Friday, June 29, 2012

A Tale of Two Medal Ceremonies

During the same week that Britain finally dedicated a monument to RAF Bomber Command, there's word of two more delayed ceremonies that recognized vastly different American airmen.  In one case, the recognition was decades overdue, as it was with the heroes of Bomber Command.  In the second example, the belated recognition is something of an embarrassment, a reminder of a still-festering scandal that the U.S. Air Force can't acknowledge or resolve.

Earlier this month, the service finally recognized the heroism and valor of Captain Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot who was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, triggering an international incident that lasted for almost two years.  Powers, flying a secret mission for the CIA, was forced to eject from his spy plane at high altitude after it was struck by a surface-to-air missile.  Unable to take his cynaide pill, Powers was captured by the Russians, and subjected to a Moscow show trial.  That event, coupled with his on-camera "confession" was used to humiliate the United States.

When Powers was released in a spy swap in 1962, he was treated with indifference by the service and the intelligence community.  Many believed the U-2 pilot had betrayed his country by not committing suicide before the Russians captured him.  Others claimed that Powers divulged U.S. secrets during harsh interrogation sessions at the hands of his Soviet captors.

But historical records reveal a much different picture.  He was shot down because the intelligence community (including his colleagues at the CIA) believed that Russian SA-2 surface-to-air missiles were not yet operational, and posed no threat to Powers' U-2.  Not only were the missiles operational, they were deployed along the spy plane's familiar flight path across Soviet territory.  Russian crews fired a total of eight SA-2s at Powers' plane, downing not only the U-2, but a MiG-19 that was sent aloft in an effort to intercept the America jet.

Powers also kept the faith during his lengthy imprisonment, including extended periods in solitary confinement punctuated by extended "interrogations" by the KGB.  Both the CIA and a Congressional panel later divulged that Powers provided no classified information during his time in captivity.  Yet, many senior government officials still considered him a traitor, largely on the basis of an incorrect NSA assessment that was later debunked, when CIA records on the flight were declassified.

After being exchanged for a Soviet spy, Powers returned to the United States and left the Air Force.  He worked for Lockheed as a U-2 test pilot until 1970, but was terminated after he published a book about the shoot-down and its aftermath.  Some observers believe Lockheed fired Powers at the urging of intelligence officials, who were upset over his account of the events.  However, the CIA awarded the U-2 pilot its Intelligence Star for valor in 1965, and long after his death, Powers received the Director's Medal from CIA Director George Tenet for "extreme courage and fidelity in the line of duty."

Recognition from the Air Force was a bit slow in coming.  When records of the CIA-USAF overflight operation were finally declassified, the service presented Powers' family with the Prisoner of War Medal, the National Defense Service Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.  And, earlier this month, Powers was awarded the Silver Star for his "sustained courage" during the U-2 incident.

Unfortunately, most of the awards came decades after Powers' untimely death.  After losing his job at Lockheed, the former U-2 pilot became a radio traffic reporter for a station in Los Angeles.  In 1976, he joined KNBC-TV as the pilot of its "Telecopter," a Bell Jet Ranger with state-of-the-art cameras and a microwave relay that transmitted pictures back to the station.  On August 1, 1977, the chopper crashed, killing Powers and a cameraman.  The National Transportation Safety Board attributed the crash to pilot error (apparently, the helicopter ran out of fuel before it could land at Burbank airport), but Powers' son reported that a mechanic had replaced a faulty fuel gauge without telling the pilot, who misread it.  There is also evidence that Powers deviated from his auto-rotation at the last moment, after spotting a group of children playing in the area where the helicopter would have landed.

That night, on NBC's Tomorrow show, host Tom Snyder offered a brief, but moving tribute to Powers, who he knew from his days at KNBC.  As I recall, Snyder hinted at how Powers had been treated after being released from a Soviet prison, suggesting that he deserved better from a nation he had served honorably and faithfully, under the most trying circumstances imaginable..

With the Silver Star ceremony in the Pentagon, the Air Force added another, well-deserved honor to the legacy of Francis Gary Powers.  Too bad it didn't happen 40 years ago.

It's equally regrettable that the USAF followed the Powers tribute with an awards ceremony that is simply jam-dropping, in terms of callousness and outright dishonesty.  According the indefatigable Glenn MacDonald at, the Air Force has awarded is Commendation Medal with a "V:"(Valor) device to none other than Major Jill Metzger.

