Monday, March 29, 2010

What Happend to the Cheonan?

UPDATE/9:30 am EDT. In a rather dramatic about-face, South Korea is now pointing the finger of blame squarely at Pyongyang. The ROK Defense Minister now says a mine from North Korea may have caused the blast that sank the Cheonan. Additionally, President Lee Myung-bak has placed the South Korean military on alert, to respond to further "moves" by the DPRK.

As ROK Navy teams continue their rescue and salvage operations, a North Korean defector raised the possibility of a suicide attack. Chang Jin-seong, who worked for Pyongyang's spy agency before fleeing in 2004, said some DPRK naval units have trained for suicide missions.

But Washington is still downplaying the possibility of North Korean involvement. Monday, a senior State Department official said the U.S. still has no firm evidence that Pyongyang was behind the attack.

American reluctance to blame North Korea promises to create a potential rift between Washington and Seoul and set the stage for a possible crisis in the coming days. If South Korea determines that Pyongyang was behind the Cheonan disaster, there will be a demand for revenge, both publicly and officially. At that point, the Obama Administration will be forced to admit North Korean complicity, and attempt to dissuade South Korea from taking military action.

And, if you don't believe South Korea would take such steps, consider the hours following the Rangoon bombing in 1983. After learning of North Korea's attempt to kill the South Korean president (and his cabinet) in Burma, some ROK Army units began mobilizing for war. One U.S. officer, stationed in Korea at the time, reports that some mechanized and armored battalions actually left their garrisons and were heading towards the DMZ--without notifying the United States.

The military preparations received little attention in the west, but they were indicative of the shock and outrage that followed the assassination attempt. Needless to say, there were some tense days in Seoul and Washington, as U.S. officials cautioned their South Korean counterparts against any hasty action. Similar discussions will likely occur in the coming days, but it may be more difficult to deter Seoul this time around. South Korea is far more powerful --militarily, politically and economically--than it was in the early 1980s, and has every right to defend its interests. If Mr. Obama and his advisors believe the Cheonan affair will quickly blow over (with little diplomatic or military fallout), they are sadly mistaken.
Three days ago, it was dominating world headlines. But almost as quickly as it sank into the Yellow Sea, the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan has disappeared from the 24-hour news cycle.

And that's clearly by design.

The sudden loss of the Cheonan was stunning, to say the least. On patrol near the disputed Northern Limit Line with North Korea, the 1,200-ton corvette was suddenly struck by a mysterious explosion that ripped the vessel in half. Three hours later, the last section of the ship went down, leaving more than 40 sailors dead or missing.

It was South Korea's worst naval calamity in more than 30 years; as rescue operations began, suspicions were immediately cast on the DPRK--and with good reason. The two Koreas have fought a series of naval engagements in the area over the past decade (with North Korea taking the worst of it), and Pyongyang has been spoiling for payback.

But in the hours following the disaster, officials in Seoul (and, to a lesser extent, Washington) tried to refocus global attention on other scenarios. As naval and coast guard vessels were pulling sailors out of the water, sources at the South Korean defense ministry suggested the Cheonan was the victim of an internal mishap, caused (perhaps) by an ammunition or engine explosion.

At the U.S. State Department, spokesman P.J. Crowley was quick to point out that American officials "had no direct evidence" of North Korea involvement, and referred reporters to the ROK government for more "definitive" information.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang was quiet--a little too quiet. Normally, a scandal or blunder in South Korea becomes gist for the DPRK propaganda machine--an opportunity for Kim Jong il to tout the "superiority" of his regime. But this time, there was none of the usual bluster. In fact, North Korea seemed to go "out of its way" to avoid mentioning the maritime disaster.

Seoul and Washington also seemed reluctant to mention the tragedy, beyond the initial statements. Oddly enough, that strategy may have been the best approach, because few western observers were buying explanations of an internal explosion on the Cheonan, or U.S. claims that we "knew nothing" about possible North Korean activity in the area.

The internal failure theory was shredded almost as soon as surviving crew members reached land. They told of a routine night patrol, suddenly punctuated by a massive blast that tore the corvette in half. There were no reports of a weapons accident or engine mishap just prior to the explosion. In fact, survivor accounts--and descriptions of the damage--were consistent with a torpedo or mine attack.

As for U.S. surveillance of the area, that subject has received less attention. But Mr. Crowley's statement is little more than a carefully-worded, verbal two-step. The waters on either side of the NLL are some of the most closely-monitored on earth. The massive U.S. SIGINT complex at Osan AB, Korea (along with other sites in the Far East) monitors activity throughout North Korea, including naval traffic. U.S. and South Korea recce aircraft criss-cross the skies daily, and satellites keep close tabs on key military complexes, including those of the DPRK navy.

To be fair, the U.S. might have missed the deployment of a small number of mines, or a single torpedo shot from a North Korean submarine. But we almost certainly had a picture of naval activity along the NLL in the hours leading up to the Cheonan tragedy, and we have detailed knowledge as to how the DPRK conducts mine-laying, submarine and surface combatant operations. If North Korea recently engaged in mine-laying activity (or training), there's pretty good chance it was detected. How the information was handled is another matter, but readers will note that Mr. Crowley's response artfully dodged that type of context.

Which brings us back to the essential, unanswered questions: first, why would North Korea pull a stunt like this, and secondly, why are the U.S. and Seoul so reluctant to point the finger?

The first one is easy enough. North Korea has a long history of deadly provocations towards South Korea and the U.S. From the capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968 (and the subsequent downing of an EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft the following year), to the infamous "tree-chopping" incident in the DMZ, Pyongyang has killed dozens of American servicemen over the past 40 years.

During the same period, South Korea has suffered even greater casualties. A 1968 raid by DPRK commandos on the ROK presidential mansion in Seoul killed at least 68 South Korean soldiers, police officers and civilians. Fifteen years later, North Korea attempted a similar decapitation of ROK leadership, during the infamous Rangoon bombing (while several cabinet officials were killed the South Korean leader survived only because he was running behind schedule.

Four years later, DPRK agents (acting on the personal orders of Kim Jong-il) planted explosives on a Korean Airlines jet that blew up over the Andaman Sea, killing all 115 people on board.
It remains the worst terrorist act perpetuated against a South Korean target.

Beyond casualties--and North Korean involvement--these events have something else in common, a muted response from both Seoul and Washington. There were never any retaliatory attacks against the DPRK, fearing that an increase in military activity might lead to a renewed Korean conflict. The "official" responses to these deadly attacks have been a mixture of diplomatic protests, various forms of sanctions and (on rare occasions) a military demonstration.

Against that backdrop, is it any wonder that Pyongyang continues to thumb its nose at the international community and stage "incidents" when they serve the intended purpose. Even if South Korea and the U.S. determine that the Cheonan was sunk by an enemy mine or torpedo, North Korea has little to fear, in terms of possible consequences. Better yet, the DPRK has often used such incidents to pry concessions out of the U.S. and its allies in Seoul. We can almost hear the demand this time around: "Send us more food aid and we'll guarantee that your ships don't blow up along the NLL."

What else does the DPRK gain from this? A propaganda victory (should they decide to claim it), and a tactical advantage in future clashes along the NLL. With the Cheonan disaster fresh in everyone's mind, ROK Navy commanders will be less aggressive in responding to future maritime incidents, fearing the loss of more surface vessels. Additionally, South Korean fishermen may be reluctant to return to the crab beds of the Yellow Sea, worried about the possibility of more mines in local waters, and the ability of the ROK Navy to defend them from possible DPRK attack.

As a result, you'll probably see fewer South Korean boats (and ROKN escorts) along the southern edge of the NLL this summer. It's a move that will cost the ROK economy millions--and it will make a lot of fishermen angry--but officials Washington and Seoul clearly want to avoid a confrontation with Pyongyang. In their view, North Korea is a problem to be "managed" until the communist regime eventually implodes. That's why we may never know what happened to that South Korean corvette or if we do, the news will be dribbled out on a Friday night or a holiday, to minimize media coverage.

Then, when North Korea pulls a similar stunt in the future, the same "leaders" will offer the same, feigned outrage. Once the furor dies down, they'll cave again to Pyongyang's newest demands. And the cycle will only repeat itself.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Another One Bites the Dust

For at least the fourth time since last October, the Air Force has fired one of its wing commanders.

The most recent senior officer to be dismissed is Colonel David Orr, who led the 66th Air Base Wing at Hanscom AFB, Massachusetts. Orr's firing was announced Friday afternoon by Lieutenant General Ted F. Bowlds, the commander of Air Force Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom.

In a letter transmitted to the center staff (and obtained by In From the Cold), General Bowlds said that Orr was removed from his position for showing "undue favoritism" to a subordinate officer. As a result, Bowlds said that Colonel Orr "failed to provide a complete and candid assessment to me, the center commander."

General Bowlds said Air Force requirements for accountability made the firing necessary:

In the Air Force, we hold our commanders to the highest of standards. No commander ever wishes to take such an action against a subordinate commander, but I firmly believe this action is warranted by the circumstances. Colonel Orr has otherwise served Hanscom AFB and this Center well in many ways since taking command of the 66 ABW in July 2008. He has also served the United States Air Force with distinction throughout his career.

