Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Forgotten Element of the Fly-by?

Viewers of President Obama's prime-time press conference might have noticed a significant omission. During a hour of give-and-take with the press, there wasn't a single question about Monday's fly-by debacle in New York.

Never mind that lots of New Yorkers are still ticked. Or, that many questions about the airborne photo op remain unanswered. The White House has appointed a deputy chief of staff to look into the matter and his report will (most likely) be released on a Friday afternoon, six months from now. That's the cue for the MSM to drop the matter and let Louis Caldera hang onto his job. Not surprisingly, Mr. Obama's friends in the press corps are only too happy to comply.

But the fly-by scandal may not die as quickly as Mr. Obama--or the media--would like. A little digging shows the "training mission" could be a bit more complex than the White House will admit.

For starters, Air Force sources have confirmed that the F-16s that escorted the VC-25 over Manhattan are assigned to the Alabama Air National Guard, not the D.C. Guard as the AP (and other media outlets) originally reported. The Alabama guard has painted some of its Vipers in a distinctive "red tail" paint scheme, honoring the legendary Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. One of the fighters observed over Manhattan had the same markings.

Why does that matter? The distance from Dannelly Field in Montgomery (where the F-16s are based) is roughly 750 miles from New York City. According to the Pentagon, the fighters logged just under four hours of flight time during their mission. During that time, they burned as much as 20,000 pounds of fuel, based on an optimal cruise speed and a configuration that included two external tanks.

With "two bags of gas," an F-16 has a maximum fuel capacity of 11,900 pounds. Subtract the "divert minimum" that pilots must maintain for safety (typically 1,500 pounds), and the amount of on-board fuel drops to just over 10,000 pounds. So, the F-16s had to take on extra gas somewhere between Montgomery and the Big Apple.

In other words, there was at least one in-flight refueling as a part of the mission--and possibly two--requiring at least one tanker aircraft. So, factor in the added expense of a KC-135 or KC-10 and its crew. At the beginning of this decade, the cost of each Stratotanker flying hour was pegged at more than $10,000. Operating a KC-10 is even more expensive, just over $13,000 an hour. Multiply that cost by three to five hours, the typical length of a tanker sortie.

That may not seem like much, considering the total bill for the photo-op was at least $300,000. But it also shows a level of planning (and support) that the White House hasn't discussed. Obviously, in-flight refueling is a routine part of USAF operations. But adding tankers to the equation expands the coordination process, and increases the overall cost of the photo op.

How much was actually spent on the New York fly-by? We still don't know--just as we don't know why it was suddenly necessary to update public relations photographs for Air Force One. Will the forthcoming White House report discuss those issues? Don't bet on it.

By the Numbers

When Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes launched Fox News Channel back in 1996, no one gave it much of a chance. The smart money was on MSNBC, the supposedly ground-breaking venture between the Micrsoft and NBC News.

Twelve years later, we know what happened. FNC has become a cable ratings juggernaut, while MSNBC battles CNN for also-ran status. If you need any proof, just look at the latest Nielsen numbers. During April, Fox News beat its two rivals, not just in prime time, but during every broadcast hour from 6 am to midnight.

And, adding insult to injury (if you're an exec at Time-Warner or NBC Universal), FNC topped CNN and MSNBC combined, in total viewership and the all-important 25-54 demographic group. Did someone say domination?

Here's another telling statistic, one you won't find in the media coverage of The New York Times. Everyone knows that Fox's evening line-up trounces the competition, but some of the network's daytime programs beat the prime time offerings of CNN and MSNBC. Keith Olberman's audience, for example, is about that of "Happening Now," FNC's midday news show that airs from 11 am to 1 pm, eastern time.

"Happening Now," is anchored by Jon Scott and Jane Skinner who are very talented broadcasters. But neither Mr. Scott nor Ms. Skinner have been hailed as cable news stars, or received the fawning coverage lavished on Olberman. In fact, the ratings "surge" of the MSNBC host has been largely the result of CNN's night-time implosion. Building a line-up around such "talents" as Campbell Brown and Anderson Cooper is pure ratings poison.

Heh, heh, heh. Couldn't happen to a more deserving bunch. But, as the audience numbers for CNN and MSNBC approach those of the Do-it-Yourself network, one thing is certain. Members of the MSM will keep ridiculing Fox--and its viewers--while putting the best possible spin on the fading fortunes of MSNBC and CNN.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Debacle that Keeps on Giving

If the Air Force--and the Obama Administration--were hoping that the "fly-by" kerfuffle would quickly subside, they were sadly mistaken.

More than 24 hours after Air Force One's ill-advised, low-level flight near the Statue of Liberty, New York political leaders (and local residents) remain angry. Despite detailed planning that involved multiple federal agencies, no one bothered to inform local officials or ordinary citizens. The sudden appearance of the familiar Boeing 747, trailed by two fighter jets, set off fears of another 9-11 attack in lower Manhattan.

Making matters worse, "explanations" offered by the White House have been anything but satisfactory. When reports of the fly-by first broke, press secretary Robert Gibbs referred journalists to the Pentagon and the FAA. Confronted with the news that it was the administration approved the photo-op, Gibbs promised to "look into it."

The White House spokesman and his boss, President Obama, also deserve low marks for suggesting that the White House was surprised by the fly-by. True, Mr. Obama may have been unaware that a VC-25 (the USAF designation for the presidential jet) was buzzing around the Big Apple, but plenty of people were.

Air Force One is--arguably--the world's most important aircraft. It plays a central role in the movements of the Commander-in-Chief, and the availability (and location) of those jets are carefully tracked by multiple federal agencies, beyond the White House Military Office.

At the top of that list is the Secret Service. To carry out their comprehensive security operation, the service's presidential detail must be aware where the jets are, and how they would move the POTUS to Air Force One (or a National Airborne Operations Center aircraft) in the event of an emergency.

The Air Force, which operates the presidential airlift fleet, was also aware of the operation. Crews and maintenance personnel are part of the 89th Military Airlift Wing, located at Andrews AFB, Maryland. For this sort of fly-by, the wing commander and his senior staff were certainly "in the know," along with aircrew members and support personnel.

Within the Pentagon, VIP airlift and other special missions fall under the purview of the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, General William M. Fraser III. We would imagine that General Fraser was in the loop, along with staff officers who helped coordinate the operation.

The same holds true for Air Combat Command, which "owns" CONUS-based fighter, bomber and surveillance aircraft. Those F-16s flying alongside the VC-25 didn't materialize out of thin air; ACC played a key role in arranging the fighter escort for the 747 over Manhattan, and getting Combat Camera photographers in the backseat of at least one F-16. If the Vipers were assigned to Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve assets, then the photo-op was coordinated through those organizations as well.

And, of course, the entire project required the blessings of the Federal Aviation Administration, which approved the low-level fly-by and cleared the military aircraft into Manhattan airspace. In fact, the FAA even compiled a memo, anticipating "possible public concern" over the photo op. But the agency demanded strict secrecy from local authorities that it notified, including the New York City mayor's office and the NYPD. WCBS-TV reports that the FAA even threatened sanctions against organizations or individuals who divulged plans for the fly-by.

But this chain of incompetence begins at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where the White House Military Office (and its director, Louis Caldera) set the project in motion. So far, Mr. Caldera hasn't resigned, and we'd be surprised if he gets the boot. A well-connected Democratic Party apparatchik, Caldera served as Secretary of the Army during the Clinton years, and he probably has the internal clout to dodge this bullet.

