Friday, November 30, 2007

When a Tropical Storm Isn't a Tropical Storm

Today's Houston Chronicle has a fascinating article on a storm that's brewing (forgive the pun) in meteorology circles. Not only did hurricane forecasters again under-estimate the number of storms this year; some meteorologists now claim that at least a half-dozen storms may have been named prematurely. As the Chronicle's Eric Berger notes, the decision to "name" a tropical storm has significance that goes far beyond mere semantics:

The number of a season's named storms forms the foundation of historical records used to determine trends in hurricane activity. Insurance companies use these trends to set homeowners' rates. And such information is vital to scientists trying to determine whether global warming has had a measurable impact on hurricane activity.

According to Dr. Neil Frank, the long-time director of the National Hurricane Center and one of the nation's leading experts on tropical weather systems, "as many as six" of this year's 14 named storms might have failed in earlier decades to earn "named storm status."

"They seem to be naming storms a lot more than they used to," said Frank, who directed the hurricane center from 1974 to 1987 and is now chief meteorologist for KHOU-TV. "This year, I would put at least four storms in a very questionable category, and maybe even six."

Most of the storms in question briefly had tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph. But their central pressure — another measure of intensity — suggested they actually remained depressions or were non-tropical systems.

Meanwhile, the current director of the hurricane center says there's no inconsistency in the naming of storms:

"For at least the last two decades, I am certain most, if not all, the storms named this year would have also been named," said Bill Read, deputy director of the Miami-based center.

According to the Chronicle, everyone agrees that technological advances--most notably, an increase in the number of weather satellites--have made it easier to detect and track tropical systems. In fact, it's widely assumed that prior to the late 1970s, meteorologists missed 1-3 tropical storms a year that developed far from land and were short-lived.

What apparently has changed is a greater reliance on surface winds as an indicator of a tropical system. One of the newest weather satellites, dubbed QuikSCAT, was responsible for spotting Tropical Storm Chantal, which formed south of Nova Scotia in late July, and moved quickly out to sea. Some forecasters argue that Chantal was never a tropical system, because if formed off the Canadian coast. Others say that the decision to name the storm was influenced by QuikSCAT technology.

Dr. Frank says that the increased reliance on windspeed and satellite technology to designate tropical storms represents a break with the past:

In earlier years before widespread satellite coverage, the hurricane center placed more emphasis on measurements of central pressure than wind speeds in designating tropical storms and giving those systems names, Frank said. Central pressures and wind speed are related, but the relationship isn't absolute.

Frank said he prefers using central pressure, because it can be directly measured by aircraft dropping an instrument into a tropical system.

If a reconnaissance plane had measured a wind speed above 39 mph during Frank's tenure, the system would not automatically have been named. His forecasters might have waited a day to see if the central pressure fell, he said, to ensure that the system really was a tropical storm

Beyond the meteorological aspects of this argument, there are some rather obvious bureaucratic implications as well. Like other federal bureaucracies, the National Weather Service and its parent, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have invested heavily in satellite and computer technology in recent decades. The bureaucrats at both agencies are determined to show a return on that investment, and use the information to justify the next generation of satellites and forecasting tools.

Additionally, we believe that NOAA--and other government agencies--are still reeling from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. While no one can fault NOAA for its work during the storm, the destruction and havoc wreaked by Katrina has put more pressure on the bureaucracy to generate even better (and earlier) forecasts on tropical systems that might ultimately threaten the U.S. coastline.

Finally, it's also worth remembering that NOAA is heavily "invested" in global warming research and its potential impact on tropical storm intensity. While the agency hasn't officially linked global warming to increases in hurricanes and tropical storms, it does support the notion that greenhouse gases are responsible for the slight rise in surface temperatures, and a corresponding warming of the world's oceans. Amid the clamor to establish a link between global warming and hurricane activity, NOAA can, at the very least, use its data to gain more research dollars, hire additional staffers, and build new research tools.

But before NOAA moves further down the global warming road, we believe the agency should take a close look at Dr. Frank's argument. If he's correct, then hurricane forecasts for 2007 missed the mark badly; if the six "suspect" storms are excluded from the total, then there were only 8 hurricanes and tropical storms in the Atlantic basin this year. That's below the historical average for the past 60 years (10 storms a year) and barely half the original prediction for 2007 (17 named storms).

Despite Dr. Frank's criticism, it's a given that NOAA will not overhaul its criteria for "naming" tropical storms--too much money and ego involved. However, the agency chould take a page out of its own playbook, and provide a qualifier for systems that are borderline tropical storms, or in situations where data is limited. Using that approach, storms could be designated as "suspected" or "wind-indicated" tropical systems, just as the weather service issues warnings for "possible" or "Doppler-indicated" tornadoes. Once more accurate data is received--and tropical storm status is confirmed--the qualifier would be dropped, and the system would receive its designated name.

Obviously, this approach would be controversial, and in some cases, the hurricane center might still be required to make an early call--particularly when systems form quickly off the southeastern U.S., or in the northern Gulf of Mexico. But, with so much riding on tropical storm and hurricane predictions, NOAA owes it to the taxpayer--and the millions of us living along the coast--to provide forecasts that are accurate, not only in terms of storm track and intensity, but also in terms of the real number of tropical systems that form in a given year.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Plant Show Continues...

From Scott Johnson at Powerline, we learn that last night's GOP YouTube/CNN Debate had at least two more Democratic questioners, posing as Republicans or "undecided" voters:

Jim Vicevich alerts us to a few more Democratic plants at the CNN Youtube Republican candidates forum last night. Adam Florzak asked a question on Social Security. Jim comments: "Strange question, because he asked about paying back the social security trust fund? That's a Republican question." It turns out that Florzak quit his job with Caterpillar to work with Dick Durbin on social security reform. Then there was Mark Strauss, who pleaded with Ron Paul to run as an independent. It turns out he's a Richardson supporter (more here). CNN must have know who Strauss is because he participated in the CNN/Youtube Democratic presidential debate this past July. It's all over now, baby blue.

Gee, with all the Democratic "plants" among last nights questioners, it might be appropriate to pose this query to CNN:

Were the candidates the only Republicans at last night's debate?

The Eagles Stand-Down (Again)

For the second time this month, the Air Force has grounded its F-15A/D model air superiority fighters and ordered new inspections of the entire fleet, which includes more than 450 "Eagles" assigned to active duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units. The order affects 60% of the service's F-15s, which perform air superiority and air defense missions.

The latest stand-down is the result of a 2 November accident involving a Missouri Air National Guard (ANG) F-15, which apparently suffered a major structural failure and began breaking apart in flight. The pilot ejected safely, but the Air Force ordered an immediate stand-down of all F-15 variants until the aircraft could be inspected. F-15s operated by the air forces of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Japan were grounded as well.

While the U.S. jets were cleared to return to the skies on 21 November, more detailed information from the Missouri crash led a second grounding, which went into effect yesterday. According to a news release from the Air Force Press Network:

The new findings from the Accident Investigation Board indicate possible fleet-wide airworthiness problems with F-15A/B/C and D aircraft. These findings, based on a metallurgical analysis of the mishap aircraft, have drawn attention to the F-15's upper longerons near the canopy of the aircraft that appear to have cracked and failed. The longerons are major structural components that run along the length and side of the aircraft.

Although the longeron area was covered in general by previous inspections as a result of the Nov. 2 mishap, technical experts with the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center in Georgia, are recommending a specific inspection technique for the suspect area based on the yesterday's findings.

Manufacturer simulations have indicated a catastrophic failure could result in this particular area. In addition, cracks were discovered along the same longeron area during two recent inspections of F-15C aircraft. These aircraft were immediately grounded based upon the inspection findings and are awaiting further engineering instructions.

Based on this most recent data, ACC believes it is necessary to stand-down the F-15 A through D aircraft until such time each aircraft can receive a more detailed and tailored inspection of the upper longerons in the focus area.

Air Force spokesmen emphasized that the latest grounding does not effect F-15E "Strike Eagle" aircraft, which were also grounded following the Missouri crash. The twin-seat F-15E has been a mainstay of bombing missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the earlier stand down left commanders scrambling to find other jets for the missions normally flown by Strike Eagles.

