Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Murphy File (Courts-Martial Edition)

It's a moment that some thought would never arrive. But after almost three years of legal wrangling, a former Air Force Judge Advocate General, Colonel Michael Murphy, is finally facing a courts-martial.

Murphy was head of the USAF Legal Operations Agency (and on the fast-track to Brigadier General) back in 2006, when the service made a shocking discovery that derailed his career.

Based on an anonymous tip, Air Force investigators found that Colonel Murphy did not have a valid law license, a basic requirement for any military attorney. An inquiry revealed that Murphy was disbarred in Texas in 1983, and received similar punishment in Louisiana, when that state learned of his past problems with the Texas bar.

Somehow, Murphy managed to conceal his disbarment for over 20 years, and advanced steadily in the JAG Corps. Before his stint at the legal operations agency, Murphy was the senior legal officer for two Air Force commands and directed the school that trains the service's new JAG officers. Sources suggest that Murphy's checkered professional past was finally discovered during his screening for flag rank.

Colonel Murphy was summarily fired from his post and prosecutors filed a host of charges against him. But the disgraced JAG hired a first-class defense team, and they were successful in persuading prosecutors--and the judge--to reduce charges against their client. But most importantly, they launched a unique legal strategy, based on the "good airman" defense.

In a nutshell, the "good airman" rule says that military judges and juries must hear about the defendant's positive military achievements before considering a potential verdict and punishment. Because the White House (where Murphy worked until 2003) refused to release details of Colonel Murphy's "classified" work in Iraq, the defense argued that it could not present the "good airman" defense.

And the judge in the case, Army Colonel Stephen Henley concurred. Last September, he ruled that Murphy could not be punished for his crimes, even if convicted. Henley's decision was later upheld by the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals.

Which brings us to this week's courts-martial at Bolling AFB in Washington, D.C. Colonel is now facing a total of two charges; three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer (related to his law license fraud) and one count of larceny. That later charge is presumably related to trips that Murphy took while claiming to be a licensed attorney.

On one hand, Air Force prosecutors deserve a nod for doggedly pursuing Colonel Murphy, despite the devastating rulings that largely destroyed their case. However, many legal experts wonder what the service can actually accomplish in that military courtroom. A conviction on some--or all--counts is possible, and Murphy could be sentenced to dismissal from service, the equivalent of a bad conduct discharge for enlisted members.

But analysts believe the more likely scenario goes something like this: Murphy is convicted on some counts and is reduced in rank to Lieutenant Colonel. That sort of sentence would allow him to retire from the Air Force, pension and health care benefits intact.

And it's anything but a long shot. In one of the more infamous officer courts-martials in Air Force history, another Colonel (commander of an electronic combat squadron in Arizona) was found guilty on multiple counts of sexual misconduct. He actually spent a year in Leavenworth for his crimes, but was not dismissed from service. The Colonel emerged from the brig and retired. Today, he runs a large non-profit organization in a major U.S. city.

With that sort of precedent, Murphy has every reason to be optimistic. He fooled the USAF for more than two decades and beat the service's best efforts to punish him for that deception. True, he'll never practice law again, but Colonel Murphy has some very powerful friends who can help him secure civilian employment.

They are the same, former Bush Administration officials who declined to divulge Murphy's duties in Iraq, establishing the grounds for that successful motion that undermined his courts-martial.

Just a Matter of Time

The pending launch of that North Korean TD-2 has ignited a related--and equally important debate--assuming that the missile test is successful, how long will it be until Pyongyang can put a nuclear warhead on that long-range delivery system.

While that development will almost assuredly happen, U.S. officials have downplayed the possibility, at least for now. During an interview with Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that "no senior government officials" currently believe that North Korea has a warhead small enough to fit on its medium or long-range missiles.

But there's little dobut that Kim Jong-il's scientists are making progress. At least one expert claims that North Korea has expanded its storage facilities for nuclear weapons, to accomodate a growing inventory. As he told the AP:

Daniel Pinkston — a Seoul-based expert for the International Crisis Group think tank, which provides detailed analysis about North Korea — said the communist nation has two underground nuclear warhead storage facilities near bases for its medium-range Rodong missiles, which are capable of striking Japan. The North is believed to have five to eight warheads, he said.

But he stressed it is unclear if the communist nation has mastered the technology necessary to miniaturize the warheads and put them on Rodong missiles, which have a range of 620 to 930 miles.

The National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s main spy agency, said it could not confirm Pinkston’s claims.

Despite a lack of definitive corroboration, Mr. Pinkston's claims are certainly realistic. While some analysts believe North Korea had a crude nuclear device in the mid-1990s, their program advanced after Pyongyang entered into the "Agreed To" framework with the United States. The accord "officially" halted the DPRK's nuclear work, but the program simply shifted underground, resulting in a partially successful nuclear explosion in 2006, and an expanding nuclear arsenal.

North Korea will also solve the delivery system issue and sooner, rather than later. A successful test of the TD-2 will create an even greater demand for missile technology among Pyongyang's client states. Countries like Iran will contribute even more to programs that will ultimately benefit them, including warhead research. Did we mention that an Iranian team is reportedly in the DPRK to view the upcoming missile test, according to a Japanese press report.

