Saturday, March 31, 2012

Has Israel Found a FOB?

As we've noted in the past, two of Israel's biggest obstacles in attacking Iran are distance and fuel. With Iranian nuclear facilities roughly 1,000 miles from the Jewish state--and only a handful of aerial tankers in the IAF inventory--there are limits to the number of aircraft that could be dispatched for such a mission. From our analysis of the tactical problem in 2006:

Estimates vary on the exact numbers of tankers in the IAF inventory, but most analysts believe there are only 5-7 KC-707s. These aircraft would be an integral part of any long-range mission to Iran, providing aerial refueling and (possibly) command-and-control functions, such as radio relay. Israeli aircraft use the same "boom" refueling system as the USAF; fighters maneuver behind the tanker as the "boom operator" extends the refueling probe into the refueling receptacle of the receiving aircraft. Once contact is established, the tanker begins pumping fuel to the receiver, at a rate of several hundred pounds per minute.

The number of tankers available, coupled with their potential offload, will limit the size of any Israeli strike package. Again, estimates on the size of the formation vary (depending on the number of targets to be struck, fighter payload, target distance and airspeed), but many analysts believe the Israelis would launch 4-5 tankers, supporting no more than 30 strike aircraft, divided roughly between F-15Is and F-16Is (which would attack the nuclear facilities) and other F-15s and F-16s, flying air defense suppression and air superiority missions. Divide the number of "bombers" (say 15) by the number of nuclear complexes (four), and you'll see that the IAF has virtually no margin for error.

Over the past six years, Israel has made some upgrades to its tanker fleet, but the number of KC-707s has remained virtually unchanged. That means the IAF still has the same inflight refueling capability as it did in 2006, so the size the potential strike package would be largely unchanged. Israel has acquired better weapons in recent years (i.e., bunker buster bombs), so strike aircraft could target nuclear sites more efficiently, allowing individual fighters to carry fewer weapons, and possibly, add another F-16I (or two) to the package. But Israel's margin for error--in terms of tanking and targeting--remains razor-thin.

But the Israelis may have something else in mind: a plan that would allow them to utilize more aircraft, put more weapons on target and decrease their reliance on in-flight refueling. According to a new article at, Israel has reportedly secured access to airbases in Azerbaijan. Use of those facilities would allow for a number of options, from pre-strike basing, to ground-base refueling after the raid. These forward operating bases (or FOBs in military parlance) represent a game-changer for any Israeli strike against Iran:

Access to such airfields is important for Israel, because it would mean that Israeli F-15I and F-16I fighter-bombers would not have to refuel midflight during a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, but could simply continue north and land in Azerbaijan. Defense analyst David Isenberg describes the ability to use Azeri airfields as "a significant asset" to any Israel strike, calculating that the 2,200-mile trip from Israel to Iran and back again would stretch Israel's warplanes to their limits. "Even if they added extra fuel tanks, they'd be running on fumes," Isenberg told me, "so being allowed access to Azeri airfields would be crucial."

Former CENTCOM commander Gen. Joe Hoar simplified Israel's calculations: "They save themselves 800 miles of fuel," he told me in a recent telephone interview. "That doesn't guarantee that Israel will attack Iran, but it certainly makes it more doable."

Using airbases in Azerbaijan would ensure that Israel would not have to rely on its modest fleet of air refuelers or on its refueling expertise, which a senior U.S. military intelligence officer described as "pretty minimal." Military planners have monitored Israeli refueling exercises, he added, and are not impressed. "They're just not very good at it."

That last point is debatable; Israeli tankers have supported long-range missions in the past, including the raid on the former PLO headquarters in Tunis. They have also accompanied IAF fighters on deployments to Turkey, during times of better relations with Ankara. Israel's tanker issue isn't a question of skill, it's a matter of limited airframes and off-load capabilities.

But access to Azeri airfields changes the equation radically, as various experts told Foreign Policy:

Retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, who conducted a study for a think tank affiliated with the Swedish Ministry of Defense of likely Israeli attack scenarios in March 2010, said that Israel is capable of using its fleet of F-15I and F-16I warplanes in a strike on Iran without refueling after the initial top-off over Israel. "It's not weight that's a problem," he said, "but the numbers of weapons that are mounted on each aircraft." Put simply, the more distance a fighter-bomber is required to travel, the more fuel it will need and the fewer weapons it can carry. Shortening the distance adds firepower, and enhances the chances for a successful strike.

"The problem is the F-15s," Gardiner said, "who would go in as fighters to protect the F-16 bombers and stay over the target." In the likely event that Iran scrambled its fighters to intercept the Israeli jets, he continued, the F-15s would be used to engage them. "Those F-15s would burn up fuel over the target, and would need to land."

