Monday, October 10, 2016

The Gathering Storm (Russia Edition)

This post is being written late Sunday afternoon, about three hours before the second presidential debate from Washington University in St. Louis.  At this point, we (officially) don't know what questions will be posed to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump by moderators Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC, along with members of the studio audience.  But you don't need to be a political pundit to discern that many of tonight's queries will focus on Mr. Trump and his contemptible remarks about women, made to Billy Bush (then a co-host of "Access Hollywood") almost 12 years ago.

Conversely, we'll be greatly surprised if Mr. Cooper, Ms. Raddatz and the audience questioners spend much time outside the realm of the salacious, and actually inquire about issues that actually matter to the nation's security.  And we're not referring to the border, immigration or other issues that are clearly security-related, and have dominated much of the campaign season.  Instead, it's time for a discussion on equally-pressing matters that are reaching the crisis level at hot spots around the globe.

The logical starting point is Russia.  As John Schindler recently noted in the New York Observer, we are facing a likely nuclear standoff with Russia in the Baltics region, probably before President Obama leaves office.  It's no secret that Vladimir Putin has no regard for the American leader, and he is determined to inflict another humiliation on Mr. Obama before he leaves office.

It’s long been obvious that Vladimir Putin and his inner circle view Barack Obama with utter contempt. To the hard men in Moscow, who got their schooling in the KGB, our diffident, wordy Ivy League lawyer president is a weakling—almost a caricature of everything they despise about the postmodern West.

Here the Kremlin mirrors most Russians, who find Obama a puzzling and contemptible man. This is nothing new. I’ve heard remarkable put-downs of our commander-in-chief for years, going back to 2008, even from the mouths of highly educated Russians. Their comments are invariably earthy, insulting, and nowhere near politically correct.

It’s therefore no surprise that Russians view Obama with contempt—and so does their leader. As our president winds up his second term and prepares to move out of the White House, the Kremlin simply isn’t bothering to hide that contempt any longer, even in high-level diplomacy, where a modicum of tact is expected.

Of course, Mr. Obama hasn't exactly helped his cause by ignoring Russian provocations and refusing to make tough choices--and stand behind them.  That non-existent "red line" in Syria was followed by Putin making (and keeping) his own vow to support long-time ally Bashir Assad.  Pentagon analysts claim Russia's military efforts in Syria have been far from a victory, but that misses the central point.  Putin didn't go to war to defeat ISIS; his primary objective was to prevent Assad's military collapse and weaken the U.S.-backed rebel groups trying to depose his regime.  By those metrics, the deployment has been successful.

The Russian President has derived additional benefits by showing off his modernized arsenal, and vowing to challenge the U.S. and NATO.  In recent months, Moscow has deployed two advanced surface-to-air missile systems to Syria, to protect its forces and Assad's troops from western air attack.  Shortly after the second system (the SA-23) arrived, a senior Russian military official vowed to attack U.S. aircraft over Syria, if they pose a military threat.  

And, upping the ante even more, Putin is dispatching a carrier battle group to the eastern Mediterranean, extending his air defense network well beyond the Syrian coast, and posing a potential threat to U.S. naval forces in the region. Defense analysts have speculated that any American attack against Assad would likely be a cruise missile strike, mounted by ships and submarines assigned to the 6th Fleet. 

Mr. Putin is also on the move in Europe.  Elite airborne units--potentially useful in operations against Ukraine and the Baltics--have been training west of Moscow, near Russia's borders with Poland, Latvia and Estonia.  In some instances, airborne elements have deployed out of garrison with a full complement of equipment, rehearsing mobility skills that would be useful during future operations.  The most recent airborne drills come on the heels of a command post exercise involving many of the same units; it's a textbook example of the building-block approach favored by the Russian Army (and other military elements around the world).  Start off with the command units, then broaden the exercise to include troops in the field.  

But the airborne drills aren't the most disturbing aspect of Russia's on-going military activity.  Concurrently, Moscow is holding a massive civil defense drill, involving more than 20,000 Radiological, Chemical and Biological defense troops and other first responders, along with upwards of 40 million civilians.  The exercise scenario is reportedly based on a limited nuclear conflict between Russia and the west, a concept Russia has embraced in military doctrine developed over the last 20 years.  With the loss of massive conventional forces that were disbanded with the fall of the USSR, Russian doctrine is now built around the potential first use of nuclear weapons, and employment of defensive measures to protect key military, economic and leadership assets.  

