Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The IAF's Greatest Hits

Reflecting lessons learned in Lebanon two years ago, Israel is working to win the Gaza campaign on the battlefield--and on the internet.

As the IAF kicked off bombing raids against Hamas last Saturday, the IDF public affairs branch launched a YouTube channel, posting videos of air strikes against terrorist targets. The effort has a two-fold purpose: first, illustrate the rocket and mortar threat that prompted the Israeli campaign, and (secondly) highlight the IAF's attempts to avoid civilian casualties, through the use of precision intelligence and weaponry.

Those goals are evident in some of the latest videos released by the IDF. In a raid conducted earlier today, Israeli pilots eliminated a large stockpile of Palestinian rockets--stored in a mosque.

A second video shows an IAF strike on the offices of Hamas' Prime Minister, and a brief clip of armed Grad rocket launchers--just before they were destroyed.

There's also a longer, more recent video, entitled "Happy New Year From the IAF," with footage of F-16Is and Apache attack helicopters being prepped for missions in Gaza. The last half of the video includes the results of individual missions, shown in previous clips.

Finally, we haven't seen the footage of the IAF's latest success, the elimination of a senior Hamas official earlier today. That has to be disconcerting for the terrorists; when the IDF launched its campaign five days ago, Hamas leaders dispersed and went into hiding. The IAF's ability to track them down is another testament to the "precision intelligence" that forms the foundation of this operation.

Wary About Obama

When President-elect Barack Obama visited a Marine base in Hawaii a few days ago, observers described his reception as "polite, but cool." ABC's Sunlen Miller was among the reporters who covered the event:

“Just wanted to say hi, hey guys,” Obama said as he walked into the Anderson dining hall which was decked out in Christmas decorations.

The diners represented seven military units -- Marine and Navy -- some of whom were joined by their families for Christmas dinner.

As Obama entered the room, it was absent of the regular fanfare of cheering and clapping. The diners were polite, staying seated at their respective tables and waited for the president-elect to come to them to stand up.

Obama didn't eat his holiday dinner at the base. A Navy officer who was present described the event as a "photo op," although (in fairness), plenty of politicians, from both sides of the aisle, have used the military as a convenient backdrop. There's no reason that Mr. Obama should be any different than the commanders-in-chief who came before him.

But the reception at that Marine dining facility underscores another reality for the incoming president. Many members of the armed forces remain wary of him and the policies he has vowed to implement. A new Military Times poll finds 60% of military personnel are "uncertain" or "pessimistic" about the president-elect. By comparison, only a third described themselves as "optimistic" about Mr. Obama.

Military Times graphic

A majority of respondents also said they disapprove of Obama's stated plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 16 months. And by a wider margin--60%--they disagree with with his calls to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on gays in the military. However, almost three-quarters of those surveyed said they would continue with their military careers, even if Mr. Obama allows gays to serve openly. Twenty-three percent said they would leave the military or consider it if the policy is changed.

In follow-up interviews conducted by Military Times, some participants expressed serious concerns about their new commander-in-chief, and his stated policy goals:

“Being that the Marine Corps can be sent anywhere in the world with the snap of his fingers, nobody has confidence in this guy as commander in chief,” said one lance corporal who asked not to be identified.


How are you going to safely pull combat troops out of Iraq?” said Air Force 1st Lt. Rachel Kleinpeter, an intelligence officer with the 100th Operations Support Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, England. “And if you’re pulling out combat troops, who are you leaving to help support what’s left? What happens if Iraq falls back into chaos? Are we going to be there in five years doing the same thing over again?”

The findings are part of the Times' annual survey of military personnel. While the mail-in poll isn't considered scientific, it does offer one of the few opinion snapshots of the armed forces. The paper cautions that the survey--which is based on its subscriber list--under-represents minorities, junior enlisted members and female personnel. But is is considered a reliable barometer of "career" military members, officers and enlisted personnel who have logged multiple tours, and plan to serve until retirement.

If the survey has any good news for the Obama team, it is reflected in its timing. The incoming president has years to improve his standing among military members and the visit to that Marine base represents a tentative start. Rejecting a hasty retreat from Iraq--a position that Mr. Obama seems to be embracing--would be a good start, along with staying the course in Afghanistan. The new commander-in-chief also needs to get behind increases in pay and benefits for military members.

Still, the incoming president faces an uphill battle in winning the support of the troops. Military personnel, who voted for Republican John McCain by more than a 3-1 margin, are rightfully wary of an unabashed liberal in the Oval Office.

He also suffers because of "brand identification." Members of the armed forces are leery of Democrats, who cut defense programs the last time they controlled the White House. With many of the same, Clinton-era officials now poised to serve in an Obama Administration, they have every right to be suspicious.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Head-Scratching Time Out?

That's how Jerusalem Post columnist David Horovitz described a potential cease-fire between the IDF and Hamas. According to various media and diplomatic reports, Israel is considering a 48-hour suspension of its attacks against the terror group--and possibly, a longer pause--if Hamas agrees to stop its rocket attacks against southern Israeli towns.

The cease-fire would come as Israeli forces are inflicting severe damage on the terrorist organization, its leadership, and key infrastructure targets. As Horovitz writes, the idea of a cease-fire at this juncture is simply mind-boggling:

Operation Cast Lead, launched with the defined goal of restoring security to the Kassam-battered south of Israel, was code-named for the Haim Nahman Bialik poem about a Hanukka spinning top cast from solid lead.

If the code name was relevant on Saturday for the Hanukka timing, it gained new resonance on
Tuesday night because of the spinning reference. The notion that Israel was leaning toward suspending the operation for 48 hours, and indefinitely if Hamas ceases its rocket fire, seemed head-spinning, indeed.

It plainly dizzied the Chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. As soon as reports broke that Defense Minister Ehud Barak was considering accepting a proposal to this end from French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, and would take it to his colleagues Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Tuesday night for a decision, Ashkenazi approved the release of a statement dissociating the IDF from any role in hatching or advancing the idea.

Lieutenant General Ashkenazi had plenty of room to distance himself--and the IDF--from the apparent, growing indecision among Israel's political leaders. As Mr. Horovitz notes, the IDF Chief of Staff has worked diligently over the past two years to restore the military's fighting capabilities--and its confidence.

Indeed, the opening salvos of Cast Lead revealed a well planned, expertly-executed operation, aimed at crippling Hamas. But, with the terror group reeling, the Israelis are considering an operation pause, a move the IDF must find galling.

In fairness, there are legitimate reasons for taking a time-out. Some reports suggest that the IAF has run out of targets and needs a couple of days to assess the air campaign's results. Additionally, weather conditions in Gaza are expected to deteriorate over the next couple of days, limiting some air platforms and making conditions more difficult for a ground invasion.

Additionally, Israel could score public relations points by allowing Gaza residents to receive humanitarian supplies and expanded medical attention during a cease-fire. If Hamas violates the cease-fire (a virtual certainty), the IAF has the option of quickly re-starting the air campaign, and launching a massive ground assault.

But there are better reasons to maintain pressure on Hamas. Much of the terror group's military forces remain intact, and there are still enough crews to fire 30-40 missiles a day into southern Israel, inflicting additional damage and casualties. With much of the Negev still under the gun, the Israelis have ample justification for continuing the air offensive. Israeli leaders are also aware that a short-term suspension of hostilities would be interpreted as a "de facto" victory for Hamas--a perception that Tel Aviv can hardly afford.

There is also the possibility that talk of a cease-fire is simply an Israeli deception measure. Before the air war began last week, Israeli leaders actually implemented conciliatory gestures toward Gaza, and suggested that any attacks were still days away. As we noted in a previous post, the Palestinians took the bait; as IAF jets and attack helicopters swooped down on Hamas facilities Saturday, they observed a graduation ceremony in-progress at a police academy--one of their primary targets.

So far, Cast Lead has been a remarkable success for the IDF--and the Israeli leaders that ordered the operation. But in modern warfare, perceptions are often as important as results on the battlefield. The internal debate over continuing the air strikes or offering a cease fire suggests confusion at the upper levels of Israel's government.

It's another perception that could (potentially) undermine the IDF campaign, creating an image of confusion and indecision, at the very moment that Israeli forces had gained a decisive advantage. Having bungled the Second Lebanon War in 2006, could Israel's leaders accomplish the same feat again?

Carlson's Comeuppance

Retired Army Colonel Scott Carlson has been sentenced to at least four months in jail for his role in a rigged paternity test, aimed at ending the former officer's child support obligations.

Carlson, 53, was ordered to serve between four and 23 months in jail and pay a $500 fine for his role in the conspiracy. The sentence was based on Carlson's conviction on felony charges of tampering with public records, and attempted theft by deception.

A judge in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania imposed the prison term today, three months after Carlson was found guilty on the charges. It is unclear if the former Army officer will remain free on bail while attorneys appeal his conviction. During today's proceedings, the judge announced that bail would be set at $75,000. But after sentencing, Carlson was led away in handcuffs and placed in a holding cell. Later, he was spotted in the back of a police van.

It was an ignominious end for a Colonel who was once on the military fast-track. Back in the spring of 2007, Carlson was a student at the Army War College, also located in Cumberland County. The war college is viewed as a plum assignment for officers on the rise; virtually every Army general is a graduate of the school or one of its sister institutions, run by the other services.

