Tuesday, July 31, 2007


The F-15 Eagle has the best record in the history of air-to-air combat. In 30 years of service with air forces around the world, it has (unofficially) shot down 104 enemy fighters and helicopters, with zero losses. Incidentally, those victories were registered by the U.S. Air Force, the Israeli Air Force and the Royal Saudi Air Force; the totals do not include the accidental downing of two Army Blackhawk helicopters by USAF F-15s in 1993, nor an inadvertent shoot-down of a Japanese F-15 (by another F-15J) in 1995, the result of a missile malfunction.

Obviously, the USAF hopes that the new F-22 Raptor can that surpass the Eagle's combat record, and if training exercises are any indication, then the fifth-generation fighter may be on its way. During its combat exercise "debut" last year, F-22s scored an "unprecedented" kill ratio of 144-0. Twelve Raptors (from Langley AFB, VA) participated in the drill (nicknamed "Northern Edge), which was held in Alaska.

Those numbers create the impression of an almost-invulnerable F-22--something the Air Force doesn't exactly discourage. But more recently, Langley F-22s also participated in a Red Flag exercise at Nellis AFB, Nevada, held in February of this year. The Raptors reportedly racked up an impressive kill total during simulated air combat at Red Flag, but there were also reports that "adversary air" may have scored a victory against an F-22. Aviation Week reported the event in its 5 March 2007 issue, and more recently, Air Force Times reprinted that claim.

Our own inquiry largely confirms the original Aviation Week story, which stated that the Raptor was "killed" by an adversary fighter that had been previously blasted by another F-22. Under engagement rules, "red air" fighters were required to exit the area and "regenerate" before re-entering the fight. The adversary jet did just that; an F-22 pilot apparently thought his opponent was still "dead" and paid for that mistake.

We're also told that the Raptor was definitely "killed" by a pilot from one of Nellis's Aggressor squadrons, not an F/A-18 as some have claimed. The Aggressor units, which fly F-15s and F-16s, are trained to mimic adversary tactics, providing a highly realistic "threat." Our source said the aggressor pilot described the F-22 kill as a "one in a million shot." He also confirmed the assessment of one of his colleagues (an Australian exchange pilot) who said the Raptor "denies your ability to put a weapons system on it," even when you can see it through the canopy.

Our source also tells us that the "favored" time to take a shot at the Raptor is after it exits the fight, and makes its rendezvous with the tanker. We're not sure how that squares with the ROE, but (presumably) the F-22 is less stealthy when its on/near the "boom," making it a slightly easier target. As a combat tactic, that probably wouldn't work; tanker orbits are located well behind the contested airspace (for obvious reasons), and enemy fighters would have to fight their way through other Raptor elements, in an effort to ambush F-22s while they refuel.

By our calculations, a kill ratio of 200-1 (or better) in simulated combat is pretty damn good, and the F-22 seems to be meeting its lofty expectations. But then again, if you're only buying 183 aircraft, the Raptor will have to generate some pretty impressive numbers to ensure air dominance in the decades to come.

The Funding Game

F-22 Raptor (U.S. Air Force photo)

There are two ways to kill a defense program. A sudden--and complete--cancellation, or a slow, prolonged death by under or defunding the effort over time.

While completely eliminating a program remains fairly rare, there have been several high-profile examples in recent years, including the Navy's A-12 stealth fighter (cancelled by then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney), the Army's Comanche helicopter and Crusader artillery system, and most recently, the Air Force's E-10 surveillance aircraft. Beset by cost overruns or facing an uncertain budget environment, all died sudden (and high-profile) deaths in their development process.

The other method for killing a defense program (through under-fuding or defunding the effort in future budgets) is less spectacular, but it's gaining ground on Capitol Hill. We've recently detailed Democratic efforts to gut missile defense, by reducing proposed funding for the Airborne Laser (ABL), and a proposed defense shield in Eastern Europe. While Democratic leaders did provide modest increases for some missile defense projects (notably the Navy's Aegis system, the Army Patriot PAC-3 and joint programs with Israel), their budget plan calls for cutting at least $500 million from missile defense in the FY'08 budget. Obviously, you can't sustain ABL and European defensive shield at those funding levels; without more money, the programs will eventually disappear--call it death by strangulation.

And missile defense isn't the only area targeted for under-funding. Air Force Times reports that the House Appropriations Committee has decided to strip $364 million from modernization efforts for the F-22 Raptor, redirecting the funds to pay for permanent-change-of-station (PCS) moves by Air Force personnel. Some members of Congress have expressed concern about the service's plan--announced last November--to lengthen stateside tours from 36 months to 48 months. Congressional critics believe the longer tours may hurt retention and professional development.

The committee has ordered the Air Force to review its new policy, and report to Congress by December. Diverting money from the F-22 program to the PCS account underscores Congressional interest in the issue, and affirms that the Appropriations Committee is prepared to fight.

But robbing the F-22 program to pay for PCS moves accomplishes another goal: it hinders Air Force efforts to update its state-of-the-art jet, limiting (or delaying) future upgrades. System updates are vital to any defense system, allowing them to keep pace with new technology and stay ahead of ever-evolving threats. The F-15s and F-16s that dominated the skies over Kosovo and Iraq may look like the original models that debuted in the 1970s, but virtually all were more advanced "C' and "D" variants that rolled off the assembly lines in the late 80s, with upgraded avionics, engines and weapons. There is a dramatic difference in capabilities between the C/D models and the older A/B versions, even if they're largely invisible to a casual observer.

Without system updates, the F-22 will be stuck in a technological "rut." From an operational perspective, that could allow adversaries to close the gap more rapidly, although the Raptor remains light-years ahead of the competition. In political terms, limiting system "growth" gives Congress a potential reason to curtail the program, deterring Air Force efforts to acquire additional F-22s. The service is currently slated to receive 183 Raptors, a far cry from from the 330 it would like to have.

And, the Appropriations Committee has some powerful F-22 critics in its ranks. Ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-California) has fought the Raptor for years, believing that the Air Force fighter could impact the Super Hornet and F-35 programs that directly benefit his district. Committee Chairman David Obey of Wisconsin and the Defense Appropriations Sub-Committee Chairman (Pennsylvania's Jack Murtha) have also voted against F-22 legislation in the past. Given that record, it's not surprising that the Appropriations panel raided the Raptor upgrade account to pay for PCS moves.

While the committee's decision is hardly a fatal blow for the F-22, it is a reminder that the Raptor still has influential opponents the Hill. Ultimately, we expect that Raptor upgrades will be approved, but not on the pace (or scale) preferred by the Air Force. As long as Messrs. Lewis, Obey and Murtha control the purse strings, key elements of the F-22 program will face an uphill fight in Congressional budget wars.


It's a cardinal rule in Washington, for reporters and politicians: never let yourself fall behind a scandal, story or trend.

That's why we're starting to see a "recalibration" on Iraq by members of the mainstream media, and even some Democrats in Congress. As El Rushbo detailed yesterday, a shift appears to be underway inside the Beltway, with reporters and pols saying things about Iraq that were unimaginable just a few weeks ago. Look for more to join their ranks in the coming weeks, ahead of the September report by our top ground commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus.

Obviously, this doesn't mean that Congressional Democrats and the chattering class are going to suddenly endorse the war effort, or proclaim that George W. Bush was right all along. Instead, this recalibration is designed to preserve credibility for the MSM (or more correctly, what little credibility they have left), and provide some maneuvering room for Democratic politicians.

In other words, they've seen the hand-writing on the wall. After proclaiming the troop surge a failure, they're now confronted by a new reality: the strategy is actually working, creating a strong case for continuing the effort into 2008, and (possibly) beyond. Making matters worse, evidence of the strategy's effectiveness was detailed in both The New York Times and the Washington Post--in less than a week.

The Times op-ed, written by two analysts from the liberal Brookings Institution, proclaimed that "we are finally getting somewhere in Iraq," while the Post highlighted the growing numbers of Iraqis who are joining security forces and fighting terrorists. General Petraeus describes this as "the most significant trend" in Iraq over the last four months or so.

Gains described by the Times and Post are likely to find their way into Petraeus's upcoming report, so that puts the MSM (and their Democratic friends) in a difficult position. Unable to refute the evidence that General Petraeus will offer, they're staking out a "modified" position, moving away from their early proclamations about the "failure" of the surge. Little wonder than panelists on Chris Matthews' weekend show--all card-carrying members of the establishment media--were discussing why the U.S. shouldn't leave Iraq too soon (H/T: Newsbusters).

Then, there's this little item from today's edition of the Post, suggesting a similar shift among some Congressional Democrats. Interviewed during one of the paper's webcasts, House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina said that a strongly positive report on progress on Iraq by General David Petraeus likely would split Democrats in the House and impede his party's efforts to press for a timetable to end the war. And, in a rare display of full political disclosure, Clyburn said that a generally positive report would be "a real big problem for us." He also urged House Democrats to "wait for the Petraeus report" before charting their next move in the battle over Iraq strategy.

