Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Now, if he can just convince C-5 fans like Ted Kennedy, Tom Carper and Joe Biden to go along, we might get a chance to implement his recommendations.
--Through yesterday, a total of 27 American military personnel had been killed in action in Iraq during the month of October. That's the lowest monthly total since March 2006. To its credit, the USA Today account is one of the few--outside of this blog--that differentiates between combat deaths, and those from non-hostile causes.
--The monthly decline is the fifth in a row--another trend that we've been highlighting. Other MSM have attempted to "shade" the good news in recent months, linking U.S. troop deaths to a decrease in Iraqi civilian casualties. Predictably, a sharp decline in civilian deaths didn't begin until the troop surge was well underway. By comparing trends in the two categories, various reporters still managed to find a "dark cloud" amid the sliver lining until civilian and military deaths began to drop dramatically.
--Mr. Michaels also links the drop in combat casualties to the troop surge, and notes the corresponding decrease in violence produced (in large part) by the new U.S. strategy. Numbers furnished by a senior U.S. commander in Iraq indicate that the number of attacks in Baghdad has dropped four-fold since January.
--Additionally, USA Today (apparently) resisted the temptation to dig up statistics that might cast a pall over signs of success. The Christian Science Monitor, for example, found that the number of U.S. troop deaths in Iraq in 2007 is actually ahead of the total for all of 2006. However, the source for that observation (former Pentagon official Larry Korb) didn't mention that 45% of those deaths occurred during April, May and June of this year, as the surge was moving into high gear.
If we can find any fault with the USA Today article, it's this: Mr. Michaels fails to note that the month of October included the last half of Ramadan, the Muslim holiday that (in the past) has produced a spike in both terrorist attacks and U.S. casualties. During the Islamic holy month in 2006, U.S. commanders reported a 22% jump in violence; this year, there was a significant decrease in the number of attacks and U.S. combat deaths, underscoring the progress that's been achieved on the ground.
The new commander of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot, Colonel Joel Westa (USAF photo).
As of tomorrow, Colonel Joel Westa will have one of the toughest--if not the toughest--jobs in the Air Force.
In a ceremony at Minot AFB on Thursday, Westa will take command of the troubled 5th Bomb Wing. The B-52 unit recently lost its certification for handling nuclear weapons after an errant flight on 29 August flight, when one of the giant bombers mistakenly ferried six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. A six-week Air Force investigation found serious problems in weapons handling and safety protocols.
As a result of the incident--described as the worst breach of nuclear weapons procedures in 40 years--the Air Force fired the 5th Bomb Wing Commander, Colonel Bruce Emig, along with the maintenance group commander and a munitions maintenance squadron commander. The service also dismissed the commander of the 2nd Operations Group at Barksdale. The aircraft and crew involved in the transfer were assigned to the Louisiana base.
At Minot, Colonel Westa takes over for Colonel Paul G. Bell, who had served as acting wing commander following Emig's dismissal. Bell will continue to serve as the 5th Bomb Wing Vice-Commander, a post he has held since July 2006.
Colonel Westa is also a career bomber pilot, most recently assigned as Vice-Commander of the 36th Wing, located at Andersen AFB, Guam. That wing serves as a host unit for CONUS-based aircraft, including heavy bombers, that deploy to the central Pacific region. A key installation for bomber operations during the Vietnam War, Andersen remains significant as a forward operating base, given its proximity to hotspots in northeast Asia and the South China Sea.
While the command transition at Minot was hardly unexpected, Air Force public affairs handled it in a clumsy manner. When Colonel Bell took over for Emig barely 10 days ago, information provided to the press suggested that he might remain in the job for an extended period, perhaps permanently. Stories from the Associated Press and Minot Daily News, based on accounts from the Minot PA office, did not identify Colonel Bell as an "acting" or "interim" Wing Commander, indicating that he might be Emig's permanent replacement.
Confusion over Bell's assignment status was the result of two factors. First, most members of the media don't understand the mechanics of replacing a wing commander who is suddenly relieved of his/her duties. Until a new commander can be assigned, the deputy or vice moves up and runs the unit on a temporary basis.
However, the Minot PA shop didn't help matters by taking a heads down/circle-the-wagons approach during the recent controversy. We contacted them after it became known that Colonel Emig had lost his job, and the Minot Public Affairs Office referred us to their counterparts at Air Combat Command. A spokesman at ACC expressed surprise at that move. "It's their wing commander," he told us, "Minot should know and they should put out the statement, not us."
As for Colonel Westa, he faces the dual tasks of getting Minot re-certified in its nuclear mission, and restoring scores of airmen to PRP status, which clears personnel to work with (or around) nuclear weapons. Since late August, more than 65 airmen of varying ranks--Lieutenant Colonel and below--have lost their PRP certification; most of them are reportedly assigned at Minot.
Air Force spokesmen have emphasized that there is no set "timetable" for re-certifying personnel or the bomb wing's nuclear mission. However, a couple of things seem certain. First, the timeline will be relatively short, due to mission constraints. Minot's bombers (and crews) are needed to support the nation's nuclear mission; until the 5th Wing can be recertified, other units will have to shoulder the load, and there are certain capabilities that can't be replicated outside the B-52 community.
There's also the matter of continuing the retirement of advanced cruise missiles--the weapons at the center of the Minot debacle. Until the wing is re-certified, Minot cannot send any additional cruise missiles to Barksdale for decommissioning. In theory, the 2nd Bomb Wing could send aircraft and ground crews to Minot and handle the job, but that would be an expensive proposition. The Air Force would prefer to see the 5th Bomb Wing get back on its feet, and resume its role in the transfer and retirement process.
Finally, the repair job at Minot will be carefully monitored, with absolutely no tolerance for pencil-whipping or cutting corners. The Air Force investigation found "an erosion of adherence to weapons-handling procedures at Minot" (no kidding), so the re-certification of personnel and the wing will be done strictly by the book. And, once the job is finished, look for Minot to get a visit from the ACC Inspector General Team undergo a nuclear surety inspection (NSI) as well.
Despite the absence of an official timeline, we're guessing that Colonel Westa will be given no more than six months to fix the 5th Wing and get ready for inspections. In today's operational environment, that's all the time the Air Force can give him.
We've said it before, and it bears repeating: This will be a very busy winter at Minot.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
We detailed many of these problems last July, based on a lengthy article in Air Force magazine. The publication describes the current aircraft maintenance and age issues as "worse that the [infamous] hollow force of the Carter years, when the service was also hampered by old airframes and shortages of everything from spare parts to toilet paper.