Coincidence? You decide.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Final Prep

North Korea is apparently in the final stages of preparing its Tapeodong-2 missile for launch.

Commercial imagery from DigitalGlobe, posted by GlobalSecurity.org, shows the the three-stage missile sitting on the launch pad at Musudan-ri. Analysts say the service arms on the tower are located away from the rocket. Fueling operations and final check-out could begin in a matter of days.

Imagery of the TD-2 at Musudan-ri, 29 March

Pyongyang has announced plans to launch the TD-2 in early April. North Korea claims the missile is a space launch vehicle that will put a communications satellite in orbit. But many intelligence analysts believe that the event is nothing more than a test of the long-range missile, capable of reaching targets in Alaska and Hawaii.

At this late juncture, the DPRK has even discontinued efforts to hide their preparations. GeoEye imagery from two days earlier (and published by the U.K. Telegraph), showed the missile covered by a shroud. While Pyongyang has used this technique before previous tests of the crude ICBM, the timing of the shroud's removal--up to a week before the launch--reflects a highly confident North Korean regime.

March 27th imagery of the test site showed a shroud-covered TD-2 on the launch pad (GlobalEye via U.K. Telegraph)

And why not? On Sunday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said there is "nothing" we can do to prevent North Korea from violating international law by launching the missile. Dr. Gates also told Chris Wallace of Fox News that it is "unlikely" that the U.S. or its allies will attempt to intercept the rocket, despite the availability of layered missile defenses across the Pacific region.

In the interview, Gates seemed to downplay the significance of the event, noting that senior U.S. officials do not believe that North Korea has the ability to mount a nuclear warhead on the missile.

With all due respect to the SecDef, his comments were little more than an exercise in verbal gymnastics. Truth be told, there is a lot we could do to stop the missile launch, from a cruise missile strike against the launch complex, to an in-flight intercept by U.S. and Japanese Aegis destroyers in the Sea of Japan, or land-based interceptor missiles in Alaska and Hawaii.

While the technology is capable--and maturing rapidly--the political will is non-existent. The Obama Administration has clearly decided that a successful intercept isn't worth the geopolitical consequences. North Korea has threatened to pull out of the Six Party nuclear talks (and potential military strikes) if allied forces attempt to shoot down the TD-2.

But Mr. Gates and Mr. Obama should ask themselves a more salient question: are we prepared for the fallout for a successful missile test? In a matter of days, Pyongyang will fire a multi-stage missile across the airspace of a key American ally, and in the general direction of Alaska or Hawaii. If the TD-2 doesn't fall apart, it will be a technical triumph for Kim Jong-il, a propaganda victory over the U.S., and a harbinger of things to come.

Rest assured, North Korea will eagerly share its long-range missile technology with other rogue states, including Iran. So, in a matter of a few years, we'll have to worry about an ICBM threat from Tehran and Pyongyang--and the likely prospect that those missiles will carry a nuclear warhead.

But what about our efforts to deter the DPRK nuclear program? Well, if North Korea is willing to ignore various U.N. resolutions by launching its TD-2, then it will gladly violate the recent Six Party Accord. So much for years of "engagement," and all that careful diplomacy, led by our new man in Baghdad, Ambassador Christopher Hill.

And, we haven't even touched on the broader, regional implications of the pending test. Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan will be spurred to upgrade their military, and possibly join the nuclear club as well. U.S. relations will those countries--already strained by our coddling of North Korea--could easily fracture.

It's a scenario that Mr. Obama and his advisers won't discuss--at least publicly. From their perspective, the upcoming launch is an event to be "managed" for media implications, not the military consequences. They'll worry about those pesky details somewhere down the road--the second term perhaps? We can only imagine what North Korea will have in its quiver by then.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Behind the Numbers

Harry Reid should have warned them. When the Senate Majority Leader took on Rush Limbaugh a couple of years ago, he wound up with egg on his face.

You may recall that Reid and other Democratic Senators wrote a letter of protest to El Rushbo's employer (Clear Channel Radio), after the radio titan used the term "phony soldiers" on his program. Rush was referring to frauds like Jesse McBeath, the basic training dropout-turned-anti-war activist who falsely claimed to be an Army Ranger.

Rush turned the tables on Reid and his cohorts by putting the letter up for bids on E-Bay. A wealthy conservative activist paid $2.1 million, and Mr. Limbaugh matched her bid, raising over $4 million for the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation, which provides scholarships for the children of Marines or federal law officers who are killed in the line of duty.

Undaunted, the Obama Administration tried to take on Rush a few weeks ago, with equally predictable results. Their vilification campaign has produced mega-ratings for Limbaugh's daily radio show, as he gleefully reported earlier this week:

Try #1 12 plus in New York, Chicago and Houston!

Over the last 3 months WABC goes 4.6 to 5.9 to 6.7 to be #1 from 12n to 3pm with total audience 12 plus. Cume is up to 693,000. Men 35-64 have moved 4.4 to 5.4 to 6.9 (#2) over the past 3 months.

In the land of Obama, Rush is #1 on WLS with 12 plus, going 5.2 to 6.9 to 6.9 with a cume of 396,700. Male 35-64 goes 5.4 to 6.3 to 6.7 (4th).