Congressman Clyburn's comments are a thinly-veiled warning to other members of the Democratic Caucus and party activists who've been pushing for a rapid U.S. retreat from Iraq. He indicates that a positive report from Petraeus might cause members of the "Blue Dog" caucus to jump ship, making it virtually impossible to pass legislation aimed at reducing troop levels, or defunding the war effort. In the mean time, he's urging his party's anti-war wing (in other words, the majority of Democrats) to keep quiet, and avoid bucking possible evolutions in their "official" policy.

It's hard to imagine that most voters would accept--let alone, endorse--a sudden "change of heart" on Iraq by the Democrats and their cohorts in the MSM. But that will happen (and only reluctantly), if the present, positive trends continue. In the interim, a few reporters and Democratic politicians are trying to have it both ways, getting out in front of an potentially positive report by General Petraeus, while reserving the right to jump back on the anti-war bandwagon if conditions again erode. It's a particularly odious form of recalibration, but it's how media types (and some politicians) try to keep themselves ahead of the curve.


ADDENDUM: So far, none of the Democratic presidential candidates have followed Clyburn's lead, but it will be interesting to watch their Iraq rhetoric in the run-up to the Petraeus report. As Rush (and others) postulated yesterday, a more "modulated" Democratic position would benefit Hillary, giving her some separation from rivals who've proclaimed their perpetual opposition to the war. That may be true, but Mrs. Clinton still has to reconcile her original vote for the war, and more recent calls to abandon the successful troop surge.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Flanker Deal?

SU-30 Flanker

According to the Jerusalem Post, Israeli intelligence is investigating reports of a pending arms deal between Iran and Russia. If those reports prove accurate, then Tehran may be negotiating the purchase of up to 250 SU-30 Flanker strike fighters from Moscow. It would represent the largest arms deal in Iranian history, and provide enough airframes to replace Iran's existing inventory of U.S.-made F-4s, F-5s and F-14s, as well as Russian-built SU-24s.

As we've noted before, the Iranian Air Force is in serious need of new aircraft. Largely due to crew availability, the 30-year-old F-4 remains Iran's primary front-line fighter, supplanted by smaller numbers of F-14s, F-5s and Russian MiG-29s. But Tehran's entire fighter fleet suffers from serious maintenance and parts problems, restricting operational readiness.

For example, Iran is now the world's only operator of the venerable F-14 Tomcat, and recent steps by the U.S. have further curtailed parts availability, even on the black market. Countries that still fly the F-4 and F-5 are also retiring those airframes, meaning that parts for those jets are increasingly scarce as well. The MiG-29 is much newer, but unlike American manufacturers, Russian aviation firms don't include a comprehensive support package as part of the deal. Parts and maintenance are "extras," and Iran's relatively low mission-capability rates for its MiG-29s suggests that Tehran (predictably) scrimped when it acquired those Fulcrums.

Beyond that, there's the issue of who will actually fix the jets once they join the inventory. Iran's cadre of experienced F-4, F-5 and F-14 mechanics are reaching retirement age, or they were purged by the clerics years ago. While fourth-generation jets (like the SU-30) are easier to maintain, it takes mechanics and crew chiefs a while to become proficient on their new aircraft. Support from the manufacturer (Sukhoi) could certainly ease that transition, but that level of assistance comes at a price--one that Iran has refused to pay in the past.

That's why we're a bit skeptical of the reported arms deal. Buying 250 Flankers, even over a period of time, is an expensive proposition. And despite high oil prices, Iran's economy is under a severe strain right now, making it even less likely that Tehran will commit--let alone, follow through, on an arms deal worth $75-$100 billion, dwarfing the combined value of of the recently-announced U.S.-Saudi arms deal and projected military support to Israel over the next 10 years.

The leak of this Israeli intelligence inquiry is hardly surprising, given Tel Aviv's concerns about the Saudi arms purchase. By highlighting the reported purchase, Israel could pressure the U.S. to provide additional military aid in the years to come. The long-range SU-30 poses a potential threat to Israel, particularly if IL-78 Midas tankers are part of the package.

But that poses another challenge for Iran. Developing even a modest, long-range strike capability against Israel will require months (even years) of training after the Flankers and tankers arrive in country. At the present time, long-distance training flights (with air refueling) remain exceptionally rare in the Iranian Air Force, suggesting that tactical capabilities in that area are low to non-existent.

Additionally, there's the question of when Russia might be able to deliver the jets. At the recent Paris Air Show, a Sukhoi rep told reporters that his company has orders for 242 SU-30MKs, scheduled for delivery to India, Algeria and Algeria through 2014. The MK is the basic "export" version of the two-seat Flanker strike variant. India and China are actually purchasing upgraded models (the MKI and MKK variants, respectively) and Beijing's purchase was not included in the figure cited by Sukhoi. However, it is worth noting that both the Indian and Chinese programs have lagged behind schedule. Biarring a major ramp-up of Flanker production, Iran might have to wait in line for its aircraft.

We're not saying that SU-30s won't eventually show up in Iran (although Iran has a long history of backing out of arms deals). But the sheer economics of the purchase, coupled with training, logistics and facilities requirements, makes the scale of the deal unlikely. The eventual size--and price tag--for Iran's Flanker deal should be much smaller than originally advertised.


ADDENDUM: Assuming that Iran actually buys a few squadrons of SU-30s, they will pose a much greater (and immediate) threat to U.S. allies and bases in the Persian Gulf, not to mention tanker traffic that uses that key waterway. SU-30 variant are designed to deliver advanced anti-ship missiles, which would (likely) be a key part of any Iranian purchase.

Ookie's Stoolie

By any standard, NFL star Michael "Ookie" Vick has had an extraordinarily bad week. Arraigned last Thursday on federal charges relating, to his alleged role in a dog-fighting ring. Told to stay away from Falcons' training camp by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell--a possible prelude to a season-long suspension. Endorsement deals on hold, with Nike delaying the launch of its latest Vick sneaker, and Rival Reebok taking his number 7 jersey off the shelves, at least for now.

And, if that weren't bad enough, the media hounds from PETA reinforced Vick's "new" image as a heartless thug, with a series of high-profile demonstrations outside NFL Headquarters and the Falcons' training complex. A minor-league baseball team in California took public condemnation a step further, holding a "dog day" at their stadium, and inviting pet lovers to dump their pet poop in a special container, covered by a Vick jersey.

After all that, Vick had to reassure himself: it couldn't get any worse.

Guess again.

This morning, the quarterback's key associate in the dog-fighting operation, one Tony Taylor, entered a guilty plea to dog-fighting charges in a federal court in Richmond, Virginia. Taylor claims that he was not promised a specific sentence, in exchange for his cooperation with the government.

Yeah, right.

According to court records, Taylor was one of Vick's earliest associates in the dog-fighting ring. It was Taylor who located the property in Surry County where "Bad Newz Kennels" was eventually built, and dog fights were held. It was Taylor who allegedly executed two dogs (with Vick's concurrence) in 2002, not long after the kennels opened. Obviously, Mr. Taylor knows a lot about what transpired at Vick's former property, and during out-of-state fights as well. That's a big reason the feds offered him a deal and (facing up to five years in prison), Taylor was happy to accept the offer. Mr. Taylor's sentencing is set late December, one month after Vick's scheduled trial.

Despite a double-whammy of indictments and bad publicity, Vick still has a chance to win his case. He's hired a very skilled legal shark (Billy Martin, the same attorney who once represented Monica Lewinsky), and there are signs that Team Vick will likely play the race card. Earlier today, leaders of the Atlanta and Georgia chapters of the NAACP held a press conference, urging "restraint" in judging Vick before his day in court. Pro-Vick demonstrations were held over the weekend in his hometown of Newport News, Virginia, and outside Falcons' training camp.

Clearly, there's no evidence that Mr. Martin or Michael Vick encouraged the NAACP to hold that press event, but they certainly didn't object. These "friendly reminders" will likely continue in the coming months, in obvious effort to influence public opinion--and potential jurors.

Vick also has an advantage in the trial's location (Richmond), where there are plenty of Virginia Tech fans in the jury pool. While many Tech supporters are outraged by the charges against their former star, others remember Vick as the quarterback who took them to the national championship game. Fans in that category may be more forgiving to Vick, and willing to listen to Mr. Martin's defense.

While authorities discovered ample evidence on Vick's property, the case will likely come down to the credibility of the Falcons' quarterback, versus that of his accusers. Taylor and the "cooperating witnesses" named in the original indictment have clear reasons for talking. All were apparently involved in dog-fighting themselves, giving Mr. Martin an opening to attack their character and veracity. Additionally, Vick's counsel will remind jurors that his client was absent when many of the fights occurred in Surry County, to further undermine the prosecution's case.

