Thursday, April 29, 2010

Stolen Valor (Hampton Roads Edition)

Another (apparent) military phony has been uncovered, this one in the Tidewater Area of Virginia.

For years, George Gsell has identified himself as a recipient of the Air Force Cross, the service's second-highest decoration. Equivalent to the Navy Cross and the Army's Distinguished Service Cross, the Air Force decoration is rarely awarded; only 192 have been earned by service members since its inception in 1964, and there have been only four multiple recipients:

-- Colonel James Kasler, a Korean War fighter ace who was shot down over North Vietnam and spent more than six years as a POW.

-- Brigadier General Robison "Robbie" Risner, who won the medal twice, for his gallantry in air combat over Vietnam, and later, for his leadership as a senior POW in the Hanoi Hilton.

-- Colonel Leland Kennedy, a helicopter pilot who was also a two-time recipient of the Air Force Cross, for his actions on daring rescue missions flown only two weeks apart.

-- Colonel John Dramesi, one of the few American captives in North Vietnam who never broke under torture. One of his fellow POWs, John McCain, described Dramesi as "one of the toughest men I've ever met."

Readers will note that George Gsell's name is conspiciously absent from that list. Still, he had an explanation for that when confronted by Dan Tjordman, a reporter from WTKR-TV in Norfolk. While declining requests for an on-camera interview, he did agree to answer a few questions over the phone:

He said he was awarded the Air Force Cross with two oak leaf clusters and the distinguished Flying Cross.

To earn those awards, Gsell says he fought special missions in Vietnam, but could not explain.

When asked about a citation, Gsell said, "I've tried to get one but I have been unable to get one, you know. I've just been unable to get it. I've been trying to get a copy."

Gsell never got a copy because no copy exists. Citations and orders for lower-level commendation medals were found in his file, but none were for the Air Force Cross or distinguished Flying Cross - which Gsell also claimed.

Before Gsell hung up the phone moments later, he insisted that NewsChannel 3 take a look at his DD-214, a military discharge form.

It did list multiple Air Force Crosses and distinguished Flying Crosses.NewsChannel 3 found that the form was updated for the period of 1975 to 1977.The document had to be fake - Vietnam was already over and Gsell had not been overseas since 1969.

Ironically, George Gsell is an Air Force veteran who served honorably in Vietnam. Documents obtained by WTRK show he received the Air Force Commendation Medal and other lesser awards during his service. But there is no evidence that Gsell was ever on flying status or served as an aircrew member. That's a rather obvious tipoff, since the Air Force Cross and Distinguished Flying Cross are usually awarded to pilots and other aircrew members. According to Gsell's personnel record, he served as an air conditioning repairman during his tour in Vietnam.

Gsell's fraud was first discovered by other local veterans, who wondered why his name was missing from various lists of Air Force Cross recipients. They were also suspicious of the altered DD-214, which Gsell used to support his claim.

Falsely claiming military decorations and awards is a federal crime, punishable under the Stolen Valor Act. The local U.S. attorney has not said if Gsell will be prosecuted for his apparent fraud. For now, he's just the latest in a long line of charlatans whose phony claims of valor finally caught up with them.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Teflon General?

For most military members, a DUI conviction is a career killer. The offending soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or Coastie can often look forward to a reduction in rank, fines and additional punishment from civilian authorities. Once that process is complete, the military member will be denied re-enlistment, bringing their careers to a screeching halt. It is a fate that befalls hundreds of troops every year.

But not all military personnel are created equally. Once you reach the flag level, certain offenses no longer mean the end of a career. And, if you don't believe that, consider the case of Air Force Major General David Eidsaune.

General Eidsaune will face a Nevada judge on 13 May, on charges stemming from his recent DUI arrest. Eidsaune was arrested by police in Henderson, Nevada on the evening of 9 February, when on officer observed the general's rental car driving erratically. Earlier, police received reports of a Black Kia (driven by Eidsaune) going the wrong way and striking a curb.

Confronted by officers, General Eidsaune submitted to a field sobriety test and failed. Later tests revealed his blood alcohol level was 0.181, more than twice the legal limit in Nevada.

But Eidsaune won't be facing a courts-martial. A spokesman for AFMC said the Commander, General Donald Hoffman, has "taken appropriate action," though he wouldn't specify if Eidsaune has received non-judicial punishment, such as a letter of reprimand or admonishment.

Eidsaune has also moved to a new job at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, where AFMC is headquartered. At the time of his arrest, General Eidsaune served as the command's Director of Air, Space and Information Operations (A-2). In mid-March, the command announced that Eidsaune would become AFMC's chief of Strategic Plans, Programs and Analyses (A-5). While both are two-star billets, the A-5 is slightly lower in the pecking order, so General Eidsaune's new job could be viewed as a (slight) demotion.

One wonders what might have happened if Eidsaune had been a mere Colonel, a company-grade officer or a senior NCO. Offenders in those categories would now occupy an empty office, biding their time before the imposition of serious punishment. Put another way: they wouldn't be serving in a senior billet while their case is being resolved. We also wonder how AFMC can justify Eidsaune's continued access to classified information; "lesser" individuals would likely lose their security clearances while the case is being adjudicated.

Keep an eye on Eidsaune after his court date in Nevada. General Hoffman may use that event to push the two-star out the door. Or the plans job may become Eidsaune's permanent home, a place for the general to bide his time until he finally decides to retire.

The last time Hoffman faced a misconduct scandal on his staff, the general fired his Command Chief Master Sergeant, William Gurney. The dismissal came after Gurney was accused of sexual misconduct with a number of women on his staff; the former command chief is now facing an article 32 hearing, which will determine if he will be court-martialed. General Eidsaune could face the same process after his Nevada court date, but don't count on it: most experts believe the senior officer has already been punished by the service.

Pyongyang's Not-So-Revised Strategy

South Korea's Joong An Daily claims that North Korea has revised its strategy for war on the peninsula. Instead of trying to occupy the entire peninsula--long believed to be central tenet of Pyongyang's war strategy--the DPRK would attempt to seize Seoul. With the South Korean capital under their control, North Korea could then renew their offensive, or use Seoul to negotiate a favorable peace settlement.

ROK military sources tell the paper Pyongyang has abandoned its established 5/7 strategy in favor of an attack focused on Seoul. The numbers in the old plan referred to the timetable for North Korean divisions to seize all of South Korea. Under the new strategy, DPRK forces would concentrate their firepower on Seoul, taking the sprawling city in a matter of days.

But the 5/7 Plan was fatally flawed--and that was being charitable. Despite the concentration of firepower along the DMZ (much of Seoul is within range of enemy artillery), North Korea stood little chance of taking the entire country in only a week. In an era of satellite imagery and airpower, the U.S. and South Korea would be able to blunt an enemy invasion, buying time until reinforcements begin to turn the tide of battle. Coincidentally, the bulk of U.S. airpower begins to arrive in Korea after Day 7 of the war, another indicator of why Pyongyang's invasion plan has such a compressed timetable.

Indeed, most military analysts have long discounted the 5/7 Strategy, believing that a thrust towards Seoul is much more likely. After all, the city represents the economic, political and spiritual center of South Korea, home to almost 25% of the nation's residents. Loss of the city would be tantamount to national decapitation, inflicting a demoralizing defeat on the ROK government, its military forces and the United States.

But capturing Seoul would be a Herculean task. The South Korean capital is defended by the Third ROK Army (TROKA), traditionally, the best-trained (and equipped formation) in the ROK military. TROKA units, combined with the Capital Defense Corps, are deployed to halt attacks along two primary invasion routes: the Kaesong-Munsan Corridor and the Western Chorwan Valley. Backed by South Korean and U.S. airpower (and our 2nd Infantry Division), these forces are capable of carrying out their mission, although the fighting would be extremely bloody.

In fact, even under "best case" scenarios, North Korean forces might control the northern approaches to Seoul (and the adjacent Kimpo Peninsula) after a few days of fighting. That would put even more pressure on the capital's defenders, who would also face a humanitarian crises--caused by relentless DPRK missile and artillery attacks--and limited resupply options for the city.

Still, North Korea's revised strategy is anything but a slam dunk. According to South Korean analysts, Pyongyang made the change (in part) because of the wide availability of precision-guided munitions in the U.S. and ROK inventories. North Korea took careful note of American air campaigns in the Middle East, where such weapons decimated Iraqi armored formations. The DPRK (apparently) believes they can take key objectives before air power takes a serious toll, particularly if their SOF attacks can slow sortie generation at allied airbases in rear areas.

But that strategy only goes so far; the USAF routinely deploys heavy bomber squadrons to Guam, adding potential firepower for any Korean contingency. And, despite the on-going demands of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force can still dispatch significant combat power to the western Pacific during the first week of the conflict. By Day 14, the tide of airpower becomes overwhelming, virtually ensuring North Korea's defeat.

