Friday, November 25, 2011

Lingering Problems?

It's no secret that the U.S. Air Force's nuclear enterprise went through a rough patch a few years back.

The dark days began with the inadvertent transfer of six, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from Minot AFB, North Dakota to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. That mishap was followed, in relatively short order, by a series of failed inspections among the service's various nuclear-capable units and the mistaken shipment of nuclear components from an Air Force depot in Utah to Taiwan. Ultimately, the blunders led to the dismissal of the USAF Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Air Force, followed by a prolonged rebuilding process.

By most accounts, Air Force nuclear operations are now back on track. There have been no more unauthorized shipments or transfers, and units are adapting to a new, no-notice nuclear inspection program. Additionally, the service stood up a new organization, Global Strike Command, to supervise nuclear operations, and Air Force leaders began devoting more resources to the mission, after decades of neglect.

Still, the enterprise is far from trouble-free. According to Tacoma News-Tribune, the service's prime nuclear airlift unit, stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, recently failed its nuclear surety inspection.

In military parlance, the mission is called Prime Nuclear Airlift Force, or PNAF.

The 62nd Airlift Wing has a motto for that mission: "PNAF... Perfect... Always!"

Not anymore.

For the first time, the wing received an overall rating of "unsatisfactory" after a weeklong inspection that concluded Monday.

The rating stems from an isolated incident involving an individual assigned to the mission, said an Air Mobility Command official with knowledge of the inspection's findings. The official declined to provide further details.

Lt. Col. Glen Roberts, an AMC spokesman, said neither nuclear weapons nor related components were used during the inspection and the public was not at risk.

"There was never any danger," he said. "The Air Force policy is we don't get into specifics on the inspections."

Roberts said the wing, which has performed the mission since 1997, can continue to do so even with the "unsatisfactory" rating.

The 62nd will undergo a mandatory re-inspection in 90 days. It was not surprising that AMC allowed the McChord wing to continue the nuclear mission, despite the failing grade. With the 62nd the only airlift wing performing those duties, suspension of the wing's certification would wreak havoc in the Air Force's nuclear enterprise.

According to the News-Tribune, the public affairs office at Lewis-McChord claimed the 62nd passed its previous NSI, but didn't specify when the evaluation occurred. Under current Air Force policy, units involved in the nuclear mission are inspected at least once every 18 months. More frequent inspections are not unheard of, under the new, "no-notice" policy.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Port Call Tartus?

Russian warships are reportedly en route to the Mediterranean and will soon arrive in Syria, as Moscow exhibits its displeasure over possible western intervention in that country.

According to Haaretz, Russian naval vessels will enter Syrian territorial waters shortly, as a show of support for Syrian dictator Bashir Assad, who is mired in a bloody and protracted battle with anti-regime protesters. While thousands of demonstrators have been killed by police and security forces since the late spring, the resistance shows now sign of flagging, while Assad's position continues to weaken.

If the naval operations follows the pattern of past deployments, the vessels may dock at the Syrian port of Tartus, which has hosted Russian naval units since the early 1970s. In February of last year, Moscow announced plans to upgrade and modernize its naval supply and maintenance facility in Tartus, allowing it to accommodate "heavy" warships, including aircraft carriers.

The Tartus complex, once a symbol of the Soviet naval presence in the Middle East, fell into disrepair in the 1990s, as the Russian fleet suffered dramatic cutbacks and sent fewer vessels to sea. Reportedly, only one of the three floating piers at Tartus is now operational. That factor, along with the limited number of vessels in Russia's Black Sea fleet, would limit the scope of its naval deployment to Syria.

Still, the Russians could send a guided missile cruiser like the Pyotr Velikiy to the eastern Mediterranean. The Pyotr Velikiy, the only Kirov-class battlecruiser currently in service with the Russian fleet, paid a visit to Syria last year. Equipped with the naval version of the S-300 surface-to-air missile system (which has a maximum range of 100 NM), the Pyotr Velikiy could protect targets across much of northern Syria, if Moscow decided to press its luck in defending Assad.

