Sunday, August 31, 2008

"O" Swings into Action

As Hurricane Gustav draws a bead on the Gulf Coast, Barack Obama is offering his assistance.

First, the Democratic presidential nominee decided against an early trip to areas that will be affected by the storm. In our estimate, that is the correct choice. A political swing through New Orleans (at this point) would be unseemly, and divert attention away from on-going preparations.

Senator Obama has also offered to activate his e-mail list and solicit donations from campaign contributors. Again, we can't disagree with that choice, although a comparison of donations should be interesting. Studies have shown that liberals give less than conservatives, so we wonder how Obama's supporters would actually donate.

The candidate also suggested that he could mobilize "thousands" of volunteers to "travel down there if it becomes necessary." That strikes us as a bad and potentially dangerous idea; responding to a disaster is a job for professionals, and plenty of civilian and military experts have been mobilized for this operation. We're not sure what the Obama volunteers could contribute, other than scoring a few political points.

Senator Obama refused to directly criticize John McCain's visit to Mississippi today but he did take an indirect swipe, wondering if "security requirements" pull resources away from the local mission.

For the record, Senator McCain and his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin paid a brief visit to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency command post near Jackson, at the invitation of Haley Barbour. It's difficult to see how their stopover might have impeded operations at the command center, or the evacuation of residents from coastal regions.

At one point today, Mr. Obama also expressed hope that evacuation buses would arrive "before the storm," and not "after," as they did during Katrina. Apparently, someone forgot to tell the Oracle of Invesco Field that the overland evacuation had already been underway for more than 24 hours, and the last trains and buses for points north left New Orleans at mid-afternoon.

Send your money, Senator Obama, but hold off on those volunteers, and don't worry about the buses. The adults are in charge and doing just fine, thank you.

A Tip of the Hat WWL-AM in New Orleans. The station has long been the dominant news/talk/sports outlet in the Crescent City, though its audience has slipped a bit since Rush Limbaugh moved to a local FM station.

But during hurricane season, the station becomes a veritable lifeline for the entire Gulf South. With a 50,000-watt signal that blankets the coast, WWL becomes a primary source for news and information. The signs along evacuation routes in Louisiana and Mississippi that instruct motorists to "Tune to 870 AM for Information" are a reference--you guessed it--to WWL.

The station has been providing wall-to-wall hurricane coverage for several days, just as it always does. As someone who once slaved over a hot microphone, I can only admire the dedication of the station's staff. If broadcasting (at its best) is a public service, then WWL's storm coverage represents the best of that tradition.

If you want to know what's going on in New Orleans and surrounding areas, turn off the cable news networks and listen to WWL.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Eye of the Storm

As Hurricane Gustav churns across the Gulf of Mexico, meterologists are using all available resources to track its course--and growing intensity. Gustav is a monster, and could well reach Category 5 strength before it makes landfall.

In an era of satellites and super-computer modeling, one of the most important forecasting tools can be found on the ramp at Keesler AFB, Mississippi. We're referring to the famed Hurricane Hunters" of the Air Force Reserve. Flying their WC-130Js into the heart of the storm, crews of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron provide information that greatly improves the accuracy of hurricane forecasts.

We should say "normally found on the ramp" at Keesler. As Gustav takes aim at the Gulf Coast, the Hurricane Hunters were forced to evacuate their home base, sending personnel and aircraft to Homestead Air Reserve Base near Miami. The unit has conducted "hurr-evacs" for other storms in the past, including Katrina in 2005, and Tropical Storm Fay less than two weeks ago.

Reporter Jessica Gresko of the Associated Press rode along with the Hunters on a recent flight. Ms. Gresko expresses some surprise at the Spartan accomodations inside--it's obvious she's never been on a "Herk" before--but does a credible job of describing the mission and the crew.

In fairness, we should note that the 53rd is not the only outfit that flies weather reconnaissance missions. NOAA has a small fleet of aircraft, manned by pilots and meterologists operating out of MacDill AFB, Florida.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Step in the Right Direction

Crew chiefs and other aircraft munitions troops and maintainers will not move into operations groups, senior Air Force leaders decided Wednesday. Kudos to the new Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, for leading the fight against the move.

With Wednesday's decision, a return to flawed reorganization schemes of the McPeak-era has been delayed--but not prevented. If Barack Obama wins the fall election all bets are off, since General McPeak is a senior advisor to the presidential nominee, and angling for a senior defense post in a Democratic administration.

Just one more reason to vote for John McCain.

More Security Personnel for Missile Units

Air Force security units assigned to protect intercontinental ballistic missiles and related facilities are getting more manpower.

A USAF security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that security forces groups at Minot AFB, North Dakota; F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming and Malmstrom AFB, Montana will receive up to 150 additional security specialists by early 2009. The extra personnel will be divided between the three installations.

The official tells In From the Cold that the additional manning was ordered earlier this year, but the move is not related to recent nuclear security problems at Minot. Instead, the manpower increase is aimed at giving security forces units more resources to carry out their mission.

Most of the personnel moving to the missile bases are in grades E-3 and E-4. Some of the security specialists have already arrived at their new assignments; the rest will PCS in the coming months.

As the official explained, the assignment of more personnel will give commanders greater flexibility in meeting the security mission. Currently, flights assigned to protect ICBM silos and launch facilities deploy to the field for three days at a time, then rotate back to garrison for six days.

While that sounds like an enviable schedule, security specialists must complete all required training, appointments and other duties during that six-day stretch. Those requirements reduce time off, as do manning shortages in some units. When that happens, security personnel must remain in the field for longer periods of time.

According to the security official, one recurring reason for manpower shortfalls is the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), used to certify individuals who work with--or protect--nuclear weapons. In a typical security forces unit, roughly 10% of PRP-cleared specialists are "off status" at any given time, giving supervisors less personnel to fill required positions.

The decision to remove an individual from PRP rests with the unit commander. Reasons for revoking an airman's PRP status include financial difficulties, personal problems and medical issues, to name a few. But on occasion, security specialists (and other personnel) are removed from PRP for rather odd reasons, creating more personnel shortages within the unit.

The official recalled one instance where a security forces airman was removed from PRP after enrolling in tobacco cessation classes. Reportedly, the airman's commander feared that his withdrawal from nicotine might compromise nuclear security.

In other cases, PRP-cleared personnel temporarily lose their status because of medications prescribed by military physicians. The list of medicines that prompt a temporary suspension of PRP status includes some over-the-counter cold remedies.

According to the security official, some airmen are accused of "gaming" the system, knowing that their prescription will keep them off PRP for a period of time, and away from assigned duties. But, the airmen can't be accused of malingering, since the medication was prescribed by a military doctor. Additionally, since PRP is meant to be a "non-punitive" program, proving abuse by individuals becomes even more difficult.

While the extra personnel will bolster manning in nuclear security units, they may have less impact on experience levels. Another source tells this blog that missile security units at Minot and F.E. Warren need 100-150 mid-level NCOs (E-5/E-6).

In some instances, the source reports, NCOs are needed to replace "deadwood" within the units; in other cases, the Staff and Technical Sergeants will fill positions that are currently vacant. Personnel being dispatched to the missile bases are generally less experienced than the non-comissioned officers that are needed.

The additional specialists are being drawn from security forces units throughout the Air Force, although some organizations have been more heavily tasked. For example, at least five E-5s and E-6s from Randolph AFB, Texas have been reassigned to 91st Security Forces Group at Minot, with reporting dates no later than November.

Manning increases at Minot will not affect the 5th Security Forces Squadron, which protects the base, its flightline and the installation's nuclear weapons storage facility. Problems in that unit resulted in the 5th Bomb Wing failing a nuclear surety inspection in May, but the squadron--and its parent unit--rebounded during a make-up evaluation, held earlier this month.

Those inspections were prompted by last year's nuclear mishap at Minot, which involved the inadvertent transfer of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from the North Dakota installation to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Not Quite Ready for the Boneyard

In recent years, the Air Force has been in a mad scramble to retire the venerable U-2 spy plane.

Despite constant upgrades over its 50-year operational history--and impressive intelligence collection capabilities--the "Dragon Lady" was deemed ready for the Boneyard, clearing the way for the unmanned Global Hawk.

As the Air Force reasoned, the UAV could not only fly longer missions, it also eliminated the need for expensive "extras," including the extensive training and life-support system needed for U-2 pilots and their high-altitude missions. So, with an opportunity to save millions of dollars, with minimal impact on intelligence gathering, the USAF began planning for the U-2's retirement.

But, as Aviation Week reports, the projected phase-out of the U-2 keeps getting pushed back. Initially, the service hoped to start retiring the Dragon Lady in 2007, but that schedule was soon scrapped. Current plans call for retiring the U-2 in 2012, but that date may be slipped until 2014, and for rather obvious reasons. Despite its impressive endurance--and prospective cost-savings--the Global Hawk still can't match the U-2.

Regional commanders such as in the Pacific realm rely heavily on the U-2. Key advantages of the aircraft over the Global Hawk include higher altitude (above 70,000 feet) and more available onboard power to run a larger selection of intelligence-gathering sensors.