Congressman Saxton didn't mention names, but some of "those in Congress" include Delaware Senator Tom Carper and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, who are strong supporters of the C-5A program. With C-5 bases in their states, both Mr. Carper and Mr. Kennedy are in favor of doing whatever it takes to keep the giant airlifters flying--even if planned upgrades are becoming too expensive.
Of course, there is also the issue of what the Air Force would do with the money if Congress capitulated and allowed the service to retire all of those old aircraft. The Air Force is lobbying for more F-22s, and it would like to extend production of the C-17 airlifter as well. However, the Raptor remains the service's #1 priority, with the C-17 falling lower on the acquisition totem pole. While we've long championed the F-22, we also understand the Air Force (and DoD as a whole) face a severe shortage of strategic airlift assets, needed to sustain global operations. Against that backdrop, it's becoming tougher to support the Raptor over the C-17.
Captain awarded Bronze Star for intel work.
Kudos to Captain Hearn for a job truly well done.
Making matters worse, Moody AFB is growing rapidly, and needs additional housing for its personnel. With expansion of Moody's 347th Rescue Wing, more than 1,000 new airmen (and their families) are projected to arrive in the Valdosta area by 2009. The private development was designed--in part--to ease a potential housing crunch. Now, with the project a morass of unpaid bills, unfinished homes and litigation, there are questions about where some of the inbound airmen and their families will reside.
But Moody isn't the only DoD installation with privatized housing problems. The Associated Press (via Air Force Times) is reporting that a similar project has faltered at Little Rock AFB, Arkansas, leaving another installation--and more airmen--in the lurch. The situation in Arkansas is strikingly similar to what happened at Moody:
American Eagle Communities entered a $106 million agreement three years ago with the U.S. Air Force to renovate homes for the base as part of the Defense Department’s push to privatize military housing. Under the agreement, American Eagle is to manage the housing, collect rent and handle maintenance and upkeep.
But in May, the company halted its work, leaving empty lots and half-built residences, after private investors stopped funding the project. Also, more than $12 million in private bonds issued in 2004 to help fund the project defaulted this month. Another $52.2 million in bonds were repaid to investors last month as American Eagle officially slipped into default on the contract.
As the AP article indicates, there is a corporate connection between the failed projects at the two bases. American Eagle Communities, which defaulted on the Little Rock housing contract, is the same firm that failed to pay sub-contractors and vendors in Valdosta, prompting a Georgia judge to shutter that project. The development firm is a partnership between Carabetta Enterprises and Shaw Group, Incorporated, a Baton Rouge, Louisiana firm.
All told, Carabetta and its partners received more than $3 billion in military housing contracts, despite the company's shaky financial history. Carabetta went bankrupt in the 1990s, and according to newspaper reports in Connecticut and Georgia, the firm viewed the housing contracts as a way to stabilize its financial situation.
Now, according to the AP, American Eagle is trying to sell its military housing projects to a new developer. Included in the package are the failed ventures at Little Rock and Moody, along with projects at Hanscom AFB, Massachusetts and Patrick AFB, Florida. Each of the four developments is currently in default. If the sale falls through, the projects will start all over again, with a new proposal, a new contractor and new funding sources.
Meanwhile, the Air Force has a shortfall of more than 3,000 housing units and there are no indications when the failed projects might actually be completed. The housing crunch will be most severe in higher-cost-of-living areas (including Hanscom and Patrick), where junior enlisted members and their families will be forced to find quarters on the local rental market. Under the privatized plan, rental rates for military personnel would equal their monthly housing allowance, providing a potential savings over other rental properties in the area.
Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss has emerged as a critic of the program, describing the Air Force's response to the failed projects as "inadequate." Along with Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Chambliss has authored legislation demanding an investigation into all failed military housing projects. The bill calls for descriptions of how the contracting company was solicited and chosen, how the financing was structured, and what remedies are available to recover from stalled projects.
From our perspective, we wonder why it takes an act of Congress to mandate an investigation. Since the unfinished housing units are earmarked for military personnel, the DoD Inspector General should be on the case, along with the Government Accountability Office and various U.S. attorneys in locations where the developers are headquartered. Obviously, the failed projects in Georgia, Arkansas, Massachusetts and Florida are an embarrassment for the Air Force (and the Pentagon), but that's no reason to delay an inquiry.
To be fair, DoD's private housing initiatve has had its share of success stories. A number of projects have been completed, occupancy rates average 90%, and tenant satisfaction is reportedly high. That's why an investigation into the default by Carabetta and its partners should begin immediately. Housing is an important quality-of-life issue for military personnel, and promises made to service members at those four bases have not been kept. The Pentagon and the Justice Department need to find out what went wrong, fix the problems, and demand accountability from those who allowed the projects to fail.
Additionally, we believe that DoD needs to rethink the privatization scheme in areas where housing is readily affordable. As we observed in our last post, the median home price in Valdosta, Georgia is only $115,000, which translates into a mortgage payment of $700-$800 a month. The average home price in Jacksonville, Arkansas (the community adjacent to Little Rock AFB) is $127,000. In those markets, the Pentagon might find it more efficient--and cost effective--to develop a program that encourages home ownership, instead of trying to salvage those failed privatization projects.
Monday, October 29, 2007
University of North Carolina graduate journalism student Carla Babb. Her report on John Edwards' upscale campaign headquarters earned the ire of the candidate's staff, who demanded that her segment be pulled from a student TV show (Raleigh News and Observer)
Large areas of Tokyo burn after a B-29 fire raid on May 25, 1945 (Wikipedia).
Last night's edition of 60 Minutes weighed in on an increasingly sensitive topic in the Afghan War--the use of airpower, and the supposed increase in civilian casualties.
It's a topic that we've addressed in the past, noting our recent success in using fixed and rotary-wing assets to smash Al Qaida and Taliban fighters before they can attack coalition ground forces. Across vast stretches of rugged, isolated terrain, it's a strategy that makes sense. In fact, a case can be made that airpower helped prevent an expected spring offensive by the Taliban, and has forced the enemy to adopt less effective tactics, including suicide bombings.
While the increase in civilian casualties is, indeed, regrettable, it also raises questions about who is--and isn't--a non-combatant. There have been confirmed reports of Taliban and Al Qaida using Afghan civilians as human shields, and seeking refuge in villages and other settlements. And, as noted in an AP dispatch from last May, it's often difficult, if not impossible, to separate friend from foe:
Death tolls in remote battle sites in Afghanistan are impossible to verify. Taliban fighters often seek shelter in Afghan homes, leading to civilian casualties, and it is often difficult to determine if people killed in such air strikes were militants or civilians.
