Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Call Me a Skeptic...

...but I'm not overly enthused about North Korea's agreement to return to Six-Party nuclear talks. Both the State Department and the White House are hailing Pyongyang's decision as a major diplomatic breakthrough, which comes just three weeks after North Korea's fizzled nuclear test, and more than a year the DPRK abandoned the diplomatic process.

In reality, Pyongyang had little choice but return to its bargaining table. As we've noted in earlier posts, the 9 October nuclear blast was essentially a failure, generating an explosive yield that equaled between 200 and 400 tons of TNT. That's far below what North Korea hoped to achieve, and only a fraction of the explosive power produced by other "first generation" nukes, such as those tested by India and Pakistan in the late 1990s, and early U.S. atomic bombs from the 1940s. Given its potential plans for proliferating nuclear technology and/or finished weapons, the DPRK needs more time to perfect its nuclear know-how and improve both the reliability and yield of its bombs.

Additionally, Pyongyang was feeling an additional squeeze as a result of its nuclear test. South Korea banned entry by DPRK officials; Japan imposed additional financial and trade sanctions, and North Korea's closest ally (China) began building a security fence along their common border and stepped up inspections of cargo heading for the DPRK. These measures, coupled with tough financial sanctions previously imposed at the request of the U.S., have placed a further strain on Pyongyang's already-bankrupt economy. Going back to the bargaining table, North Korea will likely push for partial relief from these sanctions. Washington is attempting to hang tough, but China may intercede on Pyongyang's behalf; Beijing has previously warned against punishing North Korea too severely.

The DPRK also needs additional help on the humanitarian front, particularly in light of this year's abysmal harvest--even by North Korean standards. Some analysts believe this year's rice crop was the worst in two decades, thanks to recent floods and the country's failed, Stalinist economic systems. With faint rumblings of internal dissent noted over the past year--something virtually unheard of in the DPRK--Kim Jong-il cannot afford further reductions in humanitarian aid, since much of that assistance makes its way to his most important constituency, the North Korean military.

In other words, returning to the Six-Party talks suits North Korea's needs at this particular point in time. If Pyongyang obtains some degree of sanctions relief, sees improvement in its domestic situation, or achieves the required break-throughs in nuclear technology, then look for the North Korean team to quit the talks (again). Diplomats who have dealt with the DPRK over the years will tell you that the North Koreans are shrewd, tough, and exasperating, engaging in talks when it fits Pyongyang's goals. The Bush Administration deserves some credit for sustaining the Six-Party process, and resisting calls for direct talks with North Korea. Those demands will almost certainly come again, perhaps as soon as the negotiations resume in Beijing.

Here's hoping the White House and State Department stick to their guns when the DPRK returns to the bargaining table late this year or in early 2007. Pyongyang's year of bad behavior should not be rewarded with sanctions relief, and beyond that, the U.S. and its partners should have a clear game plan for what they should demand from North Korea in the upcoming round of talks. An immediate--and verifiable--ban on nuclear testing would be a good start, followed by U.S.-led inspections of DPRK nuclear facilities. If--and only if--North Korea meets those conditions (for a sustained period), then negotiators can talk about partial sanctions relief.

Sadly, that won't happen. Pyongyang's return to negotiations is little more than the latest round of nuclear rope-a-dope, the game North Korea has been playing for more than a decade. That's why this so-called "breakthrough" may be illusory, at best, and a year from now, we're likely to find ourselves back at square one on the diplomatic track.

That's the reality of trying to deal with North Korea. But, if it's any consolation, at least the Bush Administration (so far) hasn't signed a dangerous agreement like 1994's disastrous "Agreed To," framework, a deal that actually allowed Pyongyang to advance its nuclear program, and laid the foundation for the recent nuclear test.

Fool on the Stump

When he ran for President back in 2004, John Kerry (perhaps you've heard, he served in Vietnam), made the usual promises about taking care of the troops and fighting a "smarter" war on terror. While it sounded good (at least to the Senator and his handlers), Kerry's supposed concern for the military didn't survive the attacks of his fellow Swift Boat veterans, who reminded us that Kerry's subsequent anti-war activities betrayed his comrades, and all who served in Vietnam.

If you ever wondered what John Kerry really thinks about the military--and those who serve--look no further than yesterday's campaign appearance in California. Appearing on the stump for gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides, Kerry revealed his obvious contempt for those serving in the armed forces: (Hat tip: Michelle Malkin).

“You know, education, if you make the most of it, if you study hard and you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, uh, you, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.

Michelle also has a great round-up of reaction to Kerry's comments, including a contrast between the feckless Senator, and a man who--by his reckoning--wasn't smart enough to do anything but "get stuck in Iraq." The service member in question is Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Monsoor, a SEAL who died in battle last month. When an enemy grenade landed in his sniper position, Monsoor threw himself on the weapon, using his body to shield his comrades from the blast. Monsoor's selfless actions saved the lives of other SEALs. He will almost certainly be nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor.

When you go to the polls next week, think long and hard about who you want in charge of the nation's military, and those who wear the uniform. Then do the right thing.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Another Near Miss

Late reports from Pakistan indicate that today's strike against a madrassa in Chingai was aimed at Al Qaida's #2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. At least 80 terrorists were killed in the strike, which was carried out by Pakistani attack helicopters. NBC News producer Mushtaq Yusufazi, who was in the area at the time, says the Madrassa had long been a hotbed for Al Qaida, with the school's director (who died in the attack) imploring the locals to support the terrorist organization and its Taliban allies.

If Zawahiri was, indeed, the intended target, it represents the second near-miss against the Al Qaida leader in less than a year. In early 2006, a U.S. Predator drone struck a suspected terrorist safe house along the Pakistan-Afgan border, where Zawihiri was supposedly eating dinner. Zawahiri reportedly cancelled his plans at the last moment, but several of his top aides died in the strike. The attack suggested that the U.S. had obtained better intelligence on Zawahiri's whereabouts, and the almost-successful attack likey drove him further underground.

What's most interesting about this strike is that it occurred just weeks after border tribes--who generally support Al-Qaida and the Taliban--had apparently reached a peace deal with the Pakistani government. That accord was seen as a victory for the terrorists, who could continue to operate with relative ease in the border region, with less fear of attack from Pakistani troops.

But once again, the terrorists proved to be their own worst enemy. While it received little attention in the western press, was another assassination attempt earlier this month on the life of Pakistani President Musharraaf. The effort was crude (and almost certainly doomed to fail), but it caught the attention of the President, who reportedly launched a new purge of his military and intelligence services, and authorized today's strike in the border region. For more details on the assassination attempt (and its aftermath), Bill Roggio's 18 October post is required reading.

Better yet, renewed cooperation from the Pakistanis--and the removal of more Al Qaida sympathizers from the ISI--may yield better intelligence for us, and result in another shot at Zawahiri. The terrorist leader seems to have more lives than a proverbial cat, but sooner or later, his luck is bound to run out, and yesterday's failed assassination attempt may yet prove to be the fatal mistake that sealed Zawahiri's fate, particularly if good intel can be gleaned from the rubble of the Madrassa.


Mr. Yusufazi's presence in the area during the attack was no accident. While the NBC producer thought he was going to cover the "armistice" between border tribes and the Pakistani government, I'm guessing that the government used that line to get him in the vicinity, knowing that he would cover the strike--and that his report would quickly reach American audiences. With recent talk about a truce between the Pakistan government and the terrorists, Musharraf's stock had plummeted in Washington. NBC's near-instant coverage of the attack gave Musharraf a convenient mechanism for quickly getting his message to the White House.

North Korea's Next Nuclear Test?

Last week, we predicted that it might be some time before North Korea attempted another nuclear test, citing evidence that Pyongyang's 9 October blast was only partially successful. Coming on the heels of July's TD-2 missile failure, we surmised that Kim Jong-il might want to get the technology right before trying another underground nuclear test, particuarly if he has plans to sell nuclear know-how (or actual weapons) to other rogue states.

The senior U.S. commander in Korea, General B.B. Bell, weighed in on the topic earlier today, suggesting that future nuclear tests are likely, as North Korea attempts to improve and expand its arsenal. General Bell did not offer specific intelligence that indicates another test is imminent, although there has been speculation that Pyongyang might stage another test over the short term. That speculation has been based--at least in part--on continuing activity at sites believed associated with the North Korean nuclear program, although such indicators are hardly conclusive.

Barring more definitive proof of a pending nuclear test, we'll stick by our original prediction. With other countries having a vested interest in the outcome of Kim Jong-il's nuclear program, he can hardly afford another failure, or a test that is only marginally successful, like the blast that occurred on 9 October.

Likewise, we'll avoid reading too much into South Korean media accounts regarding the most recent DPRK missile tests. According to those reports, North Korea test fired five short-range air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles last week, with ranges of 6 to 30 miles. That activity sounds like an air defense exercise, which are held on a regular basis in the North. Pyongyang has several air defense missiles that fit within that range, most notably the "SA-2" Guideline, which forms the backbone of the DPRK's air defense system. Unfortunately for the DPRK, the SA-2 is old, and poses little threat to high performance U.S. or ROK aircraft.

In the air-to-air arena, the most likely candidates for last week's launches are the AA-7 APEX (carried by the MiG-23 FLOGGER) or the AA-10 ALAMO, mounted on North Korea's single squadron of MiG-29 FULCRUMs. Both missiles have been in Pyongyang's arsenal for more than a decade, so a training or test launch would not be a surprise.

Additionally, DPRK fighter tactics and missile training are rather crude (at least by U.S. standards), but it would be interesting to learn how this exercise compares with previous fall air defense drills. If this exercise was earlier and/or more robust that previous drills, it might suggest a busier Winter Training Cycle (WTC), which begins in late November, and is a reliable indicator of current North Korean military capabilities. On the other hand, if last week's training was within seasonal norms, it was probably nothing more than a routine air defense exercise, and does not indicate any increase in North Korean readiness, or potential preparations to attack the south.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Making Progress?