The U-2 can collect data from all seven of its available bands (versus the Global Hawk’s five) simultaneously. They include green, red, near infrared (visible), two shortwave infrared bands and a midwave infrared (which can be tuned to day or night collection). The seventh band is a redundant, midwave thermal infrared channel.

The shortwave bands collect images in the invisible reflected solar wavelengths and are most useful in detecting objects in adverse conditions such as haze, fog or smoke.

The latest variants of the decade-old U-2S (part of the U.S. fleet of 33 remaining Dragon Ladies) also carry the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS) 2A designed by Raytheon (originally for mapping) that’s so sensitive it can detect disturbed earth in areas where explosive devices and mines have been planted.


The Pentagon has said it will not retire the U-2 at least until the Global Hawk Block 30, which will carry the Advanced Signals Intelligence Payload, is flying. A USAF official said that flight could take place imminently. Another major milestone will be integration of the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program sensor onto the Global Hawk Block 40 next summer.

Still, the arrival of more advanced Global Hawks won't necessarily mean a short-term demise for the U-2. As one Air Force official told Aviation Week, "retiring a mainstay intelligence collector during wars that require vast amounts of sensor data" is unlikely.

In some respects, attempts to get rid of the U-2 are reminiscent of Air Force efforts to retire the A-10. More than 20 years ago, the service decided that the "Hog" was too slow to survive on modern battlefields, and began experimenting with a Close Air Support (CAS) version of the F-16.

The Viper CAS variant (dubbed the A-16) was part of a larger, inter service tug-of-war over roles and missions. The Army, banned from operating fixed-wing combat aircraft by the 1948 Key West Agreement, wanted the A-10 to complement its Apache attack helicopters. While the Air Force was never particularly enthused about the A-10, it wasn't willing to surrender hundreds of aircraft, thousands of pilot slots and millions in funding to the Army.

In the end, the USAF was forced to retain at least two A-10 wings, and there was never an order for the A-16. However, the service did equip 24 F-16s from the New York Air National Guard with a pod version of the A-10's 30mm cannon. Those aircraft deployed to the Middle East for Operation Desert Storm, along with scores of A-10s.

While the Hawg compiled an impressive combat record, the F-16s with their pod-mounted 30mm cannon were considered a failure. As the New York guard pilots soon discovered, the center-line pylon wasn't as steady as the fixed nose mount of the A-10. Firing the gun shook the aircraft and made it difficult to control.

Additionally, the higher speed of the F-16 gave pilots less time to acquire the target and aim the gun accurately, further reducing its effectiveness. In the end, the pod-mounted 30mm cannon was used as an area weapon, but even that proved unsatisfactory. After only a couple of days in combat, the 30mm cannon pods were removed, and never used again.

As for the A-10, it is expected to remain in the Air Force inventory until at least 2028--and possibly longer. So far, no other aircraft has been able to fully replicate its capabilities--a lesson the USAF is learning again with the U-2.

What Really Happened in Georgia

An important reading assignment from Michael Totten. His lengthy piece completely debunks Russian claims that Georgia started the recent war in the Caucasus.

In fact, Moscow's version of events now reminds us of another whopper, circulated in September 1939. Trying to justify their invasion of Poland, the Nazis claimed that Polish forces had attacked a German radio station.

Testimony at the Nuremburg war crimes tribunal later confirmed what many suspected. The "attack" was an inside job, staged by SS operatives dressed in Polish uniforms. But, it provided the pretext for Hitler's invasion of Poland, which plunged the continent into World War II.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Mr. Donley's Road Ahead

Senior Air Force leaders will meet tomorrow at Bolling AFB in Washington, D.C., to "discuss and make decisions about urgent issues" affecting the service. The meeting represents one of the first steps in a busy, four-month plan to address key problems facing the USAF.

According to Air Force Times, the Wednesday summit will include the recently-confirmed Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz; acting Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, the service's other four-star generals, leaders of all major commands and the heads of various Air Staff Directorates.

Among the topics on the agenda are personnel issues, namely the right "end strength" for Air Force manning, now that the multi-year draw down has ended. Senior leaders are also scheduled to discuss new uniforms, maintenance reorganization, battlefield training for airmen and plans for the service's new "Cyber Command" which was recently put on hold by the Pentagon.

An Air Force official told the Times that decisions on some issues may be made tomorrow, but others will come in the months ahead. Indeed, acting Secretary Donley has laid out an ambitious schedule for the next six months, with plans for tackling (and resolving) many of the critical problems facing his service.

Mr. Donley sketched out his timetable for change in a " SECAF Call" held last week. A copy of the briefing slides used during that session was obtained by In From the Cold. Donley said the meeting's purpose was "to introduce himself to Air Force personnel," help them "understand his priorities for the service," outline a six-month strategic plan, and share his expectations regarding the USAF's core values.

The acting Air Force secretary reminded his audience that "national security is a team sport," and all airmen are responsible to those we serve, "from the airmen sitting next to you, to those who entrust us with the Air Force." Donley also emphasized that all personnel are "temporary stewards of a great institution," with a responsibility to to leave the service in better shape than they found it."

In terms of specific Air Force issues, Donley listed three "urgent tasks" for leadership at all levels: "Steady this great institution and restore its inner confidence; restore national trust and confidence in the USAF and ensure that our core values underpin every action, by every airman, at all times." Donley's remarks mirrored those of General Schwartz; both have called for a new commitment to "individual and organizational accountability" in the wake of recent Air Force scandals.

At the heart of his reform agenda, Mr. Donley listed five priorities for the USAF:

--Reinvigorate the nuclear enterprise
--Prevail in the Global War on Terror
--Strengthen Joint warfighting capabilities
--Refocus on "people" issues
--Transform enterprise management, through appointment of a chief management officer and "strengthening acquisition excellence."

In support of his priorities, Donley outlined a tight timetable for addressing specific issues. The late August/early September period, for example, will see decisions on such "immediate" topics as global wing reorganization, core fuctions review, common battlefield airman training and acquisition lessons learned.

During the latter half of September (and continuing into October), the acting secretary plans to concentrate on the service's nuclear enterprise, with a summit on that program scheduled for 18 September. Air Force leaders will also address personnel end strength and the cyber way ahead during the same period. According to Donley's briefing, the early fall will also be used to "build roadmaps for decisions that require a longer look."

Some of those decisions include a space management/organizational review, a long-term roadmap for unmanned aerial systems and an acquisition enterprise review, all due before the end of the calendar year. Donley has also requested a new review of counter-insurgency warfare during the same period, and plans to "migrate supplemental funding to the baseline budget by year's end."

The ambitious (some would say overly-ambitious) agenda reflects several factors. First, the Air Force remains afflicted by long-standing issues that haven't been sufficiently addressed in years past, including problems with the nuclear enterprise. Donley and General Schwartz must put those problems to bed, once and for all.

Secondly, the new leadership team must overcome the inertia that developed after June's dismissal of Michael Wynne, the former Air Force Secretary, and General Michael Moseley, who served as the Chief of Staff. Both men were forced out of their posts in early June, but Schwartz and Donley didn't arrive in their new jobs until late July. As a result, the new SecAF and Chief of Staff must resolve matters that Wynne and Moseley initiated, but never finished.

Both General Schwartz and Mr. Donley are able leaders, but there are legitimate questions about how much they can get done. Withe the presidential election less than three months away, there will a tendency to postpone decisions with political components. Readers will note that decisions on the service's most important acquisition programs (CSAR-X and KC-X) did not make Donley's list.

To be fair, we should note that the Air Force has lost its decision-making authority on the tanker (KC-X) program, but it will select the next-generation search-and-rescue helicopter, better known as CSAR-X. Still, the absence of these programs from the Air Force priority schedule reflects the political realities that accompany such decisions. Regardless of who wins those contracts, there will be protests, political meddling and further delays. Mr. Donley, who is expected to leave his post under a new president, will gladly defer those thorny acquisition issues to his successor.

Both Donley and Schwartz deserve credit for addressing the Air Force's problems head-on, and implementing an aggressive "fix it" plan. But in an election year--and the pending transfer of executive power--they may be promising more than they can deliver.

Robot Wars

It was once the stuff of science fiction; battles fought by unmanned systems, on futuristic battlefields, usually somewhere in outer space.

Last week, robot engagements moved from fiction to fact, right here on planet Earth. As David Fulgham of Aviation Week reports:

Combat that’s been talked about for the last century – unmanned systems destroying other unmanned systems – is now a reality following the destruction by an MQ-9 Reaper of a vehicle carrying a remotely controlled explosive device in southeast Iraq.

A week ago, the Reaper – the larger, higher-flying, faster and better-armed version of the MQ-1 Predator – dropped a 500-pound laser-guided GBU-12 on the vehicle.

It was the first weapons engagement by Reaper since the aircraft started operations there July 18, said U.S. officials of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Balad Air Base. The aircraft is operated by the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance and Attack Squadron.


