Monday, March 31, 2014

The Search for Booker

Fox News reports that federal authorities have launched a nationwide manhunt for a military recruit who planned a "Fort Hood-style jihad" against his fellow soldiers.

Here's the good news (so far): the recruit wasn't in uniform yet and wasn't scheduled to report to basic training until next week.  The man, identified only as "Booker" (a.k.a. Muhammad Abdullah Hassan) was recruited by the Army in February 2014, and his enlistment contract was terminated last week, after officials learned of the apparent plot.  The FBI issued an alert after Booker reportedly told friends about his plan.    

The alert, a copy of which was obtained by, was sent out by the FBI's Kansas City Division on Friday and distributed through the U.S. Marine Corps. The portion obtained by did not include Hassan's photo or age. It was also sent to the Kansas City Police Department, which could indicate authorities believe he may have remained in the area where he was recruited.
The alert is titled, “Planned Fort Hood-inspired Jihad against US Soldiers by Army Recruit” and was issued “to inform and protect officers who may encounter this individual or others exhibiting the same aspirations.” The source of the information contained in the alert was listed as “An FBI agent.” 

Law enforcement sources familiar with the alert said others may have expressed similar intentions to commit jihad against American military installations.  The alert was initially sent to the Kansas City Police Department, suggesting that authorities believe Booker may still be in the area where he was recruited.

Along with local police and the FBI, the Army's 902nd Military Intelligence Group is also involved in the hunt.  Headquartered at nearby Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the 902nd conducts counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism and counter-espionage operations in the United States.

Little information on the alleged plot has been released, and it was unclear what type of threat Booker--and potentially, others--might pose to military installations in the Kansas City area or elsewhere around the country.  As a basic trainee, Booker would have only limited access to weapons and ammunition in the tightly-controlled environment of a training base like Fort Jackson, SC; Fort Leonard Wood, MO, Fort Sill, OK, Fort Knox, KY and Fort Benning, GA.

The Army has not disclosed where Booker was scheduled for basic.  That assignment is based on a recruit's assigned military job, or MOS.  Fort Leonard Wood, located about four hours southeast of Kansas City, is one of four major military installations in the region, along with Whiteman AFB, Fort Riley, KS and Fort Leavenworth.

A more likely target could be the various armed recruiting stations in the Kansas City area and the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), where recruits report before shipping out.  Recruiting stations are typically located in shopping malls or similar locations, often with little security.  In 2009, Abdulhakin Mujahid Muhammad, previously known as Carlos Leon Bledsoe, attacked a recruiting office in Little Rock, AR, killing one soldier and wounding another.

Another unanswered question is why Booker was heading to basic training so soon after enlistment.  With on-going military budget cuts and personnel reductions, fewer soldiers are entering the Army and waiting times for recruits who are accepted have lengthened.  In some cases, soldiers wait up to a year for their desired military job.  In the past, recruits have been able to enter the ranks sooner by allowing the service to "pick their job."

Officials have not said what MOS Booker was slated to enter, of why he was shipping out barely a month after enlistment.  The quick departure suggests the suspect did very well on his Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), had a particular skills the Army needs (such as fluency in a foreign language), or the recruiting battalion that handles the Kansas City area was below quota and trying to catch up.

Now, the feds are trying to catch up to a would-be jihadist who was a week away from wearing the nation's uniform.          

Out With a Bang

North and South Korea engaged in a little sabre rattling today, firing hundreds of artillery shells into each other's territorial waters along the so-called Northern Limit Line (NLL), the naval extension of the DMZ.  Details from the AP, via ABC News:

  "[The DPRK] and South Korea fired hundreds of artillery shells into each other's waters Monday in a flare-up of animosity that forced residents of five front-line South Korean islands to evacuate to shelters for several hours, South Korean officials said.

The exchange of fire into the Yellow Sea followed Pyongyang's sudden announcement that it would conduct live-fire drills in seven areas north of the Koreas' disputed maritime boundary. North Korea routinely test-fires artillery and missiles into the ocean but rarely discloses those plans in advance. The announcement was seen as an expression of Pyongyang's frustration at making little progress in its recent push to win outside aid.

North Korea fired 500 rounds of artillery shells over more than three hours, about 100 of which fell south of the sea boundary, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said. South Korea responded by firing 300 shells into North Korean waters, he said.

No shells from either side were fired at any land or military installations, but Kim called the North's artillery firing a provocation aimed at testing Seoul's security posture. There was no immediate comment from North Korea."

By recent standards, today's barrage was rather mild.  Four years ago this month, a ROK navy vessel sank after being struck by a North Korean torpedo, killing 46 sailors.  And later that year, North Korean artillery shelled a South Korean island along the NLL, leaving four civilians dead.  Since then, Pyongyang has unleashed numerous propaganda blasts and conducted several missile launches, often in protest to exercises staged by Seoul and the United States.  North Korea usually describes those drills--which have been going on for years--as "preparations for an invasion."

While the media dutifully reports those statements, other facts are often omitted.  For starters, the scribes at AP apparently didn't check their calendar.  It's the end of March, which means the North Korean military's annual Winter Training Cycle (WTC) is coming to a close.  Readiness and training levels rise steadily over a four-month period, which begins at the end of November.  The WTC typically culminates in a "national defense exercise" which sometimes ends with a provocative event, such as today's artillery barrage.  In that sense, the sudden hail of shells was not unexpected. 

In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find any press reporting on the WTC--this year, or any other year.  Maybe it's because the winter training period is an annual event, or the fact the overall pace and intensity of the drills has been in a decline for many years--a reflection of Pyongyang's failed economy.  Or maybe there aren't enough "defense reporters" in the press corps who know enough about Korea to even pose the question. 

Likewise, today's response from Seoul was equally predictable.  The incidents in 2010 embarrassed the ROK military, which is far more modern than its DPRK counterpart.  There's an unwritten policy at the Blue House and the South Korean MOD that provocations like the artillery barrage will not go unanswered.  So, when Kim Jong-un's minions pumped 100 shells into South Korea waters, they got 300 in return, even if the rounds were aimed at the open sea, and the only casualties were fish. 

But perhaps the most unusual aspect of today's artillery "duel" was a sudden case of courtesy from the north. According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, the ROK Navy's 2nd Fleet received a fax from the North Korean counterparts at 8 a.m. (local time), announcing plans for a live-fire exercise and demanding that the south remove its vessels from the area.  North Korea has been sniffing around for additional aid in recent weeks, so (apparently) someone in Pyongyang decided an unannounced artillery barrage wouldn't help them get more food--or money--from South Korea, or anyone else. 

If history is any indicator, North Korea will be back to its usual tricks in no time.  If the DPRK doesn't get its way, more missile drills--or even another nuclear test--may be in the offing, though preparations for such a test have not been detected.  There is also the chance of more trouble along the NLL.  The lucrative crab fishing season starts in a couple of months, and both sides send naval vessels to protect their fleets.  Under those conditions, it only takes an aggressive skipper (or some sort of preplanned event from the north), and the shooting will start anew.  