To be sure, there are a few wild cards in the equation. Nuclear attacks by the DPRK would have a catastrophic on military and civilian targets, while forcing the U.S. to consider immediate retaliation. There's also the matter of North Korea's logistics system; while Pyongyang supposedly has large quantities of food, fuel and ammunition for war, those stockpiles are rapidly consumed in warfare, and allied airstrikes would further deplete DPRK inventories.

Senior ROK military officials are scheduled to meet in early May to discuss North Korea's revised strategy, and how to deal with it. We're guessing the discussions will be an affirmation of what most already know: Pyongyang's wartime strategy is now focused on the capture of Seoul, a move aimed at achieving a limited military victory, and negotiating a favorable peace.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Too Fat to Fight

A group of retired flag officers are (again) sounding the alarm about the nation's obesity epidemic, and its impact on national security.

Mission: Readiness, which bills itself as "Military Leaders for Kids," held a high-profile press conference in Washington last week, warning that many young men and women don't qualify for military service because they are overweight. By their estimates, at least nine million young people between the ages of 17 and 24 are too fat to serve in the U.S. armed forces. That's 27 percent of all young adults in this country.

According to the group's new study, "Too Fat to Fight," being overweight is the leading reason that prospective recruits are medically rejected for service. Between 1995 and 2008, the number of enlistees who failed their entrance physical for being too fat grew at a rate of 70% a year.

That figure is hardly surprising, considering the rise in childhood obesity rates during the same period. In 1998, only one state (Kentucky) reported at least 40% of its young adults were overweight or obese; ten years later, 39 states were on that list. The Journal of the American Dietary Association estimates that one-third of our children (23 million children or teens) are either overweight or obese.

Clearly, those statistics will translate into fewer young Americans who meet minimum standards for military service. And, if concerns about fat kids sounds familiar, it should. In recent months, First Lady Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity a personal crusade, voicing similar fears during recent public events.

To help curb the epidemic, both Ms. Obama and the retired flag officers are recommending better nutrition in the nation's schools. Among their recommendations: get rid of junk food in cafeterias and vending machines; increase funding for the school lunch program and use Head Start to teach healthy eating and exercise habits to pre-schoolers.

While these ideas clearly have merit, we're waiting for someone to tackle the "other" reasons that young people are denied enlistment in the armed services. According to the Mission: Readiness study, 75% of those that don't qualify are rejected for "one or more reasons." These include an inability to meet minimum scores on the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), a reflection of our abysmal high school graduation rates (one in four 17-24 year olds don't receive their diploma on time). Another 10% can't sign up because of their criminal records, while others are rejected for chronic medical conditions or the use of psychotropic drugs to treat ADHD and other conditions.

Besides (as we've noted in previous posts), the military is willing to work with recruits who want to shape up and lose weight. A column in today's Newark Star-Ledger details the efforts of Vasti Cedeno, a former New York graduate student who decided to join the Army after meeting soldiers on a humanitarian mission to Uganda. But to achieve her goal, Ms. Cedeno had to lose more than 110 pounds to meet military standards. After a year of diet and rigorous exercise, Cedeno will ship out for basic training later this year, well within Army weight limits.

On the other hand, solving the education and crime issues will prove more difficult. That's why we'd like to see the retired generals and admirals (along with Mrs. Obama) tackle those problems as well. Recruits who really want to serve can lose weight; getting rid of a criminal record or overcoming a severe educational deficit is almost impossible.

Paying More for TRICARE

If you participate in the military's TRICARE health program, expect higher fees and co-pays in the very near future.

As
USA Today reported on Friday, the defense department's health care costs are rising twice as fast as the national average, forcing the Pentagon to contemplate higher out-of-pocket fees for military retirees and some active-duty families. If approved, the fee increase would be the first in 15 years.

Pentagon spending on health care has increased from $19 billion in 2001 to a projected $50.7 billion in 2011, a 167% increase.

The rapid rise has been driven by a surge in mental health and physical problems for troops who have deployed to war multiple times and by a flood of career military retirees fleeing less-generous civilian health programs, Hunter said.

[snip]

As a share of overall defense spending, health care costs have risen from 6% to 9% and will keep growing, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Kathleen Kesler, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

That upward trend is "beginning to eat us alive," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress in February.

To some degree, the surge in military health care spending is unsurprising. Years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in thousands of serious wounds, pushing more troops into the ranks of the medically retired. The long-term costs of caring for those individuals will be significantly higher than medical expenses for other retirees.

Additionally, the Pentagon is paying more for mental health services, back and joint-related injuries--other by-products of the long war against terror. Pharmaceutical costs are also on the rise; civilian pharmacies fill more than 200,000 prescriptions a day for TRICARE beneficiaries.

All told, the number of TRICARE recipients has reached 9.6 million, including military personnel, dependents and retirees. More than 370,000 have entered the program since 2008. That total will continue to rise as service members who enlisted during the Reagan defense build-up (from the 1980s) leave active duty.

Still, the current TRICARE debate misses a couple of key points. First, it's worth remembering the circumstances that led to the current system. As
Air Force magazine reported back in 2001, TRICARE was (largely) the result of the Clinton Administration under-funding the military health-care system, to the tune of roughly $500 million a year. Services once provided on-base for military personnel, dependents and retirees were referred to off-base physicians and treatment facilities--at a much higher cost.

Then-Air Force Surgeon General Lieutenant General Paul Carlton offered this example:

If a base hospital can do 10 appendectomies but gets budgeted to perform only nine, the 10th patient still gets care. But rather than use military care, the patient is referred to the civilian network. DOD still pays for the operation, eventually, when contracts are adjusted. If it had been done on the base, the cost would have been $300 (the cost of a surgical pack). On the outside, the same procedure will cost DOD $6,000 in payments to the Tricare contractor.

That charge is reasonable, Carlton said, but it shows the folly of shorting military hospitals in hopes of saving money.

"For want of $300, I'm spending $6,000," said Carlton. "There's no guilty party here. This is just an historical account of what has happened. That's the [death] spiral I speak of."

Almost a decade later, the death spiral has become a reality. And, as DoD confronts its own health care crisis, it's worth remembering that TRICARE was sold (back in the mid-90s) as something of a panacea, offering managed care at affordable prices.

Now, payments to various TRICARE contractors (who run the program) consume an ever-increasing share of the defense budget, and actual costs are running way beyond original projections. Sound familiar? The explosion in military health care expenditures is identical to what's happened in Medicare and Medicaid and we'll see the same trend--on a vast scale-- under Obamacare.

As for current TRICARE beneficiaries, they can expect higher co-pays and other out-of-pocket expenses. The USA Today article depicts the military health system as exceptionally generous, noting that retirees have an annual deductible of only $230 a year per person ($460 a year for couples), with "small" payments for various services. In reality, that co-pay is typically 20%, under TRICARE "Standard," the most popular insurance option. But when Republicans like Lindsey Graham suggest its time to raise fees, higher co-pays are all-but-inevitable.

Which brings us to another issue--the matter of affordability. While the media likes to focus on the comfortable pensions of senior officers. For example, disgraced former astronaut Lisa Nowak is expected to leave the Navy this year, after 29 years of service (including her days as a student at the Naval Academy). Assuming she isn't reduced in grade for her misconduct at NASA, Captain Nowak will receive
a monthly pension of $6,628 before taxes and other deductions. Certainly, some one with that sort of income can afford higher TRICARE co-pays.

But Lisa Nowak (or a retired flag officer) isn't your typical military retiree. For example, the "average" Air Force member who retires after 20+ years of service is a Technical Sergeant (E-6). An individual in that pay grade (with 22 years of active duty service) receives a monthly pension of $1,770, before taxes and deductions. Retires in that category will be hit hardest by any increase in deductibles and co-pays.
***
ADDENDUM: We also believe the TRICARE system will face more "radical" fixes in the future. To eliminate the "retiree" problem, DoD could simply push those beneficiaries into the emerging Obamacare system. While the Pentagon claims their system is excluded from the recently-passed health care bill, others aren't so sure. At least two members of Congress have introduced legislation to exempt TRICARE from Obamacare, but that's hardly reassuring. Not too many years ago, Congress promised armed forces members health care "for life," at military treatment facilities. We know how that one worked out.

A better solution? Fully funding military health care? As General Carlton suggested back in 2000, many of the services currently being out-sourced could be provided more cheaply on base. But that would mandate more staff, re-opening treatment facilities that were closed (or down-sized) and less money for TRICARE contractors. Needless to say, few in the Pentagon--or Congress--are willing to go "back to the future" in fixing military health care and its spiraling costs.



Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Next Chapter in Space


The Air Force X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), on the runway at Edwards AFB, California. Placed into orbit Thursday evening by an Atlas rocket, the X-37 and its mission have been shrouded in secrecy (Wikipedia photo).


The Air Force's X-37 orbital test vehicle (OTV) blasted into space tonight, atop an Atlas rocket. While the platform--and its mission--remain shrouded in secrecy, the service says the X-37 will serve as an "on orbit" demonstration of space vehicle technologies, and pioneer reusable spaceflight operations.

As Aviation Week reports, the program has evolved in recent years:

Originally a NASA program, the X-37B’s exact mission has been increasingly cloaked in secrecy since it was taken over by the Air Force, which initially worked the program in conjunction with the Air Force Research Laboratory and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa). The 29-ft.-long, 15-ft.-wingspan vehicle resembles a small space shuttle in overall form, and was designed to test human spaceflight technologies under NASA before transitioning to Darpa in 2004.

While the vehicle can remain in orbit for up to 270 days, the first mission is expected to be much shorter. Future flights will be longer in duration, and focus on the testing of spacecraft technology and orbital payloads that will be deployed by the OTV.

The Air Force has also remained mum on the subject of payloads, but some analysts believe the orbiter will be used--on some missions--to deploy small intelligence satellites. Various countries (including the U.S.) have been experimenting with micro-satellite technology for several years. Israel is reportedly spending hundreds of millions of dollars on small intelligence satellites, to complement its existing complement of three overhead collection platforms.

Deployed by an orbital vehicle or a booster rocket, the miniature satellites fly in lower earth orbit (typically 300 kilometers above the earth), in contrast to larger birds, which operate at altitudes over 600-700 km. While the small satellites have less powerful optics, their lower orbits still allow for good resolution of ground targets.

The payload bay of the OTV is small (only 7' by 4' when it was a NASA project), so there isn't much room to spare. There is some speculation that Boeing engineers have enlarged that section of the craft, but even the original bay would be adequate for a small intelligence platform. Israel defense contractor Rafael is working on spy satellite that weighs less than 70 pounds and U.S. has experimented with micro-satellites measuring 20 x 18 inches (roughly the size of a 13-inch TV), and weighing 55 pounds when fully fueled.

Along with increased coverage, miniature spy satellites offer other advantages. They are stealthier, and more difficult to detect. And, with the OTV able to remain on orbit for months at a time, the micro-satellites can be deployed at optimum times to monitor enemy activity that (might otherwise) go undetected. As we've noted in previous posts, virtually all of our adversaries have satellite warning programs, but those are based on larger platforms, launched by large booster rockets flying familiar profiles. Use of the OTV will make the deployment profile less predictable, and complicate enemy deception efforts.

The Air Force's cryptic comments on the X-37's mission suggest it may be a while before the space vehicle deploys an operational payload. But that timeline may be shorter than advertised. Micro-satellite technology is advancing rapidly, but so are adversary WMD programs and the deception efforts that shield them. The U.S. needs more coverage--and as quickly as possible. That's why the X-37 may be operational sooner, rather than later.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Options

There's a rather interesting--and important--bureaucratic struggle, now being played at the highest levels of our national government. On one side is Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other senior leaders at the Pentagon; on the other is President Obama and his national security team at the White House. At stake: the future of U.S. policy towards Iran and our willingness to deter Tehran's nuclear ambitions, using all available options.

The struggle went public last Saturday, with The New York Times publishing details from a secret, three-page memo written by Dr. Gates in January. According to the Times, the Gates memorandum said the U.S. lacks "an effective, long-range strategy" for curbing Iran's progress towards developing nuclear weapons. One senior official, who is familiar with the memo, described it as a "wake-up call."

Not surprisingly, the White House disagreed with that characterization and by Sunday, Secretary Gates was in full "clarification mode." His memo was not a warning to the administration, he told reporters, but rather, it was a list of planning steps that will be required in the months ahead.

But that explanation doesn't really hold water. First, it's not the job of the SecDef to generate a list of planning milestones--that's a task generally handled by a mid-level staffer at the National Security Council or somewhere in the bowels of OSD. And secondly, Mr. Gates planning outline triggered a flurry of activity at the Pentagon and the nation's intelligence agencies, aimed at giving Mr. Obama new options for dealing with Iran. That would suggest something beyond the "normal" planning process, which has (supposedly) been underway for some time.

As the Times reported:

Several officials said the highly classified analysis, written in January to President Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, touched off an intense effort inside the Pentagon, the White House and the intelligence agencies to develop new options for Mr. Obama. They include a revised set of military alternatives, still under development, to be considered should diplomacy and sanctions fail to force Iran to change course…

Pressed on the administration’s ambiguous phrases until now about how close the United States was willing to allow Iran’s program to proceed, a senior administration official described last week in somewhat clearer terms that there was a line Iran would not be permitted to cross.

The official said that the United States would ensure that Iran would not “acquire a nuclear capability,” a step Tehran could get to well before it developed a sophisticated weapon. “That includes the ability to have a breakout,” he said, using the term nuclear specialists apply to a country that suddenly renounces the nonproliferation treaty and uses its technology to build a small arsenal.

Mr. Gates’s memo appears to reflect concerns in the upper echelons of the Pentagon and the military that the White House did not have a well-prepared series of alternatives in place in case all the diplomatic steps finally failed.

Specifically, the defense chief is reportedly worried that Iran could take all steps necessary to create a nuclear weapon, but stop short of final production assembly. That would give Tehran a "breakout" capability, allowing it to renounce any non-proliferation agreements and rapidly build a small nuclear arsenal. The bottom line on Mr. Gates's memo is strikingly clear: what do we do if (read: when) diplomacy fails? If the current planning "surge" in Washington is any indication, it would seem that no one could answer the SecDef's question as recently as three months ago.

The absence of "worst case" options should come as no surprise. The U.S. has been kicking the Iran "can" down the road since the Bush Administration, which out-sourced engagement on the issue to the Europeans. Years of talks between Iran and our surrogates (Germany, France and Great Britain) yielded nothing, except Tehran's continuing progress on nuclear weapons.

And, more recently, Mr. Obama gave Iran a year to come around, a gesture that was greeted with amazement and derision by the ruling clerics and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who couldn't believe their continued good fortune. While Washington fiddled, Iranian scientists and technicians kept working towards their goal.

Now, U.S. experts say Tehran may be only a year away from producing its first nuclear weapon, and could build a "deployable" device by 2013. Not bad for a program that was "suspended" for several years, according to that infamous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate. Of course, that warhead would be quite useful on an Iranian missile with the range to strike the CONUS. Coincidentally, U.S. intelligence officials now say Tehran may have such a weapon by the middle of this decade.

None of these developments should surprise readers of this blog, which was long documented Tehran's efforts to gain nuclear weapons--and the means to deliver them. It's also unsurprising that some in the administration seemed willing to ignore the tough policy choices that may be required in dealing with Iran. After all, this is an administration that puts diplomacy ahead of all other options, and prefers to avoid the discussion of military force, let alone its potential use.

Borrowing a phrase from a former Obama advisor, it would seem that our Iranian planning chickens have come home to roost. Years of inactivity, over the course of multiple administrations, have allowed Tehran to reach the cusp of the nuclear club. Now, the U.S. must face potential options that many senior officials clear find unpalatable. If nothing else, Dr. Gates succeeded in reminding his peers that it is (often) their job to think--and plan for--the unthinkable.

***

ADDENDUM: We also find it remarkable that the SecDef was willing to take his fight into the public arena. As a veteran of at least five administrations, Bob Gates clearly knows how the game is played, and is capable of using a timely leak to his advantage. But such steps are relatively rare for Dr. Gates, who has a long-standing reputation as a team player. Last weekend's article in the Times suggests that relations between Secretary Gates and the White House are beginning to fray. Mr. Obama's national security advisor, James Jones, claims the administration has been planning for a full range of possible "contingencies" involving Iran. The Gates memo seems to counter that claim, as does the sudden search for "new" Iranian options.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Feller's Gem


Bob Feller on the USS Alabama. The baseball star was the first major leaguer to enlist after Pearl Harbor, and spent almost five years in the Navy during World War II (Wikipedia photo.)

This past weekend marked the 70th anniversary of a remarkable athletic feat. It has only happened once in the long history of major league baseball, and fittingly, it was accomplished by one of the game's greatest players.

We refer to Bob Feller's no-hitter on April 16, 1940, the only one ever pitched on Opening Day. Like Joe DiMaggio's legendary 56-game hitting streak, Feller's no-hit performance on the first day of the season may never be duplicated. Baseball fans may argue if pitchers or batters are "ahead" at the start of the season, but this fact remains: only a handful of pitchers have carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning of opening day, and Feller is the only one who finished the task.