The engagement came during a long-endurance “overwatch” mission. Operators from the 46th spotted a suspicious vehicle and relayed the information to a local ground unit that verified it was a mobile bomb. They notified a joint terminal attack controller who cleared the Reaper crew to attack.

“We searched for, found, fixed, targeted and destroyed a [threat] with just one aircraft,” said Lt. Col. Micah Morgan, the 46th’s commander. The unit has the ability to fuse data from air, space and cyberspace and share it with other elements in the kill chain and command network via radio, telephone and secure internet systems.

With the success of the surge--and fewer "volunteers" for suicide missions--it's only logical that insurgents would look toward remote-controlled car bombs. The technology required is within reach of the terrorists, and the use of "robot" VBIEDs gives them added employment flexibility. With a remote-controlled VBIED, you don't have to worry about the driver losing his nerve, or a sharp-eyed American or Iraqi soldier shooting the terrorist before the car reaches its intended target.

Using drones to engage these threats has clear advantages for our side as well. In this particular engagement, ground troops were able to observe the robot bomb from a distance and call in the airstrike, minimizing their own risk from the device.

And, as Aviation Week observes, the allied UAV fleet has the ability to monitor threats for extended periods, and pass that information through the supporting ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) network. That gives commanders the information they need to make the right decision--do we take it out now, or follow it, and see if the remote-controlled VBIED leads us back to its builder.

Welcome to the future.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Our Kind of Estate Sale

Bidders on a padlocked suitcase at an Arkansas estate auction might have gotten a real bang out of their purchase--if the bomb squad hadn't arrived first.

Explosives experts were summoned to a backyard estate sale in Mayflower, Arkansas on Saturday, after auctioneers found three blocks of C-4 explosive in the suitcase, along with two tubes of another explosive, a pair of blasting caps and two sticks of dynamite.

Members of the Conway, Arkansas bomb squad removed the explosives and took them to an isolated spot for destruction. The auction went on as scheduled.

Officials believe the explosives belonged to the estate's owner, a Navy veteran who recently died. Experts estimated that the C-4 and the other explosives were at least 15 years old, putting them at the end of their shelf life and making them more dangerous.

No one has said how the deceased Navy man might have obtained the explosives, but we've heard plenty of stories about vets keep a few souvenirs of their military service--items like hand grenades, machine gun rounds, and even the occasional mortar shell. The stuff sits around the house for years until someone finds it--and calls the bomb squad--or, in isolated cases, explodes due to age or improper handling.

Apparently, the rest of the stuff at the sale was rather mundane; dishes, toys, and a few collectibles. But after the suitcase discovery, we're guessing that buyers inspected their purchases a bit more carefully.

We Support the Troops, But Not Their Success

Today's reading assignment from Pete Hegseth, Chairman of Vets for Freedom, at

Incidentally, if you were wondering if veterans would be among the "real people" showcased at this year's Democratic Convention, the answer is...umm...not really. Only one of the those individuals, selected to represent ordinary Americans, actually served in the armed forces. As for the rest, there's an Amtrak conductor who's concerned that his son-in-law who might have to deploy to Iraq and a Marine wife who's husband has served multiple combat tours, while she battles multiple sclerosis.

The veteran who is scheduled to speak, Xiomara Rodriguez, will address eroding benefits for former military personnel. The Marine wife, Beth Robinson, is worried about the impact of the slumping housing market on her family's future moves, and being a single parent while her husband is deployed.

It's a sure bet that neither Rodriguez nor Ms. Robinson will have anything good to say about the current administration, or its support for military families. But the speakers--and their topics--are consistent with the "victim" theme that will dominate this week's convention. Veterans and dependents without overwhelming personal issues or problems need not apply.

Moving the Goalposts

Boeing has unveiled an interesting--but not unexpected--wrinkle in the tanker war with rival Northrop-Grumman. While claiming that the move is rooted in changing contract requirements, Boeing's tactics are politically motivated, aimed at delaying a decision until after the next administration takes office--and creating a more favorable selection environment for the Chicago-based defense giant.

Just days before the Pentagon was scheduled to release its final bids request for new air tankers, Boeing announced that it may pull out of the $35 billion competition, unless it receives more time to submit its new offer. A Boeing official also revealed that his company may file a protest on the final bids request, which could further delay a final decision.

Boeing spokesman Daniel Beck said his company needs more time to study the bids request and submit a new proposal because "the rules have changed." As he told the Associated Press:

“It’s very clear to us this is a new competition,” said Beck. “Clearly, the requirements have changed and the Defense Department is essentially asking for a different kind of plane from the first competition.”


Based on its review of the draft request for bids, Boeing said it’s clear the Air Force is looking for a larger-sized aircraft with greater cargo capacity and better fuel offload capabilities.

“If we don’t receive sufficient time to prepare a competitive proposal, there’s really little option for us than to no-bid in this competition,” said Beck.

The Chicago-based company contends it is not asking the Pentagon to change its requirements — just for additional time to put together a competitive offer. Boeing declined to specify what kind of changes it would make in a new bid, but said it is considering other types of commercial aircraft.

“We think we can meet these requirements if given the time to put together a proposal,” said Beck.

Beck's comments raise some interesting questions about how Boeing plans to proceed during the next round of the tanker competition. During the last round of bidding, Boeing offered a tanker version of its 767 jetliner, which is already provides inflight refueling for the air forces of Italy and Japan.

Boeing claimed that the 767 tanker was the "right size" for today's military, noting that the competing entry from Northrop-Grumman (based on the Airbus A330 airframe) had a substantially larger "footprint" and could not operate from forward airfields and military bases around the globe. Boeing engineers also noted that the bigger Airbus could not complete required "breakaway" maneuvers to prevent in-flight accidents, and the refueling boom on the A330 represents unproven technology.

But, reading between the lines of Mr. Beck's remarks, it sounds like Boeing may offer its own, larger refueling platform, based on the 777 wide-body jetliner, or (perhaps) the state-of-the-art 787 Dreamliner, which has yet to enter service. Both would offer fuel offload and cargo hauling capabilities similar to those of the A330.

Is Boeing prepared to scrap the 767 in favor of a more advanced design? Admittedly, there are vast similarities between a commercial jetliner and its tanker equivalent, but even with a requested, four-month extension, Boeing would be hard-pressed to submit a 777 or 787 design.

As we've observed in previous posts, the aerospace giant had an opportunity to offer a larger more advanced tanker in the last round of the competition, but took a pass. At that time, Boeing believed the Air Force would buy off on the 767 variant, allowing the defense contractor to keep the production line open for another four years, and build more than 100 additional airframes.

But when the dust settles--and final bids are submitted--we still believe the Boeing entry will be based on the venerable 767. So why ask for an additional four months to study the Air Force proposal and submit a revised bid?

The answer, of course, has little to do with engineering and everything to do with politics. Extending the deadline would push the next round of bidding into December, if not early 2009. By that time the Bush Administration will be history, and Boeing believes it will face more hospitable political conditions.

Lest we forget, key members of the Washington and Kansas political delegation have already lined up solidly behind Boeing, with some elected leaders already voicing support for the extension. Most of those lawmakers are Democrats--the same ones who expressed concerns about the "export" of U.S. jobs" when the last tanker contract was awarded to Northrop-Grumman.

Boeing is gambling that the Democrats gain even more seats in the fall elections, and that the next Congress will be less inclined to support a major defense contract for a firm with foreign ties. Never mind that the Northrop-Grumman entrant would create thousands of American jobs and final assembly would occur at a plant in Alabama. Or that Boeing also outsources some of its parts and manufacturing capabilities to overseas suppliers. Congressional Democrats--and their Republican allies--have already made it clear: they want the next generation of Air Force tanker to be designed and built in the United States.

Fairly or unfairly, the A330 has been pegged as a "foreign" aircraft, and that brings us to the other element of Boeing's strategy--a threat threat to pull out of the competition, unless an extension is granted. With Boeing out of the picture, the tanker project would become a "single source" contract, based on an airframe that was designed in Europe.

Boeing doesn't think that a Democratically-controlled Congress would accept that arrangement. By "moving the goalposts" and stretching out the selection process, Boeing hopes to climb into the acquisition cat-bird seat --with a little help from its friends in Congress. By the contractor's calculations, a tanker decision in 2009 would favor Boeing, and that's why the company is pushing for a delay.

Besides, if you think Boeing is prepared to walk away from a $35 billion deal--in a soft economy--we've got a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in. The defense contractor's threat to exit the competition is nothing more than another ploy.

Of course, Boeing's approach does nothing to satisfy the ultimate goal of the tanker program--get new refueling planes in the hands of war fighters as soon as possible. Indeed, more extensions and delays could postpone the decision until the middle of 2009, creating further delays in the production and delivery of new tanker aircraft.

At one time, the Air Force hoped to introduce its new refuelers in 2013. On the current pace, it seems likely that tanker units won't get their new planes until 2014 or 2015--at the earliest. In the interim, Eisenhower-era KC-135s will soldier on, despite advancing age and mechanical problems.

