Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What the AP Didn't Tell You

The AP has published a long, investigative piece on flaws in the Defense Department's system for selling surplus hardware and components. According to the wire service, these flaws have resulted in the sale of forbidden equipment to middlemen representing nations like Iran and China. In some cases, U.S. customs inspectors intervened and blocked the shipments. But in one instance, banned items actually made their way to Iran, through a Pakistani middleman.

Obviously, the sale of sensitive military components to potential foes is a cause for concern. But there's a lot the AP doesn't report in its story, or simply buries inside the article. For example, those illegal items that wound up in Iran? Parts for a Chinook transport helicopter, built more than 30 years ago. Not exactly state-of-the-art technology. And, the illegal transfer won't tip the balance of power in the Middle East--it will just allow some aging choppers to fly a little bit longer, carry a few more troops, or transport more cargo.

The AP also expresses concern that Iran might obtain parts for its fleet of U.S.-built, F-14 Tomcat fighters. Our Navy recently retired the 70s-era fighter, meaning that thousands of Tomcat components are now up for resale by the government. According to AP reporter Sharon Theimer, F-14 components have almost been sold--twice--to Iranian middlemen, and Tehran's efforts to acquire those parts are expected to intensify.

But once again, the AP dodges the obvious question: what would Iran gain (in terms of military capabilities) from limited numbers of F-14 parts? Not very much. Recent estimates indicate that no more than 6-8 of Iran's 60 original Tomcats are still flyable, and many of those lack functioning radars and other sub-systems needed for combat. Refurbishing Iran's F-14s would probably take our entire stock of surplus Tomcat components, and even then, it's doubtful that Tehran could achieve a satisfactory mission-capability rate (say, 80% of their jets flyable on a daily basis). The effects of time have also eroded Iran's ability to fix their F-14s, particularly at the depot level, where more complex overhauls are conducted. Without skilled mechanics, parts are largely worthless.

The same holds true for flying skills, and there has been a similar erosion in the tactical proficiency of Iran's F-14 crews over the past decade. As the cadre of U.S.-taught pilots and RIOs retired (or were purged), they were replaced by less-skilled crewmen, trained in country. The ability of these crews to prosecute a successful intercept against a U.S. or Israeli adversary is marginal, at best.

And, as far as the actual technology, there's not much the Chinese or Iranians could glean from F-14 components that they don't already know. After the Iranian Revolution, there were reports of a Tomcat (and Phoenix long-range air-to-air missile) making its way to the former Soviet Union, where it became the foundation for the MiG-31 Foxhound, equipped with the Flashdance radar and the AA-9 AAM. If the Iranians were trying to steal AMRAAM parts (or the black boxes for a more advanced radar), I'd be more concerned.

Clearly, we need to tighten our export and resale procedures for military surplus. But is this the crisis the AP makes it out to be? Hardly.

And one more thing: could someone tell me if the Associated Press was similarly outraged when the Clinton Administration approved the sale of satellite and ballistic missile technology to China in the mid-1990s? That little deal, engineered by Hughes and Loral, helped the PRC gain MIRV technology for its ICBMs. Now that was a scandal. And, more importantly, the next generation of Chinese road-mobile ballistic missiles--which benefitted from that transfer--are a far greater threat to our national security that a few Chinooks and F-14s in Iran.

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