Against that backdrop, 60 Minutes waded into the fray, examining the impact of a U.S. airstrike last spring that reportedly killed nine members of one Afghan family, including four children. And, sure enough, correspondent Scott Pelley and his crew managed to interview the family's only surviving member, a nine-year-old boy who was spared because he spent the night with his uncle.
To its credit, CBS did acknowledge that there may have been a legitimate reason for attacking the village; the boy's father (who wasn't home) is believed to be a local Taliban leader. Additionally, U.S. pilots saw two armed men enter a compound in the village, shortly after a rocket attack on an American base in the area, located north of Kabul.
Yet--to absolutely no one's surprise--the network saw fit to include some rather outrageous comments from local villagers who might have been harboring a Taliban leader, whose forces tried to attack a U.S. base (gee, Mr. Pelley, doesn't that mean that the area might be an enemy stronghold?)
"During the Russian invasion we haven’t heard of 10 members of one family being killed by Russians in one incident. But the Americans did that," a villager remarked.
These Afghans, like many others, are deciding whether to support the U.S.-backed government.
We expected anger, but we didn’t expect this. "You can't be saying that the Soviets were kinder to your people than the Americans have been," Pelley remarks.
"We used to hate the Russians much more than Americans," the villager replied. "But now when we see all this happening, I am telling you Russians behave much better than the Americans."
Really, there's no comparison. The Soviets killed something like a million Afghans over ten years. But it's the kind of thing that Afghans are saying, because so far this year, 17 air strikes have killed more than 270 civilians according to the humanitarian organization Human Rights Watch.
So, if there's "no comparison," why include it in the piece? But, we digress. The required template was established, and somewhere, Senator Barack ("We're Air-Raiding Villages) Obama must be smiling.
The U.S. Army (whose personnel called in the air strike) refused CBS' request for an interview. But the Air Force provided full cooperation for the piece, even allowing Pelley and his crew to tour the "futuristic" air operations center in an "unnamed" Middle East country, where the air campaigns for Iraq and Afghanistan are orchestrated. If you don't know where the air ops center is located, click here; the Marine Corps publicized its relocation (from Saudi Arabia) more than four years ago.
During Pelley's visit to the the Combined Air Operations Center (or CAOC), a patient Air Force Colonel named Gary Crowder explained that many air missions are scrubbed because of concerns about civilian casualties.
"You know, I'm curious. How often is an air strike prepared that's called off at the last minute?" Pelley asks.
"Thousands and thousands of times a month,” says Crowder. “We look very, very often, we tracked some of the insurgent leaders we will track for days and days on end. And we are prepared to strike them at any moment. But we can never get all of the criteria necessary to meet our rules of engagement.”
An analyst for Human Rights Watch--which has been highly critical of U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan--provided partial confirmation for Colonel Crowder's assessment, observing that "I don't think people really appreciate the gymnastics that the U.S. military goes through in order to make sure that they're not killing civilians."
Turns out that analyst (identified as Marc Garlasco), knows a little bit about the process, having served as chief of a high value targets cell in the Pentagon during Operation Iraqi Freedom. When 60 Minutes wonders why "so many" Afghan civilians are being killed, Mr. Garlasco offers comments that should have been the centerpiece of the segment--not buried in its closing minutes:
"If so much care is being taken why are so many civilians getting killed?" Pelley asks.
"Because the Taliban are violating international law,” says Garlasco, “and because the U.S. just doesn't have enough troops on the ground. You have the Taliban shielding in people's homes. And you have this small number of troops on the ground. And sometimes the only thing they can do is drop bombs.”
But in the end, Mr. Garlasco gave CBS what they were looking for, wondering if the airstrike was really worth it:
"You have to ask yourself, is a mid-level thug worth nine dead civilians? But it goes beyond that. You're not talking about just losing nine dead civilians. You're also talking about violent protests throughout the country, requesting a democratically elected government be taken down, you then take people who maybe were in a pro-government area, and all of a sudden you're turning them against you, and turning them towards the Taliban," Garlasco says.
But there are some other questions that viewers of the segment should be asking themselves, namely: was it worth a repeat visit by coalition troops--with the risk of casualties and collateral damage? What if ground forces couldn't get there in time (a very real possibility), or if the boy's father was/is a much higher value target? Given our decision to use airpower on the target--and our continuing search for the man--it seems quite likely that the intended target is more than a "mid-level thug.' Readers will note that the target's description came from the human rights group, not the U.S. military.
Finally, there's the issue of proportionality, which is, obviously, the main theme of the 60 Minutes segment. From CBS' perspective, the use of airpower in Afghanistan has been disproportionate, resulting in the deaths of 270 civilians. Yet, Mr. Pelley fails to address the other side of argument, namely how many civilians would have died at the hands of the Taliban and Al Qaida if airpower had not been used to strike distant targets, killing scores of enemy fighters.
Thanks to the miracle of videotape editing, the closest anyone comes to acknowledging that is Afghan President Hamid Karzai, describing the attack on the village as an error:
"That is a mistake..I know that. It may be at times careless. A careless mistake, but not deliberate.”
Mr. Karzai is certainly aware that the indiscriminate targeting of civilians would result in far greater casualties, as evidenced during the bombings of Coventry, London, Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo (to name a few) during World War II. Collectively, those raids killed an estimated 220,000 civilians. The Afghan leader has obvious, political reasons for opposing the airstrikes and civilian casualties. But someone ought to ask him the question that Scott Pelley ingnored; would Mr. Karzai prefer the alternative, namely an Afghanistan with large areas controlled by the Taliban and Al Qaida, or alternatively, an even larger military presence by the U.S. and its allies?
In wartime, the lost of innocent life is always a tragedy. But recent events in Afghanistan pale to those of 60 years ago; if anything, they underscore the advance of technology and the extreme measures taken by air planners to prevent civilian casualties. If CBS had a genuine sense of proportionality, they would have noted those changes in last night's broadcast. But then again, a positive spin on Afghanistan doesn't exactly fit the MSM template, either.
An MRAP vehicle being loaded onto a C-17 bound for Iraq. While the Air Force has transported hundreds of the mine-resistant vehicles to the war zone, airlift shortages have forced DoD to contract with Russian carriers for deliveries of other MRAPs (Official USAF photo).
Friday, October 26, 2007
Less that two months after an Israeli air raid on a suspected Syrian nuclear facility, the Damascus government has apparently completed a hurried clean-up of the site, removing remnants of a large building that may have housed a partially-built nuclear reactor.
Today's edition of The New York Times, using satellite imagery from two commercial firms, indicates that Syria rushed to dismantle the facility after the Israeli airstrike. An image from Digital Globe, obtained on 24 October, shows all traces of the building have been removed, and the ground appears smooth and undisturbed. A similar photo, taken on 10 August, showed a tall, square-shaped structure on the site. Analysts estimate that the building measured 150 feet on a side, providing up to 22,500 feet of floor space.