Could they land in Azerbaijan? "Well, it would have to be low profile, because of political sensitivities, so that means it would have to be outside of Baku and it would have to be highly developed." Azerbaijan has such a place: the Sitalcay airstrip, which is located just over 40 miles northwest of Baku and 340 miles from the Iranian border. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sitalcay's two tarmacs and the adjacent facilities were used by a squadron of Soviet Sukhoi SU-25 jets -- perfect for Israeli fighters and bombers. "Well then," Gardiner said, after the site was described to him, "that would be the place."

Some experts observe that bases in Azerbaijan could also be used by Israeli search-and-rescue (SAR) forces and special operations units that would support a potential raid on Iran. A few have even speculated that SAR assets have already deployed to the region, or will depart shortly, in anticipation of a Israeli raid in the coming months.

Israel's landing rights represent the culmination of 20 years of relationship-building with Azerbaijan. As ties with neighboring Turkey soured, ties between Tel Aviv and Baku took on added importance, as reflected by the number of senior Israeli officials who have visited Azerbaijan since the late 1990s.

What does Baku gain from this relationship? Israel is an important customer for Azeri oil, and the Jewish State has helped Azerbaijan upgrade its military forces. Tel Aviv may also provide intelligence information on their mutual foe--Iran. Baku has accused Tehran of meddling in its internal affairs, disrupting terrorist plots rooted in Iran, and expelling Muslim clerics with ties to the Iranian regime.

Interestingly, news of the "Azerbaijan option" was provided to Foreign Policy by a number of U.S. government officials, both civilian and military. Indeed, their sudden desire to speak publicly about military ties between Baku and Tel Aviv is merely the latest Obama Administration attempt to dissuade Israel from striking Iran. With the Azeri basing option now "out in the open," there will be pressure on the Baku government to deny Israeli access to their airfields, complicating potential strike planning.

But it may be a bit late for such tactics. Azerbaijan (along with other nations in the region) would privately welcome an Israeli strike against a growing regional menace. There's also the matter of Iran's long-standing mistreatment of its ethnic Azeri minority, a situation that doesn't sit well with Baku. Azerbaijan is also concerned about Iranian attempts to radicalize its Shia majority, who live under one of the few secular governments in the Muslim world.

Additionally, Israel may have other basing options in the region. During a 2007 military exchange, IAF officers told their USAF counterparts that basing rights had been secured in the Kurdish region of Iraq. One Israeli source suggested the Kurdish bases would be used as FOBs for SAR and special operations forces. Five years later, it's unclear if the Kurdish option is still available. But like the Azeris, the Kurds have their own axe to grind with Iran, and would probably be willing to provide limited support for an Israeli strike on Tehran's nuclear facilities.

Don't bet against the Israelis. As observed, the U.S. didn't start paying attention to the ties between Israeli and Azerbaijan until 2001. By that time, the Israelis had been cultivating ties in the region for almost a decade. Likewise, there has been plenty of contact between Iraqi Kurds and various Israeli interests, including the Mossad. Attempts by the Obama Administration to dissuade Israel from attacking Iran appear clumsy, and too late. Indeed, the White House might be better served by determining what comes next--after diplomacy fails, and the Israelis strike.

Buh-Bye Keith, Redux

Well, that didn't last long.

Barely nine months into his five-year contract with Current TV, Keith Olbermann has been fired by the network, after months of bickering with his bosses (gee, what a surprise).

And it promises to be a bloody and bitter divorce. From the Hollywood Reporter:

Keith Olbermann was informed Thursday morning that Current was terminating its five-year, $50 million contract with its star anchor.

The network sent an e-mail to Olbermann’s agent, Nick Khan at ICM, on Thursday morning stating that Olbermann was being let go for “material, serial breach of contract” and informed him thatEliot Spitzer would take Countdown’s 8 p.m. time slot effective immediately. (Spitzer will keep Olbermann’s staff and film his show, Viewpoint, out of the same Manhattan studio.)

According to knowledgeable sources, the issues were Olbermann’s repeated unauthorized absences as well as “sabotaging the network” and “attacking Current and its executives.”

Not surprisingly, Olbermann wasted little time firing back, and vowing legal action against his former employers:

“For more than a year I have been imploring Al Gore and Joel Hyatt to resolve our issues internally, while I've been not publicizing my complaints, and keeping the show alive for the sake of its loyal viewers and even more loyal staff,” said Olbermann. “Nevertheless, Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt, instead of abiding by their promises and obligations and investing in a quality news program, finally thought it was more economical to try to get out of my contract.”