While this doesn't mean a nuclear conflict is Miminent, there are other, troubling signs that should give everyone pause.  In recent days, Moscow has deployed SS-26 Iskander ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave that lies between Poland and Lithuania.  The SS-26 has a maximum range of 435 NM; it is extremely accurate and (as you might have guessed) it can carry a nuclear warhead.  From launch positions in Kaliningrad, the Iskander can strike targets throughout Poland and even reach Berlin--a fact that isn't lost on our increasingly nervous NATO allies.  

This is not the first time the SS-26 has been dispatched to Kaliningrad, but given the current tensions, Putin is using the deployment to send a very clear signal.  With Obama in the White House, he views NATO as rudderless and weak, and Putin ratchet up the pressure to further divide the alliance during the run-up to our presidential election.  

So far, the response from Washington has been muted, to say the least.  There was a blistering comment from the Army Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, who warned "those who wish to do us harm" that the U.S. military, "despite all our challenges," will stop you, and we will beat you harder than you have ever been beaten before."  But Milley's superiors, including the Commander-in-Chief, have been remarkably silent in the face of Russia's latest provocations.  

Maybe it's the long holiday weekend (our hard-working federal bureaucrats are enjoying a three-day break for Columbus Day).  Or perhaps the president's political advisers counseled against a high-level statement ahead of last night's debate.  Or maybe our latest bluster over Syria will go the same way as that infamous red line of a few years ago.  Put another way: we don't have anything beyond rhetoric, and Mr. Obama leaves office in less than 100 days.  He is quite happy to play out the string and leave the Baltics as yet another mess for his successor.  

But he may not get off that easy.  Putin is quite aware of how America is now perceived on the world stage and he understands the potential impact of one last humiliation before Obama exits the White House.  A Baltic version of the Cuban missile crisis?  Don't discount that possibility.
ADDENDUM:  As predicted, the Baltics didn't make the cut for questions in last night's presidential debate.  Russia was mentioned, in the context of hacking and trying to influence the U.S. election next month.  But the looming crisis on NATO's eastern flank was conveniently ignored--rather curious considering that one of the moderators, ABC's Martha Raddatz, has reported extensively on national security issues.  Then again, Ms. Raddatz (along with CNN's Cooper) seemed to abandon at pretense at impartiality, interrupting Trump five times more often than they challenged Clinton.  Against that backdrop, it's no surprise that Russian moves in the Baltics never entered the debate.             


Sunday, October 09, 2016


Before he heads out the door, President Obama is pushing a few of his pet initiatives, with little regard for their long-term impact on the nation.

Let's begin with global warming, climate change or whatever catch-phrase is now being used to perpetuate that hoax.  As the Washington Times recently reported, Mr. Obama is claiming that rising temperatures (and sea levels) will trigger new waves of massive migration, creating problems far beyond those now being experienced in the Middle East and Europe.

Never mind that the "science" behind climate change has been notoriously politicized--and global temperatures haven't risen a single degree over the past 18 years; President Obama has never been one to let the facts stand in the way of a convenient narrative.  Just the other day, he suggested that droughts (brought on, of course, by global warming) were one of the factors that caused the Syrian civil war.  So. stop blaming Bashir Assad; those barrel bombs being dropped on civilians in Aleppo are a by-product of climate change, and not the repressive tactics of a brutal dictator.

Mr. Obama has also jumped back on the diversity bandwagon.  On Wednesday, the President directed national security agencies to "strengthen the talent and diversity of their organizations."  More from the Washington Post:

National security agencies “are less diverse on average than the rest of the Federal Government,” including at the senior leadership levels, Obama said in the memorandum. “While these data do not necessarily indicate the existence of barriers to equal employment opportunity, we can do more to promote diversity in the national security workforce.”

Obama told the agencies to take a series of steps to improve diversity, including collecting, analyzing and disseminating workforce data, providing professional development opportunities and strengthening leadership accountability. He said his directive “emphasizes a data-driven approach in order to increase transparency and accountability at all levels.”

In other words, agencies like the CIA, NSA, DIA, the State Department--and others--need to hire more minorities.  Decades of affirmative action programs, specialized recruiting efforts and other initiatives have failed to place enough individuals of color in the senior ranks of the military, the diplomatic corps and the intelligence community.  