Many industry analysts believe the Pentagon will grant a slight reprieve to Boeing, but not the four-month delay the company is asking for. We're not sure that Boeing even deserves a modest extension. For years, the defense contractor has been telling us that the 767 is the ideal choice for our next tanker. Boeing needs to make that case in the next round of the competition, instead of fretting about "changing requirements."

Even the Pentagon understands that Boeing is only trying to delay the selection process and take advantage of the post-election political conditions--an environment that may be more favorable to Boeing. That's why DoD should stick by its guns and demand near-term submissions from Boeing and its rivals. Extensions in the bidding process are nothing more than a political ploy, an attempt by Boeing to "game" the process for its advantage.

Our Air Force tanker crews, the war fighters they support--and the American taxpayer--deserve better.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

In the House

After a rough patch for Barack Obama, Democrats think they have a "gotcha moment" for John McCain. Questioned on the campaign trail, the presumptive Republican nominee couldn't remember how many homes he owns with his wife, Cindy. Within hours, the Obama campaign supplied the answer in a new web ad. They claim the McCains own seven homes, worth more than 12 million dollars.

On the heels of McCain's recent remark about who he defines as rich, the Democrats believe they have a new campaign issue, depicting the GOP candidate as just another, clueless rich man, out of touch with ordinary voters.

It's roughly akin to an incident that haunted George H.W. Bush during the 1992 campaign. During a photo op, the president expressed amazement at scanner technology in a grocery store. Of course, checkout scanners were anything but new in the early 90s, and the mainstream press was quite willing to echo Democratic talking points about a president who had little in common with the American public.

The sudden concern with the McCain's real estate holdings is rather odd, but hardly unexpected. Democratic operatives and strategists are masters at playing the class warfare card, and they've been quietly painting McCain as another "rich Republican" for several months.

Remember the minor flap over Cindy McCain's refusal to release her income tax returns? Never mind that the Senator has always released his--and that the McCains keep their finances separate. As the heiress to a multi-million beer distributorship, Mrs. McCain is worth far more than her husband, and she elects to keep her tax information private. Nothing illegal (or even unethical) about that.

As we recall, the Democrats had no problem with the financial status of the 2004 nominee, John Kerry, who became the richest man in the Senate when he married Theresa Heinz and her $700 fortune. At the very least, it allowed Mr. Kerry to stop taking favors from constituents, who allowed him to live rent-free in a Washington condo, and provided a late-model Buick for his transportation needs.

For the record, Senator Kerry and his second wife own at least five homes, but they're worth more than the McCains, since they're located in some rather pricey neighborhoods, including Boston, Nantucket, and Ketchum, Idaho. But we don't remember the press asking Mr. Kerry about his joint real estate holdings, although he did stumble on an SUV question. After a little prodding, he was forced to admit that his family owned a fleet of gas guzzlers.

As for the McCain campaign, it was a mistake to overlook the "housing" issue, which has been building quietly for several weeks. A recent segment on "Inside Edition"--the syndicated news magazine that has offered fawning coverage of Barack Obama--offered a guided tour of John and Cindy McCain's luxury mansion in Arizona. For only $12 million dollars, this home can be yours, the reporter intoned.

Only at the end of the segment did "Inside Edition" reveal the truth. Senator and Mrs. McCain sold the home two years ago, for under $4 million. The new owners have it listed for $12 million, and the next buyer will purchase it from them, not the McCains.

But that distinction is lost on the MSM, which is making Mr. McCain and his homes the issue of the day. That's why the "Inside Edition" piece and the campaign trail question were anything but a coincidence. Talk about McCain's real estate holdings has been swirling for days on the liberal blogs, and Frank Rich of The New York Times recently described the Senator as an "elitist." Mr. Pot, meet Mr. Kettle.

Will the allegation stick? Obama's adjunct publicists in the media are doing their best, but only time will tell. But there's a danger in mounting this attack. As a McCain spokesman observed this morning, does Mr. Obama really want to get into a battle over houses, after purchasing his own mansion through a land deal with a convicted felon.

Meanwhile, there's the recurring matter of Senator Obama and his ties to domestic terrorist Bill Ayers. Steve Diamond, Tom McGuire, Stanley Kurtz (and others) have been looking into the Chicago Annenburg Challenge, a small foundation created by the former Weather Underground leader. Obama served as the foundation's board chairman for several years in the 1990s, almost certainly at the behest of Bill Ayers.

The foundation's primary purpose was to disseminate almost $50 million (from the Annenberg Foundation) to Chicago city schools, funding a "major educational breakthrough." As you'd expect, Ayers, Obama and other board members played a leading role in how the money was spent. As for the "breakthrough," let's say the children of Chicago are still waiting.

But a funny thing happened as conservative journalists and bloggers began to dig into the foundation's work. Stanley Kurtz initially received permission to look at records for the Annenberg Chicago Challenge, but his request was subsequently denied? Who's behind the sudden change of heart? Bill Ayers would seem to be the leading candidate. And why deny access to the records? Do they contain information that is potentially embarassing to Mr. Obama? Hmmm....

From our perspective, the story of the Annenberg challenge--and the role of Barack Obama--is far more important than the number of houses that John McCain (or, more correctly) his wife owns. But in the dog days before the Democratic Convention, the media is more concerned with real estate than how Obama and his cronies administered that grant money. The media's reluctance to tackle that issue should come as no surprise. Anyone for a tour of Mr. McCain's new condo in Phoenix?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Today's Reading Assignment

"NATO's Empty Words," from The Wall Street Journal. A few particularly relevant paragraphs:

The most NATO ministers could muster at their meeting in Brussels was a statement that they "cannot continue with business as usual" with Russia. There was no move to fast-track Georgia's bid to join NATO, nor a pledge to help the battered democracy rebuild its defenses.

Asked about NATO reconstruction aid, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer pointedly said, twice, that it would go for "civilian infrastructure." So here we have a military alliance going out of its way to stress that it will not be providing any military aid. The alliance didn't even cancel any cooperative programs with Russia, though Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said "one can presume" that "this issue will have to be taken into view." That must have the Kremlin shaking.


One of Moscow's goals is clearly to humiliate Georgia enough to topple President Mikheil Saakashvili, so he can be replaced with a pliable leader who will "Finlandize" the country, to borrow the old Cold War term for acquiescing to Kremlin wishes. In the bargain, it is also betting it can humiliate the West, which will give the people of Ukraine real doubts about whether joining NATO is worth the risk of angering Moscow. Judging by NATO's demoralizing response on Tuesday, the Kremlin is right.

Back to you, Secretary Rice.

Mark Your Calendars...

...The USAF's next, controversial acquisition decision is scheduled for this fall, with selection of a contractor to build its new combat search-and-rescue helicopter (CSAR-X).

According to Air Force Times, the service is on track to reveal the winner of the competition in the coming months, despite a continuing probe into the last round of CSAR-X bidding. That contract was awarded to Boeing in November 2006, but was later overturned, after protests from rivals Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon Inspector General has been investigating whether program requirements for the original contract met DoD standards, and did not benefit a particular firm, in this case Boeing.

The Chicago-based aerospace giant was a relative late-comer to the initial CSAR-X competition in 2006, offering a rescue platform based on its venerable CH-47 "Chinook." When the Air Force awarded the contract to Boeing, it shocked some industry analysts, who felt that Sikorsky's S-92 or the Lockheed Martin US-101 (based on a European design) were better candidates.

Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin challenged the decision, arguing that the service had ignored its own weight specifications and unfairly evaluated the candidates’ life-cycle costs. When the Air Force issued modified its request for proposals, the two losing firms protested again, claiming that the new standards would simply ensure that the Boeing chopper was selected again.

That sent the Air Force back to the drawing board, releasing more amendments to its request for proposals last fall. Since then, the three competing firms have re-submitted their bids, which are being evaluated by the USAF.

The Air Force is facing enormous pressure to "get the CSAR-X contract right," and not just because its current rescue fleet is getting long in the tooth. Earlier this summer, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stripped the service of its acquisition authority for the next-generation tanker program (KC-X), after years of controversy surrounding that effort.

Gates made his decision after the USAF selected the Northrop-Grumman KC-30 as its new air refueling platform. Boeing, which offered a tanker version of its 767 jetliner, protested the decision--a challenge that was later upheld by the Government Accountability Office. Investigators for the GAO found "significant errors" in how the contract was originally awarded, prompting Mr. Gates to put the tanker decision in the hands of John Young, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition.

Obviously, the Air Force doesn't want a repeat performance with CSAR-X. The most recent tanker debacle is another reason the service has extended selection deadlines for the new rescue helicopter. That will give the USAF acquisition chief (Sue Payton) and her staff more time to go over the various proposals and (presumably) select the best rescue chopper. The Air Force hopes to buy more than 100 new CSAR helicopters in the coming years, a project that is worth more than $15 billion.

However, the extended evaluation process does nothing to alleviate the political fallout that will result from the coming CSAR-X decision. Regardless of who gets the contract, there will be two losing firms, and two groups of upset Congressmen who support those contractors.

With billions on the table, there will almost certainly be a protest of the next CSAR-X contract, and the USAF needs to prove that its acquisition process is finally up to snuff. Providing justification for a successful protest--based on more Air Force mistakes--would be a disaster of the first magnitude, and result in even more problems for the service.