He also all but assured legal action, saying, “It goes almost without saying that the claims against me implied in Current's statement are untrue and will be proved so in the legal actions I will be filing against them presently.”

It would be a vast understatement to say no one is surprised by this train wreck. In a business filled with volatile personalities, Olbermann deserves his own, special category. The man has been fired from virtually every major gig he's had in broadcasting, and he doesn't just burn bridges, he nukes them. In fact, the roster of TV executives who loathe Olbermann would probably equal the same number of viewers who watched his Current show on a good night (174,000).

Over the past 25 years, Olby has been fired by ESPN, MSNBC (twice); Fox TV (Rupert Murdoch described him as "crazy") and now, Current TV. Now in his early 50s, Olbermann is literally running out of future employment options--at least those commensurate with his ego and salary expectations. When his last deal with MSNBC blew up last there, some analysts speculated that CNN might make a run at Olbermann; the original cable news network has been struggling in the 8 pm time slot for years, but Time-Warner executives wanted no part of the perpetual headache that is Keith Olbermann.

Instead, the former sportscaster landed at Current TV, where he was touted as the network's signature personality. But Olbermann was angered by technical glitches and changes in leadership. In response, he began taking more time off, and eventually Current decided to fire Olbermann.

Still, the host's antics weren't the only reason he got the axe. Current has been struggling financially, and Al Gore's efforts to sell the network (or attract new investors) have been unsuccessful. Olbermann's $50 million contract represented a sizable outlay for Current, and by getting rid of him, the network will save tens of millions of dollars--even when you factor in the inevitable settlement with its former anchor.

And speaking of money, we wonder if Olby's frustrations stemmed (in part) from Current's financial condition. When he signed on with Al Gore's network, Olbermann was promised an equity share in the enterprise. Once his attorneys looked at the balance sheet, they quickly discovered there was no equity to share. Of course, if Olbermann didn't realize Current was a fiscal black hole until he signed on with the network, he needs better representation, and perhaps, a remedial math class at Cornell.

In hindsight, both Olbermann and Current got exactly what they deserve. The liberal network got the most inflated ego in the history of broadcasting, who made their existence a living hell for the past year or so. As for Olby, he was banished to a cable outlet that barely registers in the ratings--roughly akin to being the weekend sportscaster in TV market #175. Sure, the money was nice, but Olbermann essentially vanished from media and cultural relevancy. Must have been quite a blow for that monstrous ego.

While the lawyers prepare their briefs, the logical question is where Olby goes next? Quite frankly, we're not sure. He's personna non grata at the networks and major cable operations. With his departure from Current, Olbermann may have burned his last bridge, literally and figuratively. And not a moment too soon.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Budget Buster?

It's become Exhibit A in the Pentagon's plans to cut spending. According to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (and his successor, Leon Panetta), health care costs are spiraling out of control. By one estimate, the military's annual medical bill--for active duty personnel, retirees and dependents--tops $69 billion a year, a three-fold increase over the past decade. And, the same "experts" say that much of the growth has occurred in TRICARE, the health care program for dependents and retirees.

But many haven't heard "the rest of the story," to borrow a phrase from the late Paul Harvey. Turns out that TriCare isn't exactly the budget buster we've been led to believe. Speaking at a Virginia military education conference on Wednesday, retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Jack Klimp, President of the National Association of Uniformed Services, reported that TRICARE returned at least $500 million to DoD last year, and the final total may be closer to $1 billion.

That's right, the very health care program described as a budget-buster has actually been running below cost projections. So why the disinformation campaign?

Well, for starters, there are lots of senior officials in DoD who'd like to get rid of the retiree healthcare account, once and for all. From their perspective, nothing's worse than a bunch of codgers (and their dependents) who expect the government to keep its promises, then complain to Congress when those obligations aren't met. Never mind that the "codgers" (as new members of the military) were promised free, on-base health care for the rest of their lives, in exchange for the hardships of a military career. As far as the DoD crowd goes, pushing dependents and retirees into Obamacare (or some other plan) would generate tremendous cost-savings, and rid the Pentagon of a troublesome constituency.

Currently, DoD is moving to raise TRICARE fees for program participants. Under a proposed sliding scale system, military retirees with the highest pensions (more than $45,000 a year) would pay $1.950 a year per family for TRICARE Prime, the top-of-the-line plan for retired military personnel and dependents. Retirees at the lower end of the pay scale (even those making less than $22,000 a year) would see an increase in their annual enrollment fee, from $520 to $850 a year. Those increases would be phased in over the next four years, along with enrollment fees and deductibles for less-generous plans (TRICARE Extra and TRICARE Standard). Until now, those plans never charged an enrollment fee.