Rush is so huge in Houston he scores in every demo...12 plus has gone 6.0 to 8.7 to 9.8 to be #1 by a Texas mile with a cume of 382,300. With men 35-64 it's another #1 going 8.6 to 11.0 to 12.2. Also #1 with 25-54 adults going 4.6 to 7.1 to 8.7. Even with women 25-54 the show has exploded going 3.7 to 6.9 to 8.3 to be only one tenth of a point from the female dominant AC which is in first place.In Dallas the show has grown 4.8 to 5.9 to 6.4 with men 35-64 (#2) and is 4th 12 plus going 3.5 to 4.5 to 4.5. 12 plus cume is up to 250,100 in Big D.

Unlike the President's Popularity... Rush is Down NOWHERE...

WJR in Detroit rules, moving 5.8 to 8.6 to 9.6 for the #1 spot with total audience 12 plus 12n-3p with a weekly cume of 253,200. With men 35-64 the station moves 6.0 to 10.4 to 11.6 for an easy #1. Even with adults 25-54 the station has doubled audience in 2 months for the 12n-3p slot going 3.2 to 6.0 to 6.4 for 4th.

WMAL in Washington goes 4.1 to 5.4 to 6.7 up to 3rd with total audience 12 plus from 12n-3p with a weekly cume of 155,300. They are #1 with men 35-64 in that same time period going6.4 to 10.4 to 13.4 in the latest numbers.

WGST in Atlanta jumps with total audience 4.0 to 5.2 to 6.2 to 5th 12n-3p with a weekly cume of 473,500. The station moves to 3rd with men 35-64 jumping 5.5 to 6.4 to 8.0.

KFI in LA goes to #1 12 plus from 9a-12n jumping 4.6 to 5.2 to 6.0 over the past 3 months with a weekly cume of 618,000 and with men 35-64 flies 4.6 to 5.0 to 6.3 for another #1 demographic.

In San Francisco, the show is up huge on KSFO...4.7 to 5.6 to 6.0 and ranks 2nd 12 plus as well as with men 35-64, where it has grown 3.5 to 4.8 to 6.1 and has a weekly cume of 346,100.

Rush's audience surge is welcome news for local affiliates, which are struggling with a weak economy and declining advertising revenues. A rising Rush lifts the entire station "boat," or so the theory goes.

But only to a point. True, some Rush affiliates are enjoying remarkably strong numbers. WABC in New York is posting some of its best numbers since its heyday as a Top 40 station more than 30 years ago; it currently ranks fifth in the market. In Chicago, WLS is #2, running ahead of powerhouse WGN for the first time in recent memory. Rush's Los Angeles station, KFI, continues to dominate the local talk ratings, with more that twice the audience of its primary competitor, KABC.

In other markets, Rush is one of the few bright spots for his local affiliate. WGST in Atlanta might be better served by running Limbaugh's program around the clock. Despite higher ratings in his time slot, WGST still ranks far behind the city's premier news/talk station, WSB-AM. In Washington, WMAL-AM is #15 in the overall ratings; executives at financially-troubled Citadel Broadcasting (which owns the station) must shudder at the thought of audience totals without Rush in the lineup.

These totals prove a couple of things: first, Rush is worth every dime of his $400 million contract. Producing ratings like those, in the toughest media environment in decades, is nothing short of remarkable. And quite obviously, higher ratings will mean more ad revenue and profits for Rush and his affiliates, while MSM outlets are in their death throes. Talk about sweet irony.

Secondly, the recent ratings surge for news-talk stations demonstrates the viability of personal people meter technology, now being used to conduct audience measurements. Results of the new methodology have highlighted an indisputable fact; listenership for news/talk outlets was under-represented under the old diary system.

By comparison, audience totals for music stations (particularly those aimed at minority groups) were apparently inflated. No wonder Democratic politicians (including Barack Obama) have complained about the new system and its impact on audience surveys.

Finally--and most importantly--there's a lesson in Rush's ratings for station owners and program directors. In many markets, Limbaugh clearly out-performs the rest of the line-up; without Rush, some of these stations would be in trouble. The message is clear; local news/talk outlets need to do a better job in developing new talent.

There will never be another Limbaugh, but the successors to Glenn Beck, Neal Bortz, Sean Hannity (and others) must come from somewhere. Unfortunately, it's hard for the next generation to "break through," because today's executives opt for the safe (and slightly cheap) programming solution. Put on a local host in the morning, then fill the rest of the day with the same, syndicated hosts heard in every market.

And do whatever it takes to maintain your "Rush" affiliation.

Our Technology is Willing; Political Will is Non-Existent

Our latest article for Examiner.com looks at the potential intercept of North Korea's TD-2 missile, set for launch in early April. As a veteran missile defense executive told us, the chances of a successful shoot down are "very good," based availability of "layered" defenses and recent technological improvements.

Unfortunately, American political will is sorely lacking. Secretary of State Clinton rejected the intercept option earlier this week, saying that the U.S. will address the launch "through the appropriate channels." In other words, we'll run it through the U.N. Security Council, which will (probably) pass another meaningless resolution.

Listen carefully, and you'll hear the sound of Kim Jong-il yawning.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Today's Reading Assignment

Ralph Peters says America's enemies smell blood in the water. Type O, to be exact.