If it's any consolation, the threat of conventional conflict on the Korean Peninsula actually decreases during the warmer months (and yes, we're aware that the war that started everything began in June, 1950).  With the start of spring, DPRK military units spend most of their time engaged in "agricultural activities," intel community jargon for growing their own food.  Without that time in the fields and rice paddies, a lot of North Korean soldiers would starve in the winter, so agriculture takes precedence over military training from April through September.  Readiness levels plummet during the summer time, though Pyongyang retains enough capability to stage whatever provocation it deems necessary.  

Such attention-grabbing stunts were perfected during the reign of Kim Jong-il, and they have continued under Kim Jong-un.  Having purged and executed dozens of older officials last year (including his aunt and uncle), Mr. Kim has appointed his 27-year-old sister, Kim Yo-jung, as chief of staff. In fairness, she's just as qualified as her brother when he inherited the reigns of power, which is to say she's completely unqualified for her post.  

But in the Worker's Paradise, DNA means more than competence, so the rhetoric and actions from Pyongyang may be even incoherent in the future.  From the American perspective few things could be more troubling.  The next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue may have a real problem on the Korean peninsula, since the new generation of Kims have grown accustomed to doing what they please, with little to fear from Washington. 




Sunday, March 30, 2014

Two Heroes

Mark Mayo

XXX Former-Senator-Jeremiah-Denton

Master-at-Arms Second Class Mark Mayo (above) and Admiral Jeremiah Denton   

The Navy lost two heroes this past week.  The two men died just a few miles and generations apart, but through their deeds and actions, they represented the finest traditions of the naval service.

Outside of the Norfolk area (where he was stationed) and Baltimore (where he was born and raised), few people knew Master-at-Arms Second Class Mark Mayo.  He came from a humble background, but friends and family described him as a good kid, always trying to please his teachers and coaches.  Mayo was an average student who aspired towards a career law enforcement.  After high school, he took the first steps in achieving that goal, enlisting in the Navy and becoming a military policeman--referred to in the Navy as a master-at-arms.

After assignments in Bahrain and Spain, he wound up a Naval Station Norfolk, the largest navy base in the world and home to the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.  Mayo was on patrol Monday night near the pier where the guided missile destroyer USS Mahan was berthed.  It was routine stuff for a mid-level security specialist on shore duty, perhaps even a little dull in comparison to his postings overseas.

The Mahan, like all Navy vessels in port, had members of its crew standing watch; at least one of them, a female petty officer, was armed.  No one was expecting any sort of breach or incident; there were multiple layers of security between the destroyer and whatever was beyond the gates of Naval Station Norfolk. Mark Mayo was literally the last line of defense, since most of the watch-standers on the Mahan (and other vessels nearby) are not trained security specialists.

But Monday night the unthinkable happened.  A civilian truck driver with a previous manslaughter conviction named Jeffrey Savage showed up at the gate, driving a tractor-trailer cab.  He flashed a TWIC card, given to drivers and other maritime workers who make deliveries and perform other contract work, mostly at port facilities.  His TWIC credential--approved by the TSA--wasn't supposed to get him onto the naval station, but a gate guard let him through.

Once inside the base, Savage headed for the pier where the Mahan was tied up.  So far, investigators don't know why he went in that direction, or what drove his actions.  They only know that Savage stopped his truck and walked toward the destroyer.  He passed through another checkpoint and made his way up the gangway onto the ship, where he was confronted by the female petty officer who was standing watch.

A struggle ensued.  Savage had wrestled the gun away from the petty officer by the time Mark Mayo arrived seconds later.  Instinctively, Mayo pushed the petty officer to the deck and out of the line of fire, positioning himself between the her and the gunman.  Shots erupted and ended in a matter of seconds; Mark Mayo was hit and dying.  Savage was also seriously wounded and would die as well.  The Petty Officer who was pushed to the deck survived, as did other sailors standing watch on the Mahan.

The commander of Naval Station Norfolk, Captain Robert Clark, described Mayo as a hero:

"Petty Officer Mayo's actions were nothing less than heroic," Clark said. "He selflessly gave his own life to ensure the safety of the sailors on board."

Speaking to the Herald-Mail newspaper in Maryland, Mayo's mother, Sharon Blair, said her son was born in Washington, D.C., and moved with his family to Hagerstown in 1998.
She said he always wanted to work in law enforcement.
Randy Longnecker, Mayo's former guidance counselor at Williamsport High School, recalled Mayo as a kind, easygoing student who rarely missed class and earned good grades.
Eric Michael, a former Williamsport assistant principal, said coaches and teachers appreciated Mayo's good attitude and liked to call him by the nickname "Marky Mark."
"He always wanted to make sure he was doing the right thing," Michael remembered. "He liked athletics and being part of a team."
Retired Admiral Jeremiah Denton, who passed away Friday at the age of 89, entered the pantheon of Navy heroes decades ago.  In 1965, he was the skipper of a squadron of A-6 Intruder attack jets on the USS Independence, bombing targets in North Vietnam.  Roughly one month into his combat tour, Denton's Intruder was hit by anti-aircraft fire and went into a spin.  Denton (then a Commander) ejected, along with his bombardier-navigator.  

Moments after reaching the ground, Denton was captured by North Vietnamese troops.  Thus began 7 1/2 years of captivity that can only be described as hell.  As one of the senior American officers captured by Hanoi, Denton was among those targeted for "special" treatment.  Torture was an almost daily occurrence, but Jeremiah Denton remained defiant.  

In 1966, about 10 months into his captivity, the North Vietnamese directed him to sit for an interview with a Japanese journalist, hoping to use the event for propaganda purposes.  Denton agreed, and turned the tables on his captors.  While the camera rolled, Denton not only reaffirmed his support for the U.S. government, he sent a message about the treatment he and other POWs were receiving, blinking the word "T-O-R-T-U-R-E" in Morse Code.  It was the first confirmation that American prisoners of war were being brutalized in Hanoi.  

For his actions, Denton was beaten again, and spent more time in solitary confinement.  All told, Admiral Denton was in solitary for almost four years during his captivity in North Vietnam.  He was later transferred to a prison known as "Alcatraz," reserved for 11 POWs who offered the most resistance to the enemy, a group that included James Stockdale, Sam Johnson, George Thomas Coker, Howard Rutledge, and George McKnight, among others.

Upon his release in 1973, Denton (as the senior-ranking officer in his group) was the first POW to exit the first "freedom bird" from Hanoi.  Standing before TV cameras at Clark AB in the Philippines, Denton  said "We are profoundly grateful to our commander-in-chief and our nation for this day.  God bless America.