Since the A/D model F-15s do not fly bombing sorties, their grounding will have little impact on ground operations in the Middle East. However, the stand down will have a major effect on the air superiority and air defense missions performed by the "light gray" F-15s. Air defense of the continental United States is handled (in part) by F-15 units, and the A/D models would play a major role in gaining air supremacy against any potential adversary, including Iran.

At this point, it is unclear how long the F-15A/Ds will remain on the tarmac. The previous inspection of the fleet took two weeks, and the newly-ordered evaluation is expected to last at least that long. Repairs to F-15s with defective longerons could take months to complete, and result in an extended stand down among the air superiority fighters. The latest grounding is also expected to extend to other countries that operate the F-15, according to defense analysts.

The longeron problem is the latest indicator of age and maintenance problems among the Air Force fighter fleet. Virtually all of the aircraft affected by the stand down have been in service for more than 20 years; some are almost as old as the pilots who fly them. Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deptula, the service's chief of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), recently told an audience that his son--a fighter pilot at Kadena AB, Japan--is flying the same F-15s he piloted three decades ago. And despite extensive maintenance, years of high-performance flying is taking a toll on the Eagles and other Air Force jets.

While the service would like to buy more F-22 Raptors to replace the F-15s, the new jet is expensive ($133 million a copy), and the on-going conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have further constrained the Air Force budget. In short, the service is facing a quandary: it doesn't have enough money to buy the needed number of F-22s, and it's going to be hard-pressed to keep older jets flying.

With the F-15 air superiority models grounded again, the Air Force will turn to other aircraft and its allied partners, to ensure mission coverage. A prolonged stand down of the F-15A/D fleet will mean more tasking for the F-16 community and the "dark gray" F-15Es. That, in turn, will mean more flying hours and fatigue for those platforms, accelerating their aging process as well. That, in turn, will require even more funding for aircraft maintenance and repairs--money that the Air Force doesn't have.


ADDENDUM: We are happy to report that the standdown was not the result of a recent (and decidedly) unfortunate campaign by an F-15 pilot at Langley AFB, VA, to have himself selected as Cosmopolitan Magazine's Bachelor of the Year. In pursuit of that dubious honor, he sent an e-mail to scores of colleagues, virtually all male. Needless to say, his effort to urge men to vote for him as bachelor of the year struck some as a bit odd. And, for everyone outside the F-15 community, it was simply more proof that Eagle drivers pursue (ahem) "alternative" lifestyles. The original e-mail is reprinted below; we've deleted the names of the pilot and those that received the request to vote. However, we did include his callsign (more on that in a moment):

Subject: Bros!!

Yes, you might think this is a little gay, but what the hell.

I was selected to be the Virginia Bachelor for Cosmos annual bachelor issue. They chose me for Virginia.

Each state has a bachelor and the winner is chosen by who gets the most online votes. The voting starts tonight at midnight (9 Oct at > 12:00 AM) and ends on Thursday at 11:59 PM.

There are only 3 days to get as many votes as possible and then the winner is chosen.
The magazine comes out on the 16th of October and the winner is announced on the 18th.

I would appreciate you help by voting for me on the website. Here is > the web> > address: (you can view this at work)>>>>> >>> can vote 1 time per day per email address you have.

Feel free to tell your friends if you are so inclined. Thanks for the help. Spears, comments, Bullshit flags.all welcomed and expected for doing > something like this.


As you might expect, "Dollar's" colleagues frowned mightily on his "get out the vote" campaign, and the embarassment it caused other F-15 drivers. In fact, we're told that his squadron at Langley (the "Ironmen--no small irony there) convened an emergency meeting to change his callsign. "Dollar" is now reportedly known as "Ruble," the most worthless currency they could think of.

Incidentally, I had the pleasure of participating in a similar "re-naming" during my days as an intel officer in an F-4 squadron. For an act of stupidity that was far less serious, one of our pilots became "Wedge"--the simplest tool known to mankind.

BTW, "Wedge" is now a Brigadier General. Go figure.

See, We Told You So

After the Democratic "YouTube" Debate in Charleston a few months ago, we decided that political discourse in this country had reached a new low. As we observed at the time:

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 us 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 the GOP version from St. Petersburg, Florida, last night, it became apparent that broadcast journalism has also reached its nadir. Or, more correctly, we should say that CNN-- which sponsored the debate with YouTube--has hit rock bottom. Only a few questions into the affair, Mrs. Spook (wise woman that she is) turned to Your Humble Correspondent and said, "those can't be Republican voters."

Boy, was she ever right.

As we've subsequently learned--thanks to the work of Michelle Malkin (and others)--many of the questioners were actually Democratic plants. Ms. Malkin quickly discovered that the young woman who posed an abortion question is actually a John Edwards supporter; "undecided" Log Cabin Republican David Cercone has endorsed Barack Obama, and "undecided" mom LeeAnn Anderson is an activist for the United Steelworkers Union (which has already endorsed Edwards).

But the ultimate "plant" was gay military retiree Brigadier General Keith Kerr, who serves on a steering committee for Hillary Clinton. In fact, the Clinton campaign issued a press release six months ago, touting his appointment. But CNN claims it was unaware of Kerr's affiliation, an explanation that Kevin Aylward finds lacking:

Anderson Cooper would have you believe that a network that could select this question, find that 13-year-old Romney quote, create the trap for Romney (which he fell face first into), and (presumably) fly Kerr to the debate, could not type “Keith Kerr, retired Colonel” into Google and find the link to the Hillary Clinton press release, which prior to the debate appeared in the first 10 results for that search?

Matthew Balan at Newsbusters is also unconvinced; he found a CNN article from 2003 which identified Kerr as a gay activist. There's also the unresolved issue of how General Kerr, who lives in California, wound up on the invitation list for the Florida debate. Did the network pay for his trip to St. Petersburg? How did the network decide that he was entitled to a "straight answer," in the debate hall? CNN owes viewers an explanation (and an apology); just how did the network develop a case of amnesia on Kerr's political ties; and how did all those Democratic activists make their way into a Republican debate? Don't hold your breath waiting for answers.

Of course, the GOP shares some of the blame, by agreeing to participate in this farce. With CNN in charge of selecting the questions (out of thousands submitted by YouTube users), there was ample opportunity for Democrats to "crash" the debate, aided and abetted by their friends at the Clinton News Network. Given CNN's long record of liberal bias, the GOP candidates had no reason to expect a fair and balanced forum last night; in that respect, the network didn't disappoint.

After watching the Democrats answer soft-ball questions in Charleston last summer (and last night's GOP potted plant show in St. Petersburg), it's time to call the YouTube format for what it is--one of the worst ideas in the history of American politics. Here's the brutal truth: there's nothing particularly innovative or ground-breaking about someone recording a question with a home video camera and posting it on the web. And, when most of the questions are softballs or plants, the forum loses any pretense at balance or objectivity. Voters looking for a substantive discussion of the issues would be better off watching C-SPAN.

As for CNN, their leftist agenda was readily visible at last night's forum, amid all those planted questions. If the GOP presidential candidates have anything approaching a (collective) spine, they should boycott any future forums sponsored or hosted by the network. As you'll recall, the Democratic hopefuls bailed out on a FoxNews debate months ago, claiming that the network was "biased." The plant show in Florida provides ample reason for GOP candidates to do the same thing to CNN.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Old Soldiers Who Won't Fade Away

Once upon a time, flag officers who presided over a battlefield disaster--and weren't killed in the process--did the honorable thing. In Oriental cultures, that usually meant an appointment with your sidearm or ceremonial sword, after writing a final note of apology to the Emperor. Among U.S. flag officers, the custom was less draconian, but equally humiliating; the offending general or admiral accepted some form of administrative punishment (as required), followed by retirement and a legacy as an architect of defeat.

Consider the case of Lieutenant General Walter Short, commander of Army air and ground forces in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, General Short was immediately condemned for failing to anticipate the Japanese attack, and along with his Navy counterpart, Admiral Husband Kimmmel, Short became a convenient scapegoat for the debacle. More concerned about sabotage than a sneak attack, Short ordered that Army aircraft in Hawaii be parked closer together, making it easier for Japanese bombs to destroy them.