That's right, the same Metzger who disappeared for three days in Kyrgyzstan back in 2006, then re-surfaced with an incredible tale of abduction and escape, complete with a 30-mile run to freedom.  Major Metzger is a champion distance runner, who has won the women's division of the Air Force Marathon on two different occasions.

As we've noted on previous occasions, Ms. Metzger's "story" has more holes than the proverbial block of Swiss.  A few months ago, Mr. McDonald thoroughly de-bunked an Air Force report that supposedly confirmed Metzger's version of events.  You can find his report here. Much of the analysis was conducted by retired Air Force Master Sergeant John Cassidy, an intelligence specialist with years of experience in search and rescue operations.  You'd think that Cassidy's work (cited by Mr. MacDonald) would attract the attention of the mainstream media, anxious to clear up unanswered questions about Metzger's mysterious disappearance in Kyrgyzstan.

But you'd be wrong.  Even the military press lost interest in Metzger a long time ago.  In the interim, she was awarded a 100% disability pension (reportedly due to PTSD, resulting from her brief time in "captivity").  Despite her condition, she still managed to compete in a couple of marathons, then returned to active duty in 2010, and was awarded her "valor" decoration a few weeks ago.

Not surprisingly, this latest episode was shrouded in secrecy.  The Air Force didn't release a photograph of the awards ceremony or issue a press release.  In fact, the entire ceremony was private, and many personnel at Travis AFB, California (where Metzger is now stationed) didn't learn about her valor award until Mr. MacDonald published an update on his website.

There has been plenty of speculation as to why the Air Force has protected Metzger for so long.  This latest episode will do nothing to end that speculation.  And giving her a valor award for such a fanciful, unsubstantiaed tale will only make matters worse.

But the service is undeterred.  If they can honor a real Air Force hero thirty-five years after his death, why not reward a phony and a fraud, too.  At this rate, maybe some enterprising staff officer--or even Metzger herself--can amend those claims of valor, setting her up for an Air Force Cross before she reaches flag rank.

We're not kidding.                  


Monday, June 25, 2012

At Last

The RAF Bomber Command Memorial, located in Green Park, London, will be dedicated on Thursday by Queen Elizabeth (UK Telegraph photo)

This Thursday, Britain will correct a slight that was years in the making.  After decades of controversy, debate and false starts, a memorial to the Bomber Command crews of World War II will finally be dedicated in London.  Queen Elizabeth will lead the official party, and Britons should be thankful she has enjoyed such a long reign.  Given the political correctness that affects certain members of the Royal Family (paging Prince Charles) one wonders if the next monarch would show up for such a lightning-rod event. 

Hard to believe, but sixty-seven years after the last Lancaster returned from the final bombing mission of World War II, there is outrage over the notion of honoring the crews who took the war to the German homeland.  Night after night, year after year, brave men climbed into their Stirlings, Halifaxes, Manchesters, Mosquitoes and 'Lancs, braving a deadly gauntlet of radar, anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and night-fighters to put bombs on target in Nazi-occupied Europe.

But thanks in part to revisionist history, their sacrifice of Bomber Command--which came after Luftwaffe  flattened cities like Rotterdam and Coventry--now seems less important than the suffering of German civilians on the ground.   In some circles, the RAF raids on cities such as Hamburg and Dresden are described as war crimes, and the men who planned and carried out those missions?  Nothing more than war criminals.

To give you some idea of how such thinking has affected British opinion, consider these facts: among the major elements of the British armed forces that fought in World War II, Bomber Command is the only one that was never honored with a campaign medal; its most famous leader (Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris) was denied post-war honors and the memorial comes decades after others were dedicated.

Yet the controversy won't die.  When plans for the monument were made public in 2010, the Mayor of Dresden, Helma Orosz, publicly criticized the move and voiced her concerns to London Mayor Boris Johnson.  From Der Spiegel:   .
"The planned memorial triggered astonishment in Dresden and was judged critically by us in diplomatic terms," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "I am pleased that this exchange of views led to the monument now featuring an inscription commemorating the victims of the bombing war. The objections many people in Germany had to such a memorial have been taken seriously and I welcome this very much. It's a further gesture of reconciliation between Britain and Germany."      