An attorney friend of mine, who practices in Virginia, believes that odds of a conviction are 70-30 right now, with Vick on the short end of the stick. But, as he notes, it's a long time before the trial actually begins, and Martin is in the early stages of plotting a defense. A lot could happen between now and December, he observed. "Remember," he said, "a lot of us thought O.J. was a slam dunk back in 1995."

And we remember what happened when that verdict was announced. A plea deal for Tony Taylor is certainly bad news for Michael Vick, but he's still a long way from being convicted.

Sloppy Science

Kudos to NOAA, for its sharp critique of a new British study, which claims that the number of tropical storms in the Atlantic has doubled over the past century, the result of (surprise, surprise) global warming.

As the AP reports:

The increases coincided with rising sea surface temperature, largely the byproduct of human-induced climate warming, researchers Greg J. Holland and Peter J. Webster concluded. Their findings were being published online Sunday by Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.


From 1905 to 1930, the Atlantic-Gulf Coast area averaged six tropical cyclones per year, with four of those storms growing into become hurricanes.

The annual average jumped to 10 tropical storms and five hurricanes from 1931 to 1994. From 1995 to 2005, the average was 15 tropical storms and eight hurricanes annually.

Even in 2006, widely reported as a mild year, there were 10 tropical storms

We are currently in an upward swing in frequency of named storms and hurricanes that has not stabilized," said Holland, director of mesoscale and microscale meteorology at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

"I really do not know how much further, if any, that it will go, but my sense is that we shall see a stabilization in frequencies for a while, followed by potentially another upward swing if global warming continues unabated," Holland said.

But NOAA (which runs the National Hurricane Center) has another explanation for the increase: better technology--namely satellites--which allows detection of storms that would have gone unreported in years past.

Chris Landsea, science and operations officer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Hurricane Center, said the study is inconsistent in its use of data.

The work, he said, is "sloppy science that neglects the fact that better monitoring by satellites allows us to observe storms and hurricanes that were simply missed earlier. The doubling in the number of storms and hurricanes in 100 years that they found in their paper is just an artifact of technology, not climate change."

And there is empirical evidence to back NOAA's theory. Hurricaneville.com has compiled yearly storm totals for the Atlantic basin (dating back to 1851) based on a variety of data sources. Their tally reveals clear fluctuations in hurricane activity, a pattern one that has also been suggested by several experts, including Dr. William Gray of Colorado State University. In a 2005 interview with James Glassman of TechCentralStation.com, Dr. Gray noted some obvious holes in the theory linking global warming to increased hurricane activity:

Glassman: And from a seasonal, monthly point of view, you had been predicting a growing number of hurricanes. Now, my question is in the wake of Katrina and some of the statements that we’ve heard immediately afterwards by advocates of the global warming theory – is global warming behind this increase in hurricanes?

Gray: I am very confident that it’s not. I mean we have had global warming. That’s not a question. The globe has warmed the last 30 years, and the last 10 years in particular. And we’ve had, at least the last 10 years, we’ve had a pick up in the Atlantic basin major storms. But in the earlier period, if we go back from 1970 through the middle ‘90s, that 25 year period – even though the globe was warming slightly, the number of major storms was down, quite a bit down.

Now, another feature of this is that the Atlantic operates differently. The other global storm basins, the Atlantic only has about 12 percent of the global storms. And in the other basins, the last 10 years – even though the Atlantic major storm activity has gone up greatly the last 10 years. In the other global basins, it’s slightly gone down. You know, both frequency and strength of storms have not changed in these other basins. If anything, they’ve slightly gone down. So if this was a global warming thing, you would think, “Well gee, all of the basins should be responding much the same.”

Glassman: You’re familiar with what your colleagues believe. Do you think many hurricane experts would take a different point of view, and would say, “Oh, it’s global warming that’s causing hurricanes?”

Gray: No. All my colleagues that have been around a long time – I think if you go to ask the last four or five directors of the national hurricane center – we all don’t think this is human-induced global warming. And, the people that say that it is are usually those that know very little about hurricanes. I mean, there’s almost an equation you can write the degree to which you believe global warming is causing major hurricanes to increase is inversely proportional to your knowledge about these storms.

In his discussion with Mr. Glassman, Gray also noted the relationship between global warming theory and meteorological research grants:

"You know, most of meteorological research is funded by the federal government. And boy, if you want to get federal funding, you better not come out and say human-induced global warming is a hoax because you stand the chance of not getting funded."

As we've noted before, Dr. Gray's annual hurricane forecasts are accepted as the holy grail, but the MSM rarely print his views on global warming, despite his eminent credentials as a climatologist. In the wake of the British study, it's doubtful that reporters will beat a path to his door, since his assessment challenges the global warming "consensus."


ADDENDUM: For anyone interested in this topic, we highly recommend Dr. Gray's PowerPoint presentation on hurricanes and global warming, available at the CSU Tropical Meteorology Project website. In his briefing, Dr. Gray notes that hurricane activity has actually increased during periods of global cooling, refuting the purported link between greenhouse gases and more intense tropical storms. He also notes that many of the "experts" in this area--the so-called "Gang of Five" lack prior experience in tropical meteorology, another fact that's often ignored by Al Gore and his ilk. To download Dr. Gray's brief, follow the link in the upper left-hand corner.

Tom Snyder, R.I.P.

Tom Snyder, 1936-2007

From San Francisco comes the sad news that former TV talk show host (and local news legend) Tom Snyder has died at the age of 71. Snyder, who retired from CBS's "The Late, Late Show" in 1999, had been battling leukemia for the past two years.

Snyder will be best remembered for The Tomorrow Show, which aired on NBC from 1973 until 1982. It was NBC's first serious attempt to "program" the slot after Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and Snyder's talk show was an immediate sensation. Patterned loosely on Edward R. Murrow's Person-to-Person broadcasts from the late 1950s, Tomorrow featured Snyder chatting with another person or a small group of guests, his face framed by a wreath of cigarette smoke against a black backdrop.

The show's interview subjects ranged from memorable (John Lennon taped his final TV interview with Snyder in 1975; it was replayed after his murder in 1980); to informative (a 1979 chat with Ayn Rand comes to mind), and even bizarre. During an early appearance on the show, Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl brought along a tank of helium, allowing him to answer Snyder's questions in a strange, squeaky voice, a result of the gas's effect on his vocal cords. Eventually, the host decided to have a snort himself, and the rest of the interview was conducted under the influence of helium.

But the real highlight of Tomorrow was Snyder's opening monologue, a brief recap of how the host spent his day, or an observation on something that caught his attention. Snyder did it without notes or cue cards; night after night, he simply looked into that camera and told a story or an anecdote, with frequent asides to members of the studio crew, punctuated by his trademark, booming laugh. I remember a journalism professor of mine citing Snyder as an example of an extraordinarily effective communicator--which, of course, he was. Watching the monologue on Tomorrow was like listening to an old friend, a personal experience shared by millions of viewers.

Indeed, one of the "knocks" against Snyder was that he made it look easy--too easy, in the minds of some NBC executives. While Snyder filled in on various network programs (and even anchored NBC's Sunday night news in the mid-1970s), his ease at chatting with celebrities made him, in their view, unsuitable for the top reporting job, anchoring the weeknight edition of Nightly News. That position, of course, eventually went to Tom Brokaw, who worked with Snyder at KNBC, the network-owned station in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Brokaw anchored KNBC's 6 p.m. newscast (until he became the network's White House correspondent); Snyder helmed the more successful 11 p.m. broadcast.

While some at NBC doubted Snyder's ability as a network newsman, no one questioned his skills as a local anchor. He catapulted KNBC to the top of the local rantings, which prompted the network to offer him the Tomorrow show. In 1976, NBC moved Mr. Snyder and his program to New York, ostensibly to take advantage of guests and events available in that city.

In reality, the network sent Mr. Snyder to the Big Apple to resurrect the moribund newscasts on its flagship station, WNBC. When Snyder assumed the local anchor chair, the station had "hash marks" in the ratings book--no measurable audience. Within a year WNBC had eclipsed WABC as #1 in New York, during the heyday of the Eyewitness News format on the ABC station.

Snyder eventually left the local news and continued with Tomorrow until 1982, when the show was cancelled. Toward the end, ratings for the program slipped, and NBC forced changes in the format, including the addition of a co-host (gossip columnist Rona Barrett) and a studio audience. Snyder resented the changes, and let his frustrations be known. When Tomorrow ended, NBC sent him packing; years of battles between the host and executives left him with no options at the network, or in its news division.

Over the final decades of his career, Mr. Snyder worked as a local news anchor in New York (at WABC), a Los Angeles TV talk show host (at KABC), and as a syndicated host for ABC radio. When the radio program ended in 1992, Roger Ailes brought Snyder back to TV, hosting an evening talk show on CNBC, the cable channel that Mr. Alies then headed. The success of that program--nicknamed the Colorcast--led to Mr. Snyder's return to late-night, network TV, this time on CBS, in the time slot following David Letterman.

