Monday, August 29, 2011

Doing the Right Thing

We're still undecided on Rick Perry as a presidential candidate, but he gets our vote for standing up for a former airman who's been wronged by the system.

The airmen in question is Colton Read, who served as an imagery analyst at Beale AFB, California. On 9 July 2009, he underwent "routine" surgery for the removal of his gall bladder at David Grant Medical Center at Travis AFB. While under the knife, an Air Force surgeon accidentally nicked Airman Read's aortic artery. After the mistake, clots formed and cut off blood flow to his legs. Read was finally transferred to a civilian hospital but it was too late; doctors had to amputate both legs, leaving him permanently disabled.

Since then, Airman Read has undergone more than a dozen additional surgeries to remove dead tissue from the remnants of his lower limbs, and remove the diseased gall bladder that sent him to the hospital in the first place. And, as you might expect, the operating room debacle ended Read's military career. Facing a medical retirement board that will end his military career, Read is now battling the bureaucracy over his benefits.

To help defray living expenses, Airman Read and his wife sought $100,000 from the Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance (SGLI) Traumatic Injury Program, claiming his situation was the result of injuries inflicted by military doctors. Governor Perry wrote a letter in support of his fellow Texan, asking the Air Force to approve Read's claim.

Predictably, the Air Force denied Airman Read's request, claiming the SGLI benefit does not cover injuries resulting from surgical complications or the treatment of illnesses. Read and his supporters contend that his injuries stemmed from medical mistakes--not the treatment of his gall bladder condition.

A spokeswoman for Perry said the governor is disappointed in the Air Force's decision. Perry served as a USAF C-130 pilot in the 1970s before entering politics.

Airman Read's situation is further complicated by federal laws that limit his ability to sue the doctors that almost killed him. As an Air Force member, Read cannot file a malpractice suit against military physicians, and his wife's potential recovery is capped at $250,000.

Sadly, Colton Read isn't the only armed forces member killed or maimed by incompetent physicians. During your humble correspondent's brief stint as an Air Force medic (30 years ago), I witnessed at least three examples of chronic malpractice (over a 12-month period), resulting in at least one death. As far as I know, none of the doctors involved were sanctioned for their actions.

Four decades later, it looks like some things haven't changed. To be fair, the vast majority of military physicians are skilled practitioners, saving the lives of badly wounded troops on a daily basis. But unfortunately, the armed services still attract their share of medical duds, doctors that (in some cases) have been unable to continue civilian careers because of malpractice issues. So, they continue their practice in the military, shielded by the Feres Doctrine.

At his blog, Airman Read encourages readers to contact their congressmen and ask them to end special legal protections for military physicians. It's a cause worth supporting. The great doctors in uniform have nothing to fear, and the termination of Feres would force middling performers to shape up--or face the consequences.

Colton Read--and the rest of our military--deserve nothing less. It's nice to see Governor Perry support one of his constituents. Too bad other politicians seem to be taking a pass.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Never-Ending Vigil

As it churns up the eastern seaboard, Hurricane Irene has produced a number of "firsts," or near-firsts.

On Saturday afternoon, for example, New York's mass transit system shut down for the first time in history. Subways, buses, ferries and other transportation systems--used by millions of passengers each day--ceased operations until the storm passes, leaving New Yorkers stranded at home, or looking for other ways to get around.

And Times Square, often referred to as the "crossroads of the world," was nearly a ghost town. In the words of Fox anchor Shepard Smith only "European tourists" were venturing out, while residents hunkered down for the approaching storm.

Yet, amid the flurry of cancellations and closings, one American institution soldiered on, quite literally. We refer to the sentries who stand vigil over the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Not even a Category 1 hurricane, with high winds, torrential rains and flooding, is enough to keep the men (and women) of the Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment from their assigned duties. As the Daily Beast reports:

“The tomb has been guarded continuously since 1948,” said Maj. John Miller, a spokesman for the Old Guard, the Army unit that patrols the place. “There’s been severe in the past. There will be severe weather in the future. We have contingency plans


Tradition has dictated that the tomb remain guarded at all times. There has been at least one soldier watching over the tomb since the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment took over the mission a few years after the end of World War II. A sentinel is present 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, including holidays.

When it rains, the guard stands under a green nylon tent that’s used for wreath-laying ceremonies to shield him from the inclement weather. As the winds start to pick up Saturday afternoon and into Sunday, he will then, if necessary, move into what’s known as the “Memorial Display Room,” essentially a marble enclosure that holds plaques and other honoraria dedicated to the unknown soldiers. From there, the guard will have “a continual line of sight on the tomb,” Miller said.

