Monday, April 30, 2007

The Tenet Critique

In reviewing former CIA Director George Tenet's book and 60 Minutes interview, it's tough to beat the gang at National Review. For depth and breadth of coverage, they deserve some sort of medal. By any standard, they've earned it--unlike that Presidential Medal of Freedom that George W. Bush bestowed upon Tenet after his disastrous run as Director of Central Intelligence (DCI).

For starters, Rich Lowry has managed to slog his way through the book. I gather he's not overly impressed.

Andrew McCarthy sat through Mr. Tenet's big moment on CBS last night, and provides an excellent deconstruction. Mr. McCarthy is correct is describing some of the former DCI's comments as jaw-dropping. On one hand, he's worried about a growing Al Qaida threat, but he won't broach the subject with the President during his daily national security briefing, preferring instead to voice his concerns to then-National Security Advisor Condolezza Rice. According to Tenet, that "process" allows the security advisor to "set the table" for policy options the president will weigh and eventually implement.

Sorry, George, but that's not how it works. Unlike Bill Clinton, President Bush gave Tenent and his briefers time every morning to present threat information and the intelligence community's assessments. If Tenet was unwilling to discuss the Al Qaida threat during the daily brief--time allocated specifically for such purposes--he should have been fired immediately. McCarthy also has much more on Tenet's claims--including that September 12, 2001 meeting with Richard Perle that must have occurred through a Vulcan Mind Meld, or some similar technique. Turns out that Mr. Perle was out of the country when Perle supposedly told him--in person--that "Iraq had to pay" for what happened on 9-11.

Additionally, there's much more from Michael Ledeen, Victor Davis Hanson, and the NRO Editors. In such esteemed company, I can only add that Mr. Tenet will be remembered as the worst DCI in history (surpassing even Jimmy Carter's spy chief, Admiral Stan "We Can Do It All With Satellites" Turner). Tenet has the dubious distinction of presiding over four major intelligence failures during his tenure (the 1998 Africa embassy bombings; the attack on the USS Cole in 2000; the 9-11 attacks, and Iraq WMD controversy), yet remain on the job. Tenet will also be remembered for allowing a poisonous, anti-administration culture to persist and thrive during his tenure at Langley. Imperial Hubris and the Valerie Plame affair is part of Mr. Tenet's legacy, too. Given that legacy, it's no wonder the intelligence got screwed up, and we're still paying for his mistakes.

Reforming the General Officer Corps

There were two media performances of note in recent days, illustrating (once again), that new media dictum that he who laughs last has the latest publishing date, the best book deal, or the biggest publicity campaign. Most of the attention has been paid to former CIA Director George Tenet's appearance on 60 Minutes last night, but there was another event that caused a media splash on Friday, and is worthy of its own critique.

So, we'll begin with a gentleman who doesn't have a book contract or TV appearance (at least not yet), but I'm sure the media types will be in touch. Army Lt Col Paul Yingling's op-ed in the most recent edition Armed Forces Journal generated a significant amount of attention in the MSM, largely because it dovetails with various templates on our "failed" effort in Iraq.

Lt Col Yingling, who currently serves as Deputy Commander of the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment (ACR), believes that the U.S. is on the verge of losing in Iraq, and places the blame squarely at the feet of the general officer corps. According to Lt Col Yingling, our most senior officers have sown the seeds for defeat by (a) concentrating on conventional warfare and high-tech weaponry; (b) failing to train and equip our forces for the challenge of counter-insurgency operations, and (c) refusing to adjust tactics to meet changing conditions in Iraq. Lt Col Yingling likens the performance of current and recent flag officers to those who served in the Vietnam era, when the generals and admirals not only failed to produce a strategy for victory, they also remained silent while civilian leaders developed--and implemented--a strategy that ensured defeat.

It's a damning indictment, and Yingling believes the underlying cause is the system that develops and promotes general officers. Instead of fostering innovation and moral courage, he believes that today's system stifles reasoned dissent and creativity. As he notes, our civilian leaders tend to prefer senior officers who are "team players" and don't rock the boat, traits that are only reinforced by today's military culture.

"Officers rise to flag rank by following remarkably similar career patterns. Senior generals, both active and retired, are the most important figures in determining an officer's potential for flag rank. The views of subordinates and peers play no role in an officer's advancement; to move up he must only please his superiors. In a system in which senior officers select for promotion those like themselves, there are powerful incentives for conformity. It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties."

There's certainly an element of truth in Yingling's arguments, but his critique merits some cautionary notes as well. First, the "problem" he describes--careerism--has been the bane of our military for more than three decades. In 1970, then-Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland commissioned a study on professionalism in the service that revealed many of the same problems cited by Lt Col Yingling 37 years later (emphasis mine). And, the subject has hardly been ignored; over the past four decades, there have been plenty of articles in military journals and discussions at the War Colleges on those very subjects. While the system which rewards conformity and silence remains unchanged, Yingling seems to view the general officer corps as the disease, and not the symptom of a larger military culture that needs reforms in selected areas. Without corresponding changes in recruitment, training and military education, Yingling's reform plan is tantamount to treating cancer in its terminal stages.

Likewise, Lt Col Yingling's prescribed "cures" also leave much to be desired. He advocates a greater role for Congress in the selection of general officers, increased oversight by the House and Senate in military matters, and finally, holding retired generals accountable by retiring them at a lower rank, if they fail to perform adequately. At first blush, those recommendations seem quite sensible, but (as always) the devil's in the details.

Consider the prospect of increased Congressional participation in the selection of our military leaders and greater oversight authority. Such a system would quickly illustrate why the founding fathers insisted that there be only one commander-in-chief, instead of legions of would-be emperors in the halls of Congress. Fact is, Congress has (traditionally) viewed military matters through the twin prisms of politics and pork, and there's no reason to believe those practices would change under the system advocated by Lt Col Yingling.

Indeed, while our current military personnel model has produced its share of "yes men" (and women) at the flag ranks, it has one saving grace: by restricting Congress to a confirmation role, it has largely avoided the politicization of the process. Getting Congress "more involved" in the selection of flag officers is a recipie for disaster, with key members of the House and Senate touting their "favorite" candidates, and prospective flag officers actively courting our elected leaders, or even using their political connections to improve performance reports or assignments. Our previous experience with "political generals" (during the Civil War era) was an utter failure, and contributed to a number of battlefield defeats. In a global war on terror--and a looming threat from China--we simply can't afford to make the same mistake again.

Likewise, Yingling should be more skeptical about Congress' record in the oversight role. While there are a few members of the House and Senate who are experts in defense matters, the majority in both houses are politicians in search of a "hot" issue or sound bite that can enhance their stature, and denigrate the opposition. Just last week, a House committee held hearings into the alleged "cover-ups" associated with the friendly fire death of Army Ranger (and former NFL star) Pat Tillman, and the manufactured heroics of PFC Jessica Lynch. After the attention-grabbing hearings (and subsequent headlines), the House panel has already moved on, with no regard for "fixing" the process that led to the cover-ups. In today's political environment, can anyone really expect Congress to be more judicious in its oversight of larger military issues, and abandon the parochial interests that often dominate that oversight process?

Despite that reality, Lt Col Yingling also wants elected officials to "create" a promotion system that rewards intellectual achievement and adaptation by implementing a 360-degree evaluation system, and making professional writings and academic achievements a benchmark for potential flag officers. The proposed evaluation model would allow inputs from the officer's peers and subordinates, but Yingling doesn't address the pratical aspects of that approach. For example, the brigade and battalion commanders who might assist in the "evaluation" of a division commander still need the general's input and endorsement for their own efficiency reports. How many of those Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels would be willing to risk their own careers by criticizing the commander's performance, even under a system that allowed some degree of anonymity?