A career fighter pilot, Orr had served as the air base wing commander for almost two years. In that capacity, Colonel Orr was charged with supporting the center, affiliated research labs and other functions related to ESC's acquisition mission. Orr's wing provided support for more than 20,000 military, civilian and contract employees across New England, along with 155,000 Air Force retirees.

The Air Force has not revealed the officer who allegedly benefited from Orr's favoritism, or the individual's relationship to the former commander. It is unclear if Colonel Orr could face additional punishment for his conduct.

Before assuming his post at Hanscom, Orr served as Vice Commander of Second Air Force, headquartered at Keesler AFB, Mississippi, and Vice Commander of the 56th Training Wing, located at Luke AFB, Arizona.

Replacing Orr as the air base wing commander is Colonel Charles F. Thompson, previously assigned as the unit's vice commander. General Bowlds said he is "confident" will provide the "stewardship needed at this time."

Closing his letter, Bowlds asked his subordinates to "not let this distract you" from the critical duties you perform. The change-of-command announcement was made at 3 pm Friday afternoon, at the end of the duty week.

With today's dismissal, Colonel Orr becomes the fourth Air Force wing commander to lose his job in less than six months. Last fall, the service fired the commanders of the 91st Missile Wing and the 5th Bombardment Wing, both located at Minot AFB, North Dakota. Air Force officials said the actions were related to continuing problems in the nuclear-capable units. Both the missile wing and the bomber unit had failed inspections and suffered embarrassing mishaps under their former commanders.

The firings at Minot were accompanied by the dismissal of the 11th Wing Commander at Bolling AFB in Washington, DC. According to a press release, Colonel John Roop was removed from his job because superiors "lost confidence in his ability to lead."

Still, failed inspections don't always mean a change in leadership. Two units at Kirtland AFB New Mexico (the 498th Nuclear Systems Wing and the 377th Air Base Wing), failed nuclear surety inspections last fall, but their commanders remained on the job.

The Air Force says any decision to remove a commander is based on a variety of factors, and not just the results of a single evaluation.

But in Orr's case, his "apparent favoritism" towards a single officer ended his tour as commander of the 66th Air Base Wing.

Orr was not available for comment late today. Commanders removed from their post usually have the option of taking a staff job--with virtually no prospect for advancement--or requesting retirement from the service.

Let the Testing Begin

A Pohang class corvette of the South Korean Navy. A vessel of this type was sunk a few hours ago, in the waters off North Korea ( photo).

Update/2:27 pm EDT. Various media outlets confirm that the South Korean vessel, a Pohang-class corvette has sunk. Almost 60 sailors have been rescued, but some were dead when they were pulled from the water. Government spokesmen in Seoul continue to dismiss claims that the vessel was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. However, a late AP report says the vessel went down about four hours after an explosion ripped a hole in the bottom of the ship. That description--if accurate--would suggest a torpedo or a mine, although an internal mishap remains a possibility.


We've often written that President Obama will face at least one national security crisis during 2010. From the Middle East to the Far East, there is no shortage of rivals and rogue states willing to test the administration and its mettle. Put another way, we may soon get a look at Mr. Obama's "spine of steel," famously touted by running mate Joe Biden during the 2008 campaign.

And that first test may come on the Korean Peninsula, based on this dispatch from the Washington Post. Quoting South Korea's semi-official Yonhap News Agency, the Post is reporting that a ROK Navy vessel is sinking in waters near the North Korean coast, possibly the result of a torpedo attack from the DPRK.

The initial Yonhap bulletin also indicated that at least one ROK surface vessel was firing at a North Korean vessel in the area. South Korean broadcaster SBS reported that many of the ROK sailors on the stricken vessel were feared dead.

While details on the incident remain vague, it almost certainly occurred along the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the maritime extension of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) located in the Yellow Sea. The area is also home to rich crab fishing grounds and ROK and North Korean naval units have fought several engagements there over the years. The most serious clashes occurred in 1999, 2002 and 2009. Pyongyang's naval forces came out on the losing end of those engagements, and the DPRK has been spoiling for revenge.

Additionally, there is the very real possibility that North Korea staged the naval clash as a direct challenge to the U.S. and South Korea. Pyongyang makes veiled threats about this time each year, in response to defensive exercises carried out by ROK and American forces. Deciding to up the ante, the DPRK decided to challenge South Korean naval forces in the Yellow Sea and (if press reports are accurate) managed to inflict significant casualties--perhaps far higher than those suffered by North Korean sailors in previous engagements. If the ROK vessel went down with most of its crew, it would be both a tactical and propaganda victory for Pyongyang.

To be fair, we still don't know how the South Korean vessel was damaged (or sunk). Reports of an on-going naval clash at the time would suggest a possible torpedo attack, by a DPRK surface combatant or a submarine. However, there are minefields along the NLL and it is possible that the ROK ship sailed into mined waters while engaging the North Korean vessels.

But that latter scenario is considered rather remote. The locations of those mine fields are generally well known; additionally, both sides have an incentive to limit mining activity, which might interfere with the lucrative crab fishing that takes place in those waters.

If early reports prove accurate, today's naval clash may be the deadliest engagement between North and South Korea in more than 40 years. In the late 1960s, Pyongyang dispatched a commando team to assassinate ROK President Park Chung-hee at the Blue House, South Korea's presidential mansion. The North Koreans came with 800 yards of the building before they were finally detected by security forces. More than 60 South Korea soldiers (along with three Americans) were killed in the subsequent effort to track down and eliminate the assassination team.

The ROK ship sunk into today's battle is believed to be a corvette, so the loss of life could be high. There will be immediate demands for revenge in South Korea, and that puts the U.S. squarely in the middle. How will Mr. Obama respond? Can he persuade Seoul from launching retaliatory strikes, and (more importantly): should he? Based on what we currently know, Pyongyang was the apparent aggressor, continuing a string of bloody provocations that date back to the end of the Korean War. There are many who believe that Kim Jong-il should be taught a lesson, or the same types of incidents will happen again (and again).

Tempering the desire for revenge are some sobering military facts. While North Korea's military is underfed--and its equipment is largely antiquated--it remains one of the largest in the world. And, much of that combat power is concentrated with 60 miles of the DMZ; Pyongyang has scores of long-range guns that can reach Seoul and hundreds of short, medium and long-range missiles, all capable hitting targets in the South Korea and Japan. Those targets include thousands of U.S. military personnel, stationed at bases across the peninsula.

It's also worth noting that North Korea's military readiness reaches a peak at this time of year, with the end of the annual Winter Training Cycle. That doesn't mean that an invasion of the south is imminent, but it does give Pyongyang more potential options, if the crisis escalates.

And, as we finish this post, the DPRK is threatening a nuclear attack on South Korea and the U.S., claiming its has been threatened by our recent military exercises.

That's the reality facing Mr. Obama in the coming days. We're guessing that health care, cap and trade and amnesty for illegals will move to the back burner, at least for a few days.
ADDENDUM: In its latest statement, the South Korean Defense Ministry is down-playing reports of a torpedo attack. According to a spokesman, at least 58 sailors have been pulled from the water, and six rescue vessels are on-scene. But the MOD has not explained what caused the explosion that ripped through the ship. Save a weapons accident, there are few "internal" explanations for the sudden loss of the ROK vessel.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Medal of Honor Day

Capt (Dr.) Benjamin Salomon, 1914-44, the only military dental officer to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor (photo from

Unless you visit the U.S. Army website, or outlets like the Mudville Gazette, you probably didn't know that March 25th is Medal of Honor Day, a time to honor the nation's greatest military heroes.

Since the first medals were presented in 1863, only 3,446 individuals have been awarded America's highest decoration for military valor. Many recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor were recognized posthumously; today, there are just 91 living recipients and their numbers dwindle with each passing year.

Still, their exploits remain inspiring, despite the passage of time. Among the millions who have worn the nation's uniform, their exploits represent the best of our military and the nation it serves. It is indeed unfortunate that few Americans can name a single Medal of Honor recipient, or the deeds that were celebrated with that distinctive honor.

And that's too bad, since all of their stories are remarkable. In other cases, the awarding of the MOH is also a testament to perseverance of other troops who pressed the case for a colleague. Some worked for years to convince the military that the actions of a fellow soldier, airman, sailor or Marine was deserving of the nation's highest military honor.

Consider the case of Dr. Ben L. Salomon, the only military dentist to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. After graduating from dental school at the University of Southern California, Salomon was drafted into the Army (as an infantry private) in 1940. Learning of his medical skills, the service commissioned him as an officer in the dental corps in 1942.

Two years later, Salomon was a Captain, assigned to the 105th Regiment of the 27th Infantry Division, participating in the invasion of Saipain in the south Pacific. With little dental work to do in combat, dentists typically served as assistants to surgeons and other physicians at aid stations and field hospitals, usually in rear areas.

But when the surgeon assigned to the regiment's 2nd Battalion was wounded, Salomon volunteered to replace him at a forward aid station. On 7 July 1944, Dr. Salomon was treating wounded soldiers only 50 yards behind the front lines. As he worked, the Japanese launched one of their largest tactical assaults of the Pacific War; as many as 5,000 enemy troops poured into our lines, forcing American soldiers to retreat. Within minutes, enemy troops began attacking the aid station.