At the start of the 1940 season, Bob Feller was already a star player, at the ripe old age of 21. Signed off his father's Iowa farm, Feller never played a day in the minors, and became a member of the Cleveland Indians pitching staff at 17. Despite his youth, Feller's blazing fastball baffled American league hitters and he quickly became baseball's most dominant pitcher of that era. He led the league in strikeouts four years in a row (from 1938-41) and was also baseball's winningest pitcher during three of those seasons (1939, 1940 and 1941).

Oddly enough, there was concern about "Rapid Robert" as he entered the 1940 season. Despite his superb stats in 1939 (a 24-9 record and a league-leading 246 strikeouts), Feller pitched poorly during spring training, and many expected a sub-par season from the Indians star. During his last pre-season game, Feller was rocked for 15 hits and 10 runs, generating more speculation that he would struggle in 1940.

Opening Day found the Indians in Chicago, for series with the White Sox at old Comiskey Park. The weather was raw and cold, with temperatures in the 40s. Only 14,000 fans showed up for the season opener as Feller took the mound.

And sure enough, he struggled in the early innings. As Mr. Feller recently described his performance for MLB.com:

"I was a little wild," he says.

The White Sox loaded the bases on Feller in the second inning. Center fielder Roy Weatherly dropped Taft Wright's one-out fly ball, allowing Wright to advance to second. It could have been ruled a hit, as Weatherly battled the wind on the play, but the official scorer made it a two-base error.

Then, with two out, Feller walked Mike Tresh and the opposing pitcher, Edgar Smith. But he struck out Bob Kennedy to record the third out.

"After that," Feller says, "I started pitching better."

Good thing, too, because he got little offensive support from his teammates. The Indians scored their only run in the fourth when Feller's roommate, Jeff Heath, singled and catcher Rollie Hemsley, drove him home with a triple.

Feller faced his final challenge--predictably--in the bottom of the ninth:

The first two batters in the bottom of the ninth went down quickly. But Feller found the last out of the game more difficult to come by. Shortstop Luke Appling, who always gave Feller fits, worked the count to 2-2. One strike away from the no-no, Feller saw his next four pitches fouled off by the pesky Appling, who was in the prime of his Hall of Fame career. Rather than tempt fate, Feller threw the next two pitches outside to walk Appling.

"I walked him on purpose," Feller says, "but nobody knew it but me."

Up came Wright, and he hit a sharp grounder to the right side of the infield, to the left of second baseman Ray Mack.

"Mack dove for the ball, knocked it down, picked it up barehanded and threw him out at first base," Feller says. "That was the ballgame."

While the Opening Day no-hitter remains a singular achievement, Feller doesn't rank that performance as high as his later no-hitters (against the Yankees in 1946 and against Detroit in 1951), or some of his one-hitters (he pitched 12 over the course of his career, a major league record).

Feller went on to a great season in 1940; he won a career-high 27 games, led the league with a 2.61 ERA and posted 261 strikeouts, while pitching 320 1/3 innings. The team, however, fell short of its goals, losing the pennant to the Tigers by a single game.

Like many players of his era, Bob Feller's career was interrupted by military service during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Feller was the first major leaguer to enlist, joining the Navy on December 8th. The Indians ace asked for a combat assignment and got his wish, serving as a gun captain for an anti-aircraft battery on the battleship USS Alabama. Feller and his ship mates earned nine battle stars during the war.

Feller quickly regained his dominance after the war. In 1946, he posted a 26-15 record with an incredible 348 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.16. More remarkably, he pitched 36 complete games (in 42 starts), with 10 shutouts.

By the time his big league career ended in 1956, Bob Feller had won 266 games for the Indians, striking out over 2,500 batters. He still holds the club record for victories by a pitcher, 54 years after his retirement.

Mr. Feller always speaks proudly of his Navy service during the war, never expressing regret about those lost seasons, which occurred at the peak of his career.

So how did the wartime interruption impact Bob Feller's baseball totals? With four more seasons in the big leagues, many baseball historians believe that Feller would have won an additional 90-100 games and struck out at least 700 more batters. That would have pushed his career victory total to 370, putting Feller at #3 or #4 on the all-time list. With another 700 strike outs, Feller would be just outside baseball's Top 10 in that category.

Bob Feller is more than a great pitcher. He is also a great patriot, a man who put aside athletic stardom--and its financial rewards--to serve his country in a time of war. Feller remains the only Navy Chief Petty Officer ever voted into a sports hall of fame and if you visit the USS Alabama (now a museum ship in Mobile), his bunk is clearly marked.

***

ADDENDUM: Discussions about Feller and his fastball invite inevitable comparisons with other power pitchers, including Nolan Ryan. Many batters who faced both Feller and Ryan claim the Indians' ace had greater velocity on his fastball. That decidedly unscientific comparison is still remarkable, since those hitters faced Bob Feller at the end of his career, while Ryan was in the early stages of his.

Friday, April 16, 2010

One in Five Hundred

It's a little-known, but disturbing fact: from the mid-1990s until the middle of this decade, the Justice Department conducted more than 600 investigations into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. All of those inquiries had something else in common, too. Not a single one resulted in the prosecution or conviction of individuals suspected of leaking classified data.

That's why this week's indictment of former National Security Agency official Thomas Andrews Drake is remarkable, even astounding. Mr. Drake, who once served as a senior signals intelligence official, was formally charged with 10 felony counts of "willfully retaining national security documents," and making false statements to investigators. Federal prosecutors allege that Drake provided classified information to a reporter who wrote a series of articles on the NSA.

While the journalist wasn't named in the indictment, sources familiar with the investigation identified her as Siobhan Gorman, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who now works for The Wall Street Journal. According to federal prosecutors, Drake used Hushmail, a Canadian-based, encrypted e-mail system, to provide classified information to the journalist, beginning in February 2006.

The indictment says that Drake served as a source for a series of articles that appeared in the Sun from early 2006 until November 2007, a period when Ms. Gorman covered NSA for the paper. To assist the reporter, Drake took home classified documents from work and e-mailing other agency employees to gather data. Information provided by Mr. Drake became the basis for articles that were largely critical of the Bush Administration and its controversial surveillance programs.

Ms. Gorman has (so far) declined comment on the matter. Ditto for the Baltimore Sun and her current employer, NewsCorp, which publishes the WSJ. Mr. Drake's attorney, Jim Wyda, said he is reviewing the indictment along with his client. Wyda expressed "disappointment" that the matter couldn't be resolved without Drake's indictment.

Predictably, some members of the journalistic establishment have tried to cast the indictment as a classic, freedom-of-the-press issue. Here's an example from ABC News:

The case raises a number of important First Amendment questions. Should a former government official provide such highly classified top secret information to a reporter? Is the reporter witnessing and participating in a crime by receiving such information? In an age of terrorism, when resources may be needed elsewhere, should the government be using its investigative powers to go after leaks? And how can the government be held accountable for sometimes wasteful or ineffective classified programs if the public never hears about them?

Yet from a legal standpoint, the case may be less of a constitutional matter and more of a slam dunk. Mr. Drake apparently disagreed with Bush Administration policies. He had the option of resigning from NSA and taking a stand as a private citizen, within the restrictions of the non-disclosure agreements he signed as an intelligence officer.

But Drake elected to violate those accords, allegedly providing information to Ms. Gorman while retaining his comfortable position at NSA. It shouldn't be difficult for prosecutors to prove that Drake willfully violated non-disclosure rules, for the apparent purpose of leaking classified information. Interestingly, the indictment describes instances when Drake provided information to the reporter, but doesn't accuse him of leaking classified material.

The investigation into Mr. Drake's purported activities began during the Bush Administration, but the Obama Justice Department deserves credit for continuing the probe, and filing the indictment. As we've written before, the pervasive "leak" culture of official Washington has jeopardized our national security. The hundreds of unauthorized disclosures between 1995 and 2005 resulted in lost sources and compromised collection capabilities, impairing our ability to gather intelligence.

Prosecuting alleged leakers is one way to stop the bleeding. But it will probably take more indictments to actually deter the public disclosure of classified information. By our decidedly rough calculations, there have been at least 1,000 classified "leaks" over the last 15 years, resulting in two prosecutions (if you include the Scooter Libby/Valerie Plame case).

That means the odds of any official being tried for divulging classified information are at least 500:1. That's significantly lower than the odds of the same person writing a New York Times bestseller (220:1), discovering their child is a genius (250:1), or being audited by the IRS (175:1).

Obviously, the indictment of Thomas Andrews Drake won't plug the leak culture, but it's a start.

One more thing: does anyone think Ms. Gorman will "own up" to her role in the case, and beyond that, will she testify in his behalf, or make any contributions to Drake's legal defense fund? Don't hold your breath.

A Gift From Damascus

While the U.S. has criticized Israel for hampering the Mid-East peace process, other, more serious impediments have apparently transpired across the border in Lebanon.

