Monday, November 29, 2010

The Latest Military Phony (National Guard E-9 Edition)

Former Command Sergeant Major John Letuli of the North Carolina National Guard has been demoted to Master Sergeant (E-8) after it was discovered that he was wearing decorations, devices and tabs he never earned. Still unanswered: why his Guard superiors tolerated the obvious fraud for so long ( photo).

By the time a man reaches the rank of Command Sergeant Major, he ought to know better: wearing unauthorized decorations and devices on your uniform is a serious offense, punishable under the UCMJ.

Apparently CSM John Letuli never learned that lesson. He's currently in the process of retiring from the North Carolina National Guard at the rank of Master Sergeant (E-8) after losing a stripe for falsely claiming that he had earned such devices and decorations including HALO wings, the Purple Heart, and the special forces tab. In reality, Letuli was not authorized to wear any of those devices or medals.

More from

Officials would not offer details on the actions of former Command Sgt. Maj. John Letuli, but a retired Green Beret who had been pressuring for the investigation since September 2009 said he is outraged that the Guard and the Army appear to be letting Letuli retire with just "a slap on the wrist."

Retired Master Sgt. Jeffrey "JD" Hinton said he has written Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, hoping for a congressional inquiry into how the Army and North Carolina Guard handled their investigation of Letuli, including why he is not being more seriously disciplined.

The investigation was launched after Hinton published photos of Letuli on his website, In one photo, Letuli is wearing a Special Forces patch and tab on his BDUs; in another, he is in Class As, wearing the Purple Heart and Soldier's Medal ribbons, and a Military Freefall Badge, or "HALO wings" -- none of which he earned.


Hinton said he's angry that Letuli appears to be retiring with full benefits, with only the loss of one stripe as punishment. "He needs to be court-martialed and thrown out," Hinton said. "How does an E-8 or E-9 get away with this, with only a slap on the wrist? I don't get it."

Quite frankly, we don't get it either. But sadly, we've chronicled quite a few examples of senior personnel (both officer and enlisted) getting by with misconduct that would end the career of a mere mortal. We're also reminded that the national guard (in some states) tends to be clubby, run by the good-old-boys (and girls) network. In other words, Letuli had sponsors and patrons who helped him reach the rank of CSM--the same people who ignored those unauthorized badges, medals and tabs that appeared on his BDUs and service dress uniforms. And true to form, those same folks are now trying to ease Letuli out the door and avoid jeopardizing their own careers.

We spend a little time in the Tarheel State each month. Sadly, North Carolina has not been a model of good government in recent years. Former Democratic Governor Mike Easley recently pleaded guilty to felony charges for accepting gifts and other benefits from political allies. Through a plea deal, he won't spend any time in jail, but he has the dubious distinction of being a convicted felon--and an embarrassment to his state. Ethics questions are still swirling around his successor, fellow Democrat Beverly Perdue.

Obviously, it's a long jump from the governor's mansion to a national guard regiment. But the scandals involving Easley and Letuli are endemic of a wider problem in North Carolina. If you're willing to tolerate a governor who breaks the law, it's no surprise the state guard is populated with senior officers and NCOs who look the other way when one of their own commits his own little fraud. And when his misdeeds are exposed, the same individuals circle the wagons send Letuli out the gate with just a slap on the wrist.

In a just world, both Mike Easley and John Letuli would be cell mates at Leavenworth, or some other federal pen. Instead, they're slouching off into the sunset, reputations destroyed, but pensions and benefits intact.


ADDENDUM: In view of recent court decisions, we wonder if Letuli will try to have his rank restored. Over the past six months, federal judges in Colorado and California have ruled that individuals have the right to lie about their military service. Does that same right extend to members of the military? In light of those rulings, you could make the case that regulations limiting the wearing of medals, decorations and devices by military personnel are a violation of free speech. So what if I never earned the Air Force Cross...I always wanted one, and according to the federal bench, I have the right to make that claim. By that standard, Letuli wasn't committing fraud, he was simply exercising his right to free speech.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

And Don't Ever Call Me Shirley

Leslie Nielsen (as Frank Drebin) and Jeanette Charles (playing Queen Elizabeth) in the first Naked Gun movie. Nielsen died Sunday at the age of 84 (AP photo).

Today's passing of actor Leslie Nielsen has produced an on-line avalanche of his best lines from Airplane and the classic Naked Gun series. True, Mr. Nielsen didn't write any of those jokes, but his droll, deadpan performance in those films assures him of a place in the pop culture pantheon.

Indeed, Nielsen's success in those comedic gems largely obscured his long, successful career as dramatic actor in film and television. By the time he was cast in Airplane!, Nielsen had been an actor for over thirty years, and kept working for three more decades after becoming an overnight sensation--at the age of 54.

Born into a Canadian family (his brother served as the nation's Deputy Prime Minister in the 1980s), Leslie Nielsen caught the performing bug from his half-uncle, silent film star Jean Hersholt. After graduating from high school (and a brief stint in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II), Nielsen migrated to New York and began working in the early days of live television drama. His first appearance was in 1948, alongside another newcomer named Charlton Heston.

Nielsen worked steadily as a leading man during the 1950s, mostly in television and science fiction films. Over the next 20 years, he made a successful transition to character actor and remained busy; it's almost impossible to find a dramatic series from the 1960s or 70s that doesn't list at least one guest star appearance by Mr. Nielsen. He almost invariably played an authority figure; with that stentorian voice, white hair and commanding presence, he was a natural choice to play doctors, judges, police officers and similar characters.

While most of the roles were forgettable, they were excellent preparation for Airplane! and the other spoof films that followed. Producers Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker were looking for actors who could play it straight, despite the never-ending jokes and sight gags that surrounded them. While Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty were (technically) the stars of the film, old pros like Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack and of course, Leslie Nielsen stole the show. If you can't recite at least five or six of their lines from memory--including Nielsen's "Don't ever call me Shirley"--you've led a very sheltered life, or you passed away in 1979.

According to Hollywood legend, the Zucker brothers and Abrahams wanted Nielsen for Airplane!, but wondered if he would take the job--skewering the type of character that had been his bread-and-butter for decades. They invited him to lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Hollywood; a farting contest ensued and the producers knew they had their man.

The film's success led to Nielsen's casting in their next project--and arguably, the actor's finest comedic work--the late, lamented TV parody series Police Squad. Presented in the style of a 1960s Quinn Martin cop drama, Police Squad was (perhaps) the funniest show in television history. The title sequence alone contained more humor than most sitcoms of any era. It began with the red flashing light of a squad car, racing down a city street. "Police Squad...In Color," intoned announcer Hank Simms, employing the same Voice-of-God inflection he used on various Quinn Martin series. Of course, this was 1982, and the networks had been broadcasting in color for almost two decades.

In the classic Martin style, Simms then introduced the cast, including Nielsen's Lieutenant Frank Drebin. As the characters appeared, each was shot at and returned fire, including "Rex Hamilton as Abraham Lincoln." The sequence also included a "special guest star" (Lorne Greene, William Shatner and Florence Henderson, to name a few) who meet an instant, grisly death, ending their appearance on the show. As the sequence ends, the on-screen title of the episode never matches the one announced by Simms.

And that was just the title sequence. The rest of the episodes were chock full of jokes, sight gags, puns (and just about anything else that would draw a laugh), offered at a rapid-fire pace. The writing was superb, and the actors somehow managed to deliver their lines--for at least one take--without cracking up. Nielsen found comedic gold in Drebin, earning an Emmy nomination for his work.

Unfortunately, Police Squad lasted only six episodes before being cancelled by ABC. The network's programming chief, Tony Thomopolous, said the show was taken off the air because "Viewers had to watch it in order to appreciate it." Mr. Thomopolous's remarks later became synonmyous with the stereotypical brain-dead TV executive, but was probably right. The series was years ahead of its time, and it's still funnier than anything described as a network sitcom in 2010.