There was an irony in that pairing, because NBC had cancelled Tomorrow to make way for Letterman's first late night talk program. Despite that, Letterman was a fan of Snyder's, and with approval authority for who would occupy the 12:30 time slot, he selected the former Tomorrow host. Unlike the CNBC program, Snyder's CBS show never attracted a substantial audience, and he left the program after only three years.

I haven't checked, but YouTube probably has clips from the Tomorrow program, showcasing Tom Snyder at his best. Not just the offbeat stuff (like an infamous encounter with the rock group KISS), but moments that were absolutely riveting, namely a jail house interview with mass murderer Charles Manson. Mr. Snyder's effortless ability to mix the serious (and not-so-serious) made him a broadcast icon, proving that there was life after midnight (at least on the television dial), as those pictures went flying through the air.


Friday, July 27, 2007

Bound to Happen

Viewers of tonight's "Fox Report" saw something fairly rare, at least among broadcast journalists who presume to "give it to us straight."

During the second half-hour of the broadcast, anchor Shepard Smith pitched a mini, on-air"fit" at viewers. Apparently, a number had suggested that the tragic, mid-air collision of two Phoenix TV news choppers was inevitable, given the hyper-competitive nature of the business, and the rush by local stations to acquire (and "brand") their helicopters.

Mr. Smith suggested that viewers don't understand the nature of television news and the people who work in that industry. They're sent out on a job, he explained, and the choppers are a useful tool, providing aerial shots of breaking news. According to Smith (and local reports from Phoenix), the suspect being trailed by the helicopters instigated a one-man crime wave, holding police at bay for hours after the car chase. If you don't understand that, he told his audience, perhaps you shouldn't watch the news.

Mr. Smith's snarky, slightly condescending reaction wasn't really surprising. As a local reporter in Florida, he spent more than a few hours in news choppers, in pursuit of a story. Before arriving at Fox, Smith worked at WSVN, the network's affiliate in Miami, where a news director named Joel Cheatwood made a name for himself--and his station--with a frenetic style of coverage built around "breaking" news, accentuated with plenty of helicopter coverage. It was an approach that has been both widely imitated--and condemned--in broadcast circles, and the influence of that "model" was on display in Phoenix yesterday.

While our condolences go out to the newsrooms and families that lost loved ones in the Phoenix disaster, the viewers that upset Mr. Smith have a valid point--one that should not be ignored by TV news executives and station owners. The seeds of today's crash were sown years ago, and sadly, something like this was bound to happen.

Once upon a time, choppers were something of a novelty in television news. An independent station in Los Angeles pioneered the technology in the 1960s, then eventually sold the chopper to rival KNBC. But the number of TV news helicopters remained relatively small until the 80s and early 90s, when station managers, news directors and broadcast consultants discovered ratings gold in aerial coverage.

The trend began (not surprisingly) in Southern California, where local stations began using their choppers to cover police chases on local freeways. Never mind that the stories were often insignificant; audience shares actually increased during live coverage of police pursuits, and stations that ignored them inevitably lost viewers. With money and jobs on the line, few broadcast outlets were willing to buck the trend. Get your own chopper, and get it in the air.

But for what? According to press reports, there were no less than five TV news helicopters in the skies over Phoenix on Friday. The suspect in the high-speed chase certainly attracted media attention, but law enforcement had the situation under control. But those compelling aerial shots--and the promise of higher ratings--sent everyone scrambling to their helicopters. The choppers from the local ABC affiliate and independent station KTVK were maneuvering for their shots when they collided. Four persons--two pilots and two videographers--died in pursuit of a story that became major news largely because of TV coverage, and the ensuring tragedy.

As a result of Friday's crash, there should be a moment of introspection and reflection in the news business. Phoenix isn't the only media market with dueling choppers, and the same sort of disaster could easily happen in other cities, unless the FAA--and broadcasters--step in, and develop new safety guidelines for helicopter coverage.

And, oddly enough, there is a simple solution for the problem. If local stations decide they really need aerial coverage, they can develop a helicopter "pool," with each outlet sharing the same pictures from a single chopper. Broadcasters already use this approach for covering events where the number of cameras and reporters are restricted. There's little reason that a helicopter pool couldn't work in most markets.

But that brings us back to the "branding" concept, a term once reserved for marketing toothpaste and soap, not the day's news. In an era of shrinking audiences for networks and local stations, broadcasters are looking for any competitive advantage they can find. That's why they're willing to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in hardware like satellite trucks and helicopters, so viewers will know that the EyewitnessActionNewsChannel is overhead with pictures of the latest house fire, or fatal wreck on the expressway.

It's one thing to send journalists into a combat zone to cover a war, with the understanding that they might be killed. It's quite another to send pilots and cameramen out in breathless pursuit of a highway chase, or something else that floats in over the police scanner. Journalists should mourn the passing of their colleagues in Phoenix, but they should also ask themselves a serious question: Was it really worth it, and (without necessary reforms), how long will it be before it happens again?

Sadly, that moment of reflection will last until the next ratings book, the arrival of a next news director, or that next, urgent transmission on the police frequency. That's the deplorable nature of local TV news in the 21st Century, and that's one reason that four men died in a mad scramble over Phoenix.

Today's Reading Assignment

Caroline Glick of The Jerusalem Post, on Israel's efforts to work with Arab "moderates" in deterring Iran. One year after the war with Hizballah, she puts the score at "Iran 2, Israel 0."

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Back on Track

We recently chastised Ralph Peters for his take on the generals who've led the War in Iraq, figuring that his assessment was about Half Right.

Happily, Lieutenant Colonel Peters is back on his game today, with a superb New York Post column entitled "Winning in Iraq--and Losing in Washington."

As he observes, our military forces have made substantial progress on the ground in recent months, but politicians (of both parties) treat that as an inconvenience. Programmed for defeat, they're trying desperately to force a withdrawal and defeat the surge strategy, once and for all.

Peters ticks off an impressive list of recent successes by both U.S. troops and their Iraqi counter-parts. Yet in each case, these developments have--predictably--gone unreported or under-reported. And virtually no politician is touting these victories, either.

The last line of his op-ed says it best: perhaps the next presidential debate should be held in Baghdad.

Scott Thomas Steps Forward

We now have a name for The New Republic's infamous "Baghdad Diarist,"

Barely a week after publication of his latest essay, which detailed atrocious behavior among U.S. troops in Baghdad, the diarist identified himself as "Private Scott Thomas Beauchamp, a member of Alpha Company, 1/18 Infantry, Second Brigade Combat Team, First Infantry Division." Private Beauchamp revealed his name and unit in an e-mail to the magazine, which was published on its website.

During his tour in Iraq, Beauchamp has written three essays for TNR (under the pseudonym "Scott Thomas"), providing what he calls as "my discreet view of the war." Private Beauchamp apparently decided to come clean after his latest dispatch, entitled "Shock Troops" stunned and angered readers with its account of American soldiers behaving badly. In one vignette, Beauchamp described soldiers making fun of a female contractor whose face had been disfigured in an IED blast. The incident reportedly took place in the dining hall at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Falcon, in southern Baghdad.

Beauchamp's essay also detailed other examples of unprofessional conduct. He described the driver of a Bradley fighting vehicle driving over concrete barriers and deliberately running down Iraqi dogs. The Private also reported that a member of his unit unearthed a skull from a mass grave, and wore it under his helmet.

Those items have been widely challenged by Michael Goldfarb of The Weekly Standard, members of the conservative blogosphere, and Army spokesmen. Simply stated, the claims of Beauchamp/Thomas just don't add up. As others have noted, the driver of a Bradley sits on the left side of the vehicle; even with his head outside the hatch, his view of movement on the right side of the "track"--say a dog in the road--is severely constrained. Several milbloggers have noted the near impossibility of a Bradley driver being able to spot--and swerve--the armored vehicle to run down a dog. Additionally, deliberately driving a Bradley over a concrete barrier typically damages the vehicle, which means paperwork, investigations and (likely) punishment for the offending driver.

Similar doubts exist about that woman in the mess hall at FOB Falcon. Army personnel who have served at that post over the last six months cannot remember seeing a woman with gruesome facial wounds in the dining facilities. In fact, the number of female contractors in Iraq remains rather small, and no one can remember seeing the woman described by Beauchamp at any U.S. base in the Baghdad area.

Finally, the "mass grave" that provided the "skull cap" worn by one of Beauchamp's buddies was actually a former children's cemetery. A contractor who worked at Falcon told Goldfarb about the cemetery, and reports that all remains unearthed during a construction project were handled responsibly. Beyond that, there's the issue of how the soldier actually got the skull under his Army-issue helmet.

Making matters worse (at least, for Private Beauchamp), Bob Owens at Confederate Yankee has been fact-checking the author's earlier essays, and finds equally dubious claims in those submissions. In one piece, the writer expresses concerns about having to change a tire in streets flowing with raw sewage. Never mind that the Army's primary wheeled vehicles in Iraq, the HUMVEE and Stryker assault vehicles, are equipped with "run flat" tires, allowing the crews to drive for miles--to the nearest FOB--before dismounting and replacing the tire. Owens also discovered a major error in Beauchamp's description of the guns and ammunition used by Iraqi police and insurgents.