Salomon's actions were bold and decisive. From his Medal of Honor citation:

"...As the perimeter began to be overrun, it became increasingly difficult for Captain Salomon to work on the wounded. He then saw a Japanese soldier bayoneting one of the wounded soldiers lying near the tent. Firing from a squatting position, Captain Salomon quickly killed the enemy soldier. Then, as he turned his attention back to the wounded, two more Japanese soldiers appeared in the front entrance of the tent. As these enemy soldiers were killed, four more crawled under the tent walls. Rushing them, Captain Salomon kicked the knife out of the hand of one, shot another, and bayoneted a third. Captain Salomon butted the fourth enemy soldier in the stomach and a wounded comrade then shot and killed the enemy soldier. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Captain Salomon ordered the wounded to make their way as best they could back to the regimental aid station, while he attempted to hold off the enemy until they were clear. Captain Salomon then grabbed a rifle from one of the wounded and rushed out of the tent.

As the wounded soldiers attempted to evacuate the area, Salomon continued his fight. After four men manning a machine gun were killed by the enemy, the medical officer took over their position. His covering fire allowed many of the wounded to escape, sacrificing his life in the process.

When U.S. soldiers retook the area a few hours later, they found 98 dead Japanese in front of Salomon's machine gun position. Medics counted more than 70 different bullet and stab wounds on his body; they calculated that Captain Salomon suffered as many as two dozen wounds before he died.

Learning of his exploits, the division historian immediately submitted Salomon for the Congressional Medal of Honor. But the division commander, Major General George Griner, refused to approve the award, because Captain Salomon was a member of the medical corps, who was not supposed to engage in offensive action against the enemy. Never mind that Japanese troops never respected the Red Cross insignia, or the neutrality of medical personnel. Or, that Army and Navy corpsmen routinely carried weapons to defend themselves on the battlefield. Many analysts believe that Griner rejected the award for Salomon because he was Jewish.

Dr. Salomon was again submitted for the MOH in 1951 and 1969, but those applications were also rejected. In 1998--54 years after Salomon's heroic stand on Saipan--he was against nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor by Dr. Robert West, a fellow USC grad who served as a military corpsman during World War II. In May 2002, President Bush presented Salomon's Medal of Honor to Dr. West. Captain Salomon's parents had died years before and the military could not locate any surviving relatives. Today, his medal is on permanent display at the Army Medical Museum in San Antonio and a replica is displayed at the USC Dental School in Los Angeles.

Making the Case for Military Tribunals (Again)

If the Obama Justice Department needs another reason to scrap plans for public trials of Al Qaida terrorists, consider the lastest audio tape from Osama bin Laden.

In a message released this morning, the terror leader threatened to kill any Americans captured by Al Qaida if the United States executes Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind behind the 9-11 attacks.

Bin Laden's promise was met largely with derision and even laughter. After all, Al Qaida has a long-stated goal of killing Americans, and most of our civilians and soliders who have been taken by the group have met a grisly fate. So, bin Laden's vow is hardly new or unexpected.

Why does the Al Qaida leader demanding better treatment for his former operations chief? Because bin Laden clearly recognizes the value of KSM as a symbolic figure, particularly if he receives a public trial in Manhattan. Legal proceedings against Khalid Sheik Mohammed would take at least two or three years--and possibly longer. That would give him an unparalleled opportunity to spew Al Qaida's message (and anti-American venom) in the media spotlight, providing a propaganda boon for the terror group and its followers.

Readers will note that bin Laden did not address the issue of how KSM will be tried. You don't need to be a counter-terrorism analyst (or ACLU) lawyer to understand that Osama bin Laden wants KSM--and other Al Qaida big fish--tried in a federal courtroom. Not only does that provide a media forum, it also forces the U.S. to spends hundreds of millions of dollars on security, and interrupt daily life in the nation's largest city. From the terrorist perspective, that's a win-win-win.

But beyond the rhetoric, bin Laden's latest message is also a direct challenge to President Obama and his Attorney General, Eric Holder. In recent months, administration officials have suggested that KSM will be found guilty and eventually executed for his crimes. Of course, both men have also opined that water-boarding is torture, and a federal judge might agree, meaning that evidence gathered via that interrogation technique would be inadmissible. That, in turn, would weaken the case against KSM. With today's tape, bin Laden is throwing down the gauntlet to Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder, practically daring them to put KSM on trial, and take a gamble on the outcome.

To be sure, an acquittal of the 9-11 architect is the most remote of possibilities, but a mistrial is far more likely, particularly if much of the evidence against KSM (obtained through enhanced interrogation) is tossed out. At that point, we will have given Al Qaida a global forum for a period of years, with the prospect of doing it all again. Presuming, of course, that a federal judge doesn't dismiss subsequent charges against KSM and order him released.

And don't believe it couldn't happen; until a few days ago, few believed that Al Qaida recruiter Mohamedou Ould Slahi would ever be a free man again. Slahi was one of the chief recruiters for the 9-11 attacks and played a key role in the failed Millenium bomb plot at Los Angeles International Airport. U.S. officials once described him as the "highest value detainee" at Guantanamo Bay. But a few days ago, Federal Judge James Robertson ordered him released. Slahi wound up in the civilian court system after military lawyers declined to prosecute the case, citing interrogation methods used on the accused terrorist.

That should be the final red flag for President Obama and his attorney general. Put KSM back where he belongs, in front of a military tribunal. Deny him (and Al Qaida) the global forum they so desperately crave, and reduce the prospects for legal maneuvering that might weaken or even undermine the case against KSM. Then, after the tribunal renders a guilty plea (and the requisite appeals are exhausted), put the 9-11 planner to death. He deserves nothing more--and nothing less.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Dragon Lady Lives On

An Air Force U-2, moments before landing at Beale AFB, California (photo by Max Whittaker for The New York Times)

There's an old saying in air combat: speed is life. And the same axiom seems to apply to certain Air Force weapons systems. Fast-movers typically move to the head of the line in terms of funding, while the service tries to rid itself of slower aircraft that don't fit the classic "fighter" definition.

Consider the case of the A-10. The USAF has been trying (for years) to retire the ground support aircraft, affectionately known as the Warthog. More than 20 years ago, the service trotted out something called the A-16, which was (basically) an F-16 with a 30mm gun pod mounted on its centerline pylon. Air Force leaders claimed the A-16 would be more "survivable" than the A-10 against modern air defense systems.

But that theory proved problematic. The gun pod created so much vibration that it was unusable in combat. Additionally, the A-16 could never carry as much ordnance as the A-10 and lacked the Warthog's long loiter time over the battle lines. Meanwhile, the U.S. found itself fighting wars against relatively low-tech adversaries, so the A-10's "survivability" became a moot point.

The Air Force eventually gave up on the A-16/F/A-16 experiment after Operation Desert Storm, while the A-10 has soldiered on into the 21st Century--and why not? It is (arguably) the finest close air support fighter ever produced, with capabilities that other jets simply cannot deliver.

Another aircraft with a new lease on life is the venerable U-2 spy plane. The Pentagon has been trying to retire the "Dragon Lady" for more than five years, planning to replace the high-altitude reconnaissance platform with UAVs, primarily the RQ-4 Global Hawk. But delays in the Global Hawk program--and the demonstrated value of the U-2--have pushed back the Dragon Lady's departure date. As The New York Times reports:

Because of updates in the use of its powerful sensors, it has become the most sought-after spy craft in a very different war in Afghanistan.

As it shifts from hunting for nuclear missiles to detecting roadside bombs, it is outshining even the unmanned
drones in gathering a rich array of intelligence used to fight the Taliban.

“It’s like after all the years it’s flown, the U-2 is in its prime again,” said Lt. Col. Jason M. Brown, who commands an intelligence squadron that plans the missions and analyzes much of the data. “It can do things that nothing else can do.”

One of those things, improbably enough, is that even from 13 miles up its sensors can detect small disturbances in the dirt, providing a new way to find makeshift mines that kill many soldiers.

In the weeks leading up to the recent offensive in Marja, military officials said, several of the 32 remaining U-2s found nearly 150 possible mines in roads and helicopter landing areas, enabling the Marines to blow them up before approaching the town.

Marine officers say they relied on photographs from the U-2’s old film cameras, which take panoramic images at such a high resolution they can see insurgent footpaths, while the U-2’s newer digital cameras beamed back frequent updates on 25 spots where the Marines thought they could be vulnerable.

In addition, the U-2’s altitude, once a defense against antiaircraft missiles, enables it to scoop up signals from insurgent phone conversations that mountains would otherwise block.

Lieutenant Colonel Brown also told the Times the U-2's broad-area collection capability often provides "cueing" for Predator and Reaper UAVs, which focus on smaller areas. He said the best intelligence often comes from a mix of UAVs working with the U-2.

Flying the Dragon Lady is a difficult job. Because of their orbit altitude (typically between 60 and 70,000 feet), pilots must wear pressure suits and some suffer from medical side-effects, including decompression sickness. Making their task even more difficult, the U-2's cruising speed is only 10 knots above stall speed, so there's little margin for error.

And, as most aviation buffs know, landing the U-2 is an equally demanding task. The aircraft's large wings obscure the pilot's vision of the runway and create enormous lift, even at low altitudes. To put the plane on the ground, U-2 drivers are "talked down" by another pilot in a chase car. The "chase pilot" calls out altitude so his colleague in the cockpit can completely stall the aircraft at the right moment, allowing the Dragon Lady to settle on the runway.