Police Squad (and its star) quickly gained cult status, generating three Naked Gun films in the late 80s and early 90s. Nielsen starred in other movie spoofs as well, though none ever matched the success of Airplane! or the Naked Gun franchise. Sadly, Mr. Nielsen is no longer with us, but his best comedic moments survive on DVD and at You Tube, where you can watch some of the funniest bits from Police Squad.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Upping the Ante

UPDATE//28 November/0726 EST// Updated information from Yonhap indicates North Korea has moved both anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles to launch positions near the Yellow Sea. The SAMs have been identified as SA-2s, the aging, Russian-built system that has been the backbone of the DPRK air defense network for more than 40 years. They do not pose a significant threat to the advanced tactical aircraft operated by the U.S. and the South Korean air forces. The anti-ship missiles have a range of up to 60 miles but they also represent rather dated technology.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula ratcheted even higher on on Sunday, amid reports that North Korea has placed surface-to-surface missiles on launching pads near the Yellow Sea.

Reports from Reuters (and other media outlets) didn't specify the type of missiles, but given the location, they are almost certainly anti-ship weapons, perhaps the Chinese-designed C-802, which is deployed--and occasionally tested--at positions along the North Korean coast. At those locations, the anti-ship missiles could be used to target U.S. or ROK naval vessels operating near the Northern Limit Line, the maritime extension of the demilitarized zone which divides the two Koreas.

The deployment effectively raises the ante in the current standoff between North and South Korea. Missions normally conducted in that portion of the Yellow Sea, ranging from freedom of navigation to the reinforcement and resupply of South Korean-controlled islands, now face a heightened threat from North Korea's coastal defense batteries.

While these missiles are always a potential menace, their deployment to launch positions suggests a heightened alert posture. And, based on the example of last week's artillery barrage against ROK positions on Yeonpyeong Island, there may be standing orders--from Kim Jong-il himself--that would allow the missile batteries to engage allied naval targets with only the slightest "provocation."

After the artillery strike on the South Korean island, it was revealed that the North Korean leader (and his designated successor), Kim Jong-un, had met with military commanders in the area during the hours leading up to the barrage. Deployment of the coastal defense missiles, preparation for a possible nuclear test in the coming weeks and the personal involvement of Kim Jong-il affairs that the North Korean leaders is engaged in his familiar game of brinkmanship, and this particular episode is far from over.

Pyongyang will likely describe the missile deployment as a "defensive measure," taken in reaction to naval drills between the U.S. and South Korea that are now underway. But that claim is rather specious, since much of the activity will occur far from the disputed waters of the NLL. But it does provide a potential pretext for launching anti-ship missiles at ROK patrol craft and other vessels in the Yellow Sea.

And, at that point, the ball is back in the court of the Seoul government and their allies in Washington. Let's suppose North Korea locks onto a South Korea or U.S. Navy vessel with its target tracking radar. That alone is considered an act of war, giving allied commanders the right to defend themselves, by targeting the unit or system responsible. Will political leaders grant that authority, or will they remain hesitant for further "provoke" the DPRK.

Beyond that, what about options for wider military action, including counter-attacks against other missile sites/offensives systems. That is also well within the right of military commanders (under standing operations plans in most theaters), but there's no indication that American or South Korean leaders would quickly grant that authority to their armed forces. Historically, all responses to Pyongyang's provocations have been deliberate and measured, and limited to political and diplomatic measures. While North Korea has routinely targeted U.S. and ROK military personnel for decades, we have been extremely reluctant to return the favor.

Now may be the time to return the favor. As Kim Jong-il pushes the peninsula towards the brink, the U.S. and South Korea must be clear in explaining the consequences of future attacks--and be willing to follow through. One reason the DPRK has grown so emboldened is a consistent lack of action on the part of the United States and our allies in Seoul. Recent history suggests North Korea has little to fear from allied bluster. At this point, they have little incentive to back down.

No one wants war on the Korean peninsula. But the feckless appeasement of Kim's regime is hardly a path to peace.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Next Provocation

After this week's North Korean artillery barrage against a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea, many analysts predicted a gradual easing of tensions. Their forecast was based on the traditional template for Pyongyang's antics, where a major provocation is followed by a list of demands. Once the U.S. and South Korea accede to Kim Jong-il's wishes, things return to normal--or what passes for normal on the Korean peninsula--and remain that way until the DPRK needs something else, and the cycle begins anew.

But these are not "normal" times on the peninsula. Not only is North Korea in dire economic straits, it is also in the midst of a political transition. And to help the "heir apparent" (Kim Jong-un) stake his claim to power, there are signs that Pyongyang may be preparing to up the ante once again, by conducting the nation's third nuclear test. Preparations at North Korea's primary test site were reportedly underway in late October, and were continuing a "brisk pace" as recently as last week. From the Global Times:

Recent satellite images show heightened activities such as tunneling at the Punggyeri nuclear complex, where the second atomic test blast was detonated last year - three years after the first test in 2006, the report said.

"It appears to be true that some preparations are underway there, but we're not sure what they are for," the Korea Herald quoted a South Korean foreign ministry official as saying Wednesday. "We're keeping a close watch." The official spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Pan Rui, a professor from the Center of American Studies at Fudan University, said it would not be a surprise if a third nuclear test happened.

If Pyongyang carries out the third test, it would most likely be aimed at helping boost the stature of Kim Jong-un--earlier appointed to senior military and political posts."

While some South Korean officials are now back-tracking on claims of a pending DPRK nuclear test, the preparations at Punggyeri have also attracted attention from Washington. South Korea's Chosun Ilbo reports the Pentagon moved a WC-135 Constant Phoenix reconnaissance aircraft to Kadena AB, Okinawa in September, apparently in preparation for a North Korean nuclear test. The WC-135, which deployed prior to Pyongyang's second nuclear blast in 2009, is used to collect airborne radiation and debris released by a nuclear test.

Meanwhile, there is growing evidence that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and his designated successor, Kim Jong-un, approved the recent artillery barrage against Yeonpeyong Island. South Korean intelligence officials have told members of the National Assembly's Defense Committee that the elder Kim and his son visited the coastal area--where the attack was launched--just before the shelling began. North Korea's Central News Agency has confirmed that Kim Jong-il was in Hwanghae Province on the day of the attack. According to a KCNA report, Kim Jong-il was visiting a duck and fish farm in the area.

But intelligence suggests that Kim and his youngest son also met with the Commander of North Korea's 4th Corps during their trip. The 4th Corps controls military forces along the western sector of the DMZ (opposite Seoul), and in adjacent coastal waters. A meeting between Kim Jong-il, his son and the local Corps Commander would also certainly proceed an attack like the one that occurred on Tuesday; Kim Jong-un's presence was clearly aimed at enhancing his stature in North Korea's military establishment, as one of the "leaders" of the strike.

Indeed, both the elder Kim and his son have been remarkably visible in the days since the bombardment of Yeonpyeong, visiting schools and factories across North Korea. That's a sharp contrast to Kim Jong-il's behavior following other international incidents. In the days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mr. Kim spent more than 50 days hiding in underground tunnels, and another 40 days after the DPRK fired a long-range missile in 2006. The whistle-stop tour of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un suggests they are not concerned about a U.S. or South Korean counter-attack.

As we've noticed previously, Pyongyang has clearly been emboldened by the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel last March, and this week's attack on Yeonpyeong. Combined, the two strikes killed 50 ROK military personnel and civilians. In response, North Korea received little more than meaningless sanctions and the proverbial sharply-worded diplomatic protests.

No wonder Kim Jong-il is enjoying those strolls with his son.
Meanwhile, South Korea's defense establishment remains in disarray following the strike. The ROK Defense Minister resigned, and the finger-pointing in military and intelligence circles has already begun. Leaked intelligence reports suggest that South Korean spooks were aware that North Korea had deployed multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) to positions opposite Yeonpyeong in the hours before the attacks.