National Security Adviser Susan Rice (of Benghazi infamy) is the administration's point-person for the diversity push.  In recent remarks, she described the need to recruit and promote more blacks, Latinos and Asians as a "national security imperative."  Dr. Rice expressed disappointment that people of color represent about 40% of the nation's population, but only 15-20% of the nation's senior diplomats, military officers and intelligence officials.  So, it's a safe bet that a candidate's race will play an even more important role in future hiring and promotion decisions. 

And not surprisingly, the military is rushing to re-embrace diversity as well.  Last Friday, the Air Force released a memo--signed by service secretary Deborah James; chief of staff General David Goldfein and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody--outlining 13 new "inclusion" initiatives.  According to Air Force magazine, the new mandates include diversity requirements for certain promotion candidate pools; membership on command selection boards and panels considering airmen for recruiting duty. Additionally, the Air Force will create a new "human capital analytics office," which will use microtargeting capabilities to better attract and retain talent.

But the diversity push doesn't end there.  Air Force ROTC will receive an extra $20 million over the next five years to fund 200 new scholarships for students from "under-served and under-represented population centers.  One of the primary goals is to increase minority representation in career fields that have historically "lacked diversity," including pilot, air battle manager, missile and space operations and intelligence.  Leaders in those fields have been tasked to submit plans to reverse those trends.

Obviously, there's nothing wrong with getting more minorities into the cockpit, behind a radar console, or as part of a missile or space operations crew.  But certain words are often missing from such discussions, including "standards" and "qualifications."  When the military needs more bodies, there is often a temptation to lower standards; it happened at the height of the Iraq War, when the Army was struggling to meet recruiting quotas.  Minimum scores were lowered on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), and standards were relaxed in other areas as well, to get enough recruits into uniform.

Recruiting someone to be a pilot or intelligence officer is a different matter, but many of the same issues persist.  In the rush to get more people with the "right" background into selected AFSCs, there is tendency to relax requirements.  Minority applicants with lower scores on the Armed Forces Officer Qualification Test (AFOQT) may be admitted, in hopes of achieving diversity goals.

To be fair, there have been no reports (yet) about a serious erosion of standards among candidates who will be recruiting for those new ROTC scholarships.   But such slippage has occurred during the past.  During the mid-1990s, your humble correspondent was an Air Force ROTC instructor at an SEC school.  One of our "sister" detachments was at a historically black college and university, about 75 miles away. We met with the instructor cadre from the other school on a periodic basis, to share best practices and lessons learned.

At the same time, the USAF was in the middle of another diversity push, trying to send a minimum number of minority candidates to pilot and navigator training each year.  I remember asked the commander of our sister detachment about his thoughts on the efforts.  His answer was shorting and stunning: "it's a dumb idea," he told me, and "doomed to fail."

As the Lieutenant Colonel recounted, his detachment had sent an average of two cadets a year to pilot and navigator training during the previous four years, a period that predated his arrival at the school. Most of the cadets were African-American, though some were white, students at a third school who completed ROTC at the HBCU.

From the Colonel's perspective, most of those young people heading to UPT and UNT were doomed to fail, and it had nothing to do with their skin color.  But it had everything to do with their educational background and preparation for pilot and nav training.  Virtually all of the young officers had graduated from high school in the state--a state with notoriously poor public schools.  Many had struggled to complete their undergraduate studies, but they met the requirements for ROTC and earned their commissions.  And with the diversity push of that era, one or two headed off each year to pilot or navigator training, among the most demanding training courses in the Air Force.

According to the commander, not a single lieutenant from his detachment had completed UPT or UNT during the previously-cited four-year period.  Most of the pilot candidates washed out during the first half of UPT (a year-old program); roughly half were retained by the Air Force and trained in a different career field.  The rest were discharged, after hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent on their training.  According to the detachment commander, most of the selectees from his school were marginal candidates, with AFOQT scores that were borderline for pilot and navigator.  Obviously, the test results weren't the only predictor of potential success, but they were a useful barometer.

The Air Force persisted in its effort for a few more years, but the number of minority pilots, navigators, missileers and intel officers remained relatively low.  The detachment commander who warned about marginally-qualified candidates being thrown into the fire at UPT and UNT suggested better screening of candidates, with additional funds to help them complete ground school and earn some "stick time" towards a private pilot's license, since Air Force data shows that applicants with flight experience tend to do better in undergraduate pilot or navigator training.  His idea was rejected due to the projected cost and the perceptions that the service would be giving minority applicants an unfair advantage.

