in return for money. John Walker and his spy ring passed on sensitve communications code books for more than two decades, allowing the Soviets to read our most sensitive message traffic. Collectively, hundreds--perhaps thousands of Americans and foreigners working for the United States--died because of the treachery of three greedy Americans and their willing accomplices.

While Ames, Hanssen and Walker were all eventually caught, prosecuted and imprisoned, there is always the lingering suspicion that other spies remain in our midst, quietly passing sensitive information to foreign nations. Was that the case in the weeks before the invasion of Iraq? At this point, no one will say (at least publicly). I still contend that the Russians gathered most of their information through their own, impressive intelligence network. A spy within CENTCOM wouldn't have hurt, but the movement of U.S. forces to the Middle East could hardly be concealed, and the Russians were more than capable of discerning our likely battle plans, based on what they observed in the Kuwait desert. That's probably why Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld hasn't made much of the claim.

We may eventually know if there was a spy on the CENTCOM staff in the spring of 2003, but the process of ferreting out potential spies will take some time, unless investigators catch an unexpected break. Until then, this "scandal" will quicky fade from view. Counter-intelligence personnel prefer to work quietly and privately; the business of catching suspected spies requires secrecy, and you won't see any page on exclusives in the NYT or WaPo until after an arrest is made--assuming there really was a Russian spy at CENTCOM.

One final thought: the search for leaks will not be confined to possible human spying. As illustrated by the Walker spy case, breaches in communications security (also known as COMSEC) can be even more damaging, allowing adversaries to access a veritable treasure trove of classified information. I'm guessing that our pre-war communications will also get a thorough review, to look for potential compromises in our creation, storage and transmission of information. In the meantime, I'm sure that Condi Rice is a little steamed for being sent on the predictably fruitless (and largely pointless) errand of confronting her Russian counterpart.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Just Another Example...

...of how the "new media" runs circles around the dinosaurs of the traditional press. Over the past year, this blog has devoted several posts to the threat posed by shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles, most recently this column, published last December. We noted the widespread proliferation of these weapons, and the lack of missile defense systems on most commercial aircraft. While the Israelis have already outfitted their passenger jets with protective systems, the U.S. is still weighing the issue. At a cost of roughly $1 million per aircraft, it won't be cheap, but it may be more affordable than the alternative: the successful downing of a domestic passenger jet, the loss of all souls onboard, and a likely death spiral for one--or more--of the major carriers.

Two months later, ABC News joins the fray, with its own report on the man-portable SAM threat from ace investigative reporter Brian Ross. Mr. Ross is supposedly one of the best in the business, and I applaud him for tackling the story. But you'll note a number of similarities between Ross's report, and our blog entry from December. And remember--you read it here first. Of course, we didn't ask Barbara Boxer for her thoughts on the issue, but then again, we try to eliminate the fluff from our reporting.

Providing story ideas and angles for the MSM is one of the many services we provide in this forum. Keep checking back, Brian; I'm sure we can come up with something else you can use.

The Russian Connection

A few days ago, we analyzed an ABC News report on a document unearthed in the Baghdad archives of Saddam' s regime. According to the translated document, the Russian ambassador to Iraq passed information on U.S. military movements in the weeks leading up to the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam from power.

As we noted at the time, the fact that Russia was passing information to Saddam was hardly a revelation. The same thing happened before Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when Russian officials provided imagery and other intelligence information, detailing U.S. preparations to liberate Kuwait. Even with the demise of the Soviet state, Russia maintains an extensive intelligence collection system and robust analytical capabilties, surpassed only by the United States. The Russians are certainly willing to share their information with allies and client states, particularly if it advances their own interests. The information provided in 2003 was likely designed to send the same message as in 1991: the Americans and their allies are coming after you, Saddam, and you'd better make a deal before than first B-2 arrives over Baghdad.

Luckily, Saddam was (and is) a military imbecile, who remained convinced that the U.S. would never march all the way to Baghdad. So, he ignored the Russian information, and Moscow's counsel to cooperate with the UN--or face his own demise. So, the Russian intelligence went for naught, and Vladimir Putin watched Moscow's "interests" (billions in energy contracts and debts for weapons systems) evaporate during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

But the question remains: how did Russia gather information on U.S. intentions in the months leading up to Iraqi Freedom. I'm betting that Moscow gathered most of the data the old-fashioned way, through its extensive network of overhead collection platforms (including imagery satellites), signals intelligence (SIGINT), open source reporting, and old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger spying.

That may be one reason the U.S. has apparently decided not to pursue this issue with the Russians, despite recent statements to the contrary from Secretary of State Condolezza Rice. When it comes to technical intelligence, the Russians have the resources to gather vast amounts of data, and fashion it into finished intelligence, with accurate predictions of our capabilities and intent. And sadly, we make the job easier for Russia (and other potential adversaries). With our open society, sensitive information on military units, personnel and activities can often be gleaned through press reporting, the internet, or by simply hanging out in bars and restaurants near military bases.

And, as we've noted before, this problem is exacerbated by our spotty efforts in operations security (OPSEC) and denial and deception (D&D). It should come as no surprise that Russia, China, and North Korea practice D&D at all levels of their military, making it more difficult for us to divine their intentions. In an age where unclassified web sites offer information on the orbits of suspected spy satellites, it becomes easier for potential foes to conceal their activity, and complicate the tasks facing our intelligence services.

But there is a more troubling aspect to this controversy. The captured Iraqi document suggested that Russia had an agent inside the U.S. headquarters in Qatar, which directs our operations in the Middle East. If that story is correct, then the Russians could have provided much more accurate information to the Iraqis, including the precise timing of planned attacks--information that can't necessarily be discerned from a SIGINT intercepts, or the latest overhead imagery. There is also the disturbing possibility that the Russian agent (or agents) is still at work, and still funneling information to Moscow.

Privately, the search for a possible spy within the CENTCOM command structure is probably underway. But publicly, the Bush Administration will refrain from criticizing the Russians, since Moscow has taken the lead in talks aimed at deterring Iran's nuclear program. For that reason, a public "spy scandal," is out of the question, at least for the short term. But behind the scenes, there will be careful checks to determine what the Russians knew, how they learned it, and if they had any help from the inside.

Act Naturally

Country music legend Buck Owens died over the weekend. He was 76, and he will be missed.

For many younger country fans (say, those under 40) Owens is best remembered as the co-host of "Hee Haw," the long-running music and comedy series of the 1970s and 1980s. But long before that television gig, Owens was instrumental in shaking country music out of one of its periodic funks, and opening the doors for other "outlaws" that followed.

When Owens first topped the charts in the early 1960s, mainstream country music had strayed from its roots. Lush, romantic ballads, sung by performers like Eddy Arnold, Ray Price and the recently-deceased Jim Reeves dominated the charts. One wag observed that the "violins were chasing the fiddles out of Nashville." Country seemed stuck somewhere between Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood. The music had become a little too sedate, predictable and comfortable.

Owens was having none of that. He was the leading proponent of something called the "Bakersfield Sound," a gritty blend of traditional country, western swing, Mexican and old-fashioned bar music that Owens perfected the hard way. The son of a Texas sharecropper who moved west during the Great Depression, Owens played his first professional gig at age 16. By the time he registered the first of 20 #1 singles, he had been performing in clubs for more than 15 years, many around his adopted home town of Bakersfield.