Lost in the politics are the 55,573 Bomber Command airmen who gave their lives in World War II.  All were volunteers who faced long odds of completing their operational tour.  Consider these statistics: out of  100 new aircrew assigned to bomber squadrons, 44% would die in combat; another 12% would be shot down and captured,  two would be downed but evade capture, and another three percent would be injured while on operations or active service.  Only 27%--barely one in four--would survive an operational tour.  A World War I infantry officer had better survival odds than a bomber command crew member who served between 1939-1945.

And yet, Bomber Command routinely dispatched 1,000 bombers against Nazi targets from early 1943 until the end of the war.  It was a testament to resourcefulness of British war planners, the manufacturers who delivered a steady stream of new aircraft and, of course, the crew members who headed out for Hamburg, Essen, Berlin, the Ruhr Valley and a hundred other targets, many of them never to return.

Due to the limits of bombing accuracy in that era (and the relatively poor self-defense capabilities of their aircraft), the RAF bombed at night, aiming for area targets, rather than specific facilities.  Such tactics, coupled with the use of incendiary munitions, sometimes triggered massive firestorms that killed thousands of German civilians.  As many as 45,000 died in the fire-bombing of Hamburg in the summer of 1943, and perhaps 25,000 were killed in the raid on Dresden in February, 1945.  By comparison, a U.S. fire raid on Tokyo in January, 1945 resulted in the deaths of 64,000 civilians, but that mission remains far less controversial than the great raids of Bomber Command.

But was anything gained for the effort?  The revisionists say no, pointing to German figures that show industrial production actually rose, even as the number and scale of the RAF raids continued to grow.  And clearly, Bomber Command did not achieve its secondary goal of crushing enemy morale.  Harris's desire to delivering a "knock-out" blow against the Germans in the winter of 1944 turned into a defeat for his command, which lost more than 1,000 aircrews during a four-month period.

Still, Bomber Command made tremendous contributions to defeating Nazi Germany.  British Historian Adam Tooze believes the RAF's Ruhr campaign was instrumental in a sharp drop in German steel production in 1943, causing a ripple effect in enemy arms production.  Hitler's last armaments chief, Albert Speer, credits Bomber Command with opening a "second front" years before the Normandy invasion.  Even if Bomber Command was limited in its accuracy, defending against that threat required tremendous resources, including the deployment of thousands of 88mm guns.  Scores of Allied tank crews survived the war because so many of the deadly weapons were retained in Germany for flak duties, and not deployed to the Russian or western fronts.

So, it's quite appropriate that the men (and women) of Bomber Command will finally be memorialized this Thursday.  Yet, even the dedication ceremony has attracted controversy.  After years of effort to raise the funds for the memorial, Bomber Command veterans, family members and other benefactors will be handed a $900,000 bill for staging the event.  The British MoD says it cannot support charitable events, although the U.K. Daily Mail found more than two dozen donations in recent years.  With the ministry refusing to pony up, trustees of the Bomber Command association--many of them World War II veterans--are on the hook for seating and security at the event.

To paraphrase Churchill, never before have so many (heroes) been treated so shabbily by so many.  And did we mention that the BBC's coverage of Thursday's dedication has been relegated to a low-rated news channel?     .                


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Back to Earth

The Air Force's mysterious robotic space plane returned to the earth over the weekend, renewing speculation about its mission and capabilities.

For the record, the 29-foot craft, better known as the X-37B, spent 469 days orbiting the earth, far exceeding the 270-day mark set by its sister ship in 2010.  The spacecraft landed safely at Vandenburg AFB, California early Saturday, but the service remains mum on what it accomplished during 15 months in space.

However, there is no shortage of theories about the X-37B and what it might be up to.

Popular Science speculated earlier this year that the mini-shuttle was being used to spy on China's new space station:

We know that Tiangong-1--which was launched back in September and is slated to host a manned crew sometime later this year--is in an orbit with an inclination of 42.78 degrees at an altitude of roughly 186 miles. And we know--not from the Pentagon but from a group of vigilant amateur space trackers--that the X-37B is orbiting at about the same altitude and at an inclination of 42.79 degrees. Not only is that orbit strange for a military recon satellite--they usually have polar orbits that offer better access to the entire globe--but it would periodically bring the two orbiters very close together.
Of course, the leap that’s being made--that the reason X-37B and Tiangong are on such similar paths is because the former is spying on the latter--is speculation entirely. The 30-foot X-37B has a cargo bay roughly akin to the interior space of a van, and there’s no telling what kind of sensors or other equipment might be stowed in there. And though China has been somewhat forthcoming about Tiangong-1’s mission, we can’t really be sure about that either. Putting them on the same orbital path is practically a recipe for rampant speculation.
But others note that the "geometry" of these fly-bys was less-than-optimum for surveillance of the Tiangong-1.  Still, the twin space planes (dubbed Orbit Test Vehicle-1 and 2) can carry a variety of payloads in their cargo bays, which are roughly the size of a pick-up truck.  One of the more intriguing possibilities we've heard is that OTV-2--the one that landed on Saturday--had some sort of optical package attached to its robotic arm.  In theory, that could provide some sort of covert collection capability against high-value targets, ranging from mobile ICBMs in Russia, China (and elsewhere), to Iranian nuclear facilities.   
With a reported orbit altitude of 186 miles, the X-37 flies closer to the earth than optical spy satellites and its more maneuverable.  One of the problems with imagery satellites is that they're very predictable; flying orbits known to us and our adversaries.  Maneuvering these platforms can improve the view, but it also burns up precious fuel, reducing the service life of a billion-dollar platform.  Making matters worse, our enemies automatically assume that a satellite is collecting when it passes overhead, so sensitive activities are concealed during suspected collection windows.  
Not only is the X-37 less predictable, it's also refuel-able, and we're guessing that sensors on that robotic arm can be deployed (and concealed) in a matter of minutes.  So, it may be more difficult for our foes to guard against a potential collection threat from the space plane.  And, that task becomes more complex when you have to account for the space plane and known spy platforms.  At some point, as the X-37 fleet grows in numbers, it will be more difficult to accomplish sensitive operations "in the open," for fears that some American platform is passing overhead.    
We're guessing--and it's pure speculation--that low earth orbit (LEO) surveillance is one of many missions that can be performed by the X-37B.  With the end of the shuttle program--and NASA still in disarray--the Air Force clearly wants to maintain a reusable space platform that can perform a variety of tasks, such as putting smaller payloads into orbit and conducting scientific experiments--in addition to possible reconnaissance work.  There's also talk that Boeing's Phantom Works (which developed the X-37B) is at work on a much larger version, one that could carry six astronauts into space.  
Meanwhile, USAF personnel and contractor reps are preparing OTV-1 for another mission later this year.  And quite predictably, the service isn't saying when it go aloft, and what it will do during its extended stay in space.  
ADDENDUM:  While the X-37B shows great promise, there are still a few tasks beyond its capabilities.  For example, the nation's newest spy satellite was launched into orbit on Wednesday from Cape Canaveral, using an Atlas 5 rocket.  Exact details of the payload are classified, but many surveillance satellites are the size of city buses, far too larger for the space plane's smaller cargo bay.  However, the X-37B would be quite useful in deploying the new, miniature spy satellites currently in development.  Some are so small they could fit into the palm of your hand, so a single space plane mission could carry scores of the small satellites aloft.     


Monday, June 11, 2012

Like a Sieve

As the Obama Administration begins its search for whoever leaked sensitive national security information, we're reminded of the old adage about a blind hog and an acorn.  Supposedly, the sightless pig will stumble across one occasionally, but more than often than not, their search will prove futile.  Call us cynics, but we expect the same results from the just-launched leak probe.

Here are the mechanics of the investigation: the men in charge are two U.S. attorneys, one appointed by Mr. Obama, the other by former President George W. Bush.  At least in theory , they have carte blanche to find out who has been discussing the nation's secrets with reporters from The New York Times and other media outlets.  The two men, Ronald Manchen (U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia) and Rod Rosenstein (U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland) will handle separate investigations into the disclosure of classified information that actually began several weeks ago.

Both Mr. Manchen and Mr. Rosenstein are capable professionals, with the full resources of the federal government to assist in their inquiry.  But the odds of them actually finding the culprit(s)--let along bringing them to justice- are decidedly slim, for a number of reasons.

First, as we've observed on numerous occasions, all administrations leak, usually in an effort to make themselves look good.  For Mr. Obama, recent disclosures about efforts that foiled an airliner bombing plot enhanced his national security credentials, as did subsequent revelations about his targeting of Al Qaida suspects with unmanned drones, and most recently, a long article about U.S. participation about U.S. cyber-attacks against Iran's nuclear program.