History reveals that Admiral Kimmel and General Short were operating at a severe disadvantage in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor. For reasons that have never been fully explained, both the Navy and Army commander were denied access to intelligence that might have allowed them to re-think their preparations. Instead, Kimmel and Short based their final actions on a vaguely-worded "war warning" memorandum, dispatched from Washington in November 1941. That document suggested that a Japanese attack might be in the offing, but would most likely occur in the Far East--not Hawaii.

Still, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Short's Army career was kaput. Recalled to Washington, he reverted to his permanent rank of Major General, and retired in mid-1942. Unlike Kimmel (who spent the rest of his life trying to restore his reputation), Short elected to fade into civilian obscurity, becoming a senior executive at the Ford Motor Company. In that capacity, he made important contributions to the war effort before retiring for good. General Short died in 1949.

The final years of Walter Short offer an interesting contrast to retired Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, who (apparently) has no desire to follow Douglas MacArthur's dictum and simply "fade away." Sanchez, the first commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, has recently emerged as a critic of the war; last Saturday, he delivered the Democratic response to the president's weekly radio address. In his remarks, Sanchez acknowledged that the troop surge has improved the security situation, but he still voiced support for Democrats' legislative attempts to force a withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Of course, General Sanchez is the same man who accused the Bush Administration of "a catastrophic failure in the leadership of this war," without mentioning his own role in our setbacks. True, Sanchez was charged with implementing policies established by his superiors, but there's no record of the general lodging strong protests, or urging modifications. The Iraqi insurgency took root under his watch, and General Sanchez seemed unable to mount an effective response.

Indeed, a reader at OpinionJournal found some telling quotes in Thomas Ricks' book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. While Mr. Ricks' title (and thesis) are premature at best, he does capture General Sanchez's inability to confront a steadily worsening situation in Iraq:

"Rick Sanchez is a great guy given a really, really hard job," said Maj Gen Renuart, who worked closely with him. "I think he's a smart thinker, intuitive....I'm not sure anyone could have been totally successful in that environment."


Even so, the methodical Sanchez often appeared overwhelmed by the situation, with little grasp of the strategic problems he faced. The opinion of many of his peers was that he was a fine battalion commander who should have never commanded a division, let alone a corps or a nationwide occupation mission. "He was in over his head," said Lt Col Christopher Holshek, who served in Iraq in 2003. "He was a fulfillment of the Peter Principle."


"It was my view after seeing him that Rick Sanchez was exactly in the wrong place," said Richard Armitage, the former number two at the State Department...He was much too secretive. He and Bremer, if they didn't hate each other, they could barely tolerate each other, let's put it that way. And when you look in retrospect, a lot has improved since Rick went out...I came away from my first meeting with him saying that this guy didn't get it."

In fairness, Sanchez wasn't the only architect of our initial setbacks in Iraq--he had plenty of help. But, by refusing to acknowledge his own role in creating the mess, General Sanchez is being more than disingenuous. Reading and hearing his recent comments on Iraq, it's obvious that Sanchez blames the Bush Administration for all his problems, including his failure to earn a fourth star. After his tour in Iraq ended, Sanchez was passed over for high-level assignments and promotion. He retired from active duty last November.

While Sanchez has every right to defend his record, most serious observers of Iraq War (and the U.S. military) would prefer a more balanced assessment from our first commander in Baghdad. While General Sanchez has excoriated the administration and the press for their failings during the conflict, he has been silent on his own mistakes. Refusing to even remotely acknowledge his own errors in judgment, Sanchez seems to reaffirm the assessment of his critics--a man who was clearly in over his head, and couldn't recognize the problems he helped create.

Today, General Sanchez is urging Congress to put aside "partisan considerations" and unite to "lessen the burdens our troops and their families have been under for the past five years." Yet, even that request rings hollow. As James Taranto noted at

"Apparently it didn't occur to Sanchez that the Democratic weekly radio address isn't the best venue to urge people to "put aside partisan considerations."

In another era, Sanchez would have followed the example of General Short, and faded into obscurity. Today, he's emulating the Wesley Clark model, and embracing the party that once railed against him, hoping that changing political winds will help salvage part of his reputation. But even that effort may be doomed to fail. For now, we'll leave the last word on Sanchez and his posturing to James Taranto:

"Whatever the merits of his arguments, Sanchez is far from a disinterested party. He is seeking to avoid blame for the failures in Iraq under his command. Which, come to think of it, makes him quite the fitting spokesman for the Democrats."

Supporting the Troops--a Real Success Story

A couple of days ago, we noted the failure of a DoD-backed program, encouraging Americans to send a text message of gratitude to military personnel over the Thanksgiving Weekend. Under the aegis of an assistant Secretary of Defense--and with the support of cell phone companies and various media outlets (which provided free publicity)--the "Giving Thanks" campaign was supposed to trigger a flood of text messages from grateful Americans, to members of the armed forces.

The results were less-than-impressive. Over a five-day period, the campaign generated only 130,000 messages of thanks, a tiny fraction of the 800 million text messages sent in this country during that same period. We believe the poor response is a reflection of indifference by many Americans, whose connection to the military is tenuous, at best. Several readers have also complained that they didn't know about the campaign, so perhaps the promotion effort--or lack thereof--was equally at fault.

If "Giving Thanks" was a relative flop, then it's reassuring to know that other military support programs are working just fine--and, in some cases, on a relative shoestring. Tuesday's edition of USA Today highlighted the efforts of Brittany and Robbie Bergquist, a brother and sister from Lowell, Massachusetts. Three years ago, they founded Cell Phones for Soldiers, after learning that an Army reservist faced a $7,000 phone bill for making calls home for Iraq.

The Bergquist's support program is based on three principles, writes USA Today's Rick Hampson:

"Most people have an old, inactive cellphone lying around; they'd probably donate it to the right cause; and they'd agree that, as Brittany puts it, "Everyone has a right to call home."

In three years, an effort that began with a piggybank raid and a car wash has turned into a booming home front charity — one that has turned its founders' lives upside down and won them devoted friends throughout the military and beyond.

Cell Phones for Soldiers solicits unwanted cellphones, sells them to a recycler for about $5 each and uses the money to buy pre-paid phone cards that are shipped to the war zone


CPFS collects at least 50,000 phones a month, more than all but a few companies in the nation. The 7,000 drop-off locations range from AT&T retail stores and Liberty Tax Service offices to Fabulous Freddy's Car Wash in Las Vegas and Fine Line Auto Repair in Anchorage.

The organization sends about 25,000 one-hour phone cards overseas each month. This holiday season the Bergquists are working toward a bold goal: a phone card a month for each of the more than 185,000 U.S. service members in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. That would cost about $750,000, half of all they've raised in three years.

Did we mention that Brittany Bergquist is 16 years old, and her brother is only 15? When they founded the charity, the siblings were 13 and 12, respectively. Makes you wonder; if a couple of teenagers, working largely on their own, can recycle enough cell phones to send 25,000 phone cards to Iraq and Afghanistan each month, then you'd think that the "pros" at DoD and in the media world could do better than 130,000 text messages over a long holiday weekend.

BTW, if you'd like to support Cell Phones for Soldiers, please visit their website, which provides more information on the charity's efforts, and lists drop-off points for used cell phones.

Idiot of the Week

The phony $1 million bill, presented at a Clearwater, S.C. bank earlier this week. Police report that the "currency" was actually a religious tract, printed by a Texas ministry last year, and seized by federal authorities, due to its similarities to real money (photo from the Aiken, S.C. Standard)

It's been a while since we've bestowed an "Idiot of the Week" Award, though we were sorely tempted during Britney Spears' various travails. Still, we have our standards, and refuse to settle for low-hanging celebrity fruit among the terminally stupid. So, we pressed on with our search, and found someone who is genuinely deserving of the title--and isn't followed by a flock of paparazzi.

With apologies to Ms. Spears, we located a truly worthy candidate in Clearwater, South Carolina, a small town near Augusta, Georgia. According to the Aiken Standard, 31-year-old Alexander Smith walked into a Clearwater bank on Monday, and tried to open an account. For his initial deposit, Mr. Smith offered a single, $1 million bill.

There was only one small problem, as you might have guessed.

The federal government has never printed a $1 million dollar bill; Mr. Smith's rumpled note was an obvious forgery. A bank employee refused to open the account and called police, while Smith started cursing at other bank workers. He was apparently still in the bank when the cops arrived and arrested him.