But even if Russia remains neutral--as most observers expect--NATO planners would still have to respect the vessel's air defense capabilities in providing air support to Syrian rebels. Operating in coastal waters near Tartus, the Pyotr Velikiy's air defenses could provide coverage of key locations, including the city of Homs, which has been the scene of vicious battles between Assad's security forces and the opposition.

Obviously, the Russian naval deployment is largely symbolic, and there is no indication that Moscow wants to mix it up with NATO. Indeed, even a powerful platform like a Kirov cruiser would be no match for American naval forces and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (and his puppet master, Vladimir Putin) have no desire to lose one of their most important capital ships. But with this deployment, the Russian leaders are signaling their displeasure over a prospective alliance between NATO and Syrian rebels.

From Moscow's perspective, Syria will not become another Libya, where the U.S. and its western partners operated with impunity, rescuing rebel forces and (eventually) sealing the fate of Mommar Qadhafi. Fortunately for Mr. Assad, he has more powerful friends in places like Russia and Iran, and for now, they appear determined to keep him in power.
ADDENDUM: We should also note that Russia's naval deployment to Syria might serve another purpose. If Assad's regime crumbles, the ships could be useful in evacuating Russian nationals from Syria. We're guessing that Moscow's contractors and advisers in Syria (symbols of long-time security ties between the two countries) wouldn't be very popular--or safe--in a post-Assad environment.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Shut It Down

It's rare when we agree editorially with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, but columnist Jim Souhan got it right about shutting down Penn State's football program. As he writes:

What we know now is that key members of the Penn State football program were serial enablers of child rape and molestation.

Dismissing the university president and athletic director is not enough, not when your campus has been used as a safe haven and hunting ground by a pedophile. Firing Paterno is not enough, not when Paterno neglected to use his immense power to halt the abuse of children.

It is time for the powers that be to use their powers pointedly and appropriately.

Penn State should cancel the rest of the football season.

The NCAA should investigate the football program and consider the death penalty.

Many of the people who rioted on the Penn State campus Wednesday night in protest of Paterno's dismissal probably plan to attend the football game on campus Saturday. They should not be given any forum in which to voice their delusions, and certainly not a 106,572-seat stadium in which to hold an undeserved memorial to Paterno's tainted career.

To be fair, none of the Penn State players who will take the field have any connection to the scandal. But several of their coaches--including interim head coach Tom Bradley--were around, and may have been part of the conspiracy of cowardice and silence that allowed former assistant Jerry Sandusky to prey on young boys. Bradley and the rest of the staff will almost certainly be fired at the end of the season, along with other university officials. What sort of signal does it send to allow Tom Bradley to lead the Nittany Lions on the field against Nebraska?

Here's something else to consider: Penn State is currently 8-1 on the season, with an inside track to the Big Ten championship game and a slot in the Rose Bowl. Is the conference--and the NCAA--comfortable with that possibility? Barring action by the university or the NCAA, the school being labeled as "Pedophile U" could be playing in Pasadena in January. Besides, any championship won by Penn State this year will almost certainly be vacated, once the NCAA completes its investigation and levies sanctions. Why let the team compete for hardware--and victories--that will be surrendered in a matter of months?

As Mr. Souhan reminds us, the NCAA has imposed the "death penalty" on a football program only once in its history, against SMU back in the 1980s. SMU was judged guilty of paying players and had to stop playing football for two seasons. As Souhan observes, "compared with serial pedophilia [at PSU], what happened on the SMU campus is the equivalent of spitting on the sidewalk.

All the more reason, he argues, to shut down the Penn State program:

When the NCAA levies its harshest penalties, it cites a school's "lack of institutional control.'' There has never been a clearer case of university lacking institutional control over its football program than Penn State allowing Sandusky to bring children to the team's sidelines and showers.