Senior Israeli officials claim that Syria has transferred Scud ballistic missiles to Hizballah terrorists in Lebanon, a move that puts all of Israel's major population centers at risk. While Tel Aviv has not confirmed the number and type of missiles involved in the transfer, one Israeli official identified them as the Scud D, the variant with the greatest accuracy and longest range.

As The New York Times reports:

The officials added that the delivery of the missiles — strongly denied by Syria and yet to be confirmed by sources outside of Israel — would change the strategic balance in the area and increase the risk of war.

The issue was raised by President
Shimon Peres, who during a visit to Paris told journalists earlier this week, “Syria claims that it wants peace, while simultaneously delivering Scud missiles to Hezbollah, which is constantly threatening the security of the State of Israel.” He added, after meeting with the French prime minister, Fran├žois Fillon, that Syria was playing “a double game.” Mr. Fillon, who was recently in the Syrian capital, Damascus, had told Mr. Peres that the government of President Bashar al-Assad wanted peace with Israel.

[snip]

“This creates a new situation,” another Israeli official said, insisting on anonymity because there were continuing diplomatic efforts to deal with the concern. “These are more accurate and far more dangerous.”

With a circular error probability of only 50 meters, the Scud D is much more accurate than other Scud variants, which have an accuracy of 400-3000 meters. First offered for export in the late 1980s, the Scud D carries a conventional, biological or nuclear payload that actually separates from the missile airframe. Some Scud D models are also fitted with a nose cone camera that allows the missile to compare the target area with imagery stored in its on-board memory, improving accuracy.

Fired from Hizballah operating locations in central and northern Lebanon, Scud Ds could easily reach Tel Aviv, less than 130 miles away. Jerusalem is also within striking distance, although that city lies close the maximum range of a Scud D, fired from potential launch sites in Lebanon.

Both U.S. and French officials said they are aware of Israeli concerns, but could not confirm if the missiles have actually been delivered to Hizballah. "Clearly, this puts Lebanon at risk," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told the Times. Apparently, no one bothered to ask Mr. Crowley about all those Israelis living between Jerusalem and the northern border.

Still, western officials deserve some credit for hinting at the logistics and basing issues associated with such a transfer. Syria's expansion of its own ballistic missile force over the past decade has been accompanied by the large-scale construction of storage bunkers, bases and other facilities needed to support such weapons. Reading between the lines of those comments from Washington and Paris, it would appear that western intelligence has not detected the types of upgrades needed to support a Hizballah Scud force.

The same holds true for the volume and type(s) of personnel training required to train Hizballah fighters to operate and maintain those missiles--and the warheads they carry. However, Damascus and their terrorist allies could easily overcome those issues by using Syrian technicians to handle the task until Hizballah personnel get up to speed. But that would only increase prospects for an Israeli preemptive strike, since Tel Aviv would view the presence of Syrian missiles (and crews) on Lebanese soil as an act of war.

On the other hand, the terror group has been clearly rearming at a rapid pace since its month-long war with Israel in 2006. Israeli intelligence officers believe Hizballah has acquired as many as 40,000 new rockets--a claim that U.S. intel agencies generally support. But most of those weapons are the same types used against Israeli targets almost four years ago--older, unguided models that are effective as a barrage weapons, but have no pin-point targeting capabilities.

Despite the lack of western confirmation, the possibility of a Scud transfer to Hizballah cannot be dismissed. Syria has an effective satellite warning program, and could easily time missile movements during gaps in our overhead coverage. The employment of other denial and deception techniques (including advanced camouflage) would make it more difficult to detect the missile transfer, particularly when such techniques are also used to cover the construction of underground facilities.

In other words, it is possible to miss the excavation of underground facilities and the movement of missiles into those complexes. It would be illuminating to know what proof the Israelis have offered in their private discussions with American intelligence officials.
***
ADDENDUM: Some military writers in Israel believe the missile transfer is a deterrent move, aimed at preventing future IAF strikes on Syrian territory, similar to the 2007 attack on a suspected nuclear complex near the Iraqi border. But we're not quite on-board with that assessment. Hizballah's acquisition of Scuds serves several purposes for Damascus. First, it further disperses SSM assets in the region (complicating targeting for the IDF). Secondly, the transfer puts some missiles closer to Israeli territory, reducing reaction times and forcing the Israelis to deal with a missile threat along yet another axis of attack.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Remembering a Hero

Almost everyone knows about Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier in World War II. For his combat actions in the European Theater, Murphy received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts.

But fewer know the story of his widow, Pam. After her husband's death in a 1971 plane crash, Pam Murphy went to work as a clerk at the Sepulveda Ambulatory Care Center, a VA facility in North Hills, California.

To some degree, Mrs. Murphy's decision was a necessity. Her husband squandered much of the money he made as an actor and songwriter, and died deeply in debt. Instead of throwing up her hands--or blaming her husband--Pam Murphy went back to work to pay off Audie's bills.

But her job at the VA was also a labor of love. As Dennis McCarthy wrote in his most recent column for Los Angeles Daily News, Pam Murphy became a tireless advocate for veterans at the Sepulveda Center, particularly those who served in World War II. She had a knack for cutting through bureaucratic roadblocks, ensuring the veterans received the care they needed.

Any soldier or Marine who walked into the Sepulveda VA hospital and care center in the last 35 years got the VIP treatment from Pam Murphy.

The widow of Audie Murphy – the most decorated soldier in World War II – would walk the hallways with her clipboard in hand making sure her boys got to see a specialist or doctor — STAT. If they didn't, watch out.


Her boys weren't Medal of Honor recipients or movie stars like Audie, but that didn't matter to Pam. They had served their country. That was good enough for her.

She never called a veteran by his first name. It was always "Mister." Respect came with the job.
"Nobody could cut through VA red tape faster than Mrs. Murphy," said veteran Stephen Sherman, speaking for thousands of veterans she befriended over the years.


"Many times I watched her march a veteran who had been waiting more than an hour right into the doctor's office. She was even reprimanded a few times, but it didn't matter to Mrs. Murphy.

After more than 30 years of service at the facility, the VA tried to eliminate her position, describing Pam Murphy as "excess staff." Patients at Sepulveda went went ballistic, holding a rally for her outside the facility's gate. Soon after, VA administrators in Washington decided that Mrs. Murphy's job would be retained. She kept working at Sepulveda until her retirement in 2007, at the age of 87.

Funeral services for Pam Murphy will be held tomorrow in Los Angeles. Mr. McCarthy's column didn't list details for her burial, but we hope that Mrs. Murphy will eventually join her husband at Arlington National Cemetery.

A fitting, final resting place for a hero.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Write Stuff

In yesterday's Orlando Sentinel, an open letter to President Obama, urging him to reverse planned cuts in the nation's space budget. The letter warns that reductions in the NASA budget (and associated programs) may result in "ceding" our lead in space technology, and force 30,000 scientists and engineers to leave the space program. By our count, the letter was signed by a former NASA adminisrator and 21 former astronauts.

Odds that Mr. Obama will actually heed their request? Approximately zero. He should get quite a reception at his space summit in Florida later this week. Give him brownie points for facing his critics on the issue--he should get an earful.

The Coming Oil Shortage?

It hasn't received much play on this side of the Atlantic (oddly enough), but the U.S. military is warning of a severe oil shortage by 2015.

According to a new study produced by Norfolk-based Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), the current surplus in oil production could evaporate within two years, leading to potentially crippling shortages by the middle of this decade.

The U.K. Guardian reports the assessment was forwarded by JFCOM's Commander, Marine Corps General James Mattis. His signature underscores the importance of the study, since a MAJCOM commander typically doesn't "sign out" all intel reports produced by his organization.
JFCOM analysts believe the global shortage will mushroom quickly, reaching 10 million barrels a day within three years after "peak oil"--the moment when demand permanently exceeds supply.

The consequences of the shortfall would be devastating. As outlined in the JFCOM study:

"While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India."

While the report doesn't address the potential impact on the United States, you don't need to be an energy analyst to understand that $200 a barrel oil would crush any hopes of an economic recovery and severely impact our military--the largest "single" user of energy in the world.

Still, a cautionary note (or two) is in order. While JFCOM strives to provide an "intellectual foundation" for joint force development, the command's expertise in energy intelligence is limited. Meanwhile, the intel community's experts in such matters (based at the CIA and Department of Energy) have either remained silent--at least publicly--or they offer a more optimistic scenario.

Lionel Badal, a researcher in peak oil theories at King's College in London, told the Guardian that DOE's Energy Information Administration (EIA) has been saying that "peak oil" is still decades away. In light of the JFCOM report, he wonders if DOE is sticking with its rosy scenario.