Additionally, there's the very real possibility that "peers" could use the process to undercut potential competitors, even if they're assigned to a different unit. Evaluating fellow officers or NCOs is a dicey process, one reason that cohort reviews are used sparingly (and informally) in training environments like ROTC, or professional military education schools. They're called "peer smears" for good reason, and it's not surprising the armed services have elected to exclude them from the formal evaluation process.

Intellectual and educational achievements represent an equally thorny issue. It's worth noting that many of America's greatest military leaders--Washington, Lee, Grant, Pershing, Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton--made do without a graduate degree. Fact is, graduate degrees have become a check-list item for today's officers corps, securing the "tie breaker" that is sometimes used by promotion boards in determining who is selected for advancement. Lt Col Yingling is correct in his observation that the military could use more officers who can speak a foreign language, and have an advanced education in the social sciences. But, he offers no design for determining who actually needs those skills--and preventing the mass "rush" for part-time graduate schools that have produced a generation of officers with "square-filler" master's degrees, and few opportunities to apply that knowledge.

Yingling is also (slightly) off the mark when he suggests that many general officers lack the requisite knowledge or skill for fighting a war like Iraq. The recently-retired CENTCOM commander, General John Abizaid, is a West Point grad who earned a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard, he speaks fluent Arabic, and spent years as a special forces operator, with extensive training in counter-insurgency operations. The new commander of coalition forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, was the Army's most successful division commander in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the author of the service's new counter-insurgency manual. General Petraeus holds a Ph.D in international relations from the Wilson School at Princeton. General Peter Schoomaker, who served as Army Chief of Staff until last month, spent virtually his entire career in special operations, and was another of the service's counter-insurgency experts. Schoomaker's replacement, General George Casey, is a graduate of the foreign service program at Georgetown University.

Whatever their faults in prosecuting the Iraq War, these generals were (as a group) well-educated and trained for their mission. And ironically, the same evaluation and promotion system that Lt Col Yingling faults put these officers in line to be confirmed by the Senate, and lead our ground campaign. No system is perfect, but in the case of Abizaid, Schoomaker and Petraeus, it found officers with seemingly the right mix of education, skills and experience to carry out the Iraq mission. It's difficult to see how a model with "greater" Congressional participation and oversight would find more qualified officers.

In fact, Yingling's call for wider participation by Congress is the most alarming part of his commentary. By making that suggestion, Lt Col Yingling seems to imply that the Army in particular (and the military as a whole) are incapable of reforming themselves. History suggests otherwise. After Pearl Harbor, George Marshall cleaned house, orchestrating the rapid advancement of men like Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and George Patton, creating the team that was instrumental in winning World War II. In the late 1970s, men like Don Starry, Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf transformed the post-Vietnam Army into the world's most lethal ground force. Today, the same spirit of innovation, courage and determination can be found among the Captains, Majors and Lieutenant Colonels who are leading soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not all of those officers will reach the flag level; some will see their careers ended by an evaluation and promotion system that has its flaws. But I still believe that the best of that group will reach the top, providing the leadership and vision required to win the long war. Reform within the military is the key to that process; increased "oversight" and meddling by Congress is not.


Addendum: After reading Lt Col Yingling's critique, I thought about filing a grievance with my last Air Force promotion board. I've got a master's degree in one of the social sciences (poly sci), I've got all my PME squares filled, and with a little refresher training, I can get by in French. But obviously, it takes more than that to make a great general officer; that's why the Air Force made the correct decision when it put me out to pasture as a field-grader.

Friday, April 27, 2007

An "Executive Agent" for UAVs?

There's a major battle brewing in the Pentagon, over who will control the military's most important--and capable--unmanned aerial vehicles.

Last month, Air Force Chief of Staff General T. Michael Moseley sent a memo to senior defense officials, arguing that his service should be the "executive agent" for all "medium- and high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles across the U.S. military." That would put the Air Force in charge of Predator variants that provide extensive support for the Global War on Terror; high-altitude, long-endurance Global Hawk UAVs, and future unmanned systems that will operate in those environments.

In his memo (dated 5 March), General Moseley noted that the Air Force is “organized, trained and equipped” for this role since the air service is already conducting “joint, interdependent warfare from the air and through space and cyberspace.” From an operations perspective, that means the Air Force is already responsible for Global Hawk operations, most Predator missions, and (equally important), it already controls the Distributed Common Ground Station (DCGS) architecture used to support UAV and U-2 missions, extracting perishable intelligence data, and disseminating it to multi-service customers. In many respects, approval of "executive agent" authority would merely confirm acquisition and operational arrangements that already exist.

Not surprisingly, the other services aren't quite prepared to give the Air Force what it wants. As reported by Inside the Pentagon (subscription required), the rest of DoD is unsure about the implications of "executive agent" authority. Is the USAF only looking for leadership in developing and acquiring medium and high-altitude UAVs, or does it also want a say in how those platforms are used by other branches of the military.

In response to the Air Force proposal, the Pentagon's Joint Requirements Oversight Council has given the service 30 days to explain how it would operate as executive agent for UAVs. Some of the service's senior officers are already attempting to clarify the issue. Lt Gen David Deptula, the Air Force's Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), tried to distinguish between an executive agent for UAV development and procurement matters, and the joint employment of those platforms.

UAV capability is not an extension of the ground force; it is an extension of the joint force. The Air Force provides the expertise in the aerial domain, as the ground forces do on land,” said General Deptula.

And, Deptula took a little dig at his Army counterparts, who have (historically) advocated the division of air assets among ground units. He offered an analogy, using a city that covers 50 blocks, but only has five fire trucks.

“If the mayor designated one truck to one block, those five fire trucks would be assigned to only five blocks—that’s the Army approach. If a fire broke out in a block outside those five, no fire truck would respond. The joint approach that the Air Force supports would leave it up to the mayor—or joint force commander—to allocate the five fire trucks based on which blocks needed them most,” General Deptula said. “That is the role the joint force commander delegates to the joint force air component commander.”

It's the same approach currently used in allocating UAVs and manned aircraft to support ground operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, it's essentially the same system used since the early days of World War II in North Africa, when the disaster at Kasserine Pass illustrated the folly of permanently assigning air assets to specific ground units. Commanders in quiet sectors refused to turn over their aircraft to units under fire, resulting in a lack of air support for units that needed it most. The debacle in North Africa provided the impetus for today's Tactical Air Control System (TACS), which puts airmen in charge of managing and allocating air assets, in response to the needs of the ground commander.

Given the long-term success of our existing air control system, there's no reason for the Pentagon to muddy the waters, by giving the other services more authority over the employment of medium and high-altitude UAVs. In fact, such an arrangement would make matters infinitely more difficult for the joint forces air component commander (JFACC), who has the job of managing, allocating and controlling literally hundreds of manned and unmanned platforms. Under the existing JFACC system, Predator and Global Hawk have provided the bulk of ISR collection in both Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the fact that the platforms are often "remotely" flown, by pilots actually based in the CONUS.

From a program management standpoint, it also makes sense to name the Air Force as "executive agent" for medium and high-altitude UAVs. After all, the service already "owns" most of these programs, and the Pentagon can save real money by avoiding unnecessary duplication in key UAV programs. And, as General Deptula noted, the Air Force proposal would have no impact on smaller UAVs, operated at the battalion-level (or lower). The "backpack" or man-portable drones now in service with the Army and Marine Corps would remain under their control. Ditto for fleet-specific UAVs, owned by the navy.

In reality, potential opposition to the Air Force "executive agent" proposal is firmly rooted in procurement dollars, and not in command or allocation issues. Fact is, the Army and Navy have lagged behind on UAV development, opting instead to let the Air Force shoulder development and employment costs. Now, with platforms like Predator and Global Hawk assuming an important role in ISR operations, the other services find themselves being squeezed out. Over the past year or so, the Air Force has been approached by the Navy (on several occasions) for advice on UAV and DCGS establishment and employment. The message is clear: the Navy doesn't want to miss the boat (no pun intended) on UAVs, the associated intel infrastructure, and the money that is flowing into those efforts. That's why the other services are likely to sustain their fight against the Air Force and its "executive agent" proposal for medium and high-altitude UAVs.

