Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Marines Change Course

Marines don't retreat, the old axiom goes, they simply attack in a new direction. Hmm...maybe they'll trot out that explanation (again) to justify last week's dramatic reversal on its tuition assistance (TA) policy for the Corps.

Just days after implementing a major cut in tuition assistance funding, the Marines shifted course last Wednesday, announcing that TA funding would be restored to previous levels. That means Marines will again receive $4500 a year for college tuition, paid at a maximum rate of $750 per course. Under the reduced rates, the yearly cap was cut to $3500 a year, but most Marines would receive only $825, based on data that most program participants took only 5-7 credit hours per year.

Why the sudden change? We're guessing that senior leadership got an earful from unit commanders and senior NCOs, who understand that TA is a very effective retention tool. If the tuition assistance program is gutted (or eliminated entirely, as some in the Pentagon prefer), it will wreak havoc with experience levels, particularly at the platoon and company levels.

The reason, as we've explained in previous posts, is simple. Without access to TA (or limited education funds under that program), Marines will use GI Bill benefits to fund their education. And, the highest payments under that program go to veterans who have left the military and receive their full housing allowance, along with education benefits.

Under proposed defense cuts, the Marine Corps will undergo a 10% reduction by 2015, a move that will eliminate 20,000 personnel. So, the TA reduction was aimed (in part) at convincing more Marines to leave the service, so the Corps can meet its new manning totals. But there was clear concern that a lot of experienced E-4s and E-5s--Marines who should be senior NCOs and officers down the road--will exit the Corps as well. That realization is what prompted the Marines to reverse course on the TA program.

Still, tuition assistance for the military is facing an uncertain future. As the Marines were modifying their position, the Air Force was unveiling changes for its personnel. Beginning in November, airmen can only apply for TA within 30 days of a course start date. Currently, they can apply for financial aid two months in advance, giving them more flexibility in planning their studies.

With a shorter timeline for signing up, the Air Force believes it can achieve savings in its TA program, since some airmen won't have enough time to complete the process. The USAF spends more than $200 million a year on TA; at the DoD level, the total bill for tuition assistance is about $600 million annually.

As we've noted in previous posts, the TA program has been under fire in recent months--and targeted for major reductions. According to various critics, tuition assistance isn't very cost effective, and does little to keep troops in uniform.

But the facts tell a different story. Thousands of military members earn their associate's, bachelor's or master's through the TA program each year. Payment caps within the program encourage participating schools to keep costs low, and the armed forces recoup money from service members who fail a course.

By comparison, the new Post 9-11 GI Bill is shaping up as a multi-billion dollar boondoggle. Two years into the program, costs are running three times higher than projected ($15 billion a year), and vets attending school under the program have an 88% dropout rate and only 3% remain in school long enough to earn their degree. But so far, no one is talking about "reforming" the latest version of the GI Bill.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Today's Reading Assignment

Max Boot, in Commentary magazine, on President Obama's decision to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year:

Far from being cause for celebration, Obama’s announcement that we will keep only 150 U.S. troops in Iraq after the end of the year–down from nearly 50,000 today–represents a shameful failure of American foreign policy that risks undoing all the gains that so many Americans, Iraqis, and other allies have sacrificed so much to achieve. The risks of a catastrophic failure in Iraq now rise appreciably. The Iranian Quds Force must be licking its chops because we are now leaving Iraq essentially defenseless against its machinations. Conversely the broad majority of Iraqis who fear Iranian influence and who want their country to become a democracy will come to rue this day, however big a victory it might appear in the short term for the cause of Iraqi nationalism.

Ostensibly this pull-out was dictated by the unwillingness of Iraqi lawmakers to grant U.S. troops immunity from prosecution. But Iraqi leaders of all parties, save the Sadrists, also clearly signaled their desire to have a sizable American troop contingent post-2011. The issue of immunity could have been finessed if administration lawyers from the Departments of State and Defense had not insisted that Iraq’s parliament would have to vote to grant our troops protections from Iraqi laws. Surely some face-saving formula that would not have needed parliamentary approval could have been negotiated that would have assuaged Iraqi sovereignty concerns while making it unlikely in the extreme that any U.S. soldier would ever go before an Iraqi court for actions taken in the line of duty.