But the unsung heroes of the U-2 operation are the intelligence specialists who analyze information collected by the recce aircraft. These days, much of the data from the U-2 is downlinked to Beale AFB (where the aircraft are based) and other intelligence centers. Beale is home to the 548th Intelligence Group and its three subordinate squadrons.

The 548th operates a massive collection, processing and dissemination system known as the Distributed Common Ground Station, or DCGS. Technology associated with DCGS allows intel specialists to rapidly analyze, produce and disseminate information for combatant units. CONUS-based analysts are also in radio contact with tactical commanders on the ground, allowing them to deliver critical information instantly, or adjust coverage to meet mission requirements.

Of course, the 548th will live on after the Dragon Lady's retirement. But that date keeps getting pushed back; the Air Force now says the first aircraft will head for the Bone Yard in 2013, but if problems with Global Hawk persist, some U-2s could be flying into the later years of this decade.

Not bad for a spy plane that made its first flight in 1955.
ADDENDUM: While the Air Force has been unsuccessful in getting rid of the U-2 and A-10, it has, from time to time, been able to retire aircraft it doesn't like. One example is the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCCC), a modified EC-130E platform that coordinated air support for ground forces.

The USAF tried to eliminate the aircraft for years, but pressure from the Army, Marine Corps and the special ops community kept the plane on active service. ABCCC was finally retired in September 2002, but not without debate. With its impressive communications and battle management capabilities, the platform was tailor-made for conflicts like Afghanistan or Iraq, but never had a chance to serve. Almost a decade later, the
Air Force is still searching for a suitable replacement

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Beyond the Rainbow Tempest

Retired Marine Corps General John Sheehan unleashed a tempest the other day, suggesting that gay soldiers "weakened" Dutch Army units assigned to defend a Muslim "safe haven" in Bosnia in 1995. That operation ended with Bosnian Serbs over-running the area around Srebrenica, hand-cuffing Dutch soldiers to telephone poles and the slaughter of thousands of Muslims.

Sheehan has more than a passing familiarity with events at Srebrenica. At the time of the debacle, General Sheehan served as Supreme Allied Commander for the Atlantic Region, making him on of NATO's most senior military officers. While the Dutch troops at Srebrenica didn't fall directly under his command, Sheehan certainly had knowledge of their capabilities--and potential problems within their ranks.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on efforts to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" restrictions on homosexuals in the military, General Sheehan highlighted the Srebrenica incident as a reason to keep openly gay men and women from serving.

Sheehan said Dutch officers told him that gay troops were one reason their unit proved unable to perform their mission, resulting in the deaths of more than 8,000 Muslims, mostly men and boys.

As you might expect, the committee chairman, Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, challenged Sheehan's assertions. Asked to identify a source for his claims, Sheehan named a "General Hankman Berman," but the Dutch military has never had a flag officer by that name.

Many observers believe that "Berman" is actually a cover for General Henk van der Breeman, who was the Dutch Chief of Staff when Srebrenica fell. Breeman subsequently ridiculed Sheehan's comments as "total nonsense." Other Dutch officials described his remarks as "shameful" and "beneath contempt."

So, did General Sheehan simply fabricate his conversation with that Dutch general? The retired Marine general has a reputation for integrity, and it's doubtful he would risk his legacy over a few concocted remarks about gays in the military of The Netherlands. On the other hand, it is plausible that a Dutch general might complain--or try to blame--gay troops for the army's most humiliating moment since World War II, then deny the comments when they become public. In ultra-liberal Dutch society, where homosexuals serve openly and the military is unionized, even former generals can't afford to make politically-incorrect remarks.

Still, the presence of gays in the ranks cannot fully explain the disaster at Srebrenica. And, to be fair, General Sheehan's testimony identified a variety of problems in European armies that rendered them ineffective in the Balkans:

[He said] European militaries deteriorated after the collapse of the Soviet Union and focused on peacekeeping because "they did not believe the Germans were going to attack again or the Soviets were coming back."

Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and other nations believed there was no longer a need for an active combat capability in the militaries, he said. "They declared a peace dividend and made a conscious effort to socialize their military - that includes the unionization of their militaries, it includes open homosexuality."

Dutch troops serving as U.N. peacekeepers and tasked with defending the town of Srebrenica in 1995 were an example of a force that became ill-equipped for war.

"The battalion was understrength, poorly led, and the Serbs came into town, handcuffed the soldiers to the telephone poles, marched the Muslims off, and executed them," Sheehan said.

"That was the largest massacre in Europe since World War II," he said of the killing of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men after Serbian forces captured the town.

I find General Sheehan's comments rather interesting, because the fall of those Muslim safe havens strikes a personal chord. In the mid-1990s, I was an intelligence officer flying missions on a U.S. Air Force command-and-control aircraft that was assigned to the Bosnia operation. I wasn't airborne on the day Srebrenica fell, but I was onboard in April 1994, when Bosnian Serb forces attacked the safe haven at Gorazde.

In hindsight, Gorazde is sometimes described as a "victory" for NATO. Serbian attacks eventually sparked alliance airstrikes that finally halted the ground offensive. But the Serbs still managed to push the small U.N. "peacekeeping" contingent out of the enclave, and inflicted heavy casualties on local defenders.

By some estimates, more than 700 local residents died in the battle against Serb ground forces. The fighting reached its peak on Saturday, 23 April 1994. My crew was assigned to coordinate air support for U.N./NATO forces on the ground. But most of the "peacekeepers" had fled the area, leaving only a British Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) to report activity and request air strikes, as required.

Not long after we arrived on station, it became apparent that air support was urgently needed. Serbian forces were inside the village of Gorazde, firing on anything that moved. The British controllers reported that a Serbian tank had moved into position at the local hospital--clearly marked with the Red Crescent--and was firing into the facility.

Taking out the Serb tank should have been a relatively simple process. The TACP radioed its exact location to us; we had two A-10s on station, with more than enough Maverick missiles and GAU-8 ammunition to handle the job. In most combat scenarios, we would have simply assigned the target to the A-10s, and pushed them to the TACP for terminal control.

But Bosnia was anything but a "typical" conflict. Because of the grossly restrictive rules of engagement, any request for air support (in those days) had to be approved by the 5th Allied Tactical Air Forces (ATAF) HQ in Vicenza, Italy. So, the tank kept shooting while we relayed the request to our superiors at Vicenza.

And, the approval process didn't end there. 5 ATAF was required to notify the U.N.'s senior civilian in Zagreb, Croatia, who (in turn) would discuss the matter with his bosses in New York. In theory, approval by the "civilian" chain was only supposed to happen once, but because of hesitancy by the U.N. and NATO, all requests for the use of force had to follow that process, which sometimes took hours to complete.

Meanwhile, the A-10s kept circling, and the Serb tank crew continued their deadly business. Frustration was at a fever pitch among the Warthog pilots, my crew, and the British TACP. "Why can't we just shoot the damn tank?" someone asked over the radio.

Miraculously, the U.N. approved the air strike request in near-record time (about 90 minutes, as I recall). The A-10s had used the interval to refuel, so they had plenty of orbit time--and munitions--to blast the Serb tank and any other targets in the area.

But the SNAFU was just beginning. Up until that point, American warplanes had dropped most of the bombs in Bosnia and some of our allies were pushing for a piece of the action. Rather than let the A-10s do the job, someone at Vicenza decided it would be a great thing to let a NATO partner handle the job. The target was passed to a pair of British Sea Harriers, just leaving their carrier in the Adriatic Sea.

The Harriers' short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) capability burned a lot of fuel, so we had to get them into action quickly, before they ran out of gas. The A-10s were moved to a supporting orbit while we waited for the Royal Navy jets to arrive. Once on station, it took the Harrier flight a couple of passes to establish communications with the TACP and orient themselves to the target area. On the third pass, they would fire on the tank.

As you might expect, the Serbs knew what was up. The volume of anti-aircraft fire increased dramatically each time the Harriers passed overhead. And, on that third pass, before the British pilots could drop their munitions, the Serb gunners found their mark. One of the Harriers was hit, and the pilot forced to eject. The relatively simple task of destroying the Serbian tank now became a full-blown search-and-rescue mission.

Luckily for that Royal Navy pilot, the Muslims got to him before the Serbs. He was moved to a safe house where he managed to call his base back in England. We finally got the word more than two hours after the shoot down. By that time, it was late in the afternoon and Vicenza decided to send everyone home.

As for that Serbian tank, it rolled off into the darkness, untouched by Allied fire, and a testament to the convoluted mess that was the Bosnia Operation. And that brings us back to General Sheehan, who was near the top of the NATO chain during that time. Obviously, Sheehan and his fellow commanders ere constrained by many factors, ranging from timid European politicians to NATO ground units that lacked the ability to defend themselves.

But clearly, General Sheehan also deserves some of the blame. In his post as SACLANT, he had input into some of the onerous engagement rules that delayed (or crippled) our ability to respond militarily. So far, we haven't heard Sheehan comment publicly on those issues.

Here's the real bottom line: NATO forces in the Balkans had lots of problems that went well beyond the presence of gay soldiers in Dutch units. It can be characterized as an institutional weakness that begins at the top and continues to this day. Look at defense spending in European countries, which remains well below what the alliance requires.