That deployment should have sent ROK forces to higher alert levels, but (depending on who you believe), word of the MRLs wasn't received by military officials, or simply ignored by commanders. In fact, South Korea media outlets claim that ROK troops weren't sure about the type of weapons being used against them, so the MLRs weren't targeted until the latter stages of the artillery duel.

Let the recriminations begin.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Your Tax Dollars Take Flight

$181,000 an hour: a new study by the National Taxpayers Union lists that figure as the cost for a single flying hour on Air Force One. Based on that total, it cost over $8 million to fly the presidential jet around the world during President Obama's recent visit to India and Indonesia (Wikipedia photo).

It's official: Barack Obama is the most-travelled President during the first two years of his term. A new study from the National Taxpayers Union calculates that Mr. Obama has already spent 55 days abroad since taking office, during 15 separate visits.

But before conservatives start complaining about President Obama's waste of tax dollars, it should be noted that he beat the old record, held by George H.W. Bush, by exactly one day. The elder Bush also tied Mr. Obama for the number of overseas trips during his first two years in office. By comparison, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made eight and eleven foreign trips (respectively) during the first two years of their administrations, spending less than 50 days abroad. However, Mr. Clinton made up for it during his second term, and finished his eight years in office as the most-travelled chief executive, having spent 233 days abroad, or almost eight months of his presidency.

Not surprisingly, the NTU discovered that the amount of presidential travel has increased significantly over the past 50 years. Dwight Eisenhower spent on nine days overseas during his first term; John F. Kennedy was outside the United States for 20 days, and Lyndon Johnson spent just one day abroad during his first term.

And, as you might expect, the growing number of overseas trips has come at a greater cost to the taxpayer. Officially, the government won't say how much it costs when the President travels to a foreign land, because the tab includes everything from operating costs for military aircraft, to hotel bills for his entourage. Getting exact costs for those various expenses has been difficult. Additionally, some expenses (namely the cost of Secret Service protection) are classified, and may never be disclosed for security reasons.

Based on information in the NTU study, it seems clear that Mr. Obama's recent visit to Asia didn't cost $2 billion, as was originally reported. Call that the good news. On the other hand, transportation costs for the trip to India and Indonesia easily exceeded $120 million (more on that in a moment).

The NTU freely admits that its projections are incomplete, given the government's refusal to release certain travel expenses. But of the real insights offered by the new study is the most precise accounting to date of flying hour expenses associated with the Presidential aircraft, Air Force One. Previous estimates pegged the cost per flying hour at somewhere between $34,000 and $56,000, based on decade-old figures from the White House Military Office and the Government Accountability Office. After last year's infamous "photo op" over New York City, media reports suggested the hourly cost for Air Force One was $100,000.

As it turns out, those figures aren't even in the ballpark. A spokesman for the 89th Military Airlift Wing at Andrews (which operates and maintains the Presidential jet fleet), puts the cost per flying hour at a whopping $181,757. That includes fuel, flight consumables, depot-level repairs, aircraft overhaul and engine overhaul--basically, most of the major expense categories associated with any military aircraft.

Incidentally, the study doesn't say if "flight consumables" includes crew costs; Air Force One has a crew of 26, including pilots and flight engineers; cabin stewards and even on-board doctors and nurses. Since pay and training for military personnel are recorded in separate budget categories, those expenses probably aren't reflected in the cost per flying hour.

According to the NTU, operating costs for Air Force One during Mr. Obama's recent overseas trip to Indonesia and South Korea totaled $8.7 million. But remember: that's just for the Presidential aircraft. A former cost analyst for the White House Communications Agency (WHCA), who spent years as an presidential advance team member, offered this important observation:

"President Clinton's 'African Safari' (in late March and early April of 2002) cost the U.S. taxpayer $42.8 million in transportation costs alone. That's equal to $52 million in 2010 dollars. And Clinton's team of 1,300 was less than half the size of Obama's 3,000-member entourage. Using the same math, the transportation costs for that group would be at least $120 million."

The analyst also noted other, over-looked costs associated with a presidential visit, including the advance teams sent to every event site on the chief executive's itinerary. These personnel, including Secret Service agents; WHCA representatives, crews and support personnel for Marine One and of course, White House staffers. These teams often deploy weeks in advance and don't leave until after the president departs.

According to current government figures, each member of the advance team dispatched to Mumbai received $515 a day in per diem, covering their lodging, meals and incidental expenses. Multiply that by the number of individuals assigned to the various advance parties, and you'll see another reason the presidential travel tab is so high. Incidentally, per diem rates for Indonesia are lower, averaging about $200 a day, per person.

Clearly, no one is suggesting that the Commander-in-Chief fly coach on AirTran to his next summit. But there are ways to save money on overseas travel, including a switch to more fuel-efficient aircraft. The Air Force is currently working on the next generation of presidential aircraft, with a VIP version of the Boeing 747-8 as the most likely airframe. There has also been talk about utilizing the 787 Dreamliner as the next Air Force One. Both aircraft are much more efficient than the current presidential jets.

But the best option for saving money on White House travel is reducing the number of trips. Will Mr. Obama make less frequent excursions over the next two years? Don't bet on it. Truth be told, Presidents like the pomp and circumstance that comes with foreign travel and besides, it's a convenient escape after your party takes an electoral shellacking. In that regard, Obama is no different than his predecessors.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What Comes Next?

A North Korean round lands on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island earlier today. The DPRK began shelling the island after South Korea refused to halt military exercises in the area. At least two ROK Marines were killed in the barrage. (KBS image via the Associated Press and Yahoo News.

UPDATE//23 November, 0900 EST//Barely a day after defense officials suggested that additional military assets would not be dispatched to South Korea, the Pentagon has announced that the USS George Washington and its battle group will join ROK naval exercises, beginning Sunday. The drills were reportedly planned before the latest confrontation between North and South Korea, but the deployment allows the U.S. to demonstrate its support of the Seoul government--and send a message to Pyongyang.

However, the North Korean regime will likely be unimpressed; they've witnessed similar American shows-of-force in the past. But from a military perspective, having a carrier in Korean waters is clearly beneficial; it almost doubles the number of U.S. strike aircraft in the vicinity, should they be needed.

For Barack Obama, that proverbial 3 a.m. phone call actually came an hour later. According to the White House, the President was awakened at 4 a.m. and told that North Korean artillery was firing on South Korean military positions--and civilian neighborhoods--on Yeonpyeong Island, located off the DPRK coast. At least two ROK Marines died in the bombardment; South Korean forces returned fire, triggering an artillery duel that lasted almost an hour. North Korean casualties are unknown, but the Seoul government said they could be "heavy."

It was one of the most serious confrontations between the two nations since the Korean War ended in 1953--and it came only months after a North Korean submarine torpedoed a ROK corvette in the Yellow Sea, killing 46 South Korean sailors.

And how did the Administration react? Earlier today, the White House put out a standard statement "condemning" the attack, and urging North Korea to halt its "belligerent action." But, according to Fox News, President Obama has reportedly ruled out sending more U.S. military forces to the region. A senior American military official told Fox that "no one is interested in escalating this, but we are taking this very seriously."


Let's review for a moment. South Korea, a key U.S. ally, has been attacked once again by North Korea. True, the ROK military was conducting artillery drills in the area at the time, but those rounds were fired into open waters. Meanwhile, Pyongyang demanded that South Korea cease its military training, and opened fire on Yeonpyeong when Seoul failed to comply. According to press reports, at least 50 North Korean shells landed on the island. It was clearly no accident--or a case of hot-headed local commanders exceeding their authority. The DPRK would not continue the bombardment of a South Korean island for almost an hour without approval of senior officials in Pyongyang.

And, this latest attack comes only days after the North Korean government showed a new uranium enrichment facility to a visiting delegation of U.S. scientists. Completion of the complex (built over the past year), gives Kim Jong-il yet another path to producing more nuclear weapons, or more powerful atomic devices. Collectively, the facility tour and today's artillery raid were designed to re-focus U.S. attention on North Korea, with the implied threat of more serious provocations if the Obama Administration fails to comply with Pyongyang's demands on the nuclear issue and other matters.