Clearly, we can't stay in Iraq forever, but the Obama plan runs counter to the security interests of both the United States and our Iraqi allies. As Mr. Boot notes, both the U.S. military and much of the Iraqi government favored a continuing American presence, for counter-terrorism operations; as a deterrent against Iranian meddling, and to ensure adequate training for Iraqi security forces.

Boot argues that the U.S. should re-open negotiations on our military presence as soon as the current withdrawal is complete. He believes we need at least 10, 000 troops in Iraq to handle the security and training mission--about half the number recommended by senior American military commanders earlier this year.

Unfortunately, prospects for a short-term U.S. return are virtually nil. Mr. Obama saw an opportunity to appease his base and fulfill a campaign promise, with little regard for the long-term security consequences. That raises another issue: will President Obama (or a Republican successor) be willing to send even larger numbers of U.S. troops back to Iraq in two or three years, when the security situation becomes untenable? Or will the Commander-in-Chief sit idly by and allow Iraq to become a puppet of Tehran?

It's a question worth posing at the next White House press conference (fat chance of that happening), and at the next GOP presidential candidates' debate.
ADDENDUM: Similar warnings from Professor Frederick Kagan (the intellectual father of the Iraq surge strategy) at the Weekly Standard.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Death of Tuition Assistance

The end of the U.S. military's tuition assistance program may be at hand. Yesterday, the Marine Corps announced that annual benefits will be cut, from a maximum of $4500 a year, to $3500.

Additionally, the Corps is reducing payments per credit hour to $175 for undergraduate courses and $225 for graduate programs. However, the "real" TA cap for the majority of Marines will be only $875 per year, based on "analysis" that shows most participants take only 5-6 credit hours annually.

Changes in the Marine Corps TA program were made retroactive to 1 October. While the other services have not announced similar cuts, all are watching the USMC experiment and may unveil their own reductions in the coming months.

Currently, the Pentagon spends over $600 million a year on tuition assistance, which provides money for active-duty military members (along with guardsmen and reservists) to attend off-duty college classes. The program's price tag has more than doubled over the past decade, after the military raised the payment rate from 75% for each class, to 100%, with a cap of $750 per course.

There are signs that more cuts may be in the offing. Earlier this year, the Pentagon's chief of voluntary education, Carolyn Baker, said the current TA program is "unsustainable." Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has described TA as a "poor recruiting and retention tool," advocating a 90% reduction in the program. More recently, a Colorado Congressman asked DoD to consider a return to the 75% payment rate, which was in effect for decades. There is growing consensus in Congress (and the Pentagon) that TA must be cut, as the military faces hundreds of billions in budget cuts.

But the rush to gut TA may be premature--and short-sighted. Reducing (or eliminating) tuition assistance will force most military members to rely on their other education benefits program, notably the Post 9-11 GI Bill. That program is aimed at veterans who have left the service, paying full rates for tuition and a housing allowance, among other benefits.

Still, any shift to the GI Bill won't be cheap or cost-effective. Consider these numbers, announced at last week's meeting of the Colorado Advisory Council on Military Education:

- When it was signed into law three years ago, the Post 9-11 GI Bill was budgeted at $5 billion a year. But so many vets have entered the program, it is currently costing taxpayers $15 billion a year, and that tab is growing.

- Some participants see the program as little more than a benefit check. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, one in five departing service members become full-time students under the GI Bill. But only 3% of those students stick around long enough to earn their degree. Grad rates for GI Bill participants are ten times lower than their civilian counter-parts.

- VA statistics show that 88% of GI Bill students drop out of school within their first year.