And, consider the case of Afghanistan, where a number of NATO partners refuse to let their deployed troops participate in combat operations. The same risk-aversion that was evident in the Balkans is still a cornerstone of alliance strategy today. NATO is still willing to fight--as long as the Americans do all the heavy lifting, and play by constrictive rules of engagement.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Russians are Coming

Looks like Boeing may have some competition for the Air Force tanker contract after all.

According to the Seattle Times, Russia's state-owned aircraft company will unveil plans on Monday to bid for the $40 billion deal, competing directly against the U.S. defense giant.

United Aircraft of Moscow plans to unveil a U.S. partner and offer a modified version of its Ilyushin Il-96 wide-body plane, said John Kirkland, a Los Angeles lawyer representing the group.

The still-unidentified partner, "a U.S. public company and existing defense contractor," would assemble the planes in the U.S., he said. The Russian interest in the tanker bid was first reported Friday by The Wall Street Journal.

Obviously, United Aircraft is a long shot to win the contract. Mr. Kirkland acknowledges there are security issues and limitations on buying defense hardware from Russian firms. But he claims the tanker version of the IL-96 meets all of the requirements outlined in the Air Force's request for proposal (RFP). And, the Russian jet is significantly cheaper than the Boeing entry, based on the 767 jetliner.

The Russian firm jumped into competition after Airbus's defense arm (EADS) lost its American partner. Northrop-Grumman dropped out of the tanker bidding last week, claiming the current
RFP favors Boeing. EADS is currently searching for a new partner, and has asked DoD for a 90-day extension of the bidding deadline, so it can decide how to proceed.

One aerospace analyst, Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group, described the Russian proposal as "bizarre." He told the Times that the IL-96's operating efficiency is closer to that of the KC-135, the four-engine, 1950s-era jet the new aircraft is designed to replace. But United Aircraft is supposedly a two-engine variant for the tanker competition. Introduced in the late 80s, only 20 of the four-engine, passenger version of IL-96 were ever built.

United Aircraft's U.S. representative freely admits that the company needs a U.S. manufacturing and maintenance base to have a shot at the tanker contract. Needless to say, it will be interesting to see if the Russians can actually get a U.S. aerospace firm to join the project.

But Russia's real objective isn't winning the tanker contract. With the required maintenance and manufacturing facilities, United Aircraft could begin marketing regional jets to U.S. carriers, a market that is also quite lucrative. Apparently, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wants to sell the Antonov 148 in America; Mr. Kirkland describes it as "Putin's favorite airplane." Getting a U.S. partner (ostensibly to bid on the tanker deal) is the first step in that process.
In case you're wondering, the Russian Air Force uses the IL-78 Midas for aerial refueling. The Midas is based on the IL-76 Candid airframe. Russia current has 19 IL-78s in service and the aircraft has been exported to several foreign customers, including an American firm, North American Tactical Aviation. That company has been in the running for DoD air refueling contracts, recently opened to private vendors.

Viewers Nix Latest WWII TV Pix?

With apologies to the folks at Variety, we couldn't resist using their classic headline style to summarize early viewership for HBO's latest World War II opus, The Pacific.

The much-hyped, $200 million mini-series premiered on the cable channel last Sunday night, to less-than-stellar ratings. According to John Nolte at, Nielsen estimates put viewership for the first episode at only 3.1 million, far below the 10 million who tuned in for the opening installment of Band of Brothers in 2001. HBO claims The Pacific delivered 69% more viewers than its regular Sunday night programming, and a 22% audience increase over its last "big" mini-series, John Adams.

But, as Mr. Nolte observes, there is a fair amount of spin behind the network's numbers. HBO's regular Sunday evening series, True Blood, averages 5 million viewers, and the History Channel's re-run of Band on Brothers in 2004 attracted an audience 4.6 million--a substantial increase over The Pacific's debut.

So, what happened?

John Nolte believes HBO's new mini-series was hurt by comments from actor Tom Hanks, who serves as one of its executive producers. Just days before the premier, Hanks told MSNBC that our struggle against Imperial Japan was a war of "racism and terror," suggesting we fought the Japanese (in part) because "they were different." While acknowledging that the mini-series will "honor U.S. bravery," Hanks said The Pacific will also depict U.S. atrocities:

"...we also wanted to have people say, ‘We didn’t know our troops did that to Japanese people."

Of course, Hanks makes no mention of "what the Japanese did" to its enemies during the Pacific War. Wonder if the auteur has ever heard of the Rape of Nanking? Or Pearl Harbor. Or the Bataan Death March. Or Imperial Japan's inhumane treatment of Allied POWs. Or the wanton slaughter of Filipino civilians who dared to aid their countrymen, fighting as guerrillas during the Japanese occupation. Or the thousands of Korean women who were forced to serve as prostitutes for the Imperial Army. And that's just scratching the surface of Japanese atrocities.

Unfortunately for Tom Hanks (and HBO), many viewers who might watch The Pacific understand the context of American "atrocities" in that theater during World War II. They know that such acts by our troops were relatively isolated, and almost always in direct response to Japanese barbarism. Viewers also understand that Hanks' parallels between the "racism" of World War II and the current War on Terror are equally imbecilic.

Believing The Pacific would be an exercise in political correctness, many viewers decided to watch something else. Still, it's hard to say how much of the audience was put off by Tom Hanks' remarks, and made a conscious decision to skip the mini-series. Truth be told, there were other reasons to tune out, and they have nothing to do with a certain actor's world view.

We caught a repeat of the premier episode and found it inferior, in some respects, to Band of Brothers. The 2001 mini-series employed a different narrative "arc," using the first installment to introduce the men of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The segment follows the soldiers through their initial training in Georgia, under the supervision of a heartless commander, Captain Herbert Sobel.

While Sobel's tough training prepares the paratroopers for war, it quickly becomes evident that he is not capable of leading the men into combat. With the D-Day invasion just weeks away, the company's NCOs request an audience with their regimental commander, requesting that Sobel be replaced. Realizing they could face charges of insubordination (or worse), the non-comms tell the commander they will give up their stripes if Sobel isn't transferred. It was a decisive moment for the mini-series (and the audience) speaking volumes about the men who would fight their way across Europe during World War II.

By comparison, The Pacific plunges almost instantly into combat, with minimal character development. In the first episode, viewers meet two Marines: Robert Leckie (whose memoir, Helmet for My Pillow provides much of the material for the mini-series) and John Basilone, who won the Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal and the Navy Cross on Iwo Jima. The third major figure in the mini-series, Private Eugene Sledge, doesn't appear until Episode Four.

Based on our observations, The Pacific suffers from "too much foreground and not enough background," a criticism that was also leveled at Band of Brothers. To be fair, the first episode of the new mini-series had more than its share of moments. In one sequence, Leckie and his fellow Marines on Guadalcanal watch the U.S. and Japanese navies slug it out in the waters off-shore, a battle impressively rendered through the magic of CGI.

The next morning the Leathernecks awake to find the Navy is gone, forced to retreat after losing four cruisers--and hundreds of sailors--in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Surrounded by the Japanese (with no immediate prospect of resupply or reinforcement), the Marines are instructed to move into the hills and fight as guerrillas, if existing positions can't be maintained. That sobering instruction brilliantly captured the isolation and desperation of the decisive days during the Solomons Campaign.

We should point out that Episode #1 also had the difficult task of compressing roughly five months of history into only one hour. That's one reason the narrative may seem a bit rushed. Future episodes will focus on shorter periods, or so we've been told.

But will audiences tune in? That's the multi-million dollar question for HBO and its partners. Historically, viewership for mini-series tends to drop off after the first installment, before peaking (again) at the conclusion. At this point, The Pacific almost certainly will not match the ratings for Band of Brothers, although the cable channel stands to recoup its investment through subsequent airings on other networks, foreign distribution and DVD sales.

Still, the folks at HBO must be disappointed in early numbers for The Pacific. And they can only wonder how many folks turned away because of Tom Hanks' idiotic comments.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fitting, Indeed

This blurb from the Drudge Report speaks volumes about the current state of mainstream (read: liberal) cable news:

"MSNBC, CNN Beaten by Cartoon Network in Ratings Game."

And, the linked item from TV Newser provides the bloody details. In the primetime ratings last week, MSNBC was #26 among the various cable channels, while CNN was in 32nd place and Headline News finished in 37th. Where was Fox News Channel? In second place overall, only 232,000 viewers behind USA, which is typically the highest-rated cable outlet.

That's nothing short of phenomenal. After all, FNC is a news outlet, while USA is an entertainment channel. Conventional wisdom says news and information aren't supposed to finish at the top of the cable ratings, no matter how they report the news. But then again, Fox has been demolishing the status quo--and its rivals--for almost a decade.

Here are a couple of sports analogies that illustrate Fox's dominance in cable news. Their current lead over MSNBC and CNN (combined) is the equivalent of a college basketball team blowing through the NCAA tournament and winning every game by at least 40 points. Or, if you prefer NASCAR, FNC is running three or four laps ahead of the competition.

Still, there might be a bit of inspiration in the latest ratings results for MSNBC and CNN. Perhaps they should take a cue from Cartoon Network and animate their line-up. And, while they're at it, the news channel also-rans could change the focus of their websites from information to on-line video games (works pretty well for Cartoon Network).