The military assessment was released as oil surged past $100 a barrel in Great Britain, and retail gasoline prices are approaching $3.00 a gallon in much of the United States. During the shortage that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005, gas climbed to more than $4.00 a gallon in the U.S.; that level is widely considered a "tipping point," when the public demands action to increase supplies.

Unfortunately, there may be little the United States can do to bolster supplies in the current regulatory environment. President Obama recently approved off-shore drilling along portions of the east coast, but the rest of our coastline (and much of Alaska) remains off-limits. Additionally, environmental challenges often delay the opening of new fields for years.

In an unguarded moment on the campaign trail, then-candidate Barack Obama said his only real regret about $4.00 gasoline was that prices reached that level "so quickly." Based on that statement, it stands to reason that some in the administration see much higher energy prices as inevitable--a development that could be used to spur the development of alternative fuels. Never mind that so-called green fuels can't meet our needs for decades to come.
***
ADDENDUM: The JFCOM study is merely the latest to warn of a coming oil shortage. The Guardian reports that the U.K. Energy Minister convened a meeting with top industrialists two weeks ago, apparently reversing his previous position that peak oil was not a short-term problem. Officials at the Paris-based International Energy Agency have voiced similar concerns, though the organization has (officially) stated that energy supplies will remain sufficient.

It's also worth noting that General Mattis, the commander who put his signature on the controversial report, has a reputation for being blunt--sometimes a little too blunt, as evidenced by his famous remarks about how much "fun" it is to shoot terrorists. This time around, Mattis seems appears willing to stake his reputation and credibility on the report, which goes against the "official" U.S. government position on the issue. If no one else is willing to sound the alarm, Jim Mattis has no qualms about stepping up to the plate.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Osprey Down

The USAF has lost its first CV-22 Osprey in an operational crash.

One of the revolutionary tilt-rotor aircraft, assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) went down yesterday in eastern Afghanistan's Zabul province. Three Air Force members died in the crash, along with a civilian contractor. Other personnel aboard the aircraft were reportedly injured, according to a military spokesman.

The names of the dead have not been released, and the Air Force has not revealed how many other individuals were on the Osprey when it went down. The aircraft and crew were assigned to the 1st Special Operations Wing, based at Hurlburt Field, Florida. Cause of the crash is under investigation.

Crews from the Hurlburt unit have been operating the Osprey since 2006 and (prior to Thursday's crash) accumulated over 8,000 flight hours without a serious mishap. The Air Force uses the CV-22 for the long-range infiltration, exfiltration and resuppy of special forces teams. Given those assignments, it's highly likely that the Osprey was on a special ops support mission when it went down, near the provincial capital of Qalat.

Thursday's crash is likely to raise new questions about the aircraft's safety record, but that may be unfair. While the Marine Corps suffered three fatal accidents during the Osprey's development, but the aircraft's safety record has been solid in recent years. Since 2007, Marine Corps Osprey crews have logged more than 5,000 hours in Iraq without a major mishap, and the Corps has also deployed V-22s to Afghanistan in recent months, again without incident.

The fatal accident came as the Osprey fleet begins to achieve a degree of operational maturity. Last month, noted airpower analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute suggested the V/CV-22 fleet was ready to take on new roles, for other branches of the military. Some of those missions include combat search-and rescue for the Air Force (our existing fleet of HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters is getting long in the tooth); ship-board resupply for the Navy (the Osprey can land on a wider variety of ships than the C-2 Greyhound) and medical evacuation for the Army.

With its ability to take-off and land like a helicopter, then cruise at 300 knots, the Osprey is faster than rotary-wing aircraft, with a far greater range. But nagging concerns about safety (and the Osprey's $68 million price tag) make it a tough sell for the Army, Navy and potential foreign customers.

But then again, acquiring a revolutionary capability means taking risks--both financially and operationally.

Today's Reading Assignments

Fouad Ajami, in today's edition of The Wall Street Journal, on "Afghanistan and the Decline of American Power." He notes the recent, hostile rhetoric from Afghan President Karzai is a reflection of President Obama's declining influence in the region. A few particularly salient paragraphs:

President Obama's "war of necessity" in Afghanistan increasingly has to it the mark of a military campaign disconnected from a bigger political strategy.

Yes, it is true, he "inherited" this war. But in his fashion he embraced it and held it up as a rebuke to the Iraq war. The spectacle of Afghan President Hamid Karzai going rogue on the American and NATO allies who prop up his regime is of a piece with other runaway clients in far-off lands learning that great, distant powers can be defied and manipulated with impunity. After all, Mr. Karzai has been told again and again that his country, the safe harbor from which al Qaeda planned and carried out 9/11, is essential to winning the war on terror.

[snip]

Still, this recent dust-up with Mr. Karzai—his outburst against the West, his melodramatic statement that he, too, could yet join the Taliban in a campaign of "national resistance," his indecent warning that those American and NATO forces soldiering to give his country a chance are on the verge of becoming foreign occupiers—is a statement about the authority of the Obama administration and its standing in Afghanistan and the region.

Forgive Mr. Karzai as he tilts with the wind and courts the Iranian theocrats next door. We can't chastise him for seeking an accommodation with Iranian power when Washington itself gives every indication that it would like nothing more than a grand bargain with Iran's rulers.


In Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East, populations long in the path, and in the shadow, of great foreign powers have a good feel for the will and staying power of those who venture into their world. If Iran's bid for nuclear weapons and a larger role in the region goes unchecked, and if Iran is now a power of the Mediterranean (through Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Beirut), the leaders in Kabul, whoever they are, are sure to do their best to secure for themselves an Iranian insurance policy.

[snip]

All this plays out under the gaze of an Islamic world that is coming to a consensus that a discernible American retreat in the region is in the works. America's enemies are increasingly brazen, its friends unnerved. Witness the hapless Lebanese, once wards of U.S. power, now making pilgrimages, one leader at a time, to Damascus. They, too, can read the wind: If Washington is out to "engage" that terrible lot in Syria, they better scurry there to secure reasonable terms of surrender.

The shadow of American power is receding; the rogues are emboldened. The world has a way of calling the bluff of leaders and nations summoned to difficult endeavors. Would that our biggest source of worry in that arc of trouble was the intemperate outburst of our ally in Kabul.


In his op-ed, Ajami relates a particularly telling analogy from the late Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq, who was a key U.S. ally until he died in a suspicious plane crash in 1988. Zia said an alliance with Washington was the equivalent of sitting on the bank of a great river, where the land is lush and fertile. The only problem, he observed, is that America--like the river--changes course every four to eight years, leaving former "friends" in a barren desert.

The thrust of our foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia, leaving many strategic partners feeling isolated and vulnerable. No wonder so many are trying to curry favor with Iran. In this latter-day version of The Great Game, the tilt from Washington to Tehran is both evident and disturbing.
***
ADDENDUM: Similar thoughts from Ralph Peters, in his recent New York Post column. Here is Colonel Peters' take on how events play out in the region:

Coming perhaps as early as this year (certainly within the next few years), the Karzai Compromise will at first look like this:

* Karzai remains the titular head of the Kabul regime.

* Iran "owns" western Afghanistan.

* Pakistan replaces the United States as the Kabul government's security guarantor.

* NATO grabs the excuse of "national reconciliation" to dash for home.

* The United States won't be far behind NATO, although we'll continue to pour in aid to "avoid destabilizing the situation."

This being the Greater Middle East, the deal won't last. Karzai holds too weak a hand; national ambitions are in conflict; the hatreds go too deep. Here's what will come next:

* The Iranians and Pakistanis will struggle for influence. The next phase of the endless Afghan civil war will be a proxy fight between Tehran and Islamabad (alongside the internal factional warfare).

* Al Qaeda will align with Pakistan, gaining clandestine sponsorship.

* Karzai will be replaced by a tougher ruler backed by Pakistan, while the Iranian side elevates its own contender for power based in Herat.

* India will side with Iran. China will support Pakistan.

* Pakistan will find itself unable to control its Afghan proxies, after all. Another military regime will take power in Islamabad, as Pakistan finds itself bogged down in an Afghan morass and violence spreads at home.

* The Taliban will fight everybody and outlast everybody.

As our troops surge slowly into Afghanistan to save the inept Karzai government, they may already be irrelevant. We're no longer in on the deal. Everybody knows it but us.

We agree with all of Peters' points except the last one. Mr. Obama and his national security team know exactly what the "deal" is. They're more than willing to wash their hands of Afghanistan (and Iraq), allowing them to slash the defense budget and free up more money for nationalized health care and other progressive schemes. That's why our troop surge in Afghanistan came with an expiration date.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Late to the Game

Does this story, posted today at AirForceTimes.com, seem familiar?

A wing commander was ousted from his post at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., in late March for showing favoritism toward a subordinate officer, according to base officials.

