Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Plan B for the Bomb

Water vapor (circled in red) rises from the Arak nuclear complex in Iran.  This recent imagery suggests the plant is nearing operational capability, giving Tehran the "heavy water" option for producing nuclear weapons (DigitalGlobe imagery/McKenzie Intelligence Ltd assessment, via the UK Telegraph)

Tuesday's edition of the UK Telegraph reminds us that Iran has more than one path to obtaining nuclear weapons.  Along with the uranium enrichment method--which has been the focus of world attention for years--Tehran could also produce a plutonium bomb, through its heavy water plant at Arak.

Readers of this blog learned about Arak back in 2006.  At the time, Iran announced plans to active the facility within three years, to produce isotopes "for industrial, medical and other peaceful purposes."  The Arak complex was supposed to replace a much smaller facility in Tehran.  Never mind that Arak could produce isotopes on a scale far beyond Iran's needs, or (as experts noted at the time), the plutonium needed for a nuclear device.

Flash forward almost seven years, and it appears the Arak facility, located about 150 miles south of the Iranian capital, has entered operational service.  As the British publication reports:

The Telegraph can disclose details of activity at a heavily-guarded Iranian facility from which international inspectors have been barred for 18 months.
The images, taken earlier this month, show that Iran has activated the Arak heavy-water production plant.
Heavy water is needed to operate a nuclear reactor that can produce plutonium, which could then be used to make a bomb.
The images show signs of activity at the Arak plant, including a cloud of steam that indicates heavy-water production.    
The details of Iran’s plutonium programme emerged as the world’s leading nations resumed talks with Tehran aimed at allaying fears over the country’s nuclear ambitions.
The new images also show details of the Fordow complex, which is concealed hundreds of feet beneath a mountain near the holy city of Qom. At talks in Kazakhstan yesterday, world leaders offered to relax sanctions on Iran in exchange for concessions over Fordow, which is heavily protected from aerial attack.
Iran insists that its nuclear facilities are for peaceful use, but Western governments fear that Tehran is seeking a nuclear weapon – or at least the ability to build one.
The striking image of steam over the Arak heavy-water complex is a vivid demonstration that the regime has more than one pathway to a potential nuclear weapon.
The Telegraph's assessment is based on new commercial satellite imagery and analysis of activity at the Arak plant.  At one point, Iran hoped to have the plant operational by 2009, but that date was eventually pushed back to 2014.  Activity noted in the Telegraph article suggests Tehran may have accelerated that schedule, perhaps a result of problems with its uranium enrichment program, which has been hit by U.S. and Israeli cyber attacks and recent sabotage that wrecked hundreds of centrigues.  
In fact, those strikes were so successful that even Israeli intelligence moved back the window for an Iranian bomb by several years, to the 2015-16 time frame.  But with Arak entering operational service, that timeline may be revised again--and the likelihood of an Israeli attack may actually increase.  As one expert told the Telegraph:  
Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US State Department official at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, suggested that Arak could be part of a process that might trigger Western strikes on Iran.
One option for the Iranian regime would be to acquire the necessary reprocessing technology from North Korea, he said.
“By then, the option of a military strike on an operating reactor would present enormous complications because of the radiation that would be spread,” he explained.
“Some think Israel’s red line for military action is before Arak comes online.”
While Iran currently lacks the ability to reprocess uranium fuel rods (from its light water reactor at Bushehr) into plutonium, that capability could be easily acquired from North Korea.  Indeed, Pyongyang's recently-accelerated nuclear testing program suggests it is "testing for more than one country," an indication that technologies under development will be quickly shared with Iran.  
Mr. Fitzpatrick (and other western experts) believe the timing for an Israeli strike may be measured in only a few months.  Construction of the reactor is almost complete, and the complex should be fully operational by sometime early next year.  
Arak has always been the most heavily-defended nuclear site in Iran, with at least three surface-to-air missile sites and 50 AAA batteries surrounding the complex.  The defensive shield is the result of two factors; first, Arak's geographic location makes it more vulnerable to attack, and unlike the enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, Arak appears to be built entirely above ground, further increasing its susceptibility to air attack.  
Still, the defenses around Arak are largely outdated.  The three missile sites employ the Shahin missile, an upgraded version of the HAWK, which Iran acquired from the U.S. during the reign of the Shah.  Most of the anti-aircraft guns are optically-guided, making them ineffective against cruise missiles and other types of precision weapons.   
As Arak nears full operation, Iran may elect to further upgrade defenses with the addition of the SA-15.  The short-range SAM is Tehran's most effective air defense weapon, with some capabilities against precision weaponry.  There have also been reports that Iran is acquiring the long-range SA-20 from Russia, but so far, there is no firm evidence that Iran has actually obtained that state-of-the-art system.
New concerns about Arak come as U.S. military strength in the Persian Gulf is on the wane.  With the delayed deployment of the USS Harry S. Truman battle group, the U.S. will have only one carrier in the region for the foreseeable future.  Many experts believe Washington would launch military action against Iran with no fewer than two carriers in the Gulf or nearby waters.  
Of course, Israel doesn't operate under such constraints, but its own military options are limited by the distance between its air bases and targets in Iran.  By some estimates, an Israeli strike package might be limited to only two dozen aircraft, reflecting the 1,000-mile flight to Iran, and the IAF's small tanker fleet.  That obstacle could be overcome by staging the attack from bases in neighboring countries, such as Azerbaijan.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Missing Man, Redux