For "civilian" families paying hundreds (even thousands) of dollars a month for health care insurance,such complaints may sound like whining. But it's worth remembering that military retiree health care benefits were earned through decades of service and sacrifice. And most retired members of the armed forces don't fit in the upper-income category, either. As we've noted before, the typical military retiree left the service as a E-6, with a take home pension of $1600 a month. The propose increase in TRICARE Prime represents about five percent of their annual pension--and that doesn't include their co-pays for prescription drugs, doctor's fees and other expenses.

Most military retirees understand that keeping co-pays at 1994 levels was unrealistic. But they would also appreciate a little more honesty from DoD on the program's real financial condition. If TRICARE is running below budget projections--and returning money to the Pentagon--that doesn't exactly buttress the case for a 400% fee increase, which some retirees will see over the next four years.

Likewise, program beneficiaries would value greater efforts (on the part of government officials) to keep promises that were made when they signed up. We're already light-years away from the original guarantees regarding health care for military retirees. Most of those who served their country would like to see someone try to honor those commitments (or semblance thereof), instead of cooking up new schemes to drain more money out of TRICARE beneficiaries, or push them into other insurance plans.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Today's Reading Assignment: The "Hot Mic" Moment

Retired Army Colonel (turned syndicated columnist) Austin Bay, on that illuminating exchange earlier this week between President Obama and his outgoing Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev. Not realizing his microphone was already on, Obama reassured Medvedev that he would have "more flexibility" on missile defense "after his election."

Since then, the administration has tried to play down Mr. Obama's comments. Colonel Bay isn't buying it--and we aren't, either:

Obama and his press apologists dismiss "The Missile Message," spinning it as a minor gaffe. Balderdash. Obama and Medvedev are their nations' top diplomats as well as leaders, so the personal diplomatic exchange, though arrogant, flamingly stupid and brazenly conniving, isn't minor. The apologists' agitprop disregards the men's privileged positions and insults common sense. But then a fair inference drawn from Obama's request for "space" is he believes he can tell the American people any jit and jot, and the rubes will believe. When he ran against Hillary Clinton, Obama opposed the individual mandate. In office, it became the cornerstone of his health care legislation.


Missile defense is [incoming Russian President Vladimir] Putin's favorite Cold War ember. In the last decade, the U.S. and NATO have built the diplomatic and technological framework to deploy an anti-missile defense designed to stop an Iranian missile volley. Turkey agreed to host a key radar site. The multilayered shield is actually rather robust, though Obama weakened it in September 2009 when he eliminated ground-based interceptors (GBI) deployment. GBIs have anti-ICBM capabilities but were no counter-force to Russian strategic missiles.

Still, Russia objected. Obama dumped the GBIs, despite howls from U.S. ally Poland.

Would Khomeinist Iran try to politically blackmail Europe with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile? Japan and South Korea decided missile defense was a sane response to North Korea's nuclear extortion racket. Exposing London and Paris to the nuclear whims of millenarian religious nuts is utterly stupid diplomacy. Countering NATO's shield thus puts Iran's ayatollahs in political debt to Russia. Putin's Moscow prefers sphere of influence to a sphere of shared security.

So, with that brief comment, Mr. Obama essentially sold our allies down the river, while enhancing Russia's geopolitical position. And Colonel Bay forgot the President's plans to share technical data on missile defense with our "partners" in Moscow. Russian scientists, engineers and defense planners must be doing cart-wheels over that one. With one brazen promise, Obama saved the Russians billions of rubles that would be devoted to R&D on counter-measures for missile re-entry vehicles, decoys and related systems.

Meanwhile, there has been nary a peep on this issue from the various GOP presidential contenders. It's a ready-made campaign issue, but we haven't heard much on this from Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. One reason is that the first three have no military experience; Dr. Paul served as an Air Force physician in the early 1960s, and he would probably argue that we invited this situation by "antagonizing" the Russians, Iranians and the rest of our adversaries. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama is already planning for his second term, and more "agreements" with our friends in Moscow.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Case Closed?

It's been almost six years since Air Force Major Jill Metzger disappeared from a shopping mall while deployed to Manas AB, Kyrgyzstan in September 2006. Metzger resurfaced a few days later, with an incredible tale of kidnapping, over-powering her abductors and racing almost 30 miles to freedom (the Air Force officer happens to be a champion marathon runner).

It sounded too good to be true, but the military media largely fell in line with the "public" account of Metzger's ordeal. Thankfully, Glenn MacDonald and the crew at didn't buy the official version of events. Over the years that followed, they produced a number of exclusives on the Metzger case, indicating that she staged her own disappearance. Among their revelations:

-- Metzger showed no signs of having run 30 miles barefoot through the Kyrgyz countryside in her "bid for freedom." In fact, her feet appeared to be in remarkably good shape, with no indications of cuts, bruises or blood.