Iran has announced plans to begin operating a second set of uranium centrifuges in the coming days. Spinning at supersonic speeds, the centrifuges can produce fuel for nuclear power plants, or (more likely, in the case of Iran), nuclear bombs.

A statement from the official Iranian news agency states that Tehran has already begun "dry testing" a second set of 164 centrifuges, and will begin injecting UF-6 gas into the devices in the coming days. Gas insertion represents the next, critical step in using the centrifuges to produce nuclear fuel. Iran began operating its first set of centrifuges in April, producing a tiny amount of enriched uranium.

Tehran's decision to open a second centrifuge array is clearly an act of defiance--but does it indicate substantial progress toward producing a nuclear bomb? As we noted six months ago, using the centrifuges to produce enriched uranium is an important technological step, but Iran still faces critical hurdles in operating enough centrifuges to produce required quantities of nuclear fuel--and at the purity required for use in a weapon. Two cascades (with a total of 328 centrifuges) leaves Iran on the slow track for weapons development. To produce a bomb over the short term (say, the next year or 18 months), Tehran would need as many as 54,000 of the older centrifuges, or at least 12-13,000 of the larger P-2 models. Iran supposedly gained access to P-2 technology through Pakistan's infamous A.Q. Kahn nuclear proliferation ring. At this point, we don't know what type of centrifuges are being used in the Iranian cascades.

We're also unsure about the quality of enriched uranium now being produced. Fuel for nuclear power plants is typically low-grade stuff (around 5%--within Iran's current technical capabilities). On the other hand, the level required for weapons-grade material is much, much higher, and (so far) there's no definitive word on whether Tehran has crossed that threshhold. It's also worth noting that these capabilities are based, in part, on "official" Iranian claims. There is continued concern that Tehran may also be operating a covert nuclear program, housed in undisclosed research complexes and military facilities. A covert program might be much further along the weapons development track, operating larger centrifuge arrays, and producing enriched uranium at much higher purity levels.

If the "official" cascade reports are accurate, Iran is probably four years--or more--away from having the bomb, possibly longer. But, if Tehran is also operating a parallel, covert track, the timetable for nuclear weapons may be much shorter. If I had to venture a guess, I'd say that Iran probably has some semblance of a covert program, a hedge against potential sanctions and/or military action by the west. We'll stand by our assessment of six months ago: the window of opportunity for heading off Iran's nuclear program is closing, and closing rapidly.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


It's Wednesday, and the U.S. hasn't agreed to direct talks with North Korea, and the U.N. hasn't backed off from recently-strengthened sanctions, so what's Pyongyang supposed to do? Why, take a predictable page out of the DPRK playbook and issue another war warning. In its most recent missive, Kim Jong-il's regime warned South Korea against joining the U.S.-led sanctions program, saying such action would be a "serious provocation" that could lead to war.

For those keeping score at home, this isn't the first time we've heard such bluster from Pyongyang. A similar warning was issued earlier this month, just prior to North Korea's (mostly) failed nuclear test. With the sanctions effort gathering some momentum, North Korea is resorting to familiar divide-and-conquer tactics, pressuring South Korea to continue its food shipments to Pyongyang, and pressure the U.S. to negotiate directly with the North Koreans. Seoul may continue the food deliveries (President Roh remains committed to his failed "Sunshine Policy), but the odds of short-term bilateral talks between North Korea and the United States are exactly zero.

Fact is, we shouldn't read too much into North Korea's latest threat. This time of year, most of the DPRK military is still engaged in agricultural activities (read: bringing in the harvest), and they won't start their Winter Training Cycle (WTC) until next month. Beyond missile launches, another nuclear test, a skirmish along the Northern Limit Line, or a pot-shot at a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, North Korea isn't in much of a position for military adverturism right now. That may change in a couple of months, particularly if this year's WTC proves more active than in the recent past. But over the coming weeks, gathering this year's meager harvest will remain the military's #1 mission.

On a slightly more ominous note, China is now erecting a massive fence along its border with North Korea, designed to keep refugees from entering Chinese territory. The project appears to be moving along rapidly, suggesting that Beijing sees no short-term improvements in the DPRK. Indeed, if harvest projections are accurate--and humanitarian aid is curtailed--the number of North Koreans attempting to flee will far surpass previous totals. And that is something that Beijing appears determined to prevent.


The military can be roughly divided between those who fight, and those who don't. Somewhere along the way, support troops falling into that latter category acquired the nickname of REMFs, (short for Rear Echelon Mother F-----s), and they've been objects of derision ever since, despite that fact that a modern army requires a huge logistics tail. For every "shooter" on the streets of Baghdad, there are many as seven support soldiers, performing the required tasks to make sure that combat troops have the fuel, food, amunition, medical and intelligence they need to carry out their mission.

Apparently, the same sort of dividing line can be found among the "combat" correspondents covering the War in Iraq. In the new edition of National Review, Michael Fumento compares the handful of "embedded" reporters who accompany our troops on the front lines (and share their dangers), with the so-called Baghdad brigades, journalists who do their job from the relative comfort--and safety--of the city's best hotels.

As we've noted previously, serious embeds like Mike Fumento and Hollywood documentarian Patrick Dollard, are a dwindling breed. Instead, most of our reporting from Iraq comes from reporters like CNN's Jane Araaf, who finds time to complain about the quality of her hotel. Other members of the Baghdad brigade rely on Iraqi "stringers" to gather information, or try to listen in on conversations in the grocery store, to get a sense of "what's going on."

The result is coverage dominated by shootings and bombings, reinforcing perceptions that Iraq is mired in chaos. Make no mistake: the situation in the Sunni Triangle has taken a turn for the worse, but there's more to the Iraq story than the latest IED attack. Outside of Baghdad (and excluding Al Anbar), the situation remains relatively stable, but you wouldn't know that from the reporting of a hotel-bound press corps.

Fumento's reporting illustrates--again--why our information opertions and public affairs managers are missing the boat in Iraq. Mr. Fumento is an Army combat vet, a veteran journalist and attorney--a man who knows his way around a battlefield, and can offer genuine insights on the situation in Iraq. It's nice to know that he's been on three embed tours (already), but the military needs to open the doors for more Mike Fumentos to embed with our troops, and tell their stories.

Hat tip: Powerline.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Empty Suit

A tip of the hat to Scott Johnson at Powerline, always the first stop in our daily review of the blogosphere. Scott has an excerpt from Bob Casey Jr.'s interview with the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer--a paper that has endorsed Mr. Casey's bid to unseat incumbent Republican Rick Santorum.

In an exchange on various anti-terrorism initiatives (including the NSA terrorist surveillance program and interrogation of detainees), Casey demonstrates almost no knowledge of these critical topics, stringing together talking points and sound bites in an effort to answer the questions.

If you watched the recent TV debate between Santorum and Casey (sponsored by Pittsburgh's KDKA-TV, and carried by C-SPAN), you saw the same approach on a grand scale. Mr. Casey seems incapable of anything resembling an original thought, and (when rattled) he even has trouble reciting the Democratic Party line.

The scary part is that Mr. Casey will, in all likelihood, be the next Senator from Pennsylvania. Even scarier is the fact that the Inquirer--having recorded Casey's feeble grasp of critical issues--would endorse such an empty suit.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Today's Reading Assignment

I hope you've had the chance to read Michael Yon's Weekly Standard piece on the military's chronic mismanagement of the media "embed" program in iraq. If you haven't, take five and review this most timely and insightful article. At one of the most critical moments in Iraq's history, Michael notes that there are only a handful of embedded reporters with U.S. and coalition forces. And the reason for the low numbers is not necessarily a lazy press corps. In many cases, senior military public affairs have rejected embed requests, sometimes for specious reasons such as the journalist "doesn't have adequate insurance."

As Mr. Yon observers--with more than a touch of irony--the PAO who rejected his recent embed request is the same official who has decried the lack of media coverage of our forces in Iraq. By rejecting embed requests from men like Michael Yon, PAOs are cutting off a media outlet they should be cultivating, manned by journalists willing to spend weeks on the front lines, and provide fair, objective reporting on our military efforts in Iraq.

Instead, most of today's media coverage from Iraq seems to flow through the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC), the PAO-controlled effort in Baghdad that is beginning to take on the appearance of the infamous "Five O'Clock Follies" from Vietnam. When the PAO running the shop becomes the "most quoted man in Iraq," that should be a danger sign. Unfortunately, it's become SOP for the information war on its most critical front.

And, if that's not bad enough, there is apparently no consistency in DoD policy toward embeds. Some journalists have been invited to join units in the field by commanding officers--only to have the request rejected up the chain. In other cases, military bloggers and free-lance photographers have been allowed to embed in Afghanistan, without the "insurance" requirement that was placed on Michael Yon by the PAO mafia in Baghdad.

As we're written before, the blogosphere and the internet are critical information outlets that must be contested by our military, or we risk ceding that battlespace to the enemy. Bloggers like Michael Yon have produced some of the most factual--and riveting--accounts of our troops in combat, yet some are now being denied access to the battlefield, with the fight for Iraq in its most critical phase. Is this a case of censorship, or just another example of the military bureaucracy gone amok? Paging Major Major Major Major.

Somewhere, the ghost of Joe Heller must be smiling (or cringing).

The Big Fizzle

Much was made last week of Kim Jong-il's apparent "apology" to China over North Korea's recent nuclear test. And, if regional media accounts are accurate, the DPRK's nut-job leader also promised to conduct additional tests, which Pyongyang had threatened in reaction to new U.N. sanctions against his regime.

At the time, Kim's mea culpa was viewed as an effort to curry favor with Beijing (which was angered by North Korea's nuclear test) and attempt to pressure the U.S. into direct talks. It is worth noting that Beijing has never confirmed the apology, and the U.S.--correctly--is continuing the six-party process as the "only" means for engaging Pyongyang.

But there's another reason that North Korea is suddenly acting a bit more conciliatory on the nuclear issue: its first test was a gigantic flop, at least from a technical perspective. U.S. experts now estimate that the DPRK blast had a yield of roughly 200-400 tons of TNT, or only 5-10% of what they hope to achieve with the weapon.