Indeed, some of the current hosts on CNN and MSNBC are a natural fit for animation and spin-off video games. MSNBC, for example, could offer an Ed Schultz arcade where players feed him liberal talking points until he explodes. Meanwhile, CNN might install a "Negative IQ" game featuring "Situation Room" anchor Wolf Blitzer. Inspired by Wolf's embarrassing performance on "Celebrity Jeopardy," players would ask the animated host general knowledge questions, which he can't answer. As cartoon Wolf misses more questions, his IQ drops a few more points. Lowest score wins--or gets you an early evening slot on CNN.

Being ranked #26 or #32 in the cable wars is nothing to be proud of. That's why we're convinced that animation may be the only gimmick that can save MSNBC and CNN. With their slavish endorsement of Barack Obama (and his agenda), it's clear that the folks at both networks live in an reality-starved universe not unlike Bikini Bottom or Endsville. In that world, it's not much of a jump from Captain K'nuckles to Keith Olbermann.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Headline of the Year (And It's Only March)

We did a double-take after spotting this one in Time:

"Sexism and the Navy's Female Captain Bligh"

The Captain in question is Holly Graf, dismissed two months ago as commander of the USS Cowpens, a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser. The gang at led the pack in documenting Graf's reign of terror as skipper of the Cowpens and before that, the USS Winston S. Churchill, a guided missile destroyer.

Captain Graf's conduct makes Bligh look like a boy scout. As the Navy Inspector General documented, Graf (at various times) spat in the face of a crewmember; choked a junior officer under her command, hurled ceramic coffee mugs at subordinates and heaped withering verbal abuse at scores of sailors, petty officers and commissioned officers who crossed her path. Officially, Graf was fired for "cruelty and maltreatment" of her crew and conduct unbecoming an officer. Admittedly, our knowledge of Navy dismissals is limited, but we can't recall the last skipper who was relieved for "cruelty and maltreatment," giving Graf a very dubious distinction, indeed.

And amazingly, Holly Graf is still in uniform. She has been reassigned to the Navy's Aegis BMD command, headquartered at Virginia's Dahlgren Navy Base. Of course, it doesn't hurt to be an Annapolis product (Graf graduated from the boat school in 1985), with an older sister who happens to be an admiral. A lesser mortal would probably face a courts-martial, or at least the end of their career. To be sure, Holly Graf will never advance beyond her present rank--or hold another command--but she's still a Captain in the U.S. Navy and will (apparently) be allowed to finish her tour at Dahlgren.

The real question, of course, is how she made it that far in the first place. A former officer (who requested anonymity) told that Graf seemed "unstable" when they served a sea tour as lieutenants. The former shipmate told the website that she brought Graf's behavior to the attention of the ship's executive officer, but no action was ever taken. Holly Graf receiving glowing fitness evaluations and continued her climb to the top, culminating in command of the Churchill and later, the Cowpens.

Which brings us back to Time and their explanation for the rise (and fall) of Captain Graf. According to the magazine's normally-capable defense reporter, Mark Thompson, the case of Holly Graf can be explained (in part) by the long history of sexism in the Navy's ranks, and the service's desire to overcome that stigma. At various points in the account, Thompson speculates that Graf was rushed into command to improve diversity among the service's operational commanders, with little regard for her obvious problems. Time also wonders if a male officer--with the same, toxic leadership style--would have suffered a similar fate.

To be fair, there is an element of truth in Thompson's first hypothesis. But his conjecture also does a grave disservice to other female Navy officers who have commanded ships and performed superbly in those assignments. While Holly Graf was the first woman to command a cruiser, the novelty of a female "skipper" has long since worn off. The idea that Graf's assignment on the Cowpens was part of damage control from the Tailhook scandal is far-fetched, at best.

More bizarre is the notion that Graf's dismissal was unique, or rooted in her gender. As we've noted in previous posts, the Navy is quick to fire ship commanders who don't measure up; given her track record, it's amazing that Holly Graf survived her first tour on the Churchill and got a second command in a cruiser.

We believe Captain Graf's perseverance was the result of several factors. First of all, don't underestimate the ability (or willingness) of the Annapolis fraternity to look after fellow graduates. There's also speculation that older sister Robin used her influence as a flag officer to look after her sister. Now a Rear Admiral (and married to another flag officer), Robin Graf is Deputy Commander of the Navy's Recruiting Command. Oddly enough, Admiral Graf is a product of Officer Candidate School and spent most of her career in communications and maintenance positions.

And finally, the failure to identify Holly Graf's problems--and keep her out of command billets --is indicative of something common in many organizations, i.e., a lack of leadership. Past supervisors were aware of her issues and failed to act. Making matters worse, they provided the sterling fitness reports that put her on the command track, setting the stage for her stints on the Churchill and the Cowpens.

On the whole, we'd say the military's system for evaluating and promoting commanders works, and works rather well. But the system is far from perfect, and the occasional bad apple manages to slip through, sometimes with disastrous consequences. At least Captain Graf didn't kill anyone with her bully behavior and marginal ship-handling skills, though she came close on at least one occasion.

We refer to the "drag race" between the Cowpens and the destroyer USS John McCain last February. was the first to publish a photo of the race, taken from the bridge of the McCain. Maneuvering at high speed, the Cowpens nearly collided with the smaller destroyer, coming within 300 feet of the McCain. In case you're wondering, the drag race incident was conspiciously absent from the Time account.
The lack of senior leadership was also on display--with far more serious consequences--in the case of Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter. Yesterday, the Washington Times published portions of e-mail exchanges between Hasan's former supervisors.

In one message, the supervisor of the psychiatry residency program at Walter Reed Medical Center suggested that Hasan be placed on probation and have his residency "extended" for chronic unprofessionalism and a poor work ethic. But the plan of Major Scott Moran was rejected by his superior, who worried about having to convene a "relook" board if Hasan was put on probation. Instead, the Army psychiatrist completed his residency on time, received promotion to Major and was even selected for a prestigious fellowship.

The Army is considering sanctions against Hasan's former supervisors at Walter Reed. Some of the comments in the Times' report came from Major Moran's civilian attorney, which speaks volumes about how the investigation is proceeding. When in doubt "fry" the guys at the O-4 and O-5 level. But the e-mails suggest that Moran was trying to do his job and got no support from officers higher in the chain-of-command. It will be interesting to see if anyone at the O-6 (or flag level) is implicated in this mess, and what sort of punishment, if any, they receive.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Right Back Where We Started From

Cue Maxine Nightingale.

Way back in 1975, the British R&B singer had a monster hit with "Right Back Where We Started From," a title that aptly summarizes the Air Force's next-generation tanker program. Roughly a decade after the service began trying to replace its aging KC-135s, the USAF is back where it began, with Boeing's KC-767 as the inevitable successor.

That circuitous route is a trail littered with corruption, greed, arrogance and a generous measure of domestic politics. It is a testament to an acquisition process that remains broken, and raises new questions about the long-term ability of the military (and Congress) to run long-term weapons procurement programs in a manner that is remotely fair and efficient.

The initial goal seemed simple enough; much of the Air Force KC-135 fleet, which entered service in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was nearing the end of its service life. And, the service offered a novel solution to the problem; it would lease KC-767 tankers from Boeing, a proposal that would (supposedly) save billions of dollars over the life of the agreement.

But the lease deal was flawed. Congressional critics, led by Arizona Senator John McCain, challenged the claimed savings. There were also questions about how the deal was arranged. The Air Force's former senior acquisition official, Darlene Druyun, took a job with Boeing less than a year after the lease was announced. A subsequent investigation revealed that Druyun was negotiating her civilian job (and positions for her daughter and son-in-law) at the same time the lease deal was being developed.

Ms. Druyun eventually went to jail and the proposed lease was finally scuttled in 2006. That sent everyone back to the drawing board, but there were lingering doubts about the planned selection process, which would (again) pit the KC-767 against the Airbus A330. Documents uncovered during the Druyun investigation revealed that the European entry was actually superior to the KC-767 aircraft in many respects, but Boeing still won the aborted contract.

The next round of the competition featured the same competitors; EADS (the defense arm of Airbus), along with its American partner Northrop-Grumman, offered a tanker variant of the A330, dubbed the KC-45. Boeing eventually settled (again) on the 767 airframe, after suggesting that it might enter a tanker version of its 777 airliner.

Two years ago this month, the Pentagon stunned the aviation industry by selecting the EADS entrant for its next-generation tanker (KC-X). That touched off howls from Boeing and its political allies. The company quickly filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), claiming that the bidding process was flawed. Three months later, the Air Force reluctantly agreed and the GAO recommended that the tanker contract be re-bid, for a third time.

By that time, everyone agreed that the tanker acquisition program was an abject disaster. As the request for proposals (RFP) process began again, Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the unprecedented step of stripping selection authority from the Air Force, and transferred it to Defense Undersecretary John Young. It was a humiliating blow for the service, which had run DoD's major air tanker programs for more than 5o years.

About the time Mr. Young inherited selection authority for the new tanker, the program ran into more problems. In September 2008, the Defense Department put solicitations for KC-X on hold, delaying the process once again. The bidding process resumed a year later, amid claims from EADS/Northrop-Grumman that revised tanker requirements favored Boeing and its entry. The U.S.-European team hinted that it might withdraw from the competition and last week made good on that promise, leaving Boeing (and the KC-767) as the sole contender.