Based on those figures, the GI Bill is shaping up as a $15 billion a year boondoggle. Indeed, the program actually pays for "Fs." Students can flunk classes and still receive full benefits, although schools are now required to more closely monitor--and report--student performance.

As for that supposedly "inefficient" TA program::

- Thousands of military members receive their degree each year, using TA benefits.

- A typical bachelor's degree earned with TA benefits costs taxpayers about $40,000; the same four-year diploma, funded with the GI Bill, runs $100,000 (or more).

- Students using TA who fail a class must reimburse the military--a powerful incentive for military members to do well in class.

- TA participants remain on active-duty, providing valuable contributions to national defense. By comparison, most GI bill students have left active service, and the military will receive no direct benefit of their advanced education.

To be fair, both programs have their problems; you'll find fraud and waste in each. But it's rather interesting that TA is being cut, in favor of a "new" GI Bill that is shaping up as an educational and fiscal disaster. In light of skyrocketing costs and low graduation rates, the public and lawmakers should ask: just how much bang are we getting for that $15 billion a year?

Disclosure: Your humble correspondent is employed by a private, non-profit university that participates in both the tuition assistance and GI Bill programs. :

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Thanks, John

According to the Military Advantage Blog at, Senator John McCain of Arizona has indicated support for a proposal to cut military benefits:

The AP reports that McCain sup­ports Pres­i­dent Obama’s pro­posal to start charg­ing older mil­i­tary retirees a $200 annual enroll­ment fee for TRICARE for Life. In addi­tion, McCain urged the super­com­mit­tee to con­sider restrict­ing working-age mil­i­tary retirees and their depen­dents from enrolling in TRICARE Prime. McCain pointed out that the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Office has esti­mated that such a move would save $111 bil­lion over 10 years.

McCain also said he sup­ports the administration’s pro­posal for a com­mis­sion to review pos­si­ble changes to the 20 year mil­i­tary retire­ment sys­tem and the cur­rent mil­i­tary pay and com­pen­sa­tion model.

Not that we're surprised; look up "Rino" in the dictionary, and you'll find McCain's picture in the margin. But it's also worth remembering that Mr. McCain is also a retired Naval officer who spent more than two decades on active duty, including five-and-a-half years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton.

Given his background, you'd think McCain would appreciate the sacrifice made by military members and their families. You'd also think that Senator McCain would understand that most military retirees get by on a pension of $1600 a month (after taxes) and increases in Tricare fees (and other expenses) put a big dent in their budget.

But then again, John McCain lost touch with the military rank-and-file a long time ago. He became intoxicated with power during his tour as a Navy legislative liasion on Capitol Hill and quickly segued into the ruling class after retiring--and marrying the richest woman in Arizona. Between his Senate health care plan and family fortune, Mr. McCain isn't too worried about changes to the military retirement system, or higher medical expenses for military retirees.

If you ask Senator McCain to explain his position, he'd probably say he's putting "Country First," to help resolve the nation's fiscal crisis. Gee...whatever happened to the mantra of "Leave No Man (or Woman) Behind," something McCain learned from his earliest days at Annapolis. By endorsing the Obama "reform" plan, Mr. McCain is leaving a lot of military members behind.

Thanks again, John.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Curious, but Sloppy

We're still scratching our heads over the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Not that the scheme isn't credible; Tehran has a long list of scores to settle with Riyadh, ranging from the kingdom's backing of Saddam Hussein during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, to its more recent support of Bahrain, during that nation's crackdown against anti-regime protesters, who were aided by elements of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Eliminating the Saudi ambassador in Washington promised other rewards as well. A successful assassination would create a greater divide between the United States and one of its most important allies in the Arab world. Additionally, the assassination would be viewed as a direct warning to the Saudi monarchy, since the kingdom's current Ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, is a key advisor to the king on national security matters. So, Iran has no shortage of reasons for wanting to kill the senior Saudi diplomat in America.