Marine Sgt (and combat photographer) William Genaust.  On February 23, 1945, he filmed the epic flag-raising on Iwo Jima with a movie camera, while the AP's Joe Rosenthal captured it with a still camera.  Genaust died in combat just a few days later; his body was never recovered. (USMC photo)  

Today marks the 68th anniversary of the Marine Corps flag-raising on Iwo Jima.  Anyone with a passing knowledge of that moment knows some of the details; the AP photographer who captured the epic image (Joe Rosenthal) missed the first flag-raising and was aiming for another shot when someone shouted that Old Glory was going up again.  Rosenthal hurriedly pointed his camera in the direction of the second flag-raising and clicked the shutter without even looking through the view finder.

The result (in the words of a wire service photo editor who among the first to see the image), was "one for the ages," an iconic photograph that is the most reproduced in history.

But Joe Rosenthal wasn't the only combat photographer on Mount Suribachi that day.  Marine Corps Sgt William Genaust used his movie camera to film the event as well.  That sequence has been viewed thousands of times since the battle, but few know the name of the man who was responsible for recording that stirring bit of history.

Like so many Marines and Navy Corpsmen, Genaust didn't survive the battle on Iwo.  Less than two weeks later, Marines asked the photographer to use his camera light to illuminate a tunnel entrance where Japanese troops were believed to be hiding.  Sergeant Genaust was hit by machine gun fire near the mouth of the cave, which later collapsed.  His body was never recovered.

In 2007, a team from the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Center (JPAC), acting on new information, conducted a search of caves in the area where Genaust went missing, but they failed to turn up his remains.
He is one of 250 Americans from the Iwo campaign who remain missing in action.

So, on a day when Marines commemorate a moment that has become synonymous with the Corps, we remember a man who was there to record it, and made the ultimate sacrifice just days later.

Missing Man



Thursday, February 21, 2013

Game Changer?

It's received only passing attention in this country, but there was another significant event in North Korea--with repercussions far beyond the peninsula--just hours before the most recent nuclear test.

According to various intelligence reports, Pyongyang conducted an engine test of its KN-08 long-range missile on 11 February, one day ahead of the nuclear test.  From South Korea's liberal daily, The Hankyoreh:

The test was apparently conducted at the rocket launch site in Dongchang Village, North Pyongan province, with the aim of extending the [10,000 km] firing range of the KN-08, which has never been test-launched, a source explained.
“It looks like they may begin putting it into combat position once they’ve determined if the engine improvements were successful,” the source said.
This would not be the first engine combustion test for the KN-08, which first appeared last April mounted on an eight-axle mobile launch vehicle at a military parade in Pyongyang to mark the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth. US specialists, including David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) and North Korean nuclear and missile program expert, said the country had already done several similar tests. In mid-January, the New York Times reported US intelligence organizations as saying they had detected signs throughout North Korea of the deployment of transporter erector launchers (TELs) capable of carrying the KN-08.