But Carlson had a little problem. As a battalion executive officer at Fort Lee, Virginia in 1997, he had an affair with an enlisted, female subordinate. The liaison produced a daughter, who is now 10 years ago. Carlson admitted he was the father, and agreed to pay monthly support for the child.

A decade later, Carlson had apparently grown tired of child support, and hatched a scheme to end the payments. In the spring of 2007, he appeared at the child support enforcement division in Cumberland County, and announced that the girl was not his child. Office personnel informed Carlson that he would have to submit to a DNA test to prove his contention.

Enter Carlson's classmate, Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Adkins. On the day of the test, Adkins arrived at the child support office, claiming that he was Carlson. Staffers immediately had their doubts, since Adkins looks nothing like Colonel Carlson. But they went ahead with the test, which confirmed their suspicions--and exposed the scam.

By the time the crime was confirmed, both Carlson and Adkins had graduated from the war college and moved on to new assignments. But, with cooperation from the school and the Army's Criminal Investigative Division, Carlson and Adkins were returned to Pennsylvania to face justice.

After some legal maneuvering by the Colonel's defense team, Carlson finally went to trail in September and was quickly found guilty. Given the failed scam--and the evidence presented against him--Carlson's conviction was hardly a surprise.

But as the September proceedings got underway, the reason for the legal delay became apparent: Colonel Carlson was identified as a retired officer, confirming that he left active duty after his indictment. That revelation stunned many observers; in most cases, the military refuses to let members separate or retire until their legal problems are resolved.

Clearly, someone in the Army hierarchy threw the Colonel a legal lifeline, letting Carlson secure his pension (and other retirement benefits) before that fateful day in court. True, Carlson will indisposed for upwards of two years, but he'll emerge from jail with an annual pension of more than $4,000 a month. Not too bad for a convicted felon.

Prosecutors (and Carlson's ex-girlfriend) announced satisfaction with today's sentence. His partner-in-crime, Lt Col Adkins, goes on trial next month. Adkins cooperated in the prosecution of Colonel Carlson, so he'll likely receive a lighter sentence. The January trial will also answer the other burning question: did Adkins receive the same favor from the Army, allowing him to face justice as a retiree, rather than an active duty officer. It may not sound like much of a distinction, but for a military defendant in civilian court, the difference is huge.

2009 is shaping up as a less-than-happy New Year for Carlson and Adkins, but it could be worse. Thanks to their friends in high places, their jail sentences will be relatively light, and their retirement benefits intact.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Defining the Goal

There are signs that Israel is preparing for a ground offensive into Gaza, as its air campaign against Hamas continues.

Various media reports indicate the IDF tanks and armored personnel carriers are still massing along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Other press accounts suggested that Israeli combat engineers had engaged in limited clearing operations, removing obstacles that might impede a ground assault into Gaza.

Defense Mininster Ehud Barak reinforced perceptions of a pending ground attack, suggesting that expanded operations were in the offing:

"If the criminal, intentional rocket fire at the citizens of Israel is not stopped immediately, Israel will use all legal means at its disposal to stop the illegal and aggressive acts against civilians,” barak said in an e- mailed statement from his office."

Meanwhile, Israeli jets and attack helicopters continued strikes against Hamas facilities and leadership targets inside Gaza. At least 10 Palestinians were killed in the latest attacks, but many western reporters have been banned from the area, and those numbers were provided by second-hand sources. All told, more than 300 Palestinians--many of them Hamas operatives--have died since the IAF campaign began over the weekend.

But the terror group claims its paramilitary wing, Izaddin Kassam, has been relatively untouched by Israeli airstrikes. Hamas sources tell the Jerusalem Post that many of those killed were "ordinary" policemen, who do not participate in rocket and mortar attacks against southern Israel. Hamas spokesmen have long claimed that their organization has a 15,000 member "army," trained and equipped to repel and Israeli invasion.

Those claims are a bit dubious, as is the group's denial that its leadership and militiamen are relatively unscathed. But a ground incursion into Gaza would be difficult. The area represents urban wafare at its worst, with IDF soldiers having to clear terrorists house-by-house, in some of the most densely-populated neighborhoods on earth.

If Israel sends in ground forces, it's unclear how long the operation might last, or what the offensive would hope to achieve. More accurately, we should say that Israeli leaders haven't clarified those points, at least publicly. They are painfully aware that the 2006 Lebanon campaign failed (in large part) because the war's objectives and underlying strategy were never defined, or publicly articulated.

This time around, we're guessing that those problems have been solved, and the Israeli goals will become more clear as military operations unfold. Writing for the Jerusalem Post, IDF Reserve Major General Giora Eiland postulates that Israel is aimed at achieving "long term quiet" along its southern border, rather than a complete elimination of Hamas. That latter goal would require a full-scale invasion, a renewed occupation--and heavier Israeli casualties.

Instead, General Eiland believes Israeli leaders would be satisfied with a greatly weakened Hamas, resolution of the prisoner issue (i.e., the return of Corporal Gilad Schalit, kidnapped more than two years ago) and an enforceable cease-fire.

Incidentally, Eiland views these conditions as a prerequisite for reopening border crossings. He believes that Israel's current offer, to reopen the crossings as part of a cease-fire is a mistake, since it reduces leverage in resolving the Schalit issue.

Monday Schadenfreude

The NFL playoffs begin this weekend, minus the Dallas Cowboys. "America's Team" got a head start on the off season with Sunday's monumental collapse in Philadelphia, losing to the Eagles, 44-6.

It was the team's worst defeat in 38 years, and as Todd Archer of the Dallas Morning News wrote, "a reminder of everything the Cowboys weren't in 2008."

Remember, this was supposed to be their year. That loss in the playoffs to the Giants in January? Just a temporary glitch. Why, with Romo, T.O., Whitten, Barber (and just about all the other starters) re-signed for 2009, the Cowboys were a team of destiny, a veritable lock for Super Bowl XLIII.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Tampa. While the Giants ran away with the division --and the Eagles fought their way into position for the playoffs--the "Boys" choked down the stretch, culminating in yesterday's debacle at Lincoln Financial Field. Quarterback Tony Romo reportedly collapsed in the shower after the game, matching his performance on the grid iron.

In the NFC East, where there's no love lost between the teams (or their supporters) the Dallas collapse represents the perfect season finale. If you're a fan of the Giants, Eagles or even the Washington Redskins--who experienced their own late-season swoon--these are happy times, indeed.

And, the fun may continue in 2009. Team owner and general manager Jerry Jones spent a staggering $135 million in guarantee salaries after last season, and traded away his #1 pick in next year's draft to obtain wide receiver Roy Williams. Better yet, he has, inexplicably, decided to keep head coach Wade Phillips and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.

Put another way, if you liked this version of the Cowboys, you'll like the 2009 team as well. Unless Jerry Jones can teach Wade Phillips to take charge of the team--or persuade some other club to take such "positive" clubhouse influences as Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson and Terrell Owens--he'll be stuck with the same, under-achieving crew next season, in that brand-new billion-dollar stadium.

Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch. BTW, Jerry, if you want another "model citizen" to round out your receiving corps, give Giants GM Jerry Reese a call. Plaxico Burress would be a perfect fit for your team, and his $27 million contract would be chump change in Dallas.


ADDENDUM: Incidentally, the Cowboys circus hasn't closed for the season, at least not yet. The Dallas Morning News reports there was an altercation this afternoon between linebacker Bradie James and a fan who was protesting outside the team's practice facility in Valley Ranch. Here's reporter Tim MacMahon's version of events:

A fan wearing a Jason Witten jersey stood on the street in front of the Cowboys' Valley Ranch facility today, wearing a sandwich board that read, "WADE IS AN EMBARRASSMENT TO THE STAR" and "OUR TEAM HAS NO HEART." The man ended up calling Irving police after a confrontation with LB Bradie James.

James said the fan was blocking his way out of the parking lot, leading him to tell the man he needed to get out of the way or get hit by the linebacker's luxury SUV.

"He said, 'Why you guys didn't show that fire last night? You should have showed that heart last night!'" James recalled to reporters. "So next thing you know, I'm just ripping his sign off him. So I ripped the sign off him. He said I broke his glasses, so I went and gift-wrapped some Oakleys. He got something out the deal."

Eventually, cooler heads prevailed, but not before the Cowboys endured yet another black eye. A poster on the Morning News blog offered his own version of events, which aptly summarized Dallas' recent, defensive woes:

Posted by Brady is no All-Star @ 3:04 PM Mon, Dec 29, 2008

I heard James tried to tackle the sandwich board guy, but James tripped as he approached him and failed to use his arms to wrap him up. Then Terence Newman came flying in, shoulder first, but missed the sandwich board guy entirely. James and Newman reportedly blamed the coaches for not properly preparing them to handle sandwich board wearers.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Precision Intelligence

Day Two of Israel's campaign in Gaza is drawing to a close, with the IAF expanding its attacks, and ground forces preparing for a possible invasion.

According to the Associated Press, there have been "some 300 air strikes since midday Saturday," targeting scores of Hamas facilities. Media accounts suggest that at least 290 Palestinians have died, describing the violence in Gaza as "the deadliest since Israeli troops captured the area during the 1967 war."