Losing decision-making authority for one major aircraft program is bad enough; losing authority for two programs would be unprecedented, and raise legitimate questions about the future of other Air Force programs--and the acquisition officials charged with running them.

This is one contract the USAF needs to "get right," in every sense of that phrase.

Belated Congratulations

...To the men and women of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota. Last week, they successfully passed a Nuclear Surety Inspection, the final hurdle in the unit's road to redemption. According to the Air Combat Command inspector general team, the bomb wing performed in an "exceptional manner" during a "very tough re-inspection."

The repeat evaluation was prompted by a failing grade on security during a previous NSI, held in May. Before that, the 5th Wing was rated "Not Ready" during an Initial Nuclear Surety Inspection" held in December 2007. The series of evaluations was prompted by last summer's inadvertent transfer of six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from Minot to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, on a B-52 bomber.

That incident--described as the nation's worst nuclear weapons mishap in 25 years--resulted in the temporary suspension of bomb unit's nuclear mission, and the dismissal of three senior officers, including the 5th Wing Commander.

The B-52 unit later regained its mission certification, after passing the INSI. With completion of the latest inspection, members of the wing can finally put the "nuclear nightmare" behind them. For months, many of the personnel assigned to the 5th BW have been working 12-14 hour shifts, six days a week, in an effort to get their unit back on track.

All of that hard work paid off last week, with successful completion of the NSI. Kudos to the aircrews, load crews, munitions techs, security specialists, commanders (and everyone else at the 5th Wing) for a job well done.

The Non-Event

There was supposed to be a big event in the presidential race last week, and we're not talking about the "Veepstakes," or Saturday night's forum at Rick Warren's megachurch in California.

The event we refer to was scheduled for August 11th, near Fort Hood, Texas. Like Pastor Warren's interviews with Barack Obama and John McCain, the Fort Hood forum represented something new in presidential politics. It would be the first time that presidential candidates answered questions about their military and national security policies by those most interested in such matters--members of the armed forces, their families, and military retirees.

Organized by the wife of an Army officer stationed at Fort Hood, the proposed military forum was sponsored by no less than 15 organizations, ranging from the Military Officers Association of America, to Veterans for Common Sense. CBS News agreed to televise the event, to be held at the Bell County Expo Center in Belton Texas, near Fort Hood. At least 6,000 military members and dependents were expected to attend the forum.

But there was no military town hall meeting in Texas last week. While Republican John McCain agreed to participate in the forum, his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, turned down the invitation, citing "scheduling" conflicts. And, with Mr. Obama declining offers to reschedule, organizers put the event on hold late last month. At this point, it seems unlikely that the Fort Hood forum will ever be held.

Sadly, we predicted as much last month. With Mr. McCain enjoying a sizable lead among military voters and veterans, Obama's advisers apparently decided that the Fort Hood event would be a less-than-ideal venue for their candidate. And, considering the Senator's subsequent performance at Saddleback Church, it may have been a wise decision. If anything, Mr. Obama would have faced even tougher questions from that military crowd, reinforcing his lack of experience in defense and national security matters.

Organizers of the Fort Hood forum still hold out hope that the event can be held. We're not optimistic, but the concept has clear merit. For generations, presidential candidates have discussed security issues in debates and town hall meetings, but the questions have been typically posed by journalists with only a cursory knowledge of military affairs.

Carissa Picard, leader of the Fort Hood organizing committee, decided it was time to let the troops and their families ask the questions. It is an idea whose time has come, and there's little doubt that the military town hall would have been as interesting and informative as the event at Saddleback.

During wartime, those who go in harm's way deserve an opportunity to query politicians who want to serve as their commander-in-chief. Unfortunately, due to Mr. Obama's scheduling problems, the military community at Fort Hood will never get a chance to question the presidential nominees. On the campaign trail, Senator Obama has tried to depict himself as a champion of military families, promising more benefits and faster assistance for those in need.

But Obama's actions fail to match his rhetoric. During his recent foreign policy extravaganza, he took a pass on visiting wounded troops in Germany, after learning that his campaign team--and the traveling media--couldn't accompany him. Instead of making a low-key trip to the Landstuhl military medical center (as a serving Senator), Mr. Obama went to the gym.

If nothing else, Obama's decision to opt out of the Fort Hood event is remarkably consistent with the recent tone of his campaign. The candidate who once pledged to meet John McCain "anytime, anywhere," now seems to have an aversion to joint appearances. He has agreed to only three debates, following the same, predictable format of years past.

As for members of our military, Mr. Obama has adopted a similar policy. He's glad to meet with them, but only on his schedule, and under conditions that he controls. A free-flowing town hall meeting on defense issues, with questions from the people most affected by those policies? Unfortunately, it won't happen at Fort Hood (or any other military community) this election year.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Another Dud

Aviation Week reports that Iran's recent flight test of a space launch vehicle was a failure. Information collected by Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites and the USS Russell, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer on station in the Persian Gulf, confirmed that the Safir rocket went out of control at high altitude and never completed its ascent.

Iranian state TV aired video of the rocket launch shortly after it occurred on 17 August, and suggested that the test was a success. According to government spokesmen, the Safir is designed to boost satellites into orbit. However, the same technology can be used for intercontinental ballistic missiles, and U.S. intelligence analysts believe that is the real purpose for the Safir program.

Readers will recall that the Russell is one of three destroyers involved in the tracking and shoot down of a derelict U.S. spy satellite earlier this year. Tracking data from the Russell was instrumental in the final intercept of the satellite by a Standard-3 missile, fired by another destroyer.

According to Aviation Week, U.S. intelligence had advance warning of the test, allowing optimal position of the Russell and other collection assets. That likely means that an RC-135 Cobra Ball aircraft was also on hand, providing optical tracking of the test.

While "The Ball" isn't mentioned in the Aviation Week story, the aircraft is typically deployed in anticipation of missile tests around the globe. Information from Cobra Ball, along with infrared data from the DSP platforms and radar tracking from the Russell, should provide some insights as to what went wrong with the Iranian launch.

Sunday's test marked the latest failure for Iran's Safir program, which is based on SCUD, No dong and Tapeodong (TD) missile technologies acquired from North Korea. In early 2007, another Iranian launch ended unsuccessfully, although there is some debate over whether the rocket was a Safir booster, or a Kavoshgar (Explorer) sounding rocket. There have also been other failures of extended range Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missiles, capable of striking Israel.

The Safir apparently consists of a Shahab-3 lower stage, topped by a second stage based on the TD-1 design, and a third-stage orbital insertion platform, based on Chinese technology. While Sunday's test was clearly a failure, it will enhance Iranian understanding of multi-stage missiles, and contribute towards eventual development of a crude ICBM, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

There's an old rule of thumb in missile analysis. Left to their own devices, a country that currently has medium range ballistic missiles can produce an ICBM within a decade. Iran is clearly moving down that path, following the example of North Korea. In that sense, last weekend's dud may represent only a temporary setback.

Iran's "Plan," Revisited

For the second time in less than a year, Iran has boasted that its warplanes are capable of striking Israel. It remains a dubious claim, at best.

Last September, the Deputy Commander of the Iranian Air Force stated that his country had developed plans for bombing Israel, if the IAF made the "silly mistake" of striking Tehran's nuclear facilities. As we noted at the time, it was hardly a threat that would strike fear in the hearts of Israeli defense planners. Unfortunately for Iran, there was--and is--a sizable gap between their strategic planning and operational capabilities.

Fact is, the Iranian Air Force--or more correctly, Iran's two Air Forces have serious training, equipment, airspace and logistical issues that make a successful strike on Israel almost impossible.

We'll begin with the airspace problem. Getting to Israel from Iran means over-flying countries like Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Crossing Iraq and Jordan offers the most direct route, but that means a confrontation with the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy jets--a battle the Iranians would certainly lose. Turkey and Saudi Arabia would also oppose transit by Iranian fighters headed for Israel, and both have better jets and pilots.

In fact, Iran's most "viable" option for an airstrike against Israel would require a long, circuitous flight down the Persian Gulf, around the Arabian Peninsula, and up the Red Sea. That route would carry Iranian fighters through international airspace, but it would significantly increase flight time, in-flight refueling requirements and the probability of detection.

And, speaking of tankers, did we mention that Iran has only two--a KC-707 (similar to our own KC-135) and a modified Boeing 747. The older KC-707 flies on a periodic basis; as for the 747, there is some speculation that it has been converted for other missions, such as hauling cargo.

In any case, the lack of tankers would be crippling for any planned Iranian airstrike. Consider this; it is believed that Israel (which operates at least seven KC-707 tankers and a number of KC-130 airframes) has enough in-flight refueling capability to get two dozen fighter jets to Iran on a strike mission. With only one tanker, the Iranian Air Force could probably provide enough fuel for no more than three jets. Not much of a strike package--and one that would be mauled by the IAF.