When the KN-08 TEL (transporter-erector-launcher) first appeared last year, some analysts claimed the vehicle was nothing more than a mock-up.  But that assessment ignored a well-established fact about military parades in Pyongyang: the North only displays equipment that is in operational service, or will be in the near future.  The recent deployment of the TEL vehicles suggests they are entering operational service, and the missile they will carry isn't far behind.

The KN-08 has been called a "game-changer" for the DPRK, and with good reason.  Assuming the missile achieves its projected range, the KN-08 would give Pyongyang a strike platform capable of reaching much of the CONUS.  And with a mobile launch platform--supported by one of the world's most advanced denial and deception programs--the KN-08 will be extremely difficult to track and target.  Among its various roles, the kN-08 could easily deliver a sudden, surprise attack against the U.S., giving the North increased leverage in its dealings with Washington, and our allies in the region.

If the long-range missile follows North Korea's "traditional" development path, there will probably be a failure (or two) along the way, as demonstrated during research and testing of the TD-2 missile and the nuclear program.  But Pyongyang will almost certainly stay the course; joining the nuclear club has long been the nation's top strategic priority, and fielding an ICBM capable of hitting the United States isn't far behind.  True, American will always enjoy an overwhelming nuclear advantage over the DPRK, but even if North Korea has only a handful of nuclear-tipped KN-08s, it will change the strategic calculus, both strategically and globally.

In East Asia, there will be continuing concerns about North Korea's expanding nuclear arsenal, and U.S. regional security guarantees.  With America's military facing severe budget cuts, some of our allies will wonder about our ability to deter DPRK aggression in the region.  That, in turn, will prompt nations like South Korea and even Japan to consider their own nuclear options.  With both countries possessing advanced scientific and technical infrastructures, Tokyo and Seoul could join the nuclear club in as little a s two years, further ratcheting up tensions in the region.

Making matters worse, Pyongyang will share its nuclear weapons and missile technology with Iran (and possibly others) in the Middle East.  So, it's quite likely that Iran will have its on ICBM in the coming years, along with nuclear warheads small enough to fit atop that airframe--and capable of striking targets throughout Europe and the United States.  Like North Korea, Iran's arsenal of of missiles and warheads will be small, but enough to hold American facilities and population centers at risk, and alter our calculations in dealing with Iran.

The obvious response to these emerging threats is two-fold: a vigorous missile defense program and  a nuclear doctrine that is crystal clear: any WMD attack against the U.S., our facilities and our allies will bring an overwhelming response-in-kind.  But that type of thinking is considered passe in defense and diplomatic circles; after all, the U.S. is no longer allowed to run around threatening lesser powers with nuclear Armageddon.  Somewhere, Curt LeMay must be spinning in his grave.

So, Washington will likely try to muddle the current crisis on the peninsula, just as it has for almost a decade.  There will be more talks, both publicly and in secret.  In fact, it was just disclosed that a high-level U.S. delegations visited the DPRK on at least three separate occasions.  In one instance, American officials tried to dissuade the North from conducting a missile test the effort failed, and the  test went off less than two days after the Americans departed.

Did we mention that we never told the Japanese about the private talks?  Needless to say, Tokyo is a little bit peeved right now and even more suspicious of U.S. promises and guarantees, particularly with a nuclear game-changer ready to join the North Korean arsenal.        


Monday, February 18, 2013

Has Iran Crossed the Nuclear Finish Line?

In case you haven't noticed, the Iranian nuclear issue has lost a bit of urgency in recent months.  Of course, the Obama Administration has long favored negotiation over any suggestion of military action--never mind that years of on-again/off-again talks have yielded nothing, except Tehran's continued progress towards a nuclear weapons capability.  And not surprisingly, U.S. intelligence estimates have generally predicted that Iran is 3-5 years away from getting a bomb, suggesting there is still time for diplomacy.