Clearly at his limit, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak threatened "enormous retaliation" against the DPRK. Mr. Lee clearly understands the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear stockpile and its massive conventional forces. The next DPRK artillery barrage could be easily directed against Seoul, a sprawling megalopolis of 12 million people that lies less than 50 miles from the DMZ. Against that backdrop, President Lee would probably appreciate a stronger show of support from the United States, beyond Robert Gibbs's assertion that we're "strongly committed" to the defense of South Korea.

Indeed, U.S. officials seem to be operating on the assumption that tensions on the Korean peninsula will gradually ease, as they have in the past. Obviously, this isn't the first time North Korea has attacked its southern neighbor. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were a series of high-profile strikes by the DPRK, ranging from a commando assault of the Blue House (South Korea's presidential mansion) to the bombing of a ROK jetliner over the Indian Ocean, and the infamous Rangoon bombing, where North Korean agents tried to assassinate the South Korean president during a state visit to Burma. After each of those incidents, tensions between North and South Korea eventually subsided, and war was avoided.

Indeed, some would argue that today's attack pales in comparison to previous provocations. The deaths of two ROK Marines is a serious matter in Seoul, but it's not on the same scale as the downing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987 (which resulted in the deaths of 115 passengers and crew members), or North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006.

But there is also a danger in down-playing the significance of today's artillery duel. The shelling of Yeonpyeong is reminiscent of those earlier attacks in this sense: all occurred during a time of political transition in North Korea. Thirty years ago, Kim Jong-il was trying to prove himself a worthy successor to his father, Kim Il-sung. As his portfolio within the government expanded, the younger Kim was the architect of this highly provocative attacks against the ROK government and Korean Air, with little regard for the potential consequences.

In that sense, the strikes achieved their intended goal: Kim Jong-il gained support from the North Korean military and intelligence services, which allowed him to consolidate power after his father's death in 1994. Sixteen years later, the DPRK dictator has anointed his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as heir apparent, despite his youth and inexperience. Following the example of his father, it's quite conceivable that Kim Jong-un would push for more provocations of South Korea and the U.S., to help Pyongyang achieve its geo-political goals--and improve his chances of holding power after the death of Kim Jong-il.

But there are also distinct differences between 1980 and 2010. Economically, the DPRK is bankrupt; if the Kims have some sort of grand strategy for ensuring their nation's survival, time is not on their side. The window of opportunity for military action is closing. At some point, Pyongyang will not be able to sustain its military complex; but by "managing" confrontations with Washington and Seoul, North Korea can forestall its collapse. In the early 1990s, the leading intelligence analysts in the U.S. and South Korea believed that North Korea would be gone within 20 years. Pyongyang's continued existence is a reflection of the regime's survival skills--and our own intelligence shortfalls.

The strategic calculus is further muddled by economic and political changes over the past 30 years. China was an economic weakling three decades ago; today, it's a powerhouse that holds trillions of dollars in American debt. Given that reality, Washington can no longer act unilaterally in northeast Asia. And so far, Beijing has been unwilling to punish North Korea.

But that doesn't mean that China wants chaos on the peninsula, or that our military option is completely off the table. Indeed, the biggest difference between the early 80s and today may be our lack of leadership on the issue of North Korea. Beginning with Bill Clinton (and continuing with his successors), the U.S. has tried a mix of appeasement and multi-lateral diplomacy to prevent another war between North and South Korea. That goal has been achieved, but at a steep price. We now have a nuclear-armed (and emboldened) regime in Pyongyang that is quite willing to press its luck.

That's why it's time to discuss the unthinkable: what comes next. What are we prepared to do the next time Kim Jong-il attacks South Korea, beyond the normal diplomatic outrage, and consultations with our partners in the area? If we don't have a Plan B, then others may fill that power vacuum.

You see, there's one more regional change worth noting. Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan are now advanced economic and technological powers. If Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei perceive (correctly) that the U.S. is unable--or unwilling--to protect them, those nations may exercise other options, namely developing their own nuclear deterrent. All three have the ability to develop nuclear weapons within 18 months. If you think Northeast Asia is a scary place right now, imagine that region where everyone is nuclear-armed, and the U.S. is little more than a by-stander, by its own choosing.
ADDENDUM: We should also remember that today's artillery barrage comes at the start of the North Korean military's annual Winter Training Cycle. Military readiness will steadily increase over the next four months before peaking in late March. That will give Pyongyang even more options for provoking South Korea, the U.S. and Japan. Mr. Obama should expect more 3 a.m. calls from the peninsula in the coming months.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A More Pressing Nuclear Problem

While the Obama Administration is pushing for confirmation of that badly-flawed Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia, they might want to refocus on a far more pressing proliferation issue: North Korea's plans to expand its nuclear arsenal, or produce more powerful atomic weapons.

According to The New York Times, Pyongyang unveiled a "vast" new uranium enrichment facility during a visit by an American nuclear scientist last week. Built over the past year, the facility will allow North Korea to produce nuclear weapons in far larger quantities, or build bombs that are far more destructive.

The scientist, Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford professor who previously directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in an interview that he had been “stunned” by the sophistication of the new plant, where he saw “hundreds and hundreds” of centrifuges that had just been installed, and that were operated from what he called “an ultra-modern control room.” The North Koreans claimed 2,000 centrifuges were already installed and running, he said.

American officials know that the plant did not exist in April 2009, when the last Americans and international inspectors were thrown out of the country. The speed with which it was built strongly suggests that the impoverished, isolated country, which tested its first nuclear device in 2006, had foreign help and evaded strict newUnited Nations Security Council sanctions imposed to punish its rejection of international controls.

A delegation of American experts that included Dr. Hecker has already reported thatit confirmed satellite photographic evidence of another new advance by the North — a light-water reactor being built on the site of a facility the country had dismantled as part of an agreement with the international community to end its nuclear weapons program.

Dr. Hecker told the Times he was not allowed to take pictures inside the new facility, or verify DPRK claims that the processing plant is already producing low-enriched uranium. He also expressed doubts as to whether North Korea "has the technology" to complete the new light-water reactor at Yongbyon.

Still, the new processing complex and the reactor project represent a significant advance--and deliberate provocation--by Pyongyang. David Sanger, the Times reporter who wrote today's article, suggests the activity might represent a ploy, something North Korea might be willing to give up (in return for U.S. concessions) during future nuclear talks.

With all due respect to Mr. Sanger, the "ploy" scenario represents a very distant possibility--at best. Construction of the enrichment plant and the light-water reactor represent national-level programs for the cash-starved communist state. Even with foreign assistance (most assuredly from Iran), the DPRK had to commit badly-needed resources to the project. Yet, according to the Times--and spin-meisters in the White House--Pyongyang might be willing to give it all up, if Washington will make the right counter-offer.

Call us skeptical. Kim Jong-il and his heir, Kim Jong un, view North Korea's nuclear arsenal as the guarantor of state survival. With the opportunity to build more (or more powerful) nukes--and sell them to client states like Iran--Pyongyang has a powerful disincentive to keep the new facilities off the bargaining table. Or, if North Korea is interested in negotiating, they would demand an extraordinarily high "price" for surrendering those facilities. And, since the last American nukes were withdrawn from South Korea almost 20 years ago, the DPRK might demand a complete withdrawal of U.S. conventional forces from the peninsula, in exchange for shuttering the enrichment plant and the light-water reactor.

But such demands are still a ways down the road. For now, North Korea will focus on getting the facilities operational, and upgrading their nuclear arsenal. It's a stunning reminder that START isn't the most serious nuclear issue facing the U.S.; the "honor" is reserved for states like North Korea that are (now) capable of producing nukes on a much larger scale, and sharing them with allies like Iran. The Obama Administration is currently briefing allies on these latest developments, but the real key is developing a comprehensive strategy for dealing with this problem.