As of this posting (just before 11 pm EST Saturday night), there is heavy wind and rain at Arlington, so the sentry is, presumably, inside the Display Room, out of the elements, but maintaining his vigil. Once the weather passes, the sentinel will return to his outdoors post, and
resume his precise ritual before the tomb.

Just as it has been, every hour of every day since 1937.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Raptors Stay Put?

UPDATE//26 Aug 1:13 PM EDT// Deciding that Irene poses a significant threat to Langley AFB, the Air Force has decided to evacuate its F-22 squadrons from the base. A spokesman tells the Newport News (VA) Daily Press that the USAF has authorized a "one-time" flight of three Langley-based F-22 squadrons to Grissom Air Reserve Base in Indiana. The Air Force's entire Raptor fleet has been grounded since early May, due to concerns about the jet's onboard oxygen system and potential toxins in the cockpit. Conditions permitting, the stealth fighters are expected to return to Langley early next week.
It's a standard military drill as a hurricane approaches coastal bases: Navy ships head out to sea, and aircraft are flown to inland bases.

And, as you might expect, military assets in the Mid-Atlantic Region have begun evacuating as Hurricane Irene churns towards the U.S. mainland. Earlier today, elements of the Navy's Second Fleet left port in Norfolk, Virginia for the open waters of the Atlantic. At sea, the vessels avoid damage that might result if they remained at their berths during the storm. As many as 27 surface vessels and submarines left Norfolk on Thursday; they are expected to remain at sea for 3-4 days.

As the Second Fleet sailed into the Atlantic, the Air Force was making plans to send some of its aircraft to installations well outside the hurricane's path. At Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, about 60 F-15E Strike Eagle fighters and 7 KC-135 Stratotankers left the installation on Thursday, heading for Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.

Farther north, transport and tanker aircraft at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey were preparing to deploy to Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota. Additionally, KC-135s assigned to the New Jersey Air National Guard are heading to McConnell AFB, Kansas, home of an active-duty air refueling wing.

But perhaps the biggest military story of Hurricane Irene is the Air Force assets that are staying put, namely the F-22 Raptor stealth fighters at Langley AFB, VA. The service's entire F-22 fleet has been grounded since early May, due to problems with the aircraft's on-board oxygen system. Making matters worse, the Air Force later found toxins in the blood of Raptor pilots after flights where they reported cognitive problems.

Until the source of the problem can be determined, the Air Force believes its wise to keep all F-22s on the ground. But Irene poses a particular threat to Langley, which lies along a branch of the Back River, only 11 feet above sea level. During Hurricane Isabel in 2003, the base suffered more than $200 million in damage, mostly from flooding. Isabel was a minimum Category 1 hurricane; some models suggest Irene may be a Category 2 when it passes near Langley Saturday night.

Officially, the USAF has not made a decision regarding an F-22 "hurri-vac" from Langley. But sources close to the program suggest that the Raptors assigned to the base's 1st Fighter Wing will stay put. Some aircraft are being moved into maintenance hangers; others will remain under covered parking along the base flight line, and a few are being housed in a hangar belonging to NASA, which operates a research facility at the base.

Collectively, these facilities provide shelter for many of the F-22s at Langley. But leaving the $150 million jets at the base--during the hurricane--entails certain risks. Irene's projected path will push tremendous amounts of water into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including the Back River. Flooding from the storm surge, coupled with heavy rain, will overwhelm the base's drainage system, leaving the flight line vulnerable, along with parked aircraft.

Irene has the potential to deal another blow to the F-22 fleet. While extensive preparations have been made to protect the aircraft, damage from flooding, wind and rain could cause millions of dollars in damage, and further delay the return of Langley's Raptors to the air.

There is an outside chance that the Air Force might approve some sort of waiver--and authorize some sort of last-minute evacuation of the F-22s--that possibility seems increasingly remote. Apparently, the service believes the risk to pilots is too high. There's also the problem of preparing aircraft that haven't flown in more than three months (for a hurri-evac mission), in a matter of just two days. Consequently, the Raptors of the 1st Fighter Wing will (apparently) ride out the hurricane at home station.

Monday, August 22, 2011

NATO's Narrow Escape

With word of Muammar Qadhafi's imminent demise--both politically and literally--there was a collective sigh of relief at NATO Headquarters and throughout the alliance. The Libyan rebels who are about to depose the long-time dictator may not realize it, but their push into Tripoli may have saved NATO from a major military embarrassment.

As Con Coughlin of the U.K. Telegraph noted last week, NATO was on the verge of a tactical stalemate (read: strategic defeat) when insurgent forces began their push into the Libyan capital:

Their success is a welcome boost for a campaign that only a few weeks ago looked to be running into the sand, with Admiral Mike Mullen, America’s most senior military officer, warning that the conflict was “in a stalemate”. The rebels’ new-found enthusiasm for the fray will certainly come as a great relief for Nato, whose aerial assault on Gaddafi’s regime was fast approaching breaking point.