At this point, Boeing hasn't won the competition, but it's certainly in the driver's seat. Northrop-Grumman has formally exited the bidding, leaving EADS scrambling to find a new American partner. So far, firms like L-3 Communications and Lockheed-Martin have shown no desire to enter the race at this late stage, so EADS will (most likely) be forced out as well. Boeing is expected to deliver its proposal to the Air Force in May; the service will announce its selection later this year. We'll go out on a limb and predict the next Air Force tanker will be the KC-767.

So, after eight years, billions of dollars spent and no new aircraft (yet), have we learned anything? The answer depends on who you ask. Boeing will rave about the capabilities of its aircraft; politicians brag about thousands of American jobs that will be created or retained over the duration of the contract.

But that doesn't excuse the unmitigated mess that ultimately delivered the KC-767. Unfortunately, the tanker program has become a template for other acquisition efforts. Three contractor teams were engaged in a death match to build the Air Force's new combat search-and-rescue (CSAR-X) until that effort was terminated last year. Boeing initially won that deal (with a last-minute entry), but protests from competing firms forced a rebid. That process was underway when the Pentagon pulled the plug.

With billions of dollars on the table, defense firms will go to any length to secure that next big contract. Unfortunately, the machinations and maneuvering associated with the acquisition process have extended that process beyond any reasonable period. New tankers that should have been on the ramp years ago are still in the pipeline. Now, with any luck, the first KC-767s will start arriving at air mobility units in three or four years, more than a decade after the process first began.

Meanwhile, those Eisenhower-era KC-135s will soldier on, along with a smaller number of KC-10 Extenders, bought during the Reagan Administration. And, once the new tanker buy is complete, the Air Force will begin considering replacements for other platforms, including the E-3 AWACS and the RC-135 series of reconnaissance aircraft. However, Boeing will probably be the front-runner for those contracts, although nothing in the acquisition world is ever guaranteed.

One thing is sure: as the Obama Administration begins to scale back weapons programs, competition for remaining contracts will be even more fierce. In a few years, the battle over KC-X may seem positively quaint, by comparison.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Today's Reading Assignment

James Lewis, writing at the American Thinker, on rumors of a possible Kabul meeting between Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadeinjad (their visits to the Afghan capital just happen to overlap).

As Mr. Lewis notes, there is talk of a possible "deal" between Washington and Tehran. That's good news for the Iranians; bad news for the U.S. (and our allies in the Middle East).

The Right Man for the Job

There's an opening on the federal bench in Louisiana (or at least there will be very soon).

By a unanimous vote, the U.S. House of Representatives impeached Federal District Judge G. Thomas Porteous Jr. on Thursday, citing a pattern of "corrupt conduct for years." Porteous, appointed by Bill Clinton to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, becomes only the 15th federal judge to earn the dubious distinction of impeachment.

If Porteous doesn't resign from his post, the next step would be a U.S. Senate trial, to consider removing him from bench. In a telephone interview with CNN, Porteous's attorney suggested that his client will proceed with the Senate trial, noting that federal prosecutors decided not to file charges against the judge, citing a lack of "credible" evidence.

In case you're wondering, here's a list of Porteous's reported misdeeds:

-- Involvement in a corrupt kickback scheme

-- Failure to recuse himself from a case he was involved in

-- Allegations that Porteous made false and misleading statements, including concealing debts and gambling losses

-- Allegations that Porteous asked for and accepted "numerous things of value, including meals, trips, home and car repairs, for his personal use and benefit" while taking official actions on behalf of his benefactors

-- Allegations that Porteous lied about his past to the U.S. Senate and to the FBI about his nomination to the federal bench "in order to conceal corrupt relationships"

At this point, we'd say the removal of Judge Porteous is pretty much a slam dunk, meaning that President Obama will have to eventually name a successor.

And we've got just the man for the job. Someone with the right (ahem) experience and "temperament" for the federal bench in Louisiana.

We refer to Colonel (soon to be First Lieutenant) Michael Murphy, formerly of the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps.

From our perspective, Murphy has all the right qualifications to be a judge in Louisiana. For starters, he used to be an attorney. Note the use of the past tense. Readers of this blog will recall that Colonel Murphy was disbarred in his home state of Texas shortly after he joined the Air Force. But Murphy didn't let that little technicality stop him. Undeterred (and undetected) he practiced military law for more than 20 years, rising to the rank of Colonel before his past legal difficulties were finally discovered.

And, we should note that Murphy tried to practice law in Louisiana, too (bonus). Facing disbarment in Texas, Murphy applied for admission to the Louisiana bar. Unfortunately, that plan was interrupted when the good folks in Louisiana checked with their colleagues in the Lone Star State. For failing to report his ethical problems in Texas, Murphy was disbarred in Louisiana as well. But by that time, his JAG career was underway, and the Air Force never bothered to check Murphy's professional credentials.

When the service finally discovered that Murphy had been disbarred in two states, he was a full Colonel (on the fast-track to flag rank), and serving as Commander of the Air Force Legal Operations Agency. Naturally, the disclosure cost Murphy his job, and the JAG officer was soon facing a courts-martial to boot.

But, in an amazing feat of legal gymnastics, Colonel Murphy and his defense team managed to beat the rap. The White House (where Murphy formerly worked as a senior legal counsel) refused to release classified details of his service record. A military judge ruled that without the information, Colonel Murphy could not receive an adequate defense and should not be punished, even if convicted. An Air Force appeals court upheld that ruling, so when former JAG was eventually convicted, he walked out of the courtroom as a free man, affirming Murphy's reputation as a legal operator without peer.

Obviously, that federal conviction would (normally) prevent Murphy from serving on the federal bench, but President Obama could take care of that with a pardon. It's also true that the ABA wouldn't support Murphy for a judgeship, but hey, those endorsements are overrated. Besides, the legal fraternity went along with restoring Bill Clinton's law license, so why not give Murphy a second chance.

As we see it, "The Murph" is a logical choice for Louisiana. The state has long been a swamp (pun intended) of cronyism and corruption. That type of environment requires someone with "special" legal skills, someone who can appreciate the..err..finer points of the law.

Let's get the ball rolling. Call the White House and members of the Louisiana Congressional delegation. The same state that gave us the Kingfish, Earl Long and Edwin Edwards deserves a federal judge with the resume of Michael Murphy. He's available and he could probably use the cash, since the Air Force reduced him in grade upon retirement. An administrative board set his final rank at First Lieutenant, the last rank at which he "honorably" served, way back in 1983.

Truly a worthy candidate in the judicial mode of Thomas Porteous, Walter Nixon and (lest we forget) Alcee Hastings.

Historian or Hysterian?

This weekend's "big" TV event is HBO's premiere of The Pacific, the 10-part mini-series about World War II in that particular theater. It's a sequel (of sorts) to Band of Brothers, the gripping, critically-acclaimed--2001 mini-series about the men of Easy Company, part of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the famed 101st Airborne Division.

Band provided a paratrooper's eye-view of World War II, following the men of Easy Company through training and into combat across Europe. The Pacific promises a similar perspective on the island-hopping campaign from Guadalcanal to Okinawa, as seen by three Marines: John Basilone, Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie.

At a cost of $200 million, The Pacific is the most expensive production in the history of television, and the lavish budget will be evident on your screen. Executive Producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg insisted on realism and historical accuracy, down to the smallest detail. The narrative is based on two of the better combat memoirs of World War II (Leckie's Helmet for My Pillow and Sledge's With the Old Breed), and the exploits of John Basilone, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism at Guadalcanal, and a posthumous Navy Cross on Iwo Jima.

Still, viewers may find some disturbing elements in The Pacific, and we're not referring to the graphic combat sequences. In preparation for the mini-series debut, Time magazine published a fawning profile of Mr. Hanks, dubbing him America's "Historian-in-Chief." The actor doesn't have any academic credentials in the subject and his view of past events has been largely shaped by the writers whose books serve as the basis for his productions (Stephen Ambrose for Band of Brothers; David McCullough for John Adams) or other historians (Doris Kearns Goodwin) who share his liberal political views.

That's why The Pacific might catch you by surprise. While Mr. Hanks has largely played it straight with past mini-series, some of the comments in the Time interview suggest a slightly different perspective for his latest effort. Consider this "out-take" from America's favorite auteur/historian:

Back in World War II, we viewed the Japanese as 'yellow, slant-eyed dogs' that believed in different gods. They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what's going on today?"

Or, how about this one:

"Certainly, we wanted to honor U.S. bravery in The Pacific," Hanks says. "But we also wanted to have people say, 'We didn't know our troops did that to Japanese people.' "

Regarding the former comment, it doesn't sound like Tom Hanks has a very "nuanced" view of history, as Time profiler (and historian) Douglas Brinkley suggests in his article. Even a casual student of history knows the "war of annihilation" was a product of the historical, military and cultural factors that spawned the conflict.

Simply stated, Japanese expansionism put Tokyo on a collision course with the United States, the dominant power in the Pacific. Japan initiated the conflict with a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, hoping to devastate our fleet and generate a string of victories that would produce a negotiated settlement. Tokyo's military leaders--with some notable exceptions--thought America had no stomach for a protracted, bloody conflict. It was one of the greatest blunders in geopolitical history. Determined to achieve total victory, the U.S. mobilized and spent the next three and a half-years slugging its was across the Pacific, retaking territory seized by the enemy and (ultimately) taking the fight to Japan's home islands.