So far, neither Private Beauchamp--nor the editors at TNR--are offering additional details to corroborate his claims. And, as Scott Johnson at Powerline observes, the latest editorial note from the magazine does not include their earlier statement about communicating with soldiers who have done much to corroborate the events recounted by Beauchamp." Indeed, the magazine's interim conclusion on the veracity of his claims--"Thus far we've found nothing to disprove the facts in the article"--sounds suspiciously like Mary Mapes' defense of that bogus 60 Minutes II piece on President Bush's Air National Guard service. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

As for Thomas/Beauchamp, he's attacking his detractors:

It's been maddening, to say the least, to see the plausibility of events that I witnessed questioned by people who have never served in Iraq.

That's a canard, and Beauchamp knows it. The most stinging criticism of his work has come from Iraq veterans, or from bloggers with extensive military experience. Collectively, they've put Private Beauchamp in the difficult position of having to explain scandalous events that (so far) don't hold up to serious scrutiny.


ADDENDUM: Michelle Malkin & Co. have been doing some digging on Private Beauchamp. One intriguging tidbit comes from another solider, who looked up Beauchamp in a secure, Army database. As he told Ms. Malkin:

I’m active Army & an Iraq vet.

I just pulled up “Scott Thomas Beauchamp” on the secure “Army Knowledge Online” website. It lists his current rank as “PV2″. (That data is kept accurate via pay records on that website.)

In his Sep 06 blog post he listed his rank as “Private First Class”. That indicates that without a doubt he was busted at least one rank as part of Article 15 proceedings under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and he likely has a strong ax to grind with his chain of command.

If Beauchamp did lose a stripe for some offense (as part of an Article 15 proceeding), that certainly casts his "attitude" and "writings" in a completely different light.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Adventures in Defense Acquisition (Airlift Edition)

C-17 Globemaster III (U.S. Air Force image)

Three members of the Senate claim that the Pentagon may have violated acquisition rules, by encouraging Boeing to order additional parts for its C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft, in anticipation of future orders.

In a recent letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Senators John McCain of Arizona, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Tom Carper of Delaware questioned whether Boeing's decision was prompted by Air Force suggestions that it will buy more C-17s.

According to an AP report (posted at Forbes.com), the aircraft manufacturer confirmed on Tuesday that it has restarted its C-17 production line, but not on assurances of additional Air Force orders. Boeing is under contract to build 190 Globemaster IIIs, with the last delivery now scheduled for 2009.

A Boeing spokesman said the company made the decision entirely on its own, "based on strong bipartisan congressional support for continued C-17 procurement last year and again this spring, and on congressional testimony by Air Force officials that they would consider procuring 30 additional C-17s, if Congress allowed the Air Force to retire a number of older, unreliable C-5s."

And that brings us to an rather interesting side-bar on the C-17, which may explains the real motivation behind that letter to Mr. Gates. Look a little closer, and you'll see lots of personal (and local) politics in that missive to the SecDef.

Let's begin with John McCain. His animus toward Boeing (and Pentagon acquisition officials) is well-documented, dating back to the Darlene Druyun scandal. Ms. Druyun, the Air Force's former top civilian contracting officer, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges, after approving a higher price in Boeing's KC-767 tanker bid, and arranging employment with the defense contractor for herself and other family members. Druyun was sentenced to nine months in prison and has since been released. Simply stated, Senator McCain doesn't trust Boeing, and routinely questions bids and proposals submitted by the defense contractor. We're guessing that it didn't take much to convince McCain to sign that letter.

As for Senators Kennedy and Carper, their interests are a bit more parochial. You'll note that potential orders for more C-17 hinge on the Air Force being able to retire older C-5 transports with poor maintenance and operational records--described by the service as the "worst actors" in the fleet.

Let's see, name two Democratic Senators with C-5 units in their home states. (Cue the "Final Jeopardy" music). If you guessed Kennedy and Carper, give youself a gold star and move to the head of the acquisition class.

Delaware is the home of Dover AFB, one of the service's most important mobility hubs, and an obvious priority for Senator Carper. Dover has both an active duty airlift wing (the 436th, which is transitioning to the C-17) and a reserve unit (the 512th Airlift Wing), which will operate both C-5 and C-17 aircraft. Under that plan, a total of 18 C-5s are scheduled to remain at Dover; the proposed retirement of additional Galaxy airframes could spell a funding decrease at Dover, and the loss of additional jobs. No wonder Senator Carper is upset.

Ditto for Ted Kennedy. The Air Force Reserve also has a C-5 unit at the Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts (the 439th Airlift Wing), which operates and maintains 16 of the massive airlifters. Additionally, the Air Force recently selected Westover as the national maintenance and inspection center for all C-5 aircraft assigned to reserve units. That means more defense dollars for the base, lots of high-paying civilian jobs for the Westover community, and increased revenue in the local economy. Retirement of poorly-performing C-5s--mostly among reserve units--would be a major blow for one of Kennedy's favorite military installations.

Naturally, you won't read anything about the pet projects of personal whims of the three senators in stories about their correspondence to Mr. Gates. But rest assured: John McCain's dislike of Boeing played a role in the letter, as did the desire of Tom Carper and Ted Kennedy to protect C-5 units in their home states.

Meanwhile, the Air Force--and the rest of our military--could really use 30 additional C-17s to meet current operational and airlift missions. But getting those airframes means retiring poorly-performing C-5s, and that promises to be a tall order, given John McCain's suspicion of Boeing, and the efforts of Senators Carper and Kennedy to preserve C-5s, and the jobs that go with them.

We'll go out on a limb, and predict that this "problem" will be solved if the Air Force promises to "split" the additional C-17s between Dover and Westover. That won't necessarily placate Senator McCain, but we're guessing that the opposition of Kennedy and Carper will suddenly disappear, in a flood of new aircraft, more jobs, and lots of military construction dollars.

Boobs on Display (Figuratively and Otherwise)

According to a new Pew Research survey, only 49% of Americans believe that military strength ensures peace, the lowest total in the 20 years the survey has been conducted.

Actually, the survey results might be better couched in these terms: a majority of Democrats don't believe that a strong military helps preserve the peace. Only 40% of Democratic respondents believe that military strength ensures peace, down from 55% in 2002. The Pew researchers note that Republican support for that statement has fluctuated little over the past four years; 72% of Republicans agree with that statement, a number unchanged from the 2003 survey, and up slightly from the 2002 total (69%).

That's rather remarkable, given the steady drumbeat of "bad news" from Iraq in recent years, and steady criticism of both the U.S. military and Bush Administration policies. Unfortunately, continuing GOP support for "peace through strength" doesn't offset the corresponding decline among Democrats and so-called Independents. According to the survey, the number of Democrats who agree with that position has dropped 16 points over the last decade, with an eight percent drop among independent voters.

Source: Pew Research Center

We've often wondered how the party of FDR, Harry Truman, Scoop Jackson, John Stennis and Carl Vinson morphed into a movement that is solidly anti-military. Then, we stumbled across this post by John Hinderaker at Powerline, which nicely captures the (ahem) profile of today's Democratic Party, or at least the activists who provide donations and marching orders to Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and the rest of the bunch.

We're referring, of course, to the radical left kook fringe, exemplified by Code Pink and their sisters-in-the-cause, "Breasts Not Bombs." Perhaps we lead a sheltered life, but we'd never heard of that latter group until they invaded a party at Hillary Clinton's new campaign office in San Francisco on Monday evening, along with Code Pink. As you might imagine, the gals from those groups are thoroughly dissatisfied with Hillary's "timid" cut-and-run strategy for Iraq; they protested by unfurling an anti-Clinton banner, while members of the "breast" brigade doffed their tops.

In the interest of public decency (and readers who lack strong stomachs), we won't provide a direct link to the protest photos. Needless to say, the talent scouts from Maxim won't be calling anytime soon, and the "ladies" from Code Pink and BNB apparently haven't learned that "less" is sometimes more.

However, we do offer a tip of the hat to Zombie, who frequently records Moonbat Moments of Madness in the Bay Area. Zombie deserves combat pay, and a special nod for that photo of the gas-guzzling van used by those "activists" to get to the protest site.

Meanwhile, Back at Bushehr

Iran's nuclear power plant at Bushehr (Reuters)

A few months ago, we noted a rift between Iran and Russia over the nuclear power plant at Bushehr, which is being built by Russian contractors. In March of this year, Russian spokesman announced that the reactor's start-up date (then scheduled for September) would be delayed, due to payment issues with Iran.

According to the Russian firm in charge of the project, Tehran was paying only a "fraction" of the $25 million monthly bill, forcing contractors to slow work on the facility, and delay fueling of the reactor. Iran claimed that it was making the required payments on the $1 billion project, and blamed the impasse on western pressure, directed at Russian involvement in Tehran's nuclear program.