The withdrawal of the alliance’s only aircraft carrier, the French navy’s Charles de Gaulle, which has limped back to its base at Toulon with a faulty engine, means that the alliance is increasingly having to rely on the RAF’s ageing fleet of Tornado bombers. Meanwhile, the premature retirement of Britain’s Nimrod surveillance aircraft, as part of the Government’s ill-considered defence cuts, has punched a gaping hole in our intelligence-gathering capabilities.

As a number of senior British officers warned earlier in the summer, there is a limit to how long the cash-strapped RAF, which is undertaking a significant proportion of Nato’s combat missions, can sustain the current tempo of operations.

Now, with Gaddafi on the verge of final defeat, the alliance can claim a victory. Indeed, CBS News reported today that NATO conducted at least 68 airstrikes during the final push towards Tripoli, with special forces (most likely, British SAS) calling in support missions from the ground. That filled a critical shortfall for NATO, which relied on a patchwork system of phone calls and e-mails from rebel forces to request air missions earlier in the conflict. Sources also tell CBS that U.S. Predator and Reaper missions were also ramped up in recent days, with the UAVs providing real-time intelligence on movements by Gaddafi's forces; timely bomb damage assessment and precision strikes from armed drones.

It wasn't the first time that NATO snatched victory from the jaws of near-defeat. In the spring of 1999, the alliance pounded Serbian targets in the Balkans for more than two months, with stunning accuracy, but only modest strategic effects. As winter turned to spring, the Serb Army and air defense system were largely intact enemy forces had the apparent means to continue their resistance for months, and NATO was looking at the very real prospect of a bloody ground incursion into Kosovo.

Thankfully, that operation never came to pass. After 88 days, Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic suddenly caved, and the conflict came to an end. Eleven years later, there is still some debate over why Milosevic decided to give up, but one key reason was crumbling support at the highest levels of his regime. A few weeks before Milosevic capitulated, one of his oldest (and closest) political allies was arrested while getting off a plane in Malta, carrying a large quantity of gold coins and a phony passport. That marked another moment when NATO uttered that proverbial sigh of relief; you didn't need to be a Serbian political analyst to understand that Milosevic's days were numbered if his key supporters were fleeing the country.

The loss of top allies may also explain why Gaddafi's regime has suddenly come crashing down. Every dictator needs supporters to maintain his grip on power; when they begin to bolt, word quickly spreads throughout the ranks and even low-level personnel began fading into the woodwork. At that point, the dictator's power inevitably collapses; that is apparently what happened in Libya over the weekend.

In hockey terms, NATO gets an assist for the (apparent) toppling of Gaddafi, but the alliance did not score the winning goal. In fact, NATO owes a tremendous debt to the rebels who marched into Tripoli and the Gaddafi supporters who abandoned the Libyan regime and set the stage for its implosion. Without them, NATO would still be waging a diminishing air war that, in Mr. Coughlin's words, was "running into the sand."
And the hardest part is yet to come. With Gaddafi out of the picture, Libya could easily slip into a civil war, pitting tribe against tribe, faction against faction. At this point, no one has offered anything approaching a plan for preventing that scenario.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Those Who Dare

Air show pilots in Kansas City perform the missing man formation in honor of Bryan Jensen, an aerobatic pilot who died during a performance on Saturday (KCTV photo)

It's been a tough weekend on the air show circuit; since Friday, two demonstration pilots--including a member of the RAF Red Arrows--have died in crashes, and wing walker Todd Green fell to his death this afternoon at the Selfridge Air Show in Michigan.

Witnesses told WXYZ-TV that Greenplunged more than 200 feet while trying to transfer from an aircraft to a helicopter. Green was a second-generation air show performer, known for daring mid-air transfers between aircraft--without a parachute. At the time of the accident, Green was standing on the upper wing of a Stearman bi-plane, attempting to grab the runner of a helicopter flying just above him. It was a stunt that Green had performed hundreds of times before.

"He was reaching for the spar underneath the helicopter and just fell." [spectator] Arnold Sese told Action News. "It looked like a dummy falling to the ground. But when the emergency crews started rushing to the runway everyone knew it wasn't part of the stunt."

Sese says about a dozen spectators jumped the fence and rushed to the midfield area to help, but were quickly pushed back by the first responders. After that a stunned hush fell over the crowd as they waited for updates

Green's accident came only one day after aerobatic pilot Bryan Jensen died in a crash at the Kansas City (Mo) Air Show. Jensen, another air show veteran, was performing a routine in his custom-built biplane, nicknamed "The Beast," when he failed to pull out of a dive. The plane slammed into the ground in front of thousands of spectators, killing Jensen instantly.