Given today's revelations from the North Korea, it's clear that START can wait. We should devote that "laser-like" focus to Pyongyang's new nuclear facilities and attempts to expand its arsenal.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Send in the Tanks

Nine years into the Afghan War, U.S. Marines will soon have a weapon they've been lacking in that theater: M-1 Abrams tanks.

As difficult as it is to believe, the Pentagon has never deployed main battle tanks into Afghanistan--until now. With American operations around Kandahar (and other areas) taking on a harder edge, Marine commanders requested the tanks to provide direct fire support. The U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, approved their request, and a company of M-1s (numbering about 16 tanks, plus crews and support personnel) will arrive in the coming weeks.

More from the Washington Post:

A U.S. officer familiar with the decision said the tanks will be used initially in parts of northern Helmand province, where the Marines have been engaged in intense combat against resilient Taliban cells that typically are armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and homemade bombs. The initial deployment calls for about 16 tanks, but the overall number and area of operations could expand depending on needs, the officer said.

"The tanks bring awe, shock and firepower," the officer said. "It's pretty significant."

Although the officer acknowledged that the use of tanks this many years into the war could be seen as a sign of desperation by some Afghans and Americans, he said they will provide the Marines with an important new tool in missions to flush out pockets of insurgent fighters. A tank round is far more accurate than firing artillery, and it can be launched much faster than having to wait for a fighter jet or a helicopter to shoot a missile or drop a satellite-guided bomb.

So why have we waited so long to utilize M-1s in Afghanistan? From a logistical stand-point, shipping the 68-ton tanks to the war zone would be difficult and costly. Airlifters like the C-5 Galaxy and the C-17 Globemaster III can fly M-1s into Bagram and other major airfields--but at a price. Load a single Abrams into a C-17 (or two tanks into the cargo bay of a C-5) and you've reached their load capacity. That means tons of equipment and other supplies must wait for another mission, or transport by a civilian carrier. As we noted in a previous post, many of the MRAP vehicles rushed to Iraq and and Afghanistan were transported by Russian and Ukrainian heavy-lift aircraft, to minimize disruptions in our own airlift system.

And, from an operational standpoint, there were plenty of reasons to keep the M-1s at home. Much of the terrain isn't exactly conducive to armor operations. Besides, our enemy--Al Qaida and the Taliban--are light, mobile forces, so it makes sense to go after them with units that can move rapidly, across all types of terrain, and utilize artillery and air for fire support.

There was also a perception problem. Some officers worried that tank deployments would conjure up images of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. But Canadian and Danish forces had previously used tanks in Afghanistan (in support of their own troops) and the Marines had asked permission to deploy M-1s as early as 2006. Those requests were rejected by previous American commanders in Afghanistan, who believed that air strikes and artillery fire were sufficient.

But in isolated cases, that support proved difficult to obtain, a reflection of the more restrictive rules of engagement previously imposed on our forces. But since General Petraeus arrived in Afghanistan, he has loosened those constraints, and the number of fire support missions have mushroomed. According to the Post, coalition aircraft dropped more than 1,000 bombs in Afghanistan in October, the highest total since the war began in 2001.

While air and artillery support is effective and deadly, there are advantages to having M-1a along on a mission. As one analyst observed:

Tanks give you immediate, protected firepower and mobility to address a threat that's beyond the range" of machine guns that are mounted on the mine-resistant trucks that most U.S. troops use in Afghanistan, said David Johnson, a senior researcher at the Rand Corp. who co-wrote a recent paper on the use of tanks in counterinsurgency operations.

There's also a psychological benefit, as illustrated on battlefields dating back to World War I. It's a fact that isn't lost on the Danes, who also dispatched their Leopard 2 main battle tanks on deployments to Bosnia back in the 1990s. At the time, other nations had tanks in the Balkans; in fact, some of the other NATO partners privately ridiculed the deployment, noting that the warring factions had few tanks (or anti-tank weapons). Moving the tanks around the Danish sector was viewed as difficult, since many of the local roads and bridges wouldn't support the weight of a main battle tank. There was also the added cost of supporting a small armored force in an environment where tanks were considered less-than-optimum weapons.

But some of those arguments were demolished (quite literally) one day in 1994. Danish forces near Tuzla came under sustained fire from a Bosnian Serb unit, located in a fortified position. I was a crew member on a USAF EC-130E aircraft, orbiting well south of the firefight. Along with the rest of the airborne battle staff, I listened as the Danes asked for air support, knowing that the request would have to go through NATO and U.N. channels--with only a slight chance of being approved.

While NATO and the U.N. diplomats mulled over the request for an air strike, the Danes did something unexpected. They dispatched two of the Leopard 2 tanks to support the ground unit under fire. The Danes didn't need NATO or U.N. approval, since the tanks were organic assets, and the ground unit was exercising its inherent right to self-defense.

The tanks arrived within about 20 minutes and spent the next hour (or so) pounding the Serb position. There were a few cheers aboard my aircraft, as the Tactical Air Control Party gave us a blow-by-blow account. Needless to say, the Serbs stopped shooting at the Danes and gave them a wide berth after that.

I picked up a few more details on that battle years later, in another assignment at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Admiral Leighton "Snuffy" Smith was a guest speaker for our group; five years earlier he had been the commander of NATO forces in the Mediterranean when the Danes sent the tanks after the Serbs. He spoke with one of the tank commanders--a young woman--and asked her why she expended more than 40 rounds from her main gun (120mm) against the Bosnian Serb position.

"Because that was all I had," she replied.

Admiral Smith's story got a good laugh, but it also illustrated an important lesson. Even against low-tech adversaries, overwhelming force can still carry the day. And for troops on the ground, it's nice to have a highly accurate fire support platform completely at your disposal. No calling in a fire mission, waiting for approval, then waiting for the arty, fast movers or Apaches to show up. Just point and shoot. Dead Taliban in a matter of moments.

Incidentally, the bad guys in Afghanistan have already run up against the Leopard 2, with predictable results. Now they get a chance to meet the M-1 with the Marines. Sounds like a plan to me.

Friday, November 19, 2010


Before jetting off to the NATO summit in Portugal, President Obama held a brief media "opportunity" at the White House. During a short Q&A with reporters, he made it clear that the new START treaty with Russia should be a priority for the lame duck session of Congress. "It's a matter of national security," he said.

But that may be the very reason to reject the accord. In an article posted earlier this week at National Review, Keith B. Payne and Tom Scheber note that the new START agreement provides plenty of opportunities for Russian chicanery:

The treaty’s force limits leave enormous opportunity for Russian circumvention, and, according to the open Russian press, they require only the United States to make reductions — not Russia as well. The treaty omits any limitation whatsoever on nuclear cruise missiles deployed on ships or submarines at a time when Russia apparently is moving forward with such weapons. And the Russian Duma committee responsible for treaties has just indicated that New START’s force ceilings do not apply to future Russian rail-mobile ICBMs. These are large loopholes indeed.

In addition, compared to those of its predecessor, the 1991 START, New START’s verification measures are extremely weak. Among many problems, it abandons the mobile-missile verification regime of START I, including the provision for continuous monitoring at final-assembly plants for Russian mobile missiles. It virtually guarantees that we will not get useful performance data from Russian ballistic-missile flight tests, leaving us with limited insight into the performance characteristics of new Russian weapons — including such basic items as range and warhead payload. It shifts much of the burden of verification to aged National Technical Means satellites and other sensors, and allows Russia’s deployed mobile missiles to be concealed. Several Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee rightly concluded that “verification in this treaty is very weak.” Sen. Kit Bond (R., Mo.) observed, “This is one that turns President Reagan’s theory of trust but verify on its head. We will trust them even though we can’t verify it.”

Obviously, these are not minor flaws. Over the past 25 years, Russia's land-based ICBM force has largely shifted from silo-based systems, to road and rail-mobile missiles. Moscow's first rail-based system, the SS-24 Scalpel, was introduced in the early 80s and remained in service for 25 years. Tracking the missile trains across Russia's vast railway network proved to be extremely difficult.