As for the aircraft assigned to the mission, most analysts believe Iran would utilize its aging F-4 Phantom II fighter-bombers, purchased from the U.S. in the early 1970s. Compared to the F-15s and F-16s of the Israeli Air Force, the Phantoms are decidedly low-tech, but their crews are among the most experienced in the Iranian Air Force.

However, experience levels (and proficiency) among Tehran's F-4 crews have dipped in recent years, with the retirement of pilots and WSOs who were trained by the U.S. Intelligence analysts suggest that Iran's most proficient crews at stationed at Hamadan Airbase, near the country's western border.

Eleven months later, there is nothing to indicate that Iran has overcome these deficiencies. Tehran's plans for an airstrike against Israel remain hamstrung by a shortage of tankers, a lack of experienced aircrews, and the formidable challenge of regional geography.

But Iran is bragging of new capabilities, which (supposedly) allow its warplanes to fly up to 3,000 kilometers without refueling. The claim came from the commander of the Iranian Air Force, who did not provide details on how the extended range was achieved. Israel lies 1,000 kilometers west of Iran, placing it within striking distance of Iran's long-range aircraft, at least theoretically.

Without in-flight refueling from aerial tankers, Tehran has three options for increasing the range of its strike aircraft: external fuel tanks; "buddy" refueling from other aircraft of the same type, or the purchase of new fighters, like the SU-30 Flanker.

We'll start with the latter option. While strike variants of the Flanker have a range of up to 3,000 kilometers, there is no indication that Iran has acquired--or is preparing to acquire--the fourth-generation fighter. Any purchase of that type would be accompanied by improvements at Iranian airfields (new hangars, fueling hydrants, etc) and the training of an initial crew cadre in Russia. To date, there have been no reports of such preparations in Iran or Russia, making a Flanker purchase an unlikely possibility, at least for now.

Among the fighter aircraft currently in Tehran's inventory, only three have the potential range to reach Israel, the U.S.-built F-4 Phantom II and F-14 Tomcat, and the Russian-made SU-24 Fencer.

As we've observed in the past, the venerable F-4 remains the backbone of the Iranian Air Force, despite its advanced age and growing maintenance problems. Most of Iran's air intercepts are conducted by F-4s, and the Phantom crews at Hamadan have staged occasional long-distance training flights in recent years. Some analysts believe the Hamadan unit represents Iran's only viable option for a long-range strike mission.

But, to reach targets in Israel, Iranian F-4s would need both drop tanks and in-flight refueling. According to Iran's Air Force chief, his jets can now reach Israeli targets without refueling, so that would seem to eliminate the Phantom as a possibility. Or, perhaps the Iranians have plans to hang fuel tanks on every available pylon, creating weight and balance problems, while greatly reducing the potential bomb load.

The F-14s combat radius (500 NM) also falls a bit short of a one-way flight to Israel. Moreover, the number of Iranian Tomcats still flying is probably no more than six, hardly enough for an effective attack against Israel, unless the jets were carrying chemical or nuclear weapons. But there are no indications that Iranian F-14s are conducting the type(s) of training needed to prepare for a long-range strike mission. For those reasons, the Tomcat is also an unlikely choice for the mission suggested by Iranian officials.

Tehran also has a small number of SU-24 Fencer strike fighters, including 18 that fled Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. Similar in design and function to the U.S. F-111, the SU-24 is a capable, long-range interdiction platform. But the Fencers in Iran have a checkered operational history; sortie totals remain low, despite the fact that the SU-24 has been in the Iranian inventory for years. There have been reports of maintenance problems, and long periods of inactivity among Iran's SU-24 units.

But, with external tanks and "buddy" refueling (from a pod-equipped SU-24), Tehran's Fencers have just enough range to reach targets in Israel. While the Iranian official didn't specify the type of aircraft that could fly long-range missions, the SU-24 represents the best candidate among aircraft that are now operational.

Still, there's that little matter of squaring Iran's grandiose plans against its actual capabilities. In that regard, Tehran's ability to mount an air mission against Israel is only marginal at best. And, we haven't addressed the likely reaction of the Israeli Air Force fighters and surface-to-air missile units. Together, they comprise some of the most formidable air defenses in the Middle East, capable of mauling any Iranian formation before it reaches Israeli air space.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Moscow Creates an Opening

As Russian troops begin a slow withdrawal from Georgia, Moscow may have created an inadvertent opening, allowing NATO to send more military aid to Tblisi.

Defense officials tell Fox News that Russia has deployed short-range SS-21 missiles in South Ossetia--the breakaway region that sparked the recent conflict with Georgia. Despite their limited reach (120km), the SS-21s can threaten most Georgian cities and military bases. Moreover, the SS-21 is extremely accurate--far more capable of precision attacks than the FROG-7s they replaced.

The mobile missiles pose an obvious menace to Georgia's population centers, and airfields supporting humanitarian operations. But Moscow's military move has actually created an opportunity for NATO--allowing the alliance to show support for Tblisi, and provide a needed measure of military support.

We're referring to Patriot missile batteries, which could--and should--be deployed to Georgia. The Patriot is more than capable of engaging an SS-21, diminishing the potential threat to civilian and military targets. Moreover, the presence of those mobile missiles in South Ossetia provides a perfect justification for Patriot deployments to Georgia.

And, if NATO is genuinely serious about such a move, the Patriots should come from several member countries, say, the U.S., the Netherlands and Germany. NATO Patriot units are fully interoperable, so there would be no loss of capabilities with a multi-nation deployment.

The SAM presence should be accompanied by the deployment of air superiority fighters and battle management assets, aimed at establishing a no-fly zone over Georgia. That would send a powerful, deterrent message to the Kremlin and its puppet master. Unfortunately, NATO seems to have no appetite for that sort of mission, so the SS-21s will probably remain in South Ossetia, with little challenge from NATO.


ADDENDUM: Another option would be a NATO-financed purchase of advanced SAMs, probably from Ukraine.

On the Brink of Collapse?

It's been a matter of considerable interest--and speculation--over the past decade. When, exactly, will the "Worker's Paradise" (a.k.a. North Korea) finally collapse, and can the regional powers, including the U.S., prevent a war as Pyongyang implodes?

Korea watchers have been predicting the demise of the DPRK for at least 20 years. By any reasonable standard, a country that is increasingly isolated, economically bankrupt and unable to feed its own people can't last very long. So, it's just a matter of time before Kim Jong-il and his regime wind up on the ash heap of history, right?

And, the demise of North Korea may happen sooner, rather than later. In a column published yesterday at Real Clear Politics, former New York Times correspondent Richard Halloran cites analysts and other experts who believe the moment of reckoning is at hand for Pyongyang. As he writes:

Analysts everywhere point to a decade of hunger that has left seven year old North Korean children eight inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than their South Korean cousins. North Korean soldiers in a regime that gives priority to the military forces have been reduced to two skimpy meals a day. Factory workers nap on the floor for lack of food and energy.

That has led to conjecture that North Koreans, despite the pervasive controls in the Hermit Kingdom's police state, may throw caution to the winds. "We just don't think they can go along with this much longer," said an American official with access to intelligence assessments.

The Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington reports that North Korea, after ten years of food shortages, stands on the precipice of famine that could have political consequences. "The possibility of widespread social distress and even political instability," the institute said in a study, "cannot be ruled out."

Another study, from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, says: "Dismal economic conditions also foster forces of discontent that potentially could turn against the Kim regime -especially if knowledge of the luxurious lifestyle of communist party leaders becomes better known or as poor economic performance hurts even the elite."

While we can't disagree with these assessments, it would be a grave mistake to underestimate North Korea's ability to survive. By hanging on through years of famine and economic failure, Kim and his regime have defied expectations, simply because they don't play by the rules.

Consider this: how many western governments would still be in power after the decade of hardship that the DPRK has endured. While Kim Jong-il treated himself to western delicacies (and acquired the only paunch in North Korea), more than a million of his countrymen starved to death. Thousands more fled to China, leading desperate, hidden lives along the border, willing to risk deportation--and death--if they are caught.

Or, imagine living in a country where electricity is an increasingly rare luxury. Look at a nighttime satellite image of the Korean peninsula. South Korea is awash in light, a testament to 50 years of free markets and economic prosperity. In contrast, the area north of the DMZ is almost totally dark, a monument to a half-century of centralized economic planning.

North Korea is a country with no viable exports, save SCUD missiles and nuclear technology--the same armaments that fund the modest imports that keep the elites happy. To supplement its arms trade, Pyongyang also dabbles in drug dealing and forgery; North Korea has the most advanced printing presses this side of the Bureau of the Currency, printing millions of bogus $100 bills each year.

The forgery, in turn, helps support Kim Jong-il's lavish lifestyle, including an unlimited supply of Dunhill cigarettes, Henessey cognac, and the world's largest personal film library. Yet, thanks to the support of his military and the systemic brain-washing of the populace, Kim and his late father, Kim Il-Sung, remain god-like figures in the DPRK. According to North Korean propaganda, everything flows from the Kim dynasty.