Keep Flying

With the pending demise of Pajamas Media's blogger network, we'll be contributing articles to Examiner.com. Our first effort examines the status of the Air Force F-22 fleet, after yesterday's fatal accident in California.

It's no real surprise that Raptors will keep flying while investigators try to determine the cause of Wednesday's crash near Edwards AFB. Safety "stand downs" after accidents--or a series of accidents--remain rare, but they are not unprecedented.

Readers may recall a two-week suspension of F-22 flight operations in 2004 (after another mishap at Edwards). More recently, much of the F-15 inventory was grounded in late 2007 and early 2008, following the crash of a Missouri Air National Guard jet. Structural failure caused the loss of that jet, prompting the inspection of other "Eagles" in air forces around the world.

Thankfully, the Missouri pilot was able to eject from his aircraft, but he suffered serious injuries. Early reports suggest that the Lockheed-Martin test pilot who died yesterday did not attempt to eject.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Raptor Down

An F-22 Raptor stealth fighter crashed today in the high desert of Southern California, while on a test mission from nearby Edwards AFB. A test pilot for Lockheed-Martin, which builds the state-of-the art jet, died in the accident.

Air Force public affairs officers said rescue crews were converged on a site six miles north of the Harbor Dry Lakebed, or about 35 miles northeast of Edwards, after the F-22 went down.

A resident of Palmdale, California told KABC-TV that he heard a sonic boom, and "felt a small earthquake," that "made the whole house shake" around 10 a.m., Pacific Time, when the F-22 went down. However, experts expressed doubt that the noise heard in Palmdale was related to the crash, which occurred more than 40 miles away.

According to Aviation Week, the F-22 was apparently conducting a "captive weapons carry" at the time of the crash. While the Raptor was accompanied by a chase aircraft, sources tell the magazine that the F-22 was separated from the other jet, and the chase pilot did not see what happened.

In a statement released this evening, Lockheed-Martin identified the pilot as 49-year-old David Cooley. "We are deeply saddened by the loss of David, and our concerns, thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time," the company said.

At the time of the fatal crash, Cooley was assigned to the F-22 Combined Test Task Force, a joint Air Force and contractor team that conducts Raptor flight testing. Prior to joining Lockheed, Cooley was an Air Force pilot for 21 years.

The Raptor was one of a handful assigned to Edwards' 412th Test Wing, which conducts, analyzes and reports on all flight and ground testing of aircraft and other weapons systems. Another F-22, assigned to the same unit, crashed at the California base in 2004. The pilot of that jet ejected safely.

While the F-22 has compiled an impressive safety record since joining the Air Force fleet, today's crash comes at an inopportune time. The USAF is pushing for continued production of the Raptor, hoping to increase the number of aircraft from 183, to at least 240.

At one time, the service hoped to buy more than 700 of the fifth-generation fighters. But escalating costs and budget cuts forced the Air Force to scale back its plans. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other members of the Obama Administration have proposed ending production by 2012, with a final "buy" of just over 200 aircraft.

After the last F-22 crash in 2004, the Air Force instituted a two-week "stand down" of the Raptor fleet, while technicians inspected the other jets. It is unclear if today's accident will prompt similar precautions.

An Air Force accident board will investigate today's mishap.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pyongyang Ups the Ante

With the launch of its TD-2 missile only two weeks away, North Korea has upped the rhetorical ante, warning that international "punishment" for the test will mean the end of talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program.

From Reuters, via the Ottawa Citizen:

"It is perversity to say satellite launch technology cannot be distinguished from a long-range missile technology and so must be dealt with by the UN Security Council, which is like saying a kitchen knife is no different from a bayonet," state media quoted a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying.

The unidentified spokesman said "such an act of hostility" would be in defiance of the Sept. 19 joint statement, a disarmament-for-aid deal the impoverished North reached with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

"If the Sept. 19 joint statement is nullified, there will be neither the foundation nor the meaning for the existence of the six-party talks," the spokesman said.

While North Korea's vow is anything but unexpected, it comes at a particularly critical time. Through its preceeding statements and actions, the DPRK has made it clear: the April TD-2 launch will go ahead as scheduled, suggesting that private appeals from Washington, Seoul, Tokyo (and elsewhere) have fallen on deaf ears.

With today's declaration, the diplomatic calculus becomes even more difficult. Pyongyang understands that the U.S. has invested heavily in the Six Party process, making it a cornerstone of dealing with North Korea and the nuclear issue. If Kim Jong-il pulls out of the talks, the diplomatic effort will return to square one. Meanwhile, the North Korean nuclear program will (presumably) "break out" of its current limitations, ramping up weapons production and triggering a possible arms race in Northeast Asia.

That sends shivers through the State Department crowd, which has largely ignored North Korea's record of non-compliance on nuclear accords. Assessing (correctly) that diplomacy is Option One for the Obama Administration, Pyongyang believes today's threat will persuade the U.S. to let the missile launch proceed, in order to preserve the Six Party process.

But what do we gain by sustaining those talks? More empty promises by Kim Jong-il's emissaries; hints at compliance, and demands for greater concessions--and assistance--from the U.S. and its partners. At the same time, Washington and its allies are supposed to ignore gross violations by the DPRK, including the export of nuclear technology to Syria.

For good measure, Pyongyang is also warning that attempts to shoot down the TD-2 would be an "act of war." However, the North Koreans have not revealed what sort of military response the intercept would bring.