Unfortunately, that doesn't hold true for military staffers who worked on the project. You can expect one (or more) Colonels in the military office or the Pentagon to be sacrificed for the "greater good."

Still, that won't answer the question of why Caldera ordered the photo-op, or the purpose it served. While Air Force One has been photographed against various historic and scenic back-drops over the years, it's unclear why the White House wanted a new "Statue of Liberty" image at this time. Clearly, there are far better uses for $308,000, the amount spent on the photo run over New York.

As for those coveted images, we're guessing they would have been used for the normal purposes--for Air Force recruiting and publicity, and as political trinkets for the White House. Members of the 89th wing at Andrews typically receive a framed picture of Air Force One at the end of their tours, and the White House often provides them to political leaders, staffers and political cronies who fly on the aircraft.

There's nothing particularly novel or sinister about the gesture--and the Obama team certainly didn't invent it. But it does represent a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars and perhaps (in a backhand way), Mr. Caldera has performed a public service. With his botched handling of the photographic mission, he has eliminated that extravagance, once and for all. Future Air Force One fly-bys over the Statue of Liberty will likely be performed on the computer screen, through the magic of PhotoShop.

ADDENDUM: Reporters are demanding the passenger manifest for the New York flight, trying to see if any VIPs were along for the ride. Quite frankly, we'd be surprised if anyone was on-board, other than the flight crew. There's nothing particularly exciting about a bumpy, low-altitude flight, even with the Manhattan skyline out the window. Additionally, the presence of those F-16s, flying formation with the VC-25, made the flight a bit more risky than normal, providing another reason to keep passengers off the jet.

Also, we haven't any credible evidence to support an even more outlandish theory--that the 747 was being used as a platform to photograph an F-16, painted in the markings of the famed 332nd Fighter Group. Hollywood titans George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are currently working on the film, which recounts the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. Rumors suggest that footage of the F-16 would be used in the opening or closing credit sequence of the film.

But that suggestion has a number of problems. The 747 is big enough (and stable enough) to accommodate a number of cameras. But producers (and the military) usually prefer a jet that can provide multiple camera angles--more cheaply and efficiently--an fly in relatively close proximity to the aircraft being photographed. The obvious choice would be a modified business jet, like the ones used to photograph aerial sequences in such films as Top Gun. Additionally, in this era of computer-generated special effects, the desired sequence could be rendered digitally--at a much lower cost.

Fly-By Hell

Barely three months into the job, Edwin Caldera's stint as Chief of the White House Military Office may be coming to an end. Or so you might think.

Mr. Caldera is taking heat for today's ill-advised fly-by over New York City. Apparently, someone on Caldera's staff thought it would be a fine idea snap a few pictures of Air Force One, as it flew over the Statue of Liberty.

Nothing wrong with that; do a web search and you can find various shots of the presidential jet flying past national landmarks, including this one at Mount Rushmore:

U.S. Air Force photo via Wikipedia.

Following the template for such operations, the USAF--and the White House Military Office--coordinated their plans with the FAA, which voiced no objections. So, at the appointed time this morning, one of the Boeing 747s that serves as Air Force One appeared over lower Manhattan, flying at low altitude and escorted by a pair of F-16s.

Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell New Yorkers. The sight of he low-flying jetliner, trailed by fighter aircraft, brought back memories of 9-11 and touched off a momentary panic. Emergency centers were flooded with calls from angry citizens.

New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg was upset too, claiming that he had never been informed about the planned fly-by. However, the White House claimed that Bloomberg's staff was briefed on the operation last week. Apparently, the mayor was out of the loop, and the message clearly didn't reach panic-stricken citizens of New York City and northern New Jersey.

Making matters worse, some officials--and members of the press--are questioning the cost of the operation. The Air Force doesn't like to discuss flight-related expenses, but large aircraft--like a 747--typically cost several thousand dollars an hour to operate. Flight costs for an F-16 are lower, but they're anything but cheap. The price tag for today's little boondoggle will be in the five-figure range.

Fixing today's public relations debacle? That will be far more complex--and expensive. The real question is who gets fired over this one. Caldera would be a logical candidate, but he's a well-connected Democrat who served in the Clinton Administration. Because of that, we're guessing that someone else will get the axe, probably an obscure Air Force Colonel who was somehow connected to the fly-by.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Standing By for Possible Orders

As U.S. officials deal with the swine flu outbreak, elements of the U.S. military are preparing for possible tasking--if the crisis worsens and their support becomes necessary. U.S. Northern Command, responsible for the homeland security mission, already has a plan for dealing with a pandemic.

Our latest article for offers a few details on the plan, and how the military might support the federal response.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Amid the Congratulations

While members of the Obama Administration--and their friends in the press--celebrate the president's first 100 days in office, there are obvious causes for alarm. Along with his rush towards domestic socialism, Mr. Obama is making grave mistakes overseas. One of his biggest blunders is a continued, over-conciliatory tone towards North Korea, a policy that will bring only more provocations from Pyongyang.

More on the subject in our latest commentary for

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Today's Reading Assignment

National Review's Steve Schippert, on the Obama's Administration's assault on the American warrior class. As he reminds us, the White House decision to release terrorist interrogation photos is merely the latest outrage aimed that those who wear the uniform:

The assault is relentless. It is enraging. And today, the Obama administration's assault on those who dare to defend America from terrorist thugs who rejoice in publicizing beheadings, mass murder, and pure evil are on notice: "You will be punished. We're coming after you."

The target audience now includes the American Warrior. The Obama administration has abdicated the Warrior's defense, refusing to appeal the 2nd Circuit's decision that more photos should be released from investigations of the detention of enemy fighters from the battlefield. The Obama administration has sided with the ACLU and abandoned our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. This cannot stand.


Today, the very legacy of the American Warrior is directly under assault as part of that same process.

The Obama administration agreed late Thursday to release dozens of photographs depicting alleged abuse by U.S. personnel during the Bush administration of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At least 44 pictures will be released by May 28, making public for the first time images of what the military investigated at facilities other than the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Defense Department officials would not say exactly what is contained in the photos but said they are concerned the release could incite a Mideast backlash.

Mr. Schippert observes--correctly--that Mr. Obama and his national security team ought to be worried about a backlash within the ranks. By slashing the budget for new hardware, refusing to send the requested number of troops to Afghanistan and apologizing for U.S. actions around the globe, President Obama is providing powerful disincentives for remaining in the military.

Maybe the commander-in-chief (and his secretary of defense) figure that a bad economy will keep troops in uniform. But lest we forget, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines voted with their feet during the Carter years, despite high unemployment and double-digit inflation. If Mr. Obama continues on his present course, the services will--once again--face plummeting re-enlistment rates.

Here's a statistic worth remembering. Almost 20% of military personnel recently surveyed by the Military Times papers said they would consider getting out if President Obama overturns the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on gays in the military.

While that change has not been announced (yet), it could be the proverbial straw that breaks the back of re-enlistment totals. Even in a recession, highly-trained service members are not without options, and more may return to civilian life, declining to serve under a commander-in-chief who won't stand up for them.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What Nancy Knew... the title of our latest piece for In the article, we examine Nancy Pelosi's claims that she didn't know we were actually water-boarding terrorism suspects. Never mind that a Washington Post article from 2007 neatly debunks her argument. Intelligence officials report that Ms. Pelosi never raised a peep on the subject of enhanced interrogations, despite participating in several briefings on the subject.