Turns out that the phony $1 million bill wasn't Smith's only adventure in forgery. Before visiting the bank, he used a stolen check to buy several cartons of cigarettes from a nearby grocery store. We're guessing that the cops seized the smokes as evidence, so Mr. Smith will have to find another way to feed that nicotine addiction during his stay in the Big House.

For his creative try at forgery--without checking to see if his bogus bill actually exists--Alexander Smith is a worthy "Idiot of the Week."


A follow-up report from Standard staff writer Karen Daley indicates that police still don't know where Smith picked up the phony currency. But, the bogus bill was once issued as a religious tract, by a Denton, Texas-based ministry. Federal agents seized at least 8,000 of the "tracts" in June 2006, after someone tried to deposit one in a North Carolina bank. While the ministry objected to the seizure, a federal judge ruled that the $1 million notes could be confiscated, since they are the same size as Federal Reserve notes, and were printed with peach-and-green inks similar to those used in the new currency.

The ministry's attorneys argued that no one could mistake the tracts for real money, but there have been at least three instances where individuals have tried to deposit them. In addition to the cases in South Carolina and North Carolina, another bogus $1 million bill was presented at a Pittsburgh bank last month. All of the banks refused the phony currency and notified police. The phony notes bear the likeness of President Grover Cleveland.

For the record, Mr. Cleveland's portrait has appeared on $20 bills printed in 1914, and all $1000 small-sized federal reserve notes. Cleveland's visage can also be found on $1000 gold certificate series from 1928 and 1934.

And, if it's any consolation to our readers in the Palmetto State, we should point out that Mr. Smith is a resident of Georgia, not South Carolina. Let the interstate jokes and insults begin.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Missile by Any Other Name

Iran has announced that it has produced a "new" missile with a range of 1,200 miles, capable of reaching Israel and U.S. military bases in the Middle East.

Tehran's claims, issued by the official IRNA news agency, said the Ashoura missile was produced by factories "associated with the Iranian defense ministry." Iran's Defense Minister, Gen. Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, did not say whether his country has test-fired the missile, or plans to do so.

As the Associated Press notes, "many of Iran's weapons development claims have not been independently verified." That would be an understatement; as we've observed in previous posts, many of Tehran's claims are little more than exaggeration or pure fiction.

A couple of recent examples come to mind. Not long ago, Iran's claimed that it had developed a missile that was invisible to radar. In reality, the "stealth missile" was nothing more than an existing model coated with radar-absorbing paint (which likely peeled off in flight).

Similarly, Tehran's much-hyped high-speed torpedo was copied from a 50-year-old Russian design, and uses a pre-calculated "firing solution" (familiar to anyone who's seen a WWII submarine movie) to reach its target. That means the super torpedo has marginal capabilities against maneuvering targets, or those utilizing counter-measures. Predictably, the glaring deficiencies of those weapons systems were omitted from press reports on Iran's expanding (and supposedly, more sophisticated) military arsenal.

While open source information on the Ashoura remains limited, there is little doubt that Iran is working diligently to improve the range--and capabilities--of its missile fleet. During its annual military parade in September, Tehran unveiled its new Ghadar (Powerful) missile, which has a reported range of 1,119 miles. That's a significant improvement over Iran's other, medium-range missile systems, most notably the Shahab-3. With a range of 800 miles, the Shahab-3 has been operational for the past two years, and Iran has built new underground bases at several locations to house the missile and associated personnel.

However, the early-model Shahab-3 has a couple of serious limitations. First, because of its limited range, the missile must be based in western Iran, to reach targets in Israel. Placing the missile closer to Iran's western border increases its vulnerability to air and naval attack. Secondly, the original Shahab-3 utilizes liquid fuel for its engines. Liquid fuel is highly volatile, and even a minor mishap can trigger a massive explosion, particularly when the missile is being fueled in an enclosed space, such as an underground bunker.

Based on the (limited) information provided by Tehran, it's difficult to tell the differences between the Ashoura and Ghadar. Earlier this year, the Deputy Director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency revealed that Iran is working on at least two variants of the Ghadar, a "110" model with a range of roughly 1,300 miles--similar to that of the missile displayed in September, and a Ghadar 101, believed to have a range of roughly 500 miles. It is possible that the Ashoura is simply a new name for a Ghadar or Shahab-3 variant, or it may represent a completely different missile program.

If that latter assessment proves accurate, it suggests that Tehran is looking for a solid-fuel replacement for the older Shahab-3. With a longer range, the new MRBMs could more easily target Israel, and take advantage of basing options deeper inside Iran's borders, complicating targeting by potential adversaries. Under that scenario, some of the underground complexes in western Iran would become forward operating bases for Ghadar or Ashoura variants, with primarly garrisons located well away from the Persian Gulf.

Still, it's worth noting that Iran's missile programs have proceeded slowly, and large-scale deployments of the Ghadar and/or Ashoura are probably years away. In the interim, various Shahab-3 variants will remain Tehran's primary weapon for striking Israel and reaching other medium-range targets.

And, given Iran's desire to build a massive missile force, capable of firing "hundreds" of rockets and missiles in a single salvo, some of the Shahab-3s will probably remain in service after the Ghadar and Ashoura systems become fully operational. It doesn't make much sense from a budgetary or logistical stand-point, but given Iran's strategic aims (and with oil hovering around $100 a barrel), Tehran can afford multiple, over-lapping missile programs, at least for now.


ADDENDUM: The linked AP story still mentions the Shahab-4 as being under development in Iran. Many analysts believe that program has been terminated, in favor of newer, solid-fueled missiles and the BM-25 system, purchased from North Korea earlier this year. As missile analyst Charles Vick notes at, the Ghadar family of missiles will not only provide Iran with a medium and intermediate range strike capability, they could also give Iran a potential ASAT capability.

Bill Gertz offered similar thoughts in a Washington Times article earlier this year, noting the common "heritage" among various Chinese, Pakistani, North Korean and Iranian missiles. Not surprisingly, all of those countries are also pursuing an anti-satellite capbility (to some degree), and development of a launch vehicle represents a critical step in that process.

History Takes Flight

The 111th Fighter Squadron's specially-painted "anniversary" F-16. Various elements of the paint job recall the unit's service in World War II and Korea (photo by John M. Dibbs via Air Force Times).
If you're an aircraft buff in the Houston area, living near Ellington Field, keep an eye out for a specially-painted F-16, assigned to the 111th Fighter Squadron at the base.

The Viper's distinctive paint scheme recalls the squadron's long history, which dates back 90 years. The description below (printed in Air Force Times) explains the symbolism of the various colors and accents found on the jet:

The red-white-and-blue-striped rudder recalls the JN-4 Jennys the 111th flew in the 1920s, while the wings and flaps have other pre-World War II designs. The fuselage is blue for the Korean War, in which the 111th picked up two air victories. The underside is gray, for the jet age.

The “N5 A” insignia across the F-16’s tail is the one used on the unit’s P-51 Mustangs during World War II, when the squadron claimed 44 air victories. From the Korean War are the star on the tail and the “Ace in the Hole” markings.

Lastly, the ventral fin reads, “Est. 1917.”

Happy anniversary to the men and women of the 111th, part of the Texas Air Guard's 147th Fighter Wing. As you may recall, the 111th is same unit where George W. Bush once served as an F-102 pilot.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Mr. Lott's Next Act

Mississippi Senator Trent Lott at today's press conference announcing his retirement from politics. With a departure from politics, Lott is an early favorite to become the next chancellor at his alma mater, the University of Mississippi (AP photo via Washington Times)

Trent Lott's sudden retirement from the Senate took many observers by surprise. He won re-election by a large margin barely a year ago, and the voters of Mississippi were prepared to send him back to Washington as long as he wanted to serve.

Like John Stennis before him, Lott had become the dominant figure in state politics, and the man who ensured a steady flow of federal dollars to various projects in Mississippi. Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula--Lott's hometown--receives billions of dollars in Navy contracts largely through the efforts of the state's junior senator. In an era of base closings and draw downs, Mississippi's military installations have prospered during Mr. Lott's tenure in Washington. And it was no surprise that his alma mater (the University of Mississippi) was selected to host one of three presidential debates next year.