With North Korean forces currently wrapping-up the annual Winter Training Cycle (WTC), military readiness is at peak levels. But there's little reason to believe that Pyongyang would retaliate with a full-scale invasion of South Korea, or even a limited incursion across the DMZ.

At the other end of the military spectrum, Pyongyang might initiate a naval engagement along the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the maritime extension of the DMZ. Other possible options include the intercept of U.S reconnaissance aircraft over the Sea of Japan, using fighter aircraft or long-range surface-to-air missiles.

Japan's Koydo news agency reports that diplomats from the U.S., South Korea and Japan will meet in Washington on Friday to discuss the missile launch and (presumably) potential response measures. That begs a couple of obvious questions: (A) Why weren't these talks held sooner, say the week after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent trip to the Far East and B) Why hasn't the U.S. coordinated--and announced--some sort of strategy for dealing with the missile test?

The answers are painfully obvious. Apparently, North Korea hasn't made it onto Mr. Obama's teleprompter (yet), or the administration invested in private overtures that simply didn't pan out. Now, with the TD-2 sitting on the launch pad, Washington is facing the looming reality of a North Korean missile test, and scrambling to deal with it.

Mr. Obama's inability to deal with his first major international crisis has been evident for some time. When Tokyo recently announced its plans to deploy missile defense ships to the Sea of Japan--and shoot down the TD-2 if necessary--it underscored Washington's complete lack of leadership on the issue. Remember, the Japanese Constitution renounces war and by law, the nation's armed services are referred to as self-defense forces.

Yet, Japan is contemplating its most aggressive military move since 1941, to deal with a nuclear-capable North Korean missile that will fly through its airspace. While Tokyo would prefer a unified approach (with the U.S. taking the lead), the lack of action from Washington has forced Japan to consider radical action.

Handicapping the Field

With Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF) Rodney McKinley set to retire this summer, there is no shortage of speculation about his potential successor.

As Air Force Times reported last week, there are least five candidates to replace McKinley as the service's top enlisted leader. All currently serve as command chiefs, the traditional gateway to the CMSAF post. Thirteen of the fifteen men who have held that job were in a command chief billet at the time of their selection.

This time, the pool of leading candidates includes a woman, Chief Master Sergeant Pam Derrow, who currently serves as command chief of U.S. Air Forces in Europe. Chief Derrow isn't the first woman to be a potential nominee for CMSAF, but some believe she's the leading contender in this selection process.

Retired CMSAF Gerald Murray, who held the job before McKinley believes its "only a matter of time" before a female chief is selected for the post. Gender should not be an issue, he told the Times, if "she has the right skills and experience."

Along with Chief Derrow, the list of expected nominees is believed to include:

- Chief Master Sergeant Kenneth McQuiston, command chief for U.S. Transportation Command at Scott AFB, Illinois.

- Chief Master Sergeant Richard Small, who serves in the same capacity at Air Force Space Command, headquartered at Peterson AFB, Colorado.

- Chief Master Sergeant Stephen Sullens, command chief for Air Combat Command at Langley AFB, Virginia

- Chief Master Sergeant Anthony Bishop, the top enlisted leader for Pacific Air Forces, Hickam AFB, Hawaii.

While there is no standing list of qualifications for the CMSAF post, previous holders of that position had at least 26 years of active duty service, and experience in working with senior officers, including the Air Force Chief of Staff.

If that's the case, the Chief McQuiston may have the inside track. His old boss at TRANSCOM was none other that General Norton Schwartz, who is now the Chief of Staff.

But some enlisted leaders view McQuiston as the worst possible choice. Former colleagues at Spangdahlem AB, Germany, where he previously served as command chief, describe McQuiston as a consummate politician who often by-passes the enlisted force--the men and women he is supposed to represent--in favor of "cozy working relationships with senior officers."

"This guy brings a whole new meaning to the term 'boot-licker," wrote one Spangdahlem veteran. "E-9 McQuiston will be your worst nightmare, and the worst thing to happen to the AF enlisted force ever! He has been introducing him self as "16" for years [the numerical designation for the next CMSAF]. He was awarded not one but 2 step promotions under dubious circumstances and before he had enough TIG [Time in Grade].

CMSgt McQuiston is going to micromanage the entire enlisted force from his perch unless you act now...don't take my word for it ask anyone who was at Spangdahlem from 2000-2004. They will tell you what he is like. Back then we feared the day when his name would be on the shortlist, we all knew it would be! We talked of how he went to Afghanistan just for show, he came back telling tales of rocket attacks and land mines that did not exist!

Officially, the Air Force won't say who's on the short list for CMSAF. The nomination process ended on March 20th; senior USAF leaders will whittle the list to four of five candidates, who will be interviewed by General Schwartz. The new CMSAF is expected to be announced in May, about a month before McKinley's retirement ceremony.

Despite the prestige and visibility of the CMSAF post, many Air Force members view the position--and its occupant--with a mixture indifference and disdain. From their perspective, the service's senior enlisted leader is little more than a mouthpiece for senior leadership, with less concern for issues affecting junior airmen.