Not that we're really surprised. Pelosi, like most elected officials, wants to have it both ways, and she probably will. The current kerfuffle over "what Nancy knew" will (eventually) be replaced by something far more ominous--attempts to prosecute officials involved in the interrogation program.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Acquisition 101

Curt LeMay must be spinning in his grave.

The man who built Strategic Air Command into the nation's primary nuclear deterrent force, understood a few things about the weapons acquisition process. Buy the best, buy in sufficient quantities and don't ever divide the contract between multiple firms.

Under his leadership, the Air Force bought more than 700 B-52s and over 800 KC-135s. Remarkably, almost 100 of the venerable bombers are still in service, as are more than 400 of the Eisenhower-era tankers. Both came from a single manufacturer--Boeing--and they are among a handful of aircraft to complete more than 50 years of continuous service.

As LeMay understood, there were inherent advantages in that old-fashioned approach to procurement. Larger "buys" lowered unit costs; awarding the contract to a sole contractor simplified support over the life-cycle of the aircraft. Settling on a single airframe also saved time and money on everything from spare parts to crew training.

My, how times have changed.

Fifty years after the B-52s and KC-135s began arriving in SAC units, the defense establishment is preparing to do the unthinkable, and split the next Air Force tanker contract between two designs, the Boeing KC-767 and the Northrop/Grumman/Airbus KC-30. With Congress hopelessly deadlocked over which aircraft to support, a "split" contract may be the only hope for getting a new refueling platform.

Support for the plan has been building slowly since last year, when the GAO overturned a contract awarded to Northrop-Grumman. But a possible tipping point was reached in recent days, with both Northrop and rival Boeing indicating a willingness to divide the tanker contract.

If Congress goes along--a very real possibility--both firms would split the deal, building 90 aircraft apiece. That will keep the contractors (and politicians) happy, but it promises to create a training and logistics nightmare for the USAF. Both tankers will need their own logistical chain, maintenance network and crew training system. Two different tankers; multiply the support costs by that same number.

It makes absolutely no sense, but the tanker "solution" is a sad reflection of our politicized procurement system. More disturbingly, the split buy will set a terrible precedent for other controversial weapons system. If it succeeds in having it "both ways" with the new tanker, Congress will simply dig in its heels and demand the division of other contracts. Programs that can't be easily split will face cancellation, a la CSAR-X.

Officially, the Pentagon remains committed to a "winner-take-all" competition for the new tanker. But the handwriting for dual sourcing appears to be on the wall. Key Congressman--including Pennsylvania's John Murtha--are lining up behind the idea, and lawmakers may insert language into defense authorization bills to support a split buy.

Whatever his weaknesses as a SecDef, Robert Gates is a master at gauging the prevailing political winds. Mr. Gates knows he can't cancel the new tanker program, and he understands that sole sourcing may be politically impossible. So, don't be surprised if you see two new tankers at Air Force bases in the very near future.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mr. Gates' About Face

Barely eight months after he quashed Air Force plans to establish a "Cyber Command," Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expected to recommend creation of a similar organization, to face the escalating threat from cyber attacks.

According to NBC News, Mr. Gates has yet to make a final decision on the new command, but is leaning towards approval. A final decision is expected after the White House unveils its own strategy for cyber defense. Various administration spokesmen have warned that the U.S. is facing an ever-increasing threat against is computer systems, including those that support the military.

One senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the number of attacks against DoD computer networks have more than doubled over the last six months. Some Pentagon websites receive thousands of "probes" a day.

Word of the new cyber command comes amid claims that hackers successfully penetrated a computer network associated with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in 2007. Sources tell The Wall Street Journal that hackers stole more than a "terabyte" of information on the stealth attack jet. While the data was not classified, it did provide additional details on the F-35's capabilities.

But successful penetrations of our military aircraft are not limited to the JSF. In a speech earlier this month, the head of Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive reported that "counterfeit" computer chips have made their way into other military jets. The chips were designed to degrade system capabilities, at the time of an adversary's choosing.

Secretary Gates believes a new cyber command would enhance our defenses against such attacks, and reduce successful penetrations of DoD and contractor systems. Pentagon sources suggest that the new organization will be a "down-sized" unified command, combining elements of all the services, with leadership rotating among the various military branches.

There is, of course, a certain irony in Mr. Gates' plan. Not that long ago, he was moving to terminate the Air Force's effort to create its own cyber command; now he's scrambling to build his own organization, with a similar mission.

To be fair, there were a number of reasons behind the SecDef's decision. In military ricles, there was a perception that the USAF was pushing for supremacy in the cyber mission, at the expense of the other services. Some observers compared the move to another campaign that ended in failure--the service's attempt to become DoD's "executive agent" for UAVs, another proposal that was rejected for Mr. Gates.

Making matters worse, the Air Force even lobbied state governors for potential basing sites, suggesting that the new command might have a presence in dozens of states. As the other services began to push back, they found a willing ally in Mr. Gates. He pulled the plug on the venture last August, two months after firing its leading proponents, then-Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and the service's Chief of Staff, General Mike Moseley.

While the service--and its leadership--deserve an "F" for marketing their plan, the cyber proposal was not without merit. The Air Force command would have been headquartered at Offut AFB, Nebraska or Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, in close proximity to U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) and 8th Air Force, organizations charged with DoD's global strike mission.

Additionally, the proposed basing and command structure would have allowed the cyber organization to leverage the capabilities of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Agency, the service's preeminent cyber-warfare organization. It's also worth noting that the ISR Agency performs a number of missions in the joint arena; in fact, the organization's commander was (at one time) the senior officer for cyber missions within STRATCOM. In other words, while the propose Air Force command was a blue-suit organization, it definitely had a "purple" tint to it, with the ability to support the other services and their missions.

Now, Secretary Gates is talking about a somewhat similar, venture, except his enterprise will be a joint cyber command under--you guessed it--STRATCOM. Details have yet to be announced, but don't be surprised if major elements of the Air Force plan wind up in the new organization.

But a few things are certain. First, don't expect the boys in blue to get any credit for the organization that eventually "stands up" at Offut or another location; there's too much bad blood between Gates and the USAF. Secondly, don't look for Mike Wynne or Buzz Moseley to get an invitation to the ribbon-cutting ceremony, for the same reasons.

And finally, it's worth asking how many of those on-line attacks and probes might have been prevented, had Secretary Gates allowed the Air Force command to start operations last fall, as originally planned. Maybe Mr. Gates will finally realize that the USAF has its share of good ideas, and some of them deserve the fast-track.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Our Selective Moral Outrage

Today's reading assignment from Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal. As he reminds us, a global community that equates "Zionism" with "racism" can't be bothered with Russian barbarism in places like Chechnya.

Or the gulags of Cuba, Iran, North Korea and a dozen other despotic regimes.

"Mr. Inside," RIP

West Point football legend Felix "Doc" Blanchard accepts the 1945 Heisman Trophy. After graduation, Blanchard went on to a long career as an Air Force fighter pilot (AP photo).

One of the legendary players of college football has died.

Felix "Doc" Blanchard, the punishing inside runner for Army teams that went undefeated from 1944-46, passed away Sunday in Bulverde, Texas. He was 84.

As the Associated Press recounts:

The bruising fullback Blanchard, listed at 6 feet, 208 pounds, and Glenn Davis, aka Mr. Outside, helped Army win consecutive national titles in 1944-45.