-- The Air Force officer, who is a natural blond, was a brunette at the time of her repatriation. Dye on her hands indicated that Metzger did the job herself. Would a woman fleeing her kidnappers take the time to change her hair color? Or was the makeover aimed at covering up other activities that were the real reason for his disappearance.

-- Kyrgyz authorities doubted her story from the start, and even interviewed a local abortion doctor who claimed he performed that procedure on Major Metzger during the time she was missing. However, local cops were never allowed to follow-up on their initial interview with Metzger; she was flown out of the country less than three days after her return.

-- A source inside the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), which probed Metzger's disappearance, told that the USAF personnel officer flunked at least two polygraphs after her escape. One exam, administered at her home station of Moody AFB, GA, showed clear signs of deception.

-- No rape kit or pregnancy test was ever administered to Metzger, despite her alleged abduction by male suspects.

-- AFOSI agents investigating the case were told to "lay off" Metzger, because she had "someone big by the b---s."

-- Air Force General Gary North, then a senior commander in the region, made a surprise appearance at Manas shortly after Metzger's rescue, offering an official "welcome home." He pressed his ceremonial coin into the palms of Air Force security forces personnel on duty in the area, telling them "You didn't see a thing."

Some of the better reporting by on the Metzger case can be found here.

While the incident--and the apparent cover-up--are well known to readers of this blog, the controversial case is bubbling up again. On Monday, the Air Force confirmed that Major Metzger was "kidnapped" back in 2006, based on an extensive examination of forensic evidence, and interviews with dozens of individuals connected to the case. More from Air Force Times:

On Feb. 3, investigators officially closed the case of Maj. Jill Metzger, who disappeared for several days in September 2006. She later said she had been kidnapped and had managed to escape.

“The Air Force Office of Special Investigations and several outside agencies then conducted a comprehensive and detailed examination of all the facts in this case and continued the investigation as long as was necessary in order to get to the truth,” Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Tracy A. Bunko said.after talking to hundreds of people, canvassing areas of Kyrgyzstan and conducting a forensic analysis of the evidence, investigators determined that all of the evidence supported Metzger’s account of what had happened, Bunko said in an email.

Of course, the service didn't release any of the forensic evidence or witness interviews that confirmed the kidnapping. And the Air Force assessment doesn't really address any of the questions raised by What about the failed polygraphs? What about Metzger's refusal to speak with investigators after being flown out of Kyrgyzstan? What about the evidence developed by local police? And what types of forensic evidence led the Air Force to its conclusion? As noted previously, Major Metzger reportedly refused to submit to medical tests that might offer new details about her abduction and those allegedly responsible for it.

In its account, Air Force Times said the service's recent review "debunks" an on-line smear campaign aimed at Major Metzger. Funny, but we don't see how legitimate questions--posed by and other other blogs--represents a smear campaign. And without more details, we don't see how those questions have been answered. You'd think Air Force Times would be asking some of those questions--or at least pressing the service's p.r. flack for more details--but (as with other stories on the Metzger case), the paper has been happy to regurgitate military spin.

Of course, the real question is why this issue is surfacing again. After all, it's been almost six years and (to our knowledge) no Congressional committee was forcing the USAF to resolve the matter. We believe the motivation is two-fold: first, General North is preparing to retire later this year, and tidying up the Metzger case eliminates an issue that might cause some uncomfortable questions during a future session on The Hill, perhaps during confirmation hearings for an appointment in a future Romney or Obama Administration.

The other reason is rooted in Major Metzger's own career. After being placed on the "temporarily retired" list for a couple of years, she returned to active duty in 2010, at Andrews AFB, MD. She's probably up for Lieutenant Colonel, and resolving the Kyrgyz matter would improve her prospects for promotion.

Here's hoping that Glenn MacDonald can pry loose a little more information from the OSI, and shed some real light on how this case was finally "closed." Then as now, the Metzger scandal stinks to high heaven, and not even the passage of time can change that, despite Air Force efforts to sweep it under the rug, once and for all.

Looking at Internal Look

With near-record speed, The New York Times has obtained details of a recent U.S. military wargame, aimed at assessing the likely impact of an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.

The exercise, part of U.S. Central Command's "Internal Look" series, was conducted earlier this month. But administration officials--civilian or military--apparently couldn't wait to share some of the results with their friends at the Times. And the reason for the rapid leak is abundantly clear; the NYT account paints a grim picture of a wider, regional conflict that draws in the United States, after an initial strike by Israeli forces. That supports the Obama narrative that diplomacy should be given more time to work, and Israeli should hold off on pre-emptive military action.