As you might expect, the dispatches fail to note that most of the dead are Hamas leaders, or members of the terror group's security forces. In fact, one air strike reportedly occurred during a graduation ceremony at a police training academy, killing scores of Hamas operatives.

And that underscores another element of the Israeli assault--also ignored by the western press. The IAF campaign has been based on precision intelligence, maximizing the airstrikes' effectiveness. The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel's intelligence services have been "preparing the battlefield" for more than a year, gathering data on Hamas facilities and key personnel.

The Post's Yaakov Katz also notes that the IDF plan included a key deceptive element. That's hardly a surprise; the Israelis have launched virtually every military operation with measures aimed at confounding their enemies. But in this case, the deception seemed aimed at countering media leaks that would prevent Israel from achieving tactical surprise.

The decision to launch such a blow against Hamas on Saturday was made during last Wednesday's security cabinet meeting. A secret meeting was held again on Friday between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, where the timing was finalized.

After several of the decisions from Wednesday's cabinet meeting were leaked to the press, Barak decided on a strategy of deception - to deceive Hamas into believing that Israel was not planning to strike back.

Barak took two actions to achieve this - the decision to open the Gaza crossings on Friday (which was announced on Thursday) and leaking to the press that there would be another cabinet meeting on Sunday to decide whether to attack. This created the perception that Israel was holding off on an operation when in reality it was fueling and arming its aircraft.

While some of the Hamas facilities were relatively easy to spot, the identification of others required more time and effort. Pinpoint attacks that took out terror leaders are one example; Sunday's "tunnel campaign" are another. In the latest round of air attacks, Israeli jets struck more than 40 smuggling tunnels that run beneath the border between Egypt and Gaza.

Many of the passages are small and built by hand, without the large dirt mounds and boring machines usually associated with the construction of underground facilities--clues that intelligence analysts often look for. But the Israelis still managed to locate them, denying the Palestinians key resupply routes for weapons and commercial goods. That will put further pressure on the terrorists, reducing their ability to launch new rocket and mortar attacks on Israel.

So far, Israel's air campaign seems to be achieving desired results. The leadership of Hamas has been severely crippled and the number of Kassam strikes against southern Israeli towns and settlements has dropped dramatically. Just over 20 rockets were fired from Gaza on Sunday, compared with 120 on Saturday--most of them before the IAF airstrikes began at midday.

Of course, the real test for the IDF (and Israeli intelligence) would be a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Ehud Barak has refused to rule out that option, declaring that "now is the time for fighting." Israeli tanks were reported on the Gaza border Sunday, and a limited call-up of reserves is reportedly underway.

Once they cross the border, IDF armor, infantry and special forces units will face anti-tank missiles and IEDs, among other threats. But the Israelis have been absorbing the lessons of the Second Lebanon War for the past two years and one thing is certain: any ground incursion into Gaza will not be a repeat of 2006. That attack was both haphazard and reluctant, launched only after the IAF was unable to stem Hizballah rocket fire into Israel.

If an invasion is approved, IDF forces will enter Gaza with clear objectives and some sort of exit strategy. A decision on a ground assault hasn't been made, but could come as early as tomorrow. On the other hand, that could be another element of the Israeli deception plan.

ADDENDUM: While the Israelis are being criticized for the "heavy" loss of life, the air campaign has been remarkably precise, in many respects. On Saturday, a BBC correspondent described an attack on a Hamas compound only 20 meters from his residence. The reporter (and his apartment building) escaped unscathed; the terrorist target was heavily damaged. Based on that report, we'd say the weapon used was a U.S.-made Small Diameter Bomb, designed specifically for precision strikes in urban terrain.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Pakistan Deploys

Tensions between India and Pakistan are on the rise, amid reports that Islamabad is deploying additional forces to its eastern border.

The latest troop movements come less than a month after the terror attacks in Mumbai that killed more than 170 people. Indian officials have blamed Pakistan for sponsoring the violence and demanded that Islamabad arrest those responsible within its borders. While the Pakistani government has denied direct involvement, but its intelligence services have long supported terrorist groups that carry out attacks inside India.

Pakistan's deployment of additional troops along the Indian border creates a double headache for Washington. First, the military build-up heightens the prospect for a new conflict between Pakistan and India, bitter foes who have fought three major wars over the past 60 years. Both are nuclear-armed, and any new fighting could quickly escalate beyond the conventional thresh hold.

And, if that's not bad enough, Islamabad's move is causing new problems in the Global War on Terror. The troops now moving to the Indian border are being drawn from Pakistan's tribal areas, the same regions that serve as a recruiting, training and support base for the Taliban and Al Qaida. With fewer Pakistani troops on the ground, security in the northwest region will almost certainly deteriorate.

That, in turn, means an increased threat to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the supply lines (through Pakistan) that support them. In recent weeks, Taliban fighters have carried out a series of high-profile strikes on NATO supply convoys, destroying hundreds of vehicles. Those attacks will almost certainly grow in the coming weeks, possibly rendering those corridors unusable. Without those routes, the U.S. and its allies will be forced to seek new routes through equally inhospitable territory.

But the deployment's most disturbing element is the mission of the units that are on the move. Bill Roggio at The Long War Journal has an excellent analysis on the importance of these formations, as they relate to a possible war with India:

More than 20,000 Pakistani soldiers from Pakistan's 14th Army Division are being moved to the cities of Kasur and Sialkot in Punjab province, The Associated Press reported. The eastern cities are close to the Indian border and sit along the projected path of an Indian armored assault into Pakistan.


The 14th Division is part of Pakistan's XXXI Army Corps based out of Bahawalpur. "The XXXI Corps is the defensive formation assigned to take the brunt of an Indian armored assault," said Ravi Rikhye, the editor of, a website that tracks the order of battle for militaries throughout the world. Mandeep Singh Bajwa published an order of battle for Pakistani forces fighting counterinsurgency operations in northwestern Pakistan at just days ago. "The II Corps in Multan is assigned to follow up the XXXI Corps holding action and counterattack against invading Indian forces.

That referenced "holding action" represents the expected third phase of a general war between India and Pakistan. In the initial phase, Islamabad's elite Strike Corps would push into Indian territory. That incursion would be blunted by New Delhi's numerically and technically-superior forces, which would launch with their own counter-attack in the war's second phase.

But few experts believe that Pakistan's XXXI and II Corps can withstand the Indian assault. If that "third phase" goes badly for Islamabad (as most analysts anticipate), it will lead to a nuclear strike on the invading Indian armored columns. That would be followed by a wider nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, which could kill millions of people.

In other words, Pakistan is now deploying troops for the third phase of its battle plan with India. That suggests that tensions are much higher than most observers believe, and the two countries may be moving closer to war.

To be fair, Islamabad has made these moves before, without resorting to armed conflict. But intelligence gaps on both sides create uncertainty, and the potential for miscalculation. This is particularly true in regards to the nuclear forces on both sides. Even the U.S. intelligence system has reported great difficulty in tracking nuclear movements and activity by India and Pakistan in the past, and it's a fair bet that New Delhi and Islamabad have only limited knowledge of what the other side is up to.

The U.S. is urging India and Pakistan to remain calm. A spokesman said the White House is in contact with New Delhi and Islamabad, urging cooperation on the Mumbai attacks and the wider issue of terror. It's also likely that a senior U.S. defense official may return to the region, for more talks with Pakistani officials. Both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and JCS Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen have traveled to Islamabad in recent weeks, and it's almost certain that one of them will head back to the sub-continent, in an effort to defuse the situation.

But it may not be enough, and we may be under-estimating the situation. A year after the 1999 Kargil Crisis, our intelligence agencies discovered that India and Pakistan had come dangerously close to a nuclear exchange over a situation that was (arguably) less heated than this one. Today, we face similar intelligence gaps in trying to assess the current crisis.

Beating the Bad Guys With Little Blue Pills

There may be hope for the CIA's operations directorate, after all.

Today's Washington Post recounts an example of creative field work in Afghanistan. CIA officers, anxious to win the cooperation of a local chieftain, hit upon a novel idea. Noting that the tribal patriarch was at least 60--with four young wives--the case officer offered something that was better than cash or guns, the standard inducements in that part of the world.

Instead, the operative gave the chieftain four blue pills. "Take one of these. You'll love it," the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam.

The Post's Joby Warrick reports that the Viagra "gift" achieved its desired results.

The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes -- followed by a request for more pills.

For U.S. intelligence officials, this is how some crucial battles in Afghanistan are fought and won. While the CIA has a long history of buying information with cash, the growing Taliban insurgency has prompted the use of novel incentives and creative bargaining to gain support in some of the country's roughest neighborhoods, according to officials directly involved in such operations.

The key, according to a former CIA officer, is to "find a way to keep an informant firmly on your side but leaves little or no visible trace." The Viagra bribe is an excellent case-in-point; an agent who participated in the operation recalls that the offer of little blue pills came after extended conversations with the elder. A discussion of his family and the four wives (the most allowed by the Koran) provided the inspiration--and a breakthrough for the agency:

Four days later, when the Americans returned, the gift had worked its magic, the operative recalled.