To some degree, the leaks seem to have achieved their purpose.  A recent poll gives Mr. Obama higher marks on national security than his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, though some of that margin reflects the advantages of incumbency.  As a governor, Mr. Romney had no real dealings in national security, just as Obama's resume was painfully thin before he became Commander-in-Chief.

But the recent, public disclosures about Mr. Obama's accomplishments come at a price.  After last year's raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed disgust over the flood of leaks that followed the SEALs mission.  Members of the Naval Special Warfare community in eastern Virginia (where the team is based) worried about the potential threat to members of their families, since press accounts divulged so many details about SEAL Team 6 and its location.

That was followed by leaks about a Saudi-led counter-intelligence operations that foiled a planned airline attack, using an underwear bomb.  Within days of the CIA gaining access to the device, details of the effort were splashed across newspapers and broadcasts around the globe.  Intel professionals were outraged; not only did we betray the confidence of a key ally (Saudi Arabia), the U.S. made it extraordinarily difficult for any agent to penetrate Al Qaida in the future--the method used by the Saudi operative to obtain the explosive device.

And it that weren't enough, The New York Times just revealed extraordinarily sensitive details of the cyber-attack that inserted viruses into computer systems associated with Iran's nuclear program.  The Times article provides stunning information about the origins of such cyber-weapons as "Stuxnet" and "Flame," and more importantly, how U.S. and Israeli experts found ways to map the electronic blueprint of key Iranian facilities and jump the electronic "moat" aimed at isolating those complexes from other computer networks.

True, the cyber-war against Iran began under President George W. Bush, but as the Times reminds us, the scope and intensity of such attacks accelerated under Mr. Obama.  And, in that regard, the President deserves credit for taking concrete steps to delay Iran's nuclear program without resorting to a military strike that might trigger a regional war in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, the Obama team let politics get in the way.  Facing a tough re-election battle against Mr. Romney, someone in the administration decided it would be a good idea to talk to David Sanger of the Times (and other reporters) about some of the secret wars being waged around the world.  If the President's poll numbers go up, so much the better.  If our operational security is crippled--and we lose the ability to mount similar operations in the future--well, that's something to worry about down the road.

If fact, the issue is so serious that the chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees (along with the ranking members on those panels) have expressed grave concerns about the recent leaks.  Their recent letter complaining about the disclosures was (perhaps) the final tipping point that persuaded Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint those U.S. Attorneys to look into the scandal.

But if past episodes are any indicator, the trail will eventually grow cold.  The Times certainly won't cooperate with investigators, and there probably isn't much of a paper trail to identify the culprits.  Unfortunately, leaking has become an art in Washington, D.C., and practitioners on both sides of the aisle have mastered the art of disclosing classified information without getting caught.

In fact, the odds of anyone being prosecuted are ridiculously slim.  As we noted in a previous post, the FBI conducted more than 600 inquiries into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information over a 10-year period, beginning in the 1990s.  And how many individuals were prosecuted for those crimes?  Approximately zero.  In fact, the number of government officials who have been punished for leaking classified is painfully thin.

At the top of the list, there's former Vice-Presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby was convicted of lying to government investigators in the case of Valerie Plame, the former CIA operative whose cover was allegedly blown by Bush Administration officials, seeking revenge against her husband, who criticized government policies in Iraq.  It was later revealed that the original source for the leak was another senior government official, Richard Armitage, who was never punished.  We should also mention that Ms. Plame's status as a "covert" operative was one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington.  Her "employer" was well-known as a CIA front company and Ms. Plame even advertised her intel affiliation in various social circles.  

Then, there's the case of Thomas Drake, the former National Security Agency (NSA) official who blew the whistle on the government's warrantless wire-tapping program.  Mr. Drake faced a series of charges (and a long stint in prison) but the feds decided to drop all charges against him on the eve of the trial.  Drake exposed one of the most sensitive intel operations in recent memory, and he walked away a free man.  

Against that backdrop, leakers have little to fear, particularly if they're high up in the administration.  As investigators try to connect the dots, recollections will grow fuzzy, and other senior officials may decide that enough evidence has been gathered, or they may "starve" the investigation of the resources required.  And we haven't even raised the notion of executive privilege, which will probably rear its legal head at some point in the proceedings.

Meanwhile, there's an election looming on the horizon.  No telling what we may read in the Times between now and November.  Secrecy must obviously take a back seat to getting the president re-elected.  And if he loses his bid for a second term, it's just a matter of time before someone connected with President Romney will find a reason to leak something to make their boss look good.                        



Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Last Survivor of Torpedo 8

Commander Harry Ferrier (USN, Ret) speaks at this week's ceremony at NAS Whidbey Island, Washington, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway.  Ferrier is the sole surviving aircrew member from Torpedo 8, which lost all of its aircraft (except one) in attacks against the Japanese fleet.  Commander Ferrier, who was 17 at the time of the battle, is holding the cap he wore into combat at Midway.  It was pierced by a Japanese bullet (U.S. Navy photo).    

On the 68th anniversary of D-Day, Google elected to commemorate the date with a "doodle" marking another milestone: the opening of the nation's first drive-in theater, which occurred 79 year ago.  Not that we're surprised; the gang at Google has never struck us as particularly pro-military.  On Memorial Day, the Yellow Ribbon beneath their logo was practically microscopic.

So, if the search engine giant can't remember the Boys of Pointe du Hoc, immortalized by their perilous climb up the cliffs of Omaha Beach (and Ronald Reagan's stirring tribute speech in 1984), it's a sure bet that you'll never see a Google Doodle for the Battle of Midway, which occurred 70 years ago this week.  After all, it was only the turning point of the Pacific War.  In the span of a few minutes, Japanese hopes for defeating the United States were forever dashed, as two squadrons of Navy dive bomber, led by Lieutenant Commanders Wade McCluskey and Max Leslie, sent three enemy carriers to the bottom.  A fourth Japanese carrier was lost the next day, along with hundreds of pilots and aircrews that represented the cream of their naval aviation force--losses that were never replaced.

But the U.S. also paid a heavy toll at Midway.  The carrier Yorktown was lost, despite heroic efforts to save her.  We also lost scores of pilot and aircrew members, including many that flew lumbering torpedo bombers against the Japanese fleet.  It was tantamount to a suicide mission; a successful torpedo run required the crew to fly low and slow, through curtains of anti-aircraft fire and (more often than not) a gauntlet of enemy fighters.

The sacrifice of these men was embodied in the final mission of Torpedo 8, launched from the USS Hornet.  Led by Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, they pressed home their attack against the enemy fleet, despite a lack of fighter cover and coordinated dive bomber attack.  And Torpedo 8 suffered grievous losses; Waldron was killed, along with every other man in his formation, except for one pilot, Ensign George Gay.  Damage to the enemy fleet was negligible, but some analysts credit the valiant attack with pulling enemy fighters down to the deck, clearing the way for Max Leslie's and Wade McCluskey's dive bombers.

But in reality, Torpedo 8 was a "split" unit at the time of Midway.  The squadron had been selected to receive the new Grumman TBF Avenger, as a replacement for the obsolete Douglas TBD Devastators.  But when the Hornet was dispatched to the Pacific, Waldron couldn't wait around for the new planes.  Along with his more experienced crews, Commander Waldron deployed with the Hornet, still flying the TBDs.

Meanwhile, the rest of the squadron's aircrews and ground personnel became a detachment of Torpedo 8, eventually receiving the Avenger and completing their check-out in the aircraft.  Racing to join the Hornet at Pearl Harbor, they arrived a day after the carrier sailed for combat at Midway.  Instead of operating from a flattop, the Avengers were sent to Midway, where they became part of a land-based striking force that would also engage the Japanese.

On the morning of 4 June--the first day of the battle--the Midway-based TBFs (along with Army Air Corps medium and heavy bombers) got the first crack at the Japanese fleet.  While the Avengers were faster and better-armed than the TBDs, they were no match for heavy AAA fire and swarm of enemy Zeroes.  Five of the six TBFs were shot down; the surviving torpedo bomber, with Ensign Bert Earnest at the controls, returned to Midway and made a crash landing.  Ernest and his radio operator (R 2/C Harry Ferrier) survived.  Their gunner was killed in one of the attacks by enemy fighters and both Earnest and Ferrier were wounded.  Later they would learn of the sacrifices made by the rest of their squadron; Of the 48 pilots and crewmembers from Torpedo 8 dispatched against the Japanese, only three survived.

