Friday, August 28, 2009

Seizure in the Gulf

Look for tensions in the Persian Gulf (and Northeast Asia) to ratchet up a notch.

According to Bloomberg, the United Arab Emirates recently seized a shipment of North Korean arms bound for Iran. Diplomatic sources indicate that the UAE notified the UN of the seizure two weeks ago, shortly after it occurred.

Not surprisingly, the Abu Dhabi government has been rather tight-lipped about the seizure. But other sources tell Reuters that the intercept occurred on 14 August, and the cargo included rocket launchers, detonators, munition and ammunition for rocket-propelled grenades--the very items Iran has used kill U.S. troops in Iraq.

The shipment represents a clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which bans all arms transfers from Pyongyang. It was passed earlier this year, after North Korea conducted its second nuclear test. The measure also authorizes other nations to search suspicious vessels, and destroy banned items.

Pyongyang used elaborate measures in an attempt to conceal the shipment. The ship's manifest listed its cargo as "oil boring machines;" the intercepted vessel belongs to an Australian firm that is owned by a French conglomerate, flying the Bahamian flag. An Italian firm, with offices in Shanghai, reportedly arranged the shipment.

Under the UN mandate, North Korea and Iran now have 15 days to offer a detailed explanation for the shipment, but don't hold your breath. Having been caught red-handed, the two rogue states will likely accuse the U.S. and its allies of "manufacturing" the evidence.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of this episode is the claim that Abu Dhabi discovered the shipment on its own. That scenario is plausible; the Emirates spend freely on national defense and have a credible intelligence service for a country their size.

But ferreting out a complex arms shipment--and tracking the vessel on its journey from North Korea--required more extensive SIGINT, IMINT and surveillance resources, something the Emirates currently lack. It doesn't take an intel analyst to see the hand of the U.S. in this intercept. Indeed, it would be interesting to learn the proximity of the nearest American naval vessel at the time of the seizure, and the radio chatter/information sharing that preceded it.

Of course, that raises a couple of questions. First, if Washington provided the intel information that prompted the intercept, why not assign the job to American naval forces? True, letting the Emirates handle the task creates the impression of international resolve and a united front against Pyongyang. But it also suggests that the Obama Administration was trying to avoid a direct confrontation with North Korea and Iran, still hoping for negotiations with both regimes.

Such a "strategy" amounts to little more than a fool's errand. As Tehran and Pyongyang have demonstrated--time and time again--they are undeserving of unilateral talks with the United States. Moreover, if Mr. Obama wants to lead the global effort against banned arms exports, then he must be prepared to take a more active role militarily.

Instead, naval forces from the UAE did the heavy lifting in this operation, and that entails risks for Abu Dhabi. The Emirates have a long-standing dispute with Iran over islands in the Persian Gulf and its possible that Tehran may test its rival, in retaliation for the weapons seizure.

And that brings us to our second question. The UAE has advanced weaponry (its state-of-the-art F-16s are currently participating in Red Flag at Nellis AFB, Nevada) and trained personnel, backed by the best contractor assistance money can buy. However, the Emirates would require help from the U.S. in fending off certain types of attacks--say a missile strike--or a sustained Iranian campaign against oil targets in the Gulf.

At what point is the U.S. prepared to support its ally, which took a calculated risk in boarding that Australian vessel, carrying North Korean arms to Iran? It's a query that is likely being posed in Abu Dhabi (and other capitals) from the Gulf, to the Far East. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is anything but clear.
ADDENDUM: In light of the recent seizure, you can expect an increase in arms delivery flights between North Korea and Iran. IL-76 "Candids" (similar to our retired C-141s) regularly transit between Pyongyang and Tehran. With no restriction on air traffic between the two nations, it will be relatively easy to fly most of the illicit cargo to Iran.

In Response to Senator Kennedy's Death

...We'd normally follow the advice of Thumper's mom, who told him (famously):

"If you can't say anything good about someone...don't say nothin'."

But for Ted Kennedy, we'll make one, slight exception. Turns out that "The U-Boat Commander" enjoyed jokes about Chappaquiddick. Let that sink in for a moment.

A young woman died on a summer night 40 years ago, thanks to Teddy's reckless (and very likely) drunken driving. And yet, he loved a good knee-slapper about his actions that caused the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.

Now, think about that statement a little more, and what it says about the man and his life.

When we first heard Glenn Beck mention Ted's love of a good Chappaquiddick joke, we assumed he was kidding. But that claim about the now-departed Senator wasn't an invention of Mr. Beck's fertile mind; it actually came from Ed Klein, a long-time Kennedy friend and confidant, who praised Teddy's ability to see "both sides" of a situation.

Wonder if the Kopechne family now sees the "humor" in the circumstances of her death?

Stop the ACLU has a link to Ed Klein's comments, from an NPR interview that aired yesterday.

Listen and be revolted.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Making a Bad Situation Worse

Our new column for Pajamas Media looks at Leon Panetta's leadership at the CIA. A few months back, we described him as the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time, and sure enough, Panetta is proving us right. At a moment when the spy agency needs exceptional leadership to minimize damage from politically-motivated investigations, Mr. Panetta is actually making things worse, by creating a tempest over a non-scandal.

Under ordinary circumstances, we'd call for Panetta's resignation, but his potential replacements would be far worse. One name making the rounds is Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry, who served in Vietnam.

Kerry as CIA Director? God help us.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

In Honor of His Bride

Technical Sergeant Israel Del Toro dreamed of giving his wife, Carmen, the big church wedding and reception she always dreamed of.

But events in Afghanistan put those plans on hold. Four years ago, Sergeant Del Toro, an Air Force joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) was critically wounded by an improvised explosive device. Air Force Times writer Patrick Winn recounted the attack--and Del Toro's struggle to survive:

"We had just crossed a creek when I felt that blast," he said. "That heat blast I'll never forget."

Del Toro recalls crawling, fiery and smoking, into the dirt. And then, limping on [Army Lieutenant Brian] Findley's arm, sinking into the nearby stream to cool his cooking insides.

His flesh hissed like water in a skillet. He heard ammo in the Humvee he had been riding in begin to crackle and explode.

He went cold and strained to breath, struggled to mouth the code words used to alert airlift medics over half-fried communications gear.

Here, Del Toro's recollections begin to dim in and out. Stay awake, Findley begged. Remember your kid, D.T.?

A helicopter ride. At the hospital, the doctor cutting loose his favorite watch.

Then, three months of darkness.

But that was only the beginning of Sergeant Del Toro's ordeal. Over the months that followed, he made a near-miraculous recovery from his wounds--including burns over 80% of his body--with his wife by his side. As he continues a long and difficult rehabilitation, TSgt Del Toro is also fighting to stay in the Air Force. The consequences of his injuries will prevent him from serving as a JTAC in the field, but Del Toro believes he can still make a contribution. He's not a man who easily gives up, or forgets a promise.