"He came up to us beaming," the official said. "He said, 'You are a great man.' "

"And after that we could do whatever we wanted in his area."

For obvious reasons, the article doesn't identify the operatives responsible for the Viagra mission. But it would be interesting to know if these officers were agency veterans--perhaps with experience from Afghan operations in the 1980s--or more recent hires, who've come on board since 9-11.

In either case, the agents deserve credit for a job well done. In an era when the CIA is often criticized for sloppy and ineffective operations, it's reassuring to know that some officers still know how to assess a delicate situation, and come up with innovative solutions.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Making of a Holiday Classic

By any standard, It's a Wonderful Life qualifies as a holiday classic. Frank Capra's 1946 film has earned its place in the pop culture pantheon, becoming a Christmas tradition for millions of viewers around the world.

But it wasn't always that way. In its initial, theatrical release, It's a Wonderful Life was a dud, despite the star power of Jimmy Stewart and Mr. Capra's presence behind the camera. While the film won five Academy Award nominations, it failed to break even at the box office and was quickly forgotten by RKO, the studio that released It's a Wonderful Life.

By the early 1950s, Capra's production--which retained the film's copyright--had been sold to Paramount. But the new studio showed little interest in the director's Christmas tale and over the decades that followed, rights to It's a Wonderful Life passed from Paramount to a series of syndication firms.

Two decades later, control of the film rested with a company called National Telefilm Associates. But a clerical error at NTA prevented the copyright from being properly renewed. And that allowed a movie that had been largely ignored to reach new audiences and secure its standing as a holiday classic.

Writing at, University of Mississippi Law Professor Ronald Rychalk explains how the lapsed copyright actually benefited the film:

The movie had not yet become a Christmas classic when, in 1974, its copyright protection was allowed to expire. That meant that television stations could air it over and over without paying full royalties. (There were still some smaller, derivative royalties due on the storyline, but it is not clear that they were always paid.) For a period of time from the mid-1970s into the 1990s, It's a Wonderful Life seemed to be on several stations, several times each week during the Christmas season. In fact, one episode of the old television series Cheers even dealt with the movie's frequent airings.

These repeated showings, made possible by the termination of copyright protection, turned It's a Wonderful Life into the Christmas tradition that it is today. That, in turn, sent people searching for ways to capitalize on the film.

As a result, there multiple videotape versions of the film--all released by different companies. Various "colorized" versions also appeared, to the consternation of critics and audiences alike.

But renewed interest--and profit potential--in the Capra production also spurred action by the original copyright holders. What followed was something of a miracle, not unlike Clarence the Angel earning his wings in the film.

You may have noticed that, in recent years, It's a Wonderful Life comes on only once or twice per Christmas season, and only on a major network (NBC). [That's because] The original copyright holders managed to reassert their rights, something that is virtually unheard of. But the rights associated with the background music, as well as the copyright protection stemming from the short story on which the movie was based, had not yet expired. That gave Republic Pictures the hook in needed to reassert its control of the film. (Apparently, there was some attempt by other groups to avoid paying royalties by running the film without music, but it was disallowed by the courts.)

As a result, one of the great Christmas films of all time is once again protected by the law -- ironic, considering that it became a classic in significant part because it was legally unprotected. But God works in mysterious ways -- and sometimes the law does, too.

Incidentally, It's a Wonderful Life represented Stewart and Capra's return to Hollywood after World War II, and both the actor and director considered it their favorite film. But while Stewart quickly reestablished himself as a major star, Capra's post-war career lagged, and as Roger Ebert observed, he never recaptured the magic of his 1930s films. His last production was released in 1961, only 15 years after It's a Wonderful Life.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Beating the Rap (Merry Christmas Edition)

The Air Force's case against Colonel Michael Murphy continues to unravel.

Murphy is the senior Judge Advocate General who was headed for flag rank until a background investigation revealed that he had been disbarred in two states as a civilian attorney. That led to the Colonel's dismissal as head of the Air Force Legal Operations Agency and criminal charges of conduct unbecoming an officer, larceny and failure to obey regulations.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the anticipated, slam-dunk conviction of Colonel Murphy. In September, the trial judge ruled that Murphy could not be punished, even if he was found guilty. Judge Stephen Henley determined that Murphy's lawyers could not present an adequate defense because the White House--where the Colonel worked from 2001-2005-- refused to release classified details of his duty in Iraq.

Without that information, Henley decided, Murphy's lawyers could not offer the standard "good airman" defense, comparing past examples of honorable service with accusations offered at courts-martial. Henley's ruling threatened to undermine the case against Colonel Murphy; thanks to the judge's decision, the disgraced JAG could be found guilty and still escape unpunished, his pension and other retirement benefits intact.

Now, the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals has upheld Colonel Henley's decision. In a ruling released Monday, the service's highest appellate court determined that the judge was within his authority when he decided that Murphy cannot be punished--even if he is convicted. As Air Force Times summarized the ruling:

Chief Judge Col. James R. Wise presided over the case. In an 18-page decision, the court said a sentence of no punishment is an option of any case, so it is within Henley’s power to order that no punishment be given.

The court also said Murphy’s exemplary service to the White House Military Office, if the details were fully known, could lead a sentencing body to assign a sentence of no punishment.

And “because the government failed to submit the privileged information … it has significantly hampered [Murphy’s] right to have the sentencing body seriously consider a sentence of no punishment,” said the ruling.

While the Air Force hasn't released Judge Wise's complete ruling, that last sentence does a nice job of characterizing the legal quandary it has created. By holding the Colonel to the confidentiality agreement that he signed as a WHMO staffer, the organization has, in effect, thrown Murphy a legal lifeline, a "stay out of jail" card as some have called it.

As we've noted in recent posts, there are serious flaws in this reasoning. Over the years, the military has tried scores of officers and NCOs who held sensitive posts and the security clearances those jobs required. Despite obvious security concerns, those cases moved forward and most of the accused were convicted. There are no indications that any of their trials caused grave harm to national security.

In those proceedings, prosecutors, defense attorneys and military organizations worked together to ensure that the court was aware of honorable service by the defendants, without jeopardizing intelligence sources or covert operations. And, there's no reason that similar provisions can't be made for the trial of Colonel Murphy.

But the White House Military Office shows no sign of backing down, and there is little chance that the nation's highest military appellate court, or the U.S. Supreme Court, will overturn Judge Henley's ruling. Facing those barriers, Air Force prosecutors may well elect to drop the remaining charges against Murphy. Why go through with a trial when the Judge has already decided that the defendant can't be punished--even if the court finds him guilty?

That's exactly what Murphy's defense team is hoping for. At some point, they believe the Air Force will run out of appeals and throw in the towel, allowing their client to walk away a free man.

There is, of course, another alternative. President Bush, as the outgoing Commander-in-Chief, could overrule the White House Military Office, and order declassification of Murphy's service record in Iraq. That would remove the administrative barrier to the Colonel's planned defense, allowing lawyers to detail his Iraq service in open court--while ensuring adequate protection for the nation's secrets.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bush has demonstrated no interest in the case. He appears content to let Michael Murphy--a man he would have likely nominated for Brigadier General--ride off into the sunset, closing out a military career that was built on lies and deceit. It's entirely the wrong message to send to the troops, who have long believed that the military justice system fails to punish senior personnel, or those with the right connections.

And who can blame them? Among members of the armed forces, 2008 will be remembered (in part) as the year that a Navy officer was allowed to retire, despite her admitted role in a Washington, D.C. prostitution ring. And a few weeks ago, a jury at Fort Bragg acquitted an Army Staff Sergeant who threatened his commander, just weeks before the Captain (and another officer) died in a fragging incident in Iraq.

Now, it appears those travesties will be followed by Colonel Murphy's own escape from justice--another supposedly "airtight" case that somehow came unraveled. But there is one important difference. In the Murphy saga, the unraveling begins at 1600 Pennsylania Avenue.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Peace Through Strength

Byron York of NRO has a terrific read on a place that reminds us that peace through strength is more than a slogan--as long as we have the resolve to match those words with action.

The place that symbolizes that phrase (and our determination) is the Titan Missile Museum, located in the Arizona desert near Tucson. The museum is a testament to American strength that won the Cold War, and the crews who earned that victory, poised on the edge of nuclear Armageddon. They were the men--and later, women--who crewed the nation's intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-capable bombers and air refueling tankers, the alert force of Strategic Air Command.

As Mr. York writes, the Arizona facility creates a lasting impression of what it took to achieve deterrence in the Cold War and the military personnel who performed that mission. The museum is built around a former Titan II ICBM site, Missile Silo 571-1. Located about 20 miles south of Arizona's second-largest city, the silo represented the front lines of the Cold War.

For two decades, beginning in the early 1960s, the silo held the most powerful, land-based missile ever fielded by the United States. The Titan II held a single, nine-megaton warhead, the largest ever deployed on an American ICBM. By comparison, the warheads on today's Minuteman III missiles have a yield of 330 kilotons. The Minuteman IIIs are much more accurate than the Titan IIs, allowing them to carry a much smaller warhead. The same holds true for the Trident D-5, the Navy's most advanced submarine-launched ballistic missile.