Experts interviewed by the Times were stunned at the pace of Syrian clean-up efforts.
“It’s a magic act — here today, gone tomorrow,” said a senior intelligence official. “It doesn’t lower suspicions; it raises them. This was not the long-term decommissioning of a building, which can take a year. It was speedy. It’s incredible that they could have gone to that effort to make something go away.”
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that this week released a report on the Syrian site, said Thursday that the building’s removal was inherently suspicious.
“It looks like Syria is trying to hide something and destroy the evidence of some activity,” Mr. Albright, a former United Nations weapons inspector, said in an interview. “But it won’t work. Syria has got to answer questions about what it was doing.”
“It’s clearly very suspicious,” said Joseph Cirincione, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “The Syrians were up to something that they clearly didn’t want the world to know about.”
Publicly, U.S. officials have refused to confirm that the site imaged by the commercial firms is the same one struck by Israeli jets on 6 September. But privately, a senior intelligence official told the Times that was, indeed the same location.
Obviously, you don't need to be an imagery analyst to understand that Damascus was in a hurry to get rid of whatever was left after the Israeli airstrike. The unnamed intelligence official is quite correct in describing the clean-up as "speedy" and "incredible." Syria apparently spared no effort--or expense--in attempting to cleanse the site, a process that normally takes months to complete.
The motivation for the clean-up job is clear: under an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Damascus is obligated to report on its nuclear plans and development efforts. And, like a blind-and-deaf bloodhound with a bad nose, the IAEA has finally caught wind of the Syrian program, and is making noises about accountability and possible inspections.
But it's a safe bet that the dismantled facility near the Euphrates River was never reported to the agency, and Damascus will stall inspection requests for as long as possible. And--assuming they gain access to the site--inspectors will find it difficult to figure out what was actually there, thanks to the Syrian clean-up job. Damascus understands that the IAEA has a poor record in detecting covert nuclear programs, and the reported dirt work is, quite literally, an attempt by the Assad government to cover its tracks.
Still, the sanitization effort at that Syrian facility does offer potential insights on nuclear cooperation between rogue states, and the ability of the U.S. intelligence community to gather vast quantities of information, in an attempt to monitor WMD programs.
On the cooperation issue, it has been widely reported that the Syrian "reactor" was based on a North Korean design, and technicians from the DPRK may have been killed in the Israeli airstrike. But the clean-up may also provide additional indications of Iranian involvement in the project. The hasty--but effective--clean-up is reminiscent of a similar effort in Tehran a few years ago.
When Iranian dissidents identified a building at a Tehran university as a nuclear R&D center, the complex was quickly demolished, despite a recently-completed expansion. Workers removed all traces of the building in a matter of weeks, and the ground was scraped by bulldozers and earth-movers. The Iranian demolition job was smaller than the one observed in Syria, but it followed the same pattern. We can only wonder if Iran--which is probably financing the Syrian project--also provided expertise in getting rid of the facility once it had been detected and bombed.
In terms of following activity at the site, readers may note the two-month "gap" between the before and after images provided to the Times. While commercial platforms don't image targets as often as classified spy satellites, they make frequent passes over high-interest areas, including Syria.
So, what happened to all those images of the nuclear facility between 10 August and 24 October? They were (most likely) snapped up by the U.S. intelligence community, which has huge contracts with commercial imagery providers, using their products to supplement their own satellite images. After learning of the Israeli airstrike, the spooks moved quickly to buy up available imagery of the target area, denying it to other customers, including media outlets.
That move was prompted by two considerations; first, getting all available information to make required assessments, and secondly, to allow the U.S. (and its allies) to manage speculation and spin on the raid. As two members of Congress noted in a recent WSJ op-ed, the Bush Administration has "thrown a veil of secrecy" over the airstrike and its target, offering briefings to only a handful of law-makers. At the same time, there have also been comments about how raid "narrowly avoided World War III." In that context, it's little wonder that you can't satellite images of the Syrian facility in the weeks just before--and after--the Israeli attack.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
While the measure is obviously aimed at soothing relations with Turkey, the U.S. actually has a long history of "selling" military hardware to Ankara at steeply discounted prices. Twenty years ago, as the Air Force retired F-4s from its inventory, many of those jets wound up in Turkey. One of my friends, a former F-4 WSO, crewed one of the fighters on its delivery flight to the Turkish Air Force. As they signed the paperwork transferring the Phantom to its new owners, my friend happened to notice the "price" of the aircraft.
That's right, a "slightly used" F-4E, sold by the U.S. government to Turkey for only $50K. That has to be the biggest aviation bargain since the end of World War II, when the Army Air Corps sold operable P-51s to scrap dealers for $500 each.
Of course, some of those F-4s were later used for raids against--you guessed it--PKK terrorists operating in southern Turkey and northern Iraq. In fact, I had another intel colleague who had a rather interesting (and related) experience during a deployment to Turkey in the early 1990s.
Assigned to a tanker unit, his crew debriefings were fairly routine, even dull, until a boom operator volunteered that a flight of receiver aircraft--Turkish Air Force F-4s--were "loaded for bear" during their rendezvous with the American KC-135, carrying a full complement of "live" ordnance on their wing pylons. My colleague did some checking and discovered that, sure enough, that F-4s had attacked PKK targets in southeastern Turkey, not long after their refueling from that USAF tanker.
Needless to say, that "revelation" resulted in a rather spirited conversation between our ambassador in Ankara, and the Chief of the Turkish General Staff. In the sternest of diplomatic tones, he explained that the U.S. couldn't provide tanker support for Turkey's air campaign against the PKK, even if we sold them the jets used on those bombing runs.
Consider today's Globe editorial on recent "threats" from Mr. Bush and Vice-President Cheney towards Iran. Not surprisingly, the paper's editorial board considers those comments most unhelpful, threatening potential diplomacy with Tehran.
PRESIDENT BUSH and Vice President Cheney have been issuing public warnings both to Iran and to other major powers about Iran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. These unsubtle threats could be meant merely to persuade Iran's leaders to negotiate seriously with their European interlocutors, Britain, France, and Germany. But the threats might also be part of an administration buildup to an attack on Iran.
In either case, Bush and Cheney misunderstand the need to match means and ends. And there could hardly be a worse time for Bush to be berating needed European partners on the Iranian nuclear issue. Earlier this month in Tehran, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a proposal for resolving the nuclear issue directly to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Some Iranian commentators even hinted that Putin delivered a sobering message that the American war threats need to be taken seriously.