Despite his occasional slips--including that infamous testimonial to Strom Thurmond in 2002--Trent Lott was well-positioned to represent his home state for years (perhaps decades) to come. That's why many observers expressed shock at his sudden decision to step down, and pursue "other opportunities."

As to what those opportunities might be, there has been some speculation that Lott may become a lobbyist. A new law (which takes effect in January) requires retiring Senators to wait two years before joining the K Street crowd. By exiting now, Lott could begin a lobbying career before the two-year waiting period becomes law. As a lobbyist, Lott could easily earn a seven-figure annual income.

Others believe that Mr. Lott had grown tired of politics in the internet age. He was routinely roasted in the blogosphere for his fondness for pork, and his go-along/get-along approach. Senator Lott was, for many, a symbol of the "out-of-touch" Republicans who lost power in 2006, and show no sign of regaining majority status anytime soon. Faced with that reality--and the understanding that he would never again be Majority Leader, even in a Republican-controlled Senate--Mr. Lott apparently believes now is the right time to end his political career.

But Lott's exit may be rooted in matters closer to home--and his heart. The Biloxi Sun-Herald is reporting that the Senator may be headed for an academic posting. As readers of this blog know, I'm a part-time Mississippi resident, and I've heard the same rumors this morning, in various state GOP circles. Michelle Malkin claims that story doesn't smell right, but obviously, she hasn't spent a lot of time in the Magnolia State. With his retirement from the Senate, Lott becomes the leading candidate to be the next Chancellor of the University of Mississippi.

Fact is, Senator Lott's beloved alma mater is quietly looking for a new leader. The current chancellor, Dr. Robert Khayat, is building his retirement home near the Oxford campus, and is expected to leave that post in the near future. While Khayat's retirement date has not been set, there are indications that his departure may occur sooner rather than later, the result of an apparent rift between the chancellor and influential alumni.

Evidence of that dispute was noted again over the weekend, during the sudden firing of Ole Miss's head football coach, Ed Orgeron. Less than a month ago, Khayat had given Orgeron a ringing endorsement, despite a losing record and disciplinary issues within the program. Khayat suggested that, "unless Orgeron broke the law" he would return for another season as the Rebels' head coach. But after going winless in the Southeastern Conference--and his team's shocking collapse in Friday's season finale against arch-rival Mississippi State--Orgeron was given the boot, by none other than Robert Khayat.

Sources in Oxford indicate that the Chancellor got his marching orders from a group of prominent Ole Miss alumni, led by Dickie Scruggs, the multi-millionaire tobacco lawyer who just happens to be Trent Lott's brother-in-law. Khayat's sudden reversal on Orgeron suggested that he was at odds--or out-of-touch--with the university's most powerful graduates, who had been clamoring for the coach's dismissal since mid-season.

While Dr. Khayat is given credit for expanding the Ole Miss campus and its endowment, he has been criticized for presiding over a "brain drain" at the university, and his creation of new academic programs at the expense of existing ones. Over the past 10 years, a number of leading faculty members have left Ole Miss for higher-paying jobs at other institutions, and Khayat has steadily refused to match their salary offers. Dr. Khayat has also led efforts to create an Honors College and a new international studies institute while long-standing academic programs have languished. Despite the building boom in Oxford, Ole Miss still doesn't have a single academic program this is ranked among the nation's elite.

There is also a sense that the university might be better served with a leader that has Washington connections. In recent years, there has been a veritable parade of ex-Congressmen and cabinet officials who have found employment as university presidents, including the Clinton Administration's Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala (now President at the University of Miami); former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers (who had a rocky tenure as Harvard's President); Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (who ran Texas A&M for a decade before joining the Bush Administration) and former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerry, President of The New School in New York City.

From the institutional perspective, a former Senator or cabinet secretary can be helpful in bringing home federal research dollars; as one of undisputed "Kings of Pork" on Capitol Hill, Mr. Lott could be a veritable gold mine for Ole Miss, using his influence to gain even more research grants for its medical, pharmacy and engineering schools, among others.

As the next Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, Lott could command a salary well above the $429,000 paid to Dr. Khayat. At $500-600,000 a year, Mr. Lott would earn far more that a sitting member of Congress, on top of a Senate pension of roughly $120,000 a year. It may not match the pay package of a Washington lobbyist, but $700,000 a year goes a long, long way in Oxford, Mississippi. And, with brother-in-law Dickie pulling the strings (not to mention the senator's own, considerable influence within the university), Mr. Lott is an early favorite to be the next Chancellor at Ole Miss.

And that may be the real reason for his sudden retirement from the Senate.

Mr. Putin's Thanksgiving Gift

The first F-22s arrived at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska in August 2007; on Thanksgiving Day, they conducted their intial intercept of Russian Bear H bombers, flying near Alaskan airspace (AP photo via Air Force Times)

U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors reportedly conducted their first-ever intercept of Russian Bear H bombers on Thanksgiving Day.

Military sources tell In From the Cold that the intercept occurred as the Russian aircraft approached Alaskan airspace in the Aleutian Islands. A total of four F-22s from Elmendorf AFB, near Anchorage, were scrambled to intercept two Russian bombers, which were detected at long range by radar and intelligence systems.

The Raptors flew alongside the TU-95s for a few minutes before the bombers turned and headed back toward Russian airspace. One of the photographs taken during the intercept is said to show the F-22's shadow falling across the fuselage of a Bear H.

The Thanksgiving mission was the latest by Moscow's long-range bomber squadrons, which have become increasingly aggressive in recent months, following years of inactivity. Since early 2007, Bear and TU-160 Blackjack bombers have flown a series of high-profile sorties against Norway, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Alaska and Guam. In each case, the Russian bombers were intercepted and escorted by U.S. or allied fighters.

Similar missions were flown during the Cold War, and analysts say the recent flights are symbolic of a resurgent Russian military, under President Vladimir Putin.

Last Thursday's intercept came barely three months after the F-22s arrived in Alaska. Elmendorf's 3rd Fighter Wing will eventually operate two squadrons of the fifth-generation fighters. The Air Force is pushing to buy more Raptors (beyond the current production run of 183 aircraft), but critics have complained about the cost of the program.

At $130 million a copy, the F-22 is more far expensive than the F-15s and F-16s that form the backbone of the USAF fighter inventory, but the Raptor offers advanced capabilities--including stealth--that the older jets can't match.

The F-22s conducted the Alaska intercept because Elmendorf's F-15s are grounded, following a recent crash in Missouri. The Eagle involved in that incident reportedly broke apart in mid-air, raising safety concerns about other F-15s. The jets are expected to return to service after inspections of key structural components.

With the F-15s on the ground, the Thanksgiving intercept may have been an inadvertent gift from the Russians. The Air Force is expected to use the mission as proof of an escalating threat, one it hopes to counter with state-of-the-art fighters like the F-22.

A Nation of Ingrates

So, how did Americans spend their Thanksgiving weekend?

We could print the usual laundry list of activities, but that misses the point. You may recall that Americans were asked to do something over the holiday, an activity that would take only a few seconds and cost almost nothing. And sadly, early figures indicate that the request was almost universally ignored. So what did we forget over Thanksgiving?

Eat less? You're kidding, right? Heath experts have been making that plea for years, but no one pays any attention. Pass the gravy.

Spend more? Mission accomplished. Retail sales from "Black Friday" were eight percent higher than last year, indicating that shoppers were out in force over the weekend.

Indeed, amid the usual orgy of food, football and consumerism, most Americans couldn't be bothered to fulfill one simple request, offering a brief "thank you" to the men and women that defend our freedom.

Before Thanksgiving, "American Supports You," a DoD-run program that connects "the rest of us" with military personnel and their families, announced an effort to send text messages of thanks to service members over the holiday weekend. The program, appropriately titled "Giving Thanks" began on 17 November and ran through Thanksgiving Day. By dialing 89729, participants could end a short message of thanks that would be directed to a military member.

Well, the early numbers are in, and the public reaction to "Giving Thanks" was underwhelming, to say the least. According to the American Supports You website, a total of 130,000 text messages of thanks were sent during the five-day period. Alison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for internal communication, described the response as "great," but that's little more than p.r. spin. Consider these numbers:

According to the CTIA-Wireless Association, at least 250 million Americans have cell phone service--roughly 82% of the population. With those phones, we send over 5 billion text messages a month, or just over 160 million a day. The number of text message "thank yous" sent to American troops represents less than one tenth of one percent of the daily total in the United States. And those messages were sent over a holiday weekend, when most of us were away from work.