But in 1963, when Silo 571-1 first went operational, the Titan II represented the state-of-the-art in nuclear deterrence. But maintaining that presence required an extraordinary effort. At one point, the Air Force had three Titan II wings, based at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson; McConnell AFB in southeastern Kansas, and Little Rock AFB, Arkansas. Collectively, they were responsible for 54 Titan II missiles and destructive power that was almost unimaginable.

Except for maintenance periods, those missiles were on alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Locked into the Titan II's guidance system was a designated target, somewhere in the Soviet Union. The unfortunate city, military facility or missile base had been selected by planners at SAC Headquarters, responsible for building the Single Integrated Operational Plan, the nation's blueprint for nuclear war.

The job of launching a Titan II fell to its four-man crew; two junior officers and two enlisted members. Upon receipt of a valid launch order, they would follow the procedures that would put the missile on its intended target in only 30 minutes. About the same time, the thinking went, a Russian ICBM would land on or near the U.S. silo, vaporizing the crew.

In the event they survived--and the Titan II launch capsule and silo were built to withstand a nuclear near miss--the launch crew had a small stock of provisions and their sidearms, now useful for shooting rabbits.

Like other ICBMs of its era, the Titan II was liquid-fueled with storable propellants. The risk of leaks (and explosions) was always present. Two Air Force members died in 1978 after oxidizer began leaking at a Titan II site near McConnell; two years later, a maintenance technician dropped a socket down a silo near Damascus, Arkansas, puncturing the missile's fuel tank. The launch capsule was evacuated while the Air Force and contractors tried to resolve the crisis. Hours later, static electricity ignited fuel and vapors inside the silo, creating a massive explosion that tossed the 700-ton blast door into a field, 300 feet away.

But the system's worst accident occurred early in its career. In August 1965, a flash fire occurred in Silo 373-4 near Searcy, Arkansas, while it was undergoing modifications. The blaze consumed all of the oxygen within the silo, suffocating 53 contractors. After a lengthy investigation, the modification process continued, and the site resumed alert status in 1966. While the Titan II was (thankfully) never fired in anger, its operational service killed scores of U.S. military and civilian personnel.

We mention that because of a quote in Mr. York' article. It's from President-elect Barack Obama, who has vowed to "cut investments in unproven missile defense systems...prevent the weaponization of space, and [stop] the development of new nuclear weapons."

That leads to a rather obvious question. How will Mr. Obama react to the inevitable growing pains that accompany any new weapons system? What will happen if there's an accident that results in military or civilian casualties? Will he simply pull the plug, or (in the case of missile defense) set the bar so high that performance criteria cannot be met, and providing a pretext for cancelling the project?

Based on his rhetoric, we should be thankful that Barack Obama wasn't commander-in-chief in the early 1960s. Judging from his rhetoric, we would have never deployed the Titan II, or put a man on the moon. Did we mention that the civilian version of the missile was the booster for all Gemini space missions, and many of the ICBMS were later converted into satellite launch vehicles.

As that Arizona missile display reminds us, the defense of this country often requires a mixture of determination and a risk acceptance. The Titan II was far from perfect, but it did its job, helping to defend liberty during a long and dangerous stretch of the Cold War.

Scooter and Murph

Today's Wall Street Journal reminds us that President Bush has a chance to right a wrong in the final days of his administration.

The Journal is referring, of course, to the plight of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. The former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, Mr. Libby has spent the last two years in a legal twilight, after his conviction on perjury and obstruction of justice charges in the Valerie Plame affair.

A Presidential commutation kept Libby out of prison, but he still faces an uphill battle in trying to clear his name. The WSJ believes--as do we--that Mr. Bush should pardon Scooter Libby before he leaves office.

Readers will recall that Mr. Libby was accused of leaking the name of Ms. Plame, a covert CIA employee, to the media. The disclosure came after her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, criticized Bush Administration policies in the Middle East. Never mind that the original "leaker," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, was identified early on--but never charged with any crime. Or that other officials who had a hand in the scandal also went unpunished.

The case also ignored serious questions about Ms. Plame's status as a covert asset. CIA Director Michael Hayden, anxious to get along with Congressional Democrats, claimed that Plame met the criteria for a covert employee at the time of the leak. But that ignores her identification as a CIA employee--in public registries--years before the leak. We assume that Russian and Chinese intelligence agencies have access to Who's Who where Mrs. Wilson proudly listed her affiliation with the CIA.

Then, there's the matter of her cover, or (more appropriately), her blown cover. Officially, Ms. Plame was listed on the roster of a Boston firm, but that company was exposed years ago as a CIA front operation. The agency's failure to update her cover raised even more issues about her covert status, and the CIA's inability to protect its assets.

But we digress. In the end, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald persuaded a federal jury that Mr. Libby was guilty of perjury and obstruction charges, and won a high-profile conviction. Mr. Fitzgerald has since moved on to other, high-profile targets, leaving Libby to plow through life as someone convicted on flimsy grounds, but convicted nonetheless. He now faces mountainous legal bills, diminished prospects for employment and identification as a convicted felon.

Meanwhile, Mr. Armitage remains on the Washington "A" list, as does his former boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell. Both can look forward to years of swell parties, prestigious appointments and hefty speaking fees. We can only wonder if they will reflect on their "missed" opportunity to bring the "scandal" to an early end, by merely acknowledging that Armitage was the original source for the Plame leak, which appeared in a Robert Novak column. But Mr. Powell and Mr. Armitage kept that information to themselves, allowing Libby to twist in the wind.

But a pardon for Scooter Libby isn't the only bit of unfinished legal business for President Bush. In the coming weeks, he should also issue an order to the White House Military Office, directing the declassification and release of service records and performance reports pertaining to Air Force Colonel Michael Murphy, the organization's former legal officer.

Murphy is also in a legal jam. After leaving the White House, the Colonel served as Commander of the Air Force Legal Operations Agency, putting him on the fast-track for flag rank. But a background check revealed that Murphy did not have a law license, or membership in a bar association--essential requirements for any attorney in the armed services.

As investigators continued the probe, they discovered that Murphy sustained the charade for his entire military career. As a civilian lawyer in Texas in the early 1980s, Murphy faced disbarment for failing to adequately represent a client. He then applied for a law license in Louisiana--without informing that state of his troubles in Texas. When the Louisiana bar learned of his disbarment in Texas, they filed a similar motion.

Meanwhile, Murphy joined the Air Force as a Judge Advocate General and advanced steadily through the ranks. Before his tour at the White House, the Colonel served as senior legal officer for two Air Force commands and even led the service's JAG training school. But, once the deception was discovered, Murphy found himself facing a courts-martial on counts of unprofessional conduct, failing to obey regulations and larceny.

Initially, the Murphy affair appeared to be a slam dunk. But as the case moved toward trial, someone at the White House threw the Colonel a lifeline, refusing to release details of his service in the military office on "national security" grounds. Without that information, Murphy's lawyers claimed they could not present the "good airman" defense, contrasting example of past, honorable service against the charges that resulted in the courts-martial. It's a standard element in military trials, and an essential right of the accused.

That argument by Murphy's defense team certainly convinced the trial judge, Army Colonel Stephen Henley. In a ruling earlier this year, Henley determined that, without the good airman defense, Murphy could not be punished for his alleged crimes--even if he is convicted.

The Air Force is appealing that ruling, but there's a strong chance that the military appellate court will uphold Judge Henley's decision. If the ruling stands, it becomes a "stay out of jail" card for Colonel Murphy, effectively undermining the case against him. With the prospect of no punishment, prosecutors may even withdraw their charges against Murphy, assuming that Judge Henley's ruling is allowed to stand.

But this legal quandary can be solved quickly and efficiently by President Bush. With an executive order, he can solve the classification and security issues that (supposedly) inhibit Murphy's "good airman" defense. That would allow the Colonel's attorneys to highlight his past service, while removing potential barriers to punishment, assuming that Murphy is convicted.

President Bush will face many decisions over his last month in office, but in our opinion, few are more important than the cases of Scooter Libby and Michael Murphy. For Mr. Libby, the president can correct a legal wrong, and restore a good man's name.

In the matter of Colonel Murphy, Mr. Bush can strike another blow for justice, eliminating machinations aimed at keeping the former JAG out of Leavenworth. Valid security concerns are one thing, but in the case of Michael Murphy, the White House has seemingly built a wall of protection for its former staffer. As he prepares to leave office, President Bush should remove that barrier, once and for all.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The S-300 Saga Continues

U.S. officials are demanding answers on Russia's reported sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran.

A senior intelligence official tells the Associated Press that the U.S. believes that Moscow is selling the advanced air defense system to Tehran. However, the official said it appears that equipment deliveries have not yet occurred.

With a maximum range of more than 150 miles, the S-300 poses a threat to American aircraft operating over the Persian Gulf and in Afghanistan. The S-300 also has the ability to intercept tactical ballistic missiles.

The intelligence official's comments offered a bit of clarification on the system's status in Iran. Last week, a Russian press agency reported that deliveries of the S-300 to Tehran had already begun. That claim was reprinted in other outlets, including Aviation Week's defense blog.