Notre Dame coach Ed McKeever was quoted as saying about Blanchard in 1944: “I’ve just seen Superman in the flesh. He wears No. 35 and goes by the name of Blanchard.”

The year after Blanchard became the first junior to win the Heisman Trophy, Davis won it and Army went undefeated again.

With Blanchard and Davis, Army went 27-0-1 from 1944-46.

In 1944, after a famous season-ending win over Navy, Gen. Douglas MacArthur even took time out from his war duties to send this wire: “The greatest of all Army teams. ... We have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success. MacArthur.”

Blanchard, who also played linebacker and handled place-kicking and punting for Army, capped his Heisman Trophy season by scoring three touchdowns in a 32-13 victory against Navy, and he became the first football player to win the Sullivan Award, given to the nation’s top amateur athlete.

But many football fans are unaware of Blanchard's other achievements--as an Air Force fighter pilot. Sixty years ago, a West Point graduate was (usually) expected to fulfill his service commitment; Doc Blanchard spent 25 years in uniform before retiring, as a Colonel, in 1971.

Along the way, Blanchard served combat tours in Korea and Vietnam, and was cited for a flawless emergency landing at a base in England, despite an engine fire. In his typical, self-deprecating manner, Blanchard said he opted for the landing because he was afraid his parachute wouldn't open.

On the football field, Doc Blanchard's exploits were the stuff of lore. Just over six feet tall and weighing 210 pounds, the West Point star had the speed of a tailback, but the power of a fullback, his natural position. Along with halfback Glenn Davis ("Mr. Outside), Blanchard formed one of the greatest backfields in college football history. Davis won the Heisman Trophy in 1946, one year after Blanchard. Ironically, Davis spent only three years in uniform before a brief professional career with the Los Angeles Rams.

Living quietly in Texas after retirement, Colonel Blanchard never sought the limelight, and regrettably, he was largely forgotten by both the sports world, the military and even his hometown. Blanchard was raised in Bishopville, South Carolina (and is, arguably, its most famous native son), but the town didn't get around to planning a monument for him until 2002.

Better late than never, we suppose.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Gutting Airpower

In our newest article for, we look at the impact of the Gates defense budget on airpower. Between capping production of the F-22 and C-17 (and eliminating funding for such programs as CSAR-X and the next generation bomber), it's a very ugly picture, indeed.

Call the ACLU...

....I'm a past victim of U.S. government torture.

Of course, I never made that connection until the other day, when the Obama Administration released memos on that subject from the Bush White House. Reviewing various media accounts of the documents--including this one from the Washington Times--I discovered that I was subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques." Of course, no one used that term at the time; we called it "survival school."

Back in the day, your humble correspondent was a military aircrew member. Part of my training included a 17-day course at the U.S. Air Force Survival School, located at Fairchild AFB, Washington. The school provides detailed instruction in Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) techniques, essential information for anyone who might find themselves on the lam in bad-guy territory, or even worse, in enemy hands.

We learned resistance measures in a realistic training environment; a mock POW camp, complete with guards, barbed wire and interrogators. I haven't been back to Fairchild in more than a decade, but during my time as a student (the early 1990s), we endured two stays in the camp--and exposure to those interrogation techniques, the same ones used on captured terrorists.

Being placed in a confinement box? Yep, been there, done that. In fact, virtually everyone in my group at Fairchild enjoyed that experience. According to the Times, senior Al Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah, spent a little time in the box, with an added treat: insects. Apparently, interrogators discovered that Mr. Zubaydah had a fear of bugs, so they placed a few in the box to make him talk. But, as the memos cautioned, the insects placed inside the confinement box could not be "harmful."

The other techniques approved by the Bush Administration would also be familiar to anyone who's been through a DoD SERE course: conditioning techniques (such as sleep deprivation and dietary manipulation); "corrective" measures (including facial and abdominal slaps; facial holds and attention grabs, and "coercive" steps that were considered the most effective.

Approved techniques in that latter category ranged from water-boarding; cramped confinement, dousing with cold water and stress position. I never saw anyone water-boarded during my SERE class, but the other tactics were common-place.

During one stay in the mock POW camp, I spent more than twelve hours in a pitch-black isolation box, unable to fully stand or lay down. After 10 hours or so, I began to experience hallucinations. So did my classmates. Again, we didn't consider it torture. It was training--training that one day, might have saved our lives.

Mr. Obama's decision to release the memos has been rightly criticized. Former CIA Director General Mike Hayden believes the disclosures jeopardize national security, providing new details on how far the U.S. is willing to go during terrorist interrogations.

Making matters worse, the administration has suspended use of these "harsh" techniques, which have been described as torture by various politicians and human rights groups. But the memos actually reveal that such measures were used carefully, in a controlled environment. Guidelines contained in the documents mandate the presence of medical personnel and psychologists when the interrogation tactics were employed (emphasis ours).

The Bush memos affirm what we've said all along; the kerfuffle over alleged "torture" at Gitmo (and other interrogation sites) is more about politics that legitimate human rights issues. Most of the techniques used on captured terrorists are identical to those found in military training. Even the most coercive measure--the dreaded water boarding--was used on only a handful of high-value prisoners, and for only the briefest periods of time. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the Al Qaida ops chief, broke down after only 30 seconds of water boarding.

And, did we mention that information derived through these measures saved countless American lives? Will President Obama reconsider his ban when interrogators can't obtain the right information and a terror plan succeeds? Mr. Obama--and his supporters in the media--have been rather quiet on that one.

The commander-in-chief has vowed not to prosecute intelligence officers who used the "torture" methods on suspected terrorists. But that won't stop the ACLU. A spokesman suggested that his organization may consider lawsuits against current and former interrogators. I'm still waiting to hear if they will take my case.

Oh that's right. I signed that waiver at survival school, releasing the government from any liability. Makes me wonder if Mr. Obama will prepare an executive order, absolving himself of any responsibility, just in case that "ban on torture" backfires.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Harry Kalas, RIP

The death of sportscaster Harry Kalas reminds us that the end of an era is fast approaching.

Mr. Kalas, the longtime play-by-play voice of the Philadelphia Phillies, died just minutes before Monday's game with the Washington Nationals. Kalas collapsed in the radio booth, where he spent most of his adult life, including 38 years calling games for the Phillies. His passing came less than six months after the team won its second World Series of Kalas's tenure, but the only one where he called the final out. A television contract prohibited local broadcasters from calling the final game of the Fall Classic; the ban was lifted in 1981--a year after the Phillies won the series.

With his booming baritone and accessible personality, Kalas became an institution in Philadelphia--and beyond. If you never heard a Phillies broadcast, you knew the voice that graced everything from football highlights (he was the primary narrator for NFL films for three decades) to soup commercials (Campbell's fills you up right"). When a Hollywood studio needed someone to narrate the trailer for the football comedy Leatherheads, they called Harry Kalas.

But it was his work as a baseball broadcaster that put him in Cooperstown and secured Kalas' reputation as a sports broadcaster. Arriving in Philly in 1971, he faced the unenviable task of replacing longtime play-by-play announcer Bill Campbell. Kalas quickly won over the tough Philadelphia audience and, in the process, he became one of the last, legendary sportscasters whose professional identity was intertwined with that of a single team, or a particular city.

It was part of a lineage that began with Mel Allen, Red Barber and Harry Caray, and continued with men like Jack Brickhouse, Chuck Thompson, Ernie Harwell, Bob Price, and Jack Buck. By the time Kalas began his tenure in Philadelphia, most of the legendary baseball voices were deep into their careers, or in the case of Mr. Barber, already in retirement.