As this post is written, the Penn State-Nebraska game is already underway, so today's spectacle in Happy Valley is proceeding as scheduled. But allowing the program to continue (until the Sandusky matter has been resolved) would be an absolute travesty, and another, needless insult to the victims of the former coach.

One final note: according to ESPN's Big Ten blog, there was exactly one protester--one--outside Beaver Stadium before today's Penn State game. Jon Matko, a Pittsburgh resident and 2000 Penn State graduate may be the only member of the university family who "gets it."

Matko thought the university should have canceled the game and the rest of the season. He knows the importance of the game to university revenue and how canceling wouldn’t be fair to the players who had nothing to do with the scandal, but felt Saturday was too soon to play.

“It’s the right thing,” he said. “It’s not about Joe. It’s about the kids.”

One of Matko’s signs featured the famous Albert Einstein quote: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

When he arrived at Beaver Stadium on Saturday morning, Matko was shocked to find himself alone. He didn’t tell his parents where he was going today, but thought he would show up at Beaver Stadium and join other protestors. But he couldn’t find any.

“It’s shocking that I’m the only one here,” he said. “It’s shocking and disturbing.”

Here's something else for the college football community to consider: would fan reaction be any different if this was happening at Florida, Texas, Alabama, USC, or any other college football power? Sadly, we think not.

Mystery Blast

At least 15 Iranian military personnel died Saturday in a massive explosion at a facility described as an "arms depot" near Tehran. More from Reuters:

While there was no indication of any attack, the explosion shook Iranians for miles around at a time of mounting tensions with Israel over Iran's nuclear programme.

A spokesman for the Revolutionary Guards -- Iran's elite military force -- said the blast happened as troops were moving munitions at a base in Bidganeh, near the town of Shahriar.

"My dear colleagues in the Revolutionary Guards were moving munitions in one of the arsenals at that base when, due to an incident, an explosion happened," Ramezan Sharif told state TV news channel IRINN.

"Some of the wounded are reported to be in a critical condition," he added. The semi-official Fars news agency said 25 people had been taken to hospital.

Iran quickly denied that that the facility is connected to its nuclear program, but the sudden blast--and "official" actions after the explosion--raised suspicions. The media was kept away from the scene and the head of Iran's Red Crescent organization said only six paramedics had been allowed into the Amir Al-Momenin military base--a number that seemed insufficient for a mass casualty event.

It was the second major explosion at an Iranian arms facility in a little over a year. Last October, a similar blast killed several troops at a base near Khoramabad. Several installations in that area are connected to Iran's ballistic missile program, and there was some speculation that the explosion might have been linked to an accident involving a Shahab-3 unit. The Shahab-3 is a medium-range missile, capable of striking targets as far away as Israel.

Some believe sabotage (by Israel or Iranian opposition groups) was responsible for last year's blast, and similar rumors are making the rounds about today's blast near Tehran. Modern munitions--even those used by countries like Iran--are modular in design, reliable and safe. Generally speaking, they only blow up when they're supposed to, when all components are in place and at the end of the required fusing process.

It's hard to imagine conventional weapons simply blowing up accidentally. But if the Amir Al-Momenin base was involved in weapons experiments--perhaps related to Iran's nuclear program--then the chances for an accident are significantly higher. A connection to Tehran's WMD program would also raise the interest of Israeli intelligence, and raise prospects for some sort of covert plot against the facility.

As we noted at the time of the Khoramabad explosion, it takes a great deal of planning and skill to carry out an attack on a supposedly "secure" Iranian facility. In other words, if it was sabatoge, then Israel was the most likely culprit, and the Mossad will be among the suspects in today's blast near Tehran.

But covert missions and cyber attacks cannot deter Iran's nuclear ambitions forever. This week's alarming report from the International Atomic Energy Agency was a reminder that Iran has worked steadily towards building a bomb for years, undeterred by western diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions. In response, the Obama Administration announced plans to work with its allies to step up pressure on Tehran--essentially, the same, failed strategy that has been in place for years.

