Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Good Ideas in Search of Leadership

Looking for ways to curb rising food prices--and decrease our dependence on foreign oil? Here are three no-brainer solutions. Too bad no one has the courage to actually implement them.

First, on the food front; we found this rather interesting assessment from the Associated Press, yes, the AP:

Some top international food scientists Tuesday recommended halting the use of food-based biofuels, such as ethanol, saying it would cut corn prices by 20 percent during a world food crisis.
But even as the scientists were calling for a moratorium, President Bush urged the opposite. He declared the United States should increase ethanol use because of national energy security and high gas prices.

The conflicting messages Tuesday highlighted the ongoing debate over food and fuel needs.

The three senior scientists with an international research consortium pushing a biofuel moratorium said nations need to rethink programs that divert food such as corn and soybeans into fuel, given the burgeoning worldwide food crisis. The group, CGIAR, is a global network that uses science to fight hunger. It is funded by dozens of countries and private foundations.

If leading nations stopped biofuel use this year, it would lead to a price decline in corn by about 20 percent and wheat by about 10 percent from 2009-10, said Joachim von Braun. He heads the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, the policy arm of CGIAR. The United States is the biggest biofuel producer.

He and the other scientists said work should be stepped up on the use of non-grain crops, such as switchgrass, for biofuel.

Another scientist, not associated with the group, agreed with their call for a halt on the use of grain for fuel.

On the energy front, Investor's Business Daily has a couple of timely--and vital--reads. "Amber Waves of Pain" details the ethanol folly. Despite years of Congressional mandates, ethanol remains a woefully inefficient fuel, unable to compete in the market without massive subsidies. Meanwhile, the world is facing food shortages because much of the U.S. corn crop is being devoted to ethanol production.

In fact, you know that biofuels have reached a crisis when members of Congress start talking about freezing the ethanol mandate. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas has introduced legislation to do just that, emphasizing its impact on global food prices. Thanks to the ethanol craze, the price of wheat, corn and soybeans has risen 240% over the past two years.

You'd think that a Republican President would welcome Hutchinson's bill. You'd also be wrong. President Bush remains solidly behind the ethanol mandate, despite the economic repercussions. Of course, Mr. Bush and his foreign policy team also believe that North Korea can be trusted, so with that type of world view, then subsidizing ethanol makes perfect sense.

And lest we forget, there is a better solution for our energy woes, noted in Robert Samuelson's latest column. It's called drilling for oil, in ANWAR and off our coastline. As he observes:

It may surprise Americans to discover that the United States is the third-largest oil producer, behind Saudi Arabia and Russia. We could be producing more, but Congress has put large areas of potential supply off-limits. These include the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and parts of Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico.

By government estimates, these areas may contain 25-30 billion barrels of oil (against about 30 billion of proven U.S. reserves today) and 80 trillion cubic feet or more of natural gas (compared with about 200 tcf of proven reserves).

What keeps these areas closed are exaggerated environmental fears, strong prejudice against oil companies and sheer stupidity. Americans favor both "energy independence" and cheap fuel. They deplore imports — who wants to pay foreigners? — but oppose more production in the United States. Got it?

El Rushbo often observes that ignorance is our most costly commodity. We would submit that political cowardice runs a close second. And it's glaringly on display in our so-called energy policies.

Quality of Life

Sewage blocks a bathroom drain in a barracks at Fort Bragg, North Carolina (photo by Ed Frawley, via AP)

The Army is under fire again, this time for dilapidated barracks at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. When members of the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Regiment returned from a 15-month tour in Afghanistan, they moved into a building with peeling paint; mold on ceilings and walls, a bathroom drain blocked by sewage and broken door locks.

Unfortunately for the Army brass, the father of a returning trooper brought along his camera and recorded the deplorable conditions, then posted the video on You Tube. Ed Frawley, a dog breeder from Wisconsin, had traveled to Fort Bragg to welcome home his son, Army Sergeant Jeff Frawley. He made the tape after viewing the living conditions endured by Sergeant Frawley and other members of his unit:

The instant you walk through the front door, you know you are in a building that should be condemned,” he said.

Conditions inside the barracks have attracted the attention of two North Carolina politicians, Senator Elizabeth Dole and Congressman Bob Etheridge, whose district includes Fort Bragg. Both are demanding answers. As the AP reports:

"Our service members deserve safe, clean housing,” she said. “If this video posting accurately portrays living conditions for our soldiers, this is wholly unacceptable and it must be immediately corrected.”

Ethridge agreed, saying "Although the military continues to be stretched thin during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no excuse for substandard housing for our soldiers."

Army officials have acknowledged the problem at Fort Bragg and ordered a worldwide inspection of its barracks. Brigadier General Dennis Rogers, who runs the service's barracks maintenance program, said most of the checks were conducted last week, but he hasn't seen the final results.

In an attempt at damage control, the Army arranged a media tour of the barracks at Fort Bragg. While many of the buildings that house members of the 82nd Airborne Division (and other units) are being renovated or replaced, at least 40 older barracks, dating from the 1950s, are still in use.

The contractor for the renovation project, Weston Solutions, reports that the old living quarters received "no significant upgrades" during much of their service life. The renovation plan is aimed at extending each barrack's "useful life" by 5-10 years, pending new construction.

It was not immediately clear if the building in question is on the renovation list, or when it might be replaced. A base spokesman told the AP that all single paratroopers are scheduled to be in new buildings by 2012.

Weston's comment about the condition of some buildings at Fort Bragg speaks volumes about why the Army is facing this problem. Over the past 30 years, the service has generally lagged behind other branches of the military in offering "quality-of-life" improvements for its youngest enlisted members. When other services--most notably, the Air Force--began moving to dormitory-style rooms with semi-private baths in the late 1970s, the Army dragged its feet, retaining hundreds of older barracks with communal latrines and little privacy.

The conditions at Fort Bragg are more distressing when you consider that the Army adopted a new housing standard for its unmarried, junior enlisted members more than a decade ago. Under the "One Plus One" standard mandated by the Secretary of Defense in 1997, all services were supposed to provide a private room to all single enlisted personnel, with the exception of those in basic training, attending technical schools, deployed to combat zones or embarked on a ship.

Along with the private room, the "One Plus One" arrangement called for semi-private bathrooms and a kitchenette, shared by no more than two soldiers. The run-down barracks at Fort Bragg is clearly light-years behind that standard, implemented by the Army eleven years ago.

It's also worth noting that some branches of the military have actually moved beyond the requirements of "One Plus One." In 2003, the Air Force expanded the concept, creating a dormitory plan called "Four Plus One." Quarters built to that specification have four airmen in a larger suite, sharing a common living room and full kitchen. But the plan also gives each resident their own bedroom and bath, a major improvement over other housing arrangements. The Air Force has built "Four Plus One" dorms at eight of its bases over the past five years.

The Army has also invested heavily in new housing for junior enlisted personnel, spending at least $1 billion on barracks construction and renovation over the past five years. But, in some respects, the Army faces greater hurdles in meeting its housing goals. Not only does it need more rooms, the service has also elected to build what it calls "barracks complexes," supporting all aspects of a soldiers' life. As a 2003 DoD press release described it:

These complexes include soldier community buildings, consolidated dayrooms, common fully-equipped ktichen, mailroom and laundry. Company operations buildings have bulk storage for TA-50 field gear, so that duffel bags no longer dominate the sleeping room.

Storage, shower facilities and mud-rooms for cleaning gear and boots are desinged to accommodate all soldiers in the unit, not just those in the barracks. Brigade and battalion headquarters and dining facilities in separate buildings are also incorporated.

As you might expect, it takes longer to design and build a barracks complex, instead of simply building a new dormitory. But that's little consolation for the troops at Fort Bragg, who have been saddled with substandard quarters after 15 months in combat.

And, in a sense, they're paying for mistakes made over the Army during the past 30 years. Talk with former Air Force civil engineers, First Sergeants and Senior Enlisted Advisers who served in areas with Army and Marine Corps installations in the 1980s and 90s. At forums on barracks design and other key, quality-of-life issues, the USAF was often derided for offering quarters that were "too nice" by military standards.

Back in those days, some viewed the notion of private bedrooms and bathrooms as a threat to military cohesion and discipline. That's one reason the Army was slow to follow the Air Force's lead and never really embraced the idea of personal space and privacy for junior enlisted personnel, at least until "One Plus One" became the military standard.