Along with Atlanta's Skip Caray, Marty Brennaman in Cincinnati, and Bob Uecker of the Milwaukee Brewers, Mr. Kalas became one of the last, iconic local announcers, forever associated with their ball clubs and their fortunes. Great moments in team history were captured by their calls, filled with drama and excitement. Over four decades in Philadelphia, Kalas described more than a few memorable moments, from Mike Schmidt's 500th home run, to no-hitters by Terry Mulholland and Kevin Milwood, and of course, the 2008 World Series Championship.

Listening to Kalas and his peers was a throwback to another era, when summer was defined by the America's Pastime, best enjoyed on a long evening with a cold drink and a radio, the sounds of the game--and that familiar voice--wafting into the darkness.

With the advent of cable TV, radio broadcasts over 50,000-watt clear channel stations became less important for team revenues. Legendary outlets like WSB and KMOX--whose nighttime signal covered dozens of states--no longer carry baseball. Announcers also became interchangeable, moving from team to team like free agents. No one really wants to do radio play-by-play anymore," a broadcast executive told me a few years ago. "They all want to anchor SportsCenter."

That's one reason that Mr. Kalas' passing is particularly sad, even for those who don't reside in the Delaware Valley. With his death, we're another step removed from summers past, when the season seemed to revolve around the game.

There are a number of fine play-by-play announcers who still call major league baseball (Jon Miller of the Giants and ESPN comes immediately to mind), but the list of the truly great ones has dwindled again. If you live in Southern California, consider yourself lucky. You can still experience the magic of the game, in the hands of a broadcasting maestro named Scully, now in his 58th season with the Dodgers.

Are You a Domestic Terrorist?

As a public service, we present today's self-help quiz, aimed at assessing you as a possible security risk. Please answer "yes" or "no" to the following questions:

-- Do you oppose abortion?

-- Are you against illegal immigration?

-- Did you vote for Ron Paul last year?

-- Do you believe in conspiracy theories?

-- Still have a "Harry Browne for President" sticker on your car?

-- Are you a veteran of the armed forces?

-- Were you upset by Barack Obama's election to the presidency?

Congratulations; if you responded affirmatively to any--or all--of these questions, then you might be considered a domestic terrorist by the Department of Homeland Security and local law enforcement agencies. As reported by Audrey Hudson and Eli Lake of the Washington Times, DHS recently published a nine-page assessment on "Rightwing Extremism" that appears to lump many traditional conservatives in the ranks of potential terrorist.

According to the report--which was recently disseminated to police organizations around the county--such factors as the economic recession, the election of Mr. Obama and the return of "disgruntled" veterans could increase the ranks of white power militias around the country.

Never mind that the "threat" posed by militias and white supremacist organizations has been routinely inflated, and there hasn't been a serious attack from those elements since Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City 15 years ago. Under the leadership of Janet Napolitano, DHS is hot on the trail of conservative reactionaries.

Obviously, Secretary Napolitano's department has to be concerned with the full array of potential threats, regardless of political stripe. But as our "questionnaire" suggested, Homeland Security has a rather odd way of defining possible terrorists, looking for them among the ranks of libertarians, conspiracy theorists and ex-military members, among others.

And, as Ms. Hudson and Mr. Lake discovered, the department has a hard time quantifying the menace. Despite such recruiting lures as a struggling economy and a liberal administration, there seems to be little evidence of expanding membership among white supremacist groups and the militias. The FBI tells the Times that out of a group of 23,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only 200--less than one percent--joined such groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the Ayran Nation.

On the other hand, there is much reason for concern about the threat from left-wing radicals. The FBI is still trying to determine the number of young Somali men who have traveled from Minnesota to join terrorist factions in their homeland. More disturbingly, some federal officials worry that some of the Somalis may return to the United States, and launch attacks on our soil.

But the threat doesn't end there. When you factor in groups ranging from the Earth Liberation Front and Palestinian terror factions, to animal rights radicals and Al Qaida sleeper cells, it becomes clear that left-wing extremists pose a far greater security risk.

So, where's the comparable reporting on elements from the far left? A DHS spokeswoman claims the agency circulated a report on those threats in January, but it has never been leaked to the press--or released to the public. It is also unclear if the assessment on left-wing terrorists was circulated among law enforcement groups.

It's also worth noting that Homeland Security isn't the only organization focused on possible right-wing threats. Late last month, the Missouri State Police halted distribution of a report which linked a host of conservative groups to the militia movement, including anti-abortion activists, fundamentalist Christians and even supporters of libertarian politicians.

The document was produced by something called the Missouri Information Analysis Center (MIAC), an intelligence "fusion" operation that provides assessment to the state police. As you might have guessed, information for the MIAC report came (in part) from the Department of Homeland Security. While the report touched off a firestorm in the conservative blogosphere, ti received virtually no attention in the national press.

Perhaps the Washington Times story will get a little more play--and force attention on the misplaced priorities of those who are supposed to be protecting us. Only in the alternate universe of Janet Napolitano would someone who voted for Bob Barr be labeled a potential terrorist.

Making matters worse, the Missouri report (and the DHS data that inspired it) suggest that millions are being wasted on the state and local "fusion centers" that have sprung up around the country. We can only imagine how much time was lavished on the MIAC assessment, so that Missouri state troopers could learn to spot domestic terrorists by the crosses and bumper stickers on their cars.

Welcome back to the pre-9-11 security mindset, where everyone worried about the "next McVeigh" that was supposedly lurking at every militia meeting. Meanwhile, we never paid attention to the really important stuff, like young Muslim men enrolled in U.S. flight schools--the same ones who had no interest in learning to land the aircraft.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Giving Credit

Our latest piece for looks at today's successful rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from pirates off the coast of Somalia. As administration officials bragged about President Obama's authorization to use military force--and his decision to deploy special forces for the operation--we were reminded of JFK's famous quote about "victory having a thousand fathers."

To be sure, Mr. Obama deserves some credit. He understood that it was unacceptable to allow the lifeboat, carrying Phillips and his captors, to drift toward the Somali coast. If the merchant captain was taken ashore, his rescue would become virtually impossible, and negotiations to free him would be much more difficult, with warlords and others maneuvering for a piece of the ransom pie.

Giving his commanders the latitude they needed, President Obama issued orders that allowed them to take action, if necessary, to save Phillips' life. He also approved an order that sent Navy SEALs aboard the USS Bainbridge, the first naval vessel to reach the scene. But such directives are standard in this type of operation. Failing to send in the SEALs--or pre-authorizing the use of military force--would be unthinkable.

Put another way, today's successful operation was not a triumph of executive decision-making from the White House situation room. Instead, much of the credit should go to the on-scene commander who had the authority to act--and did so (decisively) when the opportunity presented itself.

Kudos also to the SEAL snipers who eliminated Phillips' three captors with three head shots. At the time the operation began, the lifeboat carrying the hostage was about 80 feet behind the Bainbridge, under tow by the destroyer.

That would seem to be an easy shot for a trained sniper, but it's worth remembering that the lifeboat was bobbing in the warship's wake--hardly a stationary target. Additionally, the "enclosed" design of the craft made it difficult to determine what was going on inside and target the pirates at exactly the right moment.

Great News from Somalia

Captain Richard Phillips has been rescued, after a brief firefight off the Somali coast.