Today's Reading Assignment

Byorn York of National Review, on the Democrats who want to be the next commander-in-chief, on display last night in South Carolina. Asked by moderator Brian Williams how they would respond to a pair of simultaneous attacks on our soil by Al Qaida, the Democratic candidates responded, well, uh, sort of. As Mr. York reports, Williams' question was clearly inspired by Rudy Guliani's recent observation that Democrats are weak on terrorism. On that stage in South Carolina, most of the Democratic candidates proved that Rudy is right.

Let Harry Do His Job

The British MoD is still anguishing over its decision to let Prince Harry--third in line to the throne--deploy with his unit to Iraq next month.

According to the U.K. Times, deliberations on whether Harry should be allowed to go will continue until his regiment, the Household Calvary) begins its deployment in early May. Harry, known in the Army as Cornet (2nd Lieutenant) Wales, has been assigned as a troop leader in his unit, and is qualified to lead reconnaissance patrols in Scimitar armored vehicles.

But Army officials are concerned that a recent attack against a British patrol in southern Iraq was a "dry run" for a possible strike against Prince Harry's squad. That attack, which killed two British soldiers, was also aimed at a small reconnaissance unit equipped with Scimitars.

The final decision on Harry's deployment rests with General Sir Richard Dannatt, the chief of the British Army. Defense sources tell the Times that General Dannatt has asked military and intelligence services for revised risk assessments on the deployment, to determine if Harry's presence would pose an undue risk to him, and the troops under his command.

Obviously, the terrorists in Iraq would welcome the chance to kill or maim a member of Britain's royal family, but that's nothing new. Over the centuries, the royals have seen combat in scores of conflicts, and Britain's enemies offered no quarter because of their presence. During World War II, a destroyer commanded by Harry's great-great uncle (Lord Mountbatten) was sunk by the Luftwaffe, Mountbatten himself was killed by an IRA bomb in 1979. Harry's grandfather, Prince Phillip, also saw action with the Royal Navy during World War II, and his uncle, Prince Andrew, was a combat helicopter pilot in the Falklands Campaign. Those members of the royal family did not ask for special favors because of their position--only the opportunity to do their jobs. Prince Harry has made a similar request in being allowed to accompany his regiment to Iraq.

While we understand British concerns about security, those considerations are out-weighed by more important considerations. First--like other Army officers--Prince Harry understands the risks associated with this deployment, and is quite willing to accept them. He's been thoroughly trained for his assigned task, and if Harry comes under enemy fire, we have no doubt that he'll acquit himself well.

More importantly, Harry seems to understand the risks involved if he doesn't deploy. It would it reduce his effectiveness as a leader, both in and out of uniform. If British press reports are accurate, the Prince has reportedly wondered how he could face his men if they go to Iraq, and he is held back for security reasons. And, on a larger scale, Harry seems to understand that he will lose respect with some of his countrymen, if the deployment is ultimately vetoed.

Beyond that, Harry's comments also suggest that he also appreciates the geopolitical implications of a cancelled deployment. By refusing to allow the Prince to serve in Iraq, the British MoD would provide a victory for Al Qaida, pure and simple. Cancelling Harry's deployment would send the wrong signal to our enemies, namely that recent attacks in southern Iraq south are sapping British resolve, and the security situation is so dire that a trained Army officer (who happens to be a royal) doesn't have a reasonable chance of completing his mission safely.

Regarding the deployment of Cornet Wales, we hope that General Dannatt makes the right decision, for the officer, his unit, and the wider war on terrorism. Prince Harry has earned the right to do his duty, even in a tough environment like Iraq.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Mr. McCain and CSAR-X

The Air Force has unveiled its plans for moving ahead with the bidding process for its next-generation, combat-search-and-rescue helicopter, a.k.a. CSAR-X.

As we noted yesterday, the CSAR-X program has become a hot potato since Boeing's HH-47 Chinook was declared the winner last November. Other entrants in the competition (Lockheed-Martin and Sikorsky) filed protests, and earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) agreed with one of their claims, namely that lifecycle costs for the three helicopters should be clarified before a contract is finalized.

Now, the Air Force has announced plans to release a a draft Request for Proposal amendment to the CSAR-X contenders next month. That will allow the three defense firms to submit new data, quantifying the potential savings offered by their helicopters. The Air Force will use that data to make a final decision on the CSAR-X, expected later this summer. In predictable fashion, all three companies have hailed the Air Force decision, stating that the revised process will give them a chance to make their case, and win the contract.

However, one important individual has yet to weigh in on the CSAR-X bidding process, and his position could further delay the program. Arizona Senator (and presidential hopeful) John McCain is no fan of the Air Force acquisition process. He led the crusade against the service's plans to lease tanker aircraft from Boeing, exposing a scandal that eventually sent the Air Force's top civilian acquisition official to prison.

Needless to say, Boeing isn't John McCain's favorite defense contractor and he'll likely scrutinize the CSAR-X program if the HH-47 emerges as the favorite. Moreover, as an Annapolis graduate, a retired Navy officer and the son (and grandson) of former admirals, Mr. McCain has long protected the interests of the naval service in battles on Capitol Hill. When Don Rumsfeld proposed nominating Air Force General "Speedy" Martin to lead U.S. Pacific Command (a traditional Navy billet), McCain torpedoed the selection, citing Martin's tertiary involvement in the Boeing tanker deal.

Senator McCain recently requested information on the CSAR-X selection process, and as military analyst Loren Thompson told the Dow-Jones Newswire, the undertone is clear: "McCain showed once before that he could stop a major Air Force program in its tracks. I think the undertone here is he'll do it again if he detects unfairness."

Certainly, there's nothing wrong with McCain exercising his oversight authority. But, as demonstrated in the Speedy Martin affair, the Arizona Senator isn't above using an acquisition issue to help out his old service. With Martin out of the way, the PACOM post remained in Navy hands, and it will likely remain that way. Which makes us wonder: does John McCain have his own favorite in the CSAR-X contest? A few months ago, the Navy selected Lockheed-Martin's US101 to be the next Presidential helicopter. If the Air Force also selected that platform for CSAR-X, it would further decrease units costs, increase the availability of spare parts, and provide some potential savings for Mr. McCain's old outfit. Senator McCain has spoken at length about the need for "fairness" in the acquisition process. In the same spirit, he should reveal whether he has a dog in this fight as well.

You've Got to be Kidding

A hat tip to the indefatigable Michelle Malkin, who has a link to this incredible story from Oklahoma City's KOCO-TV.

You may remember University of Oklahoma student Joel Hinrichs III. On October 1, 2005, Hinrichs died outside the football stadium on the OU campus, when his home made bomb detonated. Now, the university has erected a memorial to Hinrichs, placing a paving stone engraved with his name outside the student union. Hinrichs' father, who lives in Denver, has offered to pay for the stone (which normally costs $150), but so far, he hasn't received a bill. In fact, the elder Hinrichs told KOCO that the university offered to have the stone placed.

Officially, the university ruled that Hinrichs' death was an "accidental suicide." However, readers will recall that Hinrichs had ties to the local Muslim community, and that at least one Norman police official believed that he intended to enter the stadium before detonating the device. It's also worth remembering that the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force took charge of the investigation only hours after Hinrichs killed himself, rather odd for a suicide case. Eventually, the agency announced that Hinrich's act was, in fact, a lone suicide, and not an act of terrorism.