By challenging the Nashville status quo, Owens made himself a star, and opened the door for others. There were a lot of dissatisfied performers around Nashville in the mid-1960s, including Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. While their migration to Austin produced music that was much different from the Bakersfield sound, Owens had demonstrated that a talented outsider could take on the country music establishment and win, without surrendering his artistic integrity.

In 1969, Owens opted for a career change that some have described as a mistake. He signed on as co-host of "Hee Haw," the cornpone comedy and music series that ran for a single season on CBS, and another 16 years in syndication. The series made Owens a lot of money--he was paid $200,000 for each taping session, and the series averaged 4-6 a year, but it kept him out of the studio. His recording career fizzled. Capitol Records, his long-time label, eventually dropped him, and a contract with Warner Brothers produced no new hits.

When Hee Haw left the air--thankfully--in 1986, Owens devoted most of his time to business interests. Despite his lack of a formal education, he was a savvy businessman who owned radio stations in Bakersfield and Phoenix. In the late 1990s, he sold some his Phoenix properties to Clear Channel for almost $100 million. He still peformed occasionally, but Owens was almost an afterthought in country music circles.

It took a new generation of artists to rediscover Owens, and help give him his due. Dwight Yoakam literally dragged Owens on stage with him and back into the recording studio. Their duet of a early Owens song--""Streets of Bakersfield"--hit #1 in 1988. Owens continued performing until the end of his life; he died just hours after a final set at the club he owned in Bakersfield.

Asked to summarize his life, Buck Owens said he wanted to be remembered as someone who "showed up clean, sober, did his job, played his music and had a hell of a time." And in the process, transformed country music.

The Countdown to 2008

..and no, I"m not referring to the upcoming Presidential election. The Pentagon has announced that, two years hence, the Airborne Laser (or ABL) will conduct its first attempted intercept of an airborne missile. The test is viewed as a critical milestone for the missile defense system, and will be preceded by a series of system checks and other evaluations, designed to ready the system for the milestone event.

This recent article, posted by, gives a fairly detailed run-down of the test and evaluation hurdles facing the ABL. And while cancellation does not appear to be an imminent threat, a failure in the 2008 test would be a major setback for the program, and re-ignite the chorus of nay-sayers who have opposed missile defense since Ronald Reagan first proposed it back in the early 1980s.

What's missing from the article--predictably--is the incredible advances in missile defense technology over the past two decades. The ABL is a technical marvel, employing three lasers, fired from a modified Boeing 747 airframe; two low-powered lasers are used to track the missile and measure atomspheric distortion, while the third (a high-powered chemical laser) destroys the target. If it works, the ABL will allow the U.S. to zap missiles in the boost phase, as they rise from their launch sites, the period when they are most vulnerable and easiest to engage.

But the ABL isn't the only breakthrough. Along with the high-powered optics, computers and lasers that form the system, other research teams have achieved breakthroughs in terminal missile defenses. Israel, for example, has deployed the ARROW II anti-missile system, making the Jewish state the only nation in the world with a dedicated, missile defense system. The Arrow II is capable of handling medium range ballistic missiles, including Iran's SHAHAB-3, which have terminal velocities beyond the capabilities of early anti-missile systems, such as the U.S. Patriot. Of course, the Patriot has also been dramatically improved over the past 15 years; during the invasion of Iraq three years ago, Patriot batteries achieved an almost 100% kill rate against short-range Iraqi missiles, a far cry from Desert Storm, when (by some estimates) Patriot batteries downed less than 20% of the missiles they targeted. The Navy's AEGIS system has also been modified for missile defense, and advanced naval SAMs are also capable of engaging ballistic missiles. Collectively, these systems can provide a layered theater defense against SRBM and MRBM targets.

Of course, no missile defense system is perfect. Most are vulnerable to saturation (a tactic China would likely employ against Taiwan), decoys, and maneuvering re-entry vehicles. But the good news is that some adversaries lack these capabilities, and with further upgrades, these systems will become even more effective. Having the ABL will accelerate that trend; knocking down missiles in the boost phase--near their launch sites--means you've got fewer to intercept over your own territory. That makes the ABL an integral part of our missile defense plans, assuming it meets performance standards, and we can find money in the DOD budget. At a reported $1 billion an aircraft, it's a very expensive system. And there will be other, ancillary costs as well. The ABL will need escort fighters, air refueling, intelligence collection and battle management assets to support it. Many of those assets are already in the inventory, but supporting the ABL will place an even greater demand on already-limited assets.

But how do you put a price on a weapon that could wreak havoc among an adversary's ballistic missile forces. That tantilizing prospect makes ABL a risk worth taking--if it proves it can do the job. We'll find out in 2008.

Friday, March 24, 2006

A Misleading Headline

"U.S. War Plan Leaked by Iraqis to Russian Ambassador," screams the headline at The network's investigative unit has been combing through some of the Saddam documents, and publishing summaries on their webset. One document, written sometime before 5 March 2003, is a hand-written summary of a meeting between Iraqi officials and Russia's top envoy to Baghdad. During that meeting, the Russian ambassador reportedly provided detailed information on the U.S.-led military forces that was preparing to invade Iraq.

"The first document (CMPC-2003-001950) is a handwritten account of a meeting with the Russian ambassador that details his description of the composition, size, location and type of U.S. military forces arrayed in the Gulf and Jordan. The document includes the exact numbers of tanks, armored vehicles, different types of aircraft, missiles, helicopters, aircraft carriers, and other forces, and also includes their exact locations. The ambassador also described the positions of two Special Forces units."

The document raises an interesting question: was the information provided by the ambassador an actual copy of U.S. war plans, or (more likely) a summary of Russian intelligence information on the disposition of Allied forces in/around Iraq. We should hope it was the latter, and not the former. If Moscow had a copy of our war plans before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, then (obviously), we have serious security problem at the upper levels of government, and other operational plans may have been compromised as well.

On the other hand, a Russian prediction of U.S. military actions (based on intelligence assessments of our forces in theater), does not compromise a security breach, or the disclosure of war plans. It took months for the U.S. and its coalition parnters to assemble the forces required to topple Saddam Hussein. This build-up was carefully monitored by the Russian intelligence services, and Moscow shared the information with some of its client states and allies. Based on the number of troops, tank and aircraft arriving in theater, Russian intel analysts could easily divine potential military options, which could be passed to Saddam.

From our perspective, it's a little hard to hide 200,000+ troops in the Kuwaiti desert, and quite frankly, we weren't exactly trying to conceal our intentions. In the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, we wanted to show Saddam that we had the courage of our convictions, and were assembling a force capable of toppling his regime. We were well aware of the intelligence sharing arrangement between Moscow and Baghdad, and we probably wanted the Russians to image our forces in the desert, hoping that they would share the information in Saddam. In return, we hoped that the growing threat on his southern border might convince Saddam to give up. It was a forlorn hope, as we subsequently discovered.

And that raises another critical point about what Saddam did in the days leading up to Iraqi Freedom. Intelligence information takes on its greatest value when it's acted upon, leading to changes in governmental policies or military force deployments. Saddam did nothing with the information provided by the Russians, believing that his friends in Moscow, Beijing, Paris (and elsewhere) would bail him out in the UNSC, and prevent a U.S.-led invasion.

It's also worth noting that this wasn't the first time Saddam dismissed information on U.S. military plans. In early 1991, the Russians offered a similar pitch, detailing American preparations for Desert Storm. Saddam also ignored that data, convinced that the U.S. lacked the will to actually liberate Kuwait, and crush his military forces. In both cases, Saddam ignored intelligence information, at his own peril.