Promoted to Rear Admiral, Denton served as Commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk before retiring from active duty in 1977.  Three years later, he was recruited as a GOP candidate for the Senate in his native Alabama, and pulled a major political upset, defeating Democratic nominee Jim Folsom, Jr.  During six years in the Senate, Denton compiled a solidly conservative voting record, warning against growing Marxist influence in places like Nicaragua, and the decline of American social values.  

Denton lost his re-election bid in 1986, to Democratic Representative Richard Shelby who became a Republican eight years later and remains in the Senate to this day.  Upon Denton's passing, Shelby described his former opponent as a "war hero, and honorable Senator and a family man who cared deeply about his country."  

It may be difficult to compare the split-second actions of a Mark Mayo--confronting a gunman on the deck of a destroyer-- with the grit and determination of Jeremiah Denton, who endured unspeakable deprivations at the hands of his enemy for more than seven years.  But there are common threads in their stories as well; unflinching courage in the face of long odds and unswerving loyalty to their comrades-in-arms.  

Both will be remembered as naval heroes. And rightfully so.        





Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Missing the Obvious

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal had an article that would be funny--if it weren't so frightening.

Intelligence sources tell the paper that Russia (apparently) got a jump on the U.S. during the build-up to its recent invasion of Crimea. While American spy satellites detected Moscow's troop build-up along the Ukrainian border well in advance, the smart boys (and girls) in the intel community decided Vladimir Putin was bluffing.  That judgment was based on an absence of communications intelligence (COMINT) that might have confirmed Russian intentions.

Suppose for a moment that you're on the Russian military team at Langley.  You've spent years following their habits and tendencies.  A steady stream of electro-optical and radar imagery from your colleagues at NGA confirm that Russian forces are massing along Ukraine's eastern border, as the political crisis between Moscow and Kiev builds.  This type of mobilization is rare, particularly in the post-Soviet era; mechanized forces, special ops units, even electronic warfare battalions are spotted out of garrison and in position for an incursion into Crimea.

Being prudent,  you look for confirmation and check with the folks at Fort Meade.  All is quiet, they report.  No discernible increase in communications, no intercepts of Putin and his advisers discussing their plans; no chatter between commanders and subordinates.  There's a sizable Russian force poised to invade the Crimea, but for some reason, they're not talking about it--or they are, we're not picking up their discussions.

So, what's your call Mr./Ms. Analyst?  Having been an that position (specializing in operational and tactical issues for much of my career), I can make a case both ways.  First, the observed build-up along the Ukrainian border was significant, particularly if it occurred apart from normal training or military exercises.  It's also useful to examine the event in terms of historical context, i.e., when was the last time we saw Moscow mass its forces along that frontier?  Apparently, it wasn't a regular occurrence, since it caught the attention of imagery analysts at NGA--and other agencies--almost immediately.  Factor in the political considerations and the evidence pointed in the direction of a Russian invasion.

But what about the lack of chatter?  That too, is easily explainable.  Russia has long employed effective communications security (COMSEC) practices, limiting our collection haul.  And, with the run-up to the Crimea operation, it's logical that Russian military units would further tighten those measures.  So, the absence of detectable communications could be another indicator. 

There's also the Snowden factor.  Did our analysts forget that the NSA turncoat is currently living in Moscow, after providing a treasure-trove of information on our eavesdropping programs and technologies?  And with that data in Russian hands, isn't it also likely that Moscow would take steps to close those collection windows?  Once again, the lack of chatter may been a signal that Putin was preparing for military action, but we (apparently) read it the other way.

And let's not forget about Bradley Manning and the other traitors who have spilled intelligence secrets over the past three decades.  Not only did they provide specific reporting (or details about technical capabilities), their treachery also gave Russia (and other enemies) greater insight into our intelligence tradecraft.  Scan through thousands of intel summaries posted an Wikileaks, and a few trends become obvious.

The first is the reliance on multiple intelligence disciplines to provide the "whole" picture.  Ideally, you want ELINT or COMINT traffic to confirm what the satellites or drones are seeing, and if you're really lucky (given our traditional dearth of human sources), perhaps a HUMINT report as icing on the cake.

The other major trend is our reliance on technical means.  Our development and utilization of HUMINT sources has been spotty at best, so we don't always have a steady stream of reliable information from living, breathing, credible informants.  And besides, you won't go very far as an intelligence officer if you're not involved with a major collection system or analytical tool.  Hitch your wagon to the acquisition process, and there is the opportunity for bonuses, recognition and advancement, to the GG-15 level and beyond.

In fact, it's a poorly-kept secret that an "analyst" doesn't want to stay in the trade for their entire career.  At some point, you want to move into the managerial ranks, which means you lose expertise in your particular specialty or discipline.  Meanwhile, some relatively new hire--often fresh out of college or the military--is trying to master your former craft.  Turnover and experience levels have long been major problems in the analytical community, and I see no signs of change.

These problems have been exacerbated by our focus on terrorism and less interest in other issues, including Russia.  With the end of the Soviet Union, Moscow's once-mighty military largely collapsed, so there was less need to devote much of our intel budget to a threat which had (seemingly) evaporated.  So, the analytical "rust" on the Russian account grew a little deeper.

It is also worth noting that recent administrations--and their senior officials--have been less receptive to negative reporting on Russia.  With the demise of communism, they believed, the U.S. could do business with Moscow on a host of issues, particularly if there was a "reset" in the relationship.  Intelligence officers quickly learn the theories and themes that work with a particular official or administration, and adjust their reporting to fit that context.  That flies in the face of "telling them what they need to hear," but analysts (and their supervisors) are also cognizant that key assessments may never see the light of day if they don't fit the overall template.

Collectively, these tendencies painted us into an analytical corner that Mr. Putin, the former KGB agent, cleverly exploited.  Knowing that we rely heavily on COMINT for confirmation, he used information from the Snowden leaks to plug his holes and block our collection.  Lack of HUMINT reporting?  No problem--just one less thing for the Russians to worry about.  Less experience among our Russia analysts?  Throw them a little curve; ground forces mobilizing for the incursion into Crimea (reportedly) did not include mobile medical units, so many our experts believed the Russians were bluffing.  Or maybe--knowing the Ukrainian military was weak and they would enjoy support from Russian nationals in the region--Moscow expected few casualties and left its field hospitals behind.

And the faulty logic didn't stop there.  Analysts who follow Moscow politics and international relations decided that Putin wouldn't risk the G-8 summit in Sochi (scheduled for May) by invading Ukraine. did that theory work out?  Other members of the intel community likened the Russian leader to a "kid playing with gasoline and matches," projecting irrational--even dangerous--tendencies on Mr. Putin.

That makes for a cute "pull quote," but it does nothing to solve our analytic deficiencies.  What we really need are skilled, experienced analysts who know their subject and are willing to think outside the box, accounting for external factors (such as Snowden's treachery) on our collection capabilities.  We could also use analysts who can look at the world through the eyes of various adversaries and adopt their perspective.