After the way, George Gay had a 30-year career as a pilot for TWA.  He passed away in 1997.  Bert Earnest stayed in the Navy, rose to the rank of Captain, and eventually served as commander of NAS Oceana, the service's "master jet base" on the east coast.  Captain Earnest died in 2009.  Harry Ferrier also made the Navy a career, earning his commission and retiring at the rank of Commander.  Two days ago, at the age of 87, he participated in ceremonies commemorating the battle at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington.

A Naval officer who spoke at the event described Commander Ferrier as a "national treasure."  Here's hoping that he's around for the 71st anniversary next year, and who knows, maybe the Doodle crew at Google will opt for something a little more patriotic.  .                                                  

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Loose Lips Sink (Some) Ships

Coming soon to a basement office at Fort Belvoir?  Brigadier General Neil Tolley has been replaced as commander of U.S. special ops forces in South Korea, after claiming that allied SOF teams have conducted missions in North Korea in the past (U.S. Army photo via CBS News)

Don't look for Army Brigadier General Neil Tolley on the two-star list anytime soon.  

General Tolley, the former commander of U.S. Special Forces in South Korea, has been replaced in that post, just weeks after he publicly stated that American and ROK SOF forces have periodically entered North Korea on spy missions.

Tolley made the claim at a conference in Florida last month.  Later, both the general and military public affairs officers tried to walk back his remarks, stating that "no" special operations forces have been sent into the DPRK.

General Tolley had served as the Army's highest-ranking SF officer in South Korea since October 2010.  Army officials described his departure as a "routine" personnel change, but Tolley was supposed to serve a two-year tour.  His early departure--coupled with the claim about SOF missions in North Korea--was probably enough to end Tolley's Army career.  Readers will note that the Army announcement did not disclose Tolley's new assignment, a sure sign he's being dispatched to a "special assistant" backwater job, where he will bide his time until retirement.

And it's hard to disagree with the Army's decision.  Cross-border operations in Korea are an extraordinarily sensitive topic, since they represent a violation of the 1953 cease-fire that ended the Korean War.  Officially, the U.S. and South Korea don't send SOF teams north, although there have been rumors about such operations for years.  By denying that such missions take place, Washington and Seoul can score propaganda points when North Korean teams are captured in the south.

Additionally, the DPRK represents a very difficult target for any infiltration team.  Americans don't exactly blend in well with the local populace, and even ROK SOF teams are a difficult fit, because the typical South Korean is noticeably taller and better nourished than a DPRK soldier or civilian.  North Koreans are not allowed to travel freely in their country, but they are required to report any suspicious activity.  Members of the DPRK's large special ops command also practice counter-SOF missions on a regular basis, increasing the difficulty of getting a SOF team into (and out of) North Korea.

That's not to say it hasn't been done.  Indeed, General Tolley isn't a man given to idle boasts, and during his original remarks, he talked about North Korea's vast network of tunnels and other underground facilities (UGFs).  Some of his comments seemed to be based on ground observations that were carried out by allied special forces teams. With that information, it will be easier for Pyongyang to determine how allied SOF elements got into their country and egress routes used for escape.  Put another way: it just became much more difficult to mount such operations in the future.

But their is a touch of hypocrisy in the sacking of Neil Tolley.  For openly discussing covert missions and capabilities, General Tolley's career is (likely) at an end.  Meanwhile, senior members of the Obama Administration share all sorts of details about the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and none have been dismissed from their posts.  Go figure.

In fact, it looks like the administration will discuss almost anything classified--as long as it can assist in Mr. Obama's re-election bid.  Producers preparing a film about the bin Laden raid were given "unprecedented access" to military and civilian officials, raising fears that sensitive operational details might be divulged, jeopardizing the success of future missions.  The administration's decision infuriated members of the Naval Special Warfare community, and rightfully so.  For obvious reasons, the SEALs prefer to operate in the shadows and they don't want politicians offering up information that might get them killed.  

And just this week, Senate Democrats--you read that right--Democrats--expressed concern about national security leaks regarding a recent, reported cyber attack against Iran's nuclear facilities.  From The Hill: .

The Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday expressed worry that leaks to the press about a cyberattack authorized by the Obama administration on Iran could lead to a counterattack on the United States.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) joined other senior Senate Democrats in expressing serious concerns about the leak, which detailed a cyberattack intended to hamper Iran's nuclear program. Some Republicans argue the information was leaked to help President Obama's reelection campaign.