Officially, the U.S. is discouraging the SAM sale to Iran, but our concerns carry little weight in Moscow or Tehran. At this point, the arms transfer appears to be a done deal; the only question is when the Iranians will take delivery of the S-300. Some reports suggest that Russian is already training the first cadre of Iranian operators, allowing Tehran to establish an initial operating capability within a few months of initial delivery. Using Russian contractors to run the system, Iran could bring the system on line even sooner.

This is not the first report of an S-300 sale to Iran. Reports of a deal have made the rounds for years, but those claims have usually been accompanied by denials from Moscow. But not this time; in fact, a Russian official stated last week that an S-300 transfer would actually enhance "stability" in the Middle East, by (presumably) lessening the chances of a U.S. or Israeli attack.

Moscow has acknowledged that it is selling "defensive" weapons to Iran and the SAM system fits in that category. But with its state-of-the-art performance and extended range, the S-300 will (depending on its location) pose a threat to U.S reconnaissance platforms and tactical aircraft over the Persian Gulf and western Afghanistan.

There are also unconfirmed reports that Tehran is negotating with Russia for a medium-range surface-to-air missile system, possibly the SA-17. That would represent another key element in Iranian efforts to modernize its air defense system. With the recent purchase of the SA-15, Tehran has improved its short-range intercept capabilities. Acquisition of the S-300 will upgrade long-range defenses, while the SA-17 (or a comparable system) will fill the mid-range gap.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Strong Medicine

General Bob Kehler, the leader of Air Force Space Command, has an interesting take on the recent rash of nuclear inspection failures among his missile wings.

According to Kehler, the string of unsatisfactory performances was "exactly what he expected," as the service works to rebuild its nuclear enterprise.

General Kehler and Space Command Inspector General Col. Scott “Scooter” Gilson, said the failures didn’t surprise either one of them during a year in which nuclear inspections got tougher as the Air Force works to repair its nuclear enterprise.

“We don’t like failures, but failures in this case, in terms of identifying the problems, are part of the fix to the nuclear enterprise. It’s like medicine,” Kehler said.

The general's comments came only two days after the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming became the third ICBM unit to fail a nuclear surety inspection in 2008. Inspectors reportedly found significant discrepancies in the wing's Personnel Reliability Program (PRP); maintenance inspection and documentation procedures, and security standards.

Put another way, the Air Force ICBM force is batting a perfect "zero" on nuclear inspections so far this year. In the post-SALT/START world, all of the nation's land-based nuclear missiles are assigned to three wings: the 90th at Warren; the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Montana and the 91st Missile Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota. And, over the past eleven months, all three units have failed their NSI.

To be fair, the Air Force doesn't rate the performance of the Minot unit as unsatisfactory. The wing's failing grade during its January NSI came from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), which participated in the evaluation. While agency inspectors faulted the unit's security procedures, that finding was overruled by evaluators from Air Force Space Command, which set the final grade.

The 91st's sister wing at Malmstrom wasn't as lucky. Last month, the 341st Missile Wing received an unsatisfactory rating during its NSI after inspectors found problems in the unit's PRP problem and maintenance complex.

However, the commander of the 341st, Colonel Michael Fortney retained his job, as did the leader of the Minot unit. And, there are no signs of a post-inspection command change at F.E. Warren, although there was some speculation that 90th wing commander, Colonel Michael Morgan, might be in jeopardy.

But, if General Kehler is correct, then more unit failures are almost inevitable, as nuclear-capable units adjust to more demanding evaluation criteria and a revised, "no notice" inspection system. In that environment, the automatic dismissal of wing commanders would only create more confusion and disrupt leadership continuity in some units.

Still, there is are certain flaws in that logic. Despite well-documented problems in Air Force nuclear operations--including a lack of experienced personnel, decades of neglect and less-than-stringent inspections in years past--some units are successfully adapting to the new system, or simply maintaining the high standards expected in the nuclear force. According to Air Force Times, a total of 22 NSIs have been conducted so far this year, with five failures.

Based on those numbers, almost 80% of the units that faced nuclear inspections in 2008 successfully met their test. Those commanders must be wondering how many chances a unit--and its leadership--really deserve.

At some point, the "medicine" will run its course, and accountability will become the preferred treatment for failing units. It worked well enough in the past. In the halcyon days of Strategic Air Command, a failed NSI was a guaranteed career killer for a wing commander and his key subordinates. General Curtis LeMay, the legendary SAC commander, fired more than his share of "wing kings" who failed to measure up.

LeMay would have been appalled by the "touchy-feely" approach utilized in Air Force inspections in recent years. On the other hand, he would certainly applaud the USAF's return to "no notice" evaluations, with the usual caveat. There is no margin for error in nuclear operations, and no tolerance for leaders who can't get the job done.

In other words, Colonels Fortney and Morgan were lucky. In the past (and the not-too-distant future), they'd be packing their bags, the standard punishment for a wing commander who failed his NSI. But, in the current, transition "window," they will remain on the job, and lead their wings through a make-up evaluation.

While it's better than getting fired, don't look for Fortney and Morgan on the next promotion list for Brigadier General. Even the kinder, gentler Air Force has its limits.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Meet the (Temporary) Boss

The Air Force's newest command has its first leader.

Brigadier General James Kowalski will serve as commander of the USAF's provisional Global Strike Command until a three-star general takes charges of the permanent command next year. Kowalski, who previously served on the joint staff, will run the command from its temporary headquarters at Bolling AFB in Washington, D.C.

A career bomber pilot, General Kowalski has the right background to get the new command up and running. Strike Command will eventually integrate 8th Air Force and its nuclear bombers (currently part of Air Combat Command) and ICBMs that are assigned to 20th Air Force, which falls under Air Force Space Command.

The provisional command is scheduled for activation on 12 January. In announcing the move, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley noted that the new command is part of rebuilding the service's nuclear enterprise:

“With Air Force Global Strike Command, we are establishing a single organization operationally focused on the nuclear and global strike missions,” Donley said in an Air Force news release. “AFGSC represents a crucial commitment to our responsibility for day-to-day excellence and unquestionable stewardship of the nuclear and strategic deterrence missions.”

As the new command moves from provisional to permanent status, it is also expected to gain a new home. A well-placed Air Force source tells us that Minot AFB, North Dakota is now the leading candidate for the command headquarters. Minot is already home for a B-52 wing and a Minuteman III ICBM unit.

The North Dakota base has other advantages as well; there's plenty of room to expand, local real estate is cheap and there are few outside "distractions." Just plenty of time to focus on the mission, something the Air Force nuclear enterprise could certainly use.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


The Congressional delegations of Florida and Virginia have been engaged in a big-money tug-of-war in recent weeks. At stake is an economic impact of $500 million a year, based on a prospective home port for the new aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.

When the Navy recently announced plans to station the a carrier at the Mayport Navy Base in Jacksonville, Florida, the Virginia delegation let out a collective howl. Since the John F. Kennedy was retired almost two years ago, all of the carriers in the Atlantic Fleet have been stationed at Naval Station Norfolk. It's the kind of monopoly that any Congressman or Senator would fight to preserve.

Do the math. Multiply the four existing carriers times the 3,000 sailors associated with each vessel and their annual salaries. That will give you some idea of what a carrier means to a navy base--and the surrounding community.

But naturally, the Virginia delegation didn't couch their arguments in lost tax revenue, or the effect on the Hampton Roads economy. The Virginians, led by Senators John Warner and Jim Webb (both former Secretaries of the Navy), spoke in terms of saving defense dollars and operational efficiency.

And to some degree, they have a point. Home-porting a nuclear carrier in Jacksonville will require at least $400 million in additional spending, on everything from new facilities to dredging the St. John's River. Those improvements wouldn't be required in Norfolk, which could easily accommodate the Bush--and its crew--when they join the fleet.

In fact, the Virginia base has been "short" a carrier since earlier this year, when the USS George Washington moved to Japan, replacing the retiring Kitty Hawk. Lawmakers from the Old Dominion have urged the Navy to keep the Bush in Hampton Roads when it is commissioned in 2009.

Officially, the Navy hasn't signed off on plans to move a carrier to Jacksonville, or decided which vessel will make the move. But Florida Senator Bill Nelson says the transfer is a "done deal" and expects the service to formally okay the decision early next year. And, the carrier deemed most likely to make the move is the Bush.

Mr. Nelson and his colleagues have argued that basing a carrier in Jacksonville is a "strategic necessity," warning that a single strike on Norfolk--or a similar, disastrous event--could wipe out all the carriers in the Atlantic Fleet. And, to a certain extent, the Navy seems to agree:

Having the ship here "reduces risk to fleet resources in the event of a natural disaster, man made calamity, or attack by foreign nations or terrorists," the Navy said in announcing the decision, which will be officially released Friday.

Quite honestly, we think the "Second Pearl Harbor" scenario is a bit overblown. An adversary with long-range missiles would, most likely, be capable of targeting Jacksonville and Norfolk simultaneously. Even terror groups can mount multiple strikes at the same time, although we hope that existing security measures would prevent a ship carrying a nuke from getting close enough to wipe out a naval base. Besides, the odds of catching all of our carriers in port--at the same time--is virtually nil.