But if that was the case, why was the "plot" conceived is such ham-handed fashion? According to court papers (and the comments of various U.S. officials), the key figure in the operation was Manssor Arbabsiar, a 56-year-old Iranian-American used car salesman from Texas. Arbabsiar reportedly attempted to enlist assistance from Mexico's infamous Zetas drug cartel in acquiring explosives and carrying out the attack. The plan reportedly involved detonating a bomb inside one of the ambassador's favorite D.C. restaurants while he ate.

Arbabsiar is now in custody; a second man named in the indictment, Gholam Shakuri, is said to be in Iran. Sources indicate the assassination plot involved high-level officials in the Qods force, the clandestine arm of the IRGC. Turk al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. told reporters this afternoon that "the burden of proof and amount of evidence in the case is overwhelming, and clearly shows official Iranian responsibility for this...someone in Iran will have to pay the price." In response, Iran described the terror plot as a "fabrication" and a "diversion," aimed at shifting domestic attention away from U.S. economic problems."

According to the U.K. Guardian, some western diplomats have expressed skepticism about the plot, saying it was highly unlikely that senior Iranian officials would sign off on such a plan. And they have a point; if Tehran wanted to kill Ambassador al-Jubeir, why entrust the enterprise to someone who hardly fits the profile of a professional Qods force operative.

The U.S. military has spent years battling Qods force agents in Iraq and Afghanistan; intelligence officers will tell you they represent the most capable elements in the IRGC. Put another way, there are plenty of Qods force operatives who could easily enter the United States, carry out the plot and make a clean get-away. Why involve a used car salesman and drug cartels?

Several possibilities come to mind. First, the assassination plot may have been a deliberate ruse, aimed at shifting intelligence and law enforcement resources away from other teams preparing to carry out separate attacks. You'd better believe the folks at FBI Headquarters, Langley and Fort Meade are double-checking their information, looking for clues that might lead to other (and perhaps more menacing) Iranian plots while Arbabsiar spins his tale for investigators.

There's also a chance the assassination scheme was launched by rogue elements within the IRGC and Iranian political circles (yes, we realize that is an oxymoron). Angered by the lack of progress in "getting even" with Riyadh, members of the Qods Force, in concert with political elements, might have decided to do a little free-lancing and hatched a plan to blow up the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

However, you can't rule out the option that senior Iranian officials endorsed (and participated in) the hare-brained scheme. Intelligence and covert ops organizations have a long history of launching plots that are breathtakingly dumb. Readers will recall that the CIA engaged in a series of operations aimed at killing Fidel Castro, involving such diverse elements as an exploding cigar and the U.S. mafia. None of those plots came close to succeeding, but the boys at Langley kept trying, anyway. The men running the Qods Force are not immune to bad ideas, either.

Perhaps the most fascinating element of this story is how quickly talk of military action entered the picture. Mr. al-Faisal's remarks will be interpreted (in some circles) as a green light for U.S. attacks against Iranian targets. And late this afternoon, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry said military action against Tehran "could not be ruled out." There are also unconfirmed reports that the Obama Administration will provide a briefing this evening on the plot to key members of the Senate Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees.

Predictably, such talk has raised a "wag the dog" scenario, with the Obama Administration using the Iranian plot to divert attention away from a host of domestic woes. We're not prepared to go down that road, but stoking sentiment against Iran could serve another purpose. As we've noted in previous posts this year, Tehran is on the cusp of acquiring nuclear weapons--a development which could occur before the end of the year. If public (and political) sentiment is already aligned against Iran, it would make it that much easier to launch military strikes against Iran. By launching a clumsy effort to kill a senior Saudi official, Iran may have given the U.S. an opportunity to rally international opposition against the Tehran regime.
ADDENDUM: Thomas Joscelyn at The Long War Journal reminds us that some of the Iranians implicated in the assassination plot are quite capable of carrying out deadly operations. Abdul Reza Shahlai, identified as "coordinator" of the planned attack, was the mastermind of a 2007 strike against U.S. troops in Karbala. Shahlai, who was previously identified as a Deputy Commander of the IRGC-QF, is the cousin of Manssor Arbabsiar; Gholam Shakuri, who served as an intermediary, is Shahlai's deputy. Family ties between Shahlai and Arbabsiar made the Iranian-American a convenient tool for the operation, but it still doesn't explain why the IRGC-QF was interested in farming out the enterprise to less-skilled personnel.