By our standards, the Crimea incursion was an irrational act which jeopardizes Russia's relations with the West.  From Putin's perspective, the invasion was a chance to permanently secure access to key bases in the Black Sea, while taking another step towards rebuilding Russia's sphere of influence, and sending a clear message to the world community.  In a time of U.S. weakness, Putin signaled he is prepared to act to further his interests and fill the vacuum created by our timidity and hesitation. 

Crimea won't be Russia's last aggressive move.  We'll see if our spooks are any better at forecasting the next one.                                                   


Monday, March 24, 2014

Southern Exposure

While much of the globe is occupied with the hunt for Flight 370 (and we plead guilty as well), there was this item in the National Journal.

Could the U.S. Face a Cruise Missile Threat from the Gulf of Mexico?

According to writer Diane Barnes, the American military has been focusing increased attention and resources on the problem:

"A 2013 military exercise pitted systems such as Patriot interceptors, Aegis warships and combat aircraft against potential cruise-missile or short-range ballistic missiles fired from the Gulf. But the drill highlighted a particular vulnerability to cruise missiles lobbed from that region, U.S. Northern Command head Gen. Charles Jacoby indicated in congressional testimony last week.
He said the Pentagon has "some significant challenges" in countering these missiles, but is exploring "some opportunities to use existing systems more effectively to do that." Many detailed results of the Oct. 11 drill conducted near Key West, Fla., remain classified, Jacoby said.

"The cruise-missile threat portion of that we are working on very hard," the general added at the March 13 Senate Armed Service Committee hearing, in response to a question from Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

The military leader -- whose command focuses on defense of the U.S. homeland -- referenced an initiative to quickly mobilize assets against such threats in a configuration called the Joint Deployable Integrated Air and Missile Defense system."

According to the Journal, the effort falls under the Pentagon's Joint Test and Evaluation Office, which seeks to remedy operational deficiencies with "what we have."  But as one analyst told the publication, the problem is that our systems have been optimized for the ballistic missile threat.  Cruise missiles, launched from aircraft or surface vessels, present a different set of challenges.

First, they can be deployed on a number of platforms, including strategic bombers, Navy ships, submaries and even a container vessel.  Secondly, their small size and flight profile makes them extremely difficult to detect.  And if detection is delayed--assuming you actually spot them--the intercept window is very narrow.  And did we mention that cruise missiles can be easily outfitted with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads?

In his recent Congressional testimony, General Jacoby said the U.S. has been "closely following" advances in Russian cruise missile technology.  One of the scariest weapons in that arsenal is the Klub-K system, with enough range to hit targets at extended distances, but small enough to fit into a shipping container.  For a price tag of $10-20 million, you get the box, launcher and up to four missiles, which can be readied for launch in a matter of minutes.  Tucked away inside a 40-foot shipping container, the system is almost impossible to detect.

Russia Reveals New Missile Fired from Container

Artist's concept of the Klub-K system, hidden on a container vessel (Israel

With a range of 130km, the cruise missile could be launched well outside our coastal waters--with no warning--making it a very viable terrorist weapon.  The Klub-K is already in service with the Russian military and has been sold to various foreign customers, including India and Algeria.  Venezuela and Iran are also interested in the system, which raises fears about terrorist proliferation, and potential launches from the Gulf of Mexico.

So far, there have been no confirmed deliveries of the missile to Tehran, or Russia's friends in Caracas.  But cruise missiles are a legitimate threat to the U.S. homeland and, as noted in a recent Pentagon assessment, the number of operators will certainly increase over the next decade.  Meanwhile, our land-based defenses remain limited, and the Navy's budget for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) has been shrinking for years.  There were reports that a Russian Akula-class attack sub--an excellent cruise missile platform--went undetected for weeks in the Gulf of Mexico back in 2012.  Those claims--published in the Washington Free Beacon--were denied by the Pentagon.  

Into the Sea?

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said today that Flight MH370 was lost in the southern Indian Ocean more than two weeks ago.  The announcement was based on "new" satellite data that showed the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 went into the sea more than 1,500 miles off the western coast of Australia, dashing hopes that any passengers might have survived--and tamping down speculation the jet might have been hijacked and flown to Pakistan or Iran.

From the Washington Post:  

Reading from a prepared statement, Najib said new information from satellite data showed that the plane’s last location was “in the middle of the Indian Ocean west of Perth,” a city on Australia’s west coast.

“This is a remote location, far from any possible landing sites,” Najib said solemnly. “It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that, according to this new data, Flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean.”

He said the families of those on board have been informed of this “heartbreaking” news about the ill-fated Boeing 777 that vanished March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board. He did not take questions from reporters after delivering his remarks.

Mr. Najib's statement came after an Australian search plane sighted debris in the 42,500-square mile search area that has become the focal point in the hunt for the missing jet.  Sunday's visual sighting came after French, Australian and Chinese satellites sighted large pieces of debris off the Australian coast.  While none of the wreckage has been tied to Flight 370, some of the items were of the right size and shape to have come from the lost aircraft.  Additional ships have been dispatched to the area, though it make take another day (or longer) for them to locate and recover the wreckage.

At today's press conference, the Prime Minister also reported that the British satellite communications firm Immarsat (working with that country's Air Accident Investigation Board) concluded that MH370 took a southerly route, after deviating from its planned flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.  Previously, Immarsat stated that the 777 could have flown in either direction after dropping off air traffic control radar screens on 7 March.  That created a vast search area that extended from the Indian Ocean to the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

If the wreckage is recovered--and tied to the missing jet, it would tend to suggest a "suicide-by-pilot" scenario, similar to EgyptAir Flight 990 (which crashed off Massachusetts in 1999) and SilkAir Flight 185, which went down in Indonesia two years earlier.  In both cases, U.S. investigators believed the planes were deliberately crashed by pilots, though other experts dispute those findings.

The most recent sightings may ultimately refute claims that the Malaysia flight was hijacked and flown to the Middle East, possibly for use in a future terrorist operation.  Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney has repeatedly stated that the jet wound up in Pakistan, citing sources at Boeing, the plane's manufacturer, and the LIGNET intelligence group.

At this point, we should caution that McInerney's theory has not been disproved, either.  Clearly, the most recent sightings tend to place Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean, but until the wreckage is recovered, examined and confirmed as part of the missing jet, the notion that it landed somewhere else cannot be completely discounted.    




Monday, March 17, 2014

The Missing Links

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has been missing for 10 days now, and investigators appear to be no closer to figuring out what happened to the Boeing 777 and the 239 souls on board.

Here's the current consensus on what might have happened to that jet.  After departing Kuala Lumpur, en route to Beijing, the aircraft's transponder was switched off over the Gulf of Thailand, about 40 minutes into the flight.  Apparently, the transponder--which identifies the flight and provides heading and altitude data--was turned off shortly after the last radio contact with the jet, when co-pilot Fariq Ab Hamid said "all right, good night," to air traffic controllers.