But there are a number of unanswered questions about the Hinrichs case, as detailed in past posts by Michelle and Mark Tapscott, and others. Now, it seems that someone should ask who at OU had the "inspiration" to honor Mr. Hinrichs, a disturbed and dangerous young man (at best), or a potential suicide bomber (at worst). It would also be informative to know who paid for the memorial stone, since Hinrichs' father has not been billed.

The Nanny State

It's rare when we agree with the American Civil Liberties Union, but this appears to be one of those occasions. To its credit, the ACLU was spot-on when it denounced recent FCC efforts to limit television violence as nothing more than "political pandering."

As you've probably heard, the Federal Communications Commission is urging Congress to adopt legislation to curb violence on TV by restricting it to late evening, when (presumably) fewer children are watching. The FCC made that recommendation after releasing a long-awaited report which concludes that existing measures--including the "V" chip blocking device and program ratings--had failed to protect children from being regularly exposed to violence.

To limit that exposure, the FCC wants Congress to give it the authority to define such content, and restrict it to late evening hours. The commission is also pressing lawmakers to adopt legislation that would allow consumers to buy channels "a la carte," or in smaller bundles, allowing them to reject channels they don't want.

Responding to the FCC proposal, the director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office told The New York Times that the government shouldn't be in the business of defining content, or deciding what Americans should watch.

“The government should not replace parents as decision makers in America’s living rooms. There are some things that the government does well. But deciding what is aired and when on television is not one of them."

“Government should not parent the parents.”

Of course, the ACLU would probably carry that argument even further, advocating that broadcasters should be able to air pretty much anything they want, as long as it doesn't reflect a conservative position, or advocate what many of us define as traditional American values. But we will give the ACLU credit for telling the feds to stay out of an area where their intervention is neither required nor desired, for a number of reasons.

First, as we've noted in the past, the FCC is something of a dinosaur agency. Originally organized to ensure that radio and TV stations adhered to their assigned frequency and power restrictions, the FCC grew increasingly irrelevant as broadcasting shifted toward cable and satellite channels. Indeed, the changes advocated by its commission's chairman, Kevin Martin, are designed--in part--to keep the FCC relevant in the cable and pay-TV era. Did we mention that the FCC currently has no regulatory authority over satellite and cable outlets? By pushing for "bundling" legislation, Mr. Martin is attempting correct regulatory mistakes made decades ago, extending his agency's reach into areas currently beyond its control.

But some sort of "bundling" bill is hardly the answer. True, cable, pay-TV and satellite outlets are among the worst offenders in airing violent programs, but they are also among the most popular channels offered by cable systems and satellite providers. Clearly, someone out there wants those channels, and viewers are watching in significant numbers. Audiences for some of HBO's more popular programs rival those of broadcast networks. Even if consumers are allowed to purchase cable channels a la carte, many American households will still opt for HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, and the adult channels offered by virtually all cable and satellite systems. And, since they don't broadcast "over the public airwaves," they can still air violent programs during prime-time.

And, of course, the proposed legislation would have no effect at all on the internet, where the most graphic, revolting images are only a mouse click away. It's a bit ironic that the FCC is worried about the a child's exposure to televised violence when many of the same youngsters are allowed to surf the internet without any filtering or supervision. Rigid regulation of broadcast TV and limited control of cable and satellite channels (through bundling) make little sense, when the kids we're trying to protect spend much of their time on-line, where literally everything--from actual beheadings to the hardest-core pornography--is constantly on display.

From a civil liberties standpoint, there's also the disturbing issue of letting the government decide what constitutes violent content, and what does not. Make no mistake: I have no use for most of the junk that airs on cable and broadcast channels, and millions of Americans apparently agree. Despite a geometric increase in the number of available channels, overall TV viewership is down, particularly among traditional broadcasters. Many of us understand that today's TV industry is simply strip-mining the "vast wasteland" that Newton Minow spoke of almost 50 years ago, and our culture has suffered because of it.

But, as bad as today's programming may be, I'd rather take my chances with the industry and a free market, and not the federal government. Last week, a Democratic presidential candidate defined a racial insult as a form of "violence." Now, imagine the potential consequences of arming a federal bureaucracy with a similar, vague interpretation, and allowing it to determine what you can watch and when you can watch it, all in the name of "protecting" our children. When that happens, God help the First Amendment, and anyone who truly believes in free speech.

Obviously, not everything belongs on broadcast TV, cable, pay-per-view, or even the internet. But we don't need the government to "parent the parents," either. The last time I checked, the channel selector on my remote still worked, and so does the "off" button. Deciding what children can (and cannot) see is still the responsibility of adults. It is not the function of government to serve as some sort of "super nanny" for parents or guardians who are too lazy or too stupid to control their own TV sets.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Anything for Ratings

As we told you last week, NBC's "difficult" decision to air the, ahem, "manifesto" of the Virginia Tech gunman had everything to do with ratings and little to do with journalism.

Sure enough, Variety reports that the Cho Seung-hui video put NBC Nightly News back in first place, edging out ABC's World News for the week. NBC's "win" was the result of its Wednesday night broadcast, when it aired the killer's video and still photos for the first time. Without the manifesto "exclusive," ABC would have won the weekly ratings battle.

Appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show yesterday, NBC News President Steve Capus and anchor Brian Williams defended the decision to air the manifesto, describing it as "good journalism." With a collective shudder, we can only imagine what they would define as "bad journalism." In a heated TV ratings battle, apparently anything is fair game; standards of taste, propriety and decency be damned.

Shame on NBC (again), and shame on Oprah for giving Capus and Williams a forum to justify their decision. The Nielsen numbers are the only explanation that we need.

New Kids on the Block

I had this one in my pile of stuff to write about, but put it on the back burner. The item, which appeared in the Washington Post back on 15 April, highlights one of General Mike Hayden's toughest jobs as CIA Director: absorbing all the "new hires" who have joined the agency since 9-11.

Officially, the number of folks who work for the CIA is classified, but according to General Hayden, "half" of the agency's employees have come on board over the past six years, and 20% of the analytical staff has been hired in the last 12 months. General Hayden made the comments in a CSPAN "Q&A" interview that recently aired; transcript and video of the interview are available here.

According to the Post, the massive turnover at the CIA is the result of two factors: a mass exodus in middle-management ranks under former agency director Porter Goss, and migration of some former staffers to private firms, now performing security and analysis work under government contract. The paper ignored a third factor; many agency veterans who joined the CIA during its last big expansion (under Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s) are now eligible for retirement, allowing them to pocket a CIA pension and start a second career with a defense contractor or private security firm.

Whatever the reason, the departure of experienced analysts and field officers has left the agency in a bind. As a long-time analyst, I'd agree with a former colleague who estimates that it takes "3-5 years" to get a new analyst fully up to speed; I'd assume that it takes as much time--perhaps a bit longer--to develop an effective field operative. In some cases, hiring ex-military analysts or HUMINT officers can reduce the learning curve, but many of the CIA's new hires have no prior intelligence experience. That will impact the quality of the information collected and analyzed by the agency for years to come.

Wags might argue that the "rookies" couldn't do any worse than the "pros" who missed the collapse of communism, the 9-11 attacks, described the existence of Saddam's WMD program as a "slam dunk," and more recently, predicted the imminent demise of Fidel Castro. But the veterans also made a number of correct "calls" over the years; in many cases, those assessments were never publicized, but they contributed greatly to successful military or counter-terrorism operations. Replacing that type of expertise--in the middle of a long war on terror--is going to be difficult, to say the least.

Don't Let the Door Hit You...

This should come as no surprise.

Rosie O'Donnell Is Set to Announce Today Her Departure From 'The View'

What is equally unsurprising--and utterly predictable--is ABC's attempt to couch her departure in more generous terms. According to the network, Ms. O'Donnell's decided to leave the show after failing to agree on a new contract. Nod, nod, wink, wink.