We recall a conversation with a DIA analyst who worked the SS-24 problem. At one point, imagery analysts were pouring over winter images of Soviet rail lines, looking for distinctive "snow melt" patterns that might have been produced by the missile trains. From what we gathered, a distinctive signature was never developed, and tracking the trains remained a near-impossible task. Now, if those Russian legislators are correct, future START ceilings won't apply to the next-generation of rail-mobile missiles, which will be equally difficult to keep tabs on.

Concerns about Moscow's newest land-mobile missiles are even more problematic. As Payne and Scheber observe, it will be difficult to gain useful intelligence on those systems without continuous inspections at the final assembly plant, and without full access to telemetry data. Yet, the Obama Administration is willing to accept these glaring weaknesses and press ahead with the agreement. From their perspective, U.S. weapons are as much a problem as the Russian arsenal, and the White House will go along with anything that mandates major cuts in the nuclear stockpile.

Indeed, the folly of this approach is evident in some of the tactics being used to "sell" the treaty. Earlier today, administration officials warned that without a new START agreement, some of our intelligence satellites might have to be diverted to Russian missile targets, reducing support for conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that explanation has a couple of problems; first, as U.S. involvement in those conflicts wanes, there will be less tasking for overhead platforms.

Additionally, it's worth remembering that some overhead sensors have less value in tracking terrorists and other targets associated with a low-intensity conflict. So, we not sure how much support will be lost, particularly with more UAVs on-orbit in theater, and a wider array of sensor packages for those aircraft.

Truth be told, the new START is less about a cogent national security policy, and more about Mr. Obama's crusade to rid the world of nukes, with less regard for the strategic consequences. And did we mention that he's anxious to get any accomplishment on his resume, particularly after that recent "shellacking" at the polls?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Last Gasp?

As they inch closer to minority status, House Democrats will hold leadership elections tomorrow. Nancy Pelosi, whose tenure as Speaker was ended by the GOP landslide two weeks ago, is the preemptive favorite to become Minority Leader. She faces a nominal challenge from North Carolina Representative Heath Shuler, who believes his party needs a new leadership team, after losing 60 seats in the mid-term elections.

Obviously, Mr. Shuler is right, but he has virtually no chance of beating Pelosi. And, no Democrats have announced plans to run against her top deputies, Steny Hoyer of Maryland and South Carolina's James Clyburn. In fact, Pelosi even created a new leadership position for Clyburn, avoiding a potential showdown between the two men--one that might further erode Pelosi's support among members of the Congressional Black Caucus. So, when the new Congress convenes in January, the same old House Democratic leadership team will be in place.

Needless to say, Republicans are delighted. Ms. Pelosi is the most polarizing figure in American politics (President Obama runs a close second), and she's a godsend for GOP fund-raising and political strategy. Somewhere, Republican consultants are probably testing ads on focus groups, depicting Pelosi and her team as the main obstacles to a balanced budget and economic prosperity. Call Ms. Pelosi the political gift that keeps on giving.

But her rebound from this month's electoral shellacking also signals something else: the death knell of the moderate-to-conservative wing of the Democratic Party. Americans under the age of 40 may find this difficult to fathom, but once upon a time, there were Democrats who were in favor of a strong national defense, and equally conservative on social issues. For decades, they dominated the southern and western wings of the party, and you could find them in many northern districts with large numbers of Catholic voters. If names like John Stennis and Scoop Jackson ring a bell, then you actually remember the conservative branch of the Democratic Party.

So, what happened to them? Well, the GOP began targeting the South, and found a receptive audience for its (more) conservative principles. Democrats claim the "southern strategy" was a form of veiled racism, but that ignores awi couple of inconvenient facts. Republicans didn't begin making big strides in the Deep South until the late 1970s/early 1980s, more than a decade after the civil rights era.

And more recently, southern voters have elected Black Republicans to the House of Representatives in majority white districts in Oklahoma (J.C. Watts); South Carolina (Tim Scott) and Florida (Allen West). That doesn't exactly square with the image of the southern GOP serving as the last bastion of racism and discrimination.

Truth be told, the fate of moderate and conservative Democrats was effectively sealed by their own party, and its decades-long march to left-wing extremism. With the ranks of Blue Dogs decimated by the 2010 GOP tsunami, the House Democratic Caucus of 2011 will be more liberal than ever, one more reason that Nancy Pelosi will cruise to victory as minority leader. As a group, surviving House Democrats believe they lost because (a) their message wasn't communicated properly and (b) it wasn't liberal enough.

That's why Heath Shuler's challenge of Nancy Pelosi may represent the last gasp for Congressional Democrats with even the most moderate leanings. In the Pelosi wing of the party, there is simply no room for anyone who doesn't follow the socialist agenda. Mr. Shuler is hardly a conservative, but he's well to the right of folks like George Miller, John Lewis, and Steny Hoyer. For his troubles, he'll be drubbed in the leadership vote, and stripped of plum assignments by party leaders. We'll predict that Mr. Shuler will be a rather lonely fellow for the next few years.

And if that's not bad enough, Ms. Pelosi (and for that matter, President Obama) seem to have no regard for the damage they've inflicted as the state and local level. If you accept Tip O'Neill's axiom about all politics being local, then the Democratic Party is in serious trouble in states it once owned, like Alabama and Texas.

In a recent piece for The Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes detailed the collapse of Democrats in George Wallace's home state. As he writes, Alabama went "crimson" in this year's election, with Republicans capturing all statewide offices, taking control of both houses of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, and winning six of the seven Congressional races. In Shelby County, a suburb of Birmingham, Republicans won all 39 races for county and state office. Thirty years ago, there wasn't a single elected Republican in the entire county.

To be fair, there are places in the country (California comes to mind) where the GOP faces similar problems. But demographic trends and population shifts favor places like Texas, Alabama and Florida, where Republicans have achieved political dominance. Meanwhile, Democrats in those states--and others--face an uphill climb just to reappear on the political landscape. And if they achieve that goal, their candidates still must contend with national figures who are political poison to local candidates.

That's why Mr. Shuler's leadership bid represents the last, fading gasp of Democratic moderates on the national stage. It will certainly fail, and in the process, push the party even more to the left. We can only wonder how many of the remaining Blue Dogs will become Republicans in the coming weeks, finding they have no future in their own party. And outside the Beltway, Democrats are becoming extinct in places they dominated for decades. Not that Nancy Pelosi cares. Places like Alabama and Texas are best viewed from the window of her Boeing 737 Business Jet, the same "ride" she'll be giving up in just a few more weeks.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Higher Cost of Higher Ed

If you have a son or daughter in college, you have our sympathies. It's no secret that the cost of a higher education has risen faster than virtually any other item over the last three decades. A recent article posted at Inside Higher Ed notes that college tuition has risen at an annual rate of 7.1% since 1981--far above the rate of inflation, and well beyond increases for other consumer items, ranging from energy to health insurance.

College administrators have tried to defend skyrocketing tuition rates, blaming everything from higher salaries for faculty and staff members, to the "amenities" required to attract new students. After all, no self-respecting freshman who go near a campus without a state-of-the-art workout facility, or a posh dorm room. They also claim that its more difficult to control costs in education and other service industries, where costs increases have been running well above inflation for decades.

Still, those arguments only go so far. Fact is, colleges and universities have become addicted to a seemingly endless stream of federal (and private) student aid. In an easy money environment, administrators found it easy to jack up tuition rates, knowing that politicians would increase funding to match the rising cost of a college degree.

And, as you might expect, those at the pinnacle of the university system have reaped the rewards of this perpetual boom cycle. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 30 college presidents earned more than $1 million in pay and benefits in 2008, based on an analysis of tax records and other data. Among the rest, 20% of the chief executives at the 448 institutions surveyed earned at least $600,000 a year.

And the perks don't end with six and seven-figure compensation packages. As the Chronicle discovered, university leaders now receive fringe benefits once associated with corporate executives, and the ranks of "millionaire" presidents and chancellors is growing:

Perks including first-class air travel, country club dues and housing are now included in reported pay.