Friday, October 07, 2011


Noah Shachtman at the Danger Room has this disturbing exclusive: the U.S. Air Force drone fleet has been hit by a computer virus.

The virus, first detected nearly two weeks ago by the military’s Host-Based Security System, has not prevented pilots at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada from flying their missions overseas. Nor have there been any confirmed incidents of classified information being lost or sent to an outside source. But the virus has resisted multiple efforts to remove it from Creech’s computers, network security specialists say. And the infection underscores the ongoing security risks in what has become the U.S. military’s most important weapons system.

“We keep wiping it off, and it keeps coming back,” says a source familiar with the network infection, one of three that told Danger Room about the virus. “We think it’s benign. But we just don’t know.”

Military network security specialists aren’t sure whether the virus and its so-called “keylogger” payload were introduced intentionally or by accident; it may be a common piece of malware that just happened to make its way into these sensitive networks. The specialists don’t know exactly how far the virus has spread. But they’re sure that the infection has hit both classified and unclassified machines at Creech. That raises the possibility, at least, that secret data may have been captured by the keylogger, and then transmitted over the public internet to someone outside the military chain of command.

It's no secret that UAVs have become a weapon-of-choice in the War on Terror; our expanding fleet of drones (most of them operated and maintained by the USAF) allow intelligence specialists to monitor large stretches of territory for and strike high-value targets. Just last week, a CIA-operated UAV took out Al Qaida bigwig Anwar Awlaki; all told, American UAVs have killed more than 2,000 suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan since President Obama took office, according to the Washington Post.

So far, the infection appears limited to Creech, while pilots and sensor operators control dozens of UAVs operating around the world. There is no evidence the virus has spread to the Distributed Common Ground Station (DCGS) facilities which analyze intelligence collected by the drones. While drone operations have received lots of media attention, many Americans are unaware of the huge intel network required to support UAV operations. At places like Langley AFB, VA; Hickam AFB, Hawaii, Beale AFB, California (and others), hundreds of intel specialists monitor, record and decipher data from the drone's on-board sensor suite.

The Air Force hasn't said how the virus found its way into the Ground Control Stations that direct UAV missions. But the most likely culprit is an external drive or some other type of external device that was plugged into A GCS computer, providing an entry point into the network. If information captured by the keylogger program was transmitted to individuals outside DoD, it could provide valuable insights regarding drone operations and the command-and-control network that control them.

As you might expect, this sort of thing isn't supposed to happen. Computers that direct UAV flights (and the intel systems that support them) are part of intranets, separate from the internet. But they remain vulnerable to external viruses and other hazards, through something as simple as a flash drive.

Was it a deliberate attack? The jury's still out on that one, but recent trends are not encouraging. Adversaries are quite aware of U.S. reliance on UAVs, and they're looking for ways to cripple our capabilities in that area. There have been several "infections" of secure networks in recent years, raising concerns about our susceptibility to outside attacks. Coincidence? You decide.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Today's Reading Assignment

...from Jim Lacey, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Marine Corps War College, writing at National Review on-line. Professor Lacey shares our outrage at a recent article in The New York Times, which described the armed forces retirement program as "another big social welfare system." Recounting the long list of military operations over the past two decades, Lacey reminds us that a soldier who enlisted in 1990 had more than "earned" his pension by the time he retired last year. A few evocative paragraphs:

"..Fresh out of boot camp, our typical infantry soldier was sent to the 24th Infantry Division, and was soon on his way to the Middle East as part of the force sent to evict the Iraqi army from Kuwait. Living under the most primitive conditions for months, our young private spends most of his time training. What free time he has is for writing home, repeatedly telling his folks to ignore the numerous predictions that at least 10,000 Americans will die if fighting erupts. Later, while lying under the stars and trying to ward off the desert chill, he wonders if he will be one of the 10,000, for he really has no reason to doubt the predictions. Finally, the assault begins, and our young private finds himself in one of the spearhead formations living through the fear and thrill of shredding several of Saddam’s much-vaunted Republican Guard divisions.