Still, Bush last week warned world leaders, "if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing" Iran "from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." At best, this was an unnecessary declaration.
From our perspective, it's the Globe that doesn't understand the means and ends of the Iranian equation. President Bush has waited patiently while the European 3--Great Britain, France and Germany--attempt to negotiate with Tehran. Those talks have dragged on for more than three years, and so far, the diplomats have nothing to show for it, aside from vague promises to keep on talking. Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made it quite clear that his country has no intention of abandoning its nuclear program, which will almost certainly yield a weapon by 2015 (according to CIA estimates), and perhaps much, much sooner.
As for that sobering message from Mr. Putin, we seem to remember that he also vowed to continue assistance for Iran's nuclear program, specifically the reactor at Bushehr which is being completed by Russian contractors. If Russia were genuinely serious about deterring Tehran's nuclear ambitions, Mr. Putin might have linked the Bushehr project to Iran's abandonment of its weapons program, complete with rigorous, no-notice inspections and full transparency. But the Russian leader has placed no such demands on Iran. Seems that his "sobering" message was more of a wink and a nod, assuring Ahmadeinjad that Moscow remains in his corner, and will oppose more serious efforts at sanctions in the U.N. Security Council.
The same holds true for China, which is heavily invested in developing Iran's oil reserves, and depends on Iranian energy exports to fuel its economic growth. Beijing also values Tehran as a customer for its arms industry; just yesterday, it was reported that China will sell at least 24 of its advanced J-10 fighters to Iran over the next three years, and Beijing's past sales of radars, surface-to-air missile and air defense computers have earned billions in hard currency.
Indeed, as Victor Davis Hanson observes, virtually everyone claims to oppose a nuclear-armed Iran, but when push comes to shove, no one seems to be doing much about it. Moscow and Beijing have their own agendas; the Arab states fear the reaction of their own populations if they support military action against Iran, and the Europeans seem to believe that diplomacy can always carry the day.
Against that backdrop, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have suggested that Iran needs to get serious in its talks with the EU-3, or face potential military consequences. And despite hand-wringing from the Globe and its friends on the left, there are no firm indications that the administration is actively preparing for war against Tehran. Talk about military planning is just that--talk. The U.S. has maintained operational plans for Iran (and other countries) for decades; the ominous articles published in recent months reflect the only the periodic revision of those plans, and not the implementation of new strategies to attack Tehran.
Likewise, U.S. military deployments to the Persian Gulf remain routine. Any strike against Iran would be preceded by a build-up of American and allied forces in the region, a move that clearly hasn't happened (so far). For now, the Pentagon is preoccupied with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. That widely-touted air and sea campaign against Iran's nuclear facilities doesn't appear to be in the offing, at least for now.
In fact, a final decision about military action against Iran will likely be made by the next commander-in-chief--quite possibly, a Democrat. We can only wonder what the Globe's position would be if Mr. Bush's successor, say Hillary Rodham Clinton, issues the same sort or warnings against Iran, or ups the ante with increased force deployments and clearly-stated "red lines" for conflict. Knowing the Globe (and its parent company), they would probably applaud a Democratic president for a "forceful" foreign policy, while condemning Mr. Bush for "ignoring" the Iranian threat.
According to CQ, the White House has requested an addition $88 million to modify our B-2 fleet, allowing them to drop a "Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP, a conventional bomb still in development that is the most powerful weapon designed to destroy targets deep underground." The B-2 funding request was buried in a $196.4 billion war spending proposal that President Bush submitted to Congress on 22 October.
In a statement that accompanied the request, the White House said funding for the B-2 modification project came in response to "an urgent operational need from theater commanders. While the White House, the Pentagon and the Air Force have refused comment on the matter, previous statements from the Defense Department and military experts indicate that the MOP could be used against deeply-buried, hardened targets in Iran and North Korea.
For some Congressional Democrats, the modification request is tantamount to a declaration of war against Tehran.
James P. Moran, D-Va., a senior member of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said he did not believe the MOP could be used in Iraq or Afghanistan and cited Iran as the potential target for the bomb. He said he would oppose the funding.
“That’s a clear red flag,” Moran said.
Jim McDermott, D-Wash., an outspoken critic of Bush’s war policies, said the funding request was the latest of many signs that indicated Bush was contemplating an attack on Iran. McDermott said such a scenario was his “biggest fear between now and the election.”
“We are not authorizing Bush to use a 30,000-pound bunker buster,” he said. “They’ve been banging the drums the same way as they did in 2002 with Iraq.”
Somewhere, Scoop Jackson must be spinning in his grave. Modifying B-2s to carry the MOP is hardly an indicator of a pending attack on Iran. As the CQ report notes, the weapon is still under development, and it's unclear when it might be ready for operational use. If the MOP follows a "typical" developmental cycle, then figure two or three years--at a minimum--for finalizing the design and testing prototypes. In other words, the massive ordnance penetrator won't be available until the next President is in the White House. So much for next year's "October surprise."
Beyond that, the MOP can be used for a variety of potential targets, not just those in Iran and North Korea. Congressmen Moran and McDermott are apparently unaware that a number of potential adversaries--including China and Syria--have invested heavily in hardened underground facilities (UGFs) over the past 20 years. As the number of UGFs in those countries (and other locations) continues to grow, so does the need for a weapon like the MOP.
And, contrary to Mr. Moran's assertion, the MOP does have a potential role in the War on Terror. The weapon could be effective in targeting Al Qaida cave complexes, like those in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. With its massive explosive power and pinpoint accuracy, the MOP might be used to destroy or seal underground tunnel systems that provide sactuary for senior terrorist leaders.
Thankfully, not all Congressional Democrats are opposed to the MOP, and plans to carry it on the B-2. Washington Democrat Norman Dicks, a member of the House Defense Appropriations Subscommittee told CQ “We need to have this as a conventional weapon. It adds to our deterrent.”
Mr. Dicks understands that without a massive, conventional penetrator, the U.S. might be forced to use other weapons--namely, tactical nukes--in targeting hardened underground bunkers. Taking a wild guess, we'd say that Mr. McDermott and Mr. Moran are probably opposed to that option, too. In confronting potential adversaries with deeply buried facilities, Congressmen Moran and McDermott seem to prefer the "zero option," leaving future presidents with few viable means for targeting critical underground targets.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
As readers of this blog know, we've been tracking the decline in U.S. military casualties for some time, and it's encouraging to see the AP discover that trend. Unfortunately, the wire service only reports part of the story. By lumping together American military deaths and Iraqi civilian casualties, the AP can report (correctly) that October will be the second month when totals in both categories have dropped.