This episode reminds us that adversaries (or nations that aid potential adversaries) have the ability to track deployments of U.S. forces, and share that information with the bad guys. Iran, for example, has shown an increased interest in overhead imagery in recent years, and there are plenty of suppliers who can provide information on our military capabilities and dispositions. Operations Security (OPSEC) has always been a weak line for the U.S. military, and we need to re-double our efforts in that area. Even when we're trying to send a signal, there's no point in tipping our whole hand. Was that the case in 2003? Without looking at the Russian data, I can't say. But it's clear that Moscow assembled a large amount of intel information on our military movements and activities leading up to the war, data which can be readily shared with Tehran, Pyongyang, Damascus, and other potential U.S. adversaries. In the aftermath of Iraqi Freedom, I'm guessing that the Russian information has been received more warmly in those captials than it was in Baghdad.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

How About a Little Gratitude?

By now, you've probably heard that U.S. and British troops successfully rescued those three peace activists in Iraq. The three men--two Canadians and a Brit--were kidnapped by insurgents more than three months ago, along with an American colleague, Tox Fox. The body of the American was found near Baghdad almost two weeks ago, bearing signs of torture. Today's rescue mission was apparently prompted by a tip from a detainee, which sent Anglo-American teams to the spot where the remaining activists were being held.

If you read accounts of today's rescue mission, you'll find a couple of elements missing. First of all, there's the term "freed," used by more than a few media outlets in their reporting of the story. There is an obvious distinction between someone who is voluntarily released by their kidnappers, and someone liberated from captivity by military professionals. Today's liberation of the self-styled activists definitely falls into that latter category. If the kidnappers weren't around when the Brits and the Americans kicked down the door, it's probably because they fled the scene to avoid being killed.

Details of the operation are still a bit sketchy, but as most readers know, the British military presence is concentrated largely in southern Iraq; the sudden presence/participation by U.K. forces in the Baghdad mission suggests the Brits were likely an SAS team, working alongside U.S. SOF personnel. If that was the case, the terrorists were well-advised to flee, because the SOF teams would have "neutralized" every insurgent on the property. There is also no mention of the danger faced by U.S. and British operators who took part in the mission. Hostage rescues are often based on "thin" intelligence, hastily planned, and executed without the level of study and preparation that SOF teams usually prefer. Until they actually find a hostage, SOF teams don't know if they're liberating hostages, or walking into a carefully laid trap.

Also missing from today's accounts is any display of gratitude by the rescued activists. It's no secret that the activists (and their organization) are opposed to the coalition military presence in Iraq. In a statement announcing the liberation of their personnel, the organization (Christian Peacemaker Teams) actually criticized the U.S.-British "occupation" of Iraq, and called for "justice and respect" for "thousands of Iraqis being illegally detained by U.S. and British forces occupying Iraq."

Perhaps the Peacemaker Teams interpret the scriptures a bit differently than I do, but I seem to recall the Story of the Good Samaritan, who risked his life to aid a helpless man. As I recall, the victim was forever grateful to the Samaritan, who saved him from certain death. The same parable would seem to apply to the rescue in Iraq. At the risk of their own lives, British and U.S. troops saved the lives of three men who (apparently) have a higher regard for their captors than their rescuers.

Examine today's events in Baghdad, the aftermath, and tell me: who best exhibited the values of Christianity? The rescuers, or the ingrates that they freed.

Back to the Blog

I've been out of pocket for the past couple of days, on another business trip to D.C. Thankfully, the trip was a productive one, although there were some of the ususal hassles, including the traffic. After flying into Reagan National Airport on Tuesday afternoon, I drove south for a quick visit with an old friend at Quantico.

When I first began traveling to the D.C. area in the 1980s, I learned to expect heavy traffic and unpredictable conditions inside the beltway. If there's a tie-up on the Wilson Bridge or 395, you're going to be there for a while, no matter what time of day it is. But, if you were traveling south of D.C. on I-95, you could expect that traffic would eventually thin out, and you could travel at a "normal speed." Back in those days, that point was around Springfield, VA, about 15 miles south of the city.

Alas, those were the good old days. Today, the "D.C. crush" begins at Dumfries, VA (30 miles south of the nation's capitol, and on a bad evening, the south-bound slowdown extends past Quantico. Catching up with my friend made the trip worthwhile, but the 80-minute drive was a real bear. My hat's off to those steely commuters who make the trek into D.C. every day, but I'm thankful my career has kept me outside the beltway. I have a lot of friends who love D.C. and the "excitement" of working at those three letter agencies. Not for me. That daily commute alone is more than I can bear. Add in over-inflated real estate, higher taxes, high crime (in some areas), and those are plenty of reasons to avoid the district, and its adjoining suburbs.

One of the few things I like about D.C. (and the local government) is the Metro System. I learned a long time ago, if you've got business downtown, fly into Reagan, get a hotel in Crystal City, then take the metro into the city. The Metro may be one of the few things in D.C. that actually works.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Softer Targets

USA Today is out with an article that, despite its faults, offers a more realistic view of the situation in Iraq than most MSM efforts.

Analyzing military data, the paper has determined that U.S. casulty rates are approaching their lowest level since the insurgency began three years ago. According to USA Today, U.S. military forces are averaging about one death a day in Iraq; overall, an average of 15 Americans and 73 Iraqis are killed or wounded in Iraq each day. Please note the word "or." As in most wars, there are far more wounded than those killed. And, the paper fails to distinguish between troops killed in combat, or those that die in accidents. Over the past three years, more than 300 Americans have died in traffic accidents or training mishaps in Iraq, but those non-combat deaths are usually lumped into the overall casualty totals, in part, because it raises the numbers.

While U.S. casualties have plummeted in recent months, the number of Iraqis killed and injured is on the rise. This is the result of several factors; first, more Iraqi security forces are on the street, and bearing the brunt of combat; secondly, the terrorists are shifting their focus to Iraqi troops and civilian targets, finding them easier to attack and (finally) improved counter-IED tactics are reducing losses among American personnel. Coalition spokesman Maj Gen Rick Lynch says at least 40% of all IEDs are now found and disarmed before they are detonated, and I've seen estimates that put the number closer to 50%.

In any insurgency, the bad guys look for targets that are accessible and vulnerable. If the Americans are becoming harder to target, then put the Iraqis in the cross-hairs. That strategy will produce more carnage for Al Jazeera, but it's not a game-winner by any stretch. There has been an increasing backlash against Al-Qaida and its agents inside Iraq in recent months, and one reason that we're neutralizing more IEDs (and terrorists) is that Iraqis of all stripes--including Sunnis--are providing accurate intelligence. The on-going operation in the Samarra region is an example. By one account, U.S. and Iraqi troops have captured enough explosives and timing devices to make over 400 IEDs, and the ranks of skilled bomb makers have been depleted by recent attacks.

Make no mistakes; bombings in Iraq will continue for some time, and coalition forces will continue to take casualties. But--barring some sort of unforseen breakthrough in enemy bomb-making technology and emplacement tactics--the rate of losses will continue to decline, as the terrorists play out a bloody, but ultimately, losing hand.

One final thought: as the terrorists shift their focus to the Iraqis (and try to forment a civil war), we can expect more attacks along the lines of the Golden Mosque bombing. Iraq's fledgling security forces may face their gravest challenge over the next six months. At this point, a civil war may be the terrorists' only viable, long-term option for sustaining their campaign, and defeating the Americans.

Getting it Completely Wrong

Not long after Operation Swarmer began near Samarra last Friday, Time magazine correspondents Brian Bennett and Al Jallam were on the scene, claiming that the air and ground assault had already "fizzled."