However, the most recent "mid-term" forecast didn't come from the CIA, but rather, it was issued by Israeli intelligence.  Late last month, the McClatchy news service obtained a series of Israeli intel estimates, predicting that Iran won't be able to build a nuclear weapon until 2015 or 2016 at the earliest:

Intelligence briefings given to McClatchy over the last two months have confirmed that various officials across Israel’s military and political echelons now think it’s unrealistic that Iran could develop a nuclear weapons arsenal before 2015. Others pushed the date back even further, to the winter of 2016.
"Previous assessments were built on a set of data that has since shifted," said one Israeli intelligence officer, who spoke to McClatchy only on the condition that he not be identified. He said that in addition to a series of "mishaps" that interrupted work at Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iranian officials appeared to have slowed the program on their own.
"We can’t attribute the delays in Iran’s nuclear program to accidents and sabotage alone," he said. "There has not been the run towards a nuclear bomb that some people feared. There is a deliberate slowing on their end."
Given the fact that the Mossad has long had accurate sources within Iran's nuclear program, the recent intel assessments are certainly viewed as credible.  And those reports are a likely reason that Israeli warnings about Tehran's nuclear threat have been tamped down a bit over the last three or four months.  
But what if Iran is, in fact, on the verge of getting the bomb--or already has that capability?  Lee Smith raised that possibility in a recent article at Tablet magazine, noting recent trends in North Korea's nuclear program.  Pyongyang completed its most successful underground nuclear test last week, detonating a weapon that was apparently smaller--but more powerful--than previous DPRK nuclear devices.  Given the close cooperation between North Korea and Iran in the nuclear arena, it stands to reason that if Pyongyang has the bomb, then Iran has it too, for all practical purposes.  Smith notes the recent observations of an anonymous U.S. official, who spoke with The New York Times:
"...The Iranians are also pursuing uranium enrichment, and one senior American official said two weeks ago that “it’s very possible that the North Koreans are testing for two countries.” Some believe that the country may have been planning two simultaneous tests, but it could take time to sort out the data."
That other country (obviously) is Iran.  Tehran has provided funding the the cash-strapped DPRK to keep its nuclear and missile programs going.  Iranian scientists and engineers are frequent visitors to North Korean nuclear facilities, and Pyongyang sends its own experts to Iran.  So, lessons learned through North Korea's testing program will be quickly shared with Iran, and incorporated into Tehran's development efforts.  
Put another way, if Iran was expecting a successful test--and short-term perfection of a nuclear device that could be mounted on a missile--Tehran could afford to throttle back (slightly) on its own R&D program.  No real need to spend money, time and effort on problems that have been solved by someone else.  Besides, it's no secret that Iran's nuclear program has been targeted by Israeli and U.S. cyber-attacks, along with other, more conventional sabotage efforts.  
In January, a blast ripped through the Iranian enrichment facility at Fordow, which is buried 300 feet underground.  A high-level defector, a former senior official in Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claimed the explosion trapped hundreds of nuclear technicians in their subterranean facility.  While Israel never claimed responsibility for the blast, an official said he "welcomed" disasters that crippled key Iranian facilities.  
So, with North Korea apparently on the way to perfecting a missile-deliverable nuclear warhead, Iran may be electing to wait for the technology to become available, or simply purchase a finished device from Pyongyang.  As Mr. Smith notes in his article, the DPRK has been a willing supplier of components and entire weapons systems to Iran in the past.  A few years back, North Korea sold the BM-25 missile system to Tehran, giving Iran an intermediate-range system capable of striking targets across much of Europe.  The design is based on an old Russian submarine-launched ballistic missile, so modifying it to carry a nuke should be relatively easy.  North Korean technology is also present in Iran's primary medium-range missile (the Shahab-3), along with key elements of its nuclear program.  
In fact, Iranian acquisition of an North Korean nuke is never more than a transport flight away.  Iranian IL-76 transports (and even an aging Boeing 747) routinely fly between a military airfield near Tehran, and key locations in the DPRK, and North Korean IL-76s make frequent flights to Iran.  These trips have been going on for years, but questions remain about the type of cargo being carried.  Needless to say, a working nuke would easily fit in the cargo hold of an IL76, and both Pyongyang and Tehran have advanced denial and deception (D&D) programs that could conceal a nuclear delivery.  

But Israel (at least publicly) believes that Iran has not built a working nuke, or purchased one from North Korea.  Still, that's a calculation that could change--and change quickly--if Tehran decides to go with the off-the-shelf option.  .                   


Read more here:

Thursday, February 14, 2013

What About the White House Logs?

Five months after the murder of four Americans by terrorists in Libya, we still know precious little about the activities of the man who had the ultimate responsibility to protect them--the President of the United States.