Col. David “Iron” Orr, who oversaw the 66th Air Base Wing, was relieved of command March 26 by Lt. Gen. Ted Bowlds, commander of the Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom and the senior officer at the Materiel Command installation.

“I took this action based on an assessment which concluded that Col. Orr had exhibited undue favoritism related to a subordinate officer, and as a result, failed to provide a complete and candid assessment to me, the center commander,” Bowlds wrote in a letter e-mailed to Hanscom personnel.

Readers of this blog learned of Colonel Orr's dismissal on the day it happened--almost two weeks ago. We also reported that Orr was the fourth Air Force wing commander to be fired since last October, part of the service's mandate for increased accountability among senior personnel.

The real question is why it took Air Force Times so long to get the story. As noted in our post--and the more recent newspaper article--Lieutenant General Bowlds announced Orr's dismissal in an e-mail to Hanscom personnel. We got a copy shortly after it was distributed to thousands of military and civilian staffers, so learning of Colonel Orr's firing didn't require any investigative reporting. Ditto for confirming the letter's authenticity with our contacts at the base. It's hard to believe that the largest independent newspaper covering the Air Force couldn't get around to reporting the story until today.

It's a quality that constantly frustrates readers of the Times, particularly those who have any type of media background, or those who are aware of big stories that go under or unreported. In fairness, we should note that Air Force Times has produced some first-rate reporting (see Mike Hoffman's coverage of the Minot nuclear mishap and the investigations that followed). Mr. Hoffman led the military press in exposing the accidental transfer of nuclear-tipped missiles from the North Dakota installation to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, an event that led to the dismissal of several senior officers and a complete overhaul of the Air Force nuclear enterprise.

But in other cases, the paper is late out of the chocks--when it moves at all. Witness their weak coverage of the Jill Metzger case. Major Metzger, you may recall, is the Air Force personnel officer who went "missing" for three days during a deployment to Kyrgyzstan in 2006. When she resurfaced (with a new hair color and dye on her hands), she offered an improbable tale of being kidnapped by locals, who tried to alter her appearance. Somehow, the petite Major Metzger was able to overpower her captors and dash more than 10 miles to freedom (did we mention that she is a champion marathon runner?)

The incident caused a diplomatic stir between the U.S. and a key ally in Central Asia. Relations were further strained when Kyrgyz authorities determined that Metzger had apparently sought an abortion from a local provider, then missed the bus back to her duty location at Manas AB. Facing potential AWOL charges, local police believe she fabricated the kidnapping story. A separate probe by the Air Force (reportedly) arrived at a similar conclusion. She failed a polygraph and refused to let medics take a blood sample after her return.

Readers learned of those critical developments not through Air Force Times, but from MilitaryCorruption.com, which pursued the Metzger scandal with admirable tenacity. The website was also the first to report that senior Air Force generals told security forces personnel to "forget about what they saw" when Major Metzger was repatriated, and they followed the officer's subsequent transition to a temporary retirement (with full pension) based on her traumatic experiences in Kyrgyzstan. MilitaryCorruption.com was also on hand when Metzger made an amazing recovery and competed in the Air Force marathon.

Obviously, no media outlet gets the scoop on every breaking story. But Air Force Times has no real competition in its particular market niche (save Stars and Stripes). Sure, there are lots of local papers near military bases, but their coverage is often lackluster and handled by reporters who have never served in the armed forces. At the other end of the spectrum, specialized publications and web sites like Aviation Week do an excellent job on technology and policy issues, but they offer little reporting on key personnel moves, like the one at Hanscom.

Why is the Times' coverage so uneven? Some members of the staff--like their counterparts at local papers--have no experience in aerospace or defense issues, so they must learn the military beat on the job (no easy task). Additionally, there are editorial decisions that inevitably affect coverage. I've never heard of a Times' editor spiking a story, but their coverage tends to concentrate on developments in their "back yard;" the paper is based in Springfield, Virginia, so issues at the Air Staff tend to get more play that events at remote bases that don't involve the loss of life, or serious damage to Air Force property.

Our advice to the folks at Air Force Times? First, get more of your staff into the field--and on a more frequent basis. A recent series from Afghanistan was enlightening, and there are more stories at bases across the Air Force--just a matter of digging them out. Secondly, we'd encourage them to hire more reporters with a military background, though journalists with that type of experience are hard to come by. It certainly helps if a new reporter covering the Air Force has some familiarity with the subject.

Air Force Times styles itself as an independent voice covering the service, and that's a very important job, indeed. But to fulfill that mission, the paper needs to be more aggressive and familiar with its subject. Missing the firing of a wing commander by two weeks isn't a journalism calamity. Still, it makes you wonder about the other stories that are barely reported --or missed altogether.

Where the Jobs Are

Critics have--rightfully--accused President Obama of re-making the U.S. in the image of France. From steps towards nationalized health care and feuds with our allies, to an over-reliance on diplomacy and perpetual patience with our foes, Mr. Obama clearly seeks inspiration from the governing models in Paris and other European capitals.

And, as Daniel Henninger notes in today's Wall Street Journal, the president's EU-style policies are having a devastating impact on one of his core constituencies. Young Americans, the under-25 demographic that helped catapult Mr. Obama into the Oval Office, are experiencing unemployment levels more than twice the national average. At least 20% of Americans in that age group are currently out of work, and their near-term employment prospects are grim.

To be fair, that statistic is (in part) a reflection of the current economy. During a recession, many employers are reluctant to bring on new workers who must be trained and won't be as productive as older, more experienced employees. Firms are also worried about the impact of Obama's health care plan, new taxes and his "cap-and-tax" scheme, giving them even more reasons to avoid hiring new workers. That raises the specter of "youth unemployment" becoming a permanent feature of our economic landscape.

That is already the case in Europe. As Mr. Henninger writes:

In the final month of 2009, these were European unemployment rates for people under 25: Belgium, 22.6; Spain, 44.5; France, 25.2; Italy, 26.2; the U.K., 19; Sweden, 26.9; Finland, 23.5. Germany, at 10% uses an "apprentice" system to bring young people into the work force, though that system has come under stress for a most relevant reason: a shortage in Germany of private-sector jobs.

[snip]

In the U.S., we've thought of youth unemployment as mainly about minority status linked to poor education. Not in Europe. German TV recently broadcast a sad piece on Finland, which has the continent's most admired school system. It showed an alert, vivacious young woman—she looked like someone out of an upper-middle-class U.S. high school—roaming Helsinki's streets begging waitress jobs, without success.

On our present course, the same scenario may be repeated here. With its huge workforce, the U.S. needs economic and fiscal policies that spur job creation on a massive scale. Entrepreneurs will find it difficult, if not impossible, to build the next Google, Microsoft or L-3 Communications in an era of much higher taxes and increased government regulation of the private sector.

Still, jobs are out there for young workers with the right skill sets. Testifying before Congress last week, the Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) bemoaned the nation's shortage of "technogeeks," the elite scientists, engineers and computer specialists needed to develop cutting-edge defense technology.

"...according to [Dr. Regina] Dugan, the lack of emphasis on science and engineering education in America has resulted in possible future manpower shortages for an agency that Dugan herself called “the nation’s elite army of futuristic technogeeks.” Dugan said the coming shortage is pinching DARPA at both ends. Over the 2000s, DARPA saw its funding cut by half, making it harder to recruit new scientists. Simultaneously, US colleges graduated 43 percent fewer science and computing students, shrinking the pool of potential scientists for DARPA to choose from.

As you might expect, the problems at DARPA are a microcosm of those facing high-tech industries. The website of defense contractor Northrop-Grumman lists more than 50 vacancies for college students and recent graduates. All require an engineering, science or business background. For more experienced applicants, Northrop-Grumman also has openings for more than 500 engineers. Similar openings exist at other high-tech firms; degree holders in art history, women's studies and dance need not apply.

Moviegoers of a certain age remember that classic scene from The Graduate, where recent college grad Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) is given one word of career guidance: "Plastics." Similar advice for members of Generation-Y could be summed up in a single phrase: "Science and Technology." Even with Barack Obama in the White House, there is still a demand for individuals with that type of background. The other option? Join the legion of liberal arts grads competing for that grill position at McDonalds.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Disarming America

It's bad enough that President Obama is about to sign a new START agreement with Russia--an accord that is little more than a gift to Moscow. But Mr. Obama is now making matters far worse with his "Nuclear Posture Review," which further weakens our deterrent capabilities.

Previewing his new policy for the court stenographers at The New York Times, the president set limits on how the U.S. might use nuclear weapons, even in self-defense. Mr. Obama said the United States would commit "to not using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that adhere to non-proliferation treaties--even if those countries attack the U.S. with chemical or biological weapons."