"But contrary to what many many television networks erroneously reported, the operation was by no means the largest use of airpower since the start of the war. ("Air Assault" is a military term that refers specifically to transporting troops into an area.) In fact, there were no airstrikes and no leading insurgents were nabbed in an operation that some skeptical military analysts described as little more than a photo op. What’s more, there were no shots fired at all and the units had met no resistance, said the U.S. and Iraqi commanders."

What apparently fizzled was the reporting of Bennett and Jallam. Most of the TV networks I watched (FNC, CNN and MSNBC) got the terminology right, describing the operation as the largest "air assault" since the invasion of Iraq three years ago. And, BTW, "air assault" refers to the movement of troops into an operations area specifically by helicopter, something Bennett and Jallam omitted from their dispatch. Using the correct definition, Swarmer was the largest air assault in Iraq in more than three years.

But more importantly, the Time correspondents were also wrong on the scope and impact of the operation. Their impressions of Swarmer seemed based on observations from the area where they landed near Samarra; it's a bit like landing in Normandy on June 20, 1944, and deciding that there wasn't a war going on. By the time Bennett and/or Jallam landed on Friday, the action had likely shifted; what they saw at the LZ was a small security force, left behind to occupy the landing zone and adjacent areas. Meanwhile, U.S. and Iraqi troops were combing a 10 x 15 mile area, looking for insurgents and weapons caches.

What's (curiously) missing from the Time report is how long their correspondents stayed on the ground, and how much territory they bothered to cover. It's easy to jump off a Blackhawk, observe a lack of activity, pronounce the operation a failure, then climb back on the chopper for the hop back to Baghdad.

Was Swarmer a failure? Here is the initial CENTCOM press release, and an update issued on Sunday. Based on the amount of IED materials discovered so far, it's hard to dismiss the operation as a bust. Those captured caches represent dozens of fewer IEDs and VBIEDs along the roads of Iraq, and fewer coalition casualties. For that reason alone, I'd say Swarmer was a success, even if the boys from Time were unimpressed.

Suppose They Held an Anti-War Protest...

...and no one showed up. That was apparently the case in NYC Sunday, when a paltry 200 anti-war protestors took part in a march down 5th Avenue. It was even worse in Salt Lake City; Drudge found this article in the Salt Lake Tribune; according to one local activist, the cops there actually outnumbered the protestors.

The left was quicky to claim that protest efforts in the U.S. were "poorly organized," resulting in a dismal turnout. Some excuse. If the anti-WTO loons can turn out thousands in Seattle and other U.S. cities, you'd think the anti-war crowd could do better than 200 protestors on a sunny Sunday in New York--particularly with the war becoming a lightning-rod issue, and a political albatross for George W. Bush.

The Financial Times has offered another, unique explanation for poor showing, saying the American public views the Iraq War with "quiet disapproval." In other words, the American people are solidly against the war, they just don't have the time or energy to carry a sign down main street, or join Martin Sheen at some sit-in. Anger is building, we're led to believe, it just hasn't reached critical mass yet.

Let me offer another perspective. I still think the majority of Americans would like to see our military mission succeed in Iraq. "Opposition" to the war is based largely on a steady diet of "bad" news offered up by the MSM and the Democratic Party, with little to counter-balance it. In that information environment, most Amercians tend the believe the war is going badly, and we need to bring the troops home as soon as possible.

With the exception of the hard left, I don't think this "opposition" to the war has calcified to the point where most Americans are totally opposed to our efforts in Iraq, with no room for compromise, or changing their minds. If we had actually reached that point, then the number of protestors in New York, Salt Lake City (and elsewhere) would be much higher, and demonstrations would be a near-daily event, as they were during Vietnam. There may be widespread "opposition" to the war, but there isn't as much depth as the MSM and the Democrats would have you believe. More "good news" from Iraq--such as the death or capture of Zarqawi--could start driving the poll numbers in the other direction, before the fall congressional elections.

But of course, the Bush Administration can't count on that. What they should be doing is mounting a constant offensive to remind the public of what's being accomplished in Iraq, both on the military and political fronts. As we've noted before, administration efforts in that department have often been lacking. A string of presidential speeches and statements by other officials is often followed by periods of silence. Apparently, the administration (and to a lesser extent, the military) have yet to learn the first lesson of today's media environment: an information vaccum will always be filled, even if the information is inaccurate or misleading. In other words, the media is a battlespace that must be constantly contested, even domestically. And while the media environment is changing rapidly, the administration and the Pentagon sometimes seem tone deaf, even archaic, in their efforts to get the word out.

Case in point: last week's reaffirmation of President Bush's preemptive strike doctrine. Advance copies of the strategy document were given to three newspapers, including the Washington Post. Ho-hum. It's the equivalent of giving your enemy the first shot in a gunfight. If nothing else, it gave the WaPo a chance to get an early spin on the document--hardly a shining example of using the media effectively.

Here's a better idea: instead of giving advance copies to liberal, media dinosaurs, why not place them with the new media, such as NRO online, the Weekly Standard's website, some of the major blogs (Powerline would be an excellent choice) and talk radio. All are decidedly more fair to the Bush Administration, and they would put a far less negative spin on the policy document. But the administration elected to give the document to the Post, with predictable results.

Poll numbers from Iraq can still be reversed, with the right mix of military, political and information policies. Militarily and politically, we're doing the right thing, but the Administration still has difficulty getting its message out on a consistent basis. Fortunately, the solutions are obvious--if only the White House would embrace them.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Mr. Feckless Strikes Again

Some people have no shame, tact, nor humility. Case in point: former Vice President Al Gore, now flacking his new "documentary" on Global Warming. As proof that his views on the topic are well-supported, Al cited the reception he received at a Grover Norquist-sponsored breakfast in D.C. in January. Mr. Gore claims his speech at the breakfast was met with widespread praise; in describing the event to Variety, the former VP said D.C. conservatives pratically stood up and cheered, saying "You're absolutely right."

Not so fast, Al. Even the Washington Post found those claims a little fishy, and did some checking. Turns out that Mr. Gore's reception at the breakfast wasn't quite as warm as reported. While response to his speech was polite, when it was over, exactly one--that's right, one--attendee approached the former VP and showered him with praise. Quite a difference between the "truth" and Al's distorted version of the event. About what we'd expect from the man "who invented the internet."

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Striking First

As expected, President Bush has reaffirmed the U.S. policy of pre-emptive strikes against terrorists and other adversaries. The continuation of this policy--which began after 9/11--was outlined in a 48-page national security document, released by the White House today. Publication of the document co-incided with a major speech by National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who appeared before the U.S. Institute of Peace.

While stating that diplomacy is our preferred option for dealing with nuclear proliferation and other security challenges, Mr. Hadley noted that the "clearest" lesson of 9-11 is that the U.S. must confront threats before they fully develop. If diplomatic efforts fail, the document states, the U.S. retains the right to strike preemptively.

"If necessary, however, under long-standing principles of self defense, we do not rule out use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack." "When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize."

The White House views the document as a realistic description of American strategy--and an equally honest depiction of our capability to enforce this doctrine. In the early stages of "The Long War" against terrorism, it could be argued that pre-emption is the only policy that makes sense, although the strategy document stresses the importance of diplomacy, and the need to work with allies.