But that wasn't the only system disabled on the Boeing 777.  Someone in the cockpit--one of the pilots or perhaps an unknown hijacker--also turned off the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS.  While Malaysia Airlines opted for only a basic ACARS capability on its 777, the system still sent out electronic pings to satellites after it disappeared from air traffic control radar screens.  That indicates that Flight 370 was airborne for several hours, with enough time and fuel to fly to a host of locations on the Asian subcontinent (following a northerly route), or well across the Indian Ocean, if it took a southerly trek.  It should also be noted that ACARS transmissions would continue if the plane was on the ground as well.

There are reports that both Malaysian and Thai military radars tracked the plane, with the last apparent contact coming around 2:15 am (local time), from a post in southern Thailand.  If the blip was Flight 370, it was heading west towards the Bay of Bengal, at an altitude of 30,000 feet.  Before that, the contact had climbed to 45,000 feet, then descended as low as 5,000 feet before returning to FL300.  Some experts theorize the altitude changes were evidence of a struggle in the cockpit, while others believe the climb was used to incapacitate and finally kill the passengers and cabin crew.

Assuming this information is accurate, it begs some rather obvious questions.  First, there are more emitters on a jetliner than the transponder and ACARS.  What about the radar altimeter and weather radar, for example?  They could be easily disabled, but if the 777 dropped to low altitude--as some experts have suggested--the altimeter would be very useful, to avoid hitting terrain or the water.

But there have been no reports about detection of other signals from the aircraft--at least publicly.  One reason is that most of the MSM knows little about aviation, and don't know enough to ask their on-air "consultants" (or other sources) about other signals about emanating  from the 777.  The same principle extends to various intelligence agencies--including the NSA and its Australian counterpart, the Defense Signals Directorate.  If the radar altimeter or weather radar remained operational, there is a chance that NSA or DSD detected the plane later in the flight.

However, such reporting would be tempered by the reality that multiple aircraft use the same altimeter or weather radar, and if Flight 370 followed established air routes (as some believe), then it might be difficult to distinguish the Malaysian jet from other commercial jets in the area.  On the other hand, if the plane headed away from air corridors, then later emissions from other on-board emitters could provide some clues about its route and final destination.

It's also logical that various governments aren't volunteering this type of information, since it would offer insights on their ELINT collection capabilities.  In fact, if there were later intercepts of other on-board signals, then some of the routing theories are little more than red herrings, aimed at deflecting attention away from how much is really known about the final hours of that 777.

Likewise, the media might also inquire about some of those reported contacts by Malaysian and Thai military radars.  The type of equipment being used that night will offer additional information about the probability of actual detection.  Put another way, more modern, 3-D radars would be more likely to detect/track the flight than older models that require altitude tracing (from a separate radar) for accurate detection.  So far, neither government has said what type of military radar was being used and where they were located.  That would also influence the accuracy of the reported tracking.

Authorities have also failed to release the actual conversations between air traffic controllers and the missing flight.  If Malaysian controllers were doing their job, the sudden loss of Flight 370's transponder "squawk" should have prompted immediate calls to the jet.  Why not release the tapes of the final radio exchanges between the 777's flight crew and controllers on the ground?

Similarly, the air forces of Malaysia and Thailand have been mum about their actions in the hours after the passenger jet disappeared.  With an unknown aircraft transiting their airspace, why weren't jet fighters scrambled?  And what sort of conversations took place between civilian controllers and their military counter-parts?  Or, as some have suggested, did the 777 fly a carefully planned route to avoid detection, or use the resolution cell (radar shadow) of another aircraft to hide from air traffic controllers and military radar?

And what role did lax procedures or even incompetence play in the airliner's disappearance.  At least one report indicates the jet over-flew multiple Malaysian radar sites as it changed course.  But as far as we know, jet fighters were never scrambled.  Was there any contact between civilian controllers and their military counterparts after Flight 370 disappeared from radar scopes?  Officials in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok aren't saying--at least not yet.

It is too early to say if that Boeing 777 is at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, or sitting on a remote airfield in south Asia, covered with radar-absorbent, state-of-the-art camoflague netting, awaiting to take flight on a terrorist mission.  At this juncture, the evidence would seem to suggest some sort of suicide-by-pilot, but the terrorism scenario cannot be ruled out.

Late Monday, it was reported that Israel had put its air defenses on higher alert, cognizant that if the plane was hijacked, and if it is now in the hands of terrorists on the Asian sub-continent, it is now within range of their airspace.  At least one media outlet (Fox News) claimed that some of Israel's surface-to-air missile batterys had been repositioned, and the IAF was stepping up its combat air patrols.  Prudent steps by a nation whose aerial "frontier" is located less than five minutes' flying time from Tel Aviv.  But these measures are not implemented on the the spur of the moment, in response to a threat that appears remote, at least in the eyes of so-called experts.  It's enough to make you wonder: do the Israelis know (or suspect) an aerial threat that we are dismissing as remote?              


Monday, March 10, 2014

The Mysterious Mr. Ali

Three days after it disappeared over the Gulf of Thailand, the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 officially remains a mystery.  Search teams are combing thousands of square miles of ocean, looking for remnants of the Boeing 777-200 and the 239 passengers and crew that were on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. So far, no wreckage or other signs of a crash have been sighted; early reports that one of the jetliner's cabin doors had been spotted proved false, and long fuel slicks on the water were not connected to the missing jet, according to local authorities.

But if the physical search for clues has proven fruitless (so far), the examination of passenger manifests and other travel documents has been much more productive.  Within 24 hours of the airliner's disappearance, it was learned that two of the passengers were traveling on stolen passports, reported missing more than a year earlier by their rightful owners, an Italian and a man from Austria.  Surveillance camera footage from the gate area suggested that the passengers using the stolen passports were "not Asian in appearance."  At a press conference, a Malaysian police spokesman said one of the men looked like Italian football star Mario Balotelli, who is of Africa descent.

The U.K. Daily Mail also reports that at least five ticketed passengers failed to board the plane, though it was unclear if any of those individuals tried to check luggage for the flight--and if any bags under their names were removed from the aircraft before it left Malaysia.

But the day's most disturbing development came from Thailand, and new details on how the "mystery passengers" wound up on the flight.  From the Daily Mail account:

"A Thai travel agent who arranged the tickets for the two passengers has now said she had booked them on the flight via Beijing because they were the cheapest tickets, it has been reported.

The travel agent in the resort of Pattaya said an Iranian business contact she knew only as 'Mr Ali' had asked her to book tickets for the two men on March 1.

She had initially booked them on other airlines but those reservations expired and on March 6, Mr Ali had asked her to book them again.

She told the Financial Times she did not think Mr Ali, who paid her in cash and booked tickets with her regularly, was linked to terrorism."