One retired CMSgt, with years of experience as both a first sergeant and command chief, says those accusations are not without merit. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he cited the tenures of Gary Pfingston and David Campanale, who served as Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force in the 1990s. The retired chief described both men as "arrogant," devoting much of their time to trivial matters (including a campaign to "bring back" name tapes for battle dress uniforms), or taking credit for disastrous initiatives, like the government travel card program.

Will the next Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force buck that discouraging trend? At a critical time in the service's history, airmen can only hope so.

ADDENDUM: The nomination process for the new CMSAF closed as the service mourned the passing of the first man to hold that post, Paul Airey. Chief Airey passed away in Florida last week at the age of 86, after a battle with cancer and heart disease.

Airey's selection as the first CMSAF came in response to Congressional pressure. In 1966, the Air Force belatedly established the position after South Carolina Congressman L. Mendell Rivers asked why the service didn't have a senior enlisted post similar to the Sergeant Major of the Army, or the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy. Reading the tea leaves, the USAF quickly established the CMSAF post, and selected Airey as the first man to hold that job.

Four decades after his retirement, Chief Airey remains the "gold standard" for the position. He worked tirelessly on programs like the Weighted Airman Promotion System (WAPS), the program that governs enlisted advancement in the USAF. Airey also did much to establish the formal roles and responsibilities associated with the CMSAF. At the time of his death, Chief Airey was described as an Air Force "legend."

And rightly so.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Crash that Never Was

For a few hours this morning, members of the Air Force family were holding their breath. According to CNN (and other news outlets), a C-17 transport had crashed near Wichita Falls, Texas.

Based on early news bulletins, the outlook appeared grim. Emergency crews from the surrounding area were converging on the scene, looking for wreckage of the $200 million transport. Eyewitness accounts suggested the Globemaster III crew was flying a "nap-of-the-earth" profile at the time it disappeared.

Operating at extremely low altitudes there is absolutely no margin for error. So, when the C-17 suddenly vanished from their view, local residents assumed the worst and called police, setting off news bulletins and a frantic search.

But there was only one problem with the crash report--it was completely untrue. The C-17 and its crew returned safely to Altus AFB, Oklahoma, the departure point for their low-level training mission. By that time, authorities in Texas had called off their search, unable to find to purported crash site. CNN eventually updated its account on Monday afternoon, noting that claims of the crash were "unfounded."

Still, we can only imagine what the families and colleagues of the C-17 crew endured while officials tried to sort out the conflicting reports. Early reports of a "downed plane in a pasture" near Olney, Texas quickly morphed into claims of C-17 crash, based on information from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). There must have been some anxious moments at Altus before that Globemaster III crew radioed in and confirmed that all was well.

Meanwhile, officials around Olney were still looking for the crash site. Contacted by local police, the FAA reported that an Air Force C-17 was the only aircraft near the town at the time the time of the crash report. So, the search for a missing transport continued until authorities learned that the aircraft and crew were safe. Making matters worse, officials at nearby Sheppard AFB added to the confusion by initially confirming a crash, based on claims from local law enforcement.

And, of course, CNN kept updating the news until it became clear there was no crash. In an era of 24-hour news cycles and breathless competition, the network thought it had a breaking story --and a leg up on the competition. As for notifying those family members and co-workers back at Altus, well, that was someone else's job.

During our own days in journalism school, we were constantly drilled about checking (and re-checking) facts before running with a story. All of us heard horror stories about persons who learned of a family member's death on the local news, while police or their pastor was still en route. The rule of thumb was always the same; report the event in general terms--and withhold the victims' names--until notification can be made.

While today's incident had a happy ending, that doesn't excuse sloppy or inaccurate reporting. CNN (and other news outlets) made an editorial call, based on conflicting and unverified information. There wasn't a particularly compelling reason to rush the story to air, but the network did, and blew it badly.

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time a news organization has made this type of mistake, and it won't be the last. In today's media environment, the old rules don't apply, so other families will endure what members of the Altus community experienced today; anxious, unnecessary moments of pain and dread, fueled by an over-zealous media.

Just Don't Call It a Bomber

From Friday's edition of the Danger Room....

Northrop Grumman just unveiled its design patents for the military's Next Generation Bomber. But one of the Air Force's top generals is hoping you'd call it something else. Because this aircraft, slated for a possible 2018 takeoff, is going to do much more than drop warheads from on high.


But you can't really compare yesterday's bombers to tomorrow's, argues Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. David Deptula. It's a mistake to even think of the new plane as a bomber, he says.

"If you look at Next-Generation Bomber - I wouldn't call it a bomber, because that creates a perception based on historical uses of bombers that this platform is going to be well beyond," Deptula tells Danger Room. "This platform is going to have the ability to conduct intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, act as a communications node -- and have the added capability of providing strike."

Despite its varied capabilities the new bomber--or whatever you might call it--faces an uncertain future, at best. The White House wants to shelve the project to free up cash for other programs, part of a new "Procurement Holiday" that could last into the next decade and beyond.

There's also the matter of meeting tight production schedules. Many experts doubt that a manned version of the new aircraft can be fielded by 2018, the original target date announced by the Air Force. The service hopes to meet that deadline by using "off-the-shelf" technology, including projected upgrades for the B-2 fleet.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Next Move

As the launch window approaches, North Korea is making additional moves in support of its upcoming satellite launch (read: long-range missile test).