Meanwhile, British authorities are investigating Friday's crash that claimed the life of a member of the Red Arrows precision flying team. Flight Lieutenant Jon Egging, 33, died Friday near Bournemouth, just moments after the Arrows had completed a demonstration for a local flight festival. More from the U.K. Telegraph:

Flying under the call sign RED 4 he had suddenly peeled away from the other eight Red Arrows as they headed back to Bournemouth international airport after performing at the town's air festival.
The jet flew low over houses and other buildings before crashing into a field near the village of Throop, Dorset, bouncing several times and splitting into two mangled pieces.

Group Captain Simon Blake, the Commandant of the RAF’s Central Flying School, said paid tribute to the pilot. He said: “Flight Lieutenant Jon Egging, known as 'Eggman’, joined the Team as Red 4 in the autumn of 2010.

“A gifted aviator, he was chosen to fly in the Red 4 slot, on the right hand outside of the famous Diamond Nine formation - an accolade in itself being the most demanding position allocated to a first year pilot.

“Throughout his winter training and the display season to date, his professionalism, skill and humility have shone through."

Egging, who joined the RAF in 2000, flew Harriers before being selected to join the Red Arrows last year. He is the first Red Arrows pilot to die in a crash in more than 30 years. Residents near the crash site said Flight Lieutenant Egging appeared steer his aircraft away from houses before attempting to eject.

With these most recent mishaps, there have been a total of seven air show accidents during 2011, resulting in four deaths (the other fatality, stunt performer Amanda Walker, passed away in late May from injuries she received in a March crash at Brownsville, Texas).

Over the past decade, there have been at least 52 major accidents at air shows around the world, resulting in 127 fatalities. However, that death toll is somewhat misleading, since 99 of the deaths occurred in two crashes from 2002, one in India, the other in the Ukraine. That latter incident, the Sknyliv Air Show Disaster, was caused when two pilots lost control of a Ukrainian Air Force SU-27 and ejected. The jet hit the ground and bounced off the nose of a parked transport aircraft before exploding, killing 77 spectators on the ground.

While there's an element of danger in air show flying, it's amazing that more accidents don't occur. And the reason they don't is very simple: the flight routines and other aerial stunts that we marvel at are performed by professionals who train constantly, using the best equipment in the aviation industry.

They put their lives on the line because flying and performing are passions, one often shared across generational lines. Amanda Walker, the wing walker who died earlier this year, was performing with her husband Kyle at the time of their crash. Their fathers, Jimmy Franklin and Bobby Younkin, died in 2005, when their biplanes collided during an airshow performance in Canada. It's not much consolation to the families and friends of the pilots and performers who have passed in recent years, but all died doing something they loved, challenging fate (and physics) until that final moment.

So, the next time you watch an airshow routine, remember that person in the cockpit, or the daring individual on the wing of that airplane. Their performances are truly extraordinary, and their margin for error is very, very small. All the more reason to cheer and marvel.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Today's Reading Assignment

...why the Tea Party should resist budget deals that produce massive cuts in federal spending, but gut defense programs in the process. Words of caution from former UN Ambassador John Bolton.

Incidentally, no one is saying the Pentagon should be immune to budget reductions. But wholesale cuts--made with little regard for national security--will do more harm than good, and inevitably cost even more. Lest we forget, one reason that Ronald Reagan had to spend so much on the military is because predecessors, Gerald Ford and (especially) Jimmy Carter, created the "hollow force" of the 1970s.

Thankfully, that era was over by the time I signed up, but I heard plenty of horror stories from those who served in the post-Viet Nam military. In some instances, crews had to cannibalize multiple aircraft just to get one jet in the air. Multiply those logistical problems (and training issues) across DoD, and you've got some idea of the Carter-era military.

While we can't afford massive increases in defense spending (at least right now), we can't afford a return to the hollow force, either. Balancing resources against security priorities will be a major challenge in the years ahead. Unfortunately, neither the Obama Administration--or Congress--has articulated any sort of strategy that could drive this process.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Smaller and Weaker

DoD's new austerity campaign doesn't bode well for Air Force modernization efforts. Retired Lieutenant General Dave Deptula, the service's former intelligence chief, says planned budget cuts leaves the Air Force facing three unpalatable choices:

“Without adequate funding, we are destined to go down one of three paths: We get smaller, we get weaker, or we get smaller and weaker,” said the former Air Force intelligence chief.

The Air Force is operating a geriatric force, Deptula said, with bombers and tankers more than 50 years old, and fighters and helicopters more than 30.