As many of you know, I once worked in the salt mines of broadcasting, and have a number of friends who still labor there. Collectively, we know a little something about the business, performer contracts, and the p.r. "spin" that's often used to mask a bad situation. And spin is exactly what we're seeing from ABC and Rosie.

And make no mistake: O'Donnell's tenure on 'The View" has been a public relations nightmare. Ms. O'Donnell has used the show as a platform to spout anti-American garbage, including her rant that 9-11 was an "inside job." Lorie Byrd at Wizbang had the stomach to assemble a catalogue of Ms. O'Donnell's greatest hits. Hold your nose and be amazed at some of her "observations."

O'Donnell's radioactive reputation was one reason that ABC signed her for only one year on "The View." Even by broadcast standards, that's a remarkably short contract. Broadcast talent is like any other valued commodity; stations and networks want to sign proven (and popular) performers to long-term deals, or at least a short-term contract with the option to renew and extend.

I have no doubt that O'Donnell and ABC bickered over money. But the (apparent) decision to end negotiations two months before her final appearance underscores the network's desire to get rid of O'Donnell. Like other media companies, ABC is quite willing to extend contract negotiations (when necessary) to secure the services of broadcast talent. In 2004, ABC's radio division continued contract talks with its morning team on Chicago's WLS-AM (Don Wade and Roma) after their agreement expired, and they had to leave the air. Eventually, the pair signed a new deal and returned to their morning slot with a multi-million dollar contract.

Obviously, local radio hosts--even in a large market like Chicago--aren't in the same league as a network TV star. But Mr. Wade and his wife had a strong track record in the Windy City, and they've never caused the headaches that ABC has suffered with Ms. O'Donnell. That's a big reason that Don Wade and Roma are still on the air, and Rosie O'Donnell is looking for a new job.

Sadly, Ms. O'Donnell will almost certainly land a gig somewhere. ABC claims that ratings for "The View" jumped 15% during her tenure, and in this era of fractured TV audiences, that spike will probably persuade another network (or production company) to take a chance on her. But the reported increase in viewers was far overshadowed by her inane rants, generating controversy that the network clearly loathed. And, behind the scenes, I'm guessing that some of the show's advertisers were getting a little restless, too. Don Imus' fate was sealed when sponsors started abandoning his program. I can't believe that major corporations were enthralled at the prospect of underwriting Ms. O'Donnell's, continued on-air tirades.

The "contract dispute" may have been very real, but it also gave ABC an excuse to show Ms. O'Donnell the door. All those flowery comments from Rosie and the network are nothing more than an effort to paper over a broadcast "marriage" that was doomed from the start.

Helicopter Wars

Last November, the Air Force announced plans to replace its inventory of HH-60 Pave Hawk rescue choppers with a new variant of the venerable HH-47 Chinook, built by Boeing. As we noted at the time, selection of the Chinook came as something of a surprise; not only was Boeing a relative latecomer to the competition, but many observers expected the Air Force would choose one of other contenders, the Sikorsky-built HH-92, or the Lockheed-Martin/Augusta-Westland US101. At stake was a contract for up to 140 new rescue helicopters, worth at least $15 billion to the winning team.

When the HH-47 was announced as the winner last year, it appeared to be a triumph of size and range over speed and stealth. With the ability to carry up to 44 troops, the Chinook's lift capabilities far exceed those of the smaller Pave Hawk, which carries only 10 personnel, in addition to its four-man flight crew. For search and rescue missions, the HH-60 is more constrained; it can carry only two litter patients, and that means leaving equipment at the rescue site, or flying with fewer pararescuemen (P.J.s), the highly trained SOF operators who actually retrieve injured or stranded personnel. The limited transport capabilities of the HH-60 sometimes required the dispatch of additional aircraft, increasing the number of assets exposed to enemy fire.

Selection of the HH-47 touched off a firestorm of controversy. Both Sikorsky and Lockheed-Martin filed protests, contending that their aircraft were a better choice for the next-generation combat search-and-rescue (CSAR-X) mission. Both claimed that their choppers offered similar range and lift capabilities for an airlift mission, and are much quieter than the HH-47-- an essential requirement for rescuing personnel behind enemy lines. Skikorsky and Lockheed-Martin have also noted that the a early Air Force analysis (conducted three years ago) rejected the HH-47 as "unsuitable" for the CSAR role. The defense firms were supported by members of the Connecticut congressional delegation (Sikorsky is headquartered in that state), and their counterparts from New York, where Lockheed-Martin would build the US101.

Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office agreed to sustain the protest, putting the chopper program on hold. While the decision was hailed as a defeat for Boeing, the GAO only found one of the two dozen (or so) protest points had any merit--the issue of lifecycle costs for the three CSAR-X contenders. So, when the Air Force issues a Revised Request for Proposals (RRFP) in a few weeks, it is expected to focus exclusively on that issue. The service believes that sustainment costs are the only issue that requires resolution, and once that hurdle is cleared, it can get on with the business of buying new rescue helicopters.

The urgency of that task was recently emphasized by the Air Force Chief of Staff, General T. Michael Moseley. In a conversation with defense writers earlier this week, General Moseley warned against protracted, legal wrangling over the CSAR-X contract:

"Combat search and rescue is a big deal for people like me," Gen. Michael Moseley told the Defense Writers Group on April 24 in Washington, D.C. "So the notion of continued protests, and the notion of continued lawyers, and admin, and messing with this, is not right on the operational side when we are fighting the war."

But, given the potential value of the chopper contract, it seems unlikely that Sikorsky or Lockheed-Martin will give up without a protracted fight. And, in fairness, it should be noted that both the HH-92 and the US101 are excellent aircraft which could also meet the Air Force's search-and-rescue needs.

But so is the HH-47. Concerns about the "noise" issue are valid--but only to a point. Critics of the Chinook conveniently ignore the fact that the Army has long used a special-ops version of the chopper (the MH-47) with its famed 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the Nightstalkers. Special ops variants of the Chinook are noticeably quieter than "line" CH-47s that perform transport duties for the Army. The same, advanced technology found in the newest special ops Chinook (the MH-47G) would also be incorporated into the HH-47, reducing its potential vulnerability for CSAR missions.

It's also worth noting that the nature of search-and-rescue missions is changing. As David Axe observes at the Aviation Week blog, the era of a CSAR force largely dedicated to retrieving downed aircrews is past. Over the past 15 years, you can almost count the number of those missions on one hand. Today's search-and-rescue force is being tasked to perform a greater variety of missions, over longer distances. To meet those requirements, the HH-47 is a pretty good choice. As Mr. Axe points out, the Air Force hasn't done a particularly good job of selling the program; CSAR-X still conjures up the images of a rescue package retrieving a downed fighter pilot from the jungles of Southeast Asia. That definition is too narrow for an aircraft that represents the service's second-most important acquisition program.


Also conspicuously absent from the CSAR-X debate is the platform once touted as a likely candidate for the job, the CV-22 Osprey. The Air Force plans to acquire 50 of the tilt-rotor aircraft, but they are earmarked for other roles, most notably as a long-range insertion platform, replacing HH-53 Pave Low helicopters. While the Osprey is a technological marvel, the Chinook can carry twice as many troops or the same amount of cargo (20,000 pounds), at comparable ranges. And, given the Osprey's troubled development history, the Air Force apparently decided it needed a more reliable platform for CSAR, and elected to replace the Pave Hawks with another rotary-wing aircraft.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Most Dangerous Job in Iraq, Part II

In early January, we reported on the deaths of three Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians in Iraq. Master Sergeant Tim Weiner, Senior Airman Elizabeth Loncki and Senior Airman Daniel Miller were killed as they approached a massive truck bomb near Camp Liberty, Iraq. Sergeant Weiner, a 16-year EOD veteran, was on his second tour in Iraq; Airman Loncki and Airman Miller were on their first rotation. But all shared a devotion to that most dangerous of military jobs--disabling explosive devices--where even the slightest mistake can be fatal.