Indeed, Mr. Obama was a virtual ghost on that fateful evening.   Only last week, during testimony by outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, we learned that Mr. Obama offered his only guidance to military forces as the attack unfolded.  "Do whatever you need to do to protect American lives," Obama reportedly told Mr. Panetta.  The comments came in a previously-scheduled meeting between the President, Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.    

After that?  It's anyone's guess.  The White House has disclosed virtually nothing on Mr. Obama's whereabouts our activities from the end of that meeting (which wrapped up around 5:30 pm) and the next morning, when he climbed on Air Force One for a fund-raising speech in Las Vegas.

At some point in the evening, President Obama reportedly called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  As you might have guessed, details of that conversation have never been released.  But according to Mr. Panetta, there was no further communication (or guidance) from the President on the Beghanzi crisis, even as Ambassador Chris Stevens went missing (and eventually died), along with a State Department official and two former Navy SEALs, working as CIA contractors, who came to the aid of the beleaguered consulate.

So where was Mr. Obama?  The White House claims it has "answered all questions on Libya," suggesting that no further information will be forthcoming.  So, outside the remote possibility of a whistle-blower leak, don't look for new details from the administration.

Still, there should be another source of information for Congressional investigators. Anyone with a basic knowledge of White House operations knows that the Secret Service maintains detailed logs on all Presidential movements, even if he's only going from the Oval Office to his living quarters.  Similarly, there are detailed visitor logs, phone logs and other records of what was going on during the hours in question.

That begs an obvious question: why haven't Congressional Republicans subpoenaed those logs?  Perhaps Senator McCain or Senator Graham can explain.  To be sure, their status as the minority party looking into Benghazi limits their power to demand documents from the White House, but that isn't the case on the House side.  Why hasn't Congressman Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, made a request for those records?  Perhaps someone ought to call his office, too.

Oddly enough, there have been claims that Mr. Obama watched the entire debacle unfold from the White House Situation Room, through real-time video provided by a Predator drone that arrived over Benghazi in the early stages of the attack.  The White House has never released still photos of Mr. Obama in the Situation Room during Benghazi, though photographs of the President in that facility were taken during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and again during the government response to Hurricane Sandy.  

Why does this matter (to coin a phrase)?  Because it is reflective of Mr. Obama's leadership, or in this case, the lack thereof.  Faced with a urgent situation at a U.S. diplomatic facility abroad, the President took a pass, issuing a vague order and, essentially, retiring for the night.  From Mr. Panetta and General Dempsey, we know there was no further communication from the POTUS, even as Americans fought for their lives in Benghazi.  That reflects a wholesale lack of interest, compassion and decency that is shocking, even by the low standards of the Obama Administration.

How can an elected leader engage in such fecklessness?  Our theory goes something like this: early reports from Libya were grim, and the situation was likely to get worse.  In the middle of a heated presidential campaign, Mr. Obama and his handlers decided he didn't need to be anywhere near a disaster-in-the-making, so management of the crisis was farmed out to the Pentagon.  We're also guessing that White House interest in that infamous You Tube video which "insulted" the Prophet Mohammed, began to spike about the same time.

So, President Obama took a pass and four Americans died.  That must be awfully reassuring to military members, diplomats, contractors, intelligence operatives and other U.S. citizens who go in harm's way.  If you wind up in a jam, Mr. Obama might actually participate in efforts to assist you--if it meets the right political conditions.  But if the situation is bleak, your fate may be in the hands of the new Secretary of State (John Kerry) who can't get his calls returned by the Russian foreign minister, or the next Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, who admits he has much more to learn about the operations and capabilities of his new department.

It's time for a look at those White House logs on that terrible night in September.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Shades of Vladivostok?

A deceptive image of naval readiness: the carriers USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, USS George H.W. Bush, USS Enterprise, USS Harry Truman and USS Abraham Lincoln in port at Naval Station Norfolk, VA.  Of the five carriers, only three could be considered operationally ready; the Enterprise is being retired and budget cuts have postponed the mid-life upgrades for the Lincoln.  Additionally, a pending deployment by the Truman has been delayed due to a lack of funds.     