The average age of a U.S. airliner, normally subjected to far fewer stresses, is 10 years, he said, adding that an F-15C Eagle fighter he flew in 1979 was flown by his son in 2008. The Air Force buys about 118 aircraft per year, which works out to replacing the fleet every 48 years.

Deptula made his comments in an interview with Air Force Times. His remarks came less than a month after the USAF's Vice Chief of Staff, General Philip Breedlove, warned Congress that projected budget reductions will diminish the service's capabilities.

Analysts have offered several suggestions for saving defense dollars, ranging from redefining the Air Force mission, to merging the acquisition departments of the various services.

Retired General Howie Chandler, a former Vice Chief of Staff, believes the Air Force should close more bases. "We've got too much infrastructure across the force," he told the Times. But he also noted that Congress is reluctant to shutter military facilities and retire aircraft based in their districts.

Ultimately, most experts agree that the Air Force will have to choose among its various aircraft. Buying more F-35s, for example, could mean a reduction in unmanned systems. Mark Gunzinger, a former B-52 pilot who is now a policy analyst in Washington, D.C., says the service needs to divest itself of UAVs that can't operate in high-threat areas and focus on stealthier systems.

Unfortunately, all of the proposed "fixes" have problems of their own. Merging the acquisition functions of the armed services would produce genuine savings, but it would trigger the biggest budgetary food fight in U.S. history, as the various branches--and their supporters--battle over scarce budget dollars for pet programs.

The proposed UAV divestiture would be equally difficult. Since the other services have made only token investments in the ISR support element for drone operations, the Air Force would be compelled to surrender thousands of intel billets (and support architecture) to the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. There is no indication the service is prepared to do that. There's also the issue of funding new UAV systems against more pressing needs, such as a new bomber.

And, without real leadership on the issue, future reductions are likely to be made piecemeal, as they were during the "procurement holiday" of the 1990s. Air Force vets of that era remember the sudden announcement that the service would eliminate 10,000 airmen billets, to provide more money for the F-22 program. Expect similar juggling acts in the years ahead, and longer service careers for aging platforms like the F-15 and F-16.

From our perspective, the idea of closing more bases makes sense, but there's an even larger pot of money that deserves scrutiny as well. We refer to the $200 billion that DoD spends annually on "services." That category includes everything from the "rent-a-cops" that augment base security forces, to firms that run dining halls at overseas locations, and even specialized intel analysis performed by defense contractors.

There is a potential for enormous savings in this area. The armed services made a big jump into outsourcing about 15 years ago, with the promise of better services, at lower prices. But the savings have often been illusory; the private security officer who checked your ID at the gate is certainly competent (most are retired military), but they're at least twice as expensive as a new airmen fresh out of the security forces academy at Lackland. The same holds true for civilian mechanics who perform aircraft maintenance at pilot training bases.

And don't forget the biggest out-sourcing boondoggle of them all: TriCare. One reason DoD spends upwards of $60 billion a year on health care and pension benefits is that we made a conscious decision to send dependents, retirees and some active-duty members to civilian doctors, with a corresponding increase in costs.

So far, no one appears willing to touch the services portion of the Pentagon budget--and for lots of reasons. First, the contracting firms hire battalions of lobbyists and make donations to the politicians who approve their contracts. The same companies also hire lots of former military members and DoD civilians, so there's a certain reluctance among the brass (and their SES counterparts) to undercut a potential employer. The contractors are also pay lots of money in state and local taxes, so politicians at that level are anxious to see the firms hold onto their government jobs.

But the hour of reckoning may be at hand. While the Pentagon is planning on at least $400 billion in defense cuts, the real total may be closer to $1 trillion--or even higher. That sort of budgetary environment will force major reductions across the board, even in the "services" arena.

Unfortunately, that "slash-and-burn" mentality usually generates bad decisions. Before he retired in June, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that virtually all the "fat" had been trimmed from the Pentagon budget. Future cuts will come from bone and muscle, which translates into diminished capabilities.

What does that mean for the Air Force? Something along the lines of Dave Deptula's prediction: a force that is smaller, weaker, or smaller and weaker, relying heavily on "legacy" aircraft that should have been retired years ago, and with little money for new platforms.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Falcon Fails Again

The Air Force's second test of its Falcon Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) has ended in failure.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the unmanned, high-speed aircraft stopped sending telemetry during the glide phase of its flight, about 20 minutes into a scheduled 30-minute mission. However, USAF officials still hope to recover the craft--or what's left of it--since the HGV has an "autonomous flight termination capabilty" and may have ditched itself in the Pacific Ocean. But with a maximum speed of Mach 20, if the aircraft departed controlled flight, it likely splintered before hitting the water.