According to the AP, Phllips was rescued by U.S. naval forces and was not harmed. Three Somali pirates were killed in the operation, and one was injured.

Details on the rescue have not been released, but Phillips apparently triggered the operation by jumping from the lifeboat where he was being held captive. The Navy opened fire, preventing the pirates from recapturing the American merchant captain. Phillips was taken aboard the USS Bainbridge, which was monitoring the situation.

The rescue took place around nightfall (Somali time). There is some speculation that Captain Phillips deliberately waited for that time, knowing that U.S. forces--including SEAL elements operating from the Bainbridge--have a distinct advantage in terms of night-fighting equipment and tactics.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Quote of the Day

...From syndicated radio host Mike McConnell, on his program "The Weekend."

Was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki an "Overseas Contingency Operation," or a "Man-caused disaster?"

The POW Fraud

This past Thursday marked the 67th anniversary of the fall of Bataan. After four months of bitter fighting against the invading Japanese, U.S. forces on the Philippines peninsula--short of food, ammunition and medicine, and with no hope of relief--surrendered to the enemy. It was the largest capitulation of American military forces in history; over the days that followed, more than 11,000 American troops marched into the hell of Japanese prison camp.

Sadly, many of them did not survive captivity. As detailed in countless books, including Hampton Sides' superb Ghost Soldiers (2001), thousands of our POWs perished at camps like Cabanatuan from disease, malnutrition and torture. Those who died--and those who made it back--are genuine American heroes, as are those held prisoner in subsequent conflicts.

At the other end of the spectrum, you'll find men like Edward Daily and retired Army Command Sergeant Major Richard Barr Clayton. Daily, a resident of Clarksville, Tennessee, identified himself as a POW from the Korean War, and collected more than $400,000 in benefits from the Veteran's Administration. Clayton, who lived in Texas after his military career, made similar claims about service in Vietnam and also received VA payments, although the amount he received has not been disclosed.

But there was only one problem; Daily and Clayton were frauds. While both served, there is no record of them being held prisoner by the enemy. In fact, Daily should be considered a double fraud. Readers of this blog will remember him as one of the Associated Press's "sources" on a series of 1999 reports, detailing an alleged massacre of civilians at a place called No Gun Ri during the early stages of the Korean War. Daily told the AP (among other things) that he fired into a crowd of civilians at No Gun Ri, received a battlefield commission and was captured by the North Koreans.

Research by an Army historian, Major Robert Bateman, proved that Daily didn't join the unit until the following year, and spent most of his time as a mechanic and clerk, well behind the front lines. For his troubles, Bateman was vilified by the wire service, although his own book on No Gun Ri won the Colby Prize for military history in 2004. While acknowledging problems with its sources, the AP has refused to return the Pulitzer it received for reporting on the massacre.

To its credit, the Associated Press is (finally) on the case of phony POWs like Daily and Clayton. In a long article published today, AP writer Allen Breed details the surprising number of fraudulent POW benefits being paid by the VA. According to information released by the agency, there are hundreds of veterans who have falsely claimed prisoner of war status and are receiving benefits.

Being for former POW doesn't entitle you to a bigger benefit check than other veterans but, as Mr. Breed reports, it does offer a leg up in attaining a disability determination. A former service member who is 100% disabled can earn more than $35,000 a year in tax-free VA benefits plus Social Security disability payments, free health care and various state incentives, ranging from property tax exemptions to waivers on vehicle tags.

And all it takes is a letter from the VA, which (as the AP notes) doesn't always bother to verify the veteran's claim.

In fact, the agency sometimes bases eligibility solely on the individual's testimony. Never mind that the Pentagon maintains extensive records on POWs from past conflicts, and the VA could easily verify claims against that database. By refusing to take that simple step, the Veteran's Administration has allowed hundreds of phonies to worm their way into the benefits system, and paid millions in fraudulent claims.

How many more Ed Dailys are out there? More than you might imagine. The Pentagon says there are only 21 surviving POWs from the first Persian Gulf War, but the VA is paying benefits to at least 286 veterans who claim they were held by the enemy in that conflict. Similarly, Defense Department rolls show only 560 living POWs from Vietnam, but the VA is providing monthly benefits to 966 individuals who claim that status, including four women veterans. As you might have guessed, there were no American female POWs in that war.

While the VA claims its works with the Pentagon to confirm prisoner-of-war claims, numbers obtained by the AP suggest otherwise. The agency has also refused offers of assistance from POW and veteran's groups. One of those organizations, the POW Network, claims to have "outed" more than 2,000 phonies who claimed prisoner of war status. There is no word on how many of those individuals were receiving VA and other government benefits.

The Veteran's Administration has long been faulted for lengthy delays in awarding benefits for former service members. In response, the agency claims that it takes time to verify claims and make the proper determination. But apparently, it's not particularly hard to doctor--or make up--a service record that includes POW status and get the VA to go along.

As R.G. Burkett, the author of Stolen Valor (and one of the first writers to conduct a serious expose of military phonies), it's a shameful example of sacrilege--stealing from the nation's war dead, including all those POWs who never made it home.

Like the brave men who passed into history on that infamous march from Bataan.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Line of Succession

Recent footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has raised new questions about his long-term health, and potential succession scenarios in Pyongyang.

The 67-year-old dictator appeared much thinner and grayer during an appearance before North Korea's parliament on Thursday, showing the lingering effects of a stroke he reportedly suffered last year.

Kim limped slightly as he arrived at the Supreme People's Assembly, to the predictable applause and a standing ovation. The rubber-stamp parliament reappointed Kim as head of the nation's National Defense Commission, the most powerful position in the DPRK.

Ironically, the appearance at the assembly--and recently-broadcast footage on state television--was supposed to show the North Korean populace (and the world) that Kim remains firmly in charge. While many analysts agree with that assessment, they are less certain about Kim Jong-il's ability to rule into his 70s like his father, Kim Il-Sung.

That's one reason to watch a pair of "promotions" recently announced by Pyongyang. According to Fox News and the Associated Press, Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law, Jang Song Thaek, has been named to the defense commission, enhancing his power among North Korea's ruling elite. Some reports suggest that Jang led the government last year, while Kim Jong-il was incapacitated.

Jang also has close ties to Jong Un, Kim's youngest son who has been mentioned as potential successor to his father. But Jong is only 26, and widely viewed as unprepared the lead the country. By elevating Jang to the defense commission, Kim Jong-il may be trying to find someone who can run the country until Jong Un is ready.

Conventional wisdom holds that the DPRK will be finished before Kim's son reaches middle age, and acquires enough stature to replace his father. After all, the country is bankrupt, with no viable exports aside from missiles and nuclear technology. At least a million North Koreans have starved to death over the past decade, and millions more remain at risk.

But it is also a mistake to underestimate North Korea, and the staying power of the Kim's regime. Predictions of Pyongyang's demise have been circulating in the intelligence community for more than 20 years. After all, it doesn't take an expert to understand that the North Korean model is unsustainable. Yet, the DPRK has somehow managed to muddle through, using the tools of a police state to crush any hint of domestic dissent, and a combination of threats and empty promises to milk aid from the west.

And, prospects for Pyongyang's survival have actually risen a bit in recent months. Despite the provocation of last weekend's long-range missile test, the U.S. seems willing to forgive and forget, pushing for another round of meaningless sanctions from the United Nations--and a resumption of the Six Party nuclear talks.