There are words to describe that level of effort. Pitiful and pathetic come to mind. In a nation obsessed with mobile phones and text messaging, over 99% of cell customers couldn't be bothered to send a simple message of thanks to the men and women defending their freedom.

And it wasn't because the campaign was under-publicized. The major broadcast networks mentioned it during various news programs and there were reminders in other media as well, including digital billboards in Times Square. Tim Russert even highlighted the effort at the end of "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

Still, most of us were too busy--or just couldn't be bothered--to send a text message thanking those who wear the uniform. Ideally, there should have been a flood of messages that strained the system, but the majority of Americans were preoccupied with the usual drivel; WYD? NMU? TLK2UL8R, GG..BYN.

The feeble response to "Giving Thanks" highlights the enormous chasm between those who serve and those who don't. Roughly one out of every 30 Americans is a member of the active military, the national guard or reserves, but you wouldn't know that by the volume of "thank you" messages sent over Thanksgiving. In fact, the number of text messages logged by America Supports You doesn't even equal the number of troops currently deployed to Iraq.

And despite our indifference, outstanding young men and women still answer the call to duty. Listen to the words of Marine Corps recruits, recently interviewed at Parris Island. Or talk to Pat and Kathy Hickie of Bristol, Tennessee (H/T: Chief Buddy). The Hickies have three sons; all are on active duty in the Air Force. One has already pulled two tours in Iraq, and another is preparing to go. As Mr. Hickie told the Bristol News: "I’m thankful that all three of our sons are safe and healthy...Every day that the phone doesn’t ring is a good one."

The Hickie family and those young Marines at Parris Island understand the ideals of service and sacrifice--concepts that are largely lost on the rest of our population. Over a long holiday weekend, amid the travails of gluttony, shopping and travel, most Americans couldn't find the time to say "thanks" to the men and women who deserve that accolade, perhaps more than any other group in our society.

One hundred and thirty thousand messages of support--in a nation of 300 million--is simply shameful. Members of the U.S. military should get more than text messages of support. They also deserve an apology, from a nation of ingrates.


ADDENDUM: For the record, both Mrs. Spook and Your Humble Correspondent sent messages of thanks. But like most Americans, we could have--and should have--done a lot more. The same holds true for the cell phone companies participating in "Giving Thanks." Standard rates still applied to text messages sent as part of the campaign.

Friday, November 23, 2007

How Green is Their Hypocrisy

An inconvenient truth: airport officials in Bali are concerned that an influx of private jets--for a UN conference on climate change--will crowd parking ramps, and force some attendees to park their aircraft at other airfields (Gulfstream photo).

Scores of world leaders and environmentalists will gather in Bali next month, for the much-hyped UN Climate Change Conference (3-13 December). This will be the thirteenth such meeting, which brings together nations and organizations that generated the fatally-flawed Kyoto Protocols back in 1994. And, in the "spirit" of Kyoto, the gloom-and-doom template for next month's Bali meeting has already been established. In the words of Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC):

"The Bali conference will be the culmination of a momentous twelve months in the climate debate and needs a breakthrough in the form of a roadmap for a future climate change deal. Early in the year, scientific evidence of global warming, as set out in the fourth assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), put the reality of human-induced global warming beyond any doubt. What we are facing is not only an environmental problem, but has much wider implications: For economic growth, water and food security, and for people's survival - especially those living in the poorest communities in developing countries."


"...we urgently need to take increased action, given climate change projections and the corresponding global adaptation needs. Prompt and aggressive mitigation will drive down the costs involved in adaptation. In the context of climate change, projections of economic growth and increases in energy demand over the next 20 years, especially in developing countries, point to the urgent need to green these trends.

Mr. de Boer's concerns about climate change, energy demands and the need to "green these trends" ought to start with his own little gathering. Not only is the conference being held in an exotic (but remote) location, it turns out that many of the swells--you guessed it--will be traveling on private jets. Dennis Collins at Daily Aviator found this press release from Bali Discovery Tours, warning that ramp space at Ngurah Rai International Airport will be severely constrained, due to the expected influx of private jets for the U.N. Conference.

"...the management of Bali's Ngurah Rai International Airport are concerned that the large number of additional private charter flights expected in Bali during the UN Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC) December 3-15, 2007, will exceed the carrying capacity of apron areas. To meet the added demand for aircraft storage officials are allocating "parking space" at other airports in Indonesia.

The operational manager for Bali's Airport, Azjar Effendi, says his 3 parking areas can only accommodate 15 planes, which means that some of the jets used by VIP delegations will only be allowed to disembark and embark their planes in Bali with parking provided at airports in Surabaya, Lombok, Jakarta and Makassar.

Let's much fuel does a Gulfstream V burn on a flight from Europe or North America to Bali. Then, you've got the "parking hop" from Ngurah Rai to another airport, the flight back to Bali and the journey home. Quite a carbon footprint, eh?

Not that we'd expect U.N. swells and their environmentalist friends to use commercial flights for that trip to Bali. Why, it's a 24-hour flight from LAX, and depending on their routing/airlines, they'd probably have to change planes in Seoul or Taipei. No need to fly with the tourist riff-raff when you can arrive in style on your own private jet.

Never mind that a single hour of operating expenses for a Gulfstream V or G550 is comparable to a round-trip airline ticket between Los Angeles and Bali. And, in fairness, we should point out that various Gulfstream models are the most efficient in their class; the costs of flying other private jets to Bali and back would be even more expensive.

Not that it really matters. This is merely another example of the environmental movement--formally institutionalized by the UN--asking the rest of us to emulate their rhetoric, rather than their deeds. For all their concern about "greenhouse gases" and "global warming," they have no problem discussing those issues in Bali (one of the most distant, albeit beautiful locations on earth), and flying to the conference in a fleet of inefficient, private jets.


ADDENDUM: From what we understand, Al Gore will not be at the Bali meeting. Instead, he'll be in Oslo, to pick-up his recently-awarded Nobel Peace Prize for "disseminating greater knowledge about man-made climate change." There's still no word on how Mr. Gore plans to travel to Norway. We know that he has a preference for private jets, but for his Next Big Moment on the World Stage, will the former Vice-President actually practice what he preaches? In his science blog at The New York Times, Jon Tierney posted this rather timely reminder from Al Gore's Oscar-winning "documentary."

Flying is another form of transportation that produces large amounts of carbon dioxide. Reducing air travel even by one or two flights per year can significantly reduce emissions. . . . If your airplane travel is for business, consider whether you can telecommute instead.

Call us skeptics, but we don't see Mr. Gore accepting his Nobel via a webcast from Nashville and Oslo. Just as we'll confidently predict that the parking ramp at Ngurah Rai airport will be crowded with private jets next month, in support of that UN conference on climate change.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Decrease in Violence

Since late summer, we've been hearing reports about decreasing violence in Iraq. But the PowerPoint slide below nicely illustrates the magnitude of the drop:

As the graphic indicates, overall attack levels are at their lowest point since the Samarra mosque bombing in early 2006. Can the decline be sustained? That remains to be seen, but the trend is clearly encouraging.

Another point to consider: the graphic was released by General Petraeus's public affairs officer a few days ago. I found it in Max Boot's excellent blog at Commentary magazine. We can assume the same slide is available to MSM outlets--or, at the very least, they could present the information in their own graphics. Have you seen this slide in a major American newspaper, or on the evening news?

Didn't think so.

The Lost Lesson of the First Thanksgiving

A painting of the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving celebration in 1621. They had much to be thankful for--including a decision to abandon a collectivist economic system in favor of private property and individual enterprise. Without the change, the Pilgrims might have starved to death (Wikipedia graphic).

In honor of tomorrow's holiday, John Stossel offers a forgotten lesson in history (and economics), at RealClearPolitics:

When the Pilgrims first settled the Plymouth Colony, they organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share everything equally, work and produce.

They nearly all starved.

Why? When people can get the same return with a small amount of effort as with a large amount, most people will make little effort. Plymouth settlers faked illness rather than working the common property. Some even

stole, despite their Puritan convictions. Total production was too meager to support the population, and famine resulted. Some ate rats, dogs, horses and cats. This went on for two years.

"So as it well appeared that famine must still ensue the next year also, if not some way prevented," wrote Gov. William Bradford in his diary. The colonists, he said, "began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length after much debate of things, [I] (with the advice of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves. ... And so assigned to every family a parcel of land."

The people of Plymouth moved from socialism to private farming. The results were dramatic.

"This had very good success," Bradford wrote, "for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. ... By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many. ... "

Read the whole thing. Then, if you have a child in elementary school, ask them what they were taught about the first Thanksgiving. As Mr. Stossel observes, the usual bromides about "the benefits of sharing" miss the real point. The real legacy of that first Thanksgiving--rooted in private property rights and personal initiative--is all-but-unknown.

Today's Reading Assignment

Ralph Peters in the New York Post, on Iraq: What Went Right. He attributes the rapidly-improving security situation to a combination of factors: courage, skill, luck and exhaustion.

He also notes the importance of staying the course--against the prevailing currents of conventional wisdom and political expediency. As Lt Col Peters writes:

We didn't quit: Even as some of us began to suspect that Iraqi society was hopelessly sick, our troops stood to and did their duty bravely. The tenacity of our soldiers and Marines in the face of mortal enemies in Iraq and blithe traitors at home is the No. 1 reason why Iraq has turned around.

Without their valor and sacrifice, nothing else would've mattered. Key leaders were courageous, too - men such as now-Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno. Big Ray was pilloried in our media for being too warlike, too aggressive and just too damned tough on our enemies.

Well, the Ray Odiernos, not the hearts-and-minds crowd, held the line against evil. Only by hammering our enemies year after year were we able to convince them that we couldn't - and wouldn't - be beaten. If the press wronged any single man or woman in uniform, it was Odierno - thank God he was promoted and stayed in the fight.

What a difference a year makes. Thanksgiving 2006 was filled with talk about a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, with little regard for the security consequences. There was also talk from James Baker (and other so-called wise men) to develop some sort of political settlement with other countries in the region, including Iran. What a disaster that would have been. Yet, it was viewed as a serious policy option--perhaps our only viable option--barely a year ago.

We have much to be thankful for this holiday season, beyond the usual blessings that come with being an American. We should thankful for heroes like General Odierno--and the thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines--who held the line, and accomplishing what the "experts" claimed could never be done.

Keeping The Best and Brightest

At NRO's The Corner, Victor Davis Hanson notes the "crop" of brilliant Army and Marine Corps Colonels that have emerged during the War in Iraq--and the need to keep them in uniform. The issue has become so important that the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, was recently recalled from his post to chair a recent promotion board, which will select the Army's next group of brigadier generals.

Retired Major General Bob Scales, the former head of the U.S. Army War College, told the Washington Post that summoning a theater commander to run a promotion board is simply unheard of. Both Scales and other defense officials (past and present) believe that Petraeus' selection to chair the board is aimed at promoting the "right" officers--those with a strong track record as commanders and innovators in Iraq:

"It's unprecedented for the commander of an active theater to be brought back to head something like a brigadier generals board," said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, former head of the Army War College. A senior defense official said Petraeus is "far too high-profile for this to be a subtle thing."


Petraeus, a four-star general with a doctorate in international relations, has spent three of the past four years in Iraq and has observed firsthand many of the colonels under consideration for promotion. He is well-regarded by military officials for his political skills in Iraq and at home, including winning support from a skeptical Congress for a U.S. troop increase in Iraq.

"Dave Petraeus in many ways is viewed as the archetype of what this new generation of senior leader is all about," Scales said, "a guy . . . who understands information operations, who can be effective on
Capitol Hill, who can communicate with Iraqis, who understands the value of original thought, who has the ability through the power of his intellect to lead people to change."

There are also clear concerns that the "current" Army promotion system isn't up to the task. General Petraeus's executive officer, Colonel Peter Mansoor, was recently passed over over for Brigadier General, as was Colonel H.R. McMaster, who (as a brigade commander) cleared insurgents from Tal Afar in 2005, during an operation that, in some respects, became a model for the subsequent troop surge.

Mansoor and McMaster were also instrumental in developing the military's new counter-insurgency doctrine and they have been described as genuine soldier-scholars; both earned doctorate degrees and have authored critically-praised books on military history and military-political affairs. McMaster's damning indictment of the lies, deceit and feckless decision-making by military and political leaders during the Vietnam War (Dereliction of Duty), became an instant classic, and required reading at all the service schools. Mansoor's The GI Offensive in Europe, the Triumph of American Infantry Divisions, 1941-45 is a well-crafted account of the (supposedly) inferior units that ultimately prevailed against the German Wehrmacht.

And, from an institutional perspective, that may be part of the problem. While the Army (and the other services) prize advanced degrees and academic training, there is a fine line between "filling" the necessary squares, and spending too much time "away from the troops." Historically, the military has often viewed officers with Ph.Ds as some of an oddity, better suited to training posts than senior leadership positions (General Petraeus, who earned a doctorate at Princeton, is an obvious exception to that rule).

Additionally, officers with PhDs find themselves at another disadvantage in facing promotion boards. Very few of the officers on the panel have doctoral degrees, and many "mark down" a candidate for spending three to five years in a PhD program--time they believe would have been better spent in command or staff assignments.

General Petraeus' return for that recent promotion board is clearly aimed at reversing such thinking--and ensuring that the Army's best combat leaders continue to advance. As the Post noted in its account, all members of the promotion board had an equal vote, but as chairman, Petraeus was in a position to steer the discussion, and personally attest to the skills of individual officers. Having spent three of the last four years in Iraq, General Petraeus knows all of the brigade commanders who have served there. More than a few of those officers were considered by the promotion board that Petraeus chaired.

Names of those selected won't be released for several months. Roughly 1,000 Colonels met the board and only 40 or so will be promoted, so the selection criteria is exceptionally rigorous. The results of that board will provide an early indication of how the Army views its counter-insurgency "experts" that have produced recent, dramatic security gains in Iraq, and what sort of future those officers have in the service. It's a safe bet that many of Petraeus's brigade commanders will be on the list, but the rejection of Mansoor and McMaster remains troubling; suggesting that some still have a "traditionalist" view of what a general should be. Using that template, officers who are both warriors and scholars may not make the cut.


ADDENDUM: As Max Boot, Dr. Hanson (and others) have noted, the Army faces an even greater challenge in retaining--and promoting--combat leaders at the lower ranks. Anecdotal evidence suggest that more junior officers, notably at the Captain and Major level, are leaving the service because they feel alientated from senior leaders who lack their combat experience, and haven't institutionalized the lessons from Iraq. As one Army officer told the Washington Post:

"There are some great captains and majors who have great insight into this type of warfare. They are not leaving because they don't have enough money; they are leaving because no one is listening to them. They don't trust the people above them," said an Army officer who served two tours in Iraq, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

We should also point out that the issue of retaining (and promoting) the right people may be equally acute in other services, including the Air Force. While most of the USAF's senior leaders are fighter pilots, the service's greatest contributions in the War on Terror have been provided by UAV units (and the associated intel architecture), special forces personnel (pararescuemen, combat controllers and aircrew members), EOD teams and support specialists, including thousands of airmen who handle security and convoy operations in Iraq. Keeping those combat airmen in uniform represents an equally vital task for the Air Force.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

How Bureaucracy (Doesn't) Work

The Army is doing a quick shuffle on the case of a Pittsburgh-area soldier who was asked to repay part of his re-enlistment bonus--after being badly wounded in Iraq and medically retired from the service.

As KDKA-TV reported on Tuesday, Jordan Fox received a letter from the Army earlier this year, asking him to return more than $3,000 from his re-enlistment bonus. The letter arrived not long after Fox was injured in a roadside bomb attack that left him blind in one eye. According to the Army, Fox was required to repay part of the bonus, because he was unable to finish his military tour.

Now, the Pentagon is taking a different approach, claiming that the letter was an error, and asking for a chance to make things right.

"... A military spokesman told KDKA's Marty Griffin the bill sent to Fox was a mistake.

Griffin asked Army Spokesperson Major Nathan Banks if the government was taking on Fox's case.Banks said via phone, "We are. We are ... definitely working it out. We have seen where the problems have been made, the system, and we're just making - you know, give us the opportunity to make a wrong a right."

Major Banks says Fox will not have to pay back his bonus. Fox says "fine," but he wants more.

"Hopefully this will turn into change for not only me but many other soldiers that have lost limbs, you know, become permanently deaf," he said. "I hope to see a change for everybody."

As a retired military officer, I have no doubt that the letter was a mistake. And, I have no reason to believe that the Army isn't trying to rectify the situation.

But, having dealt with the military bureaucracy for three decades, I'm not convinced that Fox--and other wounded vets--won't receive similar letters in the future. Here's why:

The military, like the rest of the federal government, operates under personnel and compensation rules that are, at times, obtuse, confusing and even contradictory. Making matters worse, many of these databases can't share information, due to the Privacy Act or technical problems.

Enter Private Fox. Somewhere, an Army finance system showed that Fox was discharged before his tour was up, and that he received a reenlistment bonus. Based on the early release and the amount paid, the "system" determined that Fox must refund part of that money.

Meanwhile, other databases (correctly) identified Fox as a wounded warrior who had to leave the military due to combat-related injuries. If the compensation system could only communicate with the appropriate personnel databases, then Fox wouldn't have received that letter, demanding a refund.

The key word here is "could." Talk to anyone who's worked with military computers, and you'll hear horror stories about "stovepiped" networks that don't share information. Throw in the usual layers of bureaucracy and scores of indifferent employees, and you've got a "system" that routinely declares retirees "dead" and cuts off their pension, or keeps sending payments to service members who expired months or years ago. The problems can be fixed, some general will tell Congress, but we need a few hundred million (or billion) to update the system.

Based on our experience, it will probably take an act of Congress (or an Executive Order) to straighten out this mess, and keep it from happening again. Left to its own devices, the bureaucracy may fix Mr. Fox's problem, but there's no guarantee that the Army's computers won't keep churning out refund letters to other wounded combat vets. Consistent pressure from above is the only thing that will solve this problem, once and for all.

The bad news, of course, is that any permanent "solution" will take at least a couple of years to implement. Rome wasn't built in a day, and networking the appropriate databases and computer systems will--you guessed it--take many months, a major infusion of tax dollars and the support of a major defense contractor. And lest we forget, the government's rules for soliciting and awarding major military contracts are even more cumbersome than their rules for personnel administration and compensation.

Your Tax Dollars at Work (VIP Airlift Edition)

Remember this sight as you're waiting in line at the airport, or sitting on the tarmac during your Thanksgiving weekend flight. From Bill Sweetman at Aviation Week's defense technology blog:

With exquisite timing, Boeing chooses a travel weekend that could go down in the annals of airborne horror to deliver a top-of-the-line Boeing Business Jet that will be assigned to Congress - those folks who have charged billions in air travel taxes over the decades and left us with 1930s blind-landing technology. The jet took off from Seattle this morning for its base at Scott AFB in Illinois.


The C-40C, jam-packed with 40 seats by luxury-jet specialists at Greenpoint Technologies, is the third and last of a batch ordered in 2005. They will be operated by the USAF reserve to carry Congressional delegations around the world.

Funny how nobody in Washington ever mentions these $70 million jets as an example of wasteful defense spending. Or as an example of an unjustified Air Force mission that doesn't support our soldiers on the ground.

And don't forget, the travel perks don't end there. In addition to their global junkets on Air Force VIP aircraft, members of Congress also received 32, fully-reimbursed trips to their home districts each year, and free, reserved parking at Reagan National Airport in Washington.

One final thought: the delivery of a new "junket jet" for Congress may infuriate a lot of taxpayers, but there's a method in Boeing's apparent madness. Winners of the KC-X and CSAR-X contracts will be announced early next year, and by delivering the C-40 now (just in time for Christmas holiday "fact-finding" trips), the aircraft giant hopes that some of its Congressional friends will pressure the Air Force to steer those contracts toward Boeing.

H/T: Glenn Reynolds.

Paging Arnold Zenker

The man who would be Walter; Arnold Zenker, the impromptu CBS anchor of 1967, in a recent photo from his company's website.

Just when her ratings were rising a bit, Katie Couric is now facing a new challenge. But don't worry, CBS; we've got a solution--and it won't cost you $15 million. More on that in a moment.

First, the day's top story: Roughly 80% of the writers, producers and editors at CBS News--including much of the staff responsible for the CBS Evening News--have authorized a strike, after working without a new contract for more than two years. The CBS employees are part of the Writer's Guild, which represents more than 500 news division personnel in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

That means the Perky One won't have that usual team that selects and writes the stories she reads on the Evening News, or produces the various video "packages" that are an integral part of her broadcast. That's one of the dirty little secrets of broadcast news; while anchors at the network and local levels insist they are journalists, most do little reporting, and rely on producers and writers to select the stories and prepare the broadcast.

After three decades in TV news, we assume that Ms. Couric is capable of pounding out a couple of items for her nightly broadcast. Of course, we could be wrong. Couric's CBS blog, we learned a few months ago, features video "essays" that are actually written by network producers, and voiced by the anchor. That system led to a plagiarism scandal, after it was discovered that one of the essays had been lifted from The Wall Street Journal. The offending producer--or perhaps we should say stenographer--was fired.

While it might be interesting to watch Couric read a few stories she actually wrote, we're guessing that the CBS anchor won't cross the picket line. She has more than enough money to weather a long strike and besides, why antagonize key staffers who will return to the newsroom once the matter is settled.

On the other hand, honoring the picket lines could mean the Couric will surrender her recent ratings gains. With CBS (and the star anchor) under pressure to show something for her massive annual salary, Ms. Couric she may elect to stay on the job, and avoid another ratings slide.

It's happened before. Forty years ago, another broadcast union, the American Federation of Televison and Radio Artists (AFTRA) authorized a strike that kept most of the anchors off the network news programs. One exception was NBC legend Chet Huntley--then in a ratings struggle with CBS. Mr Huntley refused to honor the picket line, claiming that AFTRA is "singers, actors, jugglers, announcers, entertainers and comedians whose problems have no relation to ours." His on-air partner, David Brinkley, supported the strike, as did Walter Cronkite at CBS.

As members of the Writer's Guild at CBS News head for the picket lines, they would be advised to remember that the show went on back in 1967, even without union talent. Executives and managers were pressed into service and the broadcasts continued. There were more than a few bloopers, but viewers (and listeners) still tuned in.

This time, it's a different scenario. Viewership for the broadcast network's evening news programs is a fraction of what it was 20 years ago, and amateur hour broadcasts--without star anchors--may only accelerate audience defection to cable and the internet. In a rather ironic twist, former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw recently told an interviewer that the print editions of major newspapers (specifically the Washington Post) will be gone within 10 years. He didn't offer a life expectancy for his own network's Nightly News, but as the audience continues to erode, its days are likely numbered, too. Against that backdrop, history may record the CBS strike as the network news equivalent of backing up the Titanic, for another run at the iceberg.

Personally, we welcome the strike at the one-time Tiffany Network. With the Evening News (potentially) in the hands of management "scabs" and other non-union types, perhaps we won't get the usual dose of unvarnished liberalism that's been the hallmark of CBS News since the days of Uncle Walter. Besides, it's bound to be a hoot if someone from the executive suite winds up in the anchor chair.

When Walter Cronkite (and many of his colleagues) refused to cross the picket line in 1967, CBS turned to Arnold Zenker to read the news. Mr. Zenker, a 28-year-old graduate of the University of Pennsylvania law school, had been working as Manager of News Programming at CBS. While no one confused Zenker for The Most Trusted Man in America, he did a credible job, and went on to host TV and radio shows in Boston and Baltimore. Today, he runs a successful media consulting firm.

At age 69, Mr. Zenker clearly has the gravitas for the CBS anchor chair, assuming that Ms. Perky won't cross the picket line. If he's been off the job for 40 years, no worry. It's only television news.

Bring on the strike. And bring back Arnold.


ADDENDUM: Bob Greene looks back at Mr. Zenker's brief career as a CBS anchor in this 2006 op-ed piece from The New York Times. It was published on September 4th of last year--the day of Katie Couric's debut at CBS.