So, the younger Kim can afford to smoke, drink and gorge himself while his nation starves--as long as the military remains supportive. Mr. Halloran notes that there has been little apparent change in the loyalty of North Korea's armed forces over the past five years. Indeed, Kim Jong-il has been grooming a new generation of generals who back his regime, providing enough perks and luxuries to keep them in line.

That's the main reason that Pyongyang will continue to beat the odds, despite predictions of its imminent demise. With sufficient military power, Mr. Kim can keep his populace at bay, and command the attention of other powers in the region. With half of his army within 60 miles of the DMZ, the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan cannot ignore North Kroea.

In his final paragraph, Halloran notes the conspicuous absence of Kim Jong-il at the Beijing Olympics. The implication is that the DPRK is increasingly irrelevant in the "power politics" of Northeast Asia. But that ignores another reality: the North Korean leader had no desire--or need--to attend the Olympiad in China.

When he needs to, Kim has other ways of getting the world's attention, and the leaders who gathered in Beijing have been rather conciliatory toward him in recent years. In fact, they have promised extensive aid, if only Pyongyang will make good on its most recent nuclear agreement.

That's hardly a regime that seems destined for a quick collapse. If anything, North Korea will probably find a way to soldier on, existing on its military power, and the confidence games it plays with the west.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Planning Ahead

Kudos to Brian Whitmore of Radio Free Europe, who is attempting something the MSM has ignored. In his most recent post on the broadcast service's website, he tries to connect the dots and prove that Russia's invasion of Georgia was planned months, perhaps even a year, in advance.

From a military standpoint, there's little doubt about Whitmore's thesis. Major operations--like Russia's incursion into Georgia--are not ad hoc affairs. As we've noted in the past, modern militaries (including Moscow's) have standing plans for virtually all contingencies. The southern Caucasus representing a region of vital importance to the Kremlin, so it's only logical that Russia's General Staff would develop and routinely update plans for potential military action.

Based on that assumption, Russian planning for a Georgian operation began years, even decades ago. In fact, if you compared Moscow's plan for its recent invasion, and comparable, Soviet-era documents, you'd find similarities--and for obvious reasons. A military plan is nothing more than outlining the resources that will be dispatched to the right location, at the right time, in support of tactical and strategical objectives. The keys to taking (or holding) a place like Georgia hasn't changed much over the past 20 years.

But were there tell-tale indicators of Russian's invasion plan? Mr. Whitmore notes that Moscow's forces held a major exercise in the South Caucasus region less than a month before launching their assault of Georgia. That isn't particularly surprising; military commands rehearse before conducting major operations, and that is particularly true of Russia. Dating back to the Soviet era, Russian formations have a long history of exercising intensely in the weeks before the operation, then "standing down" just before it begins.

Whitmore claims that Moscow made its decision to go to war back in April.

Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, who was interviewed by RFE/RL says the aim, from the start, was to overthrow Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his pro-Western government. Sources tell Felgenhauer that the Kremlin opted for military action four months ago.


"A decision was made for the war to start in August. The war would have happened regardless of what the Georgians did. Whether they responded to the provocations or not, there would have been an invasion of Georgia," Felgenhauer says. "The goal was to destroy Georgia's central government, defeat the Georgian army, and prevent Georgia from joining NATO."

April is significant for another reason--as Mr. Felgenhauer reminds us. It was during that month that NATO declined to offer a membership application plan (MAP) to Georgia and Ukraine. That action, analysts believe, may have emboldened Moscow.

The Russians also set the stage for action in Georgia with last year's decision to withdraw from the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. That gave Moscow diplomatic the latitude to send more troops to the South Caucasus, without violating the agreement. And, as the operation unfolded, at least two airborne divisions were quickly deployed to the region.

Moscow also needed time to coordinate other elements of the invasion, including the hundreds of airlift sorties needed to move those paratroopers to the South Caucasus, and Russia's amphibious operations along the Black Sea coast. Given those requirements, the April decision touched off the last round of preparations for the Georgia operation, based on plans that had been on the books for years.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Russia's Black Eyes in Georgia

A week into its Georgia adventure, Russia is not only taking a beating in the court of world opinion, it has also suffered some black eyes on the battlefield.

Our friends at Strategy Page were among the first to detail Russian air losses during the bombing campaign against Georgian targets. Since the onset of Moscow's military operation, Georgian air defense crews claim to have shot down at least 14 Russian airplanes. That figure is exaggerated, but Moscow has admitted it lost four warplanes--three SU-25 "Frogfoot" attack aircraft and a TU-22M "Backfire" bomber.

More embarrassing, the jets were shot down with Russian-designed air defense systems, most notably the SA-11 "Gadfly." First introduced in the 1980s, the SA-11 is the successor to the mobile SA-6 "Gainful" surface-to-air missile system that wreaked havoc with Israeli forces during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The SA-11 is highly mobile and has been updated over the past 20 years. Georgia obtained a small number of Gadfly batteries from Ukraine in recent years, and when the conflict with Moscow erupted earlier this month, the SA-11 became a primary defense against Russian air attacks.

Additionally, Tblisi purchased the SA-15 "Gauntlet" from Ukraine, to bolster its short-range air defenses. The SA-15 (dubbed the Tor-M1 by the Russians) is the same air defense system that Moscow sold to Iran last year. Despite its limited range (6 miles), the SA-15 is effective against tactical aircraft, cruise missiles and even some types of precision-guided munitions. By comparison, the SA-11 has a maximum range of 21 miles, and can engage targets at higher altitudes.

As Strategy Page notes, Moscow was well aware that Georgia had purchased advanced SAMs from Ukraine. And, Russian military experts know the systems well, since they were originally built by Soviet-era design bureaus, and have been in service with Russia's military for many years.

With that level of knowledge, you'd think the General Staff would have devised appropriate counter-measures for its bomber and attack aircraft. While the missile systems may have been modified by Ukraine or the Georgians, it shouldn't be that difficult for Moscow to figure out the upgrades, and make the necessary tactical adjustments.

In fairness, we should note that the number of Russian aircraft shot down so far is relatively small, in comparison to the total sortie count. Still, the losses reveal weaknesses in Russian ISR (apparently, they're having a hard time keeping track of those Georgian SAMs), and efforts to suppress enemy air defenses. We haven't seen any numbers yet, but it would be interesting to know how many SA-11 and SA-15 radars and launchers have survived Moscow's opening onslaught, and are now waiting to engage other Russian aircraft.

As the U.S. discovered in the two Gulf Wars and Operation Allied Force, keeping tabs of mobile SAMs is a tough business. The advent of armed UAVs has made that process a bit easier, allowing persistent surveillance of the battlefield, and the ability to strike quickly if a high-value target--like a mobile SAM--is located.

We're guessing that the Russians are facing problems similar to what we experienced in Desert Storm--trying to reconcile an ever-changing ELINT picture against reporting from aircrews and imagery assets, then trying to get munitions on those targets in a timely manner.

Making matters worse, there are plenty of places in the Georgian countryside for those surviving SAMs to hide. Use of emissions control (EMCON) procedures, along with camouflage, concealment and deception techniques (CC&D) will improve survival prospects for SA-11 and SA-15 crews.

And where do you suppose the Georgians learned the art of military deception? From the Russians, of course.

Along with its aircraft losses, Moscow also suffered a near-calamity on the Black Sea, during last weekend's battle with Georgian patrol craft. Galrahn at Information Dissemination has a new account, provided by a Russian sailor who fought in the engagement. He has posted similar information at the Danger Room.

New details have emerged that shed a bit of light on the action. A sailor interviewed in the Sevastopol on Wednesday gave the local press his recollection of the action. Here's my amateur translation:

"We took up station guarding the opposed landing on the Abkhaz shore when all of a sudden four high speed targets were detected. We sent out an IFF signal and the targets didn't react. Receiving a command from the flagship, we got into formation and right at that moment the unidentified targets opened fire on the ship formation and flagship. The cruiser was damaged and a small fire broke out aboard. Then, fearing for seaworthiness, the flagship withdrew from the firing area." - the sailor said.

"Right then the small missile boats clearly fired," the participant continued. "Taking up position, our MRK launched a "Malakhit" (SS-N-9) anti-surface missile, which literally cut the lead ship, the Tbilisi, to ribbons.

After that, fire was shifted to the rest of the Georgian ships. Another ship was damaged, we couldn't finish it off, allowing it to leave the scene under its own power."

In other words, four out-gunned Georgian patrol boats managed to sneak past the Russian defensive screen and damage the flagship, which was forced out of the engagement. Not exactly a stellar moment for Mr. Putin's...err, Mr. Medvedev's Navy.

Of course, there's a lesson here for other fleets, including our own. In littoral waters (or other cramped naval environments), small craft can pose a considerable threat, hiding in coastal clutter or bad weather before staging surprise attacks against more powerful adversaries. The Black Sea engagement again highlights the importance of air cover, ISR and patrol craft, as part of a naval strike group.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Even More Security Problems at Minot

***UPDATE/1756 EST 14 Aug***

Minot responds to "flight chief report;" base public affairs officer says that "no one" has been relieved from their post, although an inquiry in underway into the activities of one flight chief. Reaction from base spokesperson in paragraphs 12-14

Three security forces flight chiefs at Minot AFB have been relieved of their duties, the latest in a string of security-related woes that have plagued the North Dakota installation in recent months.