Meanwhile, there's been more talk about a possible Israeli strike against Iran, and that recent test launch of a Jericho III missile--a not-so-subtle reminder that while Tehran is still seeking a nuclear capability, Israel already has the capability to put nuclear weapons on Iranian targets.
ADDENDUM: There were also vague hints that the U.S. may be preparing for a worst-case scenario in the Persian Gulf. This week, the Pentagon announced the potenial sale of advanced bunker-buster munitions to the United Arab Emirates. That's the very sort of weapon that would be useful in attacking certain facilities related to Iran's nuclear program, and we're guessing that the contract comes with a certain clause--allowing the United States access to those weapons in the event of a conflict with Tehran.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Sins of Joe Paterno

Somewhere in Texas, Jackie Sherrill may be smiling.

During almost 30 years as a head college football coach, with stops at Washington State; Pitt, Texas A&M and Mississippi State, Mr. Sherrill developed a reputation as a cheater--someone who would gladly break NCAA rules to get better athletes and improve his team's won-loss record. In fact, Sherrill left both College Station and Starkville under a cloud, and the football programs at A&M and MSU were placed on probation for his transgressions.

So, it's little wonder that Sherrill became something of a pariah in college football, shunned by some of the game's most revered coaches, including Joe Paterno of Penn State. In a famous interview with Sports Illustrated, Joe Pa said he "couldn't" retire from college football and leave the game in the hands of coaches like "Jackie Sherrill and Barry Switzer." Paterno and Sherrill eventually made amends, but the comment stuck, and only reinforced Jackie's reputation as a cheater.

Almost a decade after he retired, Sherrill is still widely reviled for breaking NCAA rules, but ironically enough, he may wind up with a better legacy that Joe Paterno. The legendary Penn State coach was fired last night, the latest casualty of a sex scandal that has engulfed the Nittany Lions football program. Jerry Sandusky, Paterno's long-time defensive coordinator, has been charged with raping several young men who participated in his charity for at-risk youth.

While Sandusky retired from the PSU staff in 1999, he still had full run of the university's football complex and at least one of the rapes may have occurred in a Penn State athletic facility. When Paterno was told of Sandusky's crimes--in 2002--he reportedly informed the university's athletic director, but took no further action. Meanwhile, Sandusky continued preying on young boys for another eight years, protected by a university cover-up.

To his credit, Coach Paterno was one of the few Penn State officials who did anything. The university's current athletic director and a senior administrator lied to investigators about the matter and are now facing perjury charges. But Paterno is hardly a hero in this sordid mess; he never bothered to follow-up on his initial report, for reasons that remain unexplained. And while the Penn State community has rallied around their coach, it became clear that he could no longer retain his job, as the Sandusky scandal exploded. Federal authorities have joined the probe, along with state officials and the NCAA. Suffice it to say that Penn State faces a flood of lawsuits; more university officials may be indicted, and the football program's once-sterling reputation has been forever tarnished.

Recognizing that, Penn State's board of trustees moved quickly on Wednesday evening, dismissing Paterno and the university president during an emergency meeting. With the institution in full damage control mode, Penn State could no longer allow its legendary coach to play out the string. With revelations of more than a dozen victims--some molested in the university football complex--it was time for JoePa to go.

And that seems appropriate. A man lionized in the college football world for his character and integrity did virtually nothing to prevent the sexual abuse of young boys by a man who was once his top assistant. "I should have done more," Paterno said earlier today. Yes, he should have, but he didn't. Perhaps Coach Paterno didn't really believe the allegations against Sandusky, or trusted administrators to handle the dirty work. Besides, he had a football program to run, and a legend to protect.

Now, Paterno leaves college football as the winningest coach in the history of the game, but with a reputation permanently sullied by his own inaction. Some would say JoePa deserves better, but so did those young men, brutalized by a man who was an integral part of Paterno's football machine for so long.