As we described it last week, the North Korean device was a veritable pop-gun by any standard; the first U.S. nuclear devices (used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki) produced yields of 10-20 kt; Indian and Pakistani bombs detonated in the late 1990s produced only slightly smaller yields. Current U.S., Russian, British, Chinese and French thermo-nuclear devices are gargantuan by comparison, with yields often measured in the hundreds of kilotons, or even in megatons (one megaton is an explosive force equivalent to one million tons of TNT).

North Korea's low-yield device suggests serious design flaws, and indicates that much of planned fissile reaction was a abject failure. And that brings us to Mr. Kim's sudden desire for dialogue. Unable--and unwilling--to risk another fizzle, North Korea now prefers diplomacy instead, giving them a chance to push for sanctions relief, while giving their engineers more time to figure out what went wrong.

If recent DPRK missile flops are any indication, the diplomatic push on the nuclear front will last for an extended period, with periodic spells of saber-rattling for added effect. Almost eight years passed between 1998's partially-successful TD-2 test and July's TD-2 test failure, allowing NK scientists to figure out what went wrong the first time, and incorporate lessons learned into the longer-range TD-2. With the TD-2 launch a colossal failure, it seems likely that North Korea won't try another long-range missile test for several years, if it doesn't abandon that program altogether, in favor of the recently acquired SS-N-6/Musudan IRBM, which can be "stretched" into an ICBM.

With countries like Iran and Venezuela eagerly watching the North Korean nuclear show (and probably providing some funding for the program), Kim Jong-il cannot afford another nuclear flop. Until his nuclear scientists can get it right, Mr. Kim will find the diplomatic track more practical, and he will actively pursue it. Having decided on a nuclear test long ago, Pyongyang likely had a contingency plan for all outcomes, including a detonation that was largely a failure.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Whatever Happened to Ned Lamont?

Here's a polling gem (uncovered by Matt Drudge) that you probably won't find on tonight's edition of "Countdown." Looks like the poster boy for the Daily Kos/Keith Olberman wing of the Democratic Party is headed for an election day whuppin,' courtesy of Joe Lieberman.

Still, at least Mr. Lamont has been consistent in sustaining his beliefs. Wish we could say the same for the Democratic senate candidate in Virginia, Jim Webb. According to John Miller at NRO, Mr. Webb has had a real change of heart when it comes to Bill Clinton, a man whose administration he once described as "the most corrupt in modern memory." Yesterday, Clinton was on the stump for Webb, raising money for his effort to unseat George Allen. Regarding his newfound-friend-and-champion-fundraiser, Webb said "things had changed."


Hat tip: Powerline.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Story Worth Repeating

I've taken more than a few shots at the military public affairs community (see the post below), but I also believe in giving credit where it's due.

This article from the CENTAF Froward News Team bears reading--and linking. It tells the story of deployed military personnel in Iraq who volunteer on their days off at the Balad AB hospital. Think about it: most of the airmen serving in Iraq work six days a week, or get only a couple of days off every 2-3 weeks. Instead of taking a well-deserved break, many pitch it at a key military medical facility, assisting the hosptial staff, or filling in so some of the medics can have a day off.

Read it, and be impressed by the incredible professionalism--and humanity--of those who wear our uniform.

OPSEC Versus Censorship

A hat tip to the incomparable Michelle Malkin, for her heads-up on this post at Blackfive, concerning U.S. Army efforts to crack-down on military bloggers. According to a recent press release, the Army has created an operations security (OPSEC) unit--part of the Virginia National Guard--to monitor soldiers' unofficial blogs and websites, looking for information that may compromise security.

The Army claims the Manassas-based unit has discovered a number of items that could prove valuable to the enemy, including biographies, pictures and personal information. The unit also looks for such terms as "for official use only," "secret" and "top secret," and apparently makes referrals for further investigation.

Blackfive sees a slightly sinister hand behind all of this, and I tend to agree. While no one disputes the need for security, the monitoring effort also smacks at censorship, giving the Army brass an opportunity to shut down websites (and punish bloggers) that don't hew to the party line. He notes that several milbloggers have run afoul of the miltary bureaucracy, particularly Public Affairs Officers (PAOs), who have been the traditional vehicle for releasing information. Blackfive warned the PAOs against "cracking down" on military bloggers at a conference last April, and apparently paid for his sins by being "chased down" and lectured by a group of public affairs types after the forum.

As Blackfive observes, soldiers' blogs provide a very useful--an important--source of information on military operations. And more importantly, they are often far more nimble (and responsive) than the PAOs, who are seemingly mired in the pre-internet world. True, most military units have their own websites, but they're usually crammed with official photos and other PR-filler, sometimes posted days or even weeks after the event.

Consider Blackfive's current post on a CNN story about the jihadist sniper threat in Iraq. Casual viewers would assume that enemy snipers are exacting a heavy toll among our troops in the Sunni triangle, reinforcing the recurring media theme about rising U.S. casualties in Iraq. Not only does Blackfive nail the obvious slant to the story, he also points out the network's careful placement of the piece, which ran just before a segment on American troops accused of rape and murder in Iraq. I don't need to explain the inferences made by running those stories back-to-back.

So where's the public affairs response to this? I'm sure there may be a protest from the Pentagon, and (eventually) some PA package on our own sniper teams. But by the time that report hits the web, AFRTS, or even some MSM outlet, the impact will have been blunted by the passage of time. If the military wants to compete in the arena of information and ideas--and it must--it needs a mechanism to response to enemy propaganda, quickly and effectively. Fact is, coalition casualties from jihadist snipers are dwarfed by the number of terrorists killed by our own sniper teams. If Al-Jazerra runs video of U.S. troops being shot by a sniper, we need to provide an effective counter-point, or (better yet), get out in front of the issue, and post an entire archive of our own sniper kills. The libs and the MSM will probably howl, but that's to be expected. Besides, if one of our PAO goals is to be "liked" by the NYT and WaPo, we need a new set of priorities.

Fact is, the terrorists are ahead of us in the realm of information operations. If you don't believe me, consider Hizballah's recent success against Israel. Depending on your point of view, the terrorist army either (a) more than held its own, or (b) defeated the region's preeminent military power, largely through a mix of denial and deception and information operations. The bad guys view their IO efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan as a template for future operations. We'd better find an effective way to respond--and zealous scrutiny of milblogs isn't the answer.

Diane in the DPRK

Browsing the ABC News website (we go there so you don't have to), I discovered that "Good Morning America" co-anchor Diane Sawyer is currently visiting North Korea. You may recall that the broadcast networks made similar pilgrimages to Iraq during the run-up to the 2003 war, focusing on the "human" element of the story; the not-so-subtle message was simple: these are the people we may be bombing in a few months and they're just like us! They want nothing more than a better life for their children, and to live in peace, yada, yada, yada.

As part of her visit to North Korea, Ms. Sawyer conducted an interview with a senior North Korean general, Ri Chan Bok, who warned that war is "inevitable," if the United States continues to "force North Korea to kneel." General Bok has made similar threats before; in a January 2005 interview with former CBS anchor Dan Rather, the North Korean officer threatened that his country would use its nuclear weapons, if the U.S. invaded his country. ABC identified Bok as the DPRK general "in charge of the de-militarized zone." He has been a regular participant in periodic general officer talks at the "peace village" of Panmunjon, often delivering a predictable critique of U.S. or South Korean policies. Serving as a mouthpiece for the American media seems to be an additional duty for General Bok.

Since I'm already at work when GMA is on the air, I didn't catch Ms. Sawyer's interview, and I haven't had a chance to watch any video on the network's website. But I'm relatively confident that Diane never got around to asking General Bok some tough--and pertinent--questions on North Korea's nuclear program, including:

--Why does North Korea need nuclear weapons to defend itself, since U.S. nukes were withdrawn from the peninsula in 1992, and South Korea has no nuclear program?
--Why is 60% of the DPRK military stationed within 60 miles of the DMZ, particularly when NK forces greatly outnumber their U.S./ROK counterparts, which maintain a defensive orientation south of the DMZ?
--How many North Korean civilians starved to death as a result of the resources lavished on the nuclear program by Kim Jong-il?
--Why did North Korea violate the 1994 Agreed-To Framework by implementing a covert nuclear program which led to development of the device that was recently tested?
-- Will the DPRK accept responsibility for triggering a new nuclear arms race in Asia?
--How does Pyongyang justify its particpation in illicit activities, including large-scale counterfeiting of U.S. currency and drug sales?
--Why does North Korea undermine regional--and global security--through the sale/proliferation of ballistic missile technology?
--How would the DPRK react to a quarantine of its air and naval traffic?

(And, finally)

--If North Korea truly is the "worker's paradise," how to you explan a system of supposed self-sufficiency (juche) that has left the average citizen six inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than his relatives in South Korea?
--Why is the "Dear Leader" the only guy in the DPRK who's 30 pounds overweight, and has the worst haircut of any world leader.

Naturally, Ms. Sawyer won't ask any of those questions, to avoid being booted from the DPRK. Besides, she's too busy visting a North Korean beauty salon (I kid you not), where curls are apparently the latest rage. Apparently, everyone's trying to imitate Kim Jong-il's atrocious comb-over. With a personal fortune in the billions (reportedly stashed in Swiss accounts), you'd think the Dear Leader could afford hair implants, or at least a decent rug.

Today's Reading Assignment

Stephen Moore, writing in yesterday's Opinion Journal, on a completely bogus study of Iraq War casualties from The Johns Hopkins University. Using their flawed "methodology," we can only imagine what numbers the Johns Hopkins researchers might have come up with for the Civil War, World War I, or World War II.

Holding North Korea Accountable

President Bush has stated that the U.S. would prevent attempted transfers of nuclear weapons from North Korea to Iran or Al-Qaida, warning of "grave consequences" for such an act, although he refused to specify what those consequences might be.