Like many in the intel community, I followed the collapse of the Soviet Navy in the early 1990s.  It was absolutely stunning; in a matter of a few short years, a blue-water force was largely reduced with a ghost fleet that was left rusting at the pier.  I remember seeing video from Vladivostok, once the most important base for the Soviet Pacific Fleet; less than five years after the collapse of the USSR, some of the surface vessels had actually capsized at their berths, and it was a rare event for more than one ship to leave port for a few days.

To be sure, a U.S. Navy facing sequestration is a long way from the Soviet naval collapse of 20 years ago.  But last week's announcement that a deployment of the USS Harry S. Truman would be delayed is disturbing, to say the least.  Even more disconcerting was the concurrent news that the refueling/mid-life upgrade of the USS Abraham Lincoln will be postponed by at least three years.  Without refueling of its reactors (and scheduled equipment upgrades), the Lincoln will likely never sail again.  The planned upgrades, known as a Refueling and Complex Overhaul (RCOH) is a three-year process, with a price tag of at least $3 billion.  Even if current estimates hold--and the RCOH is funded--the Lincoln would not rejoin the fleet until the end of this decade.

As for the Truman, the delay in its scheduled deployment creates short-term readiness problems for the U.S. military.  The carrier and its battle group were slated to sail to the Middle East, with extended time in the Persian Gulf.  With the Truman stuck in Norfolk (for the time being), the Navy is left with one carrier in the gulf region, the USS John C. Stennis, which deployed from Bremerton, Washington, last August.  The Stennis will be replaced on station by the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which will deploy on schedule in a few weeks, barely 90 days after it returned to Naval Station Norfolk.

Since 9-11, the U.S. has tried to keep at least two carriers in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea at all times.  Having two carriers on station adds more than 150 aircraft to the regional balance for forces, giving us increased flexibility to support operations in Afghanistan, or (if it becomes necessary), conduct operations against Iran.  The carrier's escorts add even more firepower to the equation, for missions ranging from long-range strike to missile defense.

But such problems may represent the "new normal" for the Navy.  With the USS Enterprise now in the process of being retired, the American fleet is down to 10 carriers.  But the available number if actually eight, with the Lincoln's RCOH on hold, and the USS Theodore Roosevelt still undergoing its mid-life upgrade.  The Roosevelt was supposed to re-join the fleet in 2013, but its return is now on hold--thanks to the same budget problems that will delay the Lincoln's overhaul, possibly for years.  There are also questions about the projected RCOH for the USS George Washington, next in line behind the Lincoln.

Critics like to point out that no other country has more than two carriers, and none match the capabilities of a  Nimitz-class ship and its embarked air wing.  But the equation is changing the Far East, where China recently commissioned its first carrier (purchased from Russia), and is reportedly building three more, two conventionally-powered (set to enter service later this decade), along with Beijing's first nuclear-powered carrier, which could be ready by 2020.  In terms of power projection, few assets are more important than an aircraft carrier, particularly for the U.S., which literally defends the sea lanes for the rest of the world.

That's why the Lincoln's status is so troubling.  In the current budget environment, putting off the RCOH could easily become the first step towards the carrier's early retirement.  That, in turn, will create a ripple effect throughout the Navy and the entire defense sector.  With one less carrier in service, pressure will build to retire one or two Aegis cruisers; two or three Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyers, a couple of older Los Angeles-class attack boats and even a logistics support vessel.  Factor in accompanying reductions in personnel and the carrier air wing, and you're talking about real money.

In the civilian sector, delays in the RCOH process will mean lost jobs--potentially thousands--at Newport News Shipbuilding, the largest private employer in the state of Virginia.  Layoffs at the shipyard will mean even more job losses in the Hampton Roads economy, which is largely based on the military and defense contracting.

During the annual State of the Union speech, President Obama will reportedly urge Congress to reach a budget deal and avoid the additional cuts that would result from sequestration.  But Mr. Obama has been a virtual spectator in this process, and there are plenty in his administration that would welcome the added $500 billion in defense cuts that sequestration would trigger.  That would free up more money for social and entitlement programs.  Afterall, in the words of the President and other prominent Democrats, the U.S. doesn't have a spending problem, it has (as Steny Hoyer puts it), a "paying for it":problem.   What better way to pay for new benefit programs--and avoid the issue of entitlement reform--than by gutting defense.