Which brings us back to that wedding reception near Chicago. The event contained at least two surprises, according to press accounts. Via video, Singer Richard Marx performed Carmen's favorite song, "Right Here Waiting," and dedicated it to the couple. And members of the Idlewild Country Club in Flosmoor, Illinois (where the reception was held) quietly picked up the $15,000 tab.

If the Air Force Times article is correct, there wasn't a dry eye in the house when Sergeant Del Toro led his bride onto the dance floor. And rightfully so.
ADDENDUM: Call us cynical, but as we read the story of Technical Sergeant Del Toro' struggle to live, we thought of that infamous "End of Life" guide, now in use by the Veteran's Administration. Thank God such documents aren't used in the treatment of our wounded warriors. We found it a bit ironic that Assistant VA Secretary Tammy Duckworth (a former Army helicoper pilot who suffered life-threatening injuries in Iraq) was trotted out to defend the recent re-introduction of the decision-making guide. Had such a document been in use when Captain Duckworth and TSgt Del Toro returned from the battlefield, it's quite possible that neither of them would be with us today.

Friday, August 21, 2009


General David Petraeus is in hot water with (some) of the boys and girls in blue.

Seems the CENTCOM boss told a joke--at the Air Force's expense--during a recent speech at the annual Marine Corps Foundation Association dinner. Here's the story; see if you agree with the Air Force Association (AFA), which described the remarks as "beyond outrageous:"

"A soldier is trudging through the muck in the midst of a downpour with a 60-pound rucksack on his back," Petraeus began. "'This is tough,' he thinks to himself. Just ahead of him trudges an Army Ranger with an 80-pound pack on his back. 'This is really tough,' he thinks. And ahead of him is a Marine with a 90-pound pack on, and he thinks to himself, 'I love how tough this is,' " Petraeus said to appreciative cheers from his audience.

"Then, of course, 30,000 feet above them, an Air Force pilot flips aside his ponytail," he added to howls of laughter and applause from the Marines. "— I'm sorry, I don't know how that got in there I know they haven't had ponytails in a year or two — and looks down at them through his cockpit as he flies over. 'Boy,' he radios his wingman, 'it must be tough down there.' "

In fairness, we should note that General Petraeus also took shots at his own service (the U.S. Army) and said "all kidding aside" after his joke about the USAF. But that wasn't enough to placate the AFA, which claims that the CENTCOM commander "belittled" the service's contribution to the joint fight, or something to that effect.

Phuleeze. As former blue-suiters, we've heard variations on this joke for years. One version (in cartoon form) shows an Army grunt in a foxhole, up to his neck in water, as rain beats down on his helmet. "This sucks," he says.

In the next panel, there's a Ranger, in the same type of water-logged foxhole, with a grin on his face. "I like the way this sucks," the Ranger beams.

The third panel shows a Green Beret, also in water, gnawing on an unfortunate snake. "I wish this would suck more," is the caption.

The fourth panel shows an Army aviator, looking out the window of his chopper at the quagmire below. "It must really suck down there," he opines.

In the last panel you see an airman, lounging in his TDY hotel room (probably at the Hyatt or Radisson), TV remote in hand. There's a look of anguish on the blue-suiter's face: "What, no cable?" he asks. "This really sucks."

I guess the AFA would be offended by that one, too. C'mon guys, grow up and get real. Everyone who counts in DoD appreciates (and values) USAF contributions to the GWOT, or whatever the Obama Administration is calling it this week. And certainly, General Petraeus knows its the Air Force that provides intra-theater and strategic airlift for his troops; blue-suiters fly most of the CAS and BAI missions for our forces on the ground, and it's airmen who provide much of his real-time intelligence through UAVs and other airborne platforms.

General Petraeus is also aware of the role played by USAF transporters, who handled many of the convoy routes during the worst days of the Iraq War. He's met our security forces specialists who protect our largest installations and patrol outside the wire. He knows about the contributions of Air Force EOD, combat controllers, pararescuemen, terminal attack controllers, and countless other airmen who are in the thick of the fight, day in and day out.

I think most airmen took the general's joke as it was intended--a good natured dig, based on some of the long-standing cultural "differences" between the services, no matter how inaccurate they might be. As for the AFA, they've picked the wrong fight. A sense of humor can be a valuable commodity, both on the battlefield and among organizations who lobby for the services. By expressing "outrage" over General Petraeus's joke, the Air Force Association is actually playing to some of the worst stereotypes lumped upon the service--stereotypes that many of us have worked long to overcome.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Real Scandal

The New York Times is positively aghast. Attempting to resurrect the controversy about a defunct CIA program that was never briefed to Congress, the paper has revealed one reason for the non-disclosure.

According to the Times, the spy agency hired Blackwater, the private security firm, to assist in locating (and eliminating) high-value Al Qaida terrorists. Under a multi-million agreement with the CIA, Blackwater (later renamed Xe Services) was supposed to provide support for the operation. Times reporter Mark Mazetti says it's unclear if Blackwater operatives were hired to actually track down and kill terrorists, or simply provide surveillance and training assistance for the operation.

Blackwater's participation was apparently one reason the program's existence was withheld from Congress for several years. The reasoning was obvious; first, given Congress's penchant for leaks, the program would have been quickly "outed," before any terrorists could be eliminated. Secondly, both the agency and the Bush White House understood that Blackwater had become a political lightning rod, thanks to its high-profile security contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the firm's ties to Republican politicians.

In the end, the program never progressed beyond the discussion stage. No contract was ever signed, and the lack of a formal deal was one reason the venture was eventually cancelled.

But in our view, the enlistment of Blackwater is hardly a scandal. Indeed, the CIA has out-sourced direct action jobs at various points in its history, including an ill-fated collaboration with the Mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro. Besides, with "out-sourcing" all the rage in government circles, the agency can claim its simply was following the "best practices" of the federal bureaucracy.

If there is a scandal in this episode, it has little to do with Blackwater's participation and everything to do with CIA's waning skills in covert action. Once upon a time, if you needed a convenient coup or a bad guy eliminated, the agency could handle the job, on its own, and with no contractor assistance. Unfortunately, the agency's ability to carry out such missions has declined precipitously over the last 30 years, leaving CIA operatives leery about carrying out such assignments. With the threat of prosecution if something goes wrong, no wonder the agency was so anxious to bring Blackwater on board.

More distressingly, the CIA was supposed to expand and improve its covert operations skills under the organizational structure of the intelligence community. With the agency no longer in charge of our intelligence apparatus (and assuming a slightly lower profile in analytical matters), the CIA would be free to expand its operations directorate and replenish atrophied skills. Clearly that hasn't happened, or the pace of reform wasn't sufficient to allow the agency to undertake the direct action mission on its own.