This past weekend, members of the EOD community paid tribute to their fallen dead in an annual ceremony at Eglin AFB, where military EOD specialists are trained. Sergeant Weiner, Airman Loncki and Airman Miller were among 15 EOD techs who died in the line of duty in 2006--the community's highest death toll since World War II. Seven of those technicians were blue-suiters. Their names will be added to the Eglin memorial which honors all military EOD technicians killed in the line of duty.

Associated Press writer Melissa Nelson attended this year's EOD Memorial Service, and filed a moving account that features profiles of Weiner, Loncki and Miller--"Team Lima"--which responded on that fateful day in January. When you consider their valor and sacrifice, remember this point as well: In Iraq, coalition forces locate over 40% of IEDs and VBIEDs before they go off. And each those devices that is disarmed or safely detonated in place is a testament to the skill and courage of our EOD technicians.

Hat tip: Noah Shachtman at the Danger Room.

Don't Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story

Regrettably, that seems to be one of the axioms of modern journalism, as practiced by the MSM. If the facts don't fit a particular template, just ignore them. It's a standard practice in covering the war in Iraq.

The latest case in point? A recent McClatchy Newspapers report, claiming that the U.S. has shifted its military focus away from training Iraqi Security Forces, and back toward stability operations. The shift, according to the story, is the result of the tenuous security situation, and past setbacks in the training program. It describes the training effort as a failure, essentially doomed from the start.

But, as Bill Roggio observes, the facts don't support the McClatchy claim. He notes that both the U.S. and Iraqi governments are pushing for continued expansion of Iraqi security forces, supported by an extensive American training mission. And more importantly, Bill reports that any slowdown in the effort is not the result of the security situation, but Congress' failure to pass the Fiscal Year '07 Supplemental Budget.

Funny, but the McClatchy account (written by Nancy Youssef) doesn't mention the funding angle. Without the supplemental, money for training and equipping new Iraqi units has dried up, leaving the Iraqis unable to field new equipment, or develop the cadre of support personnel needed for logistics and training missions. And, of course, the funding situation also limits the ability of our military to train their Iraqi counterparts.

It's all part of the Democrats' carefully-constructed strategy for defeat. By refusing to pass an acceptable supplemental spending bill, they are under-cutting the very mission that will allow the Iraqis to eventually defend themselves. Meanwhile, they can use the "lack of training" as proof that the administration's policies aren't working, and ratchet up support for their proposed troop withdrawal--eagerly reported by journalistic stenographers like Ms. Youssef.

Blame Bush (Again)

Over the past couple of years, we've written extensively about China's accelerating efforts to develop anti-satellite weapons. Those weapons crossed a new threshold in January of this year, when Beijing successfully tested an orbital kill vehicle, launched from a modified, medium-range missile. During the January event, the Chinese used the kill vehicle to disable one of their defunct weather satellites--a platform that was also targeted during previous evaluations of the ASAT system. When the kill vehicle slammed into the meteorological satellite three months ago, the PRC crossed an important threshold, demonstrating an ability to target U.S. military and commercial satellites operation in low earth orbit (LEO). It represents one of the most serious challenges (to date) of our dominance of the high frontier.

In its coverage of the January test, The New York Times suggested that China might have an ulterior motive for staging the demonstration. According to the Times, the ASAT test might have been aimed at goading the U.S. into signing some sort of space weapons treaty. The logic goes something like this: by demonstrating its own ability to degrade or destroy our satellites, Beijing gains more leverage in pushing for limits on space-based weapons.

But, as we noted at the time, there are some serious problems with that argument. Following the Times' logic, Beijing is prepared to "give up" a program that has consumed billions of dollars and at decade of work, in exchange for a U.S. ASAT program that's been dormant for 20 years. In the mid-1980s, the United States successfully tested a satellite kill vehicle that was launched at high altitude by an F-15 fighter. After that demonstration, we essentially abandoned our ASAT efforts, fearing that it would lead to a "militarization" of space.

By comparison, China's ASAT development is one of the nation's highest-priority programs. In addition to the missile-launched kill vehicle, Beijing is also developing high-power, ground-based lasers, designed to blind our LEO reconnaissance satellites. One of those lasers was reportedly used to track a U.S. recce satellite last year, underscoring China's ability to engage those platforms. Would the PRC readily surrender critical military capabilities that just beginning to bear fruit, while the U.S. gives up virtually nothing in return? The answer to that question is an obvious--and resounding--"no."

Moreover, it's difficult to imagine that China will continue to cede space dominance to the U.S. Any space weapons treaty that limits (or completely cancels) Beijing's ASAT program would, essentially, lock-in American advantages in space-based reconnaissance, navigation and communications. Chinese military writings over the past decade have highlighted these advantages--and the need to counteract them. Now, on the verge of achieving that goal, the Times would have us believe that Beijing is prepared to simply abandon that effort, in pursuit of a proposed weapons agreement. That sort of reasoning simply fails the Aggie test.

Still, the Times remains undeterred. In Monday's editions, reporters Michael Gordon and David Cloud suggest that the United States might have prevented the January ASAT test. According to Gordon and Cloud, U.S. intelligence agencies tracked preparations for the event, and provided updates to senior administration officials. Those officials, in turn, debated potential courses of action and even began drafting a preemptive protest. But in the end, they elected to say nothing until after the test was conducted.

And, not surprisingly, the Times implies that the administration's approach was a serious mistake. The paper quotes two "out-of-government" experts that echo the paper's editorial position:

“Had the United States been willing to discuss the military use of space with the Chinese in Geneva, that might have been enough to dissuade them from going through with it,” said Jeffrey G. Lewis, an arms control expert at the New America Foundation.

“This was absolutely preventable,” said Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress, a research group. “The Chinese have been proposing a treaty to ban weapons in space for years. We have refused in order to pursue this fantasy of space-based antimissile weapons.”

To their credit, Gordon and Cloud did find a couple of analysts who support the administration's policy. Peter Rodman, a former senior Pentagon official, notes the disconnect between China's diplomatic overtures, and their emerging space doctrine:

“It is a bit of arms-control mythology that there is always a deal to be made,” Mr. Rodman said. “For years, the Chinese military has been writing about how to cripple a superpower that relies on high-tech capabilities like satellites. They have been patiently developing this capability. I don’t see why they would trade it away.”

Even John Pike of expressed doubts about China's intentions. He notes that Chinese proposals for a space weapons ban have always excluded a "pop up" ASAT system, like the one tested in January. Mr. Pike--hardly a fan of the Bush Administration--doubts that the U.S. could have convinced the Chinese to abandon the test.

We've applauded the Bush Administration for seeing through Beijing's little charade, and adopting a more realistic national space policy, unveiled last October. Mr. Bush's stated goals of securing our "freedom of action in space" are a welcome departure from the Clinton Administration, which stressed space control and diplomacy. Continuing on that latter course would have (likely) put the U.S. on the road to a disastrous space weapons treaty, limiting our own options on the high frontier, while enabling China (and other potential adversaries) to develop and deploy anti-satellite weapons aimed at our own orbital platforms. By allowing the January test to proceed, the Bush Administration accomplished something far more valuable than pointless diplomacy or sham weapons deals; they allowed Beijing to reveal its real intentions regarding space, the threat posed to our own space systems--and the need to do something about it.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Raptors for Japan?

Last week, we noted the Air Force's long-standing opposition to potential exports of the F-22 stealth fighter. From the service's perspective, it made little sense to share our most advanced technology with any foreign customer, even long-time allies like Israel and Japan. Past experience shows that advanced technology has a habit of winding up in the wrong hands, even with stringent export controls.