Given JoePa's stunning fall from football grace, Jackie Sherrill is probably satisfied with being remembered as a mere cheater.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Greatly Exaggerated?

In the aftermath of Mommar Qadhafi's death, various Middle Eastern analysts were placing bets on the imminent demise of Bashir Assad's Syrian regime. After all, anti-regime protests were still going strong after more than six months, despite repeated crack-downs by security forces. And by some accounts, Assad's sponsors in Tehran were writing him off, with Iranian diplomats consulting Saudi Arabia and Turkey on a "way ahead" once the Syrian regime collapsed.

But to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, reports of Assad's demise may be exaggerated. From today's edition of The New York Times:

The Syrian government has launched a bloody assault to retake Homs, the country’s third-largest city, facing armed defectors who have prevented the government’s forces from seizing it as they did other restive locales this summer, in what may stand as one of the most violent episodes in an eight-month uprising.


The specter of civil war has long hung over Homs, the most tenacious and determined of cities opposed to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, where the city’s Sunni Muslim majority has closed ranks behind the revolt. This month, parts of the city have become an urban battlefield, with activists saying government forces have killed 111 people in just five days, opposition groups warning of dire shortages forced by the siege and residents complaining of lawlessness by marauding soldiers and paramilitary fighters.

The strife comes as mediation by the Arab League has apparently collapsed in one of the latest efforts to end what is among the most ferocious crackdowns on the revolts sweeping the Arab world this year. The government has increasingly demonstrated it will continue to try to stanch dissent by force, ignoring the relatively muted protests of the international community.

From our perspective, that latter paragraph (by Times' reporter Anthony Shadid) captures the essence of conditions in Syria. Arab League efforts to end the crisis have been half-hearted at best, and for obvious reasons. Many leaders in the Middle East are quite comfortable with Assad's regime; he's an established commodity (and an ally for some).

More importantly, there is genuine fear over what might happen if the current regime collapses --and what sort of government would replace it. As in other instances, "mediation" efforts are little more than a public relations ploy, creating the illusion of diplomatic action while Assad's security forces kill more protesters. The ruling elites in Tehran, Riyadh and elsewhere know that if the Syrian rebellion is successful, it will embolden domestic opposition at home, and there's no guarantee they can keep their respective genies in the bottle. So, while many Middle Eastern governments openly deplore the violence in places like Homs, privately they are cheering on Assad's security forces.

To be sure, the Syrian tyrant is a long way from reestablishing firm control over his country, but he does enjoy certain advantages. First, the western media has been effectively barred from covering the story; Mr. Shadid and his counterparts are filing reports from Beirut and other locations, well away from the fighting. They must rely on snippets of video provided by Syrian opposition groups and anonymous stringers working inside that country. While some of Assad's brutality has been captured on video (and smuggled outside Syria), much of the violence has not been viewed by the outside world, another reason for the muted global response.

Assad also has the benefit of a military and secret police apparatus that is competent and remains generally loyal to the regime. Unlike the Egyptian armed forces (who refused to intervene to save Hosni Mubarak), or the incompetent Libyan Army that couldn't save Qadhafi, the troops suppressing demonstrators in Syria are largely cast their lot with Mr. Assad and are doing his bidding in murderous fashion. While there have been some defections from the Army and intelligence services, they have not yet crippled Assad's ability to fight back, allowing him to continue the crackdown. Meanwhile, the protesters taking on the regime are poorly armed, and they can't call on NATO airstrikes to save the day.

To be sure, the future of Bashir Assad is far from secure. Losing entire cities to the opposition is not an encouraging sign, and the resistance seems as determined as ever, despite mounting civilian casualties. But Assad is a long way from joining the ranks of deposed dictators who are forced to flee, or find themselves lying in a ditch, with a bullet in their head.

Back to the Blog

...It's been an extraordinarily busy time for the past 10 days or so, thanks to the demands of my "day job." Now that things are settling down, I will be a bit more active on the blog. Many pardons for the interruption, and I appreciate your patience.