Now, there's a real intelligence scandal for you. Years into the long war, the Central Intelligence Agency (apparently) lacks the resources to carry out a terrorist elimination mission without help from a contractor. You'd think someone on the House or Senate Intelligence Committees would be asking Leon Panetta--and his predecessors--about this lack of progress, but don't expect hearings anytime soon. Blackwater is a much more convenient target, and it avoids the larger issue of why the CIA can't locate bad guys on the ground and take the out.

That's an issue that begs an immediate answer, but unfortunately, no one is willing to ask the question. Our current crop of political leaders seem to be happy with the status quo, and so is Al Qaida.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Television Genius

Television--like the rest of the media--is notorious for its over-use of the term "genius." According to the talking heads, just about anyone with a slightly different (or better) idea is deserving of that accolade; never mind that few of these geniuses actually deserve the sobriquet, and many would be embarrassed to hear themselves described in such terms.

TV's fondness for proclaiming genius is also a bit ironic, since the medium has--by our count--produced relatively few of them. Here's a short list: Philo T. Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin, who pioneered the technology of television; Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, the legendary NBC programmer who developed the Today and Tonight shows; Ted Turner, who turned a failing Atlanta UHF station into a cable empire, and Roger Ailes, who stood conventional wisdom on its ear and built two of the most successful cable channels in history, CNBC and the Fox News Channel.

Beyond that select group, we can think of only one other television pioneer who could be called a genius. He was the restless force behind innovations ranging from the TV news magazine; the "chain" projection system (which allowed the combination of diverse film and audio elements before videotape); on-scene coverage by the anchors of network news shows, and even something called the "aspect ratio," which allows projection of properly-sized graphics behind newscasters.

We refer, of course, to Don Hewitt, the legendary creator of 60 Minutes, the longest-running (and most profitable) news magazine in television history and the standard by which similar programs are still judged. Mr. Hewitt passed away today at his suburban New York home, after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 86.

Hewitt arrived at CBS News in 1948, at the dawn of the television age. He had no previous experience in the medium, but that was hardly a disadvantage in those days. Most of the network's senior correspondents--including Edward R. Murrow--looked down on television as little more than a fad, preferring to remain in radio. Hewitt and other newcomers were free to experiment and innovate, creating many of the techniques still used today.

Not long after his arrival, Hewitt was installed as producer and director of "Douglas Edwards and the News," the forerunner to the current "CBS Evening News." Edwards assumed the anchor chair by default; none of the network's better-known reporters wanted the job. For the next 14 years, Edwards served as the face and voice of the newscast, while Don Hewitt was the driving force behind the scenes.

It was an odd pairing, to say the least. Mr. Edwards, a courtly, unfailingly polite Alabama native and the hyperknetic New Yorker, Don Hewitt. As the young producer tried to stretch the boundaries of broadcast news, Douglas Edwards generally went along with Hewitt's ideas, but even the first CBS anchor had his limits.

In one famous episode, recounted by CBS historian Gary Paul Gates, Hewitt and Edwards were at odds over a basic problem affecting early news programs. In the days before Teleprompters, newscasters had to frequently glance down at their scripts, breaking eye contact with the camera. It became a source of frustration for Mr. Hewitt, who proposed his own solution.

"I've got it," he announced one day, "We'll have Doug learn Braille." When the anchor refused, Hewitt found a compromise, putting the script on cue cards, held near the lens of the camera. Eventually, someone hit on the idea of scrolling magnified copy just above the camera, and the teleprompter was born.

Along with his duties on the Edwards newscast, Hewitt also directed Edward R. Murrow's legendary documentary series See It Now, and produced the first-ever televised presidential debate between JFK and Richard Nixon in 1960.

But Mr. Hewitt's career hit a tailspin in the early 1960s. NBC's evening news team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley eclipsed Edwards in the ratings, resulting in new assignments for the CBS anchor and his production team. Mr. Edwards returned to CBS Radio (where he worked for another 26 years before retiring), while Hewitt ran the network's documentary unit.

Bored with that job, Don Hewitt had another stroke of genius. Instead of a single-subject documentary, why not adopt multiple, longer segments (similar to a newspaper feature article) to a single program? The result, of course, was 60 Minutes, which first aired in 1968 with Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace as the correspondents.

While the show has become the gold-standard for TV news magazines--and an enormous profit center for CBS--60 Minutes actually struggled for its first decade on the air. Bouncing from time slot to time slot, it was trounced in the ratings by entertainment shows. But in the mid-1970s, someone at CBS had a bright idea. Why not put the show on Sunday evenings, just after pro football? In a matter of weeks, 60 Minutes was in the Nielsen Top 10, and remained there for many years.

Hewitt remained in charge of the program through the 2003 season, then reluctantly stepped down. By some accounts, the 60 Minutes creator lost a power-play to Jeff Fager, who had launched a weeknight version of the news magazine. With Mr. Hewitt then in his early 80s, CBS wanted to transition to a younger executive producer who would (presumably) lead the show for years to come.

The decision was immediately questioned by many media executives. Not long after Fager took Hewitt's job, his spin-off program (60 Minutes II) was cancelled, the result of Dan Rather's segment on President Bush's Air National Guard service, a piece that was riddled with lies and inaccuracies.

In his later years, Mr. Hewitt was involved in the production of several documentaries and programs outside CBS. Until his death, he retained the title of "Executive Producer of CBS News," but his involvement in day-to-day operations ended when he left 60 Minutes.

Don Hewitt was both an original and a genius. Television could certainly use someone with his instincts, drive and flair right now, but the odds of that happening are practically nil. TV News was lucky enough to have one Don Hewitt; they won't see another.
ADDENDUM: While Mr. Hewitt deserves praise for his creativity and innovation, he was far from perfect, particularly in the political realm. Before the presidential candidate debate in 1960, Hewitt noticed that Richard Nixon's make-up was awful, but he never suggested that the GOP send their man back to the dressing room for a re-application. Thirty-two years later, Don Hewitt went out of his way to help another struggling candidate, coaching Bill Clinton before his memorable 60 Minutes appearance that saved his candidacy. In terms of fairness and impartiality, Mr. Hewitt apparently had his limits.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Nuclear "Sell"

Serve your nation in one its elite military organizations! Chances for accelerated promotion and bonuses! Enjoy life in America's scenic northern tier! Be a part of the Air Force's most powerful command!

It's sounds like a recruiting brochure for Strategic Air Command, but
SAC was inactivated 16 years ago. Instead, the promotional pitch outlined above is aimed at a new generation of airmen, potential candidates for the USAF's Global Strike Command, which is now responsible for most of the service's nuclear mission.

Global Strike Command is an outgrowth of two, highly-publicized nuclear mishaps that occurred in 2007 and 2008. In the first incident, cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads were mistakenly shipped from Minot AFB, North Dakota to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana on a B-52 bomber. The error wasn't uncovered until hours after the Buff arrived in Louisiana.

Discovery of the mistake--and the factors the led to it--resulted in the firing of several Colonels at Minot and Barksdale and (ultimately) prompted the firing of the Air Force Secretary (Michael Wynne) and the service's Chief of Staff, General Michael Moseley, who were replaced last summer. Defense Secretary Robert Gates elected to dismiss the two officials because of widespread problems in the Air Force nuclear enterprise, including the errant transfer of ICBM fuses from a logistics depot in Utah to the Taiwanese military. The fuse incident preceded the Minot debacle--but wasn't reported until months later-- prompting even more scrutiny of the USAF's nuclear operations.

Two of the biggest problem, investigators discovered, was a lack of focus on nuclear problems and a shortage of trained personnel. Now, almost two years after that B-52 departed from Minot, the Air Force has implemented the required fixes. Global Strike Command will be responsible for the service's ICBM and nuclear-capable bomber units, and the new organization is trying to add 2,500 personnel to its ranks over the next year.

The new command is led by Lieutenant General Frank Klotz, a career missile and space operations officer with decades of nuclear experience. That's certainly a step in the right direction. But filling the rest of those slots with trained officers and NCOs may be difficult.

With the end of the Cold War (and the inactivation of SAC) nuclear expertise in the USAF withered, and there was no effort to rebuild it until recently. Building a cadre of highly-qualified specialists will take time and training; there is simply no short-cut to the experience problem. Assuming the Air Force maintains the proper focus on nuclear operations--and provides adequate funding--experience levels will begin to reach desired goals in 4-5 years, not overnight.

But "selling" the nuclear program to airmen may be difficult. Not everyone wants to serve in garden spots like Minot, F.E. Warren, Whiteman or Barksdale. Moreover, Global Strike Command must persuade Air Force members that their future won't be limited as a nuclear specialist. In recent years, working with nuclear weapons was viewed as almost a dead end, given the military's current focus on terrorism and asymmetric warfare.

According to Air Force Times, the new command is working on a "human capital roadmap" for its personnel. But many airmen will want proof before signing on: promotion board results, bonuses, and equitable assignment policies. Again, those are results that won't emerge overnight.

However, the biggest challenge facing Global Strike Command isn't recruiting or career planing. Somehow, the organization--and its superiors at U.S. Strategic Command and the Pentagon--must convince political leaders to re-capitalize our nuclear forces. As we've noted in previous posts, our nuclear weapons, delivery systems and the infrastructure that produce them are getting long in the tooth. Our "newest" ICBM (the Minuteman III) entered service in the 1970s; the last nuclear-capable B-52 rolled off the Boeing assembly line in 1962. We haven't designed a new nuclear warhead in 20 years.

Maintaining a credible, land-based nuclear deterrent requires new warheads and delivery platforms. But so far, the Obama Administration has rejected calls for modernization. Indeed, with the White House now negotiating a large-scale cut in nuclear forces with the Russians, there will be even less incentive for nuclear re-capitalization.

And that brings us back to Global Strike Command and its recruiting effort. Given the current outlook for nuclear forces, do you think airmen will flock to work with aging (and increasingly unreliable) systems at remote, frozen bases? The answer to that one is obvious.

Good luck, General Klotz. You've got two, tough selling jobs on the agenda, and the toughest one is for politicians, and not the Air Force rank-and-file.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Disaster in the Desert, Redux

For the second time in barely two years, Iran and Syria have suffered a serious accident in their joint WMD development program.

A report from Japan's Kyodo news agency--re-printed by the Jerusalem Post--indicates at least 20 Syrians died (and 60 more were wounded) during the failed test of a Scud missile in May. Intelligence sources tell the agency the missile was one of two fired from a launch site in southern Syria during the test. One of the missiles apparently veered off course and landed in a village near the Turkish border. All of the victims were Syrian civilians.

Details of the mishap remain vague. At this point, it's unclear if chemical or biological weapons caused the casualties, or the victims died as a result of the missile's impact in a local market. Residents were reportedly told that a gas leak had the explosion; the area was quickly sealed off by Syrian military personnel.

This latest accident comes only 25 months after a similar disaster involving Syrian missile forces. In July 2007, a short-range missile (probably a SCUD derivative) exploded during a warhead mating exercise. Israeli intelligence sources reported that 15 Syrian officers died in the blast, along with "dozens" of Iranian scientists and engineers. The test reportedly involved the mating of a Sarin nerve gas warhead to a missile that was already fueled.

Accounts of the disaster affirmed WMD cooperation between Tehran and Damascus, months before Israeli jets bombed a suspected nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert. Discovery of that complex--built by North Korea and reportedly funded by Iran--highlighted the growing partnership between the three countries, aimed at propagating Pyongyang's WMD technology in the Middle East.

To this day, the full extent of that relationship remains unknown. Obviously, Syria has received extensive assistance with its chemical and nuclear programs in recent years, as evidenced by that North Korean reactor that was flattened by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), and periodic test failures that manage to kill not only Syrians, but Iranians and--possibly--North Koreans as well. These ties have persisted despite program setbacks, including those highly-publicized failures.

Still, it is possible to over-state the relationship between the three countries, and its impact on Syria's WMD efforts. As we noted a couple of years ago, reports about the previous SCUD failure didn't quite ring true. Despite years of experience with liquid-fueled systems, the Syrian-Iranian team in 2007 tried to mount a warhead on fully-fueled missile. Given the volatility of liquid missile fuel, it was an invitation to disaster. Many western experts say the Syrians and Iranians got the process backwards; in most cases, missile fueling could come only after the warhead and been installed.

The number of personnel associated with the 2007 operation (more that 30 is excessive), considering the long experience of Syria and Iran in SCUD operations. The reported death toll is also surprising when you consider that operational protocols mandate that personnel involved in warhead mating and missile fueling wear required protective gear, including CBR (chemical, biological, or radiological) suits. Employment of that gear would--at least in theory--decrease the number of casualties caused by a leaking chemical or biological warhead.

However, one thing is clear: efforts by Tehran, Damascus and Pyongyang to produce and develop WMD are continuing apace, despite recent "engagement" efforts by the United States. And that is hardly surprising. North Korea and its partners have correctly sized their adversary, dating back to the final years of the Bush Administration. With Washington putting all hopes into diplomacy, our enemies are quite willing to talk (when it suits their fancy), while accelerating efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction and the required delivery systems.

That recent accident in the Syrian desert was clearly a disaster, but hardly a show-stopper. When the U.S. suffered a series of deadly crashes involving the tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft in the 1990s, the program was nearly cancelled. Recent accidents in Syria have killed far more personnel than the V-22, but Damascus views the casualties as nothing more than a cost of doing business. Bashir Assad--like his counterparts in Tehran and Pyongyang--will gladly sacrifice more scientists, engineers and technicians for the cause of a potent WMD capability. It's a deadly goal, but regrettably we're doing very little to deter it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Search Goes On

The funeral motorcade of Capt Scott Speicher departs NAS Jacksonville earlier today (WJXT-TV photo).

Eighteen years after he disappeared in Iraq, Navy Captain Scott Speicher was finally laid to rest this afternoon. The Navy F/A-18 pilot, shot down on the first night of Operation Desert Storm, was listing as "missing" or "captured" for two decades until Marine search teams found his remains in the Iraqi desert. That discovery--made two weeks ago at a location near the wreckage of his downed fighter--set in motion the homecoming that concluded today in Jacksonville.

But, as we note in our new column for, many questions about Scott Speicher's fate remain unanswered. Did he survive ejection from his F/A-18 (as most experts believe)? Did he carve that evasion sign into the desert floor--a symbol known only to Speicher and members of his unit? How did he wind up at the location where his remains were found? Did he die at that spot from combat or ejection-related injuries, or was he executed by Saddam's troops, and deliberately buried at that site?

The Speicher family plans to continue their quest for answers, but the Pentagon seems less determined. Two weeks ago, when DoD announced recovery and identification of the missing pilot's remains, the Speichers said their private inquiry would continue. That suggests that DoD is preparing to close the books on the Speicher file; that action (in our estimation) would be premature.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Return of the Bogeymen (and Women)

As the Democrats depict opponents of ObamaCare as "Nazis" (and worse), they're getting some help from a reliable ally.

We refer to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the outfit run by Morris Dees in Montgomery, Alabama. For years, the SPLC has been "tracking" right-wing hate groups, issuing reports that warn--quite literally--of extremists behind every tree.

Three years ago, the organization announced that skinheads, white supremacists and other nutjobs were "flocking" to the U.S. military. Those claims, reprinted by The New York Times and other media outlets, prompted creation of a DoD commission to "study" the issue. As far as we can tell, the panel never reported their findings, suggesting that the SPLC's claims were misleading, at best.

As we've noted in the past, the group's intelligence reports are decidedly suspect. With its original nemesis, the Ku Klux Klan, all but defunct, the SPLC has latched onto "new" threats to justify its existence (and solicit donations). And, the organization has a rather distorted view of what constitutes a "hate group." Conspicuously absent from a 2006 listing were Al Qaida, MS-13, Hamas and Hizballah, terror groups and criminal organizations that are active within the United States. The same groups are also missing from a more recent report, published last year.

SPLC "intelligence analysts" also ignore radical left-wing environmental groups, including the Earth Liberation Front and Earth First. In 2005, the FBI labeled ELF as the nation's "most serious" domestic terrorist threat, responsible for more than 1,200 criminal incidents, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in damage. The Departments of Homeland Security and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are equally concerned, but eco-terrorists aren't even on the radar at the SPLC.

But that doesn't prevent media organizations (like CBS News) from using the organization as a reputable source on right-wing threats. Never mind that the SPLC has rather remarkable timing in releasing its reports, or shaping the facts to fit a certain agenda. Just over four years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced that the "militias' era was all but over." Mark Potok--the same analyst responsible for this week's "resurgence" report--said the militias had disappeared. In his 2005 study, Mr. Potok said that none of the militias were conducting para-military training, a far cry from his most recent assessment.

Clearly, much has happened since the mid-1990s. According to the experts, the economic recession, coupled with the election of our first black president (and other factors) have pushed more people into the militia ranks--and into the woods.

It's a claim that should be taken with a huge grain of salt, given the SPLC's refusal to acknowledge left-wing groups as a serious domestic threat. But focusing on Earth First or the ELF won't boost contributions from the law center's liberal donors. That's one reason why the SPLC has returned to its tried-and-true bogeymen and women, at the very moment the health care debate has intensified.

From their perspective, it's just a hop, skip and jump from concerned citizen to right-wing terrorist. As for the Democrats, they're happy that someone is echoing their ridiculous charges, all dutifully reported by a stenographic press corps.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Today's Reading Assignment

To borrow a phrase from Howard Beale, Americans are mad as hell, and they're not going to take it any more.

If you don't believe us, participate in one of those (increasingly) infrequent town hall meetings, hosted by Democratic Congressmen. When those events were first scheduled, members of the House and Senate were expecting a modest turnout, with supporters of health reform out-numbering opponents.

So much for political calculations. Judging from the sound bites we heard today, the American public is still upset, and ready to send scores of politicians packing.

But it's not just health care that has pushed ordinary citizens past the point of no return. In today's edition of The Wall Street Journal, John Fund notes the firestorm that greeted Congressional plans to expand the government fleet of private jets.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg; coming next, a public eruption over un-reimbursed per diem--travel money paid to members of the Senate and House for food and lodging expenses overseas. But in many cases, those expenses are paid by the host country or other government organizations. When that happens, members of Congress are supposed to reimburse the government, but that almost never happens.

How much money are we talking about? On longer trips (or jaunts to pricey locales), the tab can reach $3,000 for each Congressman, Senator, or staff member. Multiply that by scores of visits, and pretty soon, you're talking about real money.

About what you'd expect from a group Mark Twain aptly described as "America's native criminal class."

Friday, August 07, 2009

Air Pelosi, Redux

It's long been apparent that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has a "plane thing." After the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, Ms. Pelosi had a little dust-up with the Bush Administration over her request to use the military version of a Boeing 757 for official travel.

Earlier this year, the speaker had another hissy fit because her new, preferred mode of transportation (a Gulfstream G5) wasn't available. Judicial Watch obtained copies of memos from senior Congressional staffers, demanding answers from the Air Force (which handles most VIP airflift missions for DoD), and suggesting there might be hell to pay because a requested aircraft type was already booked.

"It is my understanding there are no G5s available for the House during the Memorial Day recess. This is totally unacceptable...The speaker will want to know where the planes are..." wrote Kay King, Director of the House Office of Interparliamentary Affairs. In a separate email, when told a certain type of aircraft would not be available, King writes, "This is not good news, and we will have some very disappointed folks, as well as a very upset [s]peaker."

Supporters of Ms. Pelosi note that her predecessor, Illinois Republican Dennis Hastert, also traveled on a private jet. But Mr. Hastert didn't began using military aircraft for routine travel until after 9-11, and there is no record of him constantly badgering the Air Force for use of executive jets. Records provided to Judicial Watch indicate that Ms. Pelosi's office typically "booked" a G5 every weekend, but often cancelled at the last moment. There is no indication of how much money was wasted on prepping aircraft that were never used.

Such revelations became a p.r. nightmare for the speaker, but Ms Pelosi and her fellow Congressmen don't care. Earlier this week, they added another $250 million to a defense appropriations bill to buy two additional G5s and two more Boeing 737 business jets. The Pentagon had only requested a single G550 and one 737, in addition to the purchase of two Boeing business jets that are currently being leased.

In other words, Congress wants four more top-of-line executive aircraft and by all indications, the lawmakers will get them. We haven't heard a peep out of GOP lawmakers (who also enjoy access to the aircraft), or President Obama. This from the same Republicans who complain about runaway government spending--and a Commander-in-Chief who threatened to veto the defense bill if it contained more money for the F-22 Raptor. As always, hypocrisy is one of the few genuinely bipartisan issues in Washington.

The additional Gulfstreams and Boeing 737s will join a VIP airlift fleet that is already more than sufficient. As we noted back in March, the USAF already operates 80 executive aircraft, used to transport administration officials, senior military leaders and, of course, members of the U.S. Congress.

Analyzing government travel records, The Wall Street Journal found that overseas travel costs for Congressmen and Senators have skyrocketed over the last decade. Between 1995 and 2008, expenditures in that area grew ten-fold, to more than $13 million a year. But even those figures are misleading because they don't include the cost of operating military aircraft, which are often used on such junkets. Under current policy, Congressional spouses are allowed to accompany their husbands or wives on overseas trips.

In case you're wondering, it costs roughly $3,000 an hour to operate a G550 and $5,700 an hour to fly a C-40, the military version of the Boeing business jet. And it comes as no surprise that much of DoD's VIP fleet is hauling lawmakers around the world during the August recess. According to the Journal, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama is leading a delegation to Europe for three weeks (spouses included), and House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio is on a 'round-the-world trip with other Congressmen.

As Speaker of the House, Ms. Pelosi--along with other Congressional leaders--could put a stop to this chicanery. But why take a stand for fiscal responsibility when you can see the world on the taxpayer's dime, and travel in style, on a military VIP jet.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Not to Worry

A pair of Russian Akula-class attack subs are currently patrolling off the eastern seaboard, but the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff isn't particularly concerned.

Admiral Mike Mullen tells the Washington Times that the submarine deployment does not represent a resurgence of the Cold War:

"I don't consider it a resurgence of the Cold War piece," Adm. Mullen said of reports of Russian submarines off the Atlantic coast. "I'm not alarmed by it. I'm very mindful of it and keeping an eye on it."

Two Russian nuclear submarines have been spotted in recent days. They have not crossed into U.S. territory, which extends 12 miles from shore.

When asked why Russians would do this, Admiral Mullen replied: "Some of this is to show that [Russia] can."

He said Russia is clearly invested in their strategic forces and any global power does a certain amount of investment to sustain their own needs.

In a conversation with reporters and editors at the paper, Mullen said that U.S. military officials have worked "diligently" to improve communications with their Russian counterparts. The JCS Chairman stated that he remains in contact with a number of Russian military officials, including armed forces Deputy Chief of Staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn.

But apparently, there are limits to that relationship. While Moscow did not inform the United States about the submarine patrol (hardly unexpected), it was a departure from last year's highly-publicized deployment of Russian naval vessels to Venezuela. According to Admiral Mullen, Russia's Defense Ministry notified him, in advance, of plans to send the ships to South America.

Unwittingly, Mullen's attempt at reassurance acutally highlights growing shortfalls in U.S. defense capabilities. Since the end of the Cold War, our anti-submarine warfare (ASW) have declined dramatically.
In an essay published last September's edition of Armed Forces Journal
, Professor Milan Vegon noted that the Navy's approach to ASW has devolved into a "purely tactical and technological approach to the mission. At the same time, the number of anti-submarine platforms continued to decline, and those that survived were given additional assignments, most of which had nothing to do with their core mission. As he wrote:

Attack submarines are the Navy’s principal ASW platforms. They can also carry out other missions, such as covert surveillance/reconnaissance, anti-surface warfare, offensive mining, strikes against land targets and insertion of Special Forces teams. By the end of fiscal 2007, the attack submarine force stood at 53 boats: 47 Los Angeles-class subs and three each of the Seawolf and Virginia classes.

The number of land-based Navy maritime patrol aircraft has been steadily reduced since 1991. Today, the Navy can deploy only three P-3C squadrons with a total of 24 aircraft. The average age of the P-3Cs is approaching 28 years and some aircraft are more than 40 years old.

The P-3’s replacement, the Boeing P-8A Poseidon multimission maritime aircraft, will carry out ASW, anti-surface warfare, and broad area maritime and littoral armed surveillance. The first P-8As are scheduled to enter service in 2013, with the last P-3C replaced in 2019. The Navy will have no more than 50 P-8s to do the job formerly done by 200 P-3Cs.

As for ASW from aircraft carriers, in 2004 the Navy began retiring its S-3B Vikings after changing their primary mission to anti-surface warfare. The last S-3B is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2010. There are no plans to replace the S-3B with a new aircraft dedicated to long-range ASW missions from carriers. That will further weaken the Navy’s already inadequate ASW broad-area surveillance.

In response, the Navy would say that its current ASW forces are adequate, given the decrease in the number of submarines deployed around the world. But the boats that remain are much more capable, and pose a greater threat, to naval forces, merchant fleets, seaports and shore installations, particularly in forward areas.

And perhaps, here at home. Given Hugo Chavez's fondness for Russian weaponry, it wouldn't surprise us to see advanced diesel-electric boats eventually show up in Venezuela. Or, if he really wants to take the plunge, Mr. Chavez could follow the lead of India, which leased a Charlie-class attack boat from Moscow in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and launched its first, indigenously-produced nuclear sub last month. Armed with cruise missiles, a nuclear sub (or a diesel-electric model) could threaten the Panama Canal, or even portions of the CONUS.

There's also the matter of China, which is rapidly expanding its sub fleet and moving toward a true, blue-water capability. Beijing's cruise missile subs and ballistic missile boats already pose a growing threat to U.S. possessions in the Pacific, and their ability to strike the homeland will improve substantially over the next decade.

Meanwhile, other elements of our military--those assigned to defend against aerial threats to the homeland (including cruise missiles) have taken hits as well.
A recent report by the Government Accountability Office notes that the Air Force has not yet implemented the 140 actions required to make Air Sovereignty Alert (ASA) a "steady state" mission, one that is continuously maintained at prescribed levels.

One reason? The USAF has been pre-occupied with other tasking, including combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the ASA mission faces other problems, most notably a drop in the number of available fighter aircraft. The Air National Guard (which handles the air defense mission) is retiring older F-15 and F-16 airframes, and there's nothing in the pipeline to replace them. In fact, the GAO warns that 11 of the 18 ASA alert sites could be without aircraft by 2020, if current fighters are not replaced (emphasis ours).

Apparently, Admiral Mullen didn't mention these disturbing trends in his conversation with the Times. In the interim, perhaps the JCS chairman will keep working on those vaunted channels of communication. That way, the Russians will call before their next sub deployment to the east coast, and terrorists will notify us of plans hijack airliners and fly them into U.S. targets.

Not much of a strategy, but it's a lot cheaper than rebuilding our ASW capabilities, or replacing those aging air defense fighters.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Cluster

A new swine flu cluster has popped up at an Air Force base in the Florida panhandle.

The Northwest Florida Daily News reports that at least 63 airmen at Hurlburt Field are suspected of having the virus. A base spokesperson said most of the cases were among members of the same organization, although she did not identify the unit.

According to the paper, swine flu has been confirmed in four of the individuals. There are no plans to test other people with the same symptoms for the presence of the virus. Officials with the health department in Okaloosa County--where Hurlburt is located--said it is no common practice to test each case.

Hurlburt is part of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and its personnel maintain a heavy deployment schedule. So far, the USAF has not said if the affected individuals recently returned from an overseas rotation.

The Hurlburt cluster is the first in Northwest Florida. Statewide, there have been more than 2,000 swine flu cases in Florida--and 23 confirmed fatalities.

While the service has been tracking the swine flu outbreak, it did not publicly confirm the cases until after a query from the Daily News. Airmen believed to have the virus were told to stay home until symptoms subsided. They must be cleared by the base medical group before being allowed to return to work.

Hurlburt is the second Air Force installation to report a sizable cluster of swine flue cases. At least 67 members of the new freshman class at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs tested positive for the H1N1 virus last month. At one point, 121 cadets were being held in isolation because they had flu-like symptoms, or had confirmed cases of the swine flu.

Affected cadets were being held in isolation for at least seven days. The Colorado Springs Gazette said the number of sick cadets represented about 10% of recently-arrived freshmen.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Coming Home

Eighteen years after he disappeared in the early hours of the Persian Gulf War, Navy Captain Scott Speicher is coming home.

The Defense Department announced early today that remains recovered in the Iraqi desert have been positively identified as those of the F/A-18 pilot, who was shot down on the first night of Operation Desert Storm.

Pentagon officials said that bone fragments were recently recovered in Iraq's western Anbar Province. Investigators used dental records to confirm that the remains were those of Captain Speicher.

According to the AP, a tip from an Iraqi led U.S. forces to the site where Speicher was buried:

Officials said Sunday that they got new information last month from an Iraqi citizen, prompting Marines stationed in Anbar to visit a location in the desert which was believed to be the crash site of Speicher's FA-18 Hornet.

The Iraqi said he knew of two other Iraqis who recalled an American jet crashing and the remains of the pilot being buried in the desert, the Pentagon said.

"One of these Iraqi citizens stated that they were present when Captain Speicher was found dead at the crash site by Bedouins and his remains buried," the Defense Department said in a statement.

The military recovered bones and multiple skeletal fragments and Speicher was positively identified by matching a jawbone and dental records, said Rear Adm. Frank Thorp.

He said the Iraqis told investigators that the Bedouins had buried Speicher. It was unclear whether the military had information on how soon Speicher died after the crash.

Some had said they believed Speicher ejected from the plane and was captured by Iraqi forces, and the initials were seen as a potential clue he might have survived. There also were reports of sightings.

Over the years, the Pentagon (and U.S. intelligence agencies) mounted an intensive effort to determine Speicher's fate. Based on updated information, the pilot's status actually changed in 2001, from "killed in action," to "missing in action." Reportedly, this was the first time a missing military member's status was revised from KIA to MIA.

A year later, Speicher was classified as "missing/captured," and in March 2009, he was listed as "missing in action." Speicher's family resisted military efforts to list him as killed-in-action, allowing them to (essentially) close the book on the missing pilot.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 yielded new hints on Speicher's fate. In a prison at Hakimyah, searchers found the initials "MSS"--in western hand-writing--inside a cell. That prompted new speculation that Captain Speicher had survived the shoot-down of his F/A-18 and had been held prisoner by Saddam's regime.

Speicher's name also appeared on at least one list of prisoners held by Iraq, but analysts believed the document may have been produced to confuse the U.S.

The Navy pilot disappeared during the first wave of airstrikes against Iraq on the night of January 16, 1991. For years, the service maintained that Speicher was shot down by an enemy surface-to-air missile, most likely an SA-6 Gainful. But more recent analysis suggests that the F/A-18 was downed by an Iraqi MiG-25 Foxbat, firing an AA-6 air-to-air missile.

That assessment is significant, because the U.S. initially believed that none of its aircraft were shot down by Iraqi fighters. While Saddam's air force quickly retreated in the face of coalition air dominance, a few Iraqi pilots tried to engage allied aircraft, particularly in the early stages of the war.

Iraq's MiG-25s (like the one that downed Speicher's jet) were generally flown by more experienced pilots, although their dog-fighting skills paled in comparison to western aviators. Additionally, the AA-6s carried by their aircraft were poorly-suited for air combat against other fighters. Each AA-6 (NATO nickname: Acrid) weighed as much as a Volkswagen Beetle and can be easily out-maneuvered by fighter aircraft.

Captain Speicher's inability to dodge the AA-6 suggests a number of scenarios. Perhaps he was "heads-down" in the cockpit at the time and didn't see the large exhaust flame from the Russian-built missile. Of course, there were hundreds of aircraft in the skies over Iraq that night; scores of missiles in the air, afterburner plumes and other streaks of light that would make it hard to pick up the in-bound AA-6.

The same holds true for audio and visual cues from the F/A-18's Radar Warning Receiver (RWR). There were countless signals received by the RWR unit, which processes them and provides a visual display (and audio tones) for the pilot. In some cases, even harmless electronic signatures will be interpreted--and depicted--as hostile systems. If a pilot has no reason to believe that a particular threat is active in his area, he may downplay (or even ignore) what he sees on his RWR scope and hears in his helmet.

And that brings us to another, critical element of the Speicher shoot-down. To our knowledge, DoD has never disclosed publicly what activity E-3 AWACS and RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft were showing in the area when the F/A-18 was knocked out of the sky. On the opening night of Desert Storm, those platforms were responsible for producing a melded "picture" of Iraqi threat activity and passing warnings to allied aircraft.

It would be interesting to know if AWACS had a radar track on the Iraqi MiG-25, and its presence was confirmed by associated SIGNINT activity, detected by the RC-135. That, in turn, would raise questions about what threat calls--if any--were issued by either platform in the moments leading up to the shootdown.

There are also unanswered questions on the ground. There was never any confirmation that Speicher (then a Lieutenant Commander) ejected from his aircraft. But satellite imagery of the crash site showed the pilot's escape and evasion (E&E) sign carved into the desert floor.

For obvious reasons, Speicher did not carry a written copy of that information on his person. The presence of the E&E sign suggests that the pilot ejected from his jet and lived long enough to scratch the information into the terrain--a process that would take several minutes. There is also the matter of Speicher's flight suit, found intact at the crash site. That discovery is also inconsistent with claims that he never ejected from the F/A-18. It's also worth noting that the ejection seat from the aircraft has not been recovered.

Bedouins who (reportedly) buried the body of the Navy pilot claim that he was dead when they arrived at the crash site. But how he died--or who killed him--has not been revealed.

Confirmation of Speicher's fate provides some degree of closure for his family, which has waited decades for answers. But the Pentagon still owes more answers to his survivors. We can only hope that forensic evidence from the crash site--and the debrief of Iraqi sources--will shed more light on what happened to Captain Speicher after his jet was shot down.

Unclassified excerpts from a 2001 Intelligence Community assessment of the Speicher case offer the following conclusions:

(1) The Iraqis "expertly searched" the crash site one month before a team from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited the location in December, 1995. They excavated the cockpit area of the wreckage and removed all significant debris.

(2) Analysis of the wreckage by US Navy experts concluded that LCDR Speicher initiated the ejection sequence, jettisoned the canopy, and likely ejected from the stricken aircraft prior to the crash. The canopy was located near the crash site; the ejection seat could not be found.

(3) US Navy investigators concluded that the pilot was not incapacitated by the initial incident. Flight surgeons and aircraft life support systems experts believe LCDR Speicher would have had at least 85 to 90 percent chance of surviving (with second-degree burns to exposed skin) the resultant flash heat and fire and aerodynamic forces of the initial impact that brought down his aircraft.

(4) We do not know if LCDR Speicher survived the ejection sequence or subsequent landing, but the lack of crash-site evidence of LCDR Speicher's death, US Navy statistical data associated with F/A 18 incidents, and the condition of the returned flight suit suggest that he probably survived the crash of his F/A-18.

Clearly, there is a high probability that Scott Speicher successfully ejected from his aircraft and was alive when he reached the ground. Confirmation of that E&E letter indicates that he was in good enough shape to scratch that symbol into the ground--a process that cannot be completed in a matter of seconds. Indeed, the presence of the evasion sign suggests that Speicher saw no signs of the enemy when he landed, and felt he had enough time to leave the letter as a clue for rescuers. But Captain Speicher died in the minutes that followed. The circumstances surrounding his demise demand clarification.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Returning to Her Signature Issue

Just over a month ago, we mused about First Lady Michelle Obama's commitment to one of her signature issues--the plight of military families.

Despite her pledge to make it a personal priority, Mrs. Obama's efforts for the families of armed forces members have been hit-or-miss since Inauguration Day. There was a heavily-publicized trip to Fort Bragg, North Carolina in March and an effort to stuff backpacks for military kids at Fort McNair in July. Beyond that....well.....

However, the First Lady did find a little time for her priority issue on Friday, just prior to the Obama's planned vacation on Martha's Vineyard. Mrs. Obama paid a visit to Naval Station Norfolk, welcoming home the crews of the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower and the hospital ship USNS Comfort. Both vessels had just returned from deployments.

In her remarks, Mrs. Obama pledged continued support for military families and the issues they face:

"I will use every ounce of my power in this position to highlight the sacrifices that you make, and to rally the country around you," she said. "It won't stop today."


"..with military husbands and wives scattered among the white-clad sailors, she offered words of encouragement and advice to those who deal with the stresses on the home front.

Calling military spouses "the quiet heroes who represent the best in our country," she urged the civilian population to take on assignments big and small to help them.

Accountants and lawyers can offer help free of charge. Employers can help spouses keep or get a job.

Neighbors can offer to carpool, baby-sit or simply listen, she said.

Providing that support "requires more than good government," she said. "It requires active citizens."

We can't disagree with Mrs. Obama's request. But it is worth noting that many of the support mechanisms she referred to are already in place. Fact is, many communities are tremendously supportive of their local military populations. Scores of businesses offer military discounts; there are programs to help spouses find work and many installations offer "night out" programs for the husbands and wives of deployed personnel.

Can neighborhoods and communities do more? Of course, but to hear the First Lady talk, military families are receiving little support right now, and that simply isn't true.

Something else about Mrs. Obama's Norfolk appearance also struck us as a bit odd. She was quick to point out the presence of the Comfort, the massive hospital ship that had just completed a four-month humanitarian mission to the Caribbean and South America. Providing free medical care to the region's poor, the Comfort is an exceptional ambassador for both the Defense Department and the U.S. as a whole.

But the hospital vessel is home-ported in Baltimore, and (for this mission) less than 60 of its crew were drawn from the Portsmouth Naval Hospital, located near the Norfolk navy base. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that Comfort returned on the same day as the USS Eisenhower (and was available to participate in the homecoming ceremony), but both the Navy (and Mrs. Obama) seemed anxious to highlight the "soft power" capabilities of the hospital ship.

We commend the president's wife for taking an active interest in matters affecting military families. But, if she truly wants to make it a priority issue, there is more than she can do by doing more than speeches and photo ops, and "drilling down" into problems facing members of the armed forces and their families.

Consider the housing issue. Over the past decade, DoD has been making deals with private developers to upgrade and expand military housing areas. Some of these projects have been notable successes, but others have wound up in bankruptcy, creating acute housing shortages at some bases.

We're written at length about one failed development at Moody AFB near Valdosta, Georgia. Launched almost four years ago, the project was supposed to deliver more than 600 new housing units for the base population, which has expanded rapidly in recent years. But the development firm went belly up, leaving mountains of debt and only four completed houses. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 new airmen are arriving at the base and they're finding it difficult to secure living quarters for their families.

For her next "military" trip, Mrs. Obama might consider a visit to Moody. She might also consider a conversation with Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, who has been at the forefront of efforts to resolve the problem. Trying to cut through layers of red tape and fixing the problem at Moody won't be as easy as giving a speech at Norfolk (and there won't be any flattering photo ops), but it would allow the First Lady to tackle a genuine military concern and make a difference.

We should also point out that Moody isn't the only base with privatized housing woes. Projects in Florida, Arkansas and Missouri (to name a few) are also in trouble, making it more difficult for military families to find a place to live. Of course, taking on that issue would require more time and effort, and that could be a problem. Our friend Ed Rasimus reminds us that Mrs. Obama has pledged to work only two-and-a-half days a week, and she won't be back on the job until after the family vacation in August.

At least she'll be rested for that next military photo op.
ADDENDUM: Some would argue that it's not the job of a First Lady to work specific military issues. After all, that's why we have a SecDef and the Pentagon's massive bureaucracy. But lest we forget, Mrs. Obama selected the military family issue as her own, and it's not unreasonable to expect more than just speeches and photo sessions.

And, history shows us that a president wife can sometimes have a powerful impact on the military. The legendary Tuskegee Airmen owe their existence, in part, to Eleanor Roosevelt. When the Army Air Corps balked at allowing African-Americans to serve as pilots, Mrs. Roosevelt lobbied her husband. The rest, as they say, is history.