One the most recent--and infamous--examples of an illegal technology transfer is the Lavi fighter program, a joint U.S.-Israeli venture that began in the 1980s. The Lavi program was aimed at developing an advanced, multi-role fourth-generation fighter, based on the U.S. F-16. American taxpayers provided much of the funding for the Lavi, while the Israelis supplied the bulk of the technical expertise. Unfortunately, the program proved too expensive and was ultimately scrapped.

So what happened to the Lavi? Many of the Israeli experts--and the technology--made their way to China, where they formed the foundation of the F-10 fighter program. The F-10 is virtually a clone of the Lavi, with an advanced air intercept radar, avionics, and Russian-made, active-radar, air-to-air missiles. As we noted recently, the F-10 isn't a world-beater, but it's easily the best fighter the Chinese have built on their own (more or less), and it provides a foundation for more sophisticated aircraft in the future. By comparison, the F-22 is truly state-of-the-art, and the Air Force is (rightfully) concerned about the possible compromise of that technology through export sales.

Despite those concerns, the possibility of foreign F-22 sales may still exist. As Bill Gertz reported in the Washington Times last Friday, Japan would like to purchase up to 100 Raptors, and that has ignited a debate within the administration. Pro-China elements at the White House and the Pentagon oppose the deal, which would (obviously) upset Beijing. On the other hand, officials concerned about China's growing military power support the proposed export deal, noting that the Japan sale could cause a shift in the region's balance of power. For the near term, the U.S. is planning only limited F-22 deployments in the Far East, with Raptor squadrons in Alaska and Okinawa. Japan's acquisition of the Raptor--even for defensive purposes--would force China to realign its advanced fighter force to meet that challenge, at the expense of basing along the Taiwan Strait.

Raptor sales to Japan would also keep the Lockheed assembly line open past the projected shut-down date, which means more jobs and revenue in states like Texas and Georgia. The Air Force also hopes that foreign interest might spur our own government to buy more F-22s. Beset by rising costs, the U.S. Raptor purchase may be limited to only 179 jets, well below what the service wants. Keeping the production line open would give the Air Force (and its supporters) a chance to lobby Congress for a bigger "domestic" buy.

But there is a risk in that strategy. First, convincing Congress to buy more F-22s will be a tough sell, despite its technological supremacy. With the Army and Marine Corps trying to overcome a decade of under-funding, it's difficult to persuade lawmakers to purchase additional Raptors, at almost $300 million a copy. Secondly, approval of exports to Japan will bring demands for sales to other U.S. allies, including South Korea, Israel, and even Saudi Arabia. Ensuring the security of F-22 technology in those countries would be more difficult, reflecting internal security issues, or (in the case of Israel) a willingness to share it with other countries.

F-22 exports will be on the agenda when President Bush meets with Japan's Prime Minister later this week. Resolution of the issue will take longer, and shape the course of the Raptor program for decades to come.

Tragedy at Beaufort

Mrs. Spook and Your Humble Correspondent made a trip to South Carolina over the weekend, one of those semi-annual pilgrimages to visit relatives. The weather was absolutely delightful; lots of sunshine and temperatures in the upper 70s, another reminder why the Palmetto State is one of my adopted homes.

With a little free time on Saturday, I briefly debated a trip to the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, South Carolina, which was holding its annual air show. From my location, the air station was only a two-hour drive, giving me enough time to get down there and catch some of the demonstrations. Despite spending much of my adult life around high-performance, there's still something thrilling about seeing a jet fighter put through its paces.

In the end, Mrs. Spook came up with an alternate plan, and it was just as well. As you know, Saturday's performances at Beaufort ended tragically, when a member of the Navy's Blue Angels died in a crash. Navy Lieutenant Commander Kevin Davis of Pittsfield, MA, was in his second year as a member of the team. The Blue Angels were performing their final maneuver of Saturday's demonstration when Smith's F/A-18 Hornet failed to join the last formation. Moments later, his jet crashed into a residential area near the base.

The Navy has convened a board of inquiry to investigate the crash--standard procedure in any accident of this type. It could take up to a year for the board to complete its work and determine the cause of the mishap. Early speculation is focusing on G-force induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC) as a potential reason; others have suggested that Davis' jet hit a bird just before it went down, causing it to lose power at low altitude, and leaving the pilot unable to recover.

G-LOC is almost always identified as a possible culprit in any Blue Angels' crash, because the team's pilots don't wear G-suits. Worn over flight suits, the G-suits inflate during hard maneuvering, to help keep blood in the brain--and prevent the pilot from blacking out. The Blue Angels have resisted wearing G-suits, claiming that when the devices inflate, they could cause the pilot to bump the control stick, potentially disastrous when jets are flying just inches apart.

I am not a former pilot, so my expertise in these matters is limited. However, I'm a bit leery about the G-LOC theory, at least for now. Blue Angels pilots are superbly conditioned, and well acquainted with the G loads they'll face at various points in the program. All fighter pilots are vulnerable to G-LOC (even with G-suits), and various physiological factors can increase the risk. But Commander Davis had been through this routine many times before, and the maneuver in question--from what I've been told--didn't carry a particularly high G-load.

On the other hand, a bird strike at low altitude can be a catastrophic event, particularly if the jet ingests multiple birds, or a bird large enough to disable both engines. Years ago, I lost a friend (an F-4 driver) whose jet struck multiple birds along a low-level route to a training range. Both engines were destroyed in seconds (in jet engines, birds hitting turbine blades trigger a nasty chain reaction that often results in the loss of the entire power plant, and sometimes, a fire). My friend did everything right; he pulled back on the control stick, gained altitude and bailed out. His weapons system officer (WSO) in back made it out safely; unfortunately, there was some sort of malfunction with my friends ejection seat, and he died in the attempt.

For Commander Davis, a low altitude bailout at Beaufort would have been even more problematic. Bailing out over a residential area would increase the chances that his jet might strike a home, and kill people on the ground. I'm guessing--and this is sheer speculation on my part--that Davis elected to stay with his stricken jet, trying to steer it away from the houses below. In that effort, he was largely successful. There was some damage (and minor injuries) on the ground, but the outcome could have been much, much worse.

Friends in Davis' hometown of Pittsfield, MA described him as a man with a life-long interest in aviation. He was fascinated with airplanes from the time he was little," former neighbor Betty Sweeney said. "He knew what he wanted to do, and he did it. That's the only relief, that he went doing what he wanted to do."

Davis was a former F-14 pilot and graduate of the Navy's "Top Gun" program in 2004. Prayers to his family, friends, and squadron mates.


Reporter Stacy Davis of WTKR-TV in Norfolk recently flew with Davis when the Blue Angels visited the Hampton Roads area. Portions of her interview with Lieutenant Commander Davis--and her orientation flight--can be found on the station's website. The segment conveys a similar impression of Davis. He was a skilled professional, doing what he loved.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

This is Why We Need the F-22

From the Interfax News Agency: Test flights of fifth-generation aircraft to be held in 2009.

By comparison, our "first" fifth-generation fighter, the F-22 is already operational. Our next fifth-generation aircraft, the F-35 (Joint Strike Fighter) is now in limited production, although there's some debate over how quickly they'll be produced.

In both cases, the Russians are still playing catch-up in the fighter business--and that's the way we want it. With initial flight testing in two years, the Moscow's advanced fighter won't be in series production until sometime well into the next decade. By that time, we'll have even more advanced F-22 Raptors on the ramp, and many of the F-35s will be in service with the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and our NATO allies.

It's called maintaining air supremacy, and it again illustrates why both the F-22 and F-35 are essential to that task. There will be one notable difference between the F-22 and its Russian competitor. The Russian jet will almost certainly be offered for the export market, while the U.S. (currently) has no plans to see the Raptor abroad. Availability of a fifth-generation Russian jet might cause us to rethink that position, although the Air Force has made it clear that no one else gets the F-22--not even longtime allies like Israel, South Korea and Japan.