Sources tell In From the Cold that the three non-commissioned officers were removed from their posts Wednesday. for violations related to Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice---failure to obey a lawful general order or regulation. The flight chiefs were assigned to the 91st Security Forces Group at Minot, which protects the base's sprawling missile fields, housing 150 Minuteman III ICBMs.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, an Air Force security official said two of the NCOs were relieved for improper documentation of flight activities and a failure to conduct a proper inventory of assigned equipment. The official said that removing a flight chief for those discrepancies is "not unprecedented" in security forces units.

But he described the third firing as "more serious," because it raises potential questions about security levels in the missile field and the professionalism of the flight chief. According to the source, the third NCO is accused of two violations, "ghosting" the blotter and spending duty hours away from his assigned post in the missile field.

The official described "ghosting" as a tactic used by flight chiefs to increase their manning, which in turn, allows them to give personnel more time off. Under that approach, supervisors request additional manpower, claiming they need extra security specialists to fill vacancies caused by leave, scheduled training, medical appointments and other legitimate absences.

But the shortage is exaggerated or even fabricated; in reality, the flight has enough personnel to meet its field assignments, without extra manpower.

To support the ghosting effort, the flight chief prepares a blotter that lists duties for all available personnel, including the spares. However, some of the specialists listed on the blotter never actually go on duty. Instead, the flight chief gives them a discretionary day off, using the extra manpower to cover their absence.

While the ruse is a violation of Air Force regulations, ghosting is "not unheard of" in security forces units, the official explained. He noted that flight chiefs who use the tactic often claim they are simply trying to "take care of their people" by granting more time off.

The third flight chief is also accused of leaving his assigned post. A security forces source at Minot reports the NCO apparently worked an unauthorized "split shift," returning home at night, and leaving the rest of his flight on duty. Security specialists protecting missile fields normally work an extended shift--more than 24 hours, in some cases--with no time at home during the duty period.

By leaving his post, the flight chief may have created additional problems for himself--and a security violation for his unit. Air Force regulations dictate that certified security forces leadership be present in the squadron area--in this case, a missile field--at all times. With the flight chief's reported absence, the unit may have violated that directive.

A source at Minot indicated that two of the flight chiefs--including the one accused of working a split shfit--are Master Sergeants. The other is a Technical Sergeant (E-6). An investigation into their activities has already begun. All three could face additional punishment if they are deemed culpable.

A spokesman for Minot AFB disputed claims that the flight chiefs had been dismissed from their jobs. "No one has been removed from their position at this time," said Major Elizabeth Ortiz, chief of the base public affairs office.

Ortiz said an "issue" was discovered with a flight chief, prompting an inquiry. Major Ortiz did not provide details on the investigation, noting that it is still continuing. But, she emphasized that the problem did not compromise security of Minot's missile force.

"We take our responsibilities to safeguard the ICBMs in our charge with the utmost seriousness and execute our mission with the utmost safety, security and reliability," Ortiz said.

Flight chiefs are an integral component of Air Force security forces units, providing critical leadership for younger airmen who protect missiles, aircraft and other assets. The size of a flight depends on the unit and its mission. In most security forces units, flight chiefs are Technical Sergeants or Master Sergeants.

The 91st Group at Minot is one of the largest security organizations in the Air Force, charged with defending missile silos and launch complexes scattered across northwestern North Dakota. Three units are assigned to the group; the 91st and 791st Missile Security Forces Squadrons and the 91st Security Support Squadron.

Word of the dismissals came as Minot's 5th Bomb Wing is undergoing a Nuclear Surety Inspection (NSI), aimed at evaluating the unit's ability to handle, maintain and safeguard nuclear weapons. The current evaluation is actually a re-inspection, prompted by failing grades on security during a previous NSI.

That performance resulted in the firing of the commander of Minot's 5th Security Forces Squadron, which protects on-base facilities and equipment, including the bomb wing's B-52 aircraft and the installation's nuclear storage area.

As its name implies, the 5th Security Forces Squadron is part of the bomb wing, and has no command relationship with the 91st, or its subordinate security units.

Today's Reading Assignment

Actually appeared in the New York Post a couple of days ago...Ralph Peters has a terrific column on Russian aggression in Georgia, and the timid reaction of the west. His opening paragraphs provide an excellent summation of the crisis:

It's impossible to overstate the importance of what's un folding as we watch. Russia's invasion of Georgia - a calculated, unprovoked aggression - is a crisis that may have more important strategic implications than Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

We're seeing the emergence of a rogue military power with a nuclear arsenal.

The response of our own government has been pathetic - and our media's uncritical acceptance of Moscow's version of events is infuriating.

And, he expertly debunks the myth that Russia's military operation was a "limited" response to Georgian actions:

Let's be clear: For all that US commentators and diplomats are still chattering about Russia's "response" to Georgia's actions, the Kremlin spent months planning and preparing this operation. Any soldier above the grade of private can tell you that there's absolutely no way Moscow could've launched this huge ground, air and sea offensive in an instantaneous "response" to alleged Georgian actions.

As I pointed out Saturday, even to get one armored brigade over the Caucasus Mountains required extensive preparations. Since then, Russia has sent in the equivalent of almost two divisions - not only in South Ossetia, the scene of the original fighting, but also in separatist Abkhazia on the Black Sea coast.

The Russians also managed to arrange the instant appearance of a squadron of warships to blockade Georgia. And they launched hundreds of air strikes against preplanned targets.

Every one of these things required careful preparations. In the words of one US officer, "Just to line up the airlift sorties would've taken weeks."

Colonel Peters also raises the same question that many of us are asking: why won't the U.S. and its European allies stand up for Georgia--a fledgling democracy that aspires to NATO membership?

Sadly, most of us know the answer to that one. It lies in Europe's long-standing inability to deal with its security problems, and a U.S. administration that is (apparently) too fatigued to take on Vladimir Putin.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Cyber Command on Hold?

According to the Associated Press, the Pentagon has put a hold on the Air Force's planned "Cyber Command" and may scrap the project altogether.

In a memo distributed throughout the Air Force this week, service officials announced that manning and budget transfers for Air Force Cyber Command have been suspended, delaying the command’s official Oct. 1 start. The Pentagon and the Air Force are expected to make a decision as to the command’s fate later this month. The command is temporarily based at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., and will eventually have a headquarters staff of about 500 people and 8,000 personnel total.

Offutt Air Force Base, which sits south of the Omaha, Neb., is among the bases being considered to house the command’s headquarters.

The Air Force considers cyberspace a “domain” for which the service should train and equip forces to defend, as it does airspace. There are about 3 million attempted penetrations of Defense Department networks every day, according to the Air Force.

A senior Pentagon official tells the AP that the mission to defend cyberspace might be better suited to U.S. Strategic Command, which is headquartered at Offut. Strategic Command, or "Strat Com" is responsible for cyber warfare across DoD.

The decision comes just days after Russia conducted a major computer network attack as part of its invasion of Georgia. The assault crippled information systems of the Georgian government, and denied internet access across much of the country.

Moscow's employment of cyberwarfare in Georgia provides a reminder of the potential danger to U.S. computer systems. Because of that threat, a former Air Force Secretary sees the "Cyber Command" decision as ill-timed, at best:

The Russians just shot down the government command nets so they could cover their incursion,” Wynne said. “This was really one of the first aspects of a coordinated military action that had cyber as a lead force, instead of sending in air planes. We need to figure out a way not only see the attack coming but to block it, and in blocking it close to home.”

“I think this is a very poor time to send a signal that the United States is not interested in focusing on warfighting in the cyber domain,” Wynne added.

Mr. Wynne was fired from his post earlier this year, after a series of problems with the service's nuclear program--and disputes with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

But, on closer examination, the planned hold on "Cyber Command" may not be such a blow to the Air Force after all. Stratcom's cyber capabilities are chiefly rooted in two USAF Force organizations--Headquarters Eighth Air Force (based at Barksdale) and the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency, located at Lackland AFB, Texas.

In fact, the commander of the ISR Agency, Major General Craig Koziol, has the primary responsibility for cyber warfare, under the overall direction of Stratcom and its leader, General Kevin Chilton.

The Pentagon's decision may be viewed as something of a slap at the Air Force--and perhaps it is, to some degree. But the service's role in cyberwarfare is hardly diminished, and the USAF will retain a leading role in that mission, even as part of a unified command.


ADDENDUM: We wonder if the service's handling of CyberCommand basing and manning issues influenced the Pentagon's decision. After plans for the organization were announced, CyberCommand grew almost exponentially; there was talk of a "virtual" headquarters with cyber units in a number of states. The USAF began consulting state governors, who jockeyed for a piece of the cyber pie, just as they compete for a new manufacturing plant.

As the process became more politicized, CyberCommand looked more like a jobs and dollars program than a military effort. Apparently that didn't set well with DoD leadership, which decided to put a hold on the Air Force's newest command.