On the battlefield, the conflict was waged with a particular savagery. U.S. atrocities (described in some detail by Eugene Sledge in his book) did occur--that is a historical fact. But they were often in response to barbaric actions by the Japanese. Allied prisoners suffered extreme torture and deprivation at the hands of their captors; downed airmen were sometimes beheaded with a samurai sword, in front of other POWs.

Captured Marines often received similar treatment. Many were beaten beyond recognition, before finally being executed. Then, as a final act of desecration, the Japanese would cut off the genitals of dead Americans and stuff them in the corpse's mouth. Little wonder that the Marines sometimes sought revenge by doing the same thing to their enemy.

As for the parallels to the current War on Terror, we're still scratching our heads on that one. Truth be told, the U.S. has waged an exceptionally careful war against Islamic extremists, taking every opportunity to win the support of civilian populations and minimize their suffering. We've been "debating" the treatment of terror suspects since the conflict began, actually granting them legal standing as combatants (never mind they're not covered by the Geneva Convention), full medical care and even culturally-correct meals.

Of course, the Islamists haven't followed suit. U.S. and allied troops captured by the terrorists have faced torture, deprivation and death--the same tactics employed by the Japanese. As for the current "war of annihilation," it's definitely a one-sided affair, given our exhaustive rules of engagement and the billions spent to rebuild the "enemy" homeland in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It will be interesting to see how Mr. Hank's worldview has shaped The Pacific. Both he (and HBO) deserve great credit for tackling this project and telling stories that have been forgotten or neglected in our recollections of World War II. But if Tom Hanks and his production team try to equate (relatively) isolated American atrocities with the barbarism, then the mini-series and its message will fatally flawed.

Men like Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge, John Basilone and my uncle Walter (who died at Peleliu) deserve an honest, reverent account of their actions. Beginning Sunday night, we will see if Tom Hanks' production has met that goal, and decide if he is a historian, or just another pop culture hysterian.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Heroes on Hold, Redux

A visit by a group of aerospace legends to U.S. military bases in the Middle East is back on.

Sort of.

After the trip was put on hold Monday (supposedly for security reasons), the group was allowed to continue their visit on Tuesday, but with a catch.

They will not be allowed to travel to American installations in Iraq or Afghanistan, as originally planned. Instead, their trip will be limited to "safe" areas in places like Turkey and the Persian Gulf.

At last report, the legends group, which includes former astronauts Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell (along with Air Force fighter ace Steve Ritchie and SR-71 test pilot Bob Gilliland) were visiting a U.S. airbase in Kuwait. The famed aviators, their escorts and support team will reportedly remain in the region through the March 13th, and the scheduled conclusion of their tour.

Still, it's a far cry from the extended tour that originally included visits with American military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, literally thousands of soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines who hoped to meet and chat with these legendary pilots won't have that opportunity.

Making matters more frustrating, there has been no real explanation for the curtailed visit. The decision was made as millions of Iraqis voted in national elections, and other VIPs (including defense secretary Robert Gates) visited the region. Obviously, the "security concerns" that prevented the aviation legends from entering Iraq and Afghanistan had no impact on other scheduled events.

And, as we previously reported, the spectre of politics has entered the equation. A well-placed Washington source reports the White House made the decision to limit the group's itinerary--not the Pentagon. The source described the rationale as "political," but wouldn't speculate as to why the Obama Administration made its decision.

Both the White House and the Pentagon have not responded to requests for comment on the matter.

Meanwhile, the legends have been greeted with packed auditoriums at bases they have been allowed to visit. After all, it's not every day you get to meet the first man to set foot on the moon (Armstrong); the last man to walk on the lunar surface (Cernan); and Jim Lovell the man who brought Apollo 13 home against daunting odds. When you add Steve Ritchie and Bob Gilliland to the mix, you've got one of the most impressive groups of aviation heroes this side of the annual "Gathering of Eagles" at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.

But why would the White House want to keep these men out of Iraq and Afghanistan? After all, the aviation legends are no strangers to risk; as astronauts, test pilots, or combat aviators, they faced danger on a regular basis.

It's also worth noting that all volunteered for the trip, at a time when they could be relaxing. Jim Lovell is now 81; Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Bob Gilliland are in their 70s, and Steve Ritchie (the youngster of the group) is 67. But they all agreed to go, and show their appreciation to our military personnel serving in harm's way.

Yet somehow, this visit (apparently) rubbed the White House the wrong way. Some observers believe the administration was worried that one of the retired astronauts would publicly criticize recent cuts in the space program, or Steve Ritchie (a GOP activist and former political candidate) might criticize national security policies.

Obviously, those fears are unfounded. All of the aviation heroes are skilled at public relations and had no plans to politicize their trip to the war zone. But in their zeal to control the trip, the administration made it a political event, putting a group of aviation heroes in a difficult position and undercutting the morale of thousands of troops "down range."

In military terms, you could describe this as a SNAFU or FUBAR, take your pick.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Heroes on Hold

A long-planned visit by aviation and space heroes to Iraq and Afghanistan is apparently on hold, only one day after it began.

The group, led by former astronauts Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, Jim Lovell and Air Force fighter ace Steve Ritchie is currently stuck in Qatar, after being told it was "too dangerous" to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Members of the delegation were given no explanation for the changing security situation. However, a member of the group said Monday the decision was apparently made in Washington, and not by commanders in the region.

Planning for the trip, dubbed the "Legends of Aerospace Tour," had been underway for more than nine months. Other members of the delegation include retired test pilot Bob Gilliland, the first man to fly the SR-71 Blackbird, and two distinguished members of the media: David Hartman, the original host of ABC's Good Morning America, and Time writer Jeffrey Kluger, co-author of "Lost Moon," Lovell's memoir of the ill-fated Apollo 13 lunar mission.

In a press release issued late last month by U.S. European Command, Jim Lovell said he was looking forward to the tour:

"I have been waiting my whole life for this opportunity to meet with our service men and women on the front lines. They are the real heroes. I'm truly looking forward to thanking them for their service in person and share some of my experiences with adversity during Apollo 13. I'm sure it's going to be an extraordinary experience."

The tour is being sponsored by Armed Forces Entertainment, the official DoD agency that provides entertainment for American troops around the globe. Other participating organizations include the Morale Entertainment Foundation (which conducted much of the planning for the event) and American Airlines, which provided logistical and transportation support for the delegation.

Members of the group are being accompanied by media crews from Morale Entertainment and Fox News, who are documenting the visit.

According to FNC correspondent Mike Tobin, the aerospace legends were greeted by a "packed auditorium" at a "forward airbase" on Sunday. That is probably a reference to Ali Al Salem AB, Kuwait or Doha, Qatar, scheduled stops before the group moved on to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tobin's latest blog post (published yesterday) makes no mention of security concerns, raising questions about their basis and timing.

Indeed, the Legends tour was put on hold while millions of Iraqi voters went to the polls and voted in national elections. Despite scattered violence, relatively few security problems were reported. Security is even tighter at U.S. bases in the country, where members of the aerospace group would meet with American troops.

Spokesmen at the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command did not immediately respond to requests for comment. There is no information on how many visits to the war zone by entertainment or celebrity groups have been cancelled or postponed in the past; however, DoD has allowed hundreds of entertainers and VIPs to enter Iraq and Afghanistan over the past eight years, even during periods of heightened violence.

Additionally, the security situation in the region did not deter Defense Secretary Robert Gate's trip to Afghanistan. Mr. Gates arrived in Kabul today, but the visit was not announced in advance.

Danger was a constant for members of the aviation group during their long careers. General Ritchie survived dozens of combat missions over North Vietnam, shooting down five enemy jets and becoming the first Air Force ace since the Korean War. Jim Lovell's leadership saved his Apollo 13 crew from disaster after an oxygen tank exploded en route to the moon. Cernan went to the moon twice and was the last man to walk on the lunar service. Gilliland made the first flight in the SR-71, the legendary reconnaissance aircraft that set numerous speed and altitude records during its long career.

With U.S. officials offering no explanation of the security concerns, some believe that political concerns may have prompted the delay. The Obama Administration recently announced the cancellation of a $100 billion plan to return man to the moon. With three famous astronauts on the tour (and the press in tow), the White House--or the Pentagon--may have been worried about a new row over the space flight issue.

One member of the legends group also has strong conservative political credentials. After leaving active duty, Steve Ritchie ran as a Republican Congressional candidate in North Carolina in 1974. He lost that race, but remains active in GOP politics in his current home state of Colorado, where he has endorsed several candidates.

Late today, one of the legendary aviators--speaking for his colleagues--was encouraging Americans to call the White House, and demand that the tour continue. Without public pressure, they believe the visit will be cancelled, denying them the opportunity to meet with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and express their gratitude.

By one estimate, as many as 10,000 military personnel would have a chance to meet the aerospace legends during their visit to bases in Europe and Southwest Asia.

In case you're wondering, the number for the White House switchboard is 202-456-1414. At an age when many of their peers are fully retired, Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, Jim Lovell and their peers volunteered for this trip to meet the troops. They deserve the opportunity to complete one last mission for their country.