A better strategic argument can be made for Mayport's proximity to a region of increasing tension and importance: Latin America. Russia is attempting to reassert its influence in the area; Moscow sent a small naval squadron, led by a Kirov-class cruiser, to Venezuela for recent, joint exercises with Hugo Chavez's military.

After the drills concluded, a Russian destroyer transited the Panama Canal for the first time in more than 50 years. Kremlin officials have even floated the idea of a semi-permanent military presence in Cuba or Venezuela, as a symbol of resurgent Russian power.

Obviously, Moscow cannot challenge U.S. military superiority in the Western Hemisphere. But it's equally clear that we can no longer take the region for granted. The Navy recently reactivated the 4th Fleet, for operations in Central and South America. While much of the fleet's activity will focus on humanitarian, joint security and counter-drug operations, having a carrier closer to the region sends an important signal, and provides a vital tool for showing the flag--and potential power-projection.

The real question (at this stage) is whether the Navy's decision will stick and if it does, what price Virginia politicians will pay. They actively lobbied the Pentagon to keep all east coast carriers in their state. So far, those arguments are falling on deaf ears.

The S-300 Arrives

Aviation Week is reporting that Russia has already begun deliveries of the S-300 air defense system to Iran.

Moscow's confirmation comes just days after U.S. defense officials reported that Tehran had signed an agreement to acquire the state-of-the-art missile system. At the time, it was suggested that Russia would ship the air defense hardware through Belarus, to avoid direct participation in the deal.

But, when questioned by the RIA-Novosti news agency, a Russian official practically bragged about the sale, saying that weapons deliveries to Iran "have a positive impact on regional stability."

While U.S. intelligence has not confirmed the S-300's arrival in Iran, there is little reason to doubt the Aviation Week account. The mobile system is air-transportable, and Russia has enough heavy lift assets to move a full battery (or entire battalion's worth of equipment) to Iran, in relatively short order.

Shipments of the S-300 to other export clients--including Vietnam and China--have been handled by ship, through ports on the Black Sea. Air transport is not only much faster, it avoids potential political problems associated with military shipments through the Black Sea and Suez Canal, or the Caspian Sea. There was some speculation that Israel might attempt to interdict SAM shipments made by ship.

Iran is apparently receiving the S-300PMU1 Favorit, one of the newest models of the air defense system. Capable of engaging multiple targets simultaneously, the S-300 version being acquired by Tehran can intercept aircraft at ranges up to 200km, and ballistic missiles at a distance of 40km. The S-300's overall capabilities are roughly akin to those of the U.S. Patriot system.

As we've noted in previous posts, the S-300 (NATO designation: SA-20) fills a critical gap in the Iranian air defense system. Until its acquisition of the SA-15 last year, Tehran relied on a collection of aging Russian, Chinese and U.S. equipment to defend its airspace. The only "long-range" SAM currently in Tehran's inventory, the Russian-built SA-5, has no capability against tactical aircraft or ballistic missiles. Correcting those deficiencies (and others), the S-300 represents a quantum leap in Iranian air defense capabilities.

The system's rush delivery to Tehran is clearly aimed at deterring an Israeli or U.S. air strike. And, in that regard, the S-300 is something of a game-changer, forcing changes in potential tactics and strike plans. Operating in airspace defended by the system carries considerable risks; it's a threat that must be considered in any future campaigns against Iran.

But Iran's new SAM system is hardly invulnerable. With precise intelligence, optimal planning and tactical execution, the S-300 menace can be neutralized. Still, achieving that goal will be difficult. Locating mobile SAMs requires more ISR assets, and taking them out dictates a greater allocation of standoff weapons and aircraft dedicated to the SEAD (suppression of enemy air defense mission.

Such requirements would (seemingly) pose the greatest challenge for the Israelis, who have a more limited ability to project airpower over long distances, and sustain air attacks against those targets. However, it would be a grave mistake for the Iranians--or their Russian suppliers--to underestimate the IAF.

During last year's strike on that Syrian nuclear facility, the Israeli strike package flew unmolested to the target and back again. By some accounts, the Syrians never knew that Israeli jets were in their airspace until the bombs demolished that nuclear reactor. More embarrassing, Damascus's integrated air defense system never engaged the IAF formation.

Achieving that level of surprise--and success--has long been a hallmark of the Israeli Air Force. It's also an indication of how well the IAF knows its adversaries and their vulnerabilities. There have been reports that Israel used information operations to blind the Syrian IADS, specifically an attack on the computers and nodes that control the air defense system.

Both Israel and the United States are capable of a similar effort against Iran. Once operational, the S-300 batterys in Iran will be tied into the country's air defense network, a system that has long been vulnerable to saturation, jamming and confusion. Without reliable information from early warning radars and air defense centers, the S-300 will be forced into an autonomous mode.

While most surface-to-air missiles are capable of operating on their own, they are less efficient and more susceptible to interdiction efforts. Isolating a SAM battery is often the first step in killing it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Terror Threat Across the River, Redux

Federal and state authorities are investigating today's collision--and derailment--of two freight trains near Dresbach, Minnesota. The early-morning accident sent at least one engine and several rail cars plunging down an embankment, and into the Mississippi River.

Both trains were operated by the Canadian Pacific Railroad, which has an enviable safety record. All four crew members have been accounted for, and there are no reports of serious injuries. However, the accident is snarling traffic along a key rail route, and hazard materials crews are on the scene.

But the Dresbach mishap caught our attention for other reasons. While there is no hint of suspicious activity in today's accident, it is a reminder of the vulnerability of our rail lines--and the potential impact on our economy.

Dresbach is located in southwestern Minnesota, only nine miles from one of the most important rail crossings on the Mississippi River, in nearby Lacrosse, Wisconsin. The crash site is roughly 250 miles south of another key rail bridge, in the town of Little Falls.

As we detailed in this 2007 post, most of the nation's transcontinental rail freight moves across just seven bridges spanning the Mississippi River, including those in Little Falls and Lacrosse. All told, the seven spans handle 680 million metric tons of freight every year, including much of the coal burned by power plants in the Midwest and northeast.

But protecting these critical rail points remains problematic:

Security for these crossings rests primarily with the railroads and local law enforcement. Rail carriers claim that they have improved security practices since 9-11, but an investigation by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (published last January), found little or no police presence along key rail routes, and shoddy security practices at both hazardous chemical plants and the railroad lines that serve them. Visiting rail facilities from New Jersey to the West Coast, a Tribune-Review reporter was never questioned as he climbed trains, photographed derailing levers and peeked into control boxes that control rail traffic.

Results of that investigation provides little assurance about security at rail bridges that span the Mississippi. Many of the crossings are located in small towns (with limited police resources), and there's no evidence that the railroads protect the bridges more effectively than the trains and rail yards visited by the Tribune-Review.

Could terrorists damage or destroy one of the major rail crossings? Based on existing security measures--and the Iraq example--the answer is probably "yes." It wouldn't take much to drive a truck laden with explosives onto a bridge and detonate it, or place charges at key points on the structure, and trigger them with timers or a pressure switch, activated by a passing train. The results of such a strike would be devastating, destroying the bridge or disabling it for months, and snarling cross-country shipments of coal and other critical cargo. Successful bridge attacks would also close sections of the Mississippi to barge traffic, limiting water-borne shipments as well.

But so far, threats to key bridges have not materialized. Indeed, some plots--including a plan to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge with a blow torch--have been amateurish, at best. But terrorists in Iraq mounted a successful campaign that destroyed six major bridges in 2007. And here at home, the FBI investigated a "floating bomb" that was found near the causeway across Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain two years ago. The device did not explode, but federal agents said the incident had all the makings of a "test run."

While it would take the right amount of explosives (and engineering expertise) to disable or drop a Mississippi River rail bridge, such attacks are within the realm of possibilities. Bringing down a bridge (or two) wouldn't match the psychological impact of 9-11, but it would create dire economic difficulties for a nation that still depends on its rail lines--and those seven critical bridges across the Mississippi.

ADDENDUM: Proving that fiction sometimes runs ahead of reality, author P.T. Deutermann built his suspenseful novel Train Man around a plot against rail bridges over the Mississippi. Deutermann's bomber isn't an Islamic terrorist--the book was published months before 9-11--but it underscores the potential threat to key rail crossings.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

More NSI Failures

by Nate Hale

For the second time in as many months, an Air Force unit has flunked its Nuclear Surety Inspection.

The latest failure occurred at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, home of the 90th Missile Wing. The ICBM unit will be out briefed on inspection results on Wednesday morning, two weeks after the evaluation began. While the Air Force has refused comments on the NSI, sources indicate that the missile wing failed at least one--and possibly as many as three--inspection areas.

Air Force Times reported Wednesday afternoon that the 90th Wing received failing grades because of problems within its maintenance group. Sources told the paper that technicians did not properly document required missile inspections and in some cases, left the procedures completely undocumented.

The discrepancy resulted in an unsatisfactory score for the maintenance complex, which drove the failing mark for the overall inspection. A nuclear surety inspection evaluates 12 separate areas, covering a unit's ability to maintain, handle, operate and protect nuclear weapons. The 90th Maintenance Group received its unsatisfactory score during the early phases of the inspection, an official told the Times.