While these latest developments appear unrelated, they actually support the planned test, and will complicate western efforts to monitor the launch and (possibly) respond to it.

We refer to Pyongyang's plans to close two routes within its airspace during next month's launch window, which runs from 4-8 April. Bloomberg has additional details, based on information provided by South Korea's Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs:

The routes to be closed off are part of the R452 route that connects North Korea and Russia and the G346 route between the communist country and Japan, which aren’t used by South Korea’s national carriers or foreign planes flying to South Korea, the South Korean ministry said.


The air routes off North Korea’s east coast will be closed daily between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. during the period for the launch of a rocket carrying a communications satellite, South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs said late yesterday in an e-mailed statement

Announcing the closure areas won't have much impact on commercial traffic (there are only a handful of international flights to and from Pyongyang yeach week), but it does satisfy at least two major goals.

First, by posting the closure notice this far in advance, North Korea is trying to embellish its image as a "responsible" space power, dotting all the "i's" and crossing all the "t's," just like the big boys do. Playing by the rules is supposed to reinforce the notion that next month's event is, indeed, a satellite launch and not just a cleverly-disguised test of a long-range missile.

Closing these areas to commercial air traffic, Pyongyang also simplifies the task of responding to U.S. "provocations," should it decide to. With the closure notice in place, North Korea can be relatively sure that any aircraft near the G346 route are U.S. reconnaissance platforms, including Air Force RC-135 "Rivet Joint" and "Cobra Ball" platforms, or EP-3s operated by the U.S. Navy.

That's useful information for a retaliation scenario. If Washington tries to shoot down the missile, Pyongyang may well respond with a SAM shot (from a long-range SA-5) or fighter intercept of our recce aircraft. And with commercial aircraft out of the area, the North Koreans won't have to worry about collateral damage from targeting a commercial airliner that looks a lot like an RC-135.

On a related note, Pyongyang continues to hold two American journalists, arrested along the border between North Korea and China last week. The two women, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, are employees of Al Gore's struggling video enterprise, Current TV. They were on assignment in the border region last week, reporting on the children of North Koreans who attempt to flee their country, and female refugees who are forced to strip on-line by human traffickers.

South Korean media sources indicate that Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee are being "investigated" by the DPRK's intelligence and security services. That suggests a prolonged (and rather unpleasant) detention, one that will likely continue into the missile launch window. Seoul's semi-official Yonhop news agency predicts that North Korea will attempt to "use" the women as bargaining chips in negotiations with the U.S.

Obviously, the folks at Yonhop have a gift for the obvious. While we can't say that "arrest two Americans" was on Kim Jong-il's pre-launch checklist, he won't let this opportunity go to waste. North Korean officials will certainly remind their U.S. counterparts that Ling and Lee could be subjected to a show trial and years in a labor camp--if we try to shoot down the TD-2. On the other hand, if we "respect" Pyongyang's access to space, the two journalists could be released in a matter of weeks--after the missile launch.

Getting detainees out of North Korea custody is never easy, and this matter is further complicated by the involvement of Al Gore. If Pyongyang had never heard of Current TV before last week, they are now clearly aware of the network--and its principal owner. Borrowing a phrase from Rahm Emanuel's playbook, DPRK leaders won't let this crisis go to waste; they will take a hard line with the U.S., knowing that Gore will press the Obama Administration to do whatever it takes to get his people free.

While the arrest of Ling and Lee doesn't eliminate a possible U.S. military response, it does make that option more difficult. Pyongyang clearly views the two women as something of an insurance policy for the upcoming missile launch, and will extract a high price for their release. There is, of course, a certain irony in that, since North Korea's other, recent move (imposition of the airspace closure areas) could be the first step in creating a free-fire zone over the Sea of Japan, part of its own military response options.

ADDENDUM: While the White House has not announced its position on a potential intercept of the TD-2, at least one BMD-capable ship, the destroyer USS John McCain remains on station in the Sea of Japan. The McCain recently participated in exercises with ROK navy units, but stayed in the area after those drills ended.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What Happened in Samson

Earlier this month, a crazed man went on a murderous rampage in southern Alabama. Along a 20-mile route across two counties, 28-year-old Michael McClendon killed eleven people, including members of his family and strangers. The crime spree finally came to an end when McClendon took his own life, after an exchange of gunfire with local police.

Investigating seven separate crime scenes along McClendon's route, area police and sheriff's departments were quickly overwhelmed. Desperate for extra manpower to handle "ordinary" law enforcement duties, Geneva County Sheriff Greg Ward reached out to his military counterparts at nearby Fort Rucker.

He knew that earlier in the day, a Lieutenant Colonel from the post left an offer of assistance with a local 9-1-1 dispatcher. "We're here if you need us," said the officer, who has not been identified. Military Times reports the Army official offered generators, lights and other equipment--if needed by local authorities.

After Sheriff Ward made his call, Fort Rucker responded by dispatching a force of 24 military policemen, led by the provost marshal, the installation's senior law enforcement officer. Over the hours that followed, the MPs handled functions like traffic control, allowing civilian police to focus on the killing spree.

While their effort was commendable, it was almost certainly illegal, and could result in the prosecution of senior MPs who participated in the operation. The Posse Comitatus Act largely bans active duty military and Title 10 National Guard units from providing law enforcement functions in the United States, except when it is expressly authorized by the Constitution and Congress.