Strategy statements and doucments always prompt debate over our military capabilities, and what types of forces we need to meet a changing threat. While critics of expensive naval and aerial platforms contend that we need more boots on the ground, I would argue that we need a more balanced approach, along the lines of what the Secretary of Defense has proposed. To fight terrorists on the ground, we certainly need more soldiers, Marines and special operations forces--that is undeniable. But to deal with rogue nations, advanced weaponry and nuclear proliferation, we also need the F-22 fighter, the Joint Strike fighter, enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilties, along with naval platforms that can project power and sustain sea lanes of communication.

It's an expensive proposition; the price tag for a single F-22 is around $80 million, and costs increase as the Air Force cuts its production numbers. The next-generation destroyer (DDX) and new submarines run more than $1 billion each, but we need their capabilities for what lies beyond the Long War--a possible confrontation with China, a nation that has literally re-armed itself over the past decade, and boosted its defense budget by 14% in 2005.

Pre-emption is not a perfect strategy, but in today's security environment, it's basically the only game in town. But transforming that strategy into concrete military capabilities will prove challenging. Administration critics and Democratic politicians have repeatedly attacked "big ticket" weapons systems as being expensive and unnecessary in the War on Terror. But taking a wider view--and looking at the threat picture as a whole--a compelling question emerges. To provide for the common defense--and allow pre-emptive strikes against emerging threats--which capabilities are you willing to give up?

Air Assault

At least 50 U.S. aircraft (mostly Blackhawk helicopters), ferrying more than 1,500 troops, swooped down on Samarra today, launching the biggest American air assault since the invasion of Iraq three years ago.

Air assault is, of course, the operational tactic perfected by the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). Unlike the 82nd Airborne (which still insists on jumping out of perfectly good airplanes), the 101st uses its huge fleet of helicopters to insert forces at the edge of the battlefield, or behind enemy lines. During Operation Desert Storm, the 101st conducted a massive air assault behind enemy lines, a critical element of the famous "left hook" maneuver that crushed Saddam's forces in Kuwait and Southern Iraq. The entire division (almost 20,000 personnel) re-deployed to Iraq last fall; not surprisingly, the division played a key role in today's raid in Samarra, along with other U.S. and Iraqi units.

Properly executed, an air assault is a lightning strike, allowing U.S. forces to quickly isolate specific targets and overwhelm them. In Iraq, air assault puts terrorist forces at a major disadvantage, partially negating the effectiveness of roadside bombs or VBIEDs, and exposing their marginal air defense capabilities.

Early reports from the battlefield are encouraging; so far, troops have captured a number of weapons caches that supported IED operations, along with Iraqi security forces uniforms and phony ID cards. Leapfrogging from bases just north of Baghdad, the assault force appears to have achieved tactical surprise when they began landing in Samarra. The rapid discovery of IED support facilities and the uniforms/ID cards also suggests that we had good intel to support the raid, allowing us to target certain buildings and (probably) specific individuals. Discovery of the uniforms and ID cards reaffirms terrorist attempts to infiltrate Iraqi security forces, and staging attacks to discredit legitimate Iraqi police and soliders.

In addition to the helicopter force, today's offensive also includes 200 tactical vehicles, which advanced into the area on the heels of the air assault. Details of the operation are (deliberately) sketchy, but it's important to put today's attack into a larger context. As Bill Roggio (and other informed observers) have noted, complex raids or other ground actions in Iraq don't happen in a vaccum.

The large-scale raid in Samarra is probably the opening chapter of a multi-phased offensive, similar to what Army and Marine units have been doing in western Iraq for the past year. The initial phase typically involves the interdiction of terrorist strongholds, and cutting off possible escape routes. Once the area has been secured, the focus begins to shift to civil affairs operations, with an emphasis on building ties with local leaders and emplacing well-trained Iraqi security forces, to keep the bad guys from coming back.

With the 101st "in country" for another 6-7 months, it's likely that we haven't seen the last, large-scale air assault operation in Iraq.

Today's Reading Assignment

From the indispensable Michael Ledeen at NRO. The Washington Post has been reporting that regimen change in Iran is impossible, based largely on the reporting of their man in Tehran, Karl Vick. Ledeen illustrates how Vick and the Post--following the Walter Duranty model of foreign reporting--got it all wrong on the issue regime change in Iran, and whether the U.S. should support Iranian dissidents.

"Faster, please." In the words of Mr. Ledeen, that should be the pace and urgency associated with U.S. support for pro-democratic groups in Iran. And he's right on target. Regime change in Iran may be our best hope for lasting peace and stability in the Middle East, but we'll never get there listening to reporters like Vick. Ledeen notes that MSM types offered similar advice in the late 70s and early 80s, when it was considered unwise to support Russian dissidents like Natan Sharansky and Andrei Sakharov, or label the Soviet Union as the "evil empire."

History tells a different story. Sharansky--who spent years in the Soviet gulag--says copies of Reagan's speeches were smuggled into the prisons, where they helped galvanize and energize democratic activists. While the experts in the MSM and the CIA postulated that the Soviet Union was here to stay, Sharansky and his fellow dissidents held a different vision. They gladly welcomed Reagan's efforts, and understood that America--or at least, the American president--stood ready to support their cause.

Today, we need to accelerate our efforts to support and lend hope to those who want a free, democratic Iran. The task is daunting; the regime is well-entrenched, and elements of the opposition are disorganized and demoralized. But there are thousands of brave Iranians who are willing to fight for democracy and liberty, and they deserve our expanded support, despite what Karl Vick might think.

Hat tip: Roger L. Simon.

Ground Truth

Real Clear Politics posted this brillant column by Ralph Peters a couple of days ago. I had planned to link to it, but got distracted. A hat tip to Powerline for the reminder.

In the past, I've linked to a number of Peters's op-ed columns in the New York Post. Ralph is one of the most brillant officers produced by the U.S. Army over the last 20 years, but his insightful critiques and recommendations for radical change in Army tactics and strategy didn't always sit well with the brass--that's probably why he retired as a Lieutenant Colonel, and not as a full Colonel or flag officer.

Ralph is just back from Iraq, and he paints a far different picture than the MSM. During one day in Baghdad, he criss-crossed repeatedly through the city and found that while the security situation is often dangerous, but not hopeless. He found other, unmistakable signs of progress as well.

I'm hoping that Ralph will write a companion piece on his encounters with the MSM during his trip to Iraq. Just a hunch, but I'm betting that most of the MSM types never saw the events that Ralph Peters reported, or if they did, they certainly didn't report them (doesn't fit too well with the quagmire theme). I've also heard that more than a few reporters spend much of their time in their hotels, venturing out only to record the latest IED or car bomb attack.

If you haven't already, read Peters' column, then compare it to what you see on tonight's network newscast.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Today's Reading Assignment

...from Brendan Miniter at Some provacative thoughts on a hide-bound Pentagon brureaucracy that has "failed to internalize" the President's strategy for winning the War of Terror. The results of this, according to Mr. Miniter, can be seen in efforts to provide more protection to the troops (which often moved at a glacial pace), and programs to deal with the IED threat.

Mr. Miniter is correct in his assessment that the Pentagon bureaucracy needs to be reformed. The acquisition process is often too expensive, too slow and unresponsive to the needs of combat units. Such problems have existed since at least the 1960s, and they continue today, in part because Congress and various personnel unions have blocked reform attempts. Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld's serious effort at reforming the DOD's civilian personnel system (the National Security Personnel Program, or NSPS) remains mired in legal challenges. By some estimates, it won't be implemented until 2008 (or later), if it actually reaches that stage. Without reforming the personnel system--and rewarding innovative, productive workers--the civilian bureaucracy (which is over-represented in the acquisition community) will never change, and progress will genuine remain elusive.