Well, that's certainly reassuring.  So far, we haven't heard any details about "Mr. Ali's" other ticket purchases, but that information might prove illuminating.  It's quite possible that the Iranian businessman--if he is a terrorist operative--used previous flights as dry runs, testing transport security measures.  One of the first steps in that process would be establishing a relationship with a local travel agent who accepted cash for short-notice flights--and never asked any questions.  

In fact, Al Qaida has a long history of rehearsing airline operations before actually carrying them out.  Actor James Woods was on a Boston-to-Los Angeles flight two months before 9-11 and observed four Middle Eastern men behaving strangely.  Their actions left such an impression that Mr. Woods reported the activity to a flight attendant and the jet's first officer when it landed in California.  After the September 11th attacks, he remembered the incident and called the FBI, who sent agents to his home with photographs.  Woods recognized two of the men from his flight; one was identified as a hijacker on United Flight 77, which flew into the Pentagon; the other helped commandeer United Flight 175, which slammed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. 

Over the years that followed, there have been several foiled plots, including the infamous shoe and underwear bombers, along with more dry runs.  Just last year, the U.S. Airline Pilots Association warned its members that terrorists were again rehearsing for possible attacks on airliners.  The memo from the pilot's union cited an incident where Middle Eastern man (on a U.S. Air flight) who ran towards the cockpit door before veering into the forward lavatory, where he spent a considerable amount of time.  At the same time, other Middle Eastern men switched seats, opened overhead bins and "generally caused a disturbance," possibly trying to distract flight attendants.  The Washington-to-Orlando flight landed safely at its destination, but the Captain refused to fly the next leg of his route until the aircraft was thoroughly checked.  While the inspection revealed signs of "tampering," the Department of Homeland Security concluded its was "not" a dry run.  

While these possible dry-runs have garnered a certain amount of media coverage, little attention is paid to the process of getting the "right" people on the flight without attracting the attention of the airlines or government security organizations.  In the days before 9-11, it was simply a matter of purchasing tickets; in fact, several of the 9-11 hijackers logged ththousands of frequent flier miles in the months leading up to the attacks, as part of the rehearsal and preparation process.  Since then, various screening measures and intelligence analysis have made it more difficult for terrorists to slip undetected on airliners, but the system is far from perfect.  Consider the cases of the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber, who were able to get on board and attempt to detonate their devices before they were stopped.       

If the loss of Flight 370 was an act of terrorism, investigators will almost certainly uncover a very detailed and well-executed plot.  Al Qaida, its affiliates and other terror groups have never lost interest in aviation targets are are constantly looking for new ways to bring down an airliner.  At this point, no one can definitely say that terrorists were behind the disappearance of the Malaysian airliner; but the few pieces now falling into place seem to fit that pattern.                    



Saturday, March 08, 2014


As the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 continues, journalists and pundits are engaged in a delicate dance, edging around the scenario that seems almost inevitable; in other words, the loss of the Boeing 777-200, with 239 souls aboard, was the result of foul play, probably terrorism.

To be fair, no firm link has been established between the jet's disappearance and a terror group.  And, at this point, with no wreckage or bodies recovered, other potential causes cannot be completely ruled out.  Yes, there is a chance that some sort of catastrophic failure caused the 777 to disappear from radar and plunge into the Gulf of Thailand, a little over two hours after its departure from Kuala Lumpur.  But the Boeing jet has an impeccable safety record; before Flight 370 disappeared yesterday, the 777 had recorded only one fatal accident in nearly two decades of service, last year's Asiana crash in San Francisco, which was caused by pilot error.

Likewise, weather has not been totally ruled out as a possible factor in the crash.  But there were no storms or reports of severe turbulence along the jet's flight path, so it's difficult to imagine that a sudden, severe downdraft, in clear skies at 35,000 feet, caused the aircraft to go down.

Was it pilot error?  The pilot-in-command had been flying for Malaysia Airlines for more than 30 years, logging over 18,000 hours in the cockpit.  His co-pilot joined the airline seven years ago, and had nearly 3,000 flight hours, with much of that time in the 777.   A veteran crew was piloting the aircraft on its flight to Beijing, and it's difficult to imagine any sort of system failure that spiraled out of control, leaving the pilots unable to control the wide-body jet.

This much we know: whatever happened to Flight 370 transpired very quickly.  Tracking data indicates a slight deviation to the left of its planned route and a drop in altitude of 600 feet just before the Boeing 777 disappeared from air traffic control radars.  There was no Mayday call from the crew, suggesting a sudden catastrophic event that sent the airliner on a fatal plunge.  

What could cause such a failure?  Any number of things, from a section of windows or a cabin door blowing out at altitude, triggering a structural chain reaction that caused the airliner to fall apart.  Once again, it's a possibility, but far from likely.  A Malaysia Airlines spokesman said the aircraft was last inspected 10 days ago ("well ahead of schedule") and no problems were discovered.

An explosion could also cause a catastrophic failure, though definitive proof won't be available until the jet's wreckage is recovered from the crash site, a process that could take weeks, even months.  However, there are malfunctions that may cause an aircraft to literally blow-up in flight, such as a fuel tank explosion. Almost two years ago, a Boeing 737 crashed on approach to the airport in Islamabad, Pakistan.  The pilot radioed air traffic controllers that a fuel tank was on fire shortly before the plane went down, barely three months before its scheduled landing.  More than 130 passengers and crew died in that crash; the ill-fated jet had been in service for 32 years, and there were questions about maintenance on the aging 737.

Six years earlier, a wing tank blew up on an Indian airliner, sitting on the tarmac in Bangalore.  No passengers or crew were on the aircraft at the time, and there were no reported injuries.  Investigators believed the explosion may have been related to deteriorating electrical wiring and insulation tubes in the fuel tanks of various Boeing jets.  In 1999, the FAA ordered an emergency inspection of fuel tank wiring tubes (and the wires they shielded), over concerns about a possible explosion.

The most famous "example" of an exploding fuel tank on a jetliner occurred in the crash of TWA Flight 800, which went down over the Long Island Sound in 1996, just minutes after departing from JFK Airport in New York.  After a prolonged investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that an electrical short circuit caused fuel vapors in the center tank to explode, causing the Boeing 747 to fall from the skies, killing all 230 people aboard.  But some of the experts who participated in the original probe have refuted its findings, speculating that the explosion was caused (instead) by an external source, perhaps a missile.  

On the other hand, a bomb could produce a similar, catastrophic failure, and that possibility seems more likely, given the recent revelation that two of the passengers were traveling on stolen passports.  The original passenger manifest listed an Italian national and an Austrian as among those on the flight.  But both quickly reported that they were alive and well and on the ground when the jetliner disappeared.  The two men also claimed that their passports had been stolen, in one case, more than two years ago.  At least one of the thefts was reported to Interpol, but it's unclear if the information was shared with intelligence agencies or the airlines.