If history is any indicator, Kim Jong-il will eventually return to the bargaining table, after winning more concessions from the U.S. and its partners. That will give North Korea enough food and fuel to meet its military needs, sustaining Kim's most important domestic constituency. Meanwhile, Pyongyang's nuclear scientists and rocket engineers will keep working on their products for paying customers in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Judging by his physical appearance, Kim Jong-il may not be around in 10 years. A lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking will do that to you. But the Stalinist state may survive, given North Korea's long history of defying the odds--and the west's willingness to prop up his regime, through direct aid and our unwillingness to pressure Kim's friends in Beijing

Thursday, April 09, 2009

America the Patsy?

Today's reading assignment from Investor's Business Daily. As the editorial board notes, Russia has told the U.S. "not to worry" about a nuclear Iran, and to "go easy" on North Korea, despite that recent long-range missile test. They wonder: are we being set up?

The Islamofascist regime in Iran has denied inspectors from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency access to its Arak heavy water reactor, which could be geared to produce plutonium from spent uranium fuel rods.

Yet we heard soothing words this week from Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Sergei Kislyak.

"I don't see any threat to the United States coming from Iran anytime soon," he told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


In a similar vein, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that "any threat of sanction" against North Korea in response to its Sunday launch of a multistage rocket over Japan, a violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution, "would be counterproductive."

More talk for a regime possessing as many as eight nuclear warheads after it sends up a missile reaching twice as far as anything it has launched previously?

Clearly, Russia wants to lull us into complacency regarding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction among hostile regimes. Do Moscow and other adversaries of the free world sense an uncommon opportunity in the year 2009?

With an unprecedented financial crisis battering the West's economic system, and a man of the left in the White House, is Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's description of Barack Obama as "my new comrade" more than a clever sound bite?

Well worth the read.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Breaking Faith?

In 1994 and 1997, there were a pair of somber ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. They commemorated the return of two helicopter crews, one Army and one Air Force, killed in the legendary rescue of Bat-21.

Thirty-seven years later, the story of Lt Col Iceal "Gene" Hambleton remains a stirring story of human courage, sacrifice--and survival. On Easter Sunday (April 2, 1972), Hambleton was flying as a navigator on an EB-66 electronic counter-measures (ECM) aircraft near South Vietnam's Demilitarized Zone. The aircraft's mission was to provide jamming support for a B-52 strike, across the border in North Vietnam.

As Hambleton and his five fellow crew members soon discovered, they had flown into the teeth of a major North Vietnamese offensive. Elements of two enemy divisions were pouring south beneath their flight path. For protection from U.S. warplanes, the Vietnamese brought along SA-2 surface-to-air missiles and hundreds of anti-aircraft guns. Numerous SA-2s were fired at the B-52s, but none found their targets, thanks to the electronic warfare gear carried on the massive bombers, and ECM support from the EB-66.

As Hambleton's aircraft turned south, it was struck by a missile and instantly disintegrated. Lt Col Hambleton was the only crew member who was able to eject. He landed in the middle of the enemy advance and began a remarkable, 12-day quest for freedom. Hambleton narrowly escaped capture or death on several occasions. The commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, ordered Hambleton's rescue "at all costs," due to his extensive knowledge of electronic warfare and ballistic missile programs.

For almost two weeks, Air Force, Army and special forces units spared no effort to recover the downed navigator. At one point, intelligence analysts and operations planners took advantage of Hambleton's love of golf, dividing his escape route into "holes" from courses he often played. In the end, U.S. Navy and South Vietnamanes SEALs located Hambleton, and led him to safety.

But the daring rescue came at a high price. Three of the four men on the Army UH-1 (callsign Blue Ghost 39) were lost in the first attempt to retrieve Hambleton. Six crew members perished when an Air Force HH-3E (callsign Jolly Green 67) was downed by enemy fire four days later. All told, six aircraft were shot down--and at least 15 rescue personnel gave their lives--in the effort to save Lt Col Hambleton.

Yet, they persisted against long odds, because of a long-standing pledge to military aircrews. You won't find it codified in any regulation, but it is an article of faith for all U.S. military aircrew members. If you are shot down, we will make every effort to bring you back safely, regardless of the risk or cost. That was the commitment made to Colonel Hambleton, and it remains true to this day.

Unfortunately, the future of that pledge seems to be in doubt. While rescue personnel remain as dedicated and courageous as ever, their political superiors apparently don't share that resolve. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates scrapped plans for a new rescue helicopter, which would provide combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) capabilities for the next 20 years.

To be sure, Mr. Gates' decision won't mean an immediate end to the pick-up of downed aircrews, the infiltration of SOF crews, or the rescue of disaster victims. The Air Force's current inventory of HH-60 Pave Hawks will soldier on, just as they have since the late 1980s. Crewed by skilled pilots, flight engineers, gunners and pararescue specialists, they remain the preeminent combat rescue force in the world.

But the Pave Hawks are getting long in the tooth. Without extensive maintenance and required upgrades, the HH-60s will eventually face the same fate of all aging military aircraft, and retire to the bone yard. As the existing rescue choppers are lost to age and attrition, our CSAR forces will be diminished, as will they contributions to critical missions.

Critics claim there is no longer a need for a dedicated combat rescue force. The proliferation of modern air defenses, including "double-digit" SAMs and advanced MANPADS, makes some missions too risky. At the other end of the spectrum, U.S. air dominance has resulted in the minimal losses of aircraft and crews during recent conflicts. One reason that CSAR units now fly special operations and disaster relief sorties (to mention a few) is because their baseline mission has been diminished.

But that doesn't mitigate the need for a highly-trained combat rescue force. If you're a downed aircrew member; a SOF operator evading in "bad guy" territory or a hurricane victim stranded on your rooftop, nothing is more comforting that the whup, whup, whup of those blades and the sight of a PJ coming down the hoist.

Without a new rescue chopper, Air Force rescue units--and the customers they support--will face a steady erosion of our CSAR capabilities, with no replacement in sight. Mr. Gates' decision means (ultimately) that some missions simply won't be attempted, thanks to an aging aircraft fleet and eventual personnel cuts in rescue units. As the HH-60 fleet lumbers toward retirement, someone will decide that the Air Force needs less personnel to man rescue units, resulting in a further degradation of key combat skills.

In a nutshell, that means that Secretary Gates and future military leaders are breaking faith with the men and women who fly into combat. By cancelling CSAR-X, Mr. Gates is sending a simple signal; in future conflicts, if you're downed behind enemy lines, you may be on your own. The bonds of loyalty and commitment that sent brave men after Iceal Hambleton has been replaced by a new, risk-adverse calculus that will mean fewer rescue choppers in the air (and possibly) leave some aircrew members stranded in bad-guy land.

All in the name of saving a few bucks.

ADDENDUM: If that doesn't make your blood boil, may be this will. Some defense analysts have suggested that Gates' decision was influenced less by changing CSAR requirements, and more by the politics of defense acquisition. As we've noted in previous posts, various defense contractors (and their political constituencies) have rallied around competing designs, refusing to budge in their bid for a $15 billion contract.

Facing long appeals from losing teams, Gates simply elected to scrap the program, ending debate over "which" team would land the deal. In that regard, Mr. Gates and his leadership team made a gutless choice, electing to kill the program instead of facing the political heat that would come with the next CSAR-X contract.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Nuclear Illusionist

A timely reading assignment from today's edition of The Wall Street Journal. It would be an understatement to say that the Journal's editorial writers hit the proverbial nail squarely on the head. A few particularly salient paragraphs:

"Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something."