In the test flight, the aircraft, known as the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2, was launched at 7:45 a.m. from Vandenberg Air Force Base, located northwest of Santa Barbara, into the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere aboard an eight-story Minotaur IV rocket, made by Orbital Sciences Corp.

After reaching an undisclosed sub-orbital altitude, the aircraft jettisoned from its protective cover atop the rocket, then nose-dived back toward Earth, leveled out and was supposed to glide above the Pacific at 20 times the speed of sound, or Mach 20.

The plan was for the Falcon to speed westward for 30 minutes before plunging into the ocean near Kwajalein Atoll, about 4,000 miles from Vandenberg.

But about 20 minutes into the mission, the Pentagon’s research arm, known as Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, announced on its Twitter account that: “Range assets have lost telemetry.”

The end of today's test flight sounds similar to a failure that terminated the first Falcon test back in April 2010. During that demonstration, the aircraft failed only nine minutes into its flight, sending engineers back to the drawing boards. Depending on what caused today's failure, the HGV may require additional modifications.

The research program is often touted as a critical step in developing aircraft that can rravel great distances in a relatively short time. HGV incorporates many key technologies that would be used in "space planes" that could fly from New York to London or Los Angeles to Sydney in a matter of minutes, rather than hours.

But the HGV platform has military uses, too. Russia has been working on similar technology for years (with a similar lack-of-success), aimed at creating a high-speed, precision weapons (read: nuclear) delivery system that can evade air and missile defenses. It's quite likely that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which is leading our HGV effort, has a similar application in mind.

As a weapons platform, the HGV has a number of advantages; first, it's simply too fast for the current generation of missile defenses, rendering billions of dollars in hardware obsolete. Secondly, it is difficult to distinguish an HGV deployment from that of a satellite, compounding identification problems and reducing warning times.

Russian sources make no bones about the purpose of their HGV. It's aimed at slipping beneath ballistic missile radar detection and defense systems, and putting a nuke on a western target. That's one reason the subject never comes up in arms control discussions. That will change only if we can perfect the technology before Moscow does, giving the Russians something else to worry about--and negotiate out of the U.S. arsenal.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Another One Bites the Dust

The Navy has fired yet another commanding officer. For those keeping score at home, that makes 16 so far this year, with more than four months left to go.

Commander Robert Brown, the skipper of Beachmaster Unit 2, was dismissed last Friday after senior Navy officials lost confidence in his ability to lead. Brown, who has been reassigned to administrative duties at the Little Creek (VA) Amphibious Base, is facing allegations that he misused government resources and disposed of them improperly. (H/T: I Like the Cut of His Jib).

The Navy's firing spree has generated a fair amount of buzz in military circles. Some observers wonder if the naval service isn't doing a proper job in screening future commanders, while others wonder if the bar is being set too high.

From our perspective, we think the Navy deserves kudos. No one wants to see a commander officer relieved of his duties, but there is a little thing called accountability. If commanders aren't up to the task (or fail to meet legal or behavioral standards), they deserve to be fired, pure and simple.

Sadly, it's a concept that seems a bit lost on the Air Force. Our old branch has allowed too many miscreants and criminals to remain in the ranks (paging Major Metzger and Major General Eidsaune), while others slithered out of the service with pension and benefits intact, despite admissions of major misconduct. That list includes such luminaries as Major General ("Spooning With My Female Subordinates") Fiscus; Brigadier General "Foot Fetish" Hassan, and Colonel (I Don't Need a Law License to be a JAG) Michael Murphy. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Want a few more? How about Major General Stephen ("Give the Thundervision Contract to My Buddies) Goldfein, or the former Chief of Staff, General Mike Moseley, who spent a weekend at the home of CEO of the firm that won that contract. Then, there's the recently retired Colonel Jeff Smiley of the Alabama National Guard, who used his F-16 for personal trips and received almost $100,000 in unauthorized compensation. And, there's former CMSgt William Gurney, who engaged in improper relationships with various female subordinates and even engaged "swinging" encounters with some of the women and his wife.

Among those enshrined in this "Hall of Shame" only Gurney and Murphy were court-martialed, and only Gurney received a bad-conduct discharge. Murphy, as we've chronicled before, was retired as a First Lieutenant--the last grade at which he honorably served. This period of honorable service covered less than 36 months of a 27-year military career.

And the Air Force keeps wondering why it has leadership issues. Maybe it's time to take a page from the Navy playbook and get rid of these problems before they fester. There were warning signs about Fiscus, Hassan, Murphy, Smiley and Gurney long before their cases erupted into public scandal. Naturally, the danger signals were conveniently ignored, until it was too late.