Who were the passengers traveling on those stolen passports?  At this point, no one can say, but their presence raises concerns about terrorism.  It's quite possible that a terrorist group would use someone else's identity to put a pair of suicide operatives on a jetliner.  We've also learned that tickets for the passengers with the stolen passports were sold by China Southern Airlines, which has a code share agreement with Malaysia Airlines.  There has been no information on how or when the tickets were purchased, and if that transaction should have alerted authorities.

Answers to those questions--and others--will be revealed in the days and weeks ahead.  And while few things are certain at this point, the use of stolen passports to put mysterious passengers on the plane certainly raises the specter of foul play.  It is also worth remembering that terrorist organizations have never lost their interest in aviation targets, and the Pacific region has long figured in their plotting.  We may soon learn if the bad guys have finally achieved their murderous goal.                          



Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Oscar's Voice

First, a bit of disclosure: I'm among the majority of Americans who haven't seen one of the films that were up for best picture during Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, televised around the world by ABC.

And I'm not alone; according to a Reuters survey released last week, roughly two-thirds of the American public have not viewed any of the nine nominees for best picture, the top award presented each by the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences.  Of course, that inconvenient stat doesn't stop Hollywood's annual orgy of self-congratulation, but it should give the studios pause: in an era when we can watch movies on demand on almost any type of electronic device, more than 60% of all Americans are ignoring the supposed cream of the annual film crop.

To be fair, the movie business is still turning a tidy profit, but increasingly, the money comes from special effects-laden summer blockbusters that bring out the teen and twenty-something audiences; animated films (which still attract kids and parents) and the occasional breakout hit that seems to transcend all demographic lines.  But in much of "flyover country," the box office isn't always boffo; borrowing from an old Variety headline, the "stix" have been nixing most Oscar-worthy pix for a long, long time.

That's one reason it's always a bit sad to watch the "In Memoriam" segment of each year's telecast.  First comes the realization that most of the stars we watched and admired have passed on, and with them, the last links to an era when Hollywood shared at least some values with its audience.

Then, there's the annual debate over "who got snubbed" in the tribute montage. Admittedly, the producers of the annual telecast face a daunting challenge; in the time allotted, they can honor about 30 members of the film community, give or take a couple.  Glenn Close, who introduced the segment during Sunday's broadcast, noted there wasn't enough time to pay tribute to everyone who passed during the previous year. So, it was inevitable that actors like Milo O'Shea, Jean Stapleton and Ralph Waite were omitted, along with director Bryan Forbes, screenwriter Mike Gray and others.

But there was one more glaring omission as well.  For 26 years, the great Hank Simms was literally the Voice of the Academy awards, providing off-screen narration of the telecast.  Mr. Simms also handled the announcing chores for numerous other awards programs, commercials, movie trailers and a host of other assignments.  Viewers of a certain age know him best as the narrator for various Quinn Martin dramas of the 1960s and 70s.

Mr. Simms was a mainstay in the voice-over community for more than 40 years.  He entered radio at the urging of his brother, after serving as an Army Air Corps maintenance officer during World War II.  He worked at stations in Kansas, Oklahoma City and Dallas before being recalled during the Korean War. Simms was working in Hawaii when he met his wife in the early 1950s; a year later, they moved to Los Angeles, where he became one of the most sought-after voice talents in the city.

His long association with Mr. Martin was a combination of talent and geography.  Simms and his family lived next door to Quinn Martin in Beverly Hills; when the producer was looking for a new voice for one of his crime dramas, he hired his neighbor.  Martin also took the unusual step of urging Mr. Simms to join the Screen Actors Guild and made him a member of the cast.  That made Simms eligible for a better insurance plan and residual payments for re-runs.  Typically, announcers received a one-time talent fee for their services, while actors received decreasing payments for the first three (or more) airings of the program in syndication.

Simms retired from Hollywood years ago, settling first in Florida and later moving to Hot Springs, Arkansas to be closer to his children.  By all accounts, he was a humble man; he rarely appeared on screen and few people recognized until they heard that distinctive baritone.  When he passed away from cancer last August (at the age of 90), he requested no funeral or memorial service on his behalf.

Since Mr. Simms announced his last Oscars telecast, producers have employed a variety of announcers and voice-over artists, including Tom Kane and Randy Thomas.  Mr. Kane, Ms. Thomas and their contemporaries have done a fine job, but with all due respect, they can't hold a candle to Hank Simms.

That's why some of us who have slaved over a hot microphone in a previous life were waiting for an acknowledgement or nod to the man whose voice was synonymous with the Oscars, the Emmys and other television events.  Unfortunately, it never came.  To its credit, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences posted a tribute to Mr. Simms last fall, but the motion picture industry--to our knowledge--has not. Maybe because he was "only" an announcer, and not one of the luminaries who paraded across the stage.  But if the Oscars represent the film industry's "biggest night," then Hank Simms made his own contribution to the ceremony, with peerless narration that set the tone for the telecast.

From You Tube, here's Mr. Simms opening the 1981 Academy Awards, hosted by Johnny Carson. You may recall that telecast was delayed 24 hours, following the attempted assassination of President Reagan. Needless to say, the quality of the hosts has declined since then--with the exception of a few years when Billy Crystal was in his prime.                                              

Monday, March 03, 2014

Fantasy as Foreign Policy (Today's Reading Assignment)

As the situation in Ukraine continues to unravel, at least one newspaper has awakened to the reality of our feckless foreign policy.  Call it a policy couched in fantasy, not reality.  A couple of excerpts:

FOR FIVE YEARS, President Obama has led a foreign policy based more on how he thinks the world should operate than on reality. It was a world in which “the tide of war is receding” and the United States could, without much risk, radically reduce the size of its armed forces. Other leaders, in this vision, would behave rationally and in the interest of their people and the world. Invasions, brute force, great-power games and shifting alliances — these were things of the past. Secretary of State John F. Kerry displayed this mindset on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday when he said, of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine, “It’s a 19th century act in the 21st century.”


"’s also true that, as long as some leaders play by what Mr. Kerry dismisses as 19th-century rules, the United States can’t pretend that the only game is in another arena altogether. Military strength, trustworthiness as an ally, staying power in difficult corners of the world such as Afghanistan — these still matter, much as we might wish they did not. While the United States has been retrenching, the tide of democracy in the world, which once seemed inexorable, has been receding. In the long run, that’s harmful to U.S. national security, too.
As Mr. Putin ponders whether to advance further — into eastern Ukraine, say — he will measure the seriousness of U.S. and allied actions, not their statements. China, pondering its next steps in the East China Sea, will do the same. Sadly, that’s the nature of the century we’re living in."

Incidentally, this indictment of the Obama Doctrine was written by those notorious right-wingers at the Washington Post.  Paraphrasing LBJ's famous words of almost 50 years ago, if Mr. Obama has lost the Post, then's he lost the left-wing media establishment, the same constituency that has propped up his failed presidency for the past five years.