So declared President Obama Sunday in Prague regarding North Korea's missile launch, which America's U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice added was a direct violation of U.N. resolutions. At which point, the Security Council spent hours debating its nonresponse, thus proving to nuclear proliferators everywhere that rules aren't binding, violations won't be punished, and words of warning mean nothing.

Rarely has a Presidential speech been so immediately and transparently divorced from reality as Mr. Obama's in Prague. The President delivered a stirring call to banish nuclear weapons at the very moment that North Korea and Iran are bidding to trigger the greatest proliferation breakout in the nuclear age. Mr. Obama also proposed an elaborate new arms-control regime to reduce nuclear weapons, even as both Pyongyang and Tehran are proving that the world's great powers lack the will to enforce current arms-control treaties.


The truth is that Mr. Obama's nuclear vision has reality exactly backward. To the extent that the U.S. has maintained a large and credible nuclear arsenal, it has prevented war, defeated the Soviet Union, shored up our alliances and created an umbrella that persuaded other nations that they don't need a bomb to defend themselves.

Unfortunately, such distinctions are lost on Mr. Obama and his advisers. With the right amount of persuasion (and few economic carrots), they believe that anyone can be dissuaded from pursuing a nuclear weapons program and the required delivery platforms. And when rogue states break their promises (helloooo, North Korea), it's time to head back to the bargaining table.

History teaches that many dictators like to talk, particularly when those discussions are a substitute for more concrete action. In the late 1930s, diplomatic overtures from British politicians like Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were hailed across Europe as the best way to deal with Adolf Hitler. Both Baldwin and Chamberlain remained popular until the Nazis invaded Poland, and the continent exploded into World War II.

Seventy years later, we can only wonder that cataclysmic event--or events--will prompt the political and chattering classes to finally appreciate the folly of Mr. Obama's policies.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

And the Winner Is....

Maybe it's the influence of sports in our lives.

Or that human desire to measure everything in terms of who came out on top, and who got left behind.

Whatever the reason, there's no doubt that life, love and international relations are often defined in terms of winners and losers. And, with that in mind, we're pleased to announce the world leader who emerged triumphant at this weekend's EU summit in the Czech Republic.

May we have the envelope, please? (drumroll)

Taking top honors without so much as showing up, the top prize for grabbing global attention--and embarrassing the U.S. in the process--goes to Kim Jong-il of North Korea.

Think about it. With today's launch of a Tapeodong-2 long-range missile, Mr. Kim achieved a slew of political goals in less that 15 minutes--the time required for his rocket to fly from North Korea, to splashdown in the Pacific.

First, the DPRK dictator once again thumbed his nose at international convention. Virtually everyone from President Obama to Kim's Asian neighbors warned him against the missile test, but the TD-2 went off as scheduled. Did we mention that many of these same leaders still favor diplomacy as the preferred method of engaging Pyongyang?

In fact, the new U.S. envoy to the Six Party talks--aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program--has suggested that Washington may be prepared to "overlook" the missile test, if Mr. Kim will return to the bargaining table. Fire off a long-range missile and get Washington to beg for a resumption of negotiations? That's a win-win by any one's standards.

But it gets even better. Not only did Kim Jong-il put his regime back in the global spotlight (and score an impressive propaganda victory to boot), but there's virtually no chance he'll be punished for his actions. While Mr. Obama is talking about additional sanctions, North Korea's friends on the U.N. Security Council--China and Russia--have veto power over any measures, and both are urging "restraint" in any new resolution against Pyongyang.

That means the likely "punishment" for the DPRK is another meaningless diplomatic warning. They haven't deterred North Korea in the past, and this time is no different.

While the diplomats haggle over language, Pyongyang will press on with its missile and nuclear weapons efforts. An Iranian delegation was present for today's launch, and the ICBM technology being developed in North Korea will quickly find its way to the Middle East.

By some accounts, at least one stage of the TD-2 is built in Iran, another testament to Mr. Kim's worldwide proliferation program. From Damascus to Caracas, there is no shortage of willing customers for North Korean weapons technology, including petro-states who will underwrite his development efforts.

Not bad for a guy who was supposedly on his death bed just a few months ago. You know, the same, two-bit dictator who has been written off time and time again. As we've noted before, various experts in the State Department and the intelligence community have been predicting the demise of North Korea for decades. Clearly, the DPRK's economic and political models are unsustainable. But it's naive to believe that Pyongyang will disappear anytime soon, or make significant concessions on its most important issues.

Obviously, if Kim Jong-il was the big winner this weekend, then there had to be a loser of equal proportions. Our vote goes to President Obama, who has been ignoring or downplaying the North Korean issue for more than a month. Refusing to use missile defenses to shoot down the TD-2, Mr. Obama then expressed surprise and outrage over the test. His response? Get the U.N. to pass another, empty resolution.

We would imagine that Mr. Kim is genuinely looking forward to the next four years. His country is bankrupt and millions of his citizens are starving, but suddenly, North Korea's global prospects seem particularly bright.

After the TD-2

Our newest article at provides a round-up of world reaction to the North Korean missile launch. We'll have a longer, analytical piece later today, assessing the ramifications of the TD-2 test--and our timid response.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Window Opens (Again)

North Korea's latest "window" for a TD-2 launch is now open. In our latest report for, we examine the reasons behind the earlier delay; what President Obama means by "appropriate" response measures, and why an absence of radar emissions from the test site may not mean a longer wait for the launch.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Barksdale Gets the Nod

The Air Force pulled something of a surprise on Thursday, selecting Barksdale AFB as the headquarters for its new Global Strike Command.

Barksdale, which is located near Shreveport, Louisiana, beat out five other installations for the new headquarters. Global Strike Command is expected to bring at least 1,000 airmen and civilians to the base, which is also home to 8th Air Force.

While Barksdale was always a finalist for the new command's headquarters, some analysts originally believed that another installation--Minot AFB, North Dakota--was the front-runner. Minot hosts both a nuclear-capable B-52 bomber wing and a Minuteman III ICBM wing, two of the missions that will now be run by Global Strike Command.

Creation of the new organization is part of a massive re-organization of the service's nuclear enterprise, which has suffered a series of embarrassing incidents in recent years. In August 2007, a B-52 mistakenly transferred nuclear-tipped missiles from Minot to Barksdale.

A few months later, fuses for an ICBM were accidentally shipped from an Air Force depot in Utah to Taiwan. There have also been a string of failed inspections among nuclear units, raising more questions about the safety and security of the nation's most powerful weapons. The mishaps spurred a series of investigations and official inquiries, which led to development of a nuclear "reform" roadmap. One of its recommendations was creation of the new command to handle nuclear operations.

Barksdale's years of experience with the nuclear mission was apparently a factor in the decision, along with the presence of 8th Air Force. The venerable command is in charge of the nation's nuclear bombers, which will fall under Global Strike Command.

Thursday's announcement was also something of a consolation for Barksdale. Last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates forced the Air Force to shelve plans for a new "cyber" command that was to be located at Barksdale. Since then, the service has scaled back plans for the cyber organization, recasting it as a numbered air force.

Most observers believe the new command--designated 24th Air Force--will wind up at Peterson AFB, Colorado, home of Air Force Space Command. Space Com will be the parent organization for the new cyber organization.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

About that Busy Signal

In recent days, callers to the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station in Virginia have been unable to get through. We found out the reason for the reason why, and explain the problem in our latest article at