While stopping short of a "no first use" policy, the Obama doctrine clearly constrains our potential employment of nuclear weapons. In his interview with the Times, the president said one of his goals is to "move towards less emphasis on nuclear weapons, to make sure that our conventional weapons capability is an effective deterrent in all but the most extreme circumstances.”

Some of those "circumstances" could include rogue states like Iran and North Korea. Mr. Obama's policy makes exceptions for those adversaries. Pyongyang has already demonstrated a limited nuclear capability while Iran is working actively to develop nuclear weapons. The President says our revised posture will "set an example" for the rest of the world, and persuade more nations to curb their nuclear programs.

It's tempting to ask just how well that example is working. North Korea has threatened both the U.S. and South Korea with nuclear attacks, and even shared their technology with Syria. Apparently, Pyongyang is unconcerned about our "example," or the potential for American nuclear retaliation. And the pace of Iran's nuclear program has only accelerated over the past year, suggesting that Iran has little fear of the administration and its nuclear policies.

But the decline in our nuclear forces goes well beyond our political statements, and how they play in places like Iran and North Korea. Mr. Obama is telegraphing how he would use nuclear weapons, eliminating the policy "ambiguity" that has kept enemies guessing--and served us well--for more than 60 years.

Equally distressing, President Obama remains committed to a continuing erosion in our nuclear capabilities. As former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Frank Gaffney observes:

I believe that the most alarming aspect of the Obama denuclearization program, however, is its explicit renunciation of new U.S. nuclear weapons — an outcome that required the president to overrule his own defense secretary. Even if there were no new START treaty, no further movement on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and no new wooly-headed declaratory policies, the mere fact that the United States will fail to reverse the steady obsolescence of its deterrent — and the atrophying of the skilled workforce needed to sustain it — will ineluctably achieve what is transparently President Obama’s ultimate goal: a world without American nuclear weapons.

Given the outlines of Mr. Obama's policy, it's hard to disagree. Not only will our nuclear forces grow smaller in the coming years, they will also become less capable, with the president mandating a "procurement holiday" for that category of weapons, and the infrastructure and produces them.

Additionally, the newly-negotiated Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) will take a further toll on our deterrent capabilities, by cutting the number of warheads (to 1,500 for both the U.S. and Russia) and placing limits on delivery systems. By agreeing to that provision, Mr. Obama and his security team essentially traded away an American strength.

Two decades after the Cold War ended, the U.S. is the only global power with a true nuclear "triad," consisting of land-based ICBMs, sub-launched ballistic missiles and long-range nuclear bombers. Reaching treaty goals means the United States will surrender some of its advantage in those latter categories. Russia, on the other hand, has only a token ballistic missile fleet and a handful of long-range bombers. Clearly, the U.S. must make most of the cuts to comply with the new agreement.

It's also worth noting that some of the American bombers facing elimination are dual-capable systems, designed for nuclear strike missions and extended-range conventional sorties. Writing at the American Thinker, Thomas Lifson speculates that Russia's real goal wasn't a reduction in nuclear weapons, but rather, a decrease in our global, precision-strike capabilities. With fewer dual-capable bombers in the inventory, it will be more difficult to mount "shock and awe" campaigns in the future and inject U.S. power in areas that Moscow wants to dominate.

No matter how you slice it, the new START agreement (and Mr. Obama's revised nuclear posture statement) are bad policy, pure and simple. After a year in the Oval Office, the commander-in-chief still has a myopic view of the world, believing that nuclear weapons can simply be wished or negotiated away. In reality, President Obama is sewing the seeds of a new arms race. Allies in eastern Europe and the Far East (think Taiwan) that have long counted on the American nuclear umbrella will now be tempted to developed their own weapons, deducing (correctly) that the U.S. may be unwilling or unable to protect them.

Sad to say, but the new treaty and nuclear posture statement represent the worst security policy since the United States signed the Kellogg-Briand pact back in 1928. That was the agreement that "prohibited war as an instrument of national policy," except in matters of self-defense. You know how that one worked out.

Monday, April 05, 2010

"Saving" CNN

It's been the hot topic in media circles for the past week or so, following the release of the latest cable news ratings. Those that actually care about such things are asking: can CNN be saved?

Our initial, waggish reaction could be summed up by saying "no," or "why would anyone want to?" Among the dinosaur media, the original cable news outlet seems to have found its place in the tar pits and is settling in for that celestial ooze nap.

Just how bad is it at CNN? According to Nielsen estimates, the network's prime time hosts have lost over half their audience in a year. Adding insult to injury, CNN not only loses (badly) to Fox News Channel in prime time, it also trails MSNBC. And, in February--CNN's worst month ever--the news outlet also trailed its sister network, HLN (formerly Headline News) and even CNBC, which was airing portions of NBC's Olympics coverage.

And March hasn't been much better. Courtesy of TV Newser, take a look at the numbers for last Thursday. At 5 pm, Glenn Beck's program on FNC attracted 516,000 viewers in the 25-54 demographic, the most coveted age group for broadcasters and advertisers. In the same time period, Wolf Blitzer's show on CNN had only 73,000 viewers in the demographic, while MSNBC's Chris Matthews attracted 68,000.

At 8 pm the numbers are equally glum. Bill O'Reilly, the king of cable news, had 653,000 viewers in the 25-54 age group. Meanwhile, only 128,000 people in the same age group bothered to watch his competition on CNN (Campbell Brown). In fact, O'Reilly has a larger audience that Ms. Brown, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and HLN's Nancy Grace combined. No wonder FNC is on track to generate $700 million in profits this year.

Which brings us back to our original question about "saving" CNN. Various pundits have suggested the network needs more "opinion" TV, similar to the offerings on Fox and MSNBC. Readers will recall that CNN was "shamed" into cancelling its long-time debate program (Crossfire) by that arbiter of public taste, Jon Stewart. Some would argue that the show was already on its deathbed when Mr. Stewart launched his famous tirade, but we digress.

Would a new slate of "debate" programs bring more viewers to CNN? Perhaps. First of all, new hosts couldn't do any worse than the current line-up. Secondly, no network has a monopoly on programming that is original or compelling. The trick is finding someone who can deliver the goods, both in front of and behind the camera. Unfortunately for CNN, their prime time "answer" has been 110-year-old Larry King and a couple of broadcast network refugees, Anderson Cooper and Ms. Brown. They replaced anchors (Aaron Brown, Paula Zahn) with similar pedigrees, so there's no reason to believe that the next wave would be any different.

So, how about something different--say, a return to CNN's roots in news. When the cable network made its debut 30 years ago, it offered extended newscasts in prime time and even late night. If there was breaking news, CNN was inevitably on top of it, and stayed with the story for hours (or days) on end.

And more importantly, the network generally played it straight. Back in those days, most of the anchors and producers were graduates of local stations, more concerned about getting the story on the air than providing a particular a particular slant or perspective. The network also recognized that some outlets could do a better job in covering a story and occasionally carried newscasts or special reports from its local affiliates.

But all of that changed with the first Gulf War, when CNN's round-the-clock coverage was a media sensation. With critical acclaim (and a bigger audience), the cable news outlet began acting like the rest of the MSM. Many of the original anchors and reporters were replaced by talent that previously worked for the broadcast networks. And the long slide began.

Would a renewed emphasis on straight news work (as competition for "argument" shows on
other networks)? The case against that approach goes something like this: newscasts are more expensive than talk shows; viewers can get information from other sources and "typical" CNN newscasts in prime time (or the late evening) would turn off as many viewers as they might attract.

Still, CNN typically gets a ratings boost when there is a big story, and even topped FNC in the not-to-distant past. Even if CNN couldn't hold that audience, it highlighted the network's long-time leadership in breaking news, and the willingness of viewers to tune in. Despite its ratings woes, CNN still has a little bit of brand loyalty left, a loyalty that could be leveraged with a return to the no-frills reporting that built the network. Additionally, the success of all-news radio and regional cable networks proves there is an audience for hard news at all hours of the day and night.

This much we know: CNN is fast approaching the point of no return in terms of programming. The ratings for its prime-time line-up are simply unsustainable, and CNN's morning numbers are just as bad. At some point, the suits at Time-Warner will be forced to make choices that will make the network competitive, or seal its fate, once and for all. A return to the "old CNN" would be a major gamble, but it might be the only thing that can save the network.
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ADDENDUM: On the other hand, don't hold your breath waiting for CNN to rediscover its roots. According to the rumor mill, the network recently taped a pilot for a morning show featuring the odious David Shuster of MSNBC. Trouble is, Mr. Shuster didn't tell his bosses about the project and he's now been suspended from the network. If CNN believes it can solve its ratings debacle with "talent" like Mr. Shuster, then Time-Warner would be well advised to put a "For Sale" sign on the network.

When CNN signed on almost 31 years go, Ted Turner vowed his network would remain on the air "until the end of the world." For CNN, that moment is fast approaching.