"..the game has raised fears among top American planners that it may be impossible to preclude American involvement in any escalating confrontation with Iran, the officials said. In the debate among policy makers over the consequences of any Israeli attack, that reaction may give stronger voice to those in the White House, Pentagon and intelligence community who have warned that a strike could prove perilous for the United States.

The results of the war game were particularly troubling to Gen. James N. Mattis, who commands all American forces in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, according to officials who either participated in the Central Command exercise or who were briefed on the results and spoke on condition of anonymity because of its classified nature. When the exercise had concluded earlier this month, according to the officials, General Mattis told aides that an Israeli first strike would be likely to have dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there.

The two-week war game, called Internal Look, played out a narrative in which the United States found it was pulled into the conflict after Iranian missiles struck a Navy warship in the Persian Gulf, killing about 200 Americans, according to officials with knowledge of the exercise. The United States then retaliated by carrying out its own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities."

These results are hardly surprising, given the likely Iranian reaction to an Israeli attack. In retaliation, Tehran would almost certainly attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, choking off a key waterway for oil shipments to the global market. The job of re-opening the strait would largely fall on the U.S. Navy, setting the stage for Iranian attacks against American warships, with the potential for loss of life on both sides.

But the snippets leaked to the Times don't tell the whole story. For example, what happens during follow-on exchanges between Israel and Tehran? Does the conflict go nuclear? And what about Israel's near-by enemies in Syria, the West Bank and Gaza? Do they unleash a barrage of rockets that overwhelms the "Iron Dome" defense system, inflicting wide-spread damage and casualties.

There's also the matter of Iran's neighbors? How do countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Iraq and Oman respond? Do they allow the additional basing of western military forces and even join the fight themselves? If the NYT received that information, it wasn't included in the article that was published in today's editions. Indeed, there are vast differences between a conflict that engulfs the entire Middle East, and a more limited affair focused on Israel's attempts to fend off enemies near and far, and U.S. retaliatory strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. Without additional details, it's difficult to envision the type of "regional war" forecast by Internal Look.

To be fair, such matters are normally beyond the scope of the CENTCOM exercise, which has been held on a recurring basis for more than 30 years. Internal Look is designed primarily to improve communication and coordination between command elements at CENTCOM HQ (located at MacDill AFB, FL) and in the AOR. But the "results" provided to the NYT paint anything but a rosy scenario, which is one reason the administration was so anxious to share it with friendly reporters.

Obviously, an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities would ignite a firestorm across the region--and there is little doubt the U.S. would be drawn into the conflict. Under those conditions, there would almost certainly be American casualties and our economy would suffer even greater harm, thanks to skyrocketing energy costs. But what are the consequences of sticking with the diplomatic track? "Internal Look" doesn't examine that type of issue, given its focus on the military realm.

But it's a question worth asking--and war-gaming. Left untouched, Iran will, at some point in the near future, become a member of the nuclear club, followed in short order by deployment of warheads on missiles that can strike the entire Middle East, including U.S. forces stationed in the region. Beyond that, Iran will pose a growing nuclear threat to Europe (thanks to the BM-25 intermediate range missiles acquired from North Korea a few years ago) and eventually the United States. With help from Pyongyang, Iran could have a nuclear-tipped ICBM later this decade, capable of targeting American cities.

Which brings us back to the conundrum now facing U.S. leaders? Is it better to double-down on diplomacy (and discourage Israel from launching preemptive strikes), hoping that a break-through can somehow be achieved? Or keep all options fully on the table, with the willingness to use military force when Iran crosses critical "red lines" in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Current signals from the administration (including leaked results from "Internal Look") suggest the military option is all-but-off-the-table, which must be music to the mullahs' ears.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Unraveling

The situation in Afghanistan has entered the realm of the bizzare.

Barely three days after a U.S. soldier went on a shooting rampage that left 16 Afghan civilians dead, there were two more incidents that suggested our involvement in that war is quickly unraveling.

The first episode occurred as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was landing a Camp Bastion, a British airfield in Helmand Province next to Camp Leatherneck, a major U.S. Marine Corps installation. As Panetta's C-17 was landing, a stolen pick-up truck, driven by an Afghan, sped onto the ramp at Camp Bastion and crashed into a ditch. The driver emerged from the vehicle on fire; he was immediately captured and taken to a military hospital, for treatment of burns.

But it wasn't an attempted attack on Mr. Panetta, according to American officials quoted by The New York Times.