But despite its many flaws, the Pentagon bureaucracy has made substantial progress on both the armor and IED issues. Amid outrage over the lack of armored HUMVEES in Iraq in 2004, it was discovered that contracts for more armor had already been awarded; the problem was more of a manufacturing and installation issue than an acquisition problem.

Ditto for the IED problem. While roadside bombs are still claiming American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of casulaties have declined, thanks to a combination of new technology, improved tactics, and better cooperation with local residents. Half of all IEDs in Iraq are now located and defused before than can kill and maim--and that represents real progress, some of which must be credited to that bloated, inefficient Pentagon bureaucracy. As Mr. Miniter indicates, the budget for counter-IED efforts has mushroomed. But this is not, as he suggests, an indication of past failures and under-funding--failed efforts do not help produce a 50% find/disarm rate, particularly when a resourceful enemy is constantly modifying his weapons and tactics, in response to our counter-measures.

That figure is even more remarkable when you consider that the enemy has put virtually all of his combat eggs in the IED/VBIED basket--it's the only viable strategy the terrorists have for attacking coalition forces and Iraqi civilians. The number of IEDs emplaced by the enemy has more than doubled, but our ability to find them and disarm them has more than kept pace, suggesting that many of our counter-tactics and new technology are having an effect. Despite more (and larger) bombs, the number of effective IED attacks remains quite low (around 10%), another indicator that our efforts are producing positive results.

To be sure, our anti-IED efforts would be more efficient if we reformed--and even eliminated--layers of the Pentagon bureaucracy. And, there is clearly room for innovation, as illustrated by the Marine Corps battle lab, which has produced innovative solutions for urban combat problems. But Mr. Miniter fails to note that all the services now have battle labs or similar facilities, created to develop (and implement) cutting-edge solutions for the battlespace.

From Miniter's perspective, progress on the IED issue has been minimal, and that's prima facie evidence that the Pentagon culture is broken, particularly in the acquisition community. In reality, the situation is not as dire as he describes. There are plenty of goldbricks in the military's bureaucracy, notably on the civilian side. But there are more than a few honest, hard-working civil servants who never forget their ultimate customer--the soldier, sailor, airman or Marine on the front lines. They may be a minority in today's bureaucracy, but their efforts are making a difference, as evidence by those under-reported numbers on IEDs that are being located and neutralized on the roads of Iraq.

Ring of Fire

Secretary of State Condolezza Rice is touring the Far East, and she offered a warning to regional leaders about terrorism:

"Groups like Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah want to destroy this region's dynamism and tradition of tolerance and turn South-East Asia into literally a ring of fire," Rice said in a speech at an Indonesian international relations forum at the conclusion of a two-day visit to Indonesia.

Abu Sayyaf is a Muslim rebel group based in the Philippines while Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an al-Qaeda-linked regional terrorist group, has been blamed for a string of bombings in Indonesia in the past several years that have killed hundreds of people.

Dr. Rice's concerns are well-founded. There is increasing evidence that Al Qaida is attempting to re-invigorate its Far Eastern operations, through increased cooperation with Abu Sayaf and Jemaah Islamiyah. Despite periodic bombings and other attacks (such as the 2003 blast at the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta and last October's attack in Bali), Al Qaida's local affiliates haven't pulled off a "spectacular" operation since the 2002 bombing at a Bali disco, which killed more than 200 people. Increasing terrorist operations in the Far East would put more pressure on local governments and the U.S., which provides military aid and support to such critical allies as Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Reading between the lines, Dr. Rice is also encouraging our regional to do more about their home-grown terrorist problem. But accomplishing that goal may prove difficult; the Filipino military is already stretched thin, and worries about a possible coup limit political and military options. The Thai military is also hampered by a growing insurgency in southern Thailand, and needs more U.S. military assistance. In Indonesia, fighting terrorism is complicated by religious and ethnic differences and sheer geography. The vast size of the Indonesian archapeligo provides numerous hideouts and staging bases for terrorists.

Terrorists in the Far East suffered a severe blow following the 2004 Tsunami, when the influx of western aid (and helpful military personnel) generated tremendous goodwill, and improved relations between regional governments and the U.S. Al-Qaida has recognized this setback, and is determined to reassert itself in the Far East, through its local affiliates. If we can achieve greater stability in Iraq, you'll see more U.S. forces rotate to the Southeast Asia, to assist local military forces with the terrorism problem. Southeast Asia may be a secondary front in the War on Terror, but it's a vital front, nontheless.

Watching the North

Pyongyang is upset over planned U.S.-South Korean exercises later this month, claiming that the war games are actually preparation for an invasion of the north.

Such statements are hardly unusual, and you can almost mark your calendar for the semi-annual propaganda blast from the Korean Central News Agency. Pyongyang usually makes these accusations before every joint military drill between American and South Korean military forces. The latest exercise starts Saturday, and will involve at least 20,000 U.S. and ROK troops. The Kitty Hawk carrier battle group arrived in Korean waters a few days ago, and will participate in the exercise, along with land-based air and ground units.

To show its displeasure, Pyongyang has vowed to "take the necessary countermeasures, including bolstering its nuclear arsenal to cope with this extremely hostile attempt by the U.S. to bring down the system" in North Korea. The North also recently pulled out of the six-party nuclear talks, and has also hinted that it could launch a preemptive attack to defend itself.

A preemptive strike by North Korea against its southern neighbor remains one of the greatest military and intelligence challenges facing the U.S. and its ROK allies. Pyongyang already has the military power in place to launch at least a limited attack across the DMZ, with little or no warning. According to some estimates, at least 60% of North Korea's army is located within 60 miles of the DMZ. That means that first and second echelon infantry, armored, SOF and artillery units are already in their pre-attack positions. Pyongyang has maintained this aggressive posture for years, and actually increased the number of long-range artillery positions along the DMZ during the 1990s.

With the bulk of the DPRK's ground forces near the DMZ, it becomes more difficult for intelligence agencies to assess North Korean readiness and intentions. In the intel business, it's called "unambiguous warning," and providing that kind of advance notice in Korea has become problematic (at best), despite constant surveillance by virtually every intelligence platform at our disposal. This problem is further compounded by North Korea's extensive denial and deception (D&D) program, which attempts to conceal sensitive military activity. Pyongyang is adept at using multi-spectral camouflage netting, an extensive network of underground facilities, and scheduling events outside intelligence collection windows, making it tougher for us to assess readiness levels, critical troop deployments, the redeployment of aircraft and other events that might precede a North Korean attack.

This is not to say that we lack good intelligence on North Korea. We still collect large amounts on information on the DPRK, but (as with any target) intelligence gaps exist, and those shortfalls can be exacerbated by North Korean deception efforts and high readiness levels during certain times of the year. In its diatribe against the U.S.-ROK exercise, the KCNA conveniently ignored the fact that Pyongyang is currently wrapping up its annual Winter Training Cycle, the three-month period when North Korean forces conduct most of their training. While overall training during the winter cycle decreased during the 1990s (due in part to fuel shortages), North Korea still conducts a tremendous amount of work at the battalion, regimental, division and corps levels, allowing all units the reach their readiness peak in late winter, when conditions for an invasion--most notably, off-road mobility--are at their best.

It would be difficult for NK to pull off another, full-scale surprise invasion of the South, as it did in 1950. Mounting a full-scale attack would require additional troop movements and preparations that we would likely detect. But detecting plans for a limited invasion would be more tricky, and that has clear consequences for the U.S. and South Korean militaries.