Flash forward five months, and it looks like the Bushehr complex remains stuck on the slow track. A Reuters report from Moscow indicates that Tehran remains behind in its payments, and the reactor won't be finished until Autumn 2008 (at the earliest), one year behind schedule. An earlier round of high-level talks apparently failed to resolve the dispute, and another Iranian team is currently in Moscow, negotiating with Russian contractors.

We're not surprised that Russia is still having problems with its partner, given Tehran's long history of slow, incomplete or non-existent payments on high-profile projects. In some cases, the payment problems can be traced to a dissatisfied cleric or bureaucrat, whose palm wasn't sufficiently greased in arranging the deal. Or, the Iranians may believe that Russia has too much invested in the Bushehr project, allowing them to put the squeeze on Moscow, and obtain a finished, fueled and operating reactor for less than the negotiated price.

Iran's economic woes may be another reason for the limited payments. The economy is in such shambles that the Tehran government imposed gas rationing last month--in the world's #2 oil-exporting nation. That move prompted riots across the country, and millions of Iranians are also upset about recent hikes in food and housing prices. They view the government as woefully inefficient and corrupt; in return, the ruling mullahs (and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) have attempted to increase subsidies on key goods--including gasoline--in an effort to placate the public. Increased support for the public sector could prompt cutbacks in other programs, including the nuclear power plant.

But the delays at Bushehr should not be viewed as a major impediment to Iran's nuclear weapons program. In reality, the nuclear power plant is expected to have only a tertiary role in Tehran's development program, providing spent fuel that could be re-processed for used in nuclear weapons. However, there are lingering concerns that the Bushehr deal may be used as an umbrella for illegal transfers of technology and materials.

Located on the Persian Gulf, the Bushehr complex is the most visible symbol of Iran's nuclear program, but it is not the most important element. Those can be found at Esfahan (where yellow cake uranium is produced) and Natanz, where uranium is being enriched in centrifuges. Eventually, those facilities will yield sufficient quantities of feedstock and enriched uranium to produce nuclear weapons. That's why activity (and construction) at those sites continue unabated. Even in tough economic times, Tehran has ensured that both Esfahan and Natanz receive full-funding, even if it means slowing the pace at Bushehr.

Terror Dry Runs?

Federal officials have issued an alert to the nation's airports, asking them to look for possible terrorists, practicing to carry explosive components onto aircraft. According to authorities, the warning was based on the seizure of unusual items at four airports since last September. The unclassified alert was disseminated last Friday by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), to federal air marshals, TSA security personnel and other law enforcement agencies.

According to the AP, the seizures at airports in San Diego, Milwaukee, Houston and Baltimore, included:

"..wires, switches, pipes or tubes, cell phone components and dense clay-like substances," including block cheese, the bulletin said. "The unusual nature and increase in number of these improvised items raise concern."

Security officers were urged to keep an eye out for "ordinary items that look like improvised explosive device components."

The bulletin said the a joint FBI-Homeland Security Department assessment found that terrorists have conducted probes, dry runs and dress rehearsals in advance of previous attacks. Available on-line at a number of websites (including MSNBC), the warning lists four past examples of practice runs and probes.

More surprising is the omission of other, suspicious incidents from the TSA advisory. At the top of that list is Northwest Airlines Flight 327, which attracted national attention after its journey from Detroit to Los Angeles on June 29, 2004. Annie Jacobsen, a writer for Women'sWallStreet.com was a passenger on the aircraft, along with her family. During the flight, Ms. Jacobsen noticed very suspicious behavior among the 13 Middle Eastern men who were among the passengers. Her detailed account of the flight can be found here. A brief sample of what she witnessed:

"...once we were in the air and the seatbelt sign was turned off, the unusual activity began. The man in the yellow T-shirt got out of his seat and went to the lavatory at the front of coach -- taking his full McDonald's bag with him. When he came out of the lavatory he still had the McDonald's bag, but it was now almost empty. He walked down the aisle to the back of the plane, still holding the bag. When he passed two of the men sitting mid-cabin, he gave a thumbs-up sign. When he returned to his seat, he no longer had the McDonald's bag.

Then another man from the group stood up and took something from his carry-on in the overhead bin. It was about a foot long and was rolled in cloth. He headed toward the back of the cabin with the object. Five minutes later, several more of the Middle Eastern men began using the forward lavatory consecutively. In the back, several of the men stood up and used the back lavatory consecutively as well.

For the next hour, the men congregated in groups of two and three at the back of the plane for varying periods of time. Meanwhile, in the first class cabin, just a foot or so from the cockpit door, the man with the dark suit - still wearing sunglasses - was also standing. Not one of the flight crew members suggested that any of these men take their seats.

While the Middle Eastern men were briefly detained after landing in LAX, Ms. Jacobsen and her husband made the courageous decision to talk with authorities--and the media--about what they saw. Quite literally, they became the first "John and Jane Doe," long before the flying imams took to the skies.

For their efforts, Ms. Jacobson and her spouse were ridiculed, even branded as racists. But her blog, theaviationnation.com, has become an invaluable reference on possible terrorist probes of airline security, highlighting incidents that are often ignored by the MSM. For example, have you ever heard of Fadhel al-Maliki?

On March 6, 2007 Fadhel al-Maliki, a 35-year old Iraqi national, attempted to board an early morning, cross-country, US Airways flight out of Los Angeles International Airport. Hidden in his rectum was a device containing electrical wires, chewing gum and a rock. An airport screener noticed that al-Maliki was acting suspiciously. "He was nervous and sweating," I was told by the FBI.

Al-Maliki was asked to step aside and answer a few questions. Also according to my interview with the FBI, only after some heavy questioning about his odd behavior, and after being repeatedly asked by federal agents why he was sweating, did the former security guard admit to the untoward items hidden inside his lower body cavity. "They are for therapeutic reasons…to relieve stress," al-Maliki said. He claimed the rock was from another planet. The bomb squad was called in.

Larry Fetters, security director for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at the airport, told reporters that al-Maliki "was secreting these items in a body cavity and that was a great concern because there were also some electric wires associated with that body cavity." Then Fetter stated, "there never was a threat."

People around the country began to have a prurient, scatological field day with the circumstances under which al-Maliki had been caught. Newspaper headlines like "Bum Threat Triggers Alert" helped the jokes roll along as did chuckles from law enforcement officials; the first FBI agent I spoke with laughed during our interview.What al-Maliki had done in trying to board an airplane with a "device" concealed up his bum — no matter how suspicious (and/or perverted) it is — was not a crime. Then again Mohammad Atta was not a terrorist on September 10. But why was al-Maliki still being detained by Homeland Security as the hah-hah articles were going to print? It's all so funny — until the next plane disappears off the radar screen, I suppose.

Given week's TSA warning, Mr. Maliki's activities may not be as funny as first thought. But, as you might have guessed, the Maliki incident is also missing from the government bulletin. As Ms. Jacobsen reminds us, federal authorities have known about terrorist dry runs since 1994, and they issued another bulletin on the subject in late 2006. Yet, much of this information never reaches the public, at least in the proper context. After all, it is the height of the summer vacation season (no reason to incite a public among travelers), and some the major air carriers have just returned to profitability.

But another 9-11 could the death knell for the U.S. airline industry, and you'd think the feds would want everyone to be vigilant--passengers included. Greater public awareness of these recent probes and dry-runs could actually discourage that activity, and even prevent a possible hijacking. Terrorists prefer a permissive environment, and almost six years after 9-11, they believe the time may be right for another attack. Many Americans have grown complacent, and the legal repercussions of the flying imams make some passengers reluctant to speak out. And TSA's reluctance to disclose possible terrorist "dry runs" to the flying public is only making matters worse

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The New Hollow Force?

It remains one of the "hallmarks" of Jimmy Carter's disastrous presidency; the "Hollow Force" of the late 1970s, when U.S. military readiness fell to precipitous lows, limiting our response options to situations around the globe.

Carter himself discovered the consequences of those military cutbacks during the defining moment of his term--the Iran Hostage Crisis. When he asked how many B-52s the Air Force could muster for a strike against Iranian targets, Carter was told "four," and only if the necessary number of KC-135 tankers (for in-flight refueling) were available. Needless to say plans for a long-range strike against Iran were quickly scrubbed.

Since then, the term "Hollow Force" has become a rallying cry for military spending programs, to prevent our armed forces from falling into a similar state of disrepair. It's also become a campaign weapon for more than a few Republican politicians, used to bludgeon their Democratic opponents.

But is a new "Hollow Force" era approaching (at least for the Air Force?) In the July issue of Air Force magazine, reporter Megan Scully suggests that day may have already arrived. Her article, "Worse Than the Hollow Force," traces the sharp decline in the readiness rates among Air Force aircraft over the past seven years.