Still, the problems at F.E. Warren may extend beyond the maintenance unit. Another Air Force official tells In From the Cold that the 90th Wing also received failing grades for its Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), which determines who can work with nuclear weapons, and for its security function.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that "PRP was definitely a failure," but offered little explanation for the problem. Yet, as the source observed, PRP is a detailed program, involving multiple base agencies. "If you dig hard or deep enough, you can find something," the official observed.

But another source suggested that the PRP problems were more than technicalities, or record-keeping problems. The source, who is also familiar with the Warren inspection, claims that PRP problems at the base are more complicated "than what is being reported." He said that the wing's medical group is having as many, if not more problems, than the units. In nuclear capable units, the med group ensures that personnel meet physical and psychological requirements for working with nukes.

If that account is accurate, then the 90th Missile Wing would be the second ICBM unit to fail an NSI (in part) because of PRP issues. Last month, the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Montana received an unsatisfactory rating on its nuclear surety inspection, the result of PRP and maintenance discrepancies. Similar problems at F.E. Warren suggest that these problems may be widespread within missile units.

The official who spoke with this blog expressed greater concern over a reported security incident at Warren. According to the official, a security forces team failed to meet required response times for an evaluation-related drill. "With time lines and standards built into everything you do in nuclear security," the source observed, "anytime a team does not meet timing standards, it's a cause for concern."

In cases where timed responses cause security failures, the official observed, the problem is usually one of prioritization. Evaluators typically initiate multiple scenarios, he reported, forcing security teams to respond in the right sequence. "If you respond correctly, you meet all your time lines," he said. "If you don't, time lines get broken."

The inspection at F.E. Warren marks the second time this year that security issues have created problems during an NSI. In May, multiple security discrepancies caused the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot to fail its nuclear surety inspection. The commander of Minot's 5th Security Forces Squadron was fired after the evaluation. Minot earned a passing grade on a make-up inspection, conducted a few months later.

The failed inspection at the Wyoming base is at least the fourth involving an Air Force nuclear unit so far this year. In addition to the missile wings at F.E. Warren, Malmstrom and the bomber unit at Minot, the 91st Missile Wing--also located at the North Dakota base--received a failing grade on its Janaury NSI from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).

Still, the 91st is not counted as a failed evaluation by the Air Force, since the DTRA finding was overruled by inspectors from Air Force Space Command, the missile wing's parent organization.

Evaluation teams also visited the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana last month, but results of that inspection have never been disclosed. The Barksdale eval was the first conducted under the new, "no notice" criteria, recently established for nuclear units. While the inspection was noted on the base's official website, the article does not reveal how the unit fared.

That missing detail in the press release has raised speculation that the 2nd Bomb Wing also failed its NSI. However, those claims have not been substantiated. If confirmed, a failure at Barksdale would be the fifth involving an Air Force unit so far this year.

Spokesmen at F.E. Warren and Barksdale did not respond to requests for comment.

Air Force Times reports that a total of 22 NSIs have been conducted this year, with five failures. That disclosure also suggests that the 2nd Bomb Wing may have been among the units that flunked their nuclear inspections. There were no reported failures in 2006 and 2007.

Last year's nuclear incident at Minot prompted an exhaustive review of procedures and policies, including inspection criteria. During that highly-publicized mishap, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were inadvertently shipped from the North Dakota base to Barksdale. The fallout led to multiple investigations and review panels, which recommended sweeping changes within the nuclear enterprise.

The Revolving Door (SEC Coaches' Edition)

Charles Barkley is ticked.

The former NBA star turned TV analyst is mad at his alma mater, Auburn University. Sir Charles is accusing Auburn of racism in the hiring of its new football coach, Gene Chizik.

In fact, Barkley says that race is the only reason that Chizik got the job over the other leading contender, Turner Gill. The head coach at the University of Buffalo, Gill was interviewed by Auburn before Chizik was hired over the weekend. Gill is widely credited with resurrecting the Buffalo program, which won the MAC championship earlier this month, defeating a previously unbeaten Ball State team.

But Auburn decided to go with Chizik, who previously worked as a defensive coordinator at the SEC school and at the University of Texas. During that span, both the Tigers and Longhorns went undefeated. For the past two seasons, Chizik has been the head coach at Iowa State, compiling a less-than-impressive 5-17 record.

At his introductory press conference, Chizik repeatedly stated that he is "the right man for the job." But many observers disagree. columnist Mark Schlabach described the Auburn search as "the most haphazard in recent history," as athletic director Jay Jacobs talked with a number of better-known (and arguably, more qualified) contenders before settling on Chizik:

How Jacobs settled on Chizik is perplexing. Jacobs talked to nearly anyone who was interested in coaching at Auburn. He interviewed at least eight candidates: Ball State's Brady Hoke, Louisiana Tech's Derek Dooley, Buffalo's Turner Gill, TCU's Gary Patterson, Wake Forest's Jim Grobe, Tulsa's Todd Graham, Georgia assistant Rodney Garner and Miami offensive coordinator Patrick Nix.

All of the aforementioned head coaches were more qualified than Chizik -- at least their teams won during the final three months of the regular season.


The rest of Auburn's A list included two highly regarded coordinators: Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and Texas' Will Muschamp. Both assistants have already been designated as coach-in-waiting at their respective schools. Muschamp wasn't willing to leave one of the best jobs in the country for Auburn, and FSU wouldn't budge on a $5 million buyout for Fisher.

Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, who led the Red Raiders to their best season in school history, was never considered for the Auburn job. And Leach might have been willing to crawl from Lubbock to Auburn. But at least one powerful Auburn booster feared the quirky Leach was too much like former Tigers offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who was fired midway through the 2008 season.

Auburn didn't want the Big 12 coach whose team went 11-1 playing in college football's toughest division.
Auburn wanted the Big 12 coach whose team went 2-10 playing in the league's lesser division.

And apparently, Barkley isn't the only Auburn alum who's upset over the hire. When Jacobs returned to "The Plains" after the hiring expedition, he was openly heckled by fans at the Auburn airport.

But, in fairness, Barkley's allegations of racism are way off base. Fact is, the Auburn decision was dictated by a small cabal of influential donors and alumni, led by one Bobby Lowder, the CEO of Colonial Bank, an Alabama-based chain that has grown exponentially over the past 25 years.

Auburn sports is Mr. Lowder's all-consuming passion, and he wields tremendous power within the athletic department. The fingerprints of "the real AD" (as some describe him) were all over the sudden resignation of long-time football coach Tommy Tuberville, who stepped down at the end of the season. Tuberville won 80 games in 10 years on the plains, and beat arch-rival Alabama six times in a row.

Unfortunately for Tuberville, it wasn't enough, particularly with Bama coach Nick Saban building a national championship contender in Tuscaloosa. After the Crimson Tide hammered Auburn in the season-ending Iron Bowl, Lowder and Company decided that Tuberville had to go, buying out his contract for a reported $5 million.

Now, it's Chizik's turn in the barrel. He's reportedly popular with Lowder and former Auburn coach Pat Dye, another key mover-and-shaker behind the scenes. Never mind that Dye coached his last game almost 20 years ago and left the program on probation. At Auburn--as at many big-time college football schools--it's a matter of connections. In the old Soviet Union, position and influence were measured by the official's position atop Lenin's Tomb, during the annual May Day Parade. On "The Plains" of Auburn, just look at the group in Bobby Lowder's skybox, or the names on speed dial in Coach Dye's cell phone.

Not surprisingly, the Lowder-Dye clique wanted a coach they were comfortable with (read: someone they could control). Chizik represented a known quantity, a head coach who knows how the game is played at Auburn--and we don't mean football. That may explain why the school hired a defensive specialist to rebuild a team that finished near the bottom of the SEC in most offensive categories.

We wish Coach Chizik well in his new gig. Between that Saban fellow in Tuscaloosa and the expectations of certain Auburn boosters, Chizik has his work cut out for him. But such is the life of a head football coach in the SEC, where job security is measured in wins and losses. If you don't believe us, just Phil Fulmer, the long-time University of Tennessee coach whose "retirement" was announced before the end of the season.

Fulmer won 152 games--and a national title--during 16 years in Knoxville, but that wasn't enough to save his job after this year's team got off to a slow start, and finished the season 5-7. Losing is no more acceptable at UT than it is at Auburn, the man reason that Fulmer is a former coach, at least for now.

As for Charles Barkley, he also knows how the game is played. If he wants more influence at Auburn, he might consider writing a bigger check for the loyalty foundation. In college sports, nothing speaks louder than cold, hard cash and Sir Charles has the resources to get his point across. Who knows? If Charles spent a little less time in the casinos (and more time back at Auburn), he could challenge Bobby Lowder and install his own choice as football coach.

Trouble is, collegiate football coaching is a small fraternity, and many candidates want no part of a school where a single alumni--or a small group--run the athletic department. True, that sort of behavior happens at most schools, to some degree. But alumni manipulation is off the scale at Auburn, one reason that many top coaches want no part of that situation.

Turner Gill should be thankful he was passed over for the Auburn job. But if he really wants to coach on the plains, Coach Gill should just be patient. If the football pundits are correct, Chizik's time at Auburn will be brief, setting the stage for the "next" coaching search in a couple of years.