As for the situation at Fort Bragg, it will be fixed. Ed Frawley has already received a phone call from General Richard Cody, the Army Vice Chief of Staff, so the issue is on a lot of high-level radar screens. But the service could have saved itself a lot of time, money and embarrassment by taking a different approach 20 years ago, and making greater investments in new barracks and other important, quality-of-life issues.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The New Kings of Defense Pork?

The new earmark kings? Washington Democrat Norman Dicks (top) and Kansas Republican Todd Tiahrt are supporting a bill that would defund the Air Force's new tanker contract (awarded to Northrop-Grumman), in favor of a bid from rival Boeing. The Tiahrt-Dicks plan would be a $35 billion earmark, the largest in Congressional history.

Kansas Republican Todd Tiahrt may soon enter the golden pantheon of pork-barrel politics. According to Aerospace Daily & Defense Report, Mr. Tiahart may offer an amendment to a future defense bill, halting the Air Force's recently-awarded, $35 billion tanker contract. Tiahrt's proposed amendment would be the largest earmark in Congressional history, according to the watchdog group, Citizens Against Government Waste.

Congressman Tiahrt is a former Boeing employee and the defense giant has a huge plant in his Wichita district. Tiahrt has been upset since the Air Force awarded its next-generation tanker contract to rival Northrop-Grumman, a move that could mean billions of dollars--and thousands of jobs--in states like Kansas and Washington, where Boeing has a major presence. That's why Mr. Tiahrt and his Congressional allies are contemplating a bid to defund the tanker deal.

Tiahrt's chief ally in the legislative effort, Washington Congressman Norman Dicks, makes no secret of their plan. "We're going to try to eliminate funding," he recently told The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Dicks, a Democrat, represents a district that includes Boeing's largest assembly plants.

Dicks and Tiahrt are following the lead of Pennsylvania's John Murtha, the powerful Chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. When the Air Force announced that Northrop-Grumman had won the tanker contract, Mr. Murtha snorted "This is anything but a done deal." He also reminded the Chicago Tribune that "all this committee has to do is stop the money and this project is not going forward." Tiahrt's amendment would represent the first legislative attempt to halt the tanker program.

It's unclear when opponents of the tanker bill might offer their defunding amendment. At a 17 rally for Boeing in Washington, Tiahrt's staff distributed a memo, listing potential legislative targets for their earmark proposal. One of the bills is a supplemental funding measure for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Congressman Tiahrt admits the "war supplemental" is the wrong vehicle for a tanker decision, "I want to bring this issue to the attention of the Appropriations Committee."

If Tiahart and his supporters take a pass on the war funding bill, they could attach the defunding amendment to other defense authorization measures, now moving through the House and Senate. Obviously, inserting the tanker earmark into those bills would complicate Congressional approval and delay funding for other defense programs. And that's exactly what the Boeing caucus has in mind.

Citizens Against Government Waste has lambasted the Tiahrt-Dicks plan, naming the two Congressmen as their "Porkers of the Month." The group believes Congressional maneuvering on the tanker deal should stop until the Government Accountability Office (GAO) completes a review of the contract and releases its findings in mid-June. That strikes us as an eminently sensible approach.

But those pleas will be ignored by Congressmen opposed to the Northrop-Grumman tanker contract. There's simply too much money on the table and quite frankly, opponents of the tanker deal are afraid that it will stand on its own merits. That's a sharp contrast to Boeing's original "tanker lease" proposal, a sweetheart deal that triggered a criminal investigation and (ultimately) resulted in jail sentences for a senior company executive and the Air Force's top procurement civilian.

Boeing supporters are also keenly aware that their tanker (based on a 767 jetliner) delivers less fuel and cargo than its rival, which is built on an Airbus A330 airframe. In fact, the Northrop-Grumman/Airbus product beat the Boeing plane in four of five measures of merit, providing ample justification for winning the Air Force contract.

That's one reason that Boeing's friends in Congress will use "other tactics" to undo the tanker deal. Unable to beat the Northrop-Grumman entry in performance, Boeing's best hope is a legislative end-around, using its House and Senate pals to wage a guerrilla funding war against the winning bid.

Sadly, it just might work. Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have already criticized the tanker deal, claiming its will cost thousands of American jobs. That sort of argument has traction in an election year, particularly in states that have lost thousands of manufacturing jobs. The tanker contract is far from finished as a campaign issue, and presidential politics provide more incentives for gradually de-funding the current contract, or killing it outright.

Meanwhile, the Air Force desperately needs new tankers to replace 50-year-old KC-135s, which rolled off the Boeing assembly line during the Eisenhower administration. But, a protracted battle over the recently-awarded contract will further delay the delivery of new refueling planes, originally scheduled for 2012. Unfortunately, military readiness often takes a back seat to partisan and pork barrel politics in Washington. On its current track, the tanker battle could drag on for months--and if Congressman Tiahrt, Dicks and Murtha have their way--we may see the bidding process start all over again.

It's just one more reminder that our defense procurement process is hard-broke, and no one (at least, no one in Congress) has any incentive to fix it. Mr. Tiahrt and Mr. Dicks will wear their "Porker of the Month" title as a badge of honor--as long as it helps undermine the Northrop-Grumman deal, and improves Boeing's chances of winning the tanker contract.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Next ISR Penetrator

Son of Blackbird on the way? The Air Force is considering a long-range penetrating ISR variant of its next-generation bomber. In that role, the unmanned aircraft would perform missions similar to those of the SR-71 (Wikipedia photo).

Despite the development of reconnaissance drones and improvements in spy satellite technology, an important capability has been missing from the ISR tool chest since 1989, when the SR-71 was retired from the Air Force inventory. We're talking about a intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft that's capable of penetrating a dense air defense environment and return, collecting information that no other platform can provide.

When the Air Force decided to get rid of the Blackbird, it assured law makers, intelligence agencies and combatant commanders that there would be no decrease in imagery support. "We can do it with satellites," the service assured its ISR customers, and besides, there were hints of super-secret, high-tech, razzle-dazzle systems down the road (Aurora, anyone?).

Unfortunately, those promises never really came to fruition. Sure, satellite technology continued to advance, but the number of platforms remained limited. What's worse, adversaries monitored by those systems got better at figuring out when the satellite would be passing overhead, and curtailing their activities during that period. With the advent of the internet, virtually any country could have a crude satellite warning program, utilizing the expertise of amateur astronomers and satellite watchers who post their information on-line.

Here at home, Congress wasn't much help, either. Efforts to develop new generations of low-observable or "clandestine" spy satellites (yes, that's probably an oxymoron) were underfunded or exposed by members of the House and Senate. At last report, Congress had officially killed attempts to build a new series of "Misty" satellites, forcing us to soldier on with existing overhead platforms--the same ones that everyone seems to know about and can predict their passage overhead.

As for UAVs, they offer persistence and growing array of ISR and strike capabilities. But the current generations of Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks aren't particularly stealthy. They would be unable to operate in a sophisticated air defense environment, protected by "double-digit" surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) like the Russian-built SA-20.

In a speech last summer, the head of Air Combat Command--which owns most of the Air Force's drone units--said the limiting factor in UAV operations against China would be "how quickly they could shoot them down." Against state-of-the-art air defenses, UAVs would forced to utilize "stand-off" orbits, beyond the reach of enemy SAMs. And with variants of the SA-20 now touting ranges of 200 miles, that would greatly limit what the UAVs could cover.

Facing those realities, it's no wonder the Air Force is again looking at a penetrating ISR platform. As Douglas Barrie of Aerospace Daily & Defense Report reveals:

The U.S. Air Force is considering fielding a variant of its next-generation bomber that could collect intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) undetected behind enemy lines.

Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne says the service is on “a quest to have long-range reconnaissance.” He says that an unmanned version of the bomber, which is expected to be fielded in 2018, would be a strong candidate for this mission.


The bomber platform is expected to be subsonic, highly stealthy and carry between 28,000-40,000 pounds of payload. An ISR version could operate undetected in airspace defended by the most advanced double-digit surface-to-air-missile systems.

Service officials still expect to keep a pilot in the bomber cockpit for those variants certified to deliver nuclear weapons.

Beyond the survivability issue, there are several reasons that "penetrating ISR" is again a hot topic. First, there's the matter of flexibility. Thanks to improvements in satellite warning and adversary denial and deception programs, it's becoming more difficult to collect meaningful intelligence with overhead platforms.