In 2007-2008, 23 presidents received more than $1 million. As recently as 2004, no college president had broken the seven-figure threshold.

While some presidents on the latest list lead ultra-selective schools such as Columbia, Yale and Penn, executives from schools such as the University of Tulsa and Chapman University in Orange, Calif., are on it, too.

Not all the most elite schools are represented, either. The presidents of Harvard, Princeton and Johns Hopkins all were paid in the $800,000 range.

The Chronicle also found that public university presidents (as a group) earn slightly less than their counterparts at private institutions. The highest paid leader of a state college was Gordon Gee of The Ohio State University, who earned $1.5 million in salary and other compensation last year. By comparison, the head of Strayer Education Inc, the holding company for the for-profit school of the same name, paid Chairman Robert Silberman $41.9 million last year, including stock options and deferred compensation.

Obviously, the salary of college presidents is a very small factor in the tuition equation. And, we don't begrudge the packages being offered to university leaders. It's a buyer's market, and there are college boards that clearly believe their presidents and chancellors are worth more than $1 million a year.

Besides, keeping the board of trustees happy (not to mention faculty and alumni) is a tough job. It's not hard to find a university that has forced out a chief executive who was deemed unsuccessful, unpopular, or both. Gordon Gee of Ohio State, acclaimed as the "Best College President in America" by Time, left Brown under a cloud in 2000, after only two years on the job. To this day, he is commemorated on the Brown campus with the "E. Gordon Gee Lavatory Complex," a collection of port-a-potties that appears during the spring weekend.

So where's the rub? It lies in the hypocrisy with which such stories are reported. If it's okay for a college president (in many cases, a public employee) to earn a seven-figure salary, then why is it considered outrageous when a Wall Street executive earns an eye-popping compensation package. True, college leaders aren't in the Goldman Sachs league (at least, not yet), but when you consider that no university presidents were earning this kind of money 15 years ago, the salary inflation is significant, to say the least.

And what are taxpayers and alumni donors getting for their money? That's the $64,000 question. While institutions like Harvard and Princeton are at the top of the academic ladder, other schools with high-paid leaders have a mixed performance record. We know of one SEC school that pays its chancellor well over $500,000 a year in salary and other compensation. The campus is gorgeous (and so are the co-eds), but the school doesn't have a single, world-class academic program.

There's nothing to indicate that university presidents will be taking a big pay cut in the near future, but some sort of reckoning may be at hand. The days of unlimited federal student aid--the "mother's milk" of the modern university system--may be ending, with renewed attempts to reign in the national debt. That will put more pressure on university leaders to grow endowments (no easy feat in a down economy) and find other sources of funding. Facing those realities, the kings and queens of academia will have to earn those fat paychecks.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Little Perspective, Please

This is getting ridiculous.

We've heard some far-fetched explanations for the smoke plume that appeared off the California coast Monday evening, but this one takes the cake.

"Did North Korean Launch Mystery Missile?"

A blog called "The Right Perspective," run by "NYC's Most Dangerous Callers to Talk Radio," is among the outlets offering that theory. Stringing together a few facts--and tons of speculation--they conclude that Pyongyang was behind that mysterious contrail, sighted in the skies over the Pacific Ocean. From their Tuesday post on the subject:

A missile launched off the California coast Tuesday afternoon may have been launched by Communist dictatorship North Korea as a show of strength ahead of the G20 Summit, scheduled to be held in South Korea tomorrow.

Then, after a recitation of various North Korean provocations, The Right Perspective offers this "clincher," from the grandfather of all conspiracy theorists, Alex Jones:

"Another more frightening scenario is being discussed by insiders at Homeland Security and the super-secret National Intelligence Agency: North Korea has rattled its sabre again, this time with a very, very large missile launched from a Sang-O class submarine modified to carry a missile or towing a missile-launching sea sled. A sea sled missile launch platform was first perfected by Nazi Germany in World War II and planned for use in the closing months of the war against New York and Washington, D.C.

To be fair no one--including experts at the Pentagon--have offered a satisfactory explanation of that mysterious smoke trail (or whatever it was). Late today, a DoD spokesman said the streaks "appear to have been an aircraft condensation trail," adding there was no evidence to suggest any other cause.

But there's a little problem with that scenario. A large aircraft (some have suggested a jumbo jet) heading away from the coast would be transmitting an IFF signal. The FAA's radar system, which tracks aircraft primarily on their IFF squawk, showed no traffic in the area at the time of the incident. Absent a credible explanation from the government, the tinfoil hat crowd is free to spin their outlandish theories.

Unfortunately, their theories have a few holes, too. North Korea's largest sub, the Sang-o class, is barely 100 feet long, less than one-third the size of the earliest U.S. and Russian ballistic missile boats. Fitting an SLBM into that limited space would be virtually impossible. A towed sled offers a more practical approach, but Pyongyang would still face the challenge of getting the sub--and its towed launch platform--across the Pacific, undetected.

We should also note that a Sang-o class boat has a range of only 1,500 miles. Without extensive underway support, i.e., a string of sub tenders across the Pacific, the Sang-o could never make the trip. Not only does the DPRK lack those resources, the sub's transit would likely be detected by ASW assets.

The same holds true for any Chinese or Russian sub. Even at the height of the Cold War, the closest point-of-approach by a Soviet missile boat was no more than 300 kilometers--and that was a reflection of the weaponry available in the 1960-70s. When better missiles became available, patrol areas were re-established 3-6,000 kilometers from our shores.

Today, when Russian "boomers" actually leave port, they patrol in bastion areas close to their ports. With today's SLBM technology, it's possible to for a sub in the White Sea (or off the Kamchatka Peninsula) to attack targets deep inside the United States. The latest Chinese ballistic missile boat, the Type 94 class, has missiles with an 8,000-kilometer range, allowing them to patrol from relatively protected waters in the western Pacific.

Of course, you need to be much closer to launch cruise missiles, which brings us back to the problem of evading surface vessels, helicopters, attack subs and underwater sensors, all dedicated to the ASW mission. If an enemy sub managed to run that gauntlet--even in an era of reduced defensive assets--then every ASW officer in the Pacific Fleet should be fired, along with the Chief of Naval Operations.

At this point, we're not sure what was spotted in the skies off Los Angeles two days ago. The "airplane" theory strains credulity, but so do wild tales about Chinese or North Korean subs, firing missiles near Catalina Island.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Mystery Missile

This image, recorded by a Los Angeles TV news chopper, shows the contrail left behind by an aircraft or missile launch off the California coast on Monday. Officially, the Pentagon is still trying to determine the "exact nature of the event." (KCBS/KCAL video, via the Washington Times).

It's been the source of water cooler conversations and endless speculation on the internet. We refer to that mysterious smoke plume that appeared over the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles. The plume, which may have been from an aircraft or a missile, was captured by a news helicopter from KCBS-TV and quickly became an on-line sensation, prompting all sorts of rumors about an accidental launch by the U.S. military; a show-of-force in support of President Obama's overseas trip, provocative test by the Chinese military, or (more likely) none of the above.

Still, more than 24 hours after the plume was first sighted, no one has offered a definitive explanation of what coastal residents witnessed with their own eyes, and millions more saw on television or the internet. If you're among the dozen or so people who haven't seen the video, you can watch it on the KCBS/KCAL website.

Officially, the Pentagon says it is still investigating the incident. Spokesman for the Air Force and the Navy claim there was no test activity in the area at the time of the event. However, the military frequently uses that section of California coastal waters for missile tests and training exercises.

This map shows that much of area north of Catalina Island (and just off-shore from Los Angeles) is reserved for military use. The USAF conducts periodic satellite launches--and occasional ICBM tests--from Vandenburg AFB, northwest of Santa Barbara, while Navy vessels conduct missile testing offshore. So, a military missile launch in the area is hardly unprecedented.