Thanks to an aging aircraft fleet, a dramatic increase in operations tempo and soaring maintenance costs, the percentage of Air Force assets deemed fully mission capable (FMC) is now at a daily average of 56%, a decline of 17 points since 2001. In other words, just over half of the Air Force's fighter, bomber, tanker, transport, and support aircraft are capable of performing their mission without extensive maintenance, or the replacement of parts.

While much of the readiness decline is rooted in the War on Terror and old airframes that need replacement, Ms. Scully also notes that politics are at work as well. For example, the Air Force would like to retire all 85 of its KC-135E tankers (which are almost 50 years old); 30 of the "worst actors" in the C-5 fleet (long beset by maintenance woes) and a number of C-130E transports, which date to the early 1960s. But last year Congress only allowed the retirement of 29 KC-135Es and 51 C-130Es--with the stipulation that the aircraft be maintained at a state that would allow them to be recalled to service. Not surprisingly, virtually all of those aircraft are assigned to various Air National Guard (ANG) units, making them a concern for various Congressmen and Senators.

The cost of that mandate is measured in millions of dollars--money that could be better spent on new aircraft, or other, equally pressing defense programs. Making matters worse, many of the aircraft being maintained for possible recall have already been grounded by the Air Force, due to excessive wear and tear on the airframe. And getting those birds back in the air would prove costly; keeping the KC-135Es in operational service would require an investment of at least one billion dollars, and (as Ms. Scully notes) the Air Force would still be stuck with a 53-year-old tanker at the end of the day.

In the interim, the service is cutting other airframes that have ready replacements, or less political support. The U-2 is scheduled to leave the inventory over the next five years, allowing the Air Force to replace it with high-altitude UAVs. Additionally, the F-117 Nighthawk is also facing retirement, replaced by the F-22 Raptor.

While Ms. Scully is a talented reporter, we should point out that Air Force magazine and its parent organization, The Air Force Association (AFA) clearly have a dog in this fight. It's hardly a surprise that the AFA is firmly behind the service's attempts to "recapitalize" its aircraft fleet, and retire older airframes to help pay for the upgrades.

Still, there's something fundamentally wrong with the current process for mothballing aging aircraft. Congressional efforts to preserve airframes on the ramp (along the jobs and tax dollars that come with them) are inherently wasteful and unethical, a type of earmark wrapped in aluminum or titanium. And sadly, a solution for this problem--like retirement of those aging aircraft--will likely be deferred for another day, another Congress and another administration.

A New Low

H.L. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore, observed famously that "you'll never go broke under-estimating the American taste."

More recently, the Democratic Party has developed its own corollary to that rule. Their thinking goes something like this: You won't lose many elections by under-estimating the electorate, and shamelessly pandering to their every whim.

If you need proof of that, look no further than last night's over-hyped YouTube debate in Charleston, South Carolina. For what seemed like an eternity, the Democratic presidential hopefuls responded to "questions" submitted by YouTube users that appeared on-screen during the debate, which was also broadcast by CNN.

We use the term "questions" with a degree of caution, because many of them were less queries than mini-rants, or softballs so inviting that Hillary, Barrack and the gang couldn't wait to knock them out of the park.

Consider the range of "issues" raised by those hip, edgy YouTubers: Free health care for illegal immigrants. Cutting and running from Iraq. Gay marriage. Sex education. U.S. military intervention in Darfur. Are you a liberal? What are you going to do about Global warming (from an animated snowman, no less). Would you work for the minimum wage? Should we pay reparations for slavery to African-Americans? What kind of tree would you be?

Okay, we borrowed that last one from Barbara Walters, but you get the general drift of last night's debate. No specifics on winning in Iraq (other that Joe Biden rehashing his partition plan). No strategy for the broader War on Terror (unless you count Barrack Obama's proposed dictator-coddling world tour). Keeping our military strong? Forget about it (and remember, the debate was held at the Citadel)! A plan for sustaining the economic growth of the last five years? Phuleeze. Stopping illegal immigration crisis? Don't make me laugh.

In other words, if the YouTube debate is an accurate barometer of the American electorate, we are in very serious trouble, indeed. Most of the so-called "experts" from the MSM are praising the format as "provocative," which suggests that (a) they're as dumb as last night's questioners, or (b) they enjoy watching political batting practice, masquerading as a serious political forum.

Sadly, last night's debate only proves a couple of political axioms. First, large number of voters are either ignorant, uniformed (or both), or they define presidential campaigns in terms of a single issue. And secondly, the sheer banality of those questions suggests that many Americans don't deserve the right to vote. The Talkmaster got it right when he suggested that the franchise should be extended to those who are net payers of income tax. After all, they're footing the bill for all that pandering, which eventually morphs into the next round of earmarks and political pork.

Watching portions of Monday's "debate" from Charleston, we were reminded, oddly enough, of William Faulkner's brief career as a postmaster in Oxford, Mississippi, before he achieved fame as a writer. Faulkner resigned from the post office after only two weeks, saying he "refused to be a slave to any idiot with a 5 cent stamp." Likewise, we don't think the political debate should be captive to anyone with a video camera and an internet connection.

In fairness, there are millions of Americans who can ask incisive, thoughtful questions of presidential candidates. But you wouldn't know that by watching the YouTube debate. Even by the minimalist standards of American political discourse, last night's bit of cheap theater represented a new low in the electoral process.


Here's a better idea for a meaningful, voter-oriented political debate. Hire Frank Luntz to assemble to focus groups, one comprised of Republicans, the other Democrats. Then, let the GOP voters question the Democratic candidates, while the other group gets a crack at the Republican hopefuls. Then, sit back and watch the sparks fly. You won't see any talking snowmen, but you might actually see some tough questions--and some squirming candidates

Half Right

We've long expressed our admiration for Ralph Peters. In a military culture still dominated by careerists and organization men (and women), Peters stood out as an original thinker, unafraid to rail against conventional thinking and the senior leaders who espoused it. That's one reason that Peters retired as a Lieutenant Colonel, and moved on to a second, successful career as a columnist and author.

But even a first-rate mind produces an occasional clunker, and Peters proves that in his latest column for USA Today. Bemoaning the current state of the Army's general officer corps, Peters says that senior military leaders must accept their share of responsibility for the situation in Iraq.

So far, so good. You don't need to read Clausewitz to understand that serious mistakes have been made in prosecuting the war, and that senior officers played a role in those blunders. But Peters' indictment of some military leaders seems painfully thin, and in other examples, he deliberately ignores information that would undercut his points--and diminish the actions of generals he seems to admire.

For example, Peters reminds us that Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki, was "sidelined" by then SecDef Don Rumsfeld for telling him that an occupation of Iraq would require hundreds of thousands of American troops. While Shinseki's "honesty" has made him a favorite among the anti-war crowd, there's another, forgotten element to the story. When General Shinseki told Rumsfeld that U.S. needed "350,000 soldiers" to pacify a liberated Iraq, he was aware that the United States did not have enough soldiers for that operation.

As we've noted before, the Army "lost" a total of 18 combat brigades under force cuts that began during the first Bush Administration, and concluded under Bill Clinton. That's the same period when many current and former Army leaders--including General Shinseki--advanced to senior leadership positions. As combat veterans, Shinseki and his fellow generals understood the potential impact of those reductions; yet there is nothing to suggest that Army leadership strenuously opposed the cutbacks, and not a single, senior officer resigned in protest.

Indeed, the Army was (apparently) a willing participant in the draw down. Money "saved" through the elimination of combat formations would be used to fund high-tech weaponry like the Comanche helicopter and Crusader artillery system. Both the Comanche and Crusader were eventually cancelled, so the Army wound up without its new toys--and without the required number of soldiers needed for a long-term occupation mission.

As for the problems in Iraq, Peters reserves special criticism for the first U.S. ground commander, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez--describing him as a deer caught in the headlights of history--and General Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM Commander who planned and directed the invasion of Iraq. Franks is faulted for refusing to stand up to Rumsfeld, and supposedly "losing interest" in his mission. That's a damning indictment, but Peters provides no details to substantiate his charge. Without amplification, it's nothing more than a cheap shot.

Lieutenant Colonel Peters also slams the generals' for their refusal to criticize each other--even when it's obvious that one of them has screwed up. But that's the cultural norm among senior military officers--a fact that Ralph acknowledges a few paragraphs later. Encouraging flag officers to speak openly and honestly about each other means changing the very institutions that train, mentor and promote our military leaders. You'd have a better chance at producing cold fusion in your kitchen. Current and aspiring members of that most elite of military fraternities --the general officer corps--have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Besides, the very system that Peters indicts has, despite its faults, produced the current "competent" chain of command in Iraq. Lt Col Peters commends our current commander, General David Petraeus, for "doing things that should have been done in 2003. He describes Petraeus's subordinates, Lieutenant Generals Martin Dempsey and Ray Odierno, as "remarkably effective officers" and says our line-up of division commanders (the two-stars) is "the best we've ever had."