No explosives were found on the driver, a civilian, or in the truck, the officials said, and the Pentagon was not immediately considering the episode an attack on Mr. Panetta. But it reinforced the lack of security in Afghanistan at the beginning of his two-day visit, the first by a senior member of the Obama administration since an American soldier reportedly killed 16 Afghan civilians, mostly children and women, in Kandahar Province.

Let's see...a stolen vehicle, driven by an Afghan, rolls onto the ramp just as the SecDef's plane was landing, but it wasn't an attack. True, no explosives were found in the truck, but a vehicle slamming into a jet aircraft (with a large fuel load) can certainly cause a lot of damage, and possibly kill the crew and passengers.

And, no one's bothered to explain how the truck got past security and onto the flightline in the first place. Incidentally, the ditch where the vehicle came to rest was alongside the same ramp where Panetta's plane was scheduled to park. Coincidence? You decide. In light of the airbase incident, there were reports of pending changes in the "vetting" of Afghan workers on NATO bases in Afghanistan. We're guessing that familes of U.S. military personnel killed by their Afghan "colleagues" (after the recent Koran-burning incident) should take some comfort in that.

But after surviving the "non-attack," Panetta's visit grew even stranger. Before his speech at Camp Leatherneck, Marines in attendance were asked to leave their weapons outside. It was the first time U.S. military personnel had been asked to disarm during an appearance by a senior official.

Around 200 troops who had gathered in a tent at Camp Leatherneck were told "something had come to light" and asked abruptly to file outside and lay down their automatic rifles and 9mm pistols.

"Somebody got itchy, that's all I've got to say. Somebody got itchy – we just adjust," said the sergeant who was told to clear the hall of weapons.

Major General Mark Gurganus later said he gave the order because Afghan troops attending the talk were unarmed and he wanted the policy to be consistent for all.

"You've got one of the most important people in the world in the room," he told the New York Times, insisting that the decision was unrelated to Sunday's killings. "This is not a big deal."

The contradiction between the NCO's remarks (from a Sergeant Major) and General Gurganus couldn't be more striking. The "itchy" remark was an obvious reference to the recent rampage by that soldier. Did someone in the chain of command think a Marine was going to take a pot-shot at Mr. Panetta? Yet, General Gurganus said it was "no big deal," despite the fact that his decision was precedent-setting.

Judging from the picture at the Drudge Report, the general may get an earful the next time he speaks to those Marines. The Marine in the photo is clearly upset, and we're guessing his buddies feel the same way. They represent the line between hope and chaos in Helmand, but their leaders aren't comfortable with them being armed in the same tent as the SecDef. It was an insult of the first order, putting brave men and women on the same level as the soldier who murdered Afghan civilians and the various Afghans who have killed Americans because of some perceived slight.

As Victor Davis Hanson observed on John Batchelor's radio show last night, we are witnessing the rapid unraveling of the American mission in Afghanistan. Unable to articulate a coherent strategy for the run-up to our planned withdrawal, President Obama can only offer the occasional apology for miscues, mistakes and incidents that are deliberately exploited by the Taliban.

In some respects, Mr. Obama resembles Lincoln before he found Ulysses Grant (and a plan for winning the Civil War). President Lincoln stumbled through a series of commanders and failed plans before bringing Grant east, and giving him the resources to crush the Confederates, once and for all. By our count, Mr. Obama has gone through four commanders during his stewardship of the Afghan War, and veered from a "maintenance" to a surge strategy, with a firm exit date.

And there's the difference between Lincoln and Obama, who likes to compare himself to the 16th President. Mr. Lincoln was willing to fight on and eventually found a way to win; Obama's focus is purely on the "optics" of this conflict and their relationship to his re-election chances. No wonder the Marines at Panetta's speech look so glum.

To be fair, the situation in Afghanistan could be described as beyond repair. But an equally fair question is now the "good" war got that way. During Mr. Obama's surge, American casualties have doubled, and our gains on the ground have been modest in many areas. Liberals blame George W. Bush for "taking his eye off the ball," but conditions in Afghanistan have taken a turn for the worse since his sucessor took office.

There is no doubt we will be out of Afghanistan in 2014, but that timetable sets the stage for something even worse: the full-fledged return of the Taliban and their Al Qaida allies. As Dr. Hanson observed on the radio, the terrorists apparently learned more from their defeat in Iraq than we learned from our victory.
ADDENDUM: Two days after the fact, the Pentagon has changed its tune on the Camp Bastion incident, describing the stolen truck (and its burning driver) as an attempted attack against a group of VIPs waiting for Secretary Panetta. They also told the Washington Post they could not rule out the possibility that the incident was aimed at the Defense Secretary.

It's also worth noting that The New York Times ignored the subsequent disarming of the Marines in its reporting on the incident, and the latest coverage from the Post omitted that fact as well. What a coincidence.