But that misses the larger point. Fact is, American military deaths in Iraq have been decreasing for the past six months, a period that coincides with our troop surge. In other words, the number of U.S. troops killed in action has declined sharply since May, despite a corresponding increase in our operations tempo. In military terms, that is nothing short of remarkable, a testament to both General Petraeus and his staff--the architects of the surge--as well as the battalion, company and platoon-level commanders and NCOs who have implemented the strategy.
Once again, here are the combat death totals for U.S. forces in Iraq since April. Our breakout includes personnel killed by hostile fire and those who died in non-hostile incidents:
Month/Total Fatalities/Hostile Fire/Non-Hostile
Oct/30/20/10 (Through 24 October)
We've also been tracking the corresponding decline in U.S. deaths from IED attacks.
Month/Total Hostile Fire Fatalities/Number Killed by IED
Oct/20/14 (Through 24 October)
While we grieve for all those who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, the continuing drop in combat deaths demonstrates that their sacrifice was not in vain. But, as Michael Yon noted in his recent, terrific dispatch from Baghdad, you would be hard-pressed to find Americans who actually understand the sea-change that is taking place in Iraq. The battle for that country has not yet been won, but the progress that has occurred over the last six months is undeniable.
Still, impressing that fact on the American people remains problematic, thanks largely for the long-established media template for coverage of the Iraq conflict. While Mr. Hurst's AP report on the drop in casualties is certainly welcome, it was easy enough to recognize the caveats used to temper the good news.
On a more positive note, Mr. Yon is working a deal with the National Newspaper Association to make his work available to member publications. If your local paper is an NNA member, it might be worth a letter to the editor, encouraging them to carry his work.
The J-10, of course, is based on Israel's Lavi fighter program, which was cancelled more than a decade ago. The Lavi was based on U.S. F-16 technology; Tel Aviv has long claimed that Washington pressured them to cancel the program, fearing that the Israeli jet would compete with the American fighter in the world aircraft market. A more accurate explanation is that the Lavi program was beset by cost overruns, and the Israelis realized that they could acquire advanced F-16 models--with the same capabilities--at a much lower price.
When the Israelis began cooperating with China on the J-10 program, the U.S. warned that the move could backfire. Beijing has a well-deserved reputation for selling almost anything in their arsenal to buyers with the required cash, regardless of political consequences. So, the warnings issued by Washington years ago now seem prophetic; a fighter with the range to reach the Jewish State, based on Israeli technology, will soon be in the hands of Israel's mortal enemy.
In reality, the J-10 will pose only a marginal offensive threat to Israel, once it arrives in Iran. The Chinese-built fighter would need extensive air refueling support to mount a successful raid against Israeli targets--a capability that is currently lacking in the Iranian Air Force. Beyond that, Iran would face significant training issues to prepare pilots for the long-range mission. Penetrating Israeli air defenses poses yet another serious challenge.
Still, there's a lesson to be learned from the J-10 deal. In the fiercely competitive global arms market, the temptation to make big bucks sometimes overrides political and diplomatic sensibilities. Israel took a calculated risk in selling Lavi technology to Beijing, believing it could somehow "manage" future Chinese exports of the J-10.
Obviously, the Israelis were wrong. And, if their air force is called on to strike Iran in the coming years, IAF pilots could face a fighter designed by their own countrymen. The only consolation is that the latest Israeli F-16s are more than a match for the J-10, and IAF training and tactics are vastly superior to those of the Iranian Air Force.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Authorities in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania obtained an arrest warrant last week for Colonel Scott Carlson, who arranged for a fellow officer to provide a DNA sample, to "prove" that he wasn't the father of the nine-year-old child, who lives in Virginia with her mother.
Cumberland County District Attorney David J. Freed tells In From the Cold that he sought the arrest warrant after Carlson declined to cooperate with Pennsylvania investigators. In an e-mail interview, Mr. Freed indicated that his office has contacted Colonel Carlson several times since the investigation began, but prosecutors have "heard nothing" from the Army officer, who is now stationed in Egypt.
Freed reports that the other officer involved in the plot, Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Atkins, is cooperating with authorities, through his attorney. Both Atkins and Carlson were students at the U.S. Army War College, located at Carlisle Barracks in Cumberland County, when they attempted the DNA scam in early 2007.
It was not immediately clear when Carlson might be served with the arrest warrant, and returned to Pennsylvania for arraignment. Carlson and Atkins are facing multiple charges in connection with the incident, including fraud, tampering with or fabrication of physical evidence, tampering with public records, obstruction of the law, criminal conspiracy and solicitation, forgery, tampering and theft by deception. Atkins, who is now stationed in Georgia, has already been arraigned and released on bail.
According to Pennsylvania officials, the deception began when Carlson objected to a requested increase in support payments for his girlfriend's child, and sought to keep the situation secret from his wife and other children. Claiming that he was not the child's father, Carlson was told that he would have to provide a DNA sample as proof.
One month later--in April of this year--Lieutenant Colonel Atkins appeared at the Cumberland County Domestic Relations Office, presented Carlson's driver's license and provided both a DNA sample and fingerprints. Staffers became suspicious because Atkins clearly wasn't the officer who had appeared at their office in March, and his fingerprints and DNA (obviously) didn't match those of Carlson.
With information provided by the domestic relations office, District Attorney Freed launched an investigation in late summer, after Carlson and Atkins graduated from the War College. Army officials were unaware of the attempted deception, and allowed both men to complete the program, considered one of the most prestigious for senior military officers and Defense Department civilians.
Freed says officials at the War College, along with representatives of the Army's Criminal Investigative Division (CID) have been "extremely cooperative" during the investigation. He described Carlson's current overseas assignment as an "issue" in the case, but said it is not insurmountable.
Mr. Freed says he has "no reason to believe" that the Army will not continue its cooperation, by arranging for Carlson to return to Pennsylvania to face the criminal charges, which were filed on 4 October.
"If (Iran) chooses to do so, and the international community does not take steps to prevent it, it is possible Iran could have this capability," Bush said. "And we need to take it seriously — now."
The AP account of the president's address was posted less than three hours ago, so it didn't contain the usual Democratic/Russian response, accusing Mr. Bush of "fear mongering" or "creating a new arms race." But, it's a virtual certainty that spokesmen for the Democrats and the Kremlin will reply in those terms by the end of the day.
But their rhetoric clouds a rather inconvenient truth of missile technology: almost any country with the financial and/or technical resources to acquire or develop short or medium-range missiles can eventually field a crude ICBM, usually within 10 or 20 years.
Consider the case of North Korea. Despite tremendous financial limitations, Pyongyang has, in less than two decades, moved from extended-range SCUDs to a long-range missile capable of reaching the western United States. While that system (the Tapeo Dong-2) still has apparent technical problems--the missile tested last year failed shortly after launch--it demonstrates the ability of a bankrupt state to develop an intercontinental strike capability, however crude it might be.