It's Time to Change Some Laws

Yesterday, we faulted officials at Virginia Tech for failing to act on the growing menace posed by Cho Seung-Hui. As reported in various media accounts, Cho was accused of stalking female students in 2005, and interviewed by campus police on at least three occasions. During that same year, a Virginia judge declared him a public threat, and ordered Cho confined to a mental hospital. More recently, Cho's grotesque writings and threatening demeanor so alarmed an English professor that she demanded he be removed from her class.

Despite those apparent warning signs, administrators and public safety officials at Tech proved unable to connect the dots; Mr. Cho remained in school and eventually hatched the plan for Monday's murderous rampage that killed 32 other students and faculty members, before he took his own life. In many respects, Cho's continued presence in Blacksburg was a failure of leadership.

In fairness, we did observe that suspending or expelling Cho from the university would have been difficult. But we didn't realize just how complex that process was until reading an informative article from Tamar Lewin in today's edition of The New York Times. Lewin's reporting reveals a tangled web of anti-discrimination and privacy laws that severely limit how universities can deal with mentally ill students. In fact, existing regulations can place institutions of higher learning in a legal double-bind:

On the one hand, they may be liable if they fail to prevent a suicide or murder. After the death in 2000 of Elizabeth H. Shin, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who had written several suicide notes and used the university counseling service before setting herself on fire, the Massachusetts Superior Court allowed her parents, who had not been told of her deterioration, to sue administrators for $27.7 million. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount.

On the other hand, universities may be held liable if they do take action to remove a potentially suicidal student. In August, the City University of New York
agreed to pay $65,000 to a student who sued after being barred from her dormitory room at Hunter College because she was hospitalized after a suicide attempt.

Also last year, George Washington University reached a confidential settlement in a case charging that it had violated antidiscrimination laws by suspending Jordan Nott, a student who had sought hospitalization for depression.
And, making matters worse, universities are prohibited from screening students with potentially serious mental illnesses (that would violate the Americans With Disabilities Act); releasing their medical records (barred under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), and even disclosing medical conditions to family members without the student's permission (prohibited by a 1974 education rights and privacy law).

Such legal requirements, coupled with institutional policies and the pervasive "tolerance" attitude on college campuses, have created a procedural nightmare for university officials. That doesn't totally excuse the leadership failures at Virginia Tech; Cho's history of stalking, followed by the professor's request to remove him from class, should have triggered alarm bells within the English Department and convened a wider inquiry into whether he posed a legitimate safety threat. Instead, the department elected to muddle through; Cho got a tutor and remained in school. Additionally, there's no evidence that administrators and campus police bothered to follow through on complaints about Mr. Cho, despite their knowledge of his troubled past.

But the labyrinth depicted by the Times does cast the situation in a slightly different light. Professors, administrators and security officials still have an obligation to ensure student safety, no matter how tough it may be. It's regrettable that various statutes (no matter how well-intentioned) have made that effort even more difficult. In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, it may be time to amend some of those laws.

Today's Reading Assignment

Bill Roggio, on the need for flexibility in Iraq, in the light of Al Qaida's renewed offensive.

NBC's Shame

Ironically, Brian Williams said it best: in an interview on MSNBC last night, the anchorman noted his network's "concerns" in airing portions of the "manifesto" from mass murderer Cho Seung-hui.

"This was a sick business tonight, going on the air with this," Mr. Williams observed.

We couldn't agree more, and after watching only a few seconds of Cho's tirade from the grave, we have a question for Brian Williams and his bosses at NBC:

Why was it necessary to broadcast that garbage?

In today's edition of The New York Times, Bill Carter details the events that led to the airing of portions of the Cho "package," which consisted of a DVD and a 23-page file with text and photographs. From Mr. Carter, we learn about its arrival in the NBC mailroom; the "special" handling of the enclosed materials--everyone wore gloves--and the network's (correct) decision to contact law enforcement and give the originals to investigators.

But Mr. Carter's account suggests that there was less concern about actually televising the rants of a psychopathic killer. Toward the end of his story, Carter reports that "details of dealing with law enforcement and trying to decide what could be used on television accounted for NBC’s not covering the story until Mr. Williams’s newscast." Note the term "what could be used." Not "should it be used?" In fairness, NBC was not alone in taking that approach. Similar discussions apparently took place at the other broadcast and cable networks, which greedily snapped up (and aired) excerpts provided by NBC.

The folks at NBC (and First Amendment purists) would argue that it's a reporter's obligation to publish or broadcast news and images that are disturbing, even distressful. Refusing to do that, they contend, places the media on a slippery slope, providing a pretext for withholding information simply because it might upset or offend someone.

However, that argument only goes so far. Truth be told, there are a number of news images that broadcasters refuse to air, and rightly so. We don't see the bodies of dead soldiers in Iraq. We don't see the mangled corpses of Americans who die in traffic accidents. And, with rare exception, we don't see faces of women who testify against rapists. Broadcasting such images would be an affront to our collective sense of decency, and a violation of the victim's right to privacy.

There's also the (slightly quaint) notion that broadcast journalists shouldn't air video or images that only titillate, and don't advance the story. Meeting that goal is difficult in a visual medium which dictates that some video--any video--is preferrable to a talking head. Anyone who watches local TV news has seen the pointless helicopter shots of a "breaking" story (which only prove that the station has an expensive chopper), or the endless video "loops" of the cable news channels, aimed at placating the audience until they can arrange a live shot, or air a finished report.

By those elementary standards, the Cho diatribe was not newsworthy, nor suitable for broadcast. When NBC Nightly News aired in Blacksburg last night, there was genuine shock and horror. A community consumed by grief and mourning was sent reeling again because a TV network received--and elected to air--a killer's multi-media opus. That sense of shock and outrage is still reverberating across the Virginia Tech campus, the state, and the rest of the nation.

We can only imagine what the families and friends of the victims felt when they saw Cho Seung-hui posing with his weapons and ranting against the "rich kids" that sparked the rampage. Their pain was exacerbated by the knowledge that the killer mailed his package to NBC during the interlude between the dormitory shootings, and the mass murder at Norris Hall; one final, calculating act to firmly secure his place in infamy. To deny Cho's final, twisted desire--and out of respect for the victims and their families--NBC had solid reasons for not airing the video and still shots from his "package."

Likewise, the clips and images broadcast by NBC (and the other networks) did nothing to advance the story, or shed new light on events at Virginia Tech. NBC News President Steve Capus, who led the network's decision-making process, told Bill Carter that Cho's written material was dominated by "threats and gibberish." The video segments were much the same, as millions of viewers can attest. "It was incredibly difficult to follow," Capus observed. Simply stated, we learned nothing new by watching the material--it only heightened our national sense of revulsion and outrage.

Which brings us back to our original question. Why was it necessary to broadcast (and rebroadcast) this material? You don't need to see Cho's "manifesto" to understand that he was a sick, demented individual, consumed by hatred and rage. And he did not deserve a national platform to spew his venom; the senselessness of Cho's actions speak for themselves, without a post-mortem commentary from the killer.

Sadly, NBC's decision to air the manifesto (and share the material with its competitors) had less to do with journalistic standards, and everything to do with ratings. The dominance of its early-morning Today show is fading a bit; Mr. Williams' Nightly News has been eclipsed by ABC, and cable outlet MSNBC remains mired in last place. Matt Drudge's morning headline tells the real story: "Ratings Blowout for NBC." With the Cho package leading his newscast, Mr. Williams easily outpaced his rivals last night. I'm sure that Today and MSNBC are racking up some impressive numbers as well.

When that package arrived in the mailroom yesterday, NBC and its news executives had a tough call to make: cave to the pressure of ratings by providing a posthmous platform to a madman, or take a principled stand, and refuse to air the material. The decision of NBC--and its competitors--speaks volumes about the current, deplorable state of American journalism.


Similar thoughts on NBC's editorial decision from Hugh Hewitt and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner.