Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Stating--and Fixing--the Obvious

We've been critical of President Obama on numerous occasions, but today, we'll give him credit for describing last week's breach of airline security as a "systemic failure."

While Mr. Obama's comment might be described as stating the obvious, it was refreshing (if overdue) for someone in the administration to admit that we came periously close to catastrophe in the skies over Michigan on Christmas Day. The President's remarks also made a mockery of earlier statements by other officials, particularly Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano, who initially claimed that the "system worked."

Of course, the President's admission creates a few problems for his national security team. Ms. Napolitano's original assertion was remarkably similar to that of White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who also made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows. So, claims about the system "working" were clearly based on administration talking points. The White House apparently believed the public would accept that explanation until it became a national joke, forcing other officials--and finally, the President--to offer more realistic assessments. It would be an understatement to say Team Obama has suffered another serious blow to its credibility.

Then, there's the little matter of fixing that gaping security breach. The President, in best bureaucratic fashion, has ordered a "top-level review" of the intelligence failures that caused the near-disaster. A preliminary report is due on his desk on New Year's Eve; a more detailed assessment will follow in 2010. Mr. Obama is also promising accountability in the matter. Presumably, that means that someone will lose his (or her) job because of the screw-up, which nearly resulted in hundreds of fatalities.

Unfortunately, the government's track record in accountability is hardly promising. George Tenet, then-Director of Central Intelligence, kept his job after the debacles that led to 9-11. Ditto for other, senior intelligence officials. There's not much motive for senior bureaucrats to improve their job performance--or that of their subordinates--if everyone keeps their jobs, even after the most glaring intelligence failures.

The guarantee of lifetime employment is also a powerful disincentive to end the turf battles that still beset our intelligence community. Consider the "data trail" that preceded Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to bring down Flight 253. Abdulmutallab's father, a prominent Nigerian banker and former government economics minister, personally warned the U.S. Embassy in Lagos last month.

Given the elder Abdulmutallab's stature, it's clear he wasn't passed off to some minor consular official who passed the information along in a routine diplomatic cable. Reading between the lines of this AFP report, it seems clear that the CIA station in Lagos was notified immediately, and it's quite likely that agency personnel were involved in conversations with Abdulmutallab's father.

The CIA also insists that it passed the information to the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC), and ensured that Farouk Abdulmutallab's name was entered into a government database. What happened after that is a bit fuzzy; despite the initial report (and later information that highlighted Abdulmutallab's ties to terrorists in Yemen), the "underwear bomber" never made it onto a no-fly list. The failure was compounded by other red flags, also missed by security personnel. He had no checked luggage for his "trip" to Detroit; Adbulmutallab paid for his one-way ticket in cash and was allowed to board the Northwest flight without a passport.

We suspect that the intelligence problems resulted, in part, from differing security classifications for the various databases. The initial report from Abdulmutallab's father was likely classified at the "Secret" level and disseminated via SIPRNET, the government intranet cleared for material up to that level. Meanwhile, reporting that linked the Nigerian to radicals in Yemen might have been based on SIGINT reporting; information of that type is normally held at the "Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI), and disseminated via another network, known as JWICS.

Put another way, it's quite likely that those vital bits of intelligence data were never fused together. That would have given the feds ample reason to bar Abdulmutallab from the flight, although his actions in Amsterdam were more than sufficient for a secondary screening which might have revealed his hidden bomb.

Of course, the intelligence community has an organization that's supposed to "fuse" terrorist-related intel information--the NCTC. But the center is hardly immue from the long-running turf battles between the CIA and the FBI. The two agencies have sparred for years over the counter-terrorism mission and that war has only intensified since 9-11. With billions of budget dollars on the line (and dominance in the counter-terror mission at stake), it's little wonder that the NCTC has become yet another battleground for the FBI and CIA. True, the center actually falls under the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), but with the CIA and FBI providing most of the personnel, conflicts over intel sources, methods and information reliability are inevitable.

And the list of problems doesn't end there. Beyond database issues and turf wars, there's the "mindset" that dominates our battles against terrorists. With the arrival of the Obama Team, the U.S. government has returned to a "law enforcement" approach in dealing with terror groups. Closing Gitmo, shipping Khalid Sheik Mohammed to Manhattan for a civilian trial and even the handling of Farouk Abdulmutallab are evidence of a changing mindset, one that will make it more difficult to prosecute terrorists--and implement solutions to deter future attacks.

You see, there's already a successful system for dealing with the types of threats posed by radicals like Abdulmutallab and his handlers in Yemen. It's the Israeli model, based heavily on advanced passenger screening and profiling. Israel's state airline (El Al) and other carriers have used this approach for years, supplemented with additional layers of physical security at the airport and on individual aircraft. Additionally, Israel is the only nation to take the extra measure of installing missile defense systems on passenger jets, protecting them against yet another potential threat.

But enhanced screening and passenger profiling have become dirty words in the United States. Concerns about civil liberties (and the initial cost for such measures) have prevented profiling on U.S. carriers. And, sadly enough, neither the Bush or Obama Administrations have shown any leadership in these areas. Indeed, it will be an uphill battle to install advanced, "full-body" scanners in American airports.

It's easy enough to spot the holes in our existing security system. But mustering the political courage to implement the required fixes is another matter entirely. We're guessing that enhanced passenger screening and profiling measures won't be implemented until an Al Qaida bomber actually succeeds, and brings down a passenger jet, killing hundreds of innocent civilians.

Then--and only then--will our political leaders summon the courage to do the right thing.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

She Said It

Let's review...a Nigerian man, who studied at a British university, becomes a radicalized Muslim. The "transformation" is so disturbing that the man's father, a prominent Nigerian banker, personally alerts the U.S. Embassy in Lagos, warning that his son may represent a potential terror threat.

Meanwhile, information obtained by the U.K. government seems to confirm the father's fears. When the former student applies for a new visa to visit Britain, his request is declined. At about the same time, the U.S.--for reasons still unclear--grants a visa to the young Nigerian.

Then, a few weeks later, American intelligence services determine that the man has ties to Al Qaida elements in Yemen. The information isn't enough to put the man on a "No Fly" list, but his name does enter a larger database of individuals with known terrorist connections.

At some point during this period, the young Nigerian travels to Yemen and contacts the local Al Qaida affiliate. He is trained for a future operation, which will use a concealed bomb to bring down a U.S. airliner. On December 25th, the Nigerian engineering student-turned-terrorist operative ,Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, boards a Northwest Airlines flight from Lagos to Detroit, with a connection in Amsterdam. He paid cash for the one-way ticket.

You know what happened on the final leg of the flight. Abdulmutallab's attempt to detonate his bomb was foiled by an alert passenger and problems with the device. Had the passenger (a Dutch film maker) been less attentive--or Abdulmutllab more proficient--Northwest flight 253 might have ended with a catastrophic explosion, and the loss of everyone onboard.

But, you'll be pleased to know that our airline security system worked. That's the conclusion of Janet Napolitano, the nation's Director of Homeland Security. Appearing on ABC's "This Week," Ms. Napolitano said that U.S. officials didn't have enough information to keep the suspect from boarding the Detroit-bound flight.

Of course, Napolitano didn't mention all the red flags that Farouk Abdulmutllab managed to raise over the past 4-5 months. Or the failure of various government agencies to connect the dots, and identify the Nigerian as a potential terrorist. Instead, she assures us, that the system worked as advertised. Never mind that we were just moments away from a "man-caused disaster," to use one of Ms. Napolitano's politically-correct terms for a terrorist attack.

By any standard, Napolitano's comment may be one of the most stupid comments ever uttered by a cabinet secretary in any administration. But readers will note that stenographers in the mainstream media have refused to hold her accountable. Gee, what a surprise.

But security experts are calling Napolitano on the carpet, and rightfully so. Writing in the Center for Security Policy's Terror Trends Bulletin, Christopher Holton accurately dissects the sheer idiocy of Ms. Napolitano's assertion:

1. “Homeland security head: The security system worked”

Nothing authorities did prevented that plane from being blown up. This was a case of a bad guy fumbling the ball on the one yard line through the end zone for a touchback. If the security system worked, then the system STINKS. Either Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab’s detonator was bad or else it was a case of “you need to be smarter than the equipment you’re using” and he screwed up. But if not for their screw-up, we’d have had a US airliner blown up and crashing over a populated area on Christmas with hundreds killed.

2. “The father of the man accused of attempting to blow up the jetliner told U.S. officials in Nigeria he was concerned about his son’s extreme religious views. However, Napolitano says there was no specific information to place Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on a no-fly list.”

This is a byproduct of refusing to recognize the religious component integral to the enemies we face. The fact that the father informed us that his son was a Jihadi wasn’t enough for our PC system to keep him out of the US. This is the modern-day equivalent to allowing members of the SS into America because their membership in the SS was not sufficient specific information to exclude them.

3. Napolitano says that within 60 to 90 minutes of the incident all 120 flights that were in the air at time were contacted to make sure the attempted bombing did not extend beyond the flight to Detroit.

How the hell were those other air crews supposed to know? Did they announce over the intercom,”Any terrorists on board with an explosive device strapped to your crotch, please raise your hand”? The fact of the matter is, we were caught with our pants down and we are just damn lucky that Christmas 2009 wasn’t marked forever by an Islamikaze massacre.

Mr. Holton believes that Napolitano should resign immediately. We agree but, sadly, that won't happen. The only thing that would rid us of Napolitano would be a successful terrorist attack, err, man-caused disaster. We came very close to that scenario on Christmas Day, but don't worry, the system worked.

Be very, very afraid.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Saving Flight 253

It was terrorist incompetence and fast-thinking passengers--and not billions of dollars in air transport security--that prevented disaster in the skies over Detroit on Christmas Day.

ABC News reports that the plot to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 was averted only because a detonator failed on an explosive device smuggled onboard the aircraft by a suspected terrorist. That man, Nigerian-born Farouk Umar Abdulmutallab, was subdued by other passengers and members of the plane's cabin crew as he fumbled with the device, which contained at least 80 grams of the explosive PETN.

FBI officials told ABC that the amount of PETN carried by Abdulmutallab was enough to destroy the Airbus A330 aircraft, traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit. But a faulty, syringe-type detonator apparently failed to work as planned, preventing a major explosion. Abdulmutallab did manage to set fire to his clothing and carpeting near his seat. He suffered third degree burns and is currently in a prison ward at a Detroit hospital.

Investigators say the explosive was sewn into Abdulmutallb's underwear, and was not detected by airport security scanners or personnel. And, the breach appears even more serious than first thought. According to various media outlets, Abdulmutallb's father, the chairman of one of Nigeria's largest banks, personally alerted the U.S. embassy in Lagos about his son's "radicalization" last year.

It is unclear if information from the elder Abdulmutallab was forwarded to counter-terrorism authorities in the U.S. However, other officials say the son's name was entered into a terrorism database several weeks ago. Additionally, Farouk Umar Abdulmutallab was recently denied an entry visa by the British government, but he was still allowed to board the Northwest flight in Amsterdam.

Congress has promised hearings into the matter, but those won't be held until early 2010. In the interim, there are serious questions about how many bombs may have been manufactured by Al Qaida's Yemen affiliate, which provided the device to Abdulmutallab. A recent Predator drone strike killed several high-ranking terrorist leaders in that country (including radical cleric Anwar Alwaki), but the attack did not prevent the production of the bomb that Abdulmutallab smuggled aboard the Northwest flight.

It is highly unlikely that the Nigerian man is the only operative dispatched by Al Qaida in recent weeks. There will almost certainly be more attacks--or at least, more attempted attacks in the coming weeks. We can only hope that our luck holds.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Idiot of the Week? (No, Thwarted Terrorist Attack)

**UPDATE/8:00 p.m. EST**

No prank...the incident aboard that Northwest Flight was (apparently) an attempted terrorist strike.

A senior administration official, traveling with President Obama in Hawaii, has described the event as a possible terrorist attack--unusually strong language for an administration that sometimes describes those events as "man-caused disasters."

In response to the incident, Mr. Obama convened emergency conference calls with his national security team. After those meetings, he ordered the imposition of additional security measures for airline travel.

The event occurred around 2:30 eastern time on Christmas Day. Northwest Airlines Flight 252 was descending into the Detroit airport, in the final stages of a nine-hour flight from Amsterdam. Passengers on and near row 19 on the Airbus A330 jet described seeing a momentary flash of fire and smoke. followed by a struggle.

What they witnessed was 23-year-old Abdul Mudallad, a Nigeran national, attempting to detonate an explosive device or powder. He was quickly subdued by other passengers and the cabin crew, who restrained him until the jet landed. According to ABC News, Mudallad later told federal authorities that he was trying to detonate an explosive device, given to him by Al Qaida in Yemen.

New York Congressman Peter King, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, confirmed that Mudallad was in possession of a "sophisticated" and potentially devastating device. "This was not a firecracker," he told The Wall Street Journal. Mr. King would not divulge additional details about the explosive device. He also reported that Mudallad's name was not on various terrorist watch lists, but turned up "hot" in other databases maintained by intelligence officials.

The question, of course, is how Mudallad got past security, and almost detonated the device on board the Northwest Flight. Based on what we know right now, it seems likely that Al Qaida has new explosive materials that can defeat existing security measures. There is also the possibility that Mudallad had assistance in getting the device or materials on the aircraft.

We're also a bit puzzled about Delta's initial claim that the Nigerian man tried to detonate firecrackers on the jet, and not a bomb. But, as we've seen in the past, the airlines have a history of down-playing potential terrorist incidents.


It's been a while since we bestowed one of our "Idiot" awards, but this one was too easy--and too irresistible--to pass up. The first two paragraphs of this CNN report sum it up well:

A passenger ignited fireworks Friday at the end of a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Detroit, Michigan, a Delta Air Lines spokeswoman said.

The passenger was immediately subdued, according to Susan Elliott, spokeswoman for Delta, Northwest's parent company. The incident resulted in some minor injuries, Elliott said.

Terrorists will also take note; security at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport obviously has a few holes.
ADDENDUM: Later reports indicate more serious--and sinister--motives. Sources tell ABC News that the man was attempting to detonate some sort of white powder. Federal officials who spoke with reporter Richard Esposito says the man (who hails from Nigeria) was directed to set off a small explosive device by Al Qaida. The suspect flew to The Netherlands from Nigeria before catching the Northwest flight to Detroit.

Making matters worse, the Nigerian man was already on the U.S. government's "no fly" list, but he still managed to board that NWA jet. Looks like Dutch security officials aren't the only ones with some explaining to do.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

George Michael, RIP

As a broadcasting refugee, I'm sometimes asked about how much "fun" that business was, and advice I would offer for young people wanting to enter the trade.

My standard reply goes something like this: yes, it was fun working in radio and television, but it was also hard work; lots of long hours and low pay, with no little guarantee that I would ever earn a living wage--or reach the upper rungs of that profession. I also respond that visiting an Air Force recruiter's office was one of the smartest moves I ever made. It opened doors (and opportunities) that I would have otherwise missed. Now, in middle age, I can look back on a successful military career (and the retirement benefits it offers), while many of my broadcasting peers are still struggling with low wages and diminishing employment prospects.

Still, I have the utmost respect for those who keep laboring behind a microphone, or in front of a television camera, and somehow reach the top of a ruthless business. George Michael was one of those individuals; the iconic Washington, D.C. sportscaster died today after a battle with cancer. He was 70.

For 28 years, until he moved to "semi-retired" status in 2007, Mr. Michael was the lead sportscaster for WRC-TV, the NBC-owned station in the nation's capital. For much of that period, he was arguably the best-known sports broadcaster in the Washington region; his nightly reports on Channel 4 helped that station achieve dominance in the local ratings, and made WRC one of the most profitable operations in the NBC portfolio.

Outside the D.C. area, Michael will be remembered as host of the "Sports Machine," a syndicated, Sunday night sports recap program that aired in 200 different cities across the country. Utilizing videotape and satellite technology that was coming into its own, Mr. Michael helped popularize a highlights-driven format that was perfected by ESPN and various regional sports channels.

But George Michael will also be remembered for the "other" half of his broadcasting career. Before moving to Washington, he was one of the most successful Top 40 DJs of the 1960s and 1970s, with stints in various cities, including Philadelphia and New York.

Michael's first exposure to radio came during his college days, at Saint Louis University. To help pay his way through school, Michael worked as a part-time record promoter, trying to convince program directors and DJs to play songs from a new Detroit label called Motown. Deciding there was more money on the other side of the microphone, he became a radio personality, starting at WIL in St. Louis.

Until the mid-1960s, he was an itinerant disc jockey; "I had a Red Nash Rambler and deflatable furniture," he later recalled for the Washington Post. "I didn't stay put for very long." But Top 40 was the hottest format of the day, and one of the quickest tickets to broadcasting riches. Hitching his career to that style of radio, Michael demonstrated a keen sense of where the business was headed, a quality that would serve him well later.

Michael's radio wanderings came to an end in 1966, when he became the evening DJ at WFIL-AM, an influential rock and roll outlet in Philadelphia. He dominated his time slot for the next eight years and in 1974, received the call that ever jock dreamed of: a job offer at WABC in New York.

In those days, WABC was the most important Top 40 station in the nation, with a weekly cumulative audience of seven million listeners. Michael was hired to replace "Cousin Brucie" Morrow, a New York radio legend who spent 13 years at ABC before jumping to rival WNBC. Michael more than held his own against Morrow, although WABC (and other AM stations) were facing increased competition from FM outlets. With an eye towards the future, Mr. Michael took on other assignments in New York, substituting for Howard Cosell on his daily sports commentary and handling color commentary for the New York Islanders.

As a radio broadcaster, George Michael gained a reputation as a perfectionist, a trait that would follow him into television. All Top 40 stations had a "tight" format, and WABC had the tightest of them all. DJs were expected to weave their patter through commercials, promos and jingles, talking "up" until the song's lyrics began. While many jocks relied on their knowledge of the music, Michael took his preparation a step further, using a stopwatch to tell him how many seconds remained until the lyrics started. He sometimes threw music or commercial "cartridges" at broadcast engineers who couldn't match his level of precision.

Mr. Michael remained at WABC until 1979, when the station (with its audience eroding) began moving away from its Top 40 roots. Ready for a change, he accepted an offer from WRC, which then trailed rival WUSA in the local ratings. "What did I have to lose?" he later told the Post.

In Washington, Michael also faced entrenched competition. In the 1980s, WUSA's Glenn Brenner was the city's leading sportscaster, and one of the most popular TV personalities in the history of the market. Brenner was known for his irreverence toward sports; in one memorable segment, he proved that a cloistered nun could predict NFL winners more accurately than the so-called experts. He also remarked, famously, that one of Mike Tyson's opponents had "fewer fights than Ghandi."

Still, George Michael and WRC began to chip away at WUSA's lead. In the mid-1980s, he launched the Sports Machine, his weekend highlights program that attracted millions of viewers. In some respects, the show wasn't particularly innovative; one of his predecessors in Washington (Warner Wolf) pioneered the "let's-go-the-tape" approach to sportscasting in the 1970s, and several cable outlets--including ESPN--were airing highlights programs on a daily basis. Michael also adopted the show's most memorable prop (a full-sized Ampex videotape machine) from an early edition of The NFL Today, hosted by Frank Gifford.

But in that era before SportsCenter became a part of the national lexicon, the George Michael Sports Machine became a hit, and expanded his audience. Michael became Washington's dominant sportscaster in 1992, after WUSA's Glenn Brenner passed away following a brief battle with brain cancer. Over the years that followed, the station tried a series of sports anchors to compete with Mr. Michael (including Warner Wolf), but none could match the popularity of Brenner--or George Michael.

After dominating the local ratings for more than a decade, Mr. Michael suddenly retired from WRC in 2007. According to local media accounts, his departure was (in part) a protest to budget cuts at the station. With the emergence of ESPN, Fox, and other outlets, there was less demand for a large sports department at local stations--and sports anchors with multi-million dollar salaries.

In many respects, the passing of George Michael represents the end of an era, not just in Washington, but across America. Convinced that viewers will get their coverage from cable, a number of stations have actually eliminated their local sportscasts. More will certainly follow; after all, you can save a lot of money by eliminating your sports department. And besides, it's hard to find a sportscaster with the talent--and the showmanship--of a George Michael.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Next Showdown

While GOP Senators couldn't defeat Obama care (it's amazing how many votes Harry Reid can buy with a few billion tax dollars), there is another showdown they actually have a chance of winning--providing, of course, they stick together and don't give in to compromise.

We refer to the looming battle over President Obama's plans to cut the nation's nuclear arsenal, part of a strategic arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia that is currently being negotiated. While final details have not been worked out, a "preliminary understanding" between the two countries promises to reduce operationally deployed nuclear warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675, a one-third cut from present levels.

And, the final deal may go even lower. According to Reuters, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told an audience in Uzbekistan that the two nations are planning "radical cuts" in their stockpiles of nuclear warheads, suggesting that both sides may agree to even greater reductions.

The planned agreement will replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expired in early December. That accord has been extended, as work on the treaty continues.

As we noted earlier this year, the arms treaty is a bad idea, for a number of reasons. First, it essentially grants nuclear parity to the Russians. Our strategic triad (land-based ICBMs, strategic bombers and ballistic missile submarines) is larger--and in some regards, more capable than its Russian counterpart, which fell into disrepair after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Moscow's strategic forces are now essentially built around its modernized ICBM force, with lesser contributions from its nuclear capable bomber fleet, and SLBM force, which is a mere shadow of its former self.

Obviously, the U.S. will have to make greater cuts to reach the force levels mandated by the new treaty. We'll also predict that the new deal will target areas of U.S. strength (including our ballistic missile subs), reducing both the number of threats that the Russians have to account for. Reducing the number of missile boats will save Moscow billions in ASW and related naval programs, allowing that money to be re-directed to other efforts, including strategic modernization.

Did we mention that Russia has spent much of the last decade upgrading its ICBM force? The new SS-27 is deployed in both silo and mobile versions, and its far more accurate than anything Moscow has produced in the past. Tracking down the road-mobile variant of the SS-27 is a near-impossible task, even in an era of satellites, UAVs and real-time intelligence. That ensures survival of a Russian counter-force, missiles (and warheads) that could survive an initial nuclear exchange and deliver a second--or third--strike.

Meanwhile, our ICBM force consists of silo-based Minuteman III missiles, assigned to bases in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. The accuracy of those weapons has also improved over the past 20 years, but their location is anything but a state secret. If the missiles aren't used immediately in a Doomsday scenario, they are little more than sitting ducks. Additionally, our "newest" Minuteman IIIs were built in the 1970s, and as they age, the missiles are becoming more difficult to maintain.

Other elements of our nuclear weapons infrastructure are getting long in the tooth as well. We haven't designed--or built--a new warhead in more than 20 years. Many of the scientists who produced those weapons are reaching retirement age, and there's been little effort to replace their expertise. The research labs and production facilities responsible for nuclear warhead design and fabrication have also suffered from years of neglect, raising questions about our ability to quickly field new weapons, if the need arose.

That's where Senate Republicans enter the picture. Last week, all 40 GOP members of the Senate (plus Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut) sent a letter to Mr. Obama, reminding him that current defense authorization language links the a new START treaty to modernization of our own strategic arsenal. As a bloc, the 41 Senators could block the planned START agreement, which needs 67 votes for ratification. As Bill Gertz of the Washington Times reported:

The 41 senators stated in the letter that they agree with the defense legislation's language that says modernizing the aging U.S. nuclear stockpile is critical to further U.S.-Russian arms cuts.

"In fact, we don't believe further reductions can be in the national security interest of the U.S. in the absence of a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent," the senators stated.

A Republican Senate aide said the letter is intended to put the White House on notice that formal ratification of a new START accord must include specific plans and funding for upgrading U.S. nuclear weapons outlined in Section 1251 of the Democrat-drafted 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law by Mr. Obama on Oct. 28.


The senators stated that a bipartisan commission headed by former Defense Secretary William J. Perry and former Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger first drew the linkage between proposed new arms cuts under START and modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons.

The commission members "were unanimously alarmed by the serious disrepair and neglect they found [in the nuclear arsenal], and they made a series of recommendations to reverse this highly concerning situation," the letter says.

In their letter, the Senators call for life-extension upgrades to the B61 and W76 warheads; funding for a "modern warhead" that is easier to update, and replacements for aging uranium and plutonium plants.

Is the Obama Administration paying attention? So far, the answer seems to be "no." While the President has made strategic arms reduction a top priority, he has paid little attention to the nuclear modernization, despite pleas from the Perry-Schlesinger Commission, and the leader of U.S. Strategic Command, General Kevin Chilton.

If the Senate Republicans hang together, they can greatly influence the future of our strategic forces. Mr. Obama wants a new START treaty as a "signature" accomplishment, but GOP Senators must be clear and resolute; any replacement agreement must not be a U.S. "giveaway," and any cuts in our arsenal must be linked to the modernization of the nuclear weapons that remain.

ADDENDUM: Russian negotiators are also trying to get the U.S. to cut missile defenses as part of the new accord. GOP Senators must also make it clear that such concessions are a non-starter, if President Obama wants a new arms deal.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Skipping a Grade

Pending confirmation by the Senate, Air Force Brigadier General Richard C. Harding is set to achieve something rare in the military--or perhaps we should say something that was once rare in our armed forces.

Once approved by the Senate (a mere formality at this point), Harding will become the next Judge Advocate General of the Air Force, and be promoted two grades, to Lieutenant General. In other words, he'll earn his second and third stars at the same time, and advance two ranks at his pin-on ceremony.

As Air Force Times explains, Harding's unusual promotion is the result of a grade change for his new job. In 2008, Congress mandated that the service's top attorneys be three-star generals. At the time, the USAF only had two legal officers at the two-star level; one of them (Major General Jack Rives) was elevated to lieutenant general. With the projected retirement of Rives and his deputy, Major General Charles Dunlap, the Air Force had to dip into the ranks of one-star JAG officers to find a replacement.

And, oddly enough, this isn't the first time an Air Force officer has catapulted two grades in the flag ranks. Last year, Colonel Kimberly Siniscalchi was promoted to Major General for her new job as Assistant Surgeon General for Nursing Services and Force Development.

Call us old-fashioned, but we've always believed this type of promotion should be limited to the most pressing circumstances (read: wartime), and given to individuals of exceptional merit and ability. No slam against Generals Harding, Rives or Siniscalchi, but their resume hardly compares to that of an Army Air Corps officer, who advanced from Lieutenant Colonel to Brigadier General in 1942.

This individual was an aviation pioneer who led the development of instrument flying. After joining the Army during World War I, he found time to earn both a Master's and Doctorate in Aeronautics from M.I.T. He was also an accomplished air racer, winning all of the major competitions of his day. As a Major in the reserves, he was also instrumental in planning the wartime production of aircraft, work that helped secure victory during World War II.

Recalled to active duty (and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel) after Pearl Harbor, the officer volunteered to plan--and lead--a retaliatory attack against Japan. In April 1942, with American fortunes at a low ebb, he led a squadron of B-25 bombers on a raid against Japan. The medium bombers were launched from an aircraft carrier, a feat that most experts deemed impossible. But the resourceful Lieutenant Colonel found a way to take off from the deck of a carrier, and trained his crews for the mission in minimum time. For his efforts, this individual received the Congressional Medal of Honor and was advanced to Brigadier General.

By now, most of you have guessed the name of this airpower legend--Jimmy Doolittle. He went on to command Eighth Air Force in Europe, leading campaigns that smashed the Luftwaffe. General Doolittle retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1959, but he continued to serve his country in various capacities for years. Jimmy Doolittle was promoted to full general (on the retired list) by an act of Congress in 1988. General Doolittle died in 1993, at the age of 96.

Those are the achievements of someone who deserved to skip a grade in his military career. By comparison, the bureaucratic requirements that dictated the recent promotions are no substitute for merit. The Air Force managed to function for more than 50 years with its senior JAG in the rank of Major General; surely, the service could have survived with a two-star in the Lieutenant General billet until enough qualified candidates could compete for the promotion.

It's also worth remembering that the service has long operated with a "one up or down" rule in the lower ranks, meaning that most billets can be filled by someone one grade higher (or lower) than the desired rank. We understand that the requirements are different in command billets and the flag ranks. But we still argue that a two-grade advancement should be limited to individuals with the accomplishments of a Jimmy Doolittle. Sad to say, but the Air Force hasn't produced one of those in many, many years.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Being a retired general or admiral has certain fringe benefits.

First, there's the pension. A retired Brigadier General or Rear Admiral (Lower Half), with 30 years of service, will collect a monthly payment of $7935, before taxes and other deductions. Factoring in annual cost-of-living increases, that pension will be worth upwards of $3 million, over a 30-year retirement.

There's also the prestige that comes with being a retired flag officer. That rank certainly looks good on a resume (and) coupled with decades of networking and contacts, it opens doors that are simply unavailable to most military retirees.

In fact, those retired generals and admirals (along with their active-duty counterparts) have created something of a cottage industry within DoD. It's called the "Senior Mentor" program, which hires former flag officers to serve as advisors in wargaming, weapons procurement and strategy matters.

The pay, as you might guess, is quite good. A typical mentor is paid hundreds of dollars an hour for his or her services. Additionally, many of the retired officers also consult or work for defense contractors, raising questions about possible conflicts of interest between their relationships with defense firms, and their role as military advisors.

USA Today "exposed" the program last month, and their first article suggested that senior mentors represent a relatively new Pentagon program. But that's hardly the case; during one of my final active duty assignments, I worked for a military wargaming center. Over the course of a typical year, there was a veritable parade of senior mentors who participated in our simulations and specialized training courses for flag officers. They represented all branches of the military and they were well-compensated for their efforts.

Former politicians were part of the program, too. Just months after his retirement from Congress, Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich turned up at my base, as a guest speaker for flag officers attending a joint commander's course. Mr. Gingrich also commanded a hefty fee for his appearance. But, in fairness, the former speaker gave a dynamic, two-hour presentation, providing a detailed assessment of various global issues--without notes.

To be fair, the "senior mentor" program has its merits. Outside of the military's "charm school" for newly-selected flag officers (and a few specialized courses after pin-on), there is no program that teaches generals and admirals how to do their jobs. Given those realities, it is often beneficial for new flag officers to interact with retired component and joint commanders, who gained valuable strategic, operational and geopolitical expertise during their careers.

Obviously, that type of expertise doesn't come cheap. Compensation rates for the mentors are roughly based on what they would earn (or actually earn) as senior defense contractors or consultants. But that may be changing.

Responding to the USA Today report, Defense Secretary Robert Gates described the mentor pay scale as "obscene," and ordered an internal review. Mr. Gates is also concerned about potential conflicts-of-interest; according to the paper, at least 130 participants in the mentor program also worked as employees, consultants or board members for defense firms. The defense chief believes the mentors should be motivated by "service" rather than "profit."

But there are some problems with that approach. First, all branches of the federal bureaucracy employ consultants, who earn big bucks for their services. And, if you dig a little deeper, you'll find that many of those hired guns are consulting for the same agency or department they retired from, or once worked for. It's the nature of the business; consulting firms--and their clients--want experts with recent experience in that particular program or agency.

So, a former flag officer usually has a 4-5 window to establish himself (and make big bucks) as a mentor. As they move deeper into retirement, their "expertise" becomes more dated, and of less value to DoD.

But that fact is lost on the media; USA Today reported breathlessly that retired Army General Dan McNeill made $281,000 as a "senior mentor" between December 2008 and August of this year. What the paper fails to mention is that McNeill is a former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan; as the military debated the "way ahead" in that conflict, McNeill's experience was viewed as particularly valuable. As that war evolves, it's likely that McNeill won't be earning as much as a senior mentor. Of course, he still has a $200,000 pension to fall back on.

Still, there is room for reform within the mentor program. Mr. Gates--and USA Today--are correct in highlighting the potential conflicts of interest facing many retired officers who work as mentors. Simply stated, they should not be on the federal payroll--and that of a defense firm--at the same time. Under those circumstances, it becomes too easy to recommend the systems or services of your company to DoD.

Fixing the problem should be easy: hire the mentors as full-time federal workers, and force them to sever ties with defense contractors. Pay them as members of the Senior Executive Service (SES), which will guarantee them a six-figure paycheck. Those earnings, along with their military pension, should be enough to provide a comfortable lifestyle. Additionally, the full-time mentor cadre would be smaller (and less expensive) than the current "contractor" arrangement.

The second step in the reform process is equally straightforward: implement a mandatory, three-year "cooling off" period for participants in the mentor program. In other words, someone leaving a mentorship post would have to wait three years before signing on as a defense consultant, executive or contractor. Retired flag officers would be forced to choose between employment in the federal sector or the private sector, with none of the "back-and-forth" or "double-dipping" that goes on now. More importantly, the cooling off period would help prevent the conflicts of interest that jeopardize the current mentor program.

There is, of course, a certain irony in all of this. Fifty years ago, men like Admiral Ray Spruance were regular speakers at the war colleges and other military forums. As far as we know, Spruance and other retired flag officers (from that era) never accepted a fee for their services; any compensation from the government was probably limited to their travel expenses.

Sadly, those days are long-gone. Today's generation of retired generals and admirals are interested in maximizing their earning power, and they're willing to take what the market can pay. If Mr. Gates believes he can attract--and retain--mentors at cut-rate prices, he is sadly mistaken. Many former flag officers have expertise needed by DoD and they're entitled to a wage commensurate with professionals in other fields. Institutionalizing the program (and making mentors full-time federal employees) is the best way to access their knowledge and eliminate potential conflicts-of-interest.

One more thing: someone ought to ask Gannett (parent company of USA Today) about the number of former employees and executives who now consult the newspaper division, or one of the company's many TV stations around the company. Those consultants have an enormous impact on what you read in a Gannett publication, or see on their TV outlets. You see, the journalism world has its own "mentors;" they just work under a different job title.

The Predator Channel

There's something troubling about yesterday's Wall Street Journal report on insurgents accessing video feeds from U.S. drones operating over Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's bad enough that terrorists can watch the same live, unencrypted video as our troops on the ground, using inexpensive antennas and computer software that costs as little as $26.

But it's even more disturbing that the Pentagon has known about the problem for more than a decade, and is only now making a serious effort to secure line-of-sight video signals. With a little luck (and sufficient funding) those feeds should be fully encrypted by 2014. Until then, intelligence analysts, special forces operators and other military personnel can only hope their terrorist targets aren't watching the same pictures from Predators, Reapers and other battlefield UAVs.

According to the Journal, commanders in Iraq discovered earlier this year that insurgents were, in fact, monitoring--and recording--video streams from our drones:

Senior defense and intelligence officials said Iranian-backed insurgents intercepted the video feeds by taking advantage of an unprotected communications link in some of the remotely flown planes' systems. Shiite fighters in Iraq used software programs such as SkyGrabber -- available for as little as $25.95 on the Internet -- to regularly capture drone video feeds, according to a person familiar with reports on the matter.

With terrorists able to access UAV video signals, U.S. forces lose the critical element of surprise on the battlefield. By watching the video feeds, insurgents gain critical information about targets (and groups) under surveillance, helping them avoid planned raids by special forces teams and other units.

While most reports of intercepted feeds have come from Iraq, there is also evidence that terrorists in Afghanistan have employed the same tactic. And, with the simple technology required to pirate the video feeds, there's no reason that insurgents in places like Somalia and Yemen couldn't mointor the signals as well.

The discovery of UAV video on insurgent laptops in Iraq confirmed a known vulnerability in our drone network. While unmanned surveillance aircraft have been a part of military operations for more than a decade, the Pentagon elected to leave the video down link unencrypted, believing that adversaries in regions like the Balkans and the Middle East would be unable to exploit the video feeds. Leaving the signal unencrypted also allowed easier access by ground forces, which rely heavily on UAV surveillance in conducting raids on enemy strongholds.

But evidence of signal vulnerability began surfacing as the drones entered combat. During Operation Allied Force (1999), there were numerous reports of Kosovo residents with satellite TV using their dishes to monitor video feeds from first-generation Predator drones. Defense analyst Pete Singer told Air Force Times that the locals joked it was "harder to get the Disney Channel than watch U.S. military operations."

Concern about the video feeds continued as the combat intensified in Iraq. During 2004 and 2005, the Office of the Secretary of Defense held meetings about the problem. But former Air Force Secretary Mike Wynne (who participated in those sessions) tells the Times that the emerging consensus was to "field the UAVs as quickly as possible." Mr. Wynne's account was verified by another participant, General Mike Moseley, who served as the service's Chief of Staff during that period.

Not all signals associated with the drones are unsecured. Command signals used to pilot the aircraft are encrypted, as is the video feed provided to commanders. Securing the line-of-sight signal to ground forces would have required additional hardware, added to the cost of UAVs, and slowed their entry into the inventory.

Luckily, few insurgent groups have taken advantage of the vulnerability. An assessment by U.S. commanders in Iraq indicates that only one group--the Iranian-backed Kata'ib Hezbollah--has the technical capacity to intercept the signals. While some elements of the hacking operation (most notably the software) are inexpensive and readily available, integrating the various components requires a certain degree of technical sophistication. American analysts believe Iran was only willing to give the package to their most loyal surrogates in Iraq, a main reason that Kata'ib Hezbollah would up with the equipment.

Still, there's no reason that other terrorist elements won't gain the same capability on their own, or through Iranian agents. Meanwhile, the U.S. is applying some interim technical fixes, such as narrowing the area in which the video feeds can be received. That would make it easier to detect insurgents trying to pirate the signal.

But that remedy only goes so far. In urban terrain, it's still possible for terrorists inside a building to intercept the video feed, while a U.S. patrol passes outside. We're guessing that American troops will find a few more insurgent laptops--with files of our UAV video--before the system is fully encrypted in 2014.

It's another testament to our hubris--the same mindset that (prior to World War II) assured us that the Japanese could never produce--let alone fly--a first-class fighter, and that the B-17 would not require fighter escort to reach enemy targets. In both cases, the cost of our arrogance was measured in human lives.

So far, we haven't paid a similar price in Iraq or Afghanistan. We can only hope that trend holds. Meanwhile, someone needs to ask former Bush and Clinton officials about their decision to leave UAV video feeds unsecured. Yeah, we saved a few bucks--but at what potential cost?

It's worth remembering that the same, unsecured links would be used in conflicts with more capable adversaries like North Korea and China. We can only imagine how Beijing or Pyongyang might have exploited our vulnerability. But a generation of military commanders and senior civilian officials were willing to take the risk. That sort of group think requires a further explanation.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Dream Takes Flight

The first Boeing 787 Dreamliner during a high-speed taxi test last week. The Dreamliner made its maiden flight this morning (Boeing photograph via Aviation Week)

The future of commercial avaiation took the skies over Washington state today.

Boeing's next-generation jetliner, the 787 "Dreamliner," made its four-hour maiden flight this morning, the first step in the aircraft's flight test program and eventual certification as a commercial jet.

According to company officials, the first flight went smoothly and ended an hour earlier than planned, due to deteriorating weather conditions in the Seattle area. While airborne, Boeing test pilots Michael Carriker and Randall Neville performed a series of basic flight maneuvers and systems checks, to "make sure the plane flies the way its supposed to fly," in the words of spokesman Jim Proulx.

Today's flight came more than five years after the 787 was first announced, and two years past the original start date for aerial testing. The Dreamliner program has been plagued by a series of development and production problems, ranging from ill-fitting parts to the challenge of integrating new processes into the manufacturing process.

Built largely from composite materials, utilizing advanced engines and equipped with a "distributed" electric system, the 787 is designed to operate 20% more efficiently than existing long-haul jets, including those from Boeing's arch-rival, Airbus.

Those potential costs savings have made the Dreamliner a hit with airlines worried about rising fuel prices. Boeing's sales force has already written 910 orders for the 787--before the first aircraft has been delivered. Assuming there are no other glitches in the testing and certification program, Japan's All Nippon Airlines will receive the first production model of the 787 late next year.

But, as Aviation Week observes, Boeing now has to build the aircraft, at a rate that will satisfy customers and without safety and manufacturing problems that would trouble the FAA and other aviation regulatory agencies. Building large aircraft, writes Aviation Week, is always a challenge. But the challenge for the 787 team is made more complex by the new manufacturing technologies used to produce the Dreamliner.

Boeing actually views the 787 as the "third notch" in the long-haul market, serving 7-8,000 mile intercontinental routes. It was another Boeing product (the venerable 747) that made those routes popular and profitable, hauling an average of 400 passengers on each flight. When the airlines demanded more efficiency on long-distance flights, Boeing answered with the 777, a twin-engine wide-body jet that carries up to 365 passengers on the same route.

Now, the Dreamliner promises even greater efficiency with a smaller capacity (an average of 250 passengers). Introduction of the 787 will allow the airlines to tailor their service to market demands, operating a smaller Dreamliner--filled to capacity--instead of a half-empty 747.

Still, getting the new jet in the air has been anything but easy. Tier 2 and 3 suppliers fell behind schedule, creating work delays for companies that are building major components of the Dreamliner. Boeing also endured labor problems; machinists at its facilities in Seattle went on strike last year, after the company announced plans to open a second 787 production line in Charleston, South Carolina. Boeing also had to step up payments to suppliers who ran into financial difficulties.

However, those problems were forgotten--at least temporarily--as the 787 lifted into the skies this morning. Fact is, the Dreamliner is already changing the face of aerospace; the materials and processes used to build the jetliner will become standard practice in commercial aviation. Airbus is now scrambling to integrate composite fuselages in its commercial jets. With Boeing now offering a single-piece composite fuselage in the 787, customers are demanding them in other aircraft.

It's also worth noting that Boeing built the 787 without the massive government subsidies that fund Airbus' aircraft development efforts. The European consortium achieved their own milestone last week, with the first flight of their "mid-sized" military transport, the A400M. Larger than Lockheed's C-130 (but smaller than the Boeing C-17), the A400 will give European militaries a medium lift capability they have previously lacked.

Like the Dreamliner, the A400M is behind schedule. Development of the military transport began about 20 years ago, and the program was well underway when Boeing conceived the 787. There's something to be said for a company that can move a program from launch to the first flying model in only five years. Boeing isn't perfect, but the 787 shows the rewards for a company willing to dream big.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Whistling Past the (Nuclear) Graveyard

This holiday season is an opportune time to re-visit a Christmas of not-long-ago, when Democrats and other liberals dreamed of check-mating George Bush's foreign policy, once and for all.

That dream became something of a reality just two years ago, when the U.S. Intelligence Community released its much-anticipated National Intelligence Estimate on Iran and its nuclear weapons program. By any standard, the report was a block-buster, contravening long-held assumptions about Tehran's ambitions to become a nuclear power.

With "high confidence," the NIE assessed that the Iranian government "halted" its nuclear weapons development program in 2003. Additionally, the intelligence community concluded that Tehran had not restarted the program in 2007, and was "less determined" to build nuclear weapons than in 2005. Based on those judgements, intel analysts determined that Iran was unlikely to produce a nuclear device before 2015.

Experts in Great Britain and Israel strongly disagreed with those findings, and for a variety of reasons. First, three of the NIE's key architects (Thomas Fingar, Vann Van Diepen and Kenneth Brill) had fought past battles with the Bush Administration on intel or arms control issues, or they were on record supporting Iran's right to enrich uranium. Those positions raised immediate questions about the "neutrality" of the estimate and its stunning conclusions.

Critics of the NIE also voiced concerns about the reliability of sources used in producing the assessment. Several intelligence officers told Bill Gertz of the Washington Times that a high-level Iranian defector, General Ali Reza Asgari, was a primary source for the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate and its controversial judgments. Asgari, a former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and a deputy defense minister, defected to the west while the NIE was under development. Information provided by Asgari reportedly prompted intel analysts to change their assessments regarding Iran and its nuclear weapons program.

But Asgari's sudden availability--and the quality of the information he provided--raised more red flags. Veteran defense writer Kenneth Timmerman reported that the U.S. was "duped" by an Iranian disinformation campaign, aimed at influencing intelligence assessments on that country's nuclear program. Other analysts found it curious that intel agencies burned by "single sources" in the past (remember "Curveball?) were assigning so much weight to information from one individual, despite his senior status in the Iranian government.

The NIE was also faulted for using "creative language" to support its central themes. While maintaining that Tehran had halted its weapons development effort, the estimate's authors conceded (mostly in footnotes) that other elements of the nuclear program--including uranium enrichment and missile production--were continuing. As we noted at the time, a nuclear weapons program actually has three distinctive tracks; perfection of the uranium "fuel cycle," development of delivery platforms, and fabrication of gravity bombs or warheads.

Indeed, the intelligence estimate freely conceded that two of the tracks remained active between 2003-2007. That, in turn, raised questions about the reported "suspension" of the weapons development effort. Put another way, it made little sense for Iran to halt its weapons research, particularly when other elements of the nuclear program were humming along.

Unfortunately, those concerns--and others--were quickly swept aside. The 2007 NIE became the gospel truth for Congressional Democrats and their allies in the mainstream press. If the Bush Administration had any secret ambitions for a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, those plans effectively died in December 2007.

What a difference two years makes. If the NIE had any remaining shreds of credibility, those were destroyed with today's bombshell revelation in the U.K. Times. Citing confidential documents obtained from intelligence sources, the paper reported that Iran is working towards a test of a neutron initiator, a key component used to trigger the explosion of a nuclear weapon.

According to the Times, the documents date from 2007, four years after Iran supposedly halted its weapons development program. Given the time and effort required to develop the initiator device--and plan a testing program--it seems clear that Tehran was still working on its bomb program after the reported suspension date. And, there is no civilian application for the trigger mechanism under development:

“Although Iran might claim that this work is for civil purposes, there is no civil application,” said David Albright, a physicist and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, which has analysed hundreds of pages of documents related to the Iranian programme. “This is a very strong indicator of weapons work.”

The documents have been seen by intelligence agencies from several Western countries, including Britain. A senior source at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that they had been passed to the UN’s nuclear watchdog.

Readers should also note that the Times' story was written by Catherine Philip, a reporter in the paper's Washington bureau. That suggests that the documents came from U.S. intelligence sources, or (perhaps) a British liaison to one of our spy agencies. In any case, there is no doubt that American analysts have seen the documents. The real question is when our spooks got their hands on them, and why they've been suppressed--until now.

Sadly, we know the answer to that one. Evidence of an active Iranian weapons program does not fit the desired template of political elements within our intelligence community, or the Obama Administration. Claims that Tehran had suspended weapons development (and wouldn't produce a nuke until 2015) provided the rationale for continued diplomacy, aimed at shutting down the program. Never mind that years of talks between Tehran and the "EU-3" yielded nothing. Our new commander-in-chief preferred engagement, and his national security team wouldn't tolerate reporting that upset their planned strategy.

Meanwhile, Iran's centrifuges keep spinning and the mullahs inch closer to a nuclear weapons capability. We're guessing that more "honest" individuals within our various intel organizations have grown alarmed at the pace of Iranian development efforts and they're attempting to sound an alarm--and cover their backsides. Recent reporting on Tehran's nuclear program--including the trigger story--suggest that the regime will have a working nuclear device within two years, well ahead of the 2015 timeline touted just two years ago.

The Times' report also reminds us that the window for decisive action against Iran is rapidly closing. Unfortunately, there is no stomach for a military strike (outside of Israel). Western leaders seem content to maintain their "engagement" policy towards Iran, preferring to deal with Tehran's nuclear genie once it's outside the bottle.

If you doubt us, consider President Obama's comments during one of his TV appearances last night. Asked to grade his first year in office, Mr. Obama gave himself a solid "B+," claiming credit for (among other things) a "new international consensus on the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. So far, that "consensus" has done absolutely nothing to deter Tehran. What a surprise.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Return of the "Next Generation" Bomber

To borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, reports of the "next generation" bomber's demise were apparently exaggerated.

Only eight months after Defense Secretary Robert Gates halted development efforts for a new bomber, he announced that the Air Force's 2011 budget will likely include a request for you guessed it--an advanced bomber aircraft.

According to Mr. Gates, next year's proposed defense budget would provide about $1 billion for development of a new bomber, with increased funding in the years that follow.

“We are probably going to proceed with a long-range strike initiative coming out of the Quadrennial Defense Review and various other reviews going on,” Gates told troops in Kirkuk, Iraq. “We’re looking at a family of capabilities, both manned and unmanned.”

When he froze the program last April, Mr. Gates said he wanted the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review to take a look at bomber requirements before proceeding. The secretary's remarks suggests that the QDR--due early next year--will recommend development of a new, long-range strike aircraft, to counteract expected threats, and augment the Air Force's aging bomber fleet.

Secretary Gates was widely praised for his decision to halt the bomber program earlier this year. But in hindsight, his choice will do nothing more than delay a needed aircraft program. The strategic environment hasn't changed since last spring, and our squadrons of B-52s, B-1s and B-2s aren't getting any younger.

Given those realities, the logical choice was to continue development of long-range strike programs, with a goal of getting a new aircraft (manned or unmanned) on the ramp by the end of the next decade. Instead, Mr. Gates deferred to the QDR, letting that process decide the future of bomber development.

The result? An unnecessary, 18-month pause in the research and development process. Tack that on to the original timeline for delivery of the new bomber (2018), and it looks like ACC and Global Strike Command won't see a new strike platform until 2020 or 2021, at the earliest.

In an interview with this writer a few months ago, airpower analyst Dr. Rebecca Grant warned that there "are no substitutes" for aircraft cancelled by Gates, including the new bomber and the F-22 fighter. Belatedly, Secretary Gates has apparently reached the same conclusion, at least as far as the bomber program is concerned.

The "arrested development" of the new bomber has a parallel in recent Air Force history. In 1977, President Carter cancelled the B-1 program, in favor of other strategic systems then under development, including the B-2 stealth bomber. Shortly after his inauguration in 1980, President Reagan resurrected the B-1, and a modified version of the aircraft (the B-1B) entered operational service in 1986.

Twenty-five years later, there's no guarantee that President Obama (or his successor) will stay the course on the new bomber. Mr. Gates' announcement is a step in the right direction, but a lot can happen over the next decade. Keep your fingers crossed.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

More Air Defense Woes for Iran

When Tehran conducted a highly-publicized air defense exercise last month, we expressed doubts about the hardware on display--and its potential effectiveness against an Israeli attack.

In fact, video footage of the drill (which aired on state-run TV) appeared to be recycled from previous exercises. Air defense systems highlighted in press reports were the same antiquated surface-to-air missiles (I-HAWK, SA-5) and anti-aircraft artillery pieces (40 mm) that have defended Iranian installations for decades. There was no mention of the modern, short-range SA-15 missile system--acquired from Russia just three years ago--or the state-of-the-art S-300, which Tehran has reportedly purchased, but Moscow hasn't delivered.

In other words, the capabilities demonstrated by the Iranians hardly matched their rhetoric. That's hardly a surprise; there has long been a significant gap between Tehran's military claims and what it can actually deliver. But Iranian officials have cranked up their propaganda over the past couple of years, declaring their air defenses could repulse any Israeli (or U.S.) air strike.

Turns out, our suspicions about last month's exercise were well-founded. Strategy Page reports that Iranian generals in charge of the drill were "surprised" at how "uncoordinated" and "ill-prepared" their forces were for such an attack.

The air defense evaluation revealed a litany of serious problems, including poor communications and weaponry that failed to perform. From an intelligence standpoint, those findings are hardly surprising. Western analysts have long described Iran's air defense system as the military equivalent of a Chinese fire drill (with apologies to the Chinese). Despite investments in more modern equipment since the early 1990s, Tehran's air defense network remains a hodge-podge of antiquated systems and newer hardware, linked with a command-and-control network that is suspect, at best.

Advanced air defense systems rely on sophisticated radars and other sensors, relaying information to automated C3 nodes that can process (and analyze) literally hundreds of tracks at once, and assist commanders in assigning valid targets to missile batteries, AAA sites and interceptor aircraft.

Iran has been trying to make that transition for years, but it's been an uphill struggle. At last report, Tehran's air defense network was only partially automated, with a Chinese-built, automated C3 system functioning alongside the existing model, built on manual reporting and tracking.

Making matters worse, Iran's radar coverage is poor, with significant gaps below 15,000 feet. To compensate for that problem, Tehran built hundreds of visual observation (VIZOB) posts along its borders, manned by members of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the "regular" military, local militias and even the police. The spotters often report anything they see or hear, so Iranian air defense C3 nodes are often saturated with sightings of bright lights, mysterious sounds, and unidentified aircraft.

And, because commanders (typically) lack effective decision aids, air defense systems are sometimes assigned to engage phantom targets, or--even worse--civilian aircraft. A few years ago, the Iranians came dangerously close to shooting down a Saudi jetliner, bound for Tehran. Apparently, the Saudi flight crew had changed their flight plan (and coordinated it with Iranian air traffic controllers), but the revision was never passed to air defense officials.

To be fair, confusion and the need for split-second decisions can affect the most sophisticated air defense systems, as evidenced by the destruction of an Iranian passenger jet by the USS Vincennes in 1988. But, to borrow a German general's description of the U.S. Army in World War II, Iran's air defense system practices chaos on a daily basis, and the potential for error remains especially high. Factor in the intensity of an exercise--and fears of an impending Israeli attack--and it's little wonder that the Iranians performed poorly during that recent drill.

As Strategy Page observes, Iran's most effective weapon is bluster. But even that tool has its limitations. While it works with the media and the general public, military analysts know better. Tehran's air defense network is anything but effective and that may be one reason the generals described its failure in such blunt terms. They know that Iranian politicians won't tone down their comments about "advanced" military capabilities, but they can do something more useful--like pressuring Moscow to deliver the S-300.

The availability of that system would greatly bolster Iran's air defense capabilities, and force Israel to alter its attack plans. Without the S-300, Tehran must rely on antiquated weapons and command systems to protect its nuclear sites from attack. Such marginal capabilities won't keep the Israelis up at night, but from an Iranian perspective, they are a cause for concern.

Your Government at Work

While the Transportation Security Administration has been tight-lipped about what transpired on AirTran Flight 297, the agency has been a little too open about some of its most sensitive screening procedures.

According to Brian Ross of ABC News, the TSA posted on-line its airport screening manual, including special rules for diplomats, CIA officers and law enforcement officials.

Call it an early Christmas present for Al Qaida--and anyone else interested in circumventing TSA security measures:

The most sensitive parts of the 93-page Standard Operating Procedures manual were apparently redacted in a way that computer savvy individuals easily overcame.

The document shows sample CIA, Congressional and law enforcement credentials which experts say would make it easy for terrorists to duplicate.

The improperly redacted areas indicate that only 20 percent of checked bags are to be hand searched for explosives and reveal in detail the limitations of x-ray screening machines.

Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, blames part on the problem on a lack of leadership at TSA. The agency has been without an administrator for most of the year.

But that's a rather lame--and convenient--excuse. With minor exceptions, you don't need an agency director to decide what will (and won't be posted) on an organization's website. And, fostering a climate that promotes information security is a job for all agency employees, not just the administrator.

Sad to say, but it's highly unlikely that any TSA administrator could have prevented the "inadvertent" posting of that security manual. Such mistakes are a reflection of the organization and its culture. Changing that should be Job #1 for whoever winds up running the agency.

ADDENDUM: Readers will note that neither ABC News (nor Congressman Thompson) offered a satisfactory answer to a salient question: namely why hasn't the Obama Administration appointed someone to take charge of TSA? Instead of filling up the West Wing with all of those "czars,"--or spending months on his health care scheme--the President might devote a little time to filling a key agency appointment.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Mystery Solved?

The USS Oklahoma, capsized and on fire during the attack on Pearl Harbor. New evidence suggests that a torpedo from a Japanese mini-sub may have delivered the coup de grace that caused the battleship to roll over (Wikipedia photo).

Sixty-eight years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, one of its biggest mysteries may have been solved.

For years, military historians and naval architects have debated the loss of the USS Oklahoma, one of eight U.S. battleships that were sunk or heavily damaged during the battle. Suffering multiple hits from Japanese torpedoes and bombs, the Oklahoma capsized only eight minutes after the attack began, leaving her starboard side and a part of the keel above water. Only the battleship's masts--mired in the mud of the harbor--keep the Oklahoma from rolling completely upside down.

More than 400 men died in the attack on the World War I-era battle wagon. Many were trapped beneath the decks as the ship began to fill with water and capsize. For days after the attack, survivors pounded on the hull with wrenches and other heavy objects, trying to attract the attention of rescuers. Despite the heroic efforts of shipyard worker Juan DeCastro (who led rescue teams assigned to the Oklahoma), only 32 men were pulled from capsized battleship. The rest perished; the banging from inside the ship's hull began to fade as the men ran out of oxygen.

The sinking of the Oklahoma represented the second-greatest loss of life at Pearl Harbor, ranking only behind the destruction of the USS Arizona. But while historians are relatively sure of what happened to the Arizona--that ship was destroyed by massive explosions that began in her forward magazines--the cause of the Oklahoma's catastrophic roll has been a matter for speculation.

True, the battleship was struck by a number of torpedoes in the opening moments of the attack. But, it was always assumed that all of the torpedoes were dropped by Japanese aircraft. Those weapons weighed 400 pounds and ran relatively shallow (compared to sub-launched torpedoes). Other vessels along Battleship Row on December 7, 1941 sustained similar hits, and settled on an even keel into the harbor bottom, a product of the torpedo's trajectory and valiant efforts at damage control.

So, why did the Oklahoma turn turtle? Researchers believe the answer to that question may lie with a Japanese miniature submarine which has never been accounted for--until now.

It's no secret that the Japanese fleet deployed five mini-subs to penetrate Pearl Harbor and attack U.S. ships within the anchorage. Four of the vessels were scuttled, destroyed or run aground without inflicting any damage. The fifth mini-sub was presumed lost; the boat was never sunk or captured, and there was no evidence it actually entered the harbor.

But that assessment may be changing. As the Los Angeles Times reports, wreckage from that last mini-sub has been located in Pearl Harbor, and there's strong evidence the vessel fired its torpedoes at capital ships anchored along Battleship Row. One of those weapons apparently struck the Oklahoma, causing it to capsize.

The evidence is largely circumstantial, but it is rather compelling. First, the mini-sub's mother ship received a radio transmission on the evening of 8 December--almost 40 hours after the attack. Reporting success of their mission, the last transmission of the mini-sub crew indicated they survived the chaos of the attack and their aftermath.

Parks Stephenson, a maritime historian and former Navy submariner, believes the crew moved their boat to Pearl Harbor's West Loch after the Japanese strike, then scuttled the vessel after radioing their final report.

West Loch was also the site of a 1944 ammunition explosion that destroyed six LSTs (Landing Ship Tank), preparing for the invasion of Saipan. More than 200 sailors died in the accident. Determined to keep the mishap--and the planned operation--a secret, the Navy quickly scooped up the remains of the LSTs and the mini-sub, which was scuttled in the same area. The debris was dumped at sea, three miles south of Pearl Harbor. It was located by divers 50 years later.

Pictures of the undersea wreckage were relayed to Mr. Stephenson, who spotted the distinctive "net cutter" found on Japanese mini-sub. At that point, the historian knew he had located the fifth mini-sub, missing for more than 50 years.

Other evidence also supports the theory. As the Times reports, a photograph taken from a Japanese aircraft above Pearl Harbor appears to show a mini-sub firing a torpedo towards Battleship Row, and a 1942 report to Congress claims the Navy recovered an unexploded, 800-pound torpedo that was apparently aimed at the USS West Virginia. Since no torpedoes were sighted with the mini-sub wreckage, that leaves one of its weapons unaccounted for.

But Mr. Stephenson says that discrepancy can be explained by a post-attack examination of the Oklahoma. After months of painstaking salvage work the battleship was raised and placed in a dry dock, where its guns and other gear were removed. Analysis of the damage revealed that Oklahoma suffered much greater damage than aerial torpedoes could have caused. Based on those findings, it seems quite possible that the "lost" mini-sub may have delivered the final blow that sent the Oklahoma to the bottom, and killed 425 members of her crew.

The mini-sub theory will be presented in greater detail next month, during an episode of the PBS series "Nova."

As for the Oklahoma, the Navy determined that it would be too expensive to repair the battleship, particularly when other surviving dreadnoughts (Maryland, Tennessee, California, Nevada, West Virginia and Pennsylvania) had returned to service, and newer battleships were also available. Stripped of its guns and other important components (and patched up enough to float) the Oklahoma was sold for scrap. En route to a breaking yard in San Francisco, the the hulk and its tow vessels were caught in a storm. Tow lines parted and the Oklahoma was lost again, this time forever.

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Hero Who Wasn't

Last week, we reported on unusual events that occurred during a recent AirTran flight between Atlanta and Houston. E-mail accounts of the incident suggested a possible terrorist "dry run," with several passengers (of Middle Eastern descent) creating a disturbance--aimed at testing airline security--as the jetliner prepared for departure from Atlanta.

The narrative also produced an apparent hero, a man named Todd Petruna. When the Arab men began "to walk the cabin," Petruna and a fellow passenger confronted them, and forced the trouble-makers back into their seats. Moments later, personnel from the Transportation Security Administration arrived on the aircraft and took control of the incident.

According to e-mailed versions of events, passengers were surprised to discover that the Middle Eastern men were allowed to remain on the flight (after being questioned by security agents). Eventually, a second crew was brought on the plane to handle the flight and after a lengthy delay, Flight 297 finally took off for Houston, arriving there after midnight.

The scenario sounds frightening; it doesn't take a lot of imagination to conjure up images of a hi-jacking, were it not for the quick actions of Mr. Petruna and that other passenger. You'd think that AirTran would offer him some sort of reward.

But there's only one problem with the story of Todd Petruna and the events that transpired on Flight 297 back on 18 November. After a little checking, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered that Petruna wasn't on the flight on the date in question. While he was scheduled to be on that aircraft, Petruna didn't make the first leg of his flight, out of the Akron-Canton Airport in Ohio. As a result, he missed his scheduled connection on Flight 297.

Additionally, AirTran claims there were no altercations between passengers on the Atlanta-to-Houston flight. The airline also repeated its initial claims that the jet returned to the gate because a single passenger--a Middle Eastern man--refused to end his cell phone conversation.

While the AJC story paints a much different picture of Flight 297, it doesn't answer all of the questions raised by the incident. For example, the paper (and other media outlets) confirm that a replacement crew was brought onboard to fly the plane to Houston, after the first crew declined the assignment.

That decision was made by the Captain originally assigned to the flight. It's rather unusual for a pilot-in-command to decline an assignment, and take his crew off the aircraft. Chaplain Keith Robinson of Houston, who was allowed to board the aircraft after it returned to the gate area. Based on his conversations with passengers and crews, Robinson believes that some sort of "intentional intimidation" occurred during the first departure attempt. And apparently, that intimidation attempt was so disconcerting that the original crew refused to complete their flight to Houston.

In its p.r. response to the incident, AirTran has highlighted the fact that Ted Petruna wasn't on the Atlanta-to-Houston leg of the flight. Fair enough. If Petruna is claiming credit for non-existant heroics, he deserves public ridicule, condemnation and worse.

But Petruna's absence doesn't mitigate the fact that something serious occurred on AirTran Flight 297. At this point, no one will really say what happened, but it seems to be more complicated than a single, unruly passenger with a cell phone. Airline Captains don't make a habit of declining assignments and ordering their crew off the aircraft.

In the interest of full disclosure, AirTran should make the captain, the first officer and the cabin crews available to the press, and let them explain what transpired. Again, we're betting that the crew's description will be more disturbing than the "cell phone story" offered by the airline and the TSA.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Beast of Kandahar has a Designation

Earlier this week, we posted the latest photo of the "Beast of Kandahar," the stealthy, high-endurance UAV that has been operating from our airfields in Afghanistan since 2007.

Now. one the first sites to publish the new photo (Gizmodo), has more details on the drone. First of all, the Air Force has confirmed its existence and provided the UAV's designation. It's called the RQ-170 Sentinel, and it's operated by the 30th Reconnaissance Squadron, part of 432nd Wing based at Creech AFB near Las Vegas.

As we've noted previously, the Sentinel seems to be an odd choice for missions in Afghanistan. True, the drone can provide long-range, high-altitude surveillance, but there are other platforms (notably Global Hawk) that have similar capabilities. We're still guessing that the RQ-171's primary targets are located in other countries, including Iran. A UAV like the Sentinel would be ideal for keeping an eye on Tehran's nuclear facilities.

With the Sentinel's existence now confirmed, that raises the inevitable question: what else does the Air Force have that we don't know about.

And sure enough, the RQ-170 was designed by Lockheed's famous Skunk Works division, where something newer--and stealthier--is always on the drawing board.

What Happened on Flight 297

If you were really paying attention, you might have heard about AirTran Flight 297 from Atlanta to Houston, which was delayed on 18 November. According to the "official" version, (reported by Houston's KHOU-TV, Fox News and other outlets), a male passenger refused to end his cell phone call, forcing the crew to return to the gate.

Since then, a far different version of events has emerged. Based on reports from other passengers, that "phone call" looks more like a terrorist dry run. From Red Ink: Texas:

Below is an unedited email that was forwarded to me by people I know and trust. I do not know the original quoted individual but if my friends vouch for him, I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I will be attempting to verify the story in the meantime...Below is the story that has been forwarded to me originally from a gentleman by the name of Tedd Petruna who is reportedly a diver that works at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at NASA's JSC:

One week ago, I went to Ohio on business and to see my father. On Tuesday,November the 17th, I returned home. If you read the papers the 18th you may have seen a blurb where a AirTran flight was canceled from Atlanta to Houston due to a man who refused to get off of his cell phone before takeoff. It was on Fox.

This was NOT what happened.

I was in 1st class coming home. 11 Muslim men got on the plane in full attire. 2 sat in 1stclass and the rest peppered themselves throughout the plane all the way to the back. As the plan taxied to the runway the stewardesses gave the safety spiel we are all so familiar with. At that time, one of the men got on his cell and called one of his companions in the back and proceeded to talk on the phone in Arabic very loudly and very aggressively. This took the 1st stewardess out of the picture for she repeatedly told the man that cell phones were not permitted at the time. He ignored her as if she was not there.

The 2nd man who answered the phone did the same and this took out the 2 stewardess. In the back of the plane at this time, 2 younger Muslims, one in the back, isle, and one in front of him, window, began to show footage of a porno they had taped the night before, and were very loud about it. Now….they are only permitted to do this prior to Jihad. If a Muslim man goes into a strip club, he has to view the woman via mirror with his back to her. (don’t ask me….I don’t make the rules, but I’ve studied) The 3rd stewardess informed them that they were not to have electronic devices on at this time. To which one of the men said “shut up infidel dog!” She went to take the camcorder and he began to scream in her face in Arabic. At that exact moment, all 11 of them got up and started to walk the cabin. This is where I had had enough! I got up and started to the back where I heard a voice behind me from another Texan twice my size say “I got your back.” I grabbed the man who had been on the phone by the arm and said “you WILL go sit down or you Will be thrown from this plane!” As I “led” him around me to take his seat, the fellow Texan grabbed him by the back of his neck and his waist and headed out with him. I then grabbed the 2nd man and said, “You WILL do the same!” He protested but adrenaline was flowing now and he was going to go. As I escorted him forward the plane doors open and 3 TSA agents and 4 police officers entered. Me and my new Texan friend were told to cease and desist for they had this under control. I was happy to oblige actually. There was some commotion in the back, but within moments, all 11 were escorted off the plane. They then unloaded their luggage.

We talked about the occurrence and were in disbelief that it had happen, when suddenly, the door open again and on walked all 11!! Stone faced, eyes front and robotic (the only way I can describeit). The stewardess from the back had been in tears and when she saw this, she was having NONE of it! Being that I was up front, I heard and saw the whole ordeal. She told the TSA agent there was NO WAY she was staying on the plane with these men. The agent told her they had searched themand were going to go through their luggage with a fine tooth comb and that they were allowed to proceed to Houston . The captain and co-captain came out and told the agent “we and our crew will not fly this plane!” After a word or two, the entire crew, luggage in tow, left the plane.5 minutes later, the cabin door opened again and a whole new crew walked on.

Again…..this is where I had had enough!!! I got up and asked “What the hell isgoing on!?!?” I was told to take my seat. They were sorry for the delay and I would be home shortly. I said “I’m getting off this plane”. The stewardess sternly told me that she could not allow me toget off. (now I’m mad!) I said “I am a grown man who bought this ticket, who’s time is mine with a family at home and I am going through that door, or I’m going through that door with you under my arm!! But I am going through that door!!” And I heard a voice behind me say “soam I”. Then everyone behind us started to get up and say the same. Within 2 minutes, I was walking off that plane where I was met with more agents who asked me to write a statement. I had 5 hours to kill at this point so why the hell not. Due to the amount of people who got off that flight, it was canceled. I was supposed to be in Houston at 6pm. I got here at 12:30am. Lookup the date. Flight 297 Atlanta to Houston.

If this wasn’t a dry run, I don’t know what one is. They wanted to see how TSA would handle it, how the crew would handle it, and how the passengers would handle it.I’m telling this to you because I want you to know….The threat is real. I saw it with my own eyes….

Now, a second passenger has come forward with a similar account of the flight. But there are a couple of problems with the original version. First, AirTran doesn't have a first class section--they offer business class and coach. You'd think that someone who paid for the ticket on the airline would know the correct term for the section where he was sitting. Additionally, the narrator of the first account describes--in great detail--events that were happening in the back of the airplane, well behind his seat.

Still, it seems rather clear that the "incident" was far more than a passenger who refused to get off his cell phone. And, the FAA, the airline and the MSM have no real interest in telling us what happened on that flight. What a surprise.