Unfortunately for the U.S. and its allies, Iran doesn't operate under the same fiscal constraints. Tehran is spending freely on its missile and nuclear programs, and with oil approaching $90 a barrel, it can devote even more resources toward WMD and delivery systems. With assistance from North Korea and Pakistan, Iran has already fielded the Shahab-3 medium-range missile (capable of striking Israel), and has acquired the intermediate range BM-25, which can hit targets in southeastern Europe.
Collectively, the combination of oil money, North Korean missile expertise and Iran's own experience with the Shahab-3 and BM-25 provide a foundation for an ICBM program. True, the number of Iranian ICBMs in 2015 will be very small, but (tipped with nuclear warheads), they would give Tehran a limited ability to hold European and CONUS population centers at risk--and provide a powerful negotiating chip for the mullahs.
Obviously, one of the answers to Iran's missile ambitions is the proposed defensive shield in Eastern Europe. Officially, the Bush Administration still supports that deployment, but its signals on the system have been mixed of late. Earlier today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, traveling in the region, said that the U.S. might delay "activation" of the missile shield until it has "definitive proof" of a missile threat from Iran.
At a news conference with the Czech Republic Prime Minister, Mr. Gates told reporters that the "activation proposal" was a gesture toward Russia, which adamantly opposes U.S. missile defenses in Eastern Europe. Secretary Gates said that details of the offer have yet to be worked out.
"We would consider tying together activation of the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic with definitive proof of the threat — in other words, Iranian missile testing and so on," Gates said.
That must be music to Vladimir Putin's ears. After railing against the defensive shield for years, the Russians undoubtedly believe that their efforts are finally gaining traction. Look for them to ramp up the propaganda efforts in the coming months, to further delay--and potentially, derail--deployment of missile defenses in the Czech Republic and Poland.
We can only assume that Mr. Gates wasn't speaking out of turn, and that his comments about delayed activation of the defensive sites have the approval of the Commander-in-Chief. And, in fairness, the Defense Secretary sketched his activation proposal in only the vaguest terms. Perhaps its unfair to judge the overture on the basis of a few quotes at a news conference.
But, from our perspective, the contradiction in the messages from Prague and Washington was clear enough. After refusing to budge for years on European missile defenses, the Bush Administration appears to blinked. Depending on how one defines "definitive proof," activation of those sites could be delayed until the first Shahab-5 rockets toward Brussels or London.
Mr. Gates' remarks create some unnecessary wiggle room on an issue where the administration should be offering a united front. By offering to delay site activation, the Defense Secretary is suggesting that (perhaps) the Iranian threat isn't that serious, or that relations with Russia take precedent over protecting millions of people from an emerging threat. We're sure that the Russians, the Iranians and Congressional Democrats will be quick to seize on the contradiction between President Bush's warning, and Mr. Gates "offer" to delay our response to that threat.
Both Mr. Hoekstra and Ms. Ros-Lehtinen are among the handful of Congressmen who have actually been briefed on the raid. Judging from their op-ed (and Mr. Kurtz's account), both were disturbed by what they learned. They have encouraged the Bush Administration to "brief every member of Congress" on what has been learned, hinting that intelligence officials have confirmed that Syria obtained "nuclear material or expertise" from outside state sources, and alluding to a wider nuclear collaboration involving Iran and North Korea.
Normally, we take Congressional complaints about secrecy with a grain of salt. But Mr. Hoekstra, a former chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, are viewed as serious and well-respected in their areas of expertise, not usually given to hyperbole.
Additionally, Mr. Hoekstra is one of the few members of the House who seems to genuinely understand the need for secrecy in a democracy. Advocating briefings on the Israeli raid for all members of Congress--with the very real possibility of leaks--is very much out of character for Mr. Hoekstra. Clearly, the Michigan Congressman and his colleague from Florida were disturbed by what they learned in that briefing on the Israeli operation.
So why isn't the administration offering more information? Mr. Kurtz advances the same theory that we discussed last week. With the Six-Party talks now producing "results," the Bush Administration appears reluctant to acknowledge North Korea's involvement in the Syrian nuclear program, and undermine years of careful negotiations. Anxious to claim a foreign policy success, the "diplomatic wing" of the Bush national security operation (led by Secretary of State Rice) has been down-playing nuclear ties between Damascus and Pyongyang, in order to preserve the Six Party agreement.
And, as Mr. Kurtz observes, unnamed administration officials have been doing just that, casting doubt on North Korea's role in the Syrian nuclear project. He quotes a paragraph from a recent article in The New York Times on the Israeli raid, and its apparent target:
American and foreign officials would not say whether they believed the North Koreans sold or gave plans to the Syrians, or whether the North’s own experts were there at the time of the attack. It is possible, some officials said, that the transfer of the technology occurred several years ago.”
That version stands in sharp contrast to earlier accounts, which highlighted the nuclear connection between Pyongyand and Damascus, stating flatly that North Korean technicians were at the complex when it was attacked, and some of them died in the airstrike. Both Mr. Hoekstra and Ms. Ros-Lehtinen have accused the administration of "shaping" press coverage to suit their interests. Such tactics are a daily occurrence in Washington, but their use in this issue is both disappointing and potentially dangerous.
We agree with Mr. Kurtz. At a minimum, more members of Congress need to be brought into the loop on what we've learned about North Korea's ties to the Syrian nuclear program, and that information should be used (as required) to influence the debate on the Six Party process.
We put that in the "good news" category because it's another indicator of how the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan has turned in recent months. On the ground in Iraq, the troop surge has rooted hundreds of terrorists from long-established safe havens, creating more opportunities for fighters and bombers to eliminate them.
In Afghanistan, air power has been instrumental in smashing Al Qaida and Taliban formations before they can reach the battlefield. A year ago, many analysts warned of a powerful "spring offensive," with enemy fighters actually over-running a NATO base. But the terrorist campaign never materialized, in part because allied airpower killed scores of Taliban and Al Qaida militants before they could attack coalition positions. Indeed, the recent shift toward more suicide and IED attacks in Afghanistan is an indirect testament to the effectiveness of airpower, and the enemy's admission that past tactics are no match for coalition firepower.
The improved accuracy of U.S. weapons is another reason for the increase in airstrikes, according to USA Today. JDAM kits and the small diameter bomb allow for precise targeting of terrorist targets, with minimal risk of collateral damage. While there have been some complaints about airstrikes killing civilians--most notably in Afghanistan--many of those casualties resulted from terrorists deliberately taking refuge in civilian homes.