In light of the recent North Korean nuclear test--and Pyongyang's reported plans to test additional devices--the President said that any nuclear transfer would represent "a grave threat" to the security of the United States. Readers of the linked AP article will note that the wire service reporter couldn't resist pointing out that Bush last used the term "grave threat" in describing Saddam Hussein's Iraq, suggesting that the President is either (a) over-hyping the threat, or (b) laying the groundwork for another war. In either case, the folks at the DNC are happy to see their talking points integrated into a supposedly "straight" news story.

While Mr. Bush refused to outline how North Korea might be held accountable for attempting a nuclear transfer, he was very clear on how the shipments would be interdicted:

"If we get intelligence that they're about to transfer a nuclear weapon, we would stop the transfer, and we would deal with the ships that were taking the - or the airplane that was dealing with taking the material to somebody," the president said.

Mr. Bush's comments suggest that he is seriously considering an air and naval quarantine of North Korea--perhaps the only feasible option for disrupting potential nuclear shipments to other rogue states or terrorist organizations. We have supported this proposal in the past. Without a quarantine, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to identify specific ships or flights that are transporting nuclear weapons or materials. Pyongyang has one of the world's most effective denial and deception (D&D) programs, and has a fairly detailed knowledge of our intelligence systems and capabilities. A naval quarantine would allow the U.S. and its allies to board and search more North Korean ships on the high seas; vessels with non-WMD cargoes would be allowed to proceed, while ships with suspicious cargo, personnel or manifests could be diverted to friendly ports and detained.

An aerial quarantine is more difficult to enforce, and (quite frankly) the U.S. needs help to make it work. For starters, Washington should lean on Russia, China and other nations in eastern and southern Asia to deny overflight rights to any non-stop service between North Korea and Iran. Flights making a refueling stop between the two countries will be subjected to rigorous searches, and suspicious cargoes will be immediately impounded. Imposition of those requirements--and stringent enforcement--are really the only hope for an effective air quarantine of the DPRK. Without them, Pyongyang will simply shift most of the shipments to air freight. Both North Korea and Iran operate Russian-built IL-76 Candid transports, similar in size and configuration to the recently retired USAF C-141. Candids are more than capable of hauling nuclear cargo between North Korea and the Middle East.

We should hope that Secretary of State Rice is at least discussing the quarantine option during her current visit to the Far East. If the Bush Administration is serious about stopping potential transfers, the time to implement the necessary steps is now. While Pyongyang's nuclear technology is apparently crude, the threat of a quarantine might prompt the DPRK to attempt a transfer at the earliest opportunity, before naval and air restrictions go into effect. Mr. Bush has the right idea about limiting the potential proliferation of North Korean nukes, but (as always) the devil's in the details, and the window for action is very narrow.


Addendum: In addition to "official" measures, the Bush Administration can take other, less formal steps to block a potential North Korean nuclear transfer. Option one is "buying out" the flight schedule for heavy lift aircraft (IL-76, AN-124) assigned to Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian air cargo firms for, say, the next couple of years. Many of these firms already haul freight for the U.S. government; all would welcome the sudden influx of revenue, and (most importantly) reserving them through 2008 would prevent Pyongyang and Iran from "outsourcing" transfer operations to a third-party air cargo company.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Houston, Do We Have a Problem?

I'm a bit puzzled by recent statements from senior Air Force leadership, reaffirming the service's "zero tolerance" policy for personnel who participate in hate groups or gangs. The Air Force Chief of Staff, General T. Michael Moseley, recently told a Washington audience that "participation in such activity has no place in our Air Force."

The fact that Moseley would make such a statement is hardly surprising. Service and DOD regulations clearly prohibit such conduct among service members, and the potential punishment (under the UCMJ) can be harsh. The real question is why the Chief of Staff is devoting time to this issue, particularly when it doesn't appear to be a problem. Speaking before the same audience, the service's senior enlisted advisor, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF) Rodney McKinley said he "never observed any gang activity" during his many years as a First Sergeant, noting the "high quality" of Air Force recruits. If McKinley is correct, then the "problem" may be non-existent, which raises that nagging question about why senior leadership is apparently focused on the issue.

From a public relations perspective, the answer would be "to prevent gangs and hate groups from becoming a problem." But do prevention efforts require the attention from top brass, particularly when the service has far more pressing issues, ranging from recapitalization of the aircraft fleet, to the ever-increasing burden of combat deployments. Surely, there are more important issues on the plate of the Chief of Staff and his top enlisted advisor.

If I had to guess, I'd say there may be two possible reasons for the "focus" on hate groups and gangs in the Air Force. First, there is a chance (albeit slim) that the service is trying to get out in front of a scandal that has yet to break. However, I'd say the odds of that happening are a bit slim. Having spent more than a quarter century in and around the Air Force, I've never detected even minor problems with hate groups and gangs among our service members. There may be a handful of airmen here and there affiliated with the Ayran Nation or the Gangster Disciples, but they are certainly the exception, not the rule. And apparently, they keep their affiliations quiet, because base commanders I've spoken to have never indicated these problems exist on their installations.

A more likely explanation is that Air Force leadership is simply following guidance from above. Back in July, The New York Times ran a typically breathless report, suggesting that hate groups were flocking to the military. In response, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld appointed a task force to study the problem. More than likely, the task force has recommended that service chiefs begin "talking about the issue," and reaffirm DOD's no tolerance policy. Note: We wrote about this issue earlier in the year, based on a Chicago Sun-Times report on the discovery of gang graffiti at U.S. bases in Iraq. At the time, we opined that the issue probably required some sort of inqurty, but the problem appeared isolated. Indeed, the Sun-Times article noted that rival gang members seemed able to co-exist peacefully, suggesting that the gang bangers were more concerned about escaping their past, or acquiring military skills that could be put to use after they left the military.

All that is well and good, but there's a little problem with the "problem." As James Joyner at Outside the Beltway noted when the story broke, the hate groups that supposedly threatened military discipline and order were white extremist organizations. And what was the basis for this assessment? Why, none other than the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has a long history of exaggerating threats from skinhead and neo-Nazi groups. With its traditional bogeyman (the KKK) now deservedly in ruins, the SPLC has been forced to create new "threats" to justify its existence, and keep donations rolling in. Mr. Joyner reminds us that the SPLC and its founder, Morris Dees, have a checkered ethical history, at best. It's also worth noting that the SPLC routinely ignores more dangerous threats, including ethnic gangs and Islamic extremists. Conspiciously absent from the organization's 2005 list of "active" hate groups are MS-13, Hamas, Hizballah and Al Qaida, all of which have operatives inside the United States, and pose a far greater threat to the military (and the nation as a whole) than a few neo-Nazis or the occasional Klan member.

The real question is why DoD--and the Air Force--devote time, effort and resources to a "problem" that doesn't seem to exist, and accept the rantings of the SPLC as unbiased "fact." In the middle of a War on Terror, defense department leaders should be focused on real problems and real issues, and not furthering the civil rights "career" of Morris Dees.


Addendum: Late in my Air Force career, I was required to participate in some sort of "tolerance" traning that was mandatory for all personnel. Virtually all the information used in the training came from--you guessed it--the SPLC. Someone needs to explore the apparent connection between that organization and the DoD; the idea that the Defense Department would accept SPLC information as the "gospel truth" is more than a little disturbing.

One final thought: early reviews from the field on Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Rodney McKinley are less-than-encouraging. Since taking the post earlier this year, McKinley has been pushing education for the enlisted force, suggesting that senior NCOs may be required, at some point, to have bachelor's degrees (McKinley has both a bachelor's and a master's). That begs some obvious questions; first, in an Air Force where many personnel are deployed six months out of the year, how are service members supposed to work on a degree? Secondly, how does the AF pay for increased education costs, when other programs are being shredded to buy new aircraft? And finally, how can the Air Force persuade enlisted members to stay in service once they've earned their degree? So far, McKinley has been short on answers.

It's also worth mentioning that McKinley's power of observation may be lacking as well. In the early 1990s, McKinley was the First Sergeant/Senior Enlisted Advisor for a small AF munitions post at Ghedi AB, Italy. The unit was fraught with problems during McKinley's tenure--rampant adultery, excessive DUIs, poor morale, and marginal performance. McKinley apparently did nothing to correct the problems, and the unit wasn't turned around until the mid-1990s, when a real commander and first sergeant took charge at Ghedi. However, the difficulties at Ghedi never hurt McKinley's career, and he continued the ascent that led to his present post.

Christopher Glenn, R.I.P.

Christopher Glenn died yesterday at the age of 68. The recently-retired CBS news correspondent had been battling liver cancer since retiring from the network earlier this year.

If Glenn's name doesn't ring a bell, you would almost certainly recognize the voice. During three decades at CBS, his was the distinctive voice heard on the network's radio newscasts, including "The World Tonight," and most recently, the early morning "World News Round-Up." But Glenn is perhaps best remembered as the host (usually off-camera) for "In the News" a brief summary of current events that aired between Saturday morning cartoon programs on CBS in the 1970s and early 80s. "In the News" was a fixture on the network's Saturday morning line-up for 13 years, winning an Emmy Award and other honors.

Because it was aimed at a youthful audience, "In the News" usually played it straight in its coverage of news events--something rare for a CBS broadcast. Glenn's superb narration also made the segments memorable. More than a few broadcasters believed that Glenn had the "best pipes in the business," a deep, melliflous voice that was always perfectly controlled, even when covering tragic events like the "Challenger" explosion in 1986.

I never met Mr. Glenn, but as someone who once slaved over a hot microphone, it was easy admire his consummate skill as a news anchor. In a medium devoid of pictures--where words and the human voice have to carry the story--few were better than Chistopher Glenn. He will be missed.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

An Act of War

Not surprisingly, North Korea has responded harshly to those new U.N. sanctions, declaring them "an act of war." U.S. envoy Christopher Hill, who leads the American delegation to the Six-Party talks on the DPRK's nuclear program, described Pyongyang's response as "not helpful." That would be an understatement.

However, observers should avoid reading too much into the latest North Korean propaganda blast. Kim Jong-il's regime uses that kind of language whenever it suits their purpose and it's a long way from describing something as an "act of war" to actually taking up arms and invading South. While the DPRK is capable of launching a limited attack with virtually no warning, a full-scale invasion would require more time and preparation.

That's why North Korea's upcoming Winter Training Cycle (WTC) will be very interesting--and potentially important, at least from a military perspective. It should be noted upfront that there are currently no indications that Pyongyang is contemplating an invasion of the south, and it would take "provocations" (to use their term) well beyond sanctions to spur such a move. However, the WTC is significant because it's the time of year when the DPRK military conducts most of its training, and North Korean units typically reach their highest levels of readiness. The WTC usually begins in late November or early December and runs through March. Using a building-block approach, North Korean units usually start off the training cycle with individual and small-unit training, then shifting to larger-scale exercises in January and February. North Korea's WTC often culminates with a national-level exercise in the late winter. After that, much of the military shifts to agricultural projects, and training levels plummet.

Despite the importance assigned to the WTC, overall training levels have dropped dramatically over the past 20 years, due largely to North Korea's failed economy and limited resources. While there have been occasional "spikes" in training, the general decline has been fairly consistent and measurable. In other words, today's WTC in North Korea is a shadow of what was once observed, with a corresponding decrease in combat capabilities. While Pyongyang retains a powerful military, limitations in recent training would make it more difficult for the DPRK to achieve its strategic, operational and tactical objectives against South Korea and its allies.

With tensions on the peninsula at their highest levels in decades, this year's WTC will take on added meaning, and provide a possible indicator of North Korean intentions. If Pyongyang plans to back up its "act of war" declaration, we could expect to see significant increases in military training, with emphasis in particular areas, including:

--Surface-to-Surface Missile Units (crew training, mobility exercises, warhead mating)
--Special Operations Forces (insertion training, paradrop exercises, assault drills)
--Long-Range Artillery (crew training, gunnery exercises)
--Mechanized Corps (live-fire exercises, long-distance road marches)
--Air Forces (ground attack training, ground-controlled intercept drills; SAM mobility/deployment exercises)
--Special Forces Insertion Platforms [AN-2 COLT] (movement to forward airfields; long-range navigation flights; paradrop training with SOF units

Readers will note an absence of potential naval indicators. Due to extreme weather conditions in the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan during the WTC, the NK Navy usually trains at reduced levels. However, if Pyongyang was contemplating a move against the south, we would expect to see increased naval activity, particularly among platforms associated with agent infiltration and SOF insertion.

This will not be the first time NK has conducted a WTC during times of increased tensions. During previous times of crisis, Pyongyang has typically staged a training cycle that falls within normal parameters, while continuing its propaganda campaign and saber rattling efforts. If the past is any indicator, this year's WTC will likely follow the same pattern, suggesting that Kim Jong-il isn't quite ready to use the "ultimate" option against his adversaries. On the other hand, a dramatic spike in activity during the WTC--something we should see fairly early in the cycle--might indicate that North Korea is considering all potential contingencies.

Monday, October 16, 2006

What's in a Yield?

After careful analysis, the U.S. intelligence community has confirmed that North Korea did, indeed, test a nuclear device last week. Conclusive evidence came in the form of air samples, collected by our intelligence platforms after the test. Those samples contained traces of at least two radioactive gases associated with nuclear blasts. It would be virtually impossible for Pyongyang to "fake" that sort of evidence, indicating that North Korea did conduct a nuclear test.

And, if that weren't enough, there are signs that Kim Jong-il may be preparing for a second test. Both ABC News and NBC News reported Monday that suspicious vehicle activity and personnel movements had been observed near the site where the first test was conducted. The activity may represent the early stages of preparations for a second nuclear blast, although the preparations detected are far from conclusive. However, activity observed with the initial test provides a baseline for future events, providing analysts with tip-offs that be a predictor of additional tests.

But the real story from last week's test is the surprisingly low yield from the blast. According to U.S. estimates, the device detonated by the DPRK had an explosive force equal to 1,000 tons of TNT, or roughly one kiloton. By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 had a yield of six kilotons; nuclear devices detonated by India and Pakistan in 1999 (a more useful yardstick) were in the 6-13 kiloton range, with the Indian weapon toward the higher end of that scale, and the Pakistani device toward the lower end.

The comparison to India and Pakistan is important, since North Korea (allegedly) had access to Pakistani bomb designs, thanks to the A.Q. Kahn proliferation network. A North Korean device based on proven Pakistani designs should have produced a bigger blast--at least in theory. Credible reports from the late 90s suggest that the Pakistani bomb detonated after the Indian test was only partially successful. If the North Korean weapon shared critical design features with its Pakistani counterpart, it may have inherited some of the problems associated with early devices built by Islamabad, and resulting in a smaller blast, like the one detected last week At this point, Pyongyang might be described as "barely" a member of the nuclear club, with significant hurdles that must be overcome before North Korea can produce smaller, higher-yield weapons, cable of fitting atop a ballistic missile.

Of course, there are other explanations for the small bang detected last week. Richard Miniter, a respected writer on security matters, believes the low-yield explosion is proof that Pyongyang may have perfected a "suitcase" nuke, an ideal weapon for client states (and terrorist supporters) in Syria and Iran. Miniter's theory is within the realm of possibilities, but I'm not quite prepared to climb out on that limb, for a couple of reasons.

For starters, a nation's first nuclear device tends to be a bit larger than follow-on versions. Downsizing a nuke to fit atop a missile remains a complex proposition, despite the availability of outside help, and 60 years of accumulated nuclear know-how, much of it readily available in scientific papers and on the internet. Prototype nuclear devices-like the one detonated in North Korea last week--tend to be larger weapons, best encapsulated in an oversized gravity bomb. While the DPRK clearly wants smaller warheads for its ballistic missile force, it likely lacks the technology to produce those weapons, at least for now.

In fact, there is general consensus in the U.S. intelligence community have long viewed the "size" issue as a major limitation of North Korea's current nuclear program. However, this obstacle will be eventually overcome, if history is any indicator. For virtually every member of the nuclear club, smaller weapons typically come a bit later in the development process, after the nuclear technology has been perfected. For example, U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in today's arsenal are much smaller than the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs, but deliver a yield that is many times more powerful. Working with much more limited resources, it will take Pyongyang a while to develop smaller, more tactically viable weapons. Put another way, there is no reason to believe that Pyongyang has deviated from the normal developmental cycle, and achieved some sort of technical breakthrough that would allow it to begin mass production of small nukes for ballistic missiles, or other purposes.

Indeed, for a regime that demands the world's attention, it would seemingly be in Kim Jong-il's interest to produce the biggest possible bang, underscoring the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear arsenal. That requirement would (seemingly) dictate a bigger blast than what was observed last week. While we may never know exactly what transpired at that test site in the DPRK, available evidence hints at a blast that may have been only partially successful. While that development is bad enough, it reminds us that Pyongyang's nuclear program is still in its infancy, and the world community has an opportunity--no, a responsibility--to halt these efforts before it becomes more advanced.


To give you some idea of how far North Korea has to go in building "better" nuclear weapons, consider these statistics. According to Jane's (and other authoritative publications), a single nuclear warhead from a Minuteman III ICBM has a yield of 330 kt. Warheads on a Trident D-5 SLBM (sub-launched ballistic missile) have a yield of up to 6 mega-tons (MT) each. Tactical nukes actually have a "selectable" yield, allowing them to deliver an explosive force ranging from relatively small, to fairly substantial. By that standard, the device tested by North Korea last week was a veritable pop gun.

Uncommon Valor

As the Battle for Baghdad rages on, casualties among U.S. troops have increased in recent months. Predictably, The New York Times has already weighed in on the subject, noting that this month may rank as one of the bloodiest months for American soldiers and Marines; so far, at least 53 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq during October, and that total will certainly rise with two weeks remaining in the month.

The Times' veiled message is easy enough to decipher: efforts by the U.S. to improve security in Baghdad aren't working; violence continues to spiral out of control, resulting in more casualties among American troops, Iraqi civilians, and members of that nation's fledgling security forces.

Is that an accurate assessment? To its credit, the Times notes that a major reason for the increase in combat casualties is an increased deployment of U.S. forces in and around the Iraqi capital. With more troops battling terrorists in the heart of the insurgency, it is logical to assume that casualties will increase, at least over the short term. However, the Times fails to note that the U.S. offensive also falls during the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan, a period that traditionally produces a major spike in terrorist attacks. In recent years, there has been a noticeable decrease in enemy strikes after Ramadan, so it seems likely that U.S. casualties will also fall in November and December--another fact ignored by the Times.

Likewise, the Newspaper of Record also ignores other trends that may not bode well for our enemies. According to data from the same web site (icasualties.org), the number of troops killed by IEDs has declined steadily over the past year, despite an increase in terrorist bomb production and implantation attempts. Since IEDs represent the insurgents's only viable tactic, a decrease in their effectiveness means trouble ahead for the terrorists. And, based on current trends, the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq will decline again this year, for the second year in a row. Obviously, the loss of 3,000 military personnel since the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom is a tragedy for a society that values (or should value) all human life. But those casualties should also be weighed in the context of history, and our own, collective sense of what constitutes an appropriate level of sacrifice in defense of our freedoms.

That's why Clint Eastwood's new film, Flags of Our Fathers, is being released at exactly the right moment for American audiences. Based on James Bradley's best-selling book, Flags recounts the historic flag-raising during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. According to early reviews, Mr. Eastwood's film is hardly a paean to war; in fact, it is unflinching in its depiction of the carnage of battle, and the long-term effects of the Iwo campaign on the men who made it through, most notably, the three surviving flag-raisers. It's also worth noting that the current total of combat deaths in Iraq (2300) represents less than half the number of Marines and sailors who died in a single month on Iwo Jima. Marines on Iwo accounted for half of the Congressional Medals of Honor awarded to the USMC during World War II. After the battle, Admiral Chester Nimitz observed that "uncommon valor was a common virture" among the Marines who took that island.

Six decades later, the same could be said of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines now battling terrorists in Iraq. As they carry the fight to the enemy, we should remember their sacrifice, just as we remember the courage of the men who liberated the Pacific during World War II. We should also remember one of the enduring lessons of Iwo Jima and other past campaigns: valor, sacrifice and progress cannot be quantified in terms of a casualty counts, no matter what the NYT might believe. By their standards, Iwo was an unqualified military disaster, and I'm sure the Times's editorial board would have demanded an early withdrawal in 1945, and a courts-martial for the commanders on the scene.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Administration Strikes Back

Readers of today's Washington Times got a ring-side seat for the latest skirmish between the Bush Administration and elements within the intelligence community.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, administration officials severely criticized recent intelligence assessments on North Korea, describing them as "flawed" and hampered U.S. attempts to avert Pyongyang's attempted nuclear test. Administration sources cited at least 10 major failures in recent intelligence reporting on Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs, indicating that spy agencies essentially got in wrong in assessing the July missile tests, and Monday's efforts to detonate a nuclear device. As the officials told Mr. Gertz:

"...the failures included judgments that cast doubt about whether North Korea's nuclear program posed an immediate threat, whether North Korea could produce a militarily useful nuclear bomb, whether North Korea was capable of conducting an underground nuclear test and whether Pyongyang was bluffing by claiming it could carry one out."

The harshest criticism was reserved for a recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), and two recent assessments produced within the office of the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte. Administration officials claim the weak analysis undermined U.S. and Japanese diplomatic efforts which might have prevented the nuclear test. Armed with better intelligence, they argued, American and Japanese leaders might have been successful in pressing China to use its influence with North Korea, and prevented the underground test.

White House critics are right about the apparent intelligence failure--but only to a point. Admittedly, recent assessments on the DPRK contained serious errors. But poor intel on North Korea reflects decades of difficulty in obtaining reliable information on Kim Jong-il and his regime. North Korea remains one of the most closed societies on earth, and much of Pyongyang's missile and WMD activity remains shrouded by an active (and effective) denial and deception program. As a result, there are numerous intelligence gaps regarding North Korean capabilities and intent--a fact that should be no surprise to the Bush Administration.

In reality, today's critique is more of a retort to the DNI senior staff, considered by many to be the likely source of the recently-leaked NIE on Iraq. Officials who complained about the quality of analysis on North Korea pointed the finger at the DNI's most senior intelligence analyst, Thomas Fingar, who disputed the famous 2002 NIE which claimed that Iraq had large quantities of chemical weapons. According to the officials who spoke with Gertz, Fingar carried over his skepticism to recent reports on the DPRK, resulting in analysis that was heavily flawed. By leaking their criticism to the press, the administration took a direct shot at elements within the intelligence community believed responsible for the recent NIE disclosures on Iraq.

No one--repeat no one--has suggested that Fingar was the source of recent leaks on the Iraq NIE. However, direct criticism of a senior intelligence analyst is a bit unusual, and by singling out Mr. Fingar, the White House is sending a message to both him and his boss, Ambassador Negroponte: improve the quality of your products, and tighten up your staff--or else. A White House that once went out of its way to avoid criticizing the intelligence community is no longer providing top cover for a DNI staff still viewed (to some degree) as a bunch of leakers and malcontents.

On the other hand, it is somewhat unrealistic for the Bush White House-or any administration-to expect an overnight improvement in our analysis of North Korea. As Pyongyang improves its secure communications capabilities, and gains more knowledge about our intelligence collection efforts, it will remain extremely difficult to assess North Korea's actual intentions. The administration has every right to criticize the DNI for poor assessments on the DPRK. But they should also challenge the intelligence community to come up with a concrete plan for improving collection and analysis--and provide the resources required to put the plan into action.


One more thought: among his other duties, Dr. Fingar is also responsible for the office which produces the President's daily intelligence brief (PDB). It will be interesting to see how long Fingar remains in his position, since the White House is clearly giving him a vote of no confidence.

We Have a Winner

Yesterday, I speculated about how long it would take the MSM to print or broadcast a story about the potential terrorist threat from general aviation aircraft--despite ample data suggesting that light aircraft pose little danger as terrorist weapons.

Sure enough, ABC's Lisa Stark was one of the first out of the box. On Wednesday's edition of "ABC World News," she filed the obligatory report on the threat posed by terrorists stealing light aircraft and using them as weapons. Not surprisingly, the "threat" was grossly exaggerated, and she even managed to quote an AOPA spokesman out of context, to boot. Interestingly, I can't find her story on the ABC News website, so perhaps members of the AOPA complained, or her bosses didn't think much of her report.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I'm Waiting...

In the light of today's plane crash in New York, it's probably just a matter of minutes before some MSM outlet runs a breathless story about the potential terrorist threat from general aviation aircraft. You may recall similar hysteria in the wake of 9-11.

Fact is, virtually all small aircraft would be a poor terrorist weapon. For starters, most don't generate enough airspeed or carry a sufficient payload (including fuel) to pose a significant threat to reinforced steel and concrete structures, such as a Manhattan high-rise or a nuclear power plant. Most of the general aviation aircraft in America are the size of a Cessna 172 (or smaller) weighing less than a Honda Civic, and with a top speed of only 130 mph. According to some estimates, it would take 1,000 general aviation aircraft, flying into the same target simultaneously, to equal the destructive power of a single airliner. Terrorist organizations have contemplated the use of private aircraft in the past, but those plans reflected the implementation of post-9-11 security measures in the commercial aviation sector, and reduced chances for future attacks using hijacked passenger jets.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) offers additional, equally convincing arguments on their website. Obviously, the AOPA has a dog in the fight, but the facts they present are difficult to refute.

Still, that won't stop our friends in the press.

Crash in New York

WABC-TV is reporting that the plane which crashed into that apartment building on New York's Upper East Side was registered to Yankees pitcher Corey Lidle. Mr. Lidle, who was believed to be piloting the aircraft, died in the crash, along with three other people.

Lidle's death came 27 years after another Yankees player, All-Star catcher Thurman Munson, died at the controls of an aircraft he was piloting. Munson was practicing touch-and-go landings at the Akron-Canton, Ohio airport in August 1979 when he failed to lower the flaps on his Cessna Citation jet, causing it to crash short of the runway.


According to media outlets and the FDNY, a small plane has crashed into the upper floors of a building on the city's Upper East Side. According to the FBI, there are no indications that the crash was a terrorist act.

Live video from WABC-TV.

WNBC-TV is reporting that at least two people were killed in the incident. Bodies were found in the street below the burning apartments, along with luggage, presumably from the aircraft.

Streaming video from WCBS-TV here.

Positive Steps

In the wake of North Korea's attempted nuclear test, Japan has taken unilateral action to put more pressure on Pyongyang. Effective immediately, North Korean ships will be banned from Japanese ports, along with imports from the DPRK. While Japan is not North Korea's largest trading partner, the sanctions will have an impact on Kim Jong-il's regime, which has long used Japan as a transshipment point for drug trafficking, counterfeiting, and other illegal activities. The new sanctions will go into effect on Saturday.

With Japanese ports off limits, Kim will find it more difficult to transfer illlegal drugs and counterfeit money into the world market. It will also limit his ability to extract profits from various Chosen Soren enterprises in Japan. With the Japan's recent crackdown on North Korean financial activities, Pyongyang found it easier to move money on vessels sailing from Japan, instead of sending the funds through electronic transfer. The trade ban won't completely eliminate the flow of money from Japan to North Korea, but it will make the transfer more complex, and reduce the amount of funds moving between the two countries.

Japan's actions will also limit North Korea's espionage activities. Pyongyang has long used Japan--and the Chosen Soren--as a cover for spy operations in South Korea. North Korea agents often emigrate to Japan, obtaining the cover required for them to enter South Korea, and begin gathering intelligence information for the DPRK. ROK counter-intelligence organizations have arrested numerous North Korean agents who were working as representatives for Japanese firms, and spent time in Japan before migrating to South Korea. One such operative spent more than 30 years in the ROK before he was finally apprehended; the North Korean agent traveled freely throughout South Korea, as an employee of a Japanese cosmetics firm with ties to the Chosen Soren--and, of course, Pyongyang.

It would be helpful if Japan takes the sanctions a step further, banning all exports to North Korea--and if South Korea would follow suit. Despite centuries of animosity between the Koreans and Japanese, certain items from Japan, including high-end electronics, liquor, and gourmet food items, remain popular with the elites. The sudden non-availability of these items could increase internal pressure on Kim Jong-il's regime. However, if South Korea doesn't follow Japan's lead, Pyongyang will simply turn to its southern neighbor for these items.

Likewise, it's time for Beijing to fish or cut bait on the North Korean issue. By playing both sides of the fence for decades, Chinese efforts to "manage" the situation have (instead) produced a crisis that could easily spin out of control. Analysts have noted the China is North Korea's primary trading partner, but neglect the fact the trade between Beijing and South Korea dwarfs Chinese economic interests in the DPRK. To sustain its double-digit economic growth (and military build-up), China needs access to east Asian and North American markets, and can ill-afford to let North Korea upset the apple cart. The moment of reckoning is at hand for Beijing, and a continuation of past policies is simply not feasible. Still, China is (so far) refusing to back tougher sanctions against Pyongyang, at the risk of triggering a massive regional arms race--with an increased U.S. military presence--that Beijing can ill-afford.

As for the North Koreans, they have responded with typical bluster, blaming the United States and threatening to conduct more nuclear tests. To its credit, the Bush Administration has consistently refused to take the bait, sticking with the six-party process and gaining needed assistance from its regional partners. Pyongyang will likely attempt more saber-rattling in the days to come, and possibly escalate the situation, through additional underground tests, or the possible targeting of U.S. or ROK military assets. During the coming days, we could possibly see an attempted intercept or shootdown of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over the Sea of Japan; an SA-5 "potshot" at a U-2 orbiting south of the DMZ, a naval engagement along the Northern Limit Line, or even an extended firefight across the de-militarized zone. U.S. and ROK forces are prepared for these contingencies, and should not be surprised by any provocative acts from North Korea.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What Can Be Done About North Korea?

North Korea's attempted nuclear test raises the critical issue of what can actually be done--short of war--to reign in Pyongyang. While the military option can never be removed from the table, few would welcome a conflict with the DPRK. As we've noted in previous posts, a second war on the Korean peninsula would be protracted and bloody. Almost sixty percent of North Korea's army is positioned within 60 miles of the DMZ, meaning that the DPRK's invasion force is essentially in place for an assault against the South. U.S. intelligence analysts believe North Korea could launch a limited invasion of South Korea with virtually no warning; a full-scale assault would require more preparation and provide some degree of intelligence warning, but even that scenario might not provide enough time for the ROK to mobilize its reserves, and the U.S. to rush large-scale reinforcements to the region.

Beyond that, a renewed conflict on the peninsula would produce staggering casualties, among both combatants and the civilian population. Seoul, the economic, cultural and political heart of South Korea, lies barely 40 miles below the DMZ; much of the sprawling metropolitan area is within range of long-range North Korean artillery along the demilitarized zone, and can also be targeted by DPRK missiles. Residents attempting to flee from Seoul would choke roads being used to send up reinforcements to the front, resulting in absolute gridlock. Employment of chemical and biological agents by the North would heighten the loss of life and the sense of panic, making it even more difficult to clear road and rail lines for military use. According to most estimates, tens of thousands would die in the first few days of a second Korea War. U.S. comat casualties would probably exceed totals for Iraq and Afghanistan in less than a month--and that's a conservative assessment.

If warfare is absolutely the option of last resort, then what steps could be employed against Pyongyang? Actually, there are a number of measuures which might be taken, assuming that the international community has the will to get serious--and tough--with North Korea. Such steps might include:

A. Naval Quarantine. One step below a blockade, the quarantine would allow allied naval ships to board, search (and possibly) detain North Korean-flagged and chartered vessels carrying prohibited cargoes, including ballistic missile components. The quarantine could be enforced in international waters (reducing the threat to allied ships and aircraft), while denying a critical source of revenue to Pyongyang.

B. Place Tough Restrictions on Air Traffic. North Korea has, on numerous occasions, used transport aircraft to ship sensitive military cargoes to its client states in the Middle East. Working with countries in the Far East and South Asia, the U.S. should move to deny overflight clearances and refueling privileges along these air routes. Flying a much longer, "overwater" route across the western Pacific, through the Malaccan Strait, and across the Indian Ocean is almost impractical, particularly if the aircraft is carrying heavy cargoes related to ballistic missiles and WMD. The same restrictions would apply to charter air cargo firms hired by the North, denying the "air" option for shipping needed cargoes.

C. Suspend Western Humanitarian Aid. Some might wonder how much of an impact this will have, since Kim Jong-il let millions starve to death in the mid-1990s. But suspending western humanitarian aid--most notably, food deliveries--will have an effect in the right circles, since Kim diverted much of that aid to the North Korean military. Cutting off food will produce howls in liberal circles, but it will also impact the DPRK's combat capabilities, and (possibly) increase dissatisfaction within the most important segment of North Korean society.

D. Make it Easier for North Korean Refugees to Enter South Korea and the West. Faced with worsening conditions in the DPRK, thousands of North Koreans have attempted to flee their homeland in recent years. Many live in hiding across the border in China, facing deportation to North Korea (and almost certain death) if they are caught. Making it easier for these refugees to find sanctuary in the ROK and the west will put more pressure on the regime, particularly if members of the military--and other elites--begin voting with their feet.

E. Provide the Latest ATBM Technology to Our Regional Partners. South Korea, Japan and Taiwan already operate U.S.-built PATRIOT missiles, for defense against ballistic missile attacks. All should be immediately upgraded to the latest U.S. standard, to improve protection against North Korean missile strikes. We should also share the latest AEGIS upgrades and SM-2 Block IV missiles to Japan (which already has AEGIS-class destroyers) and offer the same technology to South Korea and Taiwan, enhancing the regional missile shield, and reducing the effectiveness of Kim Jong-il's most potent, long-range weapons.

F. Crack Down on the Chosen Soren. Ethnic Koreans living in Japan (the Chosen Soren) have long been an important front for DPRK fund-raising and espionage activities. For example, many Japanese gaming parlors are controlled by the Chosen Soren and much of the money they generate finds its way back to Pyongyang. Tighter Japanese control of the group--and its activities--would increase financial pressures on North Korea.

G. Step-Up Enforcement Against Illegal Financial Activities. One reason for recent North Korean saber-rattling is that the U.S. crackdown against Pyongyang's illicit financial activities has been successful. The DPRK has long operated a state-of-the-art forgery operation, specializing in counterfeit U.S. $100 bills. Making that activity less lucrative has put a dent in North Korea's failing economy, and increased enforcement would create an even greater strain, making it even tougher for Kim Jong-il to finance his missile and WMD programs.

H. Pressure China to Halt Illicit DPRK Maritime Traffic. North Korean "motherships" have periodically used Chinese ports and territorial waters as safe havens. These vessels support a host of illicit activities, ranging from drug trafficking and currency smuggling, to the insertion of North Korean agents into South Korea. Denying this sanctuary to the DPRK would make it much more difficult for Pyongyang to conduct activities viewed as essential to state security and the economy.

How would North Korea react to these steps? There would be the predictable propaganda blasts, more saber-rattling, and carefully planned "demonstrations," including possible missile launches and maybe another nuclear test. There is also the remote chance that Kim Jong-il might launch a limited attack against U.S. aircraft or naval assets, or South Korean-controlled islands near the North Korean coast. The North Koreans have targeted American recce platforms in the past (with some success), but proper planning and force protection could mitigate that threat, and possibly transform those attacks into another embarassment for North Korea. In 2001, North Korea attempted to teach the ROK Navy a lesson during a dispute along the Northern Limit Line (naval extension of the DMZ), by attacking South Korean fishing vessels and their naval escorts. The ensuring firefight resulted in the sinking of a DPRK gunboat, and the deaths of more than 30 North Korean sailors. The U.S., South Korea, and even Japan need to be prepared to give Pyongyang another bloody nose this time around, if North Korea decides to challenge us.

Whatever we do, the United States should not follow the cut-and-negotiate approach advocated by Senator Harry Reid and his fellow Democrats. Bi-lateral talks are exactly what Kim Jong-il wants, along with another "sucker deal" like the 2004 Agreed To Framework. That con job laid the foundation for the attempted nuclear test, and Pyongyang would like nothing more than a new deal, with favorable terms that would allow it to sustain its military arsenal and improve its nuclear stockpile, in return for nothing more than empty promises.

Kim Jong-il Lays Another Egg

There is growing speculation that North Korea's "nuclear test" was, in fact, a failure. Bill Gertz of the Washington Times is quoting intelligence officials who say the evidence--so far--seems consistent with a failed test; some analysts believe the detected underground explosion may have been associated with the trigger of a nuclear device, but the actual bomb (if there was one) failed to explode.

On the other hand, some experts believe there was an actual nuclear explosion in North Korea on 9 October. Russian analysts estimated the size of the blast at roughly equivalent to 6,000 tons of TNT, the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. If that assessment is accurate, it would make the North Korean weapon slightly smaller than the Indian and Pakistani devices that were tested in the late 1990s. The Indian bomb reportedly had a yield of 10-15 kilotons, and the Pakistani device was a bit smaller. Pyongyang reportedly received nuclear assistance from Pakistan's A.Q. Kahn nuclear proliferation network, in exchange for North Korean ballistic missile technology. Given the "success" of Pakistani tests, the North Korean "failure" is a bit surprising, and suggests that Kim Jong-il's nuclear scientists--like his missile engineers--need to go back to the drawing board.

If the DPRK test was indeed a dud, it would represent the North's second high-profile failure in less than four months. On 4 July, North Korea launched a flurry of missiles from its territory, including a much-anticipated test of the long-range TD-2, capable of targeting portions of the United States. While the short-range missiles performed as expected, the TD-2 failed less than 45 seconds into its flight, exploding and falling to the ground near its launch site. Post-event analysis suggests the TD-2 suffered some sort of catastrophic failure in flight, causing it to explode. There have been no further TD-2 tests since the July failure, and by some estimates, the event may have set-back the long-range missile program by several years. Adding to the embarassment was the presence of foreign scientists and engineers at the test site, including (reportedly) an Iranian delegation.

As we noted at the time, the July missile failure was a severe loss of face for North Korea, which relies on missile technology exports for much of its hard currency earnings. That failure, coupled with Pyongyang's inability to win concessions in the Six Party talks, may have prompted Kim Jong-il to move up the date for his nuclear test, attempting to proving that North Korea has the technical know-how to produce nuclear weapons, and cannot be ignored by the international community. Also influencing the test date were various North Korean anniversaries, and a desire by Kim Jong-il to win support for his son as the next leader of North Korea. It's no accident that Kim delivered a major speech on the nuclear issue to a group of senior generals just before the test. Faced with adversaries (the U.S., South Korea and Japan) that are vastly superior in terms of technology, North Korea's military brass want nukes in their arsenal. In return, Kim Jong-il wants their backing to continue his "one family rule" of North Korea.

If Mr. Kim wanted to get the world's attention (again) he succeeded. But if he hoped the alleged test would create some sort of diplomatic breakthrough, then he will likely be disappointed. So far, the diplomatic activity seems aimed at what additional steps might be taken against North Korea. Officially, China remains cool to the idea of new sanctions, but there is no doubt that Pyongyang's test was a major slap at Beijing, which has long been North Korea's principal ally and trading partner. The question now is how long China will continue to support an erstwhile ally that is plunging the region into a new nuclear arms race. As Kim Jong-il may discover, even Beijing's patience has its limits.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Road Show

Posting has been light for the past few days...in the middle of a three-day, four-state business trip; spending more time in a Kia Rio rental than any human being should. Keeping an eye on North Korea, in anticipation of a pending nuclear test. More on that later....

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Securing Our Schools

In the wake of yesterday's tragic school shooting in Pennsylvania, there will be the predictable calls for more metal detectors, and an increased police presence at schools across America. The question is whether such measures would actually make a difference; recent studies--including analysis of recent school shootings--suggest that these steps have little deterrent value in actually preventing gunmen from entering a school, taking hostages and killing them.

And, unfortunately, this sudden spate of school shootings will be noted by more than just the lunatic fringe who might be contemplating their own, murderous rampage. The recent killings at schools in Colorado, Wisconsin and Nickel Mines, PA will almost certainly be scrutinized by terrorist groups, and possibly influence future attack planning. The United States has almost 100,000 schools, representing a potentially lucrative target set for Al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations. The physical and psychological impact of a terrorist strike on a school would be devastating, and disrupt the nation's educational system for years.

The September 2004 siege in Beslan, Russia serves as a grim reminder of what terrorists can do when they attack a school. Chechen terrorists stormed the town's elementary school on the first day of classes, taking hundreds of students, parents and teachers hostage. When Russian commandos stormed the building two days later, the terrorists began shooting their captives and detonated carefully planted bombs, increasing the carnage. More than 300 people--about half of them children--died in the Beslan school tragedy.

Could the same thing happen here? In the wake of the Beslan disaster, the U.S. Department of Education conduced a study (in conjunction with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security), and offered proactive guidance for American schools. Compliance with the letter was not required, and much of the information could be categorized as a series of suggestions, outlining steps schools could take to safeguard facilities, students and staff members from terrorist attacks. It's a bit disturbing that it took the Beslan massacre to spur the Department of Education into action, and more disturbing that anti-terrorism preparations vary greatly from one school system to the other. For every district that has developed a detailed plan and conducts periodic drills (like Montgomery County, Maryland and Fairfax County, Virginia), there are many more (such as Chicago) that have done virtually nothing.

Note: in my own personal experience as a teacher, I've found the Chicago "example" is closer to the national norm. None of the three districts where I worked as a teacher had anything that could be called a terrorism response plan, and our ability to deal with that sort of crisis.

Even among districts with an anti-terrorism plan in place, there is virtually no discussion of another option for increasing school safety: arming teachers and administrators. Israel implemented a similar program in the early 1970s, after a series of bloody Palestinian attacks on Israeli schools. Armed staff members were supplemented by parents who patrolled school grounds with automatic weapons; the attacks quickly stopped and the terrorists began to look for other targets. It's also worth noting that the school shooting in Pearl, Mississippi, was halted by an assistant principal with a gun. When shots rang out, the principal retrieved the weapon from his car and confronted the gunman, who quickly surrendered.

Local police departments, the NEA and the PTA would probably recoil in horror at the prospect of armed staff members and a "parent patrol" providing security on school grounds. But in a war where every town is a potential target, all options should be on the table, particularly if they provide a deterrent presence that could discourage or prevent terrorist attacks. The successive tragedies in Colorado, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania will re-ignite the debate on school safety and gun laws, but the discussion shouldn't end there. It's very likely that these events have attracted the attention of others who wish us harm, and we need to do more to prepare our schools for potential terrorist attacks.

As a first step, Congress and the Administration should mandate compliance with protective measures outlined in that 2004 Education Department letter--and provide the funds required for security upgrades. Beyond that, local school systems need to implement some common-sense steps that improve security, but cost very little. Seven years after the Columbine massacre, ABC News reports that 77% of the nation's schools lack security cameras; half do not have security personnel on campus. Seventy percent lock some, but not all, of their doors, and virtually all leave their front doors unlocked. In today's potential threat environment, that's tantamount to a welcome mat for your local psychopath--or an Al Qaida cell.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Worth the Money?

In recent months, we've detailed various efforts to target the Air Force's F-22 fighter program, centerpiece of the service's force modernization efforts. The F-22 (nicknamed the Raptor) is the world's first, true fifth-generation fighter, combining stealth, advanced sensors and supercruise capabilities in an airframe designed to dominate aerial combat, and precisely strike high-value targets on the ground. At $361 million a copy, the F-22 is hardly cheap, but it's an aircraft that the Air Force considers vital for assuring aerial superiority for the next 50 years.

Critics argue that the F-22 is not only too expensive, it's completely ill-suited for the Global War on Terrorism, where much of the fighting occurs at close quarters on the ground. They believe that money earmarked for the Raptor would be better sent on the expansion of our ground forces, and improvements in systems/sensors that directly support our troops who are carrying the fight to the enemy. From our perspective, we believe that our forces need both. Obviously, a long war against terrorism mandates upgrades to our ground forces--and the elements that assist them. But cancelling the F-22 would be a grave mistake, allowing our adversaries to close the technological gap and jeopardizing the ability of U.S. forces to maintain air dominance--a cornerstone of our military strategy against an advanced foe, namely China.

But critics of the F-22 smell blood in the water, and attacks on the aircraft have ramped up in recent months. The 20 September 2006 issue of Jane's Defense Week (subscription required) contains a scathing critique by former Pentagon analyst Pierre Sprey and James Stevenson, who once edited Topgun Journal, the official publication of the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School. On the surface, Sprey and Stevenson appear to have the background and experience to make such an argument. Sprey made his mark in the 70s and 80s as a member of Air Force Colonel John Boyd's "fighter mafia," arguing for smaller, more manuverable aircraft, based on analysis that showed larger, less nimble fighters were more likely to be shot down. During his time at the Pentagon, Sprey played a leading role in the development of both the A-10 ground attack aircraft and the F-16 multi-role fighter. Stevenson, the former Topgun editor, is also the author of books on the Navy's cancelled A-12 fighter program and the F/A-18.

According to Sprey and Stevenson, there are five attributes that make a winning fighter: (1) pilot training and ability; (2) obtaining the first sighting and surprising the enemy; (3) outnumbering enemy fighters in the air; (4) outmaneuvering the enemy to gain a firing position, and (5) converting split-second opportunities into kills. Based on their analysis, the F-22 is a mediocrity on attributes 4 and 5; it is a liability on numbers 1, 2, and 3.

To support their claims, Mr. Sprey and Mr. Stevenson utilize a blend of half-truths and outdated information. They note that F-22 pilots are only receiving about 14-20 hours of flying time a month--about the same as Navy pilots entering Topgun in the late 1970s. Sprey and Stevenson note that "robustly" trained Topgun instructors, flying "cheap" F-5s and flying 50-60 hours a month, consistently whipped their students--and their USAF breathern flying more advanced F-15s and F-16s. Missing from their analysis is a salient fact: Topgun instructors--like their USAF Weapons School counterparts--are the elite of the nation's military pilots. By design, Topgun instructors were supposed to fly more each month that pilots from "line" squadrons; if the instructor pilots hadn't dominated their students and "ordinary" fighter jocks, that would have been a genuine news flash, and the school would have quickly closed its doors.

Sprey and Stevenson also discount the training provided by today's full-motion, state-of-the-art simulators which are much more realistic than those available 30 years ago. Simply stated, pilots can accomplish a lot more in today's "sims" than they could in the late 1970s, so some of the training once reserved for an actual sortie can now be accomplished on the ground. True, flying the sim isn't quite the same thing as strapping on the jet, but ignoring the benefits of simulator training is a major flaw in their analysis.

The Raptor critics also downplay the increased effectiveness of today's air-to-air missiles, referring (instead) to the Vietnam era, when AAMs--particularly the radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow--had a high failure rate, forcing F-4 crews to press in for an IR missile shot (with an AIM-9 Sidewinder), or use the 20mm cannon that was retrofitted to the Phantom. They ignore more recent conflicts, most notably the 1999 air campaign against Serbia. During that conflict, NATO warplanes (USAF F-15s and a Dutch F-16) relied solely on the advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) to shoot down five Serbian MiG-29 FULCRUMs, most at beyond visual range (BVR). Reliability rates for AMRAAM in the Balkans were far higher than the oft-quoted 10-20% success rate for the AIM-7 in Vietnam. But, since AMRAAM data doesn't suit their argument, Sprey and Stevenson carefully ignore it.

Likewise, they also tend to overestimate the ability of enemy pilots and air defense crews to detect and engage LO aircraft like the F-22. They note that the Serbs managed to down an F-117 during Operation Allied Force, using older radars and surface-to-air missiles. But, once again, they omit key facts, namely that the Serb air defense commander who scored the F-117 kill was considered the best in his nation's air force, and that NATO planners inadvertently aided the Serbs, by using the same ingress and egress routes time and time again. With better planning--and against lesser-skilled SAM crews--the F-117 would have probably survived its mission, so the "shootdown" over Serbia is not an accurate indicator of how LO aircraft might fare against adversary air defenses.

Sprey and Stevenson also claim that the relative "unreliability" of Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems will make it more difficult for the F-22 to kill hostile aircraft at long ranges, resulting in more short-range dogfights where the larger Raptor is supposedly at a disadvantage. However, those arguments are equally suspect. IFF is but one tool used to identify hostile aircraft, and not the primary mechanism employed in combat, where (it is assumed) that virtually all aircraft will have their transponders turned off, or squawking a secure mode that cannot be correctly process by our fighters or AWACS. In that scenario, other tools, including non-cooperative target recognition, rules of engagement and electronic support measures (ESM) will be used to identify friendly and hostile aircraft. The possibility of mistaken ID (and even fratricide) will always exist--as it always does--but there are more measures for combat identification than IFF.

In short, Sprey and Stevenson are guilty of cherry-picking information to fit their case. With its ability to engage enemy aircraft at long range (and remain undetected), the F-22 has the ability to dominate aerial combat for decades to come, and support a fundamental requirement for our military doctrine. Certainly, the Raptor is expensive, but the supposedly "cost effective" solution (updating our F-15s and F-16s) would only result in a slow erosion of our superiority in the skies. Against adversaries that are rapidly modernizing, it is an option we simply can't afford, and the savings promised by F-22 critics are illusory at best, dangerous at worst.