Our naval stations in places like Norfolk, Mayport, Bremerton and San Diego may never look like Vladivostok of twenty years ago,  But once you start down the road of wholesale defense cuts (accompanied by social pressures and economic woes), it's stunning how far fleet readiness can fall--and how fast.      


Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Voice

This year's crop of Super Bowl ads wasn't particularly noteworthy; sure the Budweiser ad that reunited a Clydesdale with his trainer tugged at heartstrings, as did a Chrysler spot saluting the troops--and narrated by Oprah Winfrey.  There were chuckles at the Doritos "goat" ad and the senior citizens who sneak out of the rest home for an exciting evening at Taco Bell (if that's their idea of a good time, they really need to get out more).

For my money, the best ad aired early in the fourth quarter.  It began with a shot of the prarie, with two words on the screen: Paul Harvey.

As a reformed broadcaster, it got my attention.  Mr. Harvey passed away four years ago this month, and he's been largely forgotten by a younger generation of radio listeners.

But not that long ago, Paul Harvey was appointment radio for millions of Americans.  When he came on the airwaves at 7:25 in the morning, or during his 15-minute noontime program, people paused from the daily activities. Traveling in a car, you turned up the volume a bit and listened.  Paul Harvey was on the radio.

That's why the Dodge Trucks commercial was such a treat, a trip down memory lane with one of the most talented broadcasters who ever sat behind a microphone.

The spot was a salute to farmers, or more correctly, a paen to the traditional American values embodied by those who work the land.  The images that filled the two-minute commercial were compelling--even moving--but it was the narration that made the spot so memorable.  And the words were pure Harvey, drawn from a 1978 speech to a Future Farmers of America convention; the complete text and audio have been posted at Fox News, among other sites:

 "And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said I need a caretaker--so God made a farmer."

God said, "I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper and then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board." So God made a farmer.
"I need somebody with arms strong enough to rustle a calf and yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild. Somebody to call hogs, tame cantankerous machinery, come home hungry, have to wait lunch until his wife's done feeding visiting ladies and tell the ladies to be sure and come back real soon -- and mean it." So God made a farmer.
God said, "I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, 'Maybe next year.' I need somebody who can shape an ax handle from a persimmon sprout, shoe a horse with a hunk of car tire, who can make harness out of haywire, feed sacks and shoe scraps. And who, planting time and harvest season, will finish his forty-hour week by Tuesday noon, then, pain'n from 'tractor back,' put in another seventy-two hours." So God made a farmer."

Rich Lowry of National Review calls it a "gem of literary craftsmanship" and its hard to disagree.  Sure, the prose is a bit purplish, and wags claim the imagery recalls days on the farm that are long since past, but such criticism is almost irrelevant.  The values of faith, family and hard work that echo in the commercial were once prevalent (and still exist in some circles), but most Americans can't imagine a life built around back-breaking labor, with no guarantees of success, and failure looming with the next hail storm, blizzard or flood.

In fact, some of the on-line comments that greeted the Dodge spot were rather telling.  Some asked why farmers "were getting all the credit."  Uh...maybe it's because they're less than four percent of the population, but they some how manage to feed 350 million Americans a a good chunk of the six billion humans who now inhabit the planet.  It's a feat that most of us take for granted.  When's the last time you thought about where your food and fiber came from, or what might happen if our sources--the nation's farms--suddenly disappeared.

Hard to believe, but once upon a time, most Americans were farmers; in colonial times, they made up 90% of the labor force.  By the early 1990s, only 2.6% of the population was engaged in agriculture, and that number will continue to decline, with further improvements in crop science and  farm technology.

As that happens, our diet won't suffer, but we will lose something that isn't measured in agrarian output, or caloric consumption, but in those vanishing qualities so wonderfully described by Paul Harvey.

Cheers to Dodge for shelling out an estimated $16 million for the two-minute commercial, and whoever had the idea of bringing back a radio icon--and a 35-year-old speech--to remind us of a way of life (and values) that have all-but-disappeared.              

Friday, February 01, 2013

Not Ready for the E-Ring

Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel during his Senate confirmation hearing on 31 January (National Review photo) 

Napoleon famously observed that "every Corporal carries a Marshal's baton in his knapsack."  Historians say the French leader was trying to inspire his men to greater valor on the battlefield, but over the centuries, the quote has become synonymous with over-arching ambition that out-strips actual abilities.