Why is the warning issue so important? Defense plans for South Korea are based on a rapid influx of U.S. reinforcements (notably airpower), and the full mobilization of the ROK ground reserve units--which actually outnumber their North Korean counterparts. Obviously, the more warning we have, the faster Washington and Seoul can react, by marshaling reinforcement and reserve forces. Without advance warning, the mobilization and reinforcement process would be delayed and lengthened, leaving allied forces at a numerical disadvantage in the early, critical hours of the war. Under that "worst-case" scenario, the National Command Authority might have to consider the use of nuclear weapons, to blunt a North Korean attack, particularly if DPRK SOF and missile attacks cripple air bases in South Korea.

Fortunately, a successful North Korean invasion of the south--limited or full-scale--is not a slam dunk. Pyongyang's forces have a number of shortfalls (including limited fuel supplies and vulnerabilities to PGMs) that could hinder their attack, slowing their rate of advance. And Kim Jong-il is well aware that once the U.S. arrives in force (and the ROKs complete their mobilization) his prospects for victory are about nil. So North Korea must strike hard, fast, and without tipping their hand in advance.

Despite the on-going nuclear crisis, the chances of the DPRK invading the south remain low. But the challenge of monitoring North Korea and divining its intentions remains difficult, and will probably grow more complex in the years to come, as Pyongyang improves its concealment skills and upgrades its communications network, and (of course) expands its nuclear arsenal.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Gather Round the Holiday..Err..Christmas Tree

I received an e-mail this morning from a former colleague, still on active duty in the Air Force. This individual is a part of Air Combat Command, the USAF's largest command, tasked with (as its name implies) training and supplying combatant air power for global operations. ACC supplies most of the aircraft (and many of the personnel) for Air Expeditionary Forces (AEFs), deployed to hotspots around the world.

With that kind of responsibility, you wouldn't think the ACC would be concerned about something as pedestrian as base Christmas trees. Guess again. My colleage's e-mail included an attachment, outlining "command guiidance" for installation Christmas trees, lighting ceremonies and holiday parties. The guidance was produced by the command chaplain (a full Colonel), at the direction of the ACC Commander, a four-star general. And trust me, this wasn't something the general and his command chaplain cooked up on their own; I'm sure that this is being driven from the highest levls of Air Force leadership, in reaction to the "religion controversy" that has engulfed the service in recent years.

I'm still debating as to whether I should publish the actual memo. For now, let me summarize. After scrutinizing existing AF guidelines, applicable public law, and military tradition, the Command Chaplain has determined that ACC bases can have a Christmas tree, and better yet, they can refer to it as a Christmas Tree, and not a Holiday Tree (whew). In his memo, the chaplain noted that President Bush referred to the national tree in Washington as a Christmas Tree, so if it's good enough for the commander-in-chief, it's good enough for ACC.

Unfortunately, the memo is also a paen to political correctness. The command guidance recommends that installation Christmas Trees be located in front of the Base Chapel and not at the Wing Headquarters or Command Headquarters, since that might constitute some sort of official endorsement of the holiday, or the symbol.

And it gets worse. During official lighting ceremonies or similar events, the guidance recommends that speakers (say, the Wing Commander or Senior Installation Chaplain) recognize "other" holidays that are celebrated during the same period, including Ramadan, Hannakuh and, of course, Kwanza. Mentioning "other" holidays is supposed to be a means of promoting diversity and inclusiveness, according to the guidance.

Give me a break. Diversity and inclusiveness are fine, and the Air Force has gone out of its way to promote those causes. But this is a case of political correctness running amok, and the service's continuing, timid reaction to those who would remove all vestiges of faith and religion from military life.

The last time I checked, Christmas was supposed to be a Christian holiday, although it's sometimes hard to tell with the secularization and commercialization that's occured over the past century. Non-Christians are certainly welcome to celebrate the event, but that doesn't change the fact that the holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Somehow, that message is being lost amid the scramble to acknowledge other faiths and holidays, lest someone be offended. Did we leave someone out? Will the Wiccans and Druids demand equal time?

And by the way, when's the last time you heard of any Muslim congregation acknowledge Christmas (or Christ) as part of their Ramadan celebration? As a Christian, I never felt slighted that the local iman didn't mention my faith or its holidays as part of their Ramadan observance. But, under this command policy, any Ramadan, Jewish, or (fill in other religion here) celebration would apparently have to include some nod to the Christians. Personally, I'm still trying to figure out how they can ensue compliance with this directive. Will someone be taking notes at the next base Christmas Tree lighting (sorry Colonel, you forgot the Buddhists, you'll be hearing from the IG, happy holidays, sir) or Yom Kippur celebration?

I've also got a little beef about celebrating Kwanza. To say the least, the holiday (and it's founder) have a checkered past, and there is little in the celebration that mirrors African traditions. But, hey, the Air Force wants to be inclusive. Perhaps I should invent my own holiday, and demand that the base recognize my "faith" during the annual tree-lighting ceremony. Why should I be excluded?

Years ago, when I was a young airman, it was customary for an Air Force base to have an official Christmas tree, and no one really cared whether it was in front of a particular building. There was often a manger scene and a usually a menorah, too. At the lighting ceremony, the speakers typically mentioned the Christian and Jewish holidays, reflecting our nation's Judeo-Christian heritage. If members of other faiths were offended, they never said anything, or (more likely) they were busy following their own religious customs to worry about a base Christmas tree. Somehow, the Air Force managed to survive.

One final note: while it is okay for ACC bases to have an official Christmas Tree, any installation or unit party should be referred to as a "Holiday Party." Apparently, the command can tolerate Christmas (and its meaning), but only to a point.

Don't Send Us...

....your overweight, pot-smoking, fitness-challenged, Ritalin-addicted teen, yearning to join the American military. Saw this AP article over the weekend, and it highlights many of the serious problems facing the armed services in meeting their recruiting quotas.

First of all, we're in a demographic trough, with a recent decline in the number of service-eligible men and women, between ages of 18 and 24, the primary recruiting pool. According to the Census Bureau, the number of people in that demographic category declined by one million between 2000 and 2004. When you start factoring out young people who can't meet military standards for various reason (medical problems, obesity, criminal records, etc), the overall recruiting pool shrinks to roughly 6.6 million. From that group, the military needs to sign up 180,000 new recruits a year, just to maintain current force levels. Plans to expand the Army and Special Forces will push that quota past 200,000 a year.

What's the solution? So far, the military has been throwing money at the problem, offering larger sign-on and reenlistment bonuses (one of my colleagues, a retired Green Beret NCO), turned down a $150,000 to re-up for four years. Highly experienced combat medics can get a reenlistment bonus approaching $100,000 and new recruits can get varying amounts of money when they volunteer for certain jobs. These "personnel costs" represent an ever-increasing segment of the Pentagon budget, and that could mean less money for other programs.

But there's an element missing from this story. As we've noted before, the U.S. Marine Corps has managed to meet its recruiting goals, despite three years of ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the loss of hundreds of Marines. How does the Corps do it? By refusing to compromise standards, and holding to traditional, "Corps" values. Thomas Ricks's excellent "Making the Corps" has been out for a few years, but it is an excellent account of how the USMC transforms raw recruits into Marines, and preserves its own unique culture and values in the process.