But the object in the KCBS video appears to be moving a bit slow for a land-based or sub-launched ballistic missile. Indeed, the event unfolded more than 30 miles off-shore, so you can rule out a Minuteman III test or Atlas rocket launch for Vandenburg. As for the USN, we have their assurances that no ships or aircraft were operating in the area at the time.

We can also rule out a possible "show-of-force" in support of Mr. Obama's visit to Asia. We've been launching missiles from Southern California for decades, and the tests are so routine, they generate little attention. It's hard to imagine China--or anyone else--getting excited about routine missile test in the area. Besides, if we were conducting a test, exclusion zones would have been declared around the launch site, and extending down range. Press accounts suggest that a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) was posted only after the smoke plume was sighted last night.

And, it may disappoint the tinfoil hat crowd, but the chances of a missile launch from a Chinese or Russian sub near our coast are approximately zero (emphasis ours). While Moscow's ballistic missile fleet has declined dramatically over the past 20 years, the few boomers at sea can strike U.S. targets--with impressive accuracy--from bastion locations near the Russian coast.

As for the PRC, their ballistic missile sub fleet is still in its infancy, but the effective range of their SLBMs extends well beyond 35 miles, even if their accuracy is a bit suspect. Besides, the odds of an enemy sub approaching our coast--and launching a missile undetected--are decidedly slim. The U.S. has invested billions in attack subs, patrol aircraft and undersea sensors designed to keep enemy subs away from our shores. If a Russian or Chinese boat managed to close within 40 miles of Los Angeles (and conduct a missile test), heads would be rolling, from the SecDef on down.

Among the more plausible explanations, some have suggested the plume was caused by an aircraft, flying directly towards the camera. Still, that's a lot of smoke/contrail for a jet and besides, the object appears to be moving away from the news chopper, at least in the video we saw.

Readers will be pleased to learn that, according to NORAD, the missile/jet/UFO did not pose a threat to the homeland. Of course, NORAD and U.S. Northern Command apparently didn't learn of the incident until after it happened. The FAA was also out-of-the-loop, saying the object never appeared on air traffic control radars. From that, we can surmise that whatever it was, it wasn't squawking an IFF signal (surprise, surprise).

Of course, there are other possibilities. Maybe the Pentagon was conducting some sort of test, involving systems or technology they don't want to reveal to the public. As to what that might be, your guess is as good as ours. The object rising into the sky didn't appear to be cutting edge but then again, it might have been a target for some other sort of system, stationed farther out to sea.

Perhaps the most frightening possibility is that the government wasn't involved at all. Two years ago, the Rand Corporation published a lengthy monograph on the threat posed by terrorist-operated cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. Many of the scenarios discussed in the study envision maritime platforms (i.e. merchant vessels) being used as launch platforms.

Once the domain of advanced military forces, cruise missiles with limited range (less than 100 miles) are now available on the world arms market for less than $1 million. They would permit stand-off attacks against area targets (including population centers) and they can be employed with relatively little crew training and support infrastructure. And on the other side of the fence, detecting and defeating cruise missile threats from clandestine launch platforms is very, very difficult.

Given the existing holes in our cruise missile defenses, we should all hope that the smoke plume near L.A. was something innocuous.

Monday, November 08, 2010

First Flight

Eugene Ely takes off from the USS Birmingham on 14 November 1910. It was the first successful flight from a ship, marking the birth of naval aviation (U.S. Navy photo via Wikipedia).

One hundred years ago this week, the cruiser USS Birmingham slipped her moorings at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, and headed out into the Elizabeth River.

But the voyage would be short; the Birmingham wasn't departing for a 'round-the-world cruise, or an extended training deployment. In fact, the cruiser's destination was a corner of the nearby Chesapeake Bay, off Fort Monroe. On that November morning in 1910, the Birmingham was about to make history, thanks to recent modifications at the shipyard, a Curtiss "pusher" aircraft hoisted onboard a few days earlier, and a fearless young man named Eugene Ely.

His assignment? Become the first man to fly an aircraft from the deck of a ship, and (hopefully) live to tell about it.

History recounts that Ely was successful that day. Bad weather threatened to cancel the flight, but around 2 pm the clouds parted. Ely gunned his engine, gave the signal to release the aircraft and thundered down the ramp. He was supposed to wait for the Birmingham to get underway again but with a squall line closing in, Ely couldn't wait any longer.

Seconds into the flight, Ely and his aircraft were headed for disaster. Clearing the edge of the deck, the fragile craft plunged toward the water, propeller tips splintering as they touched the tops of the waves. Ely's plans for a 25 or 30 mile flight, capped by a landing on the naval base's parade ground, quickly changed. With the props damaged and his goggles covered in sea spray, Ely landed his aircraft on the sand at Willoughby Spit, less than three miles away.

Ely's flight in Hampton Roads--and a subsequent takeoff and landing from the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay in 1911--cemented his place in the pantheon of naval aviation. While other nations would move ahead of the U.S. in developing naval air forces and aircraft carriers over the next decade, the honor of the first flight belonged to the U.S. Navy and Eugene Ely.

But much of the remarkable story behind that flight has been forgotten, except among naval historians. In a feature story for the Sunday Virginian-Pilot, writer Bill Sizemore did a fine job of resurrecting long-forgotten details, from the five-degree slant of the Birmingham's improvised flight deck (to assist aircraft acceleration), to the man at the controls of the Curtiss pusher, Eugene Ely.

Given the military's role in the flight, it is often assumed that Ely was a naval officer, assigned to the task by his superiors. But Eugene Ely was a civilian (and newly-licensed pilot), recruited a few months earlier for an aerial barnstorming team by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, chief rival of the Wright Brothers.

At exhibitions in the fall of 2010, Curtiss and Ely met a Navy officer, Captain Washington Irving Chambers. Given the daunting task of exploring the potential of naval aviation, Chambers had few resources and little support from his superiors. But he was determined to conduct a demonstration flight, so he arranged to install a temporary flight deck on the Birmingham; secured financial backing from a wealthy investor, and the acquired the services of Ely and his aircraft.

Eugene Ely was just the 17th American to receive his pilot's license from the federal government, making him one of the nation's earliest aviation pioneers. But when he boarded the Birmingham, Ely had been flying for less than a year. He became interested in aviation while working for a car dealer in Portland, Oregon. Ely's boss had acquired an early aircraft from Curtiss, but had no idea how to fly it. Fascinated with all things mechanical, Ely gave it a try and promptly crashed. He bought the wreck, repaired it and taught himself by to fly. A quick study, Ely soon became a skilled pilot and signed on with Glenn Curtis. That set the stage for the meeting with Captain Chambers, and the historic flight off Hampton Roads.

Ely was young (just 29) and laconic. He preferred to let his wife, Mabel, do most of the talking. Asked by local reporters if the flight had any chance for success, Mrs. Ely said that she had "every confidence" in her husband. "What she says is all right," Eugene Ely replied, "so there you have it."

For his achievement, Ely received a $500 check from the event's sponsor, and the opportunity to make a takeoff and landing from the deck of the Pennsylvania just two months later. Ely hoped the flights might land him a naval commission or a position as a civilian pilot. But the Navy brass was unconvinced that airplanes had a future in their service. Captain Chambers couldn't afford to hire a full-time pilot, so Ely returned to barnstorming. His "career" in naval aviation ended with that landing on the Pennsylvania in early 1911.

And, as fate would have it, Eugene Ely didn't live to see the era of aircraft carriers and the fleet air arm. Barnstorming was an especially dangerous business in those days, and Ely had no illusions about his prospects for long-term survival. A paper in his home state of Iowa asked how long he planned to pursue that career. "I guess I will be like the rest of them. Keep at it until I am killed."

The odds caught up with Ely on 19 October 1911. Performing at a flying exhibition in Macon, Georgia, Ely was late pulling out of a dive and crashed. He jumped clear of the wreckage, not realizing he had suffered a broken neck in the impact. Ely died a few minutes later. He was laid to rest in Williamsburg, Iowa, eleven years before the first American carrier, the USS Langley, joined the fleet.