We're not sure if former Senator Chuck Hagel every aspired to flag rank during his days as a grunt in Vietnam, but one think is painfully clear: given a chance to become Secretary of Defense, Mr. Hagel is proving himself completely unqualified for the job.

As you've probably heard, Hagel's confirmation hearing yesterday were a complete disaster.  Some low-lights, courtesy of National Review:

" response to a challenge from Senator Graham to name one person or one “dumb” government policy negatively influenced by Jewish intimidation, Hagel drew a blank. When asked if he stood by an Al Jazeera interview in which he agreed with the characterization of the United States as “the world’s bully,” Hagel split follicles by noting that, “My comment was it’s a relevant and good observation. I don’t think that I said I agree with it.” He answered a question about his vote against designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group by claiming it would have been unprecedented to call an arm of “an elected, legitimate government” terrorists, “whether we agree or not.” An hour or so later, White House press secretary Jay Carney dodged a question about whether the president agreed. 

But Mr. Hagel wasn't finished.

Hagel also ran afoul of the president — and perhaps of his wits — when he said that he “support[ed] the president’s strong position on containment,” rather than prevention, of a nuclear Iran. Later, after being handed a note, he said “I misspoke and said I supported the president’s position on containment. If I said that, I meant to say we don’t have a position on containment.” But this wasn’t quite right either, as pointed out by Senator Carl Levin (D., Mich.). “We do have a position on containment, and that is we do not favor containment,” Levin said. “I just wanted to clarify the clarify.”

Mr. Hagel best summed up his eight hours ordeal when he assured his interlocutors that “if confirmed, I intend to know a lot more than I do.”

To be fair, none of these exchanges offer any real insight on Hagel's views regarding our military forces, how they should be structured going forward, and how they should be employed.  But the former Senator's comments do speak to his world view, which will certainly influence his leadership as Secretary of Defense.

There's also the matter of why Hagel was allowed to make a fool of himself on Capitol Hill.  Prepping a nominee for Congressional grilling is the responsibility of the White House.  Judging by Mr. Hagel's performance, it looks like he was "prepped" by the same bunch that handled the administration's response to Benghazi.

Still, it would be premature to summarize the Hagel hearing as another example of incompetence from the team that has given us record debt, a steadily shrinking workforce, and Middle East policy that would make Nero envious.  But there may be a method to this madness.  The White House hasn't exactly jumped to Mr. Hagel's defense, as it tried to do when Susan Rice's nomination for Secretary of State went down in flames.  In fact, the former Nebraska Senator now seems to be slowly twisting in the wind, usually a cue for the embattled nominee to ask that their name be withdrawn.

If that's the case, it begs a serious question: who's next.  Ms. Rice gave way to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who foreign policy views are similar to those of the former UN Secretary, and in some respects are even worse.  Lest we forget, Mr. Kerry was a longtime advocate of engagement with Syrian dictator Bashir Assad, even as that country dissolved into civil war, and the regime began slaughtering its own people.  But Mr. Kerry easily won confirmation, and for better or worse, he will be implementing President Obama's foreign policy for the next four years.

As for who might follow Hagel, that's anyone's guess.  But it's very clear that Mr. Obama is looking for a SecDef who will implement his directives without making waves, or offering a vision of his own.

It doesn't take a military genius to understand that DoD desperately needs someone with ideas, exceptional managerial acumen and a road map for America's military forces in the 21st Century.  To date, President Obama hasn't offered much, other than winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which would have occurred regardless of who was in the Oval Office); his strategic focus on the Pacific theater and massive cuts in the defense budget.

The next Secretary of Defense faces huge challenges.  Even without sequestration, the Pentagon is looking at roughly $500 billion in cuts over the next decade, along with cuts in personnel and hardware that will create significant operational obstacles.  Good luck taking on a modernized Chinese military with a force that, on its current trajectory, will be completely hollowed out by the end of Mr. Obama's second term.

And we're being told that Chuck Hagel is the right man to lead the Defense Department at this critical moment.  How rich.  We're not sure if Mr. Hagel ever had a marshal's baton in his knapsack; at this point, we'd just like to know if he actually has a clue.