Monday, March 05, 2012

A Tale of Two Hearings

We've been watching the Sandra Fluke kerfuffle with a certain detached irony. It's certainly no surprise that the White House and Congressional Democrats want to make the 2012 campaign a referendum on "reproductive rights," depicting Republicans as prudes and Neanderthals who would deny women access to any form of contraception.

Of course, it's helpful to remember that "contraception" has become the new catch-phrase for anything remotely connected to the prevention of pregnancy, including abortion. "Contraception" tests much better with female and independent voters than a "woman's right to choose," or other code-phrases for abortion.

It is also unsurprising that Ms. Fluke became the poster girl for this manufactured controversy. The Daily Caller has done a nice job of tracing her activist past, including Fluke's academic interest in reproductive rights as a law student at Georgetown. However, the Caller's Caroline May misses an important point; Fluke was actually a "substitute" witness, after Democratic staffers decided she would present a more sympathetic image than Barry Lynn, Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. In fact, Fluke was a last-minute replacement for Lynn, submitted at 4:30 pm on the day before she was scheduled to testify. The deliberate switch prevented Republicans from properly vetting the witness and pointing out her activist past.

Naturally, the Democrats jumped on the GOP for challenging their witness change. And El Rushbo didn't exactly help matters when he referred to Ms. Fluke as a "prostitute" and a "slut." As the father of three daughters, I'm a bit sensitive to that type of language, even if it seems to contain an element of truth. After all, Sandra Fluke told Congress that a female student must pay an average of $3,000 for contraception during three years at Georgetown Law, a sum that apparently jeopardizes their financial future. That's why women need free contraceptive care, even if that coverage goes against the moral beliefs of their employer.

Never mind that Ms. Fluke's claims are demonstrably false. There are plenty of places where a struggling college students can obtain contraception, some within a few minutes of the Georgetown campus. And, there's the little matter of how much protection a student needs and how much it costs (assuming they don't want to go the "free" route). A month's supply of generic birth control pills can be purchased at Wal-Mart for $4. Total cost for three years at Georgetown: $144.

Or, if a student prefers condoms, they're readily available and affordable as well. In fact, the "contraception cost" cited by Ms. Fluke could cover a swingin' weekend at the Kennedy compound, or for mere mortals, enough protection for five sexual encounters a day for three years (emphasis ours). We've heard that law profs try to "bore their students to death" during year three; looks like Ms. Fluke (and her fellow students) have found a new way to beat the boredom during their final semester at good ol' Georgetown.

But that isn't the real irony of Ms. Fluke and her contraception plight. That was provided in another hearing room, on another subject, military health care. While the MSM media was atwitter over Ms. Fluke, they largely ignored the latest revelations on healthcare fees for military retirees. Appearing before the House Budget Committee, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta affirmed that out-of-pocket costs for TriCare (the health plan covering military dependents and retirees) will continue to rise.

Just how much? According to California Congressman Buck McKeon, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, some military retirees will see their TriCare fees increase by as much as 345%. Supporters of the fee hike note that TriCare went more than 15 years without an increase. Critics note that the average military retiree leaves the service as an E-6, with a monthy pension of roughly $1600 (after taxes). While the revised system will be means tested (so higher-ranking retirees pay more), any increase will have a major impact on service members who retire at lower grades.

Of course, that means little to members of Congress (most of whom never served in the armed forces), or the Obama Administration, which is equally lacking in military experience. They have no problem in raising health care fees for military retirees and dependents, while pushing for free, unlimited contraception for those young-skulls-full-of-mush on campus.

Did we mention that the retirees actually earned their benefits, through decades of service and sacrifice? Or that they were promised free, on-base healthcare for life at the time of their enlistment? But then again, retired military members aren't viewed as a crucial "swing" voting block in this year's presidential election.

That's one reason that Democratic lawmakers are more concerned about Sandra Fluke's access to free birth control than the impact of rising TriCare fees on a retired Navy Petty Officer First Class. You know, the man (or woman) who served the nation honorably for at least 20 years, and is now trying to keep their family afloat on a household income that will be far less than Ms. Fluke's starting salary as a lawyer. You see, Sandra Fluke may be a useful dupe, but she's far from stupid. That Congressional appearance will likely open some doors with Democratic law firms, think tanks and Capitol Hill committees that might otherwise pass on a rookie lawyer with a thin resume.

We're still waiting for some Democratic Representative or Senator to introduce the "Sandra Fluke Access to Free Contraception Act" (paging Barbara Boxer). Unlimited contraception for everyone (who's likely to vote Democratic). And they can pay for it with more cuts to TriCare!