But all is not lost.  In the same edition of that paper, Post columnist David Ignatius suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin had committed a fatal blunder:

"What Putin misunderstands most is that the center of gravity for the former Soviet Union has shifted west. Former Soviet satellites such as Poland and the Czech Republic are prosperous members of the E.U. The nations that made up what was once Yugoslavia have survived their bloody breakup, and most have emerged as strong democracies. Ukraine was set to join this movement toward the European Union last November when Yanukovych suddenly suspended trade and financial talks with the E.U. and accepted what amounted to a $15 billion bribe from Putin to stay in Russia’s camp. To the tens of thousands of courageous Ukrainians who braved the cold and police brutality to protest, Yanukovych’s submission to Moscow looked like an attempt to reverse history."

Those observations may be true, but they are of little consolation to millions of Ukrainians who face a new era of living under Russian domination and oppression.  After bravely rising up against a corrupt regime, they were rewarded by Putin's move into Crimea, and little more than diplomatic hand-wringing from the west. The Russian president didn't pay a price for his 2008 conflict with neighboring Georgia and so far, there is no indication the west will take significant action over the crisis in Ukraine.

Moreover, with the U.S. retreating on the world stage, there is little reason for our partners to believe that we will back up our rhetoric with actions.  One of Mr. Obama's early acts as President was to cancel planned ballistic missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, a move that was part of the supposed "re-set" in relations between Washington and Moscow.   The significance of that decision was not lost in Warsaw and Prague; even if we wanted to move troops and aircraft to the region in a show of force, there is no guarantee those governments would go along.  Why should they, when recent history suggests the U.S. will cut and run whenever it suits us?

To be sure, there has been a great wave of democracy that has swept over eastern Europe over the past 25 years.  But that wave may ebb at the eastern border of Poland and if it does, we will share in the blame.      


Saturday, March 01, 2014

Empty Words

Late Friday, with words of more Russian troops arriving in Ukraine's Crimea Region, President Obama got tough:

"Delivering a blunt warning to Moscow, President Barack Obama expressed deep concern Friday over reported military activity inside Ukraine by Russia and warned "there will be costs" for any intervention.

He did not say what those costs might be.

Obama called on Russia to respect the independence and territory of Ukraine and not try to take advantage of its neighbor, which is undergoing political upheaval."

Then, with that bit of unpleasantness out of the way, Mr. Obama went off to a Democratic National Committee event.  The record will show that Russian President Vladimir Putin was unimpressed with Obama's rhetoric.  I don't think National Review's Victor Davis Hanson got an advance copy of the President's remarks, but he was prescient in describing our "useless outrage" over Russia's military moves. After all, we've been down this road before:

Over the last five years, Obama has issued serial deadlines to Iran to cease and desist from its ongoing enrichment of uranium. All the while, more Iranian centrifuges went on line.
Later, Obama turned from deadlines to red lines. He threatened Syrian president Bashar Assad with one about using chemical weapons. “A red line for us,” the president warned, “is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”
Assad moved over that American red line, using chemical weapons to gas his own people, and is now winning the war against the Syrian insurgents. In the end, an embarrassed Obama was reduced to denying that he had ever issued a red line in the first place: “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”


Although the U.S. alone seems to honor its promised deadlines of withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, the world’s aggressors sense that the Obama administration’s bluster will be followed by more bluster. Therefore, they have decided to risk aggrandizements while they can. In the mind of Vladimir Putin, today Ukraine, tomorrow the Baltic States or Eastern Europe. In the minds of the Iranian theocrats, if chemical WMD are okay in Syria, why not nuclear WMD in Iran? In China’s view, when Japan backs off, why shouldn’t Taiwan, South Korea, or the Philippines?

That's why Mr. Putin is more concerned about his next move in the Crimea that any potential response from Washington.  To be sure, there is little the U.S. can do militarily; Ukraine is literally in Putin's back yard and Russia's naval basing agreement with Kiev gives him a convenient excuse for moving troops into the area. Moscow's rubber-stamp Senate has already given the Russian President authority for military action, and his cronies in the Crimea have asked Putin for assistance.  Now, it's just a matter of how quickly Russia's military airlift units can deliver additional forces to the region.   

But that doesn't mean the United States and its allies are not without options. Putin bought his way into the middle of the situation by agreeing to pay off $15 billion in Ukranian debt (and presumably, a little on the side for the country's corrupt former leadership, now believed hiding somewhere in Russia).  When Ukraine's citizens demanded closer ties with Europe and the west, Mr. Obama and his partners couldn't cobble together a bail-out package that is less than our annual foreign aid bill.

And while direct military intervention is not an option, there are steps the U.S. can take around the periphery of Ukraine's borders.  We currently have small military detachments in Poland; the U.S. should consider rotating deployments of F-16s and F-15Es from other locations in Europe (and the United States), to Lansk AB, similar to our bomber deployments to the Far East.  

Washington should also consider a larger naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea regions; we dispatched two ships during the Sochi Olympics (ostensibly to assist with potential counter-terror operations),  Unfortunately, that operation ended badly when one of the vessels, a destroyer, ran aground during a port call in Turkey.  

However, prospects for an increased military presence in eastern Europe and adjacent waters are just about zero.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel just unveiled plans to further slash the military budget, so there won't be a lot of money for additional, long-term deployments.  In fact, the Hagel-Obama plan calls for retirement of Air Force's A-10 and U-2 fleets (almost 400 aircraft), and some analysts believe other platforms will be heading for the boneyard as well.  Fewer airplanes means more personnel reductions, and less for operations and maintenance.  In other words, don't look for F-16 or Strike Eagle squadrons at Lansk (or any other Polish bases) any time soon.  

Economic sanctions against Russia are another possibility, but once again, don't hold your breath.  Mr. Obama seems to go out of his way to avoid antagonizing Vladimir Putin, who (as a former KGB agent) knows weaknesses when he sees it.  From the Kremlin's perspective, going into the Crimea is a no-brainer, since they have nothing to fear from the Ukraine and its erstwhile friends in the West.  

Maybe that's what President Obama meant when he told Putin's predecessor (read: sock puppet) that he would have "more flexibility" during his second term.  With Obama in the White House for another three years, Putin and his thugs apparently have the green light to do whatever they choose.  This isn't the first time Mr. Putin has thrown down the gauntlet to his American counterpart.  It won't be the last.  And don't think this latest example of U.S. weakness is going unnoticed in Tehran or Beijing, either.           
ADDENDUM:  Various media outlets are reporting that Mr. Obama skipped a national security meeting on Ukraine this afternoon.  Maybe he believed the preliminary intel assessments that Russia was bluffing; as late as Thursday evening, the bright boys and girls in our intelligence community were assuring decision makers that Moscow had no plans to invade by the Crimea, based on various factors, including an absence of medical units among potential invasion units and the lack of SIGINT activity that suggested Russian units would soon cross the border.  We should note that President Obama spent 90 minutes on the phone with Putin on Saturday--perhaps explaining his absence from the NSC meeting--but the conversation clearly achieved nothing.