To be sure, not everyone is cut out to be a Marine. But demanding excellence and holding fast to standards and time-honored traditions still holds a special appeal, even for members of Gen-X and Gen-Y. The Marines understand that attracting quality recruits isn't always a matter of money. It's a lesson the other services need to learn as well.

Back to the Blog...

...After a brief trip to the Land of Faulkner. The weather was delightful; I was able to conclude my business in near-record time, and even AirTran managed to get me home on time, despite losing a confirmed reservation less than two hours before the flight.

Some random observations:

1) Is there anything worse than the CNN Airport Channel? Air travel these days is bad enough, but it's incredibly irritating to get off a plane, and see Wolf Blitzer on the nearest monitor, positively gleeful over President Bush's declining poll numbers. The insufferable "Situation Room" gets my vote for worst program on a cable news channel, with Keith Olberman's dreadful "Countdown" a close second. During yesterday's broadcast, Wolfie's "experts" on Iraq included Congressman John (Let's redeploy our Middle East forces to Okinawa) Murtha, and Cueball Carville. If you didn't see the show, don't worry, you didn't miss a thing, and you can probably guess what Carville and Murtha had to say.

2) AirTran's only saving grace is the free XM Satellite Radio they offer on their Boeing 717 and 737 aircraft. "Frank's Place," XM's American Standards channel, is very good, and they had the good sense to hire Jonathan Schwartz as a host and programmer. The Smooth Jazz channel ("Watercolors") is also enjoyable, and makes that cramped coach seat a bit more tolerable. I've also sampled the Bluegrass Channel (XM 14) and their classical service (Channels 110 and 113) on previous flights, and they're also worth a listen, if that's the kind of music you enjoy.

3) It's true, you can't read very much into the GOP straw vote held in Memphis over the weekend, but John McCain has a lot of work to do with the Republican base. While local favorite (Senator Bill Frist) won the vote--as expected--McCain's showing was embarassing. The Arizona Senator may be trying to sew up the GOP establishment, but rank-and-file voters still don't trust him, thanks to his support for campaign finance reform, his stand against the "torture" of terrorist detainees, and his generally chummy relations with many of the Senate's leading liberals. Without some major fence mending, the SS McCain Campaign may hit another ice berg in South Carolina in '08.

4) Worst Rental Car Currently Available: the Kia Rio. Power and acceleration comparable to a 10-speed bike. Makes the Dodge Neon look like a BMW.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Today's Reading Assignment

Daniel Pipes and Sharon Chadha's report on the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the organization often cited by the MSM as "mainstream" Muslim group. Pipes and Chadha provide extensive proof of ties between CAIR and Islamic extremists. They also note that at least five of the group's senior members have been arrested or convicted on terrorism-related charges.

The title of their piece: Islamists Fooling the Establishment, says it all.

Hat tip: Scott Johnson at Powerline.

End of an Era

If you happen to be in southeastern Virginia today, particularly around the Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, cast your eyes toward the eastern sky and look for a large formation of swing-wing Navy fighters. Then, if you can, pause for a moment, because a remarkable era in naval aviation is drawing to a close.

Later this morning, the Navy's last two active duty F-14 Tomcat squadrons will return from the final combat deployment onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and land at Oceana. With their return, the Navy will begin the process of retiring its final Tomcats from active duty units, and replace them with the F/A-18 Super Hornet, the multi-role fighter that has become the service's primary strike and air superiority aircraft.

A total of 22 Tomcats, representing squadrons VF-14 and VF-213, are expected to return to Oceana around midday, almost six months after they embarked on a combat cruise to the Persian Gulf. While assigned to the Roosevelt's air group, they flew close air support missions for allied troops on the ground in Iraq.

The Tomcat's mission in Iraq was quite a departure for a swing-wing Navy fighter originally envisioned--and built --for fleet air defense. In the late 1960s, the Navy was concerned about the growing threat from Russian bombers and anti-ship missiles to its carrier battle groups. The F-14 was designed (primarily) to engage enemy aircraft at long distances from the battle group. The Tomcat was built around one of the first, phased-array air intercept radars (the AWG-9) and the AIM-54 Phoenix missile, which had it own active radar as well. The Tomcat/AWG-9/Phoenix combination were capable of detecting and engaging targets at ranges of more than 100 miles; when added to the F-14's impressive combat radius, it was a platform optimized for defending the fleet.

But with the end of the Cold War, the Russian threat largely evaporated, and the Tomcat was adopted for other missions. By the mid-1990s, some squadrons had acquired a capability to drop precision-guided weapons on ground targets, producing another nickname ("Bombcat") that was accepted less enthusiastically by F-14 pilots and radar intercept officers. As a multi-role fighter, the Tomcat soldiered on, even as the Super Hornet began to replace it. The F/A-18 doesn't have quite the range of the Tomcat, and it can't carry the Phoenix, but it is more reliable and cheaper to operate. According to one Navy maintenance chief, the F-14 requires 30-60 maintenance hours per flying hour to keep it in the skies; the Super Hornet needs only 5-10 hours of maintenance for each flying hour.

The Tomcat leaves behind an impressive legacy, serving in every major conflict from Vietnam (F-14s covered the evacuation of Saigon), to Iraqi Freedom. And, of course, it became the Navy's ultimate recruiting poster in the film Top Gun, even if the exploits of Maverick and Goose were 99% fiction. Interestingly, the Pentagon brass initially rejected offers to assist in the filming of the movie, until the proposal landed on the desk of Navy Secretary John Lehman, himself a A-6 bombardier-navigator in the Naval Reserve. Lehman instantly recognized the public relations and recruting value of the film, and gave the project the green light. The rest, as they say, is history. As an Air Force officer in the mid-1980s, I heard more than a few blue suiters wonder why we couldn't get "our own Top Gun." In the not-too-distant future, the best place to see an F-14 in flight will be on your DVD player or DVR, and not in the skies over a carrier or a naval air station.

Today's passing is also bittersweet because it signals the pending depature of the Grumman Corporation from carrier aviation. For decades, whenever the Navy wanted a fighter for the fleet, it turned to the firm from Long Island that produced such legendary aircraft as the F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat, that helped win the naval war in the Pacific against Japan. The Tomcat was the last in a long line of Grumman fighters that defended the fleet--and freedom--for more than half a century. Grumman merged with Northrop a few years ago, part of the consolidation of America's defense contractors. Today, the firm earns most of its money from naval shipbuilding, information systems and support of the JSTARS and B-2 programs for the Air Force. As long as the Tomcat lingers in the naval reserve, Grumman will still be involved in the F-14 program, but the firm will never produce another naval fighter as an independent entity.

The Tomcat's return to Oceana will be reserved for family, friends, Navy officials and members of the news media. But thousands of aviation buffs around the world--myself included--will be there in spirit. While I bleed Air Force blue and will remain forever convinced that the F-15 is a better air superiority fighter, I also understand that the Tomcat is also a magnificent bird, born of the notion that freedom is worth defending, by men (and now, women) who fly elegant, powerful machines from the rolling, heaving flight deck of an aircraft carrier, often in hostile waters.

The F-14 was--and is--a uniquely American symbol of pride, ingenuity, and freedom, wrapped in a sleek package of steel and titanium. And if you happen to be near Oceana today, scan the skies and listen for the unmistakable sound of freedom. For the end of an era is at hand.

In this file photo, a Tomcat from VF-213 (Black Lions) escorts a Russian TU-95 Bear bomber. VF-213 is one of the Navy's two remaining active duty F-14 squadrons that returned from their last combat deployment on March 10, 2005.

Photo courtesy: The F-14 Tomcat Reference Work.