Several Democrats noted the Iranian leak is just the latest in a series of media reports about classified U.S. anti-terrorism activity.
“A number of those leaks, and others in the last months about drone activities and other activities are frankly all against national security interests,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “I think they’re dangerous, damaging, and whoever is doing that is not acting in the interest of the United States of America.”

If Mr. Kerry wants to find the culprits, he should look towards the White House.  The same administration that has punished a number of lower-level "leakers" is quite happy to spill state secrets--if it advances the political cause.  Unfortunately, that's the way the game is played in Washington.  All administrations leak; only some are a bit more feckless than others.         .                  .  

Friday, June 01, 2012

Boobs on Display

Two members of the Washington Air National Guard are in hot water--and deservedly so, from our perspective.

Senior Airman Terran Echegoyen-McCabe and Staff Sergeant Christina Luna were recently photographed breast-feeding their young children. So the Air Guard (and the Air Force) have a problem with breast-feeding?  You might say they do--but only if military women do it in uniform, and allow themselves to be photographed, in support of an organization that promotes breast-feeding.  It's not the act that landed the women in trouble--it's using their uniform to promote a cause, as a public affairs officer told Air Force Times:

Two Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., airmen who donned their uniforms for a photo session in support of Breastfeeding Awareness Month violated a policy that forbids military members from using the uniform to further a cause, promote a product or imply an endorsement, said Capt. Keith Kosik, spokesman for the Washington National Guard.


“The uniform was misused. That’s against regulations,” Kosik said. “I want to be very, very clear about this. Our issue is not, nor has it ever been, about breastfeeding. It has to do with honoring the uniform and making sure it’s not misused. I can’t wear my uniform to a political rally, to try to sell you something or push an ideology. That was our point of contention.”

Kudos to the Washington guard for getting it right.  The regulations cited by Captain Kosik are very clear; military members are not allowed to use their uniform to advance a cause, political candidate, product, or service.  SrA Echegoyen-McCade and SSgt Luna would have been just as wrong had they worn their uniforms to a campaign rally, or used their military status to sell a particular item.  

Will the Guard stick to its guns?  That remains to be seen.  The two airmen have received support from hundreds of posters in various on-line forums; some have accused the Air Force of opposing breast-feeding, or even motherhood, but nothing could be further from the truth.  

Fact is, the Air Guard, the USAF (and the rest of the U.S. military) have gone to great lengths to accommodate mothers in uniform.  Once upon a time, even married women were discharged as soon as they became pregnant; today, single moms are welcome in the ranks, as long as they can find someone to care for their child while they're on duty.  As a junior enlisted member in the early 1980s, your humble correspondent was amazed to see unwed moms move into base housing, ahead of military families.  Today, single moms are quite common in the armed forces and they benefit from wide range of support services, from free health care, to on-base child care and, of course, paid maternity leave.                  
Additionally, the military has been quite tolerant of women who breast-feed.  If a female soldier, sailor or airman wants to pump breast milk during a break, that's fine, as long as it's done in private and doesn't interfere with their duties.  I knew a Captain who did this during break periods at intelligence school in the mid-1980s.  While her students were at lunch, she would go into the ladies room and collect breast milk for her infant daughter. Most military members have worked alongside women who developed similar routines. Given these examples, it's hard to say that the military is against breast-feeding.  

But it's quite another thing for a woman in uniform to use her military affiliation to promote breast-feeding--as typified by those two members of the Washington ANG.  More amazingly, SrA Echegoyen-McCade expresses amazement at the controversy created by her decision to pose for those photos.  "I thought I was doing something amazing in my uniform," she told the Times.

There a lot of amazing things military members can do in uniform.  Unfortunately, many of them are inconsistent with military rules and regulations.  When the two women decided to nurse their children in their BDUs, they clearly crossed the line.  We find it hard to believe that both women were unaware that such photographs would create a minor tempest--and land them in trouble with their superiors.  

All the more reason to give both women more time to spend with their children, by denying them re-enlistment when their current hitch is up.  If SSgt Luna and SrA Echegoyen-McCade believed the ir breast-feeding-in-uniform photographs wouldn't be controversial, then both are a couple of boobs (figuratively speaking) and hardly retention material for the ANG.  On the other hand, if they put a personal cause ahead of military standards, they should get the boot as well.  

There are thousands of military women who breast-feed their children, and do so without causing a stir, or interfering with their duties while in uniform.  Their "cause" is ill-served by a couple of opportunists who decided to raise their T-shirts--and lower their military standards.