This is not to say that the USAF leadership is rotten to the core, or it casts a totally blind eye to incompetence and corruption. That's hardly the case; the vast majority of Air Force leaders are competent, ethical men and women who perform admirably. Unfortunately, their reputation, (along with the rest of the service) is tarnished by the actions of a few. And, the cycle will keep repeating itself until the service gives more than lip service to the issue of senior leader accountability.

Consider this: if Commander Brown was Lieutenant Colonel Brown, in charge of an Air Force squadron, would he still be a commanding officer?

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Too Much Chatter

These are dark days in Virginia Beach.

The Old Dominion's largest city is, of course, a Navy town, home to such facilities as NAS Oceana; the Little Creek Amphibious Base and Training Support Center Hampton Roads. Sitting adjacent to the Dam Neck Naval Annex, FTC is best known as the host installation for the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), often referred to by its previous name, SEAL Team 6.

Twenty-two members of DEVGRU, many of them deployed from the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, died Friday night when a Chinook helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan's Wardak Province. At least eight other Americans and eight Afghans were aboard the chopper when it went down, making it the largest loss of life suffered by Allied forces in the Afghan War. The Taliban immediately claimed responsibility, saying they shot down the helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade. U.S. and NATO officials are not disputing that claim.

The other U.S. service members who died in the crash were members of the Army helicopter crew and Air Force combat controllers and pararescuemen, who often deploy in combat with the SEALs. As of Sunday afternoon, recovery operations were still underway. Fighting is reportedly continuing near the crash site, making it more difficult to remove wreckage and the bodies of those killed in the shoot-down.

News of the incident sent shockwaves through Virginia Beach and other communities in the Norfolk region. While the SEALs rarely discuss their duties publicly, many in Hampton Roads know someone (directly or indirectly) who is a part of DEVGRU. And, as the mourning began, some members of the special warfare community were wondering if the incident could have been avoided, according to the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot:

Many in the SEAL community had warned against drawing too much attention to the unit after the raid on bin Laden. Already Saturday, some wondered whether the rocket attack could have been prevented.

"Why would you want to bring any attention to yourself?" the former SEAL Team 6 member said. "Team guys just want to go about their business without shining a big spotlight on themselves. Most of them just want to do their jobs and go home."

It's a point that deserves further investigation. At the time of the successful mission against bin Laden's compound, senior U.S. officials agreed that details of the raid would remain secret. But that vow was quickly broken; with 48 hours, operational details of the SEALs mission were making their way into print and broadcast accounts, raising serious concerns about operational security--and the potential safety of SEAL families back in Virginia. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed disgust over the willingness of government officials to discuss the operation with the media.

And the revelations didn't stop there. The current issue of The New Yorker has an extremely detailed article on the raid, offering such revelations as the radio call from the SEAL who actually killed bin Laden ("For God and Country, Geronimo, Gernonimo, Geronimo"), to the tactics used by operators in storming the compound and the weapons they used.

Readers will note that not a single, active member of DEVGRU was interviewed for the article. Instead, the magazine relied on lengthy interviews with former special ops personnel and administration officials. That latter group (presumably) includes those who watched the raid unfold in the White House situation room, via live video and secure communications links from the compound--the same officials who pledged not to disclose the mission's operational details.

It's patently clear why members of the administration wanted to talk to The New Yorker. The article depicts President Obama as cool and decisive in ordering preparations for the raid and giving final approval. With Mr. Obama's job approval numbers dropping like a rock, it doesn't hurt to remind the public of a major triumph in national security.

But did recent disclosures about the bin Laden raid give the Taliban an edge in downing that Chinook? So far, a definitive link hasn't been established. Indeed, our enemies in Afghanistan have been observing our special forces for almost a decade, and they've clearly learned a great deal about our tactics and techniques. We also know that Taliban gunners routinely attempt to engage our helicopters with RPGs, their preferred weapon-of-choice. Unfortunately, the enemy gets lucky once in a while, with deadly consequences for our troops.

Still, we can't completely dismiss the notion that the recent focus on special ops missions has at least affirmed our operational tendencies for enemy planners. For example, The New Yorker piece explains the use of quick reaction forces (QRFs) to supplement the primary team, providing additional airlift and fire support as necessary. When one of the HH-60s crashed while attempting to insert SEALs inside bin Laden's compound on 1 May, a Chinook from the QRF was quickly dispatched to pick up the operators and the chopper crew, once the raid was complete.

Obviously, that wasn't the first time a QRF has been scrambled during the Afghan War, and it won't be the last. But the article confirmed our preference to send in more special forces to aid operators who are in trouble. And sure enough, the Chinook that went down Friday night was delivering SEALs who were going to the aid of Army Rangers, pinned down by heavy fire in Wardak's rugged terrain.