At the end of his first hitch, he reenlists and is promoted to sergeant, and is sent to Germany to join the 1st Armored Division. Our infantryman knows he is going to have to work and train hard. But, as the Cold War is over, he is also expecting a bit of downtime and a chance to see some of Europe. What he did not expect was to be ordered into the Balkans.

In late December 1995, the 1st Armored is sent to Bosnia to bring the long-running Yugoslavian violence to an end. For the troops to get to their destination, a pontoon bridge had to be thrown across the Sava River, which was experiencing its worst flooding in 70 years. Weather conditions were terrible all through the days of the bridge’s construction, and no better when the 1st Armored Division began its crossing. As our young sergeant led his armored vehicles across the makeshift bridge, a journalist asked a bystander, “What does this mean to you?” The reply: “It means peace. It is as simple as that.”


The second half of our typical infantryman’s career saw him promoted to Sergeant First Class, where he cared for and trained a few dozen soldiers, and eventually to First Sergeant, where he was responsible for an entire company of close to 150 soldiers. Still with the 3rd Infantry Division, he spent most of 2002 in Kuwait preparing for the invasion of Iraq. And then, early the following year, he again was part of a spearhead unit, the one that conducted the 21-day blitz from Kuwait that culminated in the thunder runs into the center of Baghdad.

Unfortunately, capturing Baghdad was not the end of our soldier’s involvement in Iraq. Over the remaining seven years of his Army career he would spend half of that time in Iraq, while many of his brothers had alternate tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout this period he never much concerned himself with the politics of our involvement. His focus was always much more narrow and visceral: What do I have to do today to help destroy a violent extremist insurgency and to take as many of my men as possible home safely?


This nation asks a lot of its military, and they have given in full measure. One soldier captured it all when he said to me after finishing 20 years of service: “I have given the Army, my country, and my brothers everything I had. If there is anything left in me it is going to go to my family.” When he departed the service he took with him a retirement paycheck of less than $25,000 a year. It was promised to him. He earned it.

As Jim Lacey observes, this story of this solider isn't remarkable. In fact, it captures the shared experiences of thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have served during these tumultuous times. Not all served in front-line combat, but all endured the rigors and sacrifices that come with a career in uniform. And all of them were volunteers.

Social welfare, indeed.
ADDENDUM: Lacey's column is yet another reminder of the escalating battle over military benefits. Last week, Army Times (a Gannett publication that can hardly be described as an organ of the vast, right-wing conspiracy) ran a cover story entitled "Obama's War on Your Benefits." While the article isn't available on the paper's website, it does capture the growing frustration of many military members, who believe promises made to them are being broken while entitlement programs for the great unwashed go untouched.

Meanwhile, that deafening silence you hear is from the Republican presidential field. When President Obama chided them for not "standing up" for a gay soldier who booed (by about four people) during a recent GOP debate, not one of the Republican contenders provided the obvious rejoinder: why is the Commander-in-Chief so concerned about the plight of one soldier, while benefits promised to thousands of military members are eroding under his watch?

The most obvious reasons? First, only two of the Republican candidates have actually served in the military. Secondly, it appears that none of the GOP hopefuls want to paint themselves in a box on the issue, giving them the flexibility to make further cuts (as required) if they are elected president.

Sounds like a "lose-lose" for hundreds of thousands of career military members (and retirees) who gave so much for that $25,000 a year pension. We should also note that Professor Lacey's prototypical retiree was something of a fast burner. The average non-commissioned officer who leaves active duty after 20 years is an E-6, with an average annual pension of less than $20,000 a year.