Contrary to Barrack Obama's assertion, we are not "air-raiding" villages in Iraq or Afghanistan. And, the results speak for themselves. Complaints about collateral damage remain low, despite the upswing in close air support (CAS) and battlefield air interdiction (BAI) missions flown by U.S. fighters. Meanwhile, the number of enemy attacks in Iraq has dropped by more than 50% and American casualties have decreased significantly. While much of that credit (rightfully) belongs to the the troops on the ground, every successful air mission means there are fewer terrorists to build bombs, plant IEDs, launch suicide attacks, or engage our soldiers and Marines.
If there's one fault with the USA Today article, it's the omission of this very important detail: the "precise targeting" described by writer Jim Michaels depends on precision intelligence. One important reason behind the increase in bombing missions is the receipt of better information on terrorist whereabouts and their activities. That, in turn, allows us to do a better job of putting bombs on target, for maximum effect.
Monday, October 22, 2007
While emphasizing that the weapons were never outside military control--and that such incidents are exceedingly rare--Air Force officials noted that mistakes of that sort are simply intolerable, and outlined a program for preventing similar mishaps in the future. Elements of the plan include (a) the dismissal of seniors officers deemed culpable in the incident; (b) decertification of Minot's 5th Bomb Wing in critical, nuclear-related tasks; (c) the "punishment" of dozens of lower-ranking personnel involved in the mishap, many of whom were removed from the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), which allows them to work with nuclear weapons; (d) "corrective actions to fix problems revealed by the inquiry--and return the 5th BMW to full operational status--and (e) a review of the recently completed-investigation, to determine if any criminal charges should be filed.
It certainly sounded like a comprehensive plan, particularly at 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, when the Air Force press conference was held. The timing of that event was no accident; like other public (and private) institutions, the USAF learned a long time ago that "bad news" is best dispensed on a Friday afternoon or evening, when the media and and audience interest are at low ebb, in anticipation of the weekend. And, to no one's surprise, the media coverage produced by the press event focused on the firing of four senior officers at Minot and Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, where the nuclear-armed B-52 landed. Other coverage highlighted the serious nature of the incident, deemed the worst breach of nuclear weapons security in more than 40 years.
But none of the articles--at least none that we've seen--spent much time on the underlying issues associated with the mishap. By all accounts, the inadvertent transfer of those nuclear-armed cruise missiles was a serious offense. Air Force officials described it as a serious violation of well-established regulations and protocols--a system that, in their words, has worked well for a long, long time. They also stressed the need for public confidence in our system for storing, protecting and transporting nuclear weapons. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the overall goal of the investigation is to "minimize" the chances for a similar mishap in the future.
That's all well and good, but (from what we've seen so far) there has been a focus on the "mechanics" of the Minot incident, and less regard for the institutional and cultural factors that may have influenced it. Firing three Colonels and a Lieutenant Colonel got everyone's attention, as did the flurry of LORs (Letters of Reprimand) handed out to lower-ranking personnel and the decision to remove 65 airmen--of all ranks--from the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), used to screen personnel who work with nuclear weapons. And, to drive home the "accountability" point, the service also decertified the 5th BMW on several nuclear-related tasks, leaving it unable to perform the full complement of combat missions. In light of the problems uncovered at Minot, such steps were inevitable, even welcome.
But they still don't answer the question of how that B-52 carrying six nuclear warheads flew from Minot to Barksdale, and no one knew the weapons were on board until they had been sitting on an aircraft ramp in Louisiana for almost 10 hours. The reasons for that failure go well beyond the failure of individual airmen or supervisors to conduct required checks. They suggest larger problems within the Air Force's nuclear weapons community--issues that must be addressed to prevent this sort of incident from happening in the future.
We'll begin with PRP, a topic that's been addressed frequently in this blog over the past two months. Various experts voiced concerns about how the program's been run since the mid-1990s; one retired Chief estimated that 25% of the personnel cleared for PRP shouldn't be in the program at all, due to personal or medical issues.
But, with commanders retaining the ability to "waiver" almost any sort of difficulty, more than a few "problem children" have wiggled through the system, improving manning levels, but creating additional headaches for commanders and other supervisors. We can only wonder what percentage of those 65 recently de-certified for PRP fell into that category, and what corrective measures (if any) are in place to keep them out of the program in the future. Beyond that, what steps does the Air Force propose to ensure that PRP standards are rigidly enforced?
The Minot incident also raises concerns about the Pentagon's evaluation program for nuclear-capable units. According to press reports, the 5th BMW earned high marks on a nuclear surety inspection (NSI) less than a year ago, and the wing's safety office received a command-level award for its work as well. Given the "lackadaisical attitudes" cited in the Air Force report, it seems rather odd that the NSI inspectors didn't detect that problem during their visit to Minot.
There's also the related issue of problems during those evaluations; Minot has failed an NSI within the last for years, and Barksdale achieved a minimum passing score during the same period. For both units, this lack of consistency--in an area that demands absolute, consistent adherence to standards--is disturbing, to say the least.
Indeed, there are indications that the seeds of the Minot incident were sown long before that failed inspection, or the recent, ill-fated B-52 flight to Barksdale. The Federal of American Scientists obtained a classified excerpt from the official history of Air Combat Command, the parent command of the 5th BMW. That history bemoaned declining standards for nuclear safety, security and accountability in 1998--nine years before the cruise missile debacle.
That was the same period when some of the Air Force's nuclear program managers began wondering about "shortcuts" in the PRP, with commanders "waivering" behavior that would (ordinarily) disqualify air and ground crews from working with nuclear weapons. It was also an era when some nuclear sites developed reputations as "hell holes," with troops volunteering for overseas, remote tours to escape them. A retired CMSgt who served at one of our nuclear bases in Europe recalls an influx of weapons specialists from Barksdale, who indicated that they would "do anything" to escape the Louisiana base.
Stories like that suggest long-term problems in some Air Force career fields (and installations) associated with nuclear weapons. And that represents the real "bottom line" for the current probe. Beyond fixing the obvious issues at Minot and Barksdale, the service must also address issues related to training, manning and personnel standards that are absolutely vital to any unit, particularly those that are nuclear-capable. Cutting corners on PRP or allowing young troops to deviate from checklists for weapons retirement have a way of coming back to bite you, as evidenced by the incident at Minot.
We have little doubt that the "fixes" outlined last Friday will remedy the problems discovered in North Dakota and Louisiana. But, based on what's been outlined so far, we're less convinced that the Air Force is taking a hard look at the long-term institutional issues that contributed to the mishap. Until those concerns are addressed, the service will still run the risk of another, serious incident involving "missing" nuclear weapons.