With that sort of information, it would be easier for the Taliban to pick an ambush site, particularly if geography limits ingress and egress routes for our helicopters. Find an optimum spot to engage the initial force (the Rangers), then position RPG gunners along the expected flight path of the QRF choppers. It doesn't guarantee success, but it certainly improves the odds.

All the more reason for senior government officials to keep their mouths shut. The operators of DEVGRU have made more than their share of sacrifices over the past decade, and the coming weeks will be agonizing for the naval special warfare community in Hampton Roads and elsewhere. It will prove even worse if we learn that the careless comments of U.S. officials provided assistance to our enemies.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Horrible Holly Hangs On

After a trip to the left coast, we've been playing catch-up in recent days, so blogging has been light. Still, there were a couple of stories--call them unfinished business--that caught or eyes.

The first involves disgraced former astronaut and naval officer Lisa Nowak. She officially retired from the Navy last week after 26 years of service, and more than four years after she destroyed her career, by assaulting a romantic rival at the Orlando International Airport.

It was an incident made in tabloid heaven. Separated from her husband, Nowak had an affair with Navy Commander (and fellow astronaut) Bill Oefelein. But Oefelein apparently grew tired of the relationship and began dating Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman. That prompted Nowak to drive non-stop from her home in Houston to Orlando (with a supply of astronaut diapers in the car), to confront Captain Shipman. Encountering the Air Force officer at an airport parking lot, Captain Nowak sprayed pepper spry into Shipman's car before trying to escape. When police arrested her a short time later, they found a number of items in Nowak's car that suggested plans for a possible kidnapping--or worse.

Needless to say, that little incident ended Nowak's NASA career. She was booted from the astronaut corps a few weeks later, and resumed her Navy career, serving as a staff officer at the service's Naval Air Training Command in Corpus Christi. But Nowak still faced military discipline for her misdeeds and last week, she learned her fate, just as her retirement was announced. While the former astronaut will be allowed to retire from the Navy, she will receive an "other-than-honorable" discharge and be reduced in rank, to Commander. With that type of discharge, Nowak will be ineligible for most forms of veterans benefits and the rank reduction will cost her thousands of dollars a year in retirement pay.

Her retirement becomes effective 1 September. It is believed that Nowak is already on terminal leave, and has left her post in Corpus Christi.

Announcing Nowak's fate, the Navy said her conduct "fell well short of what is expected of navy officers," and she demonstrated a complete disregard for the well-being of another service member. A Naval board believed her conduct justified the OTH discharge (the most severe form of administrative separation) and the reduction in rank. Individuals with that type of discharge find it virtually impossible to secure employment with the federal government or defense contractors. However, Nowak could still earn a significant income if she signs a book or movie deal to tell her story.

Yet, while the Navy (seemingly) can't wait to get Lisa Nowak out the gate, one of her Annapolis class mates--fired for more severe offenses--appears to be living a charmed life. We refer to Captain "Horrible Holly" Graf, the female skipper who was fired 18 months ago for "cruelty and maltreatment" of her crew while in command of the USS Cowpens.

As reminds us, a Navy investigation determined that Graf pulled a similar stunt a few years earlier, as CO of the USS Winston Churchill, a guided missile destroyer. Leaving a port in the Mediterranean, Graf verbally abused the ship's navigator (an exchange officer from the Royal Navy) while heading out to sea at full speed. When the Churchill scraped the bottom of the harbor, Graf ordered the ship's log falsified, a move she repeated onboard the Cowpens, when the Aegis cruiser hit a whale.

After losing command of the Cowpens, a board of inquiry recommended that Graf receive a general discharge and be retired from service, with no reduction in grade. But she's still on active duty a year later, and the Navy appears to be in no hurry to get rid of her. Both Glenn MacDonald at MilitaryCorruption and defense blogger Susan Katz Keating have been wondering the same thing: why is Holly Graf being allowed to linger on active duty, soaking up an O-6's pay and full benefits?

They believe family connections have something to do with it; "Horrible Holly" is the younger sister of Navy Rear Admiral Robin Graf, commander of the Navy's Recruiting Command. As Ms. Keating notes, Admiral Graf recently fired the CO of her recruiting district in Nashville for "unprofessional conduct." Fair enough, and the Navy has certainly been on a roll of late, dismissing more than 15 commanders for misconduct or poor performance so far this year. It's a fair bet that most of those officers who are retirement-eligible will leave active duty in the coming months.

Which brings us back to the obvious question: how can the Navy justify Holly Graf's continued presence on active duty? Captain Graf should have been on the retired list more than a year ago, and missing a stripe to boot.