Intelligence organizations (and the commanders they support) need sensors that can be tasked (or diverted) to cover fleeting targets, before the next satellite pass, or before the enemy can hide their equipment or activities. This capability is particularly important in monitoring ballistic missile and WMD programs; in some sections of the world--including the Middle East--missile training and test launches typically fall outside a satellite window, and some facilities are beyond the range of stand-off imagery platforms. A penetrating ISR platform would hold those facilities (and systems) at risk.

Secondly, an ISR penetrator can be used to send a political message, reminding potential foes of their vulnerability. Early in my career as a spook, I worked for a former SR-71 pilot, then serving as a fighter squadron commander. In his office, he kept a press photo of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, getting off his plane in Havana.

In the photograph, Brezhnev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro are shaking hands, but they are looking straight up. Their odd gaze was in response to the distinctive, double sonic boom of an SR-71, then passing overhead. My squadron commander, the Blackbird pilot, had been directed to pass over Havana at the moment of Brezhnev's arrival--and embarrass Fidel in the process. Just a little reminder that the Yanqui SR-71 could fly where it wanted, when it wanted, and there wasn't much the bad guys could do about it. It's easy to envision similar flights (by the new aircraft) over places like Tehran, Caracas and Pyongyang in the future.

Lastly--and most importantly--the new system fills the ISR gap that has existed for the past 20 years or so. With a survivable, penetrating reconnaissance drone, we will improve our ability to detect and target fleeting systems (think a nuclear-tipped MRBM in Iran's western desert), even with future improvements in enemy air defense systems.

Reconnaissance has long been a low-priority mission for the Air Force. No wonder the service was so anxious to retire the SR-71 and before that, its tactical recce mainstay, the RF-4C. But the times have changed. With other branches of the military now investing heavily in UAVs, the Air Force no longer owns the market. Apparently, someone on the Air Staff figured out that if the USAF doesn't offer a long-range, penetrating drone for ISR, another service probably will.

In the perpetual fight over roles, missions and defense dollars, that's a powerful incentive for the Air Force to get back into the penetrating ISR game.

Murrow at 100

Edward R. Murrow, 1908-1965 (CBS photo)

Over the years, some towering figures have passed through the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street in New York City. The list reads like a veritable who's-who of broadcast journalism; Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, Charles Kuralt, Harry Reasoner, Howard K. Smith, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, and yes, Katie Couric, are among those who've anchored programs from the broadcast home of CBS News.

But one figure still towers above them all, forty-three years after his death. In the lobby of the network broadcast complex, there is a plaque honoring Edward R. Murrow, the legendary reporter who might be (rightly) described as the progenitor of broadcast journalism. The plaque's inscription says as much: "His imprint on broadcasting will be felt for all time to come."

This month marks the 100th anniversary of Murrow's birth. To mark the occasion, CBS News has posted a glowing tribute on its website, along with clips from his most famous broadcasts. It's a timely and relevant tribute; five decades after his passing, Murrow remains the gold standard for broadcast news, a man who covered the most important events of the 20th Century and set the professional bar for those who followed.

And what a career it was. Murrow joined CBS in the mid-1930s as "Director of Talks," arranging for newsmakers to appear on the network's radio broadcasts. In that capacity, Murrow did not speak on the air, but the former Washington State speech major was intrigued by the medium and its possibilities. He sought broadcasting tips from another CBS legend, Robert Trout, who was the primary voice of the network's newscasts in the 1930s.

Murrow got his break as a broadcaster in March 1938. Working as director of CBS's European Division, he received a call from the network's recently-hired Vienna correspondent, William L. Shirer. Hitler's annexation of Austria, the Anschluss, was underway. Shirer had an eyewitness account, but with the Nazis in control of Vienna's broadcasting facilities, he couldn't put the report on the air.

As CBS's senior executive in Europe, Murrow quickly arranged for a charter flight to London, where he provided a dramatic description of the German occupation. Shirer's temporary replacement in Vienna? None other than Ed Murrow. On 13 March, at the height of the crisis, Murrow organized a revolutionary broadcast, providing live reaction to events in Austria from the United States and European capitals. The program was a sensation; radio audiences, accustomed to announcers reading news copy in a studio, now listened as history unfolded over the airwaves. Over the months that followed, Murrow and Shirer led CBS's coverage of events in Europe, as the continent rushed toward war.

Murrow was in London when World War II began and remained there for the next two years, a period that included the worst of the German Blitz. If the Anschluss established his reputation, then Germany's bombing campaign against British cities made him a star. Murrow's calm, commanding voice and the signature opening for his reports: " London," became a part of broadcast lore.

After the war, Murrow moved slowly (and reluctantly) into television, convinced that the new medium was only a fad. While devoting much of his time to radio, Murrow began producing and hosting a series of landmark documentaries for CBS in the 1950s, under the banner "See It Now." His most famous broadcast aired on 9 March 1954, offering the first serious examination of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Fifty-four years later, Murrow is widely credited as being the first public figure to speak out against McCarthy and his "Red Scare." But that is incorrect; others spoke out well before the CBS journalist, but none had the advantage of a prime-time television slot and millions of loyal viewers.

The brilliance of Murrow's report can be found in its composition and editing. Murrow and producer Fred Friendly turned McCarthy's words against him, highlight the obvious fabrications and distortions in the Senator's accusations. McCarthy's shambling response, delivered three weeks later, sealed his public fate.

Still, there are noticeable flaws in the documentary. Today, thanks to declassified intelligence reports and access to the Soviet archives, we know that there were communist spies in the U.S. government. Murrow's report largely ignores that possibility, concentrating (instead) on the obvious and easy target of Joe McCarthy. As the New Yorker's TV critic later observed, there was nothing particularly remarkable about that accomplishment. Anyone with a TV camera and thousands of feet of film on McCarthy could easily prove the senator was a blowhard and buffoon.

So why did Murrow ignore McCarthy's over-arching charge? As Ann Coulter suggested in Human Events, the reason may lie in an event that happened six years earlier. In 1948, a long-time friend of Murrow, former State Department official Lawrence Duggan, fell to his death from the window of his Manhattan office. Duggan's death, described as a suicide, came only 10 days after he was questioned by the FBI about his role in a communist spy ring. For many years, Duggan's friends and family--a group that included Ed Murrow--lionized him as an early victim of the Red Scare.

But information from Moscow's intelligence archives, released in the early 1990s, confirms that Duggan was a Soviet agent, providing sensitive diplomatic information to his handlers. In fact, Mr. Duggan was considered such an important spy that the Russians ordered the murder of at least one defector, to protect their mole in the State Department.

While such information was unknown outside counter-intelligence circles, Murrow had easy access to the highest levels of American government. President Eisenhower was a friend, as were numerous cabinet and other senior-level government officials. With those contacts--and a little digging--Murrow might have discovered substantiation for McCarthy's charges and produced a more revelatory film. But apparently, he had other designs for that episode of "See It Now."

In some respects, the McCarthy documentary represented Murrow's high-water mark at CBS. Bowing to commercial pressures, See It Now ended as a weekly series in 1955 and by decade's end, the documentary franchise aired infrequently. That led to a well-publicized dust-up between the journalist and CBS founder William S. Paley. Murrow left the network in 1960, accepting President Kennedy's offer to run the U.S. Information Agency. He resigned after JFK's assassination and was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964, the product of years of heavy smoking. He died the following year.

With his passing, Murrow moved quickly into the pantheon of journalism, making it even more difficult to separate the man from the myth. His reputation has been further burnished over the years and more recent books on the man and his life are little more than hagiography. For our money, two of the best studies are an early biography of Murrow, written by his former colleague, Alexander Kendrick, and Air Time, an unofficial history of CBS News, published by Gary Paul Gates in 1978.

The Murrow that emerges in the pages of those book is certainly a man worthy of admiration--even adulation. But Kendrick and Gates also depict a man with human faults that have been largely forgotten amid efforts to canonize the founding father of broadcast journalism.

Indeed, if Murrow deserves credit for setting high standards for broadcast news, then he also gets a share of the blame for its less attractive aspects. As a student of drama and speech, he understood the importance of tone and inflection in his voice, creating a degree of excitement in his live reports. He actually consulted with a former professor on the "right" introduction for his early World War II reports, decided that the pause in " London" would add a theatrical flourish. In that sense, local TV reporters who breathlessly relay details of a local brush fire, are merely following in the footsteps of the CBS legend.

Murrow's lofty ideals were also tempered by a populist streak and a willingness to make a buck. Long before Gerald Rivera peered into Al Capone's vault, Murrow hosted TV's first prime-time documentary on UFOs, presenting a strong case for the existence of flying saucers.

He also played a leading role in bringing celebrity journalism to television. During the 1950s, he hosted a weekly celebrity interview series called Person to Person. It wasn't The Insider or Larry King Live, but it was a far cry from See It Now. When a colleague accused him of whoring, Gates writes, Murrow smiled and replied, "Yes, but look at all those voyeurs."

Murrow also tried to justify his participation in the chat-fest by saying he did the program to "help his writers pick up a little change." But, as Mr. Gates revealed in Air Time, Murrow later sold the program rights back to CBS for $1 million--a fortune in those days.

He was also concerned--some might say preoccupied--with the appearance and image of his reporters, decades before "consultant" became a dirty word in TV newsrooms. Charles Collingwood, one of the original correspondents hired by Murrow, quickly learned that his boss put a premium on well-dressed correspondents--something that almost cost Collingwood a job at CBS.

Years after he joined the network, Collingwood learned--from Murrow himself--that the great man had reservations about hiring the young journalist. Murrow didn't question Collingwood's academic qualifications (he had been a Rhodes Scholar), or his reporting skills; rather it was those "God-awful argyle socks" that the applicant wore to his CBS interview. More amazingly, Charles Collingwood was anything but a rumpled reporter. He had a well-deserved reputation as a dapper and urbane man during his long stint at CBS' London bureau.

While many hailed him as a thoughtful and generous man, Murrow was also capable of casting aside friends and co-workers, when it suited his purpose. In 1947, his friendship with William L. Shirer suddenly ended, reportedly over Murrow's refusal to find a new sponsor for the correspondent's Sunday news program. Without advertisers, Shirer saw a substantial reduction in income, since part of his compensation package was based on the program's commercial fees. Shirer left CBS a short time later and struggled for years, until publication of his epic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in 1960. Murrow made no effort to repair the breech until 1964, after his cancer diagnosis. Shirer rebuffed Murrow's overtures.

Such anecdotes remind us that Edward R. Murrow was human, given to many of the same traits and weaknesses that afflict us all. He created a profession and set demanding standards for that craft, but sometimes fell short of those ideals. There is certainly no shame in that, and it does not diminish his reputation. If anything, the subsequent trials of broadcast news suggest that Murrow's heirs have missed his mark by an even wider margin.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Too Good to Be True

SU-25 attack jets on the ramp at Sunchon AB, North Korea. Sunchon is one of the few NK airbases where fighters are stored above ground (Google Earth photo via Flickr)

As the Times' Michael Sheridan reports:

The 6,000ft runway is a few minutes’ flying time from the tense front line where the Korean People’s Army faces soldiers from the United States and South Korea.

The project was identified by an air force defector from North Korea and captured on a satellite image by Google Earth, according to reports in the South Korean press last week.

It is one of three underground fighter bases among an elaborate subterranean military infrastructure built to withstand a “shock and awe” assault in the first moments of a war, the defector said.

The runway, reminiscent of the Thunderbirds television series, highlights the strange and secretive nature of the regime that provided the expertise for a partially built nuclear reactor in Syria, film of which was released by the CIA last week.

The paper's account provides no additional details on the underground base, which it compared to the subterranean facility in Thunderbirds, the classic, 1960s British sci-fi TV series. But there's only one problem with the "runway-inside-a-mountain" that supposedly exists in North Korea; the story simply isn't true.

Tales of a massive, underground jet base in the DPRK have been making the rounds for years, and like many myths, they contain elements of truth. For example, virtually all North Korean Air Force (NKAF) bases have underground facilities (UGFs), but they're--typically--a combination parking area and maintenance hangar, carved inside a mountain.

Many of the UGFs are quite large; at many bases they can accomodate a full aircraft regiment, as many as 45 jets. The underground shelters offer hardened protection from enemy air attack and allow North Korean technicians to service and load their jets without being detected. But to launch, aircraft must depart the UGF, using one of adits that lead to the outside taxiway and runway. Each of the portals has a massive blast door, providing more protection against enemy airstrikes or missile attacks.

Pyongyang's UGF project has been underway for decades. In fact, it's something of a rarity to find a NKAF base where underground facilities aren't used, or simply don't exist. One of the installations that fall in that category is Sunchon AB, near Pyongyang. Sunchon is home to the newest aircraft in the North Korean inventory, the MiG-29 Fulcrum and the SU-25 Frogfoot.

Fighters at the base are stored in above-ground aircraft shelters, similar to those at airfields in Europe and the Middle East. Construction of the shelters at Sunchon was prompted by an important discovery; the moisture and humidity in UGFs created havoc with the jets' avionics. Older North Korean fighters with tube-based electronics (MiG-15/17/19/21s) are less affected by high moisture levels, and are usually stored in underground bunkers.

Underground facilities are also found at bases supporting other aircraft, including the three mentioned in the Times' story. Incidentally, those installations have been around for years, and they serve (primarily) as forward bases for AN-2 Colt biplanes, used as an insertion platform for North Korea's massive special operations forces. Prior to an attack against the south, the AN-2s would arrive at the forward airfields, allowing local SOF units to deploy on the aircraft.

As for the underground runway, it's impractical for a number of reasons. First, creating the airstrip, an "overhead" area and adjacent parking and maintenance chambers would require a huge excavation job, producing massive piles of rock and dirt (known as spoil in the imagery intelligence business). Those piles would have appeared long before their recent detection by "Google Earth."

Then, there's the actual business of taking off from an underground runway. Needless to say, there is no margin for error; the slightest mistake could lead to a conflagration that would wipe out scores of aircraft. Additionally, the large tunnel opening (the departure point for the fighters) would be more difficult to camouflage and conceal. Targeting the exit point would make it easy to shutdown the runway, destroying more equipment--and personnel--inside the UGF.

In fairness, the Times' account isn't completely false. Much of the information about WMD cooperation between Syria and North Korea is factual and timely. But on the subject of that mythical, underground fighter base, the British paper is far off the mark.

The Ultimate Benchmarks

"How We'll Know When We've Won," (in Iraq), by Dr. Frederick Kagan, writing in the Weekly Standard. Contrast his benchmarks with those of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who measure success in the number of months required to complete a U.S. withdrawal.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Save the Queen

The Delta Queen at Mud Island in Memphis (Wikipedia photo).

Growing up along the Mississippi River, I always looked forward to a visit by the Delta Queen, the last of the wodden, stern-wheel steamboats to ply the nation's interior waterways.

There was something majestic, even romantic about the vessel dropping its gangway along our riverfront, its steam calliope blaring. It was a throwback to the era of Mark Twain, when steamboats were a primary mode of transportation along our rivers, hauling the passengers and cargo that helped build America.

While I never traveled on the Queen, I was lucky enough to get a tour of the boat during a port call. On board, it seemed a bit small, even cramped in some spaces. But there was no denying the charm and luxury of the Delta Queen, with its Victorian decor and elegant appointments. On the spot, I made a promise to sail one day on the steamboat, a vow shared by many who watched the Queen glide by on a summer day.

Regrettably, I may be unable to keep that promise. The 80-year-old stern-wheeler may be forced into retirement at the end of the current season, thanks to the U.S. Congress. Decades ago, law makers mandated that vessels carrying passengers on overnight excursions must be built primarily of metal. The idea was to make ocean-going ships more fire resistant; riverboats, including the Queen, were subjected to the same regulation.

However, Congress also granted a fire-safety exemption to the Delta Queen, renewing it nine times since 1968. The exemption was based on several factors, including the vessel's status as the last of its kind; the Queen's impeccable safety record, and the realization that steamboats (and their passengers) are never more than a few hundred yards from the river bank and rescue.

Now, the Delta Queen's exemption is in danger. Last week, a key House committee rejected a vote on legislation to extend the riverboat's exempt status. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported:

The House Rules Committee on Tuesday rebuffed Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, who wanted to amend a Coast Guard reauthorization bill to exempt the Delta Queen from federal fire safety standards.

But the Rules Committee said Tuesday that Chabot could not offer his Delta Queen proposal as an amendment when the bill is scheduled for debate.


Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, who cosponsored the exemption, told the Rules Committee that to deny a debate and vote "flies in the face of reason and will only contribute to the declining respect that Americans hold for this institution."

Leading the fight against the steamboat is none other that Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. A spokesman for Oberstar's committee claims that the Coast Guard thinks the vessel is a fire hazard. That begs a rather obvious question: if the vessel is such a safety hazard, why has the service agreed to multiple renewals of the Queen's exemption, stretching back over 40 years?

As many readers know, Representative Oberstar has a reputation on Capitol Hill as a tireless defender of bicycle paths and transportation pork. He was one of the primary authors of last year's shameless highway bill, a $295 billion mounment to government waste that included $23 billion for "special projects" including museums, parking lots, snowmobile trails and, of course, bicycle paths.

Perhaps Mr. Oberstar would be more supportive if the Delta Queen had ties to a light rail project, or the steamboat's owners, Majestic America Line, offered bicycle tours as part of their cruise packages.

In any event, there is a chance that one of America's historic treasures will not be sailing the Mississippi or its tributaries next year. The Delta Queen is the only riverboat listed on both the National Landmark listing, and the National Register of Historic Places. It is certainly worthy of preservation and continued operations, under its long-standing exemption.

We can only hope that Mr. Chabot and Mr. Gray succeed in their efforts.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Ready for Any Threat

Around our house, 60 Minutes isn't exactly appointment television, but we'll make an exception on Sunday night.

This week's edition features a report on the Israeli Air Force, and it comes at a particularly critical moment. Just yesterday, U.S. intelligence officials publicly confirmed that Israeli warplanes destroyed a nuclear reactor in Syria last year--a facility only weeks or months away from operation, and capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, tensions with Iran remain high, amid Tehran's recent disclosure that its uranium enrichment efforts are expanding.

As correspondent Bob Simon notes, the IAF represents the elite of the Israeli military. Only the best recruits enter the service's pilot training program and among that group, only 1 in 40 winds up in a fighter cockpit. Against foes pursuing nuclear arms, the IAF remains the nation's first line of defense. As one IAF base commander told Mr. Simon bluntly, "The first war we lose, Israel ceases to exist."

While the IAF remains the premiere Air Force in the Middle East (and perhaps the best in the world), the service's reputation was tarnished a bit in the 2006 war with Hizballah. Despite flying thousands of sorties, Israeli pilots were unable to slow the barrage of terrorist rockets that fell on northern Israel.

In fairness, the "failure" of the IAF was actually a failure of strategy; Israeli officials (including then-Chief of Staff Lt Gen Dan Halutz) put too much stock in airpower, without the necessary--and concurrent--ground effort needed to clear terrorist sanctuaries in southern Lebanon. The IAF was successful in targeting long-range rockets that threatened major Israeli cities, eliminating them, in some cases, just hours after they reached the battlefield.

A war with Iran would pose different, but equally difficult challenges. Veterans of the 1981 strike against Iraq's nuclear reactor were interviewed for the segment, and note that Tehran's program is widely dispersed, with multiple targets and aim points:

Zeev Raz, the commander of that mission, compares the situations. "We had one point to destroy. They have many points, many of them deep under the mountains…underground and it’s a much more complicated problem [than in] 1981," he tells Simon. "I really hope it will be solved another way. There is only one thing worse than the Israel air force having to do it - Iran having a nuclear bomb," says Raz.

We've analyzed the operational issues associated with an Israeli airstrike on several occasions, including this post from two years ago. Armchair analysts often look at such factors as the number of F-15Is or F-16Is that Israel could muster for the raid, and the types of weaponry they might carry.

Obviously, those are key considerations. But the "long pole" in the tent for a 2,000-mile round-trip mission is actually Israel's air refueling fleet. The IAF has 5-7 KC-707 tankers, with enough off-load capability for about two dozen fighters, striking at least three separate facilities. Given those realities, the margin for error decreases both suddenly, and dramatically.

We're not sure if the 60 Minutes report will cover those areas, but they certainly influence Israel's strategic calculus. The IAF is certainly ready for any mission, including a strike on Iran. But taking out all the critical elements of Iran's nuclear program, on a single mission, would require all of the skill and courage that the IAF is famous for.

It's an tremendous challenge. But, as Israel's enemies have learned on countless occasions, it's unwise to bet against the IAF.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Plutonium on the Euphrates

The Wall Street Journal weighs in on the nuclear partnership between Syria and North Korea, disrupted by that Israeli air strike last year.

What worries the Journal editorial board is the same thing that's bugging us: despite Pyongyang's obvious attempt to export its nuclear program, the Bush Administration is willing to forgive and forget, in an effort to sustain the Six Party Talks. As the WSJ observes:

The State Department has already given up on holding North Korea to its promise to disclose all of its nuclear activities. But now it appears that Foggy Bottom and President Bush are prepared to forgive North Korea for telling what the U.S. now agrees were lies about the North's nuclear proliferation to a Middle Eastern autocrat who is an enemy of America. At the same time, Bush Administration officials are saying that it is good policy to trust Kim Jong Il's declarations on his stockpiles of plutonium.

So: Israel had to risk war with Syria to destroy a nuclear facility built with the help of lying North Koreans. But no worries, the U.S. says it can still trust North Korea to tell the truth about its current programs. This makes us wonder if the unofficial U.S. nonproliferation policy is to have Israel bomb every plutonium facility that the North Koreans decide to sell.

The Journal's editorial concludes with a warning for Mr. Bush: beware of diplomats dangling legacies. Pursuing the current policy towards North Korea, President Bush's legacy may not be the one he seeks.

About That Reactor

Members of the House Intelligence Committee were finally briefed today on that Syrian nuclear facility, destroyed by an Israeli air raid last fall. And, according to this AP report, the site was nearly operational when the IAF came calling:

The facility was mostly completed but still needed significant testing before it could be declared operational, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

However, no uranium — needed to fuel a reactor — was evident at the site, a remote area of eastern Syria along the Euphrates River.

The Syrian reactor was similar in design to a North Korean reactor at Yongbyon that has in the past produced small amounts of plutonium, U.S. officials said. Plutonium is highly radioactive and can be used to make powerful nuclear weapons or radiological bombs.

Top members of the House intelligence committee said Thursday after being briefed on the facility by intelligence and administration officials that the reactor posed a serious threat of spreading dangerous nuclear materials.

Officials familiar with the presentation said that it did not include video of North Korean workers at the complex, as earlier reports suggested. However, it did feature a series of still photographs (read: satellite imagery) that showed similarities between the Syrian facility, and North Korea's nuclear site at Yongbyon.

There was no word on how long U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies had monitored the Syrian complex prior to the air raid. Some reports suggest the reactor was discovered just a few months before it was attacked; other sources indicate that the facility had been under surveillance for some time.

Today's presentation brought criticism from key members of Congress, who complained that the White House waited too long to brief the full committee:

"It's bad management and terrible public policy to go for eight months knowing this was out there and then drop this in our laps six hours before they go to the public," said [Michigan Congressman Peter] Hoekstra, the panel's ranking Republican.

President Bush's failure to keep Congress informed has created friction that may imperil congressional support for Bush's policies toward North Korea and Syria, he said.

"It totally breaks down any trust that you have between the administration and Congress," Hoekstra said. "I think it really jeopardizes any type of the agreement they may come up with" regarding North Korea.

Mr. Hoekstra raises a valid point. But if the AP is correct, today's disclosure may have been aimed, oddly enough, at advancing nuclear talks with the DPRK. With the U.S. disclosing the Syria-North Korea connection, Pyongyang now has a concern it can acknowledge in a required declaration of its proliferation activities. Huh?

On a more rational note, today's report also provides additional justification for the Israeli air strike, which was staged on 6 September 2007.

The briefing also puts more pressure on Syria, which had not disclosed the facility to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Syrian officials in Damascus and Europe denied the U.S. allegations. In the best (or at least the funniest) explanation we've seen so far, a Syrian diplomat described his country's cooperation with North Korea was "economic" in nature.

That's a howler. Pyongyang is virtually bankrupt, and its only exports to Syria (of any consequence) have been ballistic missiles, related technology, and technicians to support those systems. A better question might be: what portion of those purchases have been funded by Iran, and did Tehran write the check for that nuclear complex along the Euphrates?

Even the crude nuclear technology of North Korea doesn't come cheap, and it's a good bet that the destroyed reactor, designed in the DPRK and built in Syria, was financed through Iran.


ADDENDUM: Apparently, some of the officials interviewed by the AP were wrong. ABC News obtained some of the imagery used in the presentation, which included some remarkable, hand-held photos of the Syrian facility as it was being built. There was also a shot of North Korea's nuclear chief meeting with his Syrian counterpart. ABC's Jonathan Karl mused about the source of those ground-level, close-ups. The answer is rather obvious; the Mossad has always been active in Syria. Prior to the Six-Day War in 1967, the #3 man in the Damascus government was a Mossad spy. Israeli forces took the Golan Heights with information he provided on Syrian defensive positions.

Some Good News for Missile Defense

Aviation Week reports that Senate defense appropriators--from both sides of the political aisle--gave a favorable reception to missile defense budget proposals for 2009.

During a hearing held yesterday, the chairman of the defense appropriations sub-committee, Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, said that "missile defense had a good year in 2007." He was referring to a series of successful operational tests and the continued deployment of systems like the Navy SM-3 missile, used to knock down a defunct spy satellite two months ago.

However, Inouye also cautioned that Congress needs to become better informed on how the Missile Defense Agency, responsible for most of the nation's missile defense efforts, does business:

“Admittedly, we know very little about what is happening in your agency, yet we know in our guts that it’s very important, because you’re dealing with the most, potentially, dangerous areas,” Defense spending subcommittee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said.

“Sir, we would welcome that,” U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering III, who is set to retire this fall, told Inouye about the April 30 closed hearing.

That upcoming session is aimed at educating other lawmakers on pending missile defense projects, including the so-called "Third Site" in eastern Europe. At their recent summit meeting, NATO leaders expressed strong support for the planned deployment, which will consist of a missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles based in Poland.

The sub-committee's ranking Republican, Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, also endorsed missile defense efforts, noting the threat posed by Iran and North Korea.

“In the face of these realities, it is imperative that we provide the Department of Defense – and the Missile Defense Agency in particular – the resources necessary for the defense of our country and our interests against these threats.”

While the support of Senators Inouye and Cochran is certainly welcome, missile defense program still face an uphill battle in key Congressional circles. Michigan's Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, remains a vocal critic of missile defense and some House Democrats are considering an effort to defund those programs. From a recent edition of the left-wing Washington Independent:

In the House Rayburn Building Wednesday afternoon, three physicists were patiently explaining to members of Congress that the U.S. missile defense system has little practical worth.

"If Iran were reckless enough to attack Europe or the United States," said Phillip E. Coyle, senior adviser at the World Security Institute, a national-security study center, "current U.S. missile defense would not be effective."

The hearing, held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, came a month after national security experts told the panel that missile defense draws resources away from the more pressing threat posed by Al Qaeda. The subcommittee chairman, John Tierney (D-Mass.), now plans a third hearing, on a date to be announced, where Pentagon officials will have the opportunity to defend the anti-ballistic missile program.

Congress's oversight is perhaps the first serious challenge to a remarkably enduring defense program. As much as $150 billion has been spent since President Ronald Reagan first launched the strategic defense initiative, or "Star Wars," in 1983. Since then, the quest to develop radar so sophisticated that it could detect and shoot down a nuclear warhead in outer space has taken on a life of its own. But the scrutiny indicates that Congress may break an old habit and finally stop funding the nation's pursuit of missile defense.


We are not on the same page with this administration," said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), co-chair of the Task Force on Terrorism and Proliferation Financing, which is seeking to re-direct Pentagon money to counterterrorism programs. "It's alarming they want to go full speed ahead with another program."

At this point, Democrats don't have enough votes to completely defund missile defense. But, as we've noted in previous posts, they could target individual programs, including the Air Force's Airborne Laser (ABL). The high-power laser, mounted on a Boeing 747, is designed to destroy missiles in their boost phase.

But the system is still in its developmental stage, and faces strong opposition from opponents of missile defense. Past Democratic proposals have called for major reductions in the ABL program, or its outright cancellation.

Today's Reading Assignment

George Will, on the "Education Lessons We Left Behind," 25 years after the landmark federal report on our failing schools. Sadly, not much has changed since 1983. High school graduation rates are abysmal, particularly in urban districts. Scores on college entrance examinations peaked more than 40 years ago and American youngsters rank near the bottom of the industrialized world in math and science skills.

As Dr. Will reminds us, education reform has a long history of failure in America, so dismal trends in the classroom shouldn't come as much of a surprise. He also notes that previous generations of politicians and education leaders ignored the lessons of earlier studies, virtually guaranteeing future failures. As an example, he offers the Coleman Report, published 42 years ago:

"...the Coleman report, the result of the largest social science project in history, reached a conclusion so "seismic" -- [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan's description -- that the government almost refused to publish it.

Released quietly on the Fourth of July weekend, the report concluded that the qualities of the families from which children come to school matter much more than money as predictors of schools' effectiveness. The crucial common denominator of problems of race and class -- fractured families -- would have to be faced.

But it wasn't. Instead, shopworn panaceas -- larger teacher salaries, smaller class sizes -- were pursued as colleges were reduced to offering remediation to freshmen.

Five decades later, the same "solutions" are still being peddled to indifferent students, their gullible parents and ignorant voters--products of the same, woeful education system. The cycle continues.

George Will doesn't mention it in his column, but thankfully, there is one education reform movement that hasn't failed. It's called home-schooling and continues to grow exponentially, despite constant attacks from teacher's unions and their lawyers.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Leave No Stone Unturned

In their determined effort to explore every aspect of John McCain's life, various MSM outlets are leaving no stone unturned.

First, The New York Times weighed in with a lengthy article suggesting that Mr. McCain had an "inappropriate" relationship with a female lobbyist almost a decade ago. Trouble was, both Senator McCain and the woman denied the allegations, and the Times account was woefully short on substantiation.

More recently, the Washington Post offered an examination of McCain's "anger management" issues. Imagine that--a politician with a temper. But, it was somehow worthy of a multi-page investigation, recounting examples of McCain losing his cool, some of them from decades ago. Funny, but we don't recall a similar piece on Hillary Clinton, whose White House tirades were the stuff of legend.

But, in this journalistic equivalent of dumpster-diving, both the NYT and the Post are mere pikers. With a piece that appeared yesterday, the Los Angeles Times can now claim top honors in the McCain expose sweepstakes.

Their sensational revelation? Senator McCain, a retired naval officer who spent almost six years as a POW in North Vietnam, gets a tax-free disability pension.

At this point, most of you are probably saying "duh." Thousands of military retirees and veterans collect disability pensions, the result of injuries or medical conditions that stem from their days in uniform. And, as the Times notes, certain types of military or disability pensions are partially or completely tax-exempt, depending on the severity of the condition.

Mr. McCain's pension, in case you're wondering, is 100% tax free.

But, according to the paper, this raises questions about McCain's fitness for the rigors of office. If he's disabled, the logic goes, then he may lack the stamina for the presidency. On the other hand, if he's healthy enough to hike the Grand Canyon (as the senator has claimed), then why is he drawing a disability pension?

Mr. McCain's chief campaign strategist, Mark Salter, offered a rather succinct response when the Times asked how McCain acquired his disability. "He was tortured for his country," Mr. Salter observed.

And certainly, no one can dispute that. Shot down over North Vietnam, McCain suffered two broken arms and a shattered knee ejecting from his crippled aircraft. Imprisoned in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," he received no medical care until his captors learned that McCain's father was commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific. Refusing to cooperate with the enemy, McCain was subjected to torture, exacerbating his condition. After being released in 1973, he endured a long and painful rehabilitation. Today, the Senator cannot raise his arms above his shoulders, the lasting result of his injuries in Vietnam.

We'd say that Mr. McCain earned his disability pension--and its tax-exempt status.

Still, the Times managed to find an "expert" who wondered about the senator's ability to serve, or (alternately) his eligibility for a tax-free pension.

"It is a legitimate question to ask about the commander in chief: Is he fit to serve," said Robert Schriebman, a senior Pentagon tax advisor and tax attorney who recently retired as a judge advocate for a unit of the California National Guard.

If McCain can hike across the Grand Canyon, then why should he be getting disability payments from the government that are tax-exempt, Schriebman asked.

We wonder if the L.A. Times would have asked the same question in 1932, when FDR was campaigning for the White House. He was in a wheelchair.

The Logical Choice

When the retirement of the CENTCOM Commander, Admiral William Fallon, was disclosed last month, we suggested that his logical replacement was already in theater.

Apparently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates had the same thought. Earlier today, he announced that General David Petraeus, the architect of the successful "troop surge" in Iraq, will replace Fallon in the CENTCOM post. Petraeus's successor in Baghdad will be Army General Ray Odierno, who served as deputy commander of coalition forces during much of the surge. Odierno was widely hailed for his effective implementation of the surge strategy, which dramatically improved security conditions in Iraq.

In making today's announcement, Mr. Gates emphasized that General Petraeus's transition to CENTCOM will be slow and careful. He told reporters at the Pentagon that Petraeus won't arrive at the command's Tampa headquarters until late summer or early fall. That will allow him to remain in Iraq during a critical period, monitoring the security situation, as surge forces depart.

When Petraeus's name first surfaced in conjunction with the CENTCOM job, there was some speculation that he might operate from his Baghdad headquarters on an interim basis, following the example of General H. Norman Schwartzkopf, who led the command during the First Gulf War. After Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Schwartzkopf moved his headquarters to Saudi Arabia and remained there through the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm.

But Gates' comments suggest that Petraeus will remain focused on the Iraq mission during his remaining months in Baghdad, and ensure a smooth transition to General Odierno. Moving CENTCOM headquarters to the forward area--even on a temporary basis--has always been politically sensitive, one reason command remains based at MacDill AFB in Tampa.

General Petraeus will enter the CENTCOM post after Fallon's relatively brief tenure. Admiral Fallon left the position in March, amid reported disagreements with Mr. Gates and the Bush Administration over policies toward Iran. Fallon's deputy, Army Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey, has served as acting commander since the admiral's departure. Fallon retired from the Navy earlier this month; General Dempsey is expected to remain in CENTCOM's number two position when Petraeus arrives at MacDill.

The decision to send General Petraeus to CENTCOM forced a quick shuffle in the Army hierarchy. General Odierno, a veteran of multiple tours in Iraq had been nominated for his fourth star and a posting as the service's Vice Chief of Staff. While he will still get his promotion, Odierno's new job will send him back to Baghdad, rather than Washington, D.C. The vice chief position will now be filled by Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, another officer with extensive exerience in Iraq. Chiraelli has also been selected for promotion to four-star rank.

Revealing Petraeus's selection for the CENTCOM post, the defense secretary described him as the best man for the job:

"..Mr. Gates said that he and President Bush settled on the four-star general for the post because he is best suited to oversee American operations, not just in Iraq but also in Afghanistan and other areas where the U.S. is engaged in asymmetric warfare, a euphemism for battling terrorists and non-uniformed combatants.

"I am absolutely convinced he is the best man for the job," Gates said.

While most observers expect Petraeus to be quickly confirmed, Senate Democrats may use the general's confirmation hearings to criticize the Iraq War and Bush Administration policies. Two of the three presidential candidates--John McCain and Hillary Clinton--are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will question the general as part of the confirmation process.

Mr. McCain, the panel's ranking Republican, is a strong supporter of Petraeus and the troop surge. Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, criticized General Petraeus during his first "progress report" to Congress last fall, claiming that acceptance of his assessment required the "willing suspension of disbelief."

With Clinton now fighting for her political life against Barack Obama, it will be interesting to see if she goes after Petraeus again, or continues her march toward the political middle, offering support for a commander who reversed a dire security situation in Iraq.

Her Democratic rival, Mr. Obama, is not a member of the armed services committee. However, he will vote on General Petraeus's nomination when it reaches the full Senate.

Breaking the Silence

CIA officials will provide a series of classified briefings on Capitol Hill tomorrow, outlining what the U.S. knows about nuclear cooperation between Syria and North Korea.

According to the Los Angeles Times, CIA analysts will tell lawmakers that Pyongyang had been helping Damascus build a plutonium-based nuclear reactor in eastern Syria, until it was bombed by Israeli warplanes last September.

Thursday's briefings will mark the first time since the raid that administration or intelligence officials have briefed members of key Congressional committees on nuclear ties between North Korea and Syria. While committee chairmen and Congressional leaders have already seen the presentation, most members of defense and intelligence committees have not, leading to accusations that the Bush Administration was "withholding" information from lawmakers.

During their presentation, CIA officers are expected to tell Congressmen and Senators that the Syrian reactor would have been capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons, but was demolished before it could do so. The scheduled briefings will also highlight a history of suspicious ties between Damascus and Pyongyang.

CIA officials also will say that though U.S. officials have had concerns for years about ties between North Korea and Syria, it was not until last year that new intelligence convinced them that the suspicious facility under construction in a remote area of Syria was a nuclear reactor, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing plans for the briefing.

By holding closed, classified briefings for members of several congressional committees, the administration will break a long silence on North Korean-Syrian nuclear cooperation and on what it knows about last year's destruction of the Syrian facility. Nonetheless, it has been widely assumed for months that many in the administration considered the site a nuclear installation.

The administration's sudden willingness to share information with Congress came as something of a surprise. While it has provided briefings for key members of the House and Senate, the White House has refused to share assessments on the Israeli raid (and nuclear cooperation between Syria and North Korea) with a wider group of lawmakers.

One Senate aide told the Times that the sudden inclusion of more Congressmen and Senators may represent the administration's desire to "bring them in the loop," before making some of the information public.

Thursday's presentations may also be aimed at quieting critics in the President's own party. In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal last October, Michigan Congressman Peter Hoekstra, a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, complained that the White House had thrown a "wall of secrecy" around the Israeli air strike. In the article, Hoekstra said it was "critical" for every member of Congress to be briefed on the incident, as soon as possible.

Sources who spoke with the Times speculated that the U.S. is preparing to confront North Korea about the Syria reactor project, as part of the "Six Party" talks aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear program. A discussion in that forum would almost certainly be leaked; without advance briefings for Congress, lawmakers would complain that they learned more about the matter from press accounts than from the White House.

Despite the delay in receiving information on Syria and North Korea's nuclear ties--and evidence that Pyongyang exported nuclear technology--there does not appear to be a Congressional groundswell for ending the Six Party process. Indeed, the administration plans to press ahead with the talks (despite limited cooperation from North Korea), noting that some progress has been achieved and the "lack" of a policy alternative.

Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton would undoubtedly disagree, and so would we. In recent years, President Bush's policy toward Pyongyang has begun to resemble that of the Clinton White House, with an emphasis on "carrots" for compliance (or, in some cases, the appearance of compliance). Just two weeks ago, U.S. officials announced plans to removed the DPRK from the list of nations that sponsor terrorism. In return, Pyongyang has to only "acknowledge" American concern about its nuclear activities.

We can only wonder what sort of incentives might be required for North Korea to admit its role in the Syrian reactor project, or just listen to U.S. complaints about the facility.

In either case, we doubt that Kim Jong-il is worried. He has determined (correctly) that the Bush Administration is fully invested (read: over-invested) in the Six Party Talks and will not abandon that process. That gives Pyongyang plenty of latitude in meeting its obligations, with enough wiggle room for some proliferation projects on the side. North Korea's little venture in Syria underscores the need for clear limits in the Six Party process. Without such limits, Pyongyang's chicanery will only continue.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Returning the Favor

According to Jim Geraghty at National Review, the Democrats have devised a plan for going after one of John McCain's strengths in the fall campaign: They apparently plan to "Swift Boat" McCain for his military record, appropriating the tactic used successfully against John Kerry in 2004.

This strikes us as a particularly high-risk strategy. Senator McCain's status as a war hero is well-established. Shot down over North Vietnam, McCain suffered horribly at the hands of his captors. Yet, despite terrible injuries, little medical care and brutal torture, McCain continued to resist the enemy, becoming an inspiration for his fellow prisoners and his countrymen.

But, apparently some Democrats think John McCain's ordeal is a prime campaign issue. West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller recently apologized for a particularly odious remark about Mr. McCain, claiming that he had little knowledge of the brutality of war, since he dropped smart bombs from 35,000 feet.

Never mind that the first precision weapons didn't arrive in theater until after McCain was captured. Or that he suffers lingering effects from the injuries he suffered in Vietnam, the result of ejecting from his crippled A-4 (which left him with multiple broken bones), and later, the beatings administered by North Vietnamese interrogators.

Now, the Democrats are floating a second trial balloon in their effort to "Swift Boat" Mr. McCain. The latest attack comes from former South Dakota Senator (and presidential candidate) George McGovern, who served as an Army Air Corps bomber pilot during World War II. Speaking at an event in his home state last weekend, McGovern offered the following shot:

Let me tell you what I would say to John McCain: neither of us is an expert on national defense. It's true that you went to one of the service academies but you were in the bottom of the class. It's true that you were a pilot in Vietnam, that you were shot down and spent most of the war in prison and we all sympathize with that and honor you for your courage. But you and I both had these battle experiences, you as a Navy fighter plane, I as an army bomber. I am not going to criticize your war record and your knowledge of national security but I don't want you criticizing mine either.

If I'd be allowed just one little dig at Senator McCain, since he gave me. I would say, 'John, you were shot down early in the war and spent most of the time in prison. I flew 35 combat missions with a 10-man crew and brought them home safely every time.'

Incidentally, McGovern's comments came in response to remarks made by McCain years ago, during a televised discussion on the Vietnam War. Part of a panel that included McGovern and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, McCain opined that Senator McGovern didn't know much about national defense. It's safe to assume that McCain was referring to McGovern's positions on defense issues as a Congressman and Senator--not his record as a B-24 pilot.

Whew, talk about holding a grudge! At least he's not going to criticize McCain's war record.

It would be easy to dismiss McGovern's rant as that of an angry and (apparently) thin-skinned old man. But Mr. McGovern deserves credit for his service during World War II. Piloting a B-24 in the flak-filled skies of Nazi Germany was no mean feat; the Liberator was less rugged than its more famous partner, the B-17 Flying Fortress. Liberators had a nasty habit of catching fire and exploding before their crews could escape. Leading his crew through a 35-mission combat crew--and winning a Distinguished Flying Cross--McGovern earned his spurs as a war hero.

But, you'd also think that George McGovern's experiences in World War II would give him a greater appreciation for what John McCain faced in Vietnam. Fact is, the air defenses that McCain faced around Hanoi were more dense than those of the Third Reich.

In addition to anti-aircraft guns, McCain and his fellow pilots ran a gauntlet of Russian-built surface-to-air missiles, in an era when countermeasures were decidedly crude. North Vietnamese MiGs posed another threat, and making matters worse, U.S. pilots operated under rules of engagement that actually made their missions more dangerous.

We lost hundreds of aircraft (and crews) over North Vietnam between 1965-1972. That may pale in comparison to the thousands of bomber crews shot down during World War II, but it doesn't mitigate the hazards faced by Air Force and Navy pilots attacking targets in Hanoi or Haiphong. When the war finally ended, a total of 591 POWs returned to the United States. John McCain was among the first, after spending almost six years in captivity.

One of Geraghty's readers confirms that Democrats plan to attack McCain's military record. As he told the NRO columnist:

I can tell you that what you are surmising meshes with a comment I heard at a dinner party recently. One of the guests was a PR person for and he told the a few of guests that the Dems were planning to go after McCain on his war record. Specifically, they wanted to hammer home that he graduated at the bottom of his class and that he crashed a few planes and wasn't really the hero he claimed to be.

They saw it as a return favor for what they perceived as the unfair "Swift Boating" of Kerry.
The McGovern remarks and the Rockefeller remarks do appear to be trial balloons for such a strategy.

I did manage to hide my amusement and mention to the guy that this might not be the wisest course of action against McCain, but he was really sold that this was a great idea.

And, if that's not enough, a Democratic consultant tells Geraghty that if "it were up to me," the campaign would be about McCain making propaganda for the enemy. No kidding.

That's right, criticize McCain for a confession made under extreme duress, after days of torture. Surely that will resonate with the American electorate.

As for Mr. McGovern, he appears happy to be doing his part, implying that John McCain didn't have enough of the right stuff, or he wouldn't have wound up in the Hanoi Hilton.

By that standard, we guess that Senator McGovern might describe 2Lt Lloyd Hughes as an inferior pilot, too. Hughes also flew B-24s during World War II. During the famous attack on Ploesti, Romania on 1 August 1943, the 22-year-old Hughes held his damaged bomber on course --at an altitude of 30 feet--allowing his bombardier to drop his bombs on an enemy oil refinery. Hughes died while attempting a crash landing, his Liberator engulfed in flames. Three of his crew members, including the bombardier, survived.

Hughes was one of five airmen who won the Medal of Honor over Ploesti that day; three were awarded posthumously. A total of 53 bombers were shot down, resulting in the deaths of more than 400 airmen. Too bad those guys (like John McCain) lacked the flying skills, or just the old-fashioned luck, of George McGovern.

How the SecDef Got It Wrong

Military circles are still abuzz over yesterday's speech by Defense Secretary Robert Gates at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Speaking to students at the Air War College, Mr. Gates criticized the Air Force for "not doing enough" in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also observed that trying to get the service to send more UAVs to the war zone was "like pulling teeth."

While the SecDef's harsh critique is grabbing headlines, few people pay attention to the other side of the UAV argument. As we noted yesterday, the recent surge in drone operations in the Middle East comes at a price. Pilots of unmanned aerial vehicles--pulled from the cockpits of manned aircraft--are serving longer tours, limiting their prospects for advancement and promotion. Efforts to train new UAV crews have been hampered as well, since most pilots and sensor operators are busy flying combat missions.

There's also the lingering question of how effective the drones really are. Before he retired last year, General Ron Keys, commander of the Air Force's Air Combat Command (which "owns" most of the military's UAVs and crews), declared that the unmanned aircraft are largely useless for some missions in the war zone, including the search for IEDs.

But, such protests have fallen on deaf ears. With ground commanders clamoring for more UAV support, the number of drone orbits has doubled over the past year and Mr. Gates is pushing for a further increase, even if it means pulling a few more Air Force molars.

In his Aviation Week blog, veteran defense writer Bill Sweetman doesn't say that the SecDef has no clothes, but suggests that his UAV argument is shabbily dressed, at best. The problem, he reports, isn't a lack of pilots (or Air Force disinterest in the drone mission), but rather, the extensive training requirements associated with UAVs:

If you've ever spent five minutes talking to GA-ASI president Tom Cassidy, you know that the Predator has to be flown by a pilot. The ground control system (GCS) is cockpit-like, with stick and rudder pedals - this is not a mouse-commanded automaton. The backseater needs skills, too, because the Predator is designed to direct lethal force even when it is not using its own weapons; and despite the seeming "war by video game" simplicity of the system, retaining situational awareness despite the soda-straw view through the turreted sensors is not easy.

Moreover, everyone knows that a midair or a blue-on-blue involving a UAV will set back the entire project by years. That this has not happened is a testament to rigorous training and disciplined operations.

Of course commanders never have enough overhead full-motion video (FMV); they'd like it all the time. But people have realized something else about 24-hour, FMVUAVs: they are voracious consumers of pilot hours. Consider this: one Predator orbit requires at least six combat-trained aircrew flying three shifts. If they are going to have any time at all for recurrent training, make that eight or ten crew. And if the operation is to be sustained, add four or five people in replacement training.

The Predator operation is expanding, too, which means that there are three training streams: proficiency, replacement and expansion. All of those require hardware, instructors and maintenance support. At the same time, the USAF has introduced the bigger Reaper, imposing a new training burden.

But the training issues aren't limited to the UAV crews. Information collected by the drones must be exploited and processed, a task typically performed by intelligence specialists at one of the Air Force's Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) facilities. Every operational UAV mission requires the support of dozens of intelligence specialists. As you might have guessed, there are only a handful of DCGS sites, with personnel that must be trained for the mission. The limited number of DCGS facilities (and their in-house training requirements) places another limit on the number of UAV missions that can be flown.

Obviously, getting more UAVs into the fight entails more than shipping additional Predators or Reapers to Balad and putting them on the flying schedule. Increasing the number of orbits and sorties will require trade-offs. More operational missions will mean cuts in crew training and longer tours for pilots and sensor operators already trained in the system. If training levels dip too low, the Air Force will find it even more difficult to field enough UAV crews.

Some of the proposed work-arounds are problematic, too. As Mr. Sweetman notes, Army proposals to use non-rated pilots for its Warrior UAVs will increase chances for a midair collision or a fratricide incident, something the Air Force has worked hard to avoid. The "Big Sky, Little Airplane" theory only goes so far.

Of course, that doesn't mean that enlisted aviators or limited-duty pilots can't handle drones. But operating them in a safe and effective manner will require an extensive training program, akin to the current Air Force effort. Facing that reality, it's quite possible that Army and Marine Corps UAV units will face the same training issues at some point down the road. When that happens, will Mr. Gates' successor press for an even greater number of orbits, or realize there are limits on what unmanned aircraft can do.

As for the current SecDef, he plans to continue the push to get more UAVs to Iraq and Afghanistan, convinced that the Air Force just isn't trying hard enough. Mr. Gates recently-created UAV task force will be very busy in the coming months, trying to make his vision a reality. But the cost of attaining that goal--in crew training, aircraft maintenance, intelligence support and flight safety--has yet to be measured.


ADDENDUM: In response to the Maxwell speech, the Air Force offered its own volley, detailing recent efforts to increase UAV support. Back to you, Mr. Secretary.