Fast forward 20 years, and the USAF appears to be back as square one.  So far, the Air Force hasn't offered any details on how it plans to meet its diversity goals, but the effort is getting off on the wrong foot.  Consider those 200 additional ROTC scholarships.  What service leaders fail to mention is that minority applicants who meet requirements for those awards are typically bombarded with scholarship offers from top schools--with no requirement for military service.  And, for a student accepting a four-year ROTC scholarship out of high school, there is no military commitment until the end of their sophomore year.  Not surprisingly, many quit the program before their service obligation begins, getting two free years of college on the taxpayers' dime.  For those who remain, the overall washout rate for the four-year scholarship program is 70%, since many can't handle the rigors of an engineering curriculum (ROTC schollys are heavily weighted towards engineering and the hard sciences).  

So, the Air Force faces a tough choice: lower academic standards (and hope some of those students make it to the cockpit, an intel billet or cyber unit, regardless of race, sexual preference or gender), or try to convince more highly-qualified minority applicants to become USAF officers.  But the odds of success for either option are decidedly slim.  It's quite likely that the Air Force secretary and chief of staff will face the same "diversity" issue in 2025 that they're facing in 2016 (and previously confronted in the 1990s).  And did we mention that the percentage of young Americans who qualify for military service is decreasing, even among those who might be competitive for a commissioning program? 

Ironically, there are more viable options for increasing diversity in the Air Force officer corps, but (so far the service hasn't shown much interest in them.  We refer to those "13-week wonders" who earn their commission through Officer Training School, the USAF version of OCS in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.  There are thousands of minority NCOs who have earned their college degree on active duty and are candidates for OTS, but most will never earn a slot in the program for various reasons.

First, there's the academic factor.  As noted previously, the Air Force has always had a preference for officers with degrees in engineering, mathematics, computer sciences, physics and similar disciplines.  Many of the NCOs who complete their bachelor's while on active duty major in business, liberal arts or other subjects that are available on-line, or through classes at the base education center.  Of course, there is a certain irony in the service's preference for technical degrees.  While no one doubts the rigor associated with an engineering, math or IT curriculum, completion of those degrees is no guarantee of success in pilot training, as a missileer, or as an intel officer.

Age can also pose a barrier.  Candidates for OTS must be commissioned by their 35th birthday, allowing them to complete 20 years of service by their 55th birthday.  And, individuals who want to be pilots must enter flight training by the age of 30.  Unfortunately, by the time most NCOs finish their degrees, they are at (or past) that age limit.  And here's the ultimate irony: Air Force OTS only commissions about 500 officers a year (roughly one-sixth of the production rate during the Reagan era) and half of the current slots are reserved for civilian applicants.  So, it's very difficult for active-duty NCOs--from the groups the USAF is targeting--to trade their stripes for a second lieutenant's bars.  Never mind that these individuals already have outstanding service records, and are more likely to make the military a career.  The existence of these obstacles make little sense if the service is truly committed to "diversity."

Expanding the OTS pool would also address issues about experience and competence among junior officers, particularly if the service selects airmen and NCOs from high-demand career fields to serve in officer positions in those same vocations.  Obviously, that won't work for pilot (the USAF only recently approved the training of enlisted drone pilots), but the enlisted-to-officer pipeline works very well in the intel career field and air battle manager, where enlisted surveillance technicians can easily make the transition to surveillance officers and weapons directors.  The Air Force would also do well to consider other possible solutions, such as a reintroduction of the warrant officer ranks, and following the lead of other services in creating limited duty officers, who provide exceptional technical expertise in various career fields.

Unfortunately, those concerns often become secondary when service secretaries, agency heads and general officers sign on for the latest diversity gambit.  The fanfare associated with the launch of such initiatives is rarely followed by the same level of enthusiasm in measuring the success (or failure) of the current scheme to increase minority representation in critical career fields.  However, there is a silver lining for members of those groups who enter the service and make it a career.  Under the new promotion systems being developed, a select number will be virtually guaranteed command slots.  That will make this latest initiative less of a outreach effort and more of a quota system.  Not that anyone at the White House or the Pentagon really cares.