As Peters observes, the war has finally sorted the good generals from the bad. There's an element of truth in that statement, but it's also the nature of warfare. Lincoln's struggle to find a competent leader for the Army of the Potomac is the stuff of legend; during World War II, both the Army Chief of Staff (General George C. Marshall) and the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King, fired hundreds of senior officers whose performance didn't measure up. The ranks of American generals and admirals looked vastly different in August 1945 that it did on December 7, 1941.

In critiquing the current system, Peters gets it half-right. Some of his heroes--including General Shinseki--were selective in speaking "truth to power," while leaders who earn his scorn (most notably General Franks) may be judged more fairly (and accurately) by history. But Peters is right on the most important count: the shuffling of generals to get the "right" team in Iraq may have come too late. And that's not necessarily the result of limited candor and "openness" among our flag officers. It's a reflection of a nation--and its political leaders--who have a marginal world view, and a distaste for only the most expedient solutions.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Family Feud?

Newsweek is reporting a power struggle within the senior ranks of Al Qaida, pitting the group's #2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri (and fellow members of his "Egyptian" faction), against a Libyan clique, led byAbu Yahya al-Libi.

Two "reliable" jihadist sources tell the magazine that the dispute centers on Zawahiri's aggressive efforts to take operational control of Al Qaida, and his personal obsession with toppling Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. Al-Libi and his faction believe that Zawahiri's recent actions will provoke a counter-strike by Musharraf (and possibly, U.S. forces), jeopardizing Al Qaida's recently-established safe havens in the Waziristan tribal region.

According to Newsweek, Zawahiri personally orchestrated last week's retaliatory attacks in Waziristan, in response to the recent storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad by Pakistani security forces. At least 150 soliders and civilians have died in attacks since the Red Mosque was raided in early July, providing more proof of a resurgent Al Qaida, with Zawahiri in operational command:

After years in which Zawahiri seemed constantly on the run, his alleged orchestration of last week's attacks would be further evidence that Qaeda and Taliban forces are newly empowered and have consolidated control of a safe haven along the Pakistani border. A new National Intelligence Estimate out of Washington last week also concludes that Al Qaeda is resurgent in Pakistan—and more centrally organized than it has been at any time since 9/11. The NIE—a periodic intel assessment that is considered the most authoritative issued by the U.S. government—concluded Al Qaeda has "regenerated key elements" of its ability to attack the United States. These include a sanctuary in Pakistan's tribal regions of North Waziristan and Bajaur, and an intact hierarchy of top leadership and operational lieutenants.

But there are also some inconsistencies in this narrative, which the magazine either downplays--or ignores. First, the ideological "split" has not been serious enough to warrant the personal involvement of Osama bin Laden. According to Newsweek, the Al Qaida leader has appointed a pair of mediators to "resolve" the dispute, while he remains pre-occupied with strategic planning and "spiritual" leadership. While bin Laden's approach is rooted in Middle Eastern tradition, if the rift was genuinely serious, he could personally intervene and reassert control over the organization, despite reported health and security concerns.

Additionally, there was apparently no mention of a split in the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), or at least in the portions that were released to the public. We can only hope that intelligence community's sources are at least as good as Newsweek's. Assuming that our spooks have heard the same reports--from other sources--such information would have (presumably) made its way into the NIE, and most likely, into press reporting. The absence of such leaks suggest that intel analysts don't lend as much credence to reports of a power struggle within Al Qaida's ranks.

Moreover, rumors of a internal split don't really jibe with reports of a resurgent terror network. According to the NIE, Al Qaida now possesses an "intact hierarchy of top leadership and operational lieutenants" with no mention of an ideological struggle. If there is an actual rift between Zawahiri and al-Libi, then the group's upper echelons are intact in name only, and the divide would, eventually, jeopardize Al Qaida's ability to carry out new attacks, including a new campaign against the American homeland.

Indeed, the Newsweek report acknowledges that the struggle between the Egyptian and Libyan factions has not prevented the terror group from re-establishing its operational base in Waziristan, and regenerate its command-and-control network. If that assessment is accurate, then it is hardly indicative of an organization in disarray.

One U.S. official interviewed by the magazine acknowledges that there are tensions between the two wings of Al Qaida, although the term he used--tensions--suggests that the rift is not that serious. On the other hand, another American expert describes the split as "the battle for Al Qaeda's strategic soul. There is a profound strategic debate over whether to focus on overturning the government in Pakistan ... because that puts them in control of a nuclear capacity."

But that analysis raises another, fundamental question. Given their long interest in weapons of mass destruction, Al Qaida leaders would certainly exploit an opportunity to topple Musharraf's government, and acquire his nuclear capability. So far, Al Qaida appears to lack that capability, despite continuing attacks in the tribal lands, and a reported plan to launch suicide attacks in greater Pakistan. However, eight suicide bombers (the force assigned to attack government targets in other locations) don't represent a serious coup attempt, unless they can penetrate Musharraf's security detail and kill him.

At this juncture, as Bill Roggio observes, Zawahiri appears to have the upper hand within Al Qaida, and the group's operatives appear to be following his operational strategy. That's why rumors of an internal split may be interesting, but they may also be exaggerated.

Late to the Game

Michael Vick's immediate future will be decided in two locations: the Richmond, Virginia federal court where the NFL quarterback faces conspiracy charges (relating to his involvement with a dog-fighting ring), and in the executive suite of the National Football League, where Commissioner Roger Goodell must decide when--or if--Vick will be suspended. (Mr. Vick's team, the Atlanta Falcons, has taken no action against their star player, and appears to be waiting for the league to take the first step).

In an obvious attempt to influence that decision, various animal rights "activists" picketed in front of the league's New York headquarters on Friday. Leading the protest--as you might expect--were representatives of PETA, who can always manage a media stunt on a moment's notice.

"Sack Vick," chanted the PETA-organized protestors. The AP reports that some of the demonstrators carried dogs with "Sack Vick" signs on their back, and one woman even brought a pit bull, the same breed favored by by the NFL star, and other, alleged participants in the dog-fighting operation. The protest occurred while Mr. Goodell met with representatives of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to discuss the Vick case.

Readers will note that PETA demonstration received wide media coverage, but none of the reporters asked the essential question, namely where was the "animal rights" organization when Vick and his cronies were reportedly staging dogfights on his property in Surry County, Virginia and killing animals that failed to perform?

PETA's activists and press releases fail to mention a rather inconvenient truth: Vick's "Bad Newz Kennels," which raised pit bulls and sponsored fights, operated for years right under PETA's organizational nose. The quarterback's former residence in Surry County is located only 36 miles from PETA's headquarters in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, and less than a dozen miles from one of the group's frequent protest sites--the corporate headquarters of meat-packing giant Smithfield Foods.

In response, the organization might invoke the "national and international" scope of its activities, suggesting that it doesn't have the time (or resources) to get involved in local matters. But such claims would be false, providing yet another example of PETA's duplicity. In reality, the organization has been quite active in its own "backyard," attracting negative publicity for killings scores of animals from animal shelters in neighboring North Carolina--after promising to put them up for adoption--then dumping their carcasses in a grocery store dumpster.

More recently, a PETA staffer was arrested on felony theft charges in Southampton County, after she was spotted with a hunting dog in one of the group's vehicles. Unfortunately for the PETA employee, the dog (which was wandering near a local road) belonged to the county's animal control officer, who was alerted by a local resident. The group made no effort to contact the officer, despite the fact that his name and cell phone number were on the dog's tag. Additionally, the hound had an identifying tattoo, and was outfitted a radio tracking collar, which the PETA staffer had removed. A county judge recently rejected a motion to dismiss the case, and the PETA employee will go on trial later this year.

So, while PETA workers trolled the by-ways of eastern Virginia for errant hunting dogs, the crew at Bad Newz were staging big-money dog fights, and slaughtering unfortunate animals who lost their matches, or simply failed to show enough aggressiveness. An observant local cop, following up on the drug arrest of Vick's cousin, was the first to uncover the dog-fighting operation; diligent work by federal authorities (aided by organizations like the ASPCA) secured the indictment of the NFL star.

But with the Vick case now front-page news, PETA is milking the scandal for its own advantage. Stories about the group's protest at NFL headquarters were carried in newspapers across the nation and on cable news channels as well. When the league suspends Vick--as it should--who do you think will claim credit and highlight its "success" in future fund-raising appeals? Why PETA, of course.

In reality, the organization was late to the game, and did nothing to expose or investigate the barbaric cruelty that was inflicted on animals at Vick's estate in Surry County. Jumping on the bandwagon--and in front of the cameras--at this late juncture is nothing more than shameless self-promotion, the one activity at which PETA truly excels.


Fox Sports is reporting that PETA took its protest road-show to Falcons' headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia today. About four dozen "activists--including kids as young as 12--took part in the demonstration. Not surprisingly, reporters covering the "event" failed to ask PETA organizers about the group's inability to detect--and address--the dog-fighting problem, before it became a national scandal (and a convenient fund-raising tool).