The approval chain goes something like this: local officials ask for military support through their governor, who forwards the request to the White House. With the commander-in-chief's approval, the Pentagon then provides forces to the local area.

But the support provided in Samson was never approved through the chain-of-command. A spokesman for Alabama Governor Bob Riley says the state never received a request for assistance. Ditto for the White House and the Pentagon. The MP deployment from Fort Rucker was (apparently) coordinated at the local level, raising serious legal questions.

In fact, the issues are so sensitive that the Commander of the U.S. Army's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) has ordered an investigation. General Martin Dempsey wants to determine how the offer for equipment support became a request for military police--a request that was quickly filled, without notification of the proper authorities. TRADOC is the parent command for Fort Rucker, the home of Army aviation training.

Sheriff Ward's admission fills in one important piece of the investigative puzzle. But we still don't know who approved his request at Fort Rucker, and sent those MPs on their mission. Someone at the post needs to stand up and take responsibility, and help bring this matter to a close.

While some view this incident in conspiratorial terms, it appears to be nothing more than a local sheriff who requested help from a military base--and MPs who tried to provide the assistance, without considering the over-arching legal considerations.

But that doesn't excuse the mistake. There are reasons the military's role in "civilian" law enforcement is limited, and those divisions should be preserved. Apparently, there is also a need for refresher training on how the approval process works, on both sides of the equation.

And finally, perhaps someone ought to devise a "flattened" or streamlined process for requesting (and approving) military assistance. The murder spree in south Alabama unfolded quickly, and with only a handful of deputies, Sheriff Ward and the local police chiefs had more than they could handle. A refined approval process could have delivered needed support more quickly--and without the legal concerns that prompted General Dempsey's investigation.

Looking for a New Fighter?

The newest version of the F-15, the "Silent Eagle," a stealthier version unveiled earlier this week at the Boeing plant in St. Louis

...But the U.S. won't export the F-22, and you can't afford the JSF? Then how about a "stealthy" (or perhaps we should say "slightly stealthy") version of the F-15?

Tuesday in St. Louis, Boeing unveiled the prototype of its "Silent Eagle," a modified F-15E with internal weapons bays built into the conformal fuel tanks, and the vertical fins canted outward, to further reduce the radar cross-section.

Boeing believes it could sell as many as 180 of the advanced F-15s. Similar technology might also be incorporated into stealthier versions of its F/A-18 Hornet.

Standing By for Orders?

According to our senior commanders in the Pacific, the U.S. military is prepared to shoot down North Korea's Tapeodong-2 missile when it is launched next month.

If it is called upon.

That's an important caveat, because there is no indication (yet) that President Obama has given that order. At this point, we're roughly two weeks away from the DPRK's planned launch window, and comments from Admiral Timothy Keating, the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) suggest the shoot down directive has not been issued.

More from the AP via Breitbart:

Admiral Keating told senators at a hearing that there was a "high probability" that the United States could knock down a North Korean missile. Gen. Walter Sharp, the U.S. commander in South Korea, said the threat "is real."


Keating said the United States is getting "reasonable intelligence" reports that give a close look at North Korea's activities.

"We'll be prepared to respond," he said, adding that "the United States has the capability" to shoot down any missile.

In terms of "reasonable intelligence," Admiral Keating means the U.S. has some idea of Pyongyang's plans, in terms of an actual satellite launch, or a long-range missile test masquerading as a satellite shot. We may not have conclusive data, but through the use of advanced imagery techniques and MASINT (Measures and Signatures Intelligence) sensors, the intel community has probably made a preliminary call, favoring one scenario over the other.

Put another way, the Obama Administration (at this point) should have enough information to make a call, and issue a warning to the DPRK. Prior to the last TD-2 test in 2006, the U.S. put land and sea-based missile defenses on higher alert, and publicly promised to shoot down the missile, if it threatened our interests, including American allies in the region. The intercept became unnecessary when the long-range missile fell apart, roughly 100 seconds into its flight.

So far, Mr. Obama has refrained from making a similar vow, creating some confusion among military leaders and our Asian partners. Keating made similar remarks a couple of weeks ago, earning a verbal rebuke from White House aides, who claimed that the admiral's comments were unhelpful and could upset diplomatic overtures to North Korea.

As we noted previously, the logic of this approach is apparently lost on Japan as well. Tokyo has threatened to intercept the TD-2 if it threatens Japanese territory--a virtual certainty--using its Kongo-class destroyers, equipped with the same Aegis radar system and SM-3 interceptor missiles found on U.S. naval vessels.

Without better coordination, we could well witness a Japanese combatant knock down the North Korean missile while we stand by and watch. While the Japanese have the inherent right of self-defense, the ramifications of that intercept would be felt throughout Northeast Asia and beyond. Even South Korea, the most likely target for any North Korean military action, would be uneasy over Japanese forces taking defensive action against the DPRK.

Reading between the lines of Admiral Keating's testimony, he appears to be prodding Washington for some kind of guidance on the pending TD-2 launch. His assets include several ballistic missile defense ships assigned to the 7th Fleet (home ported in Japan), as well as land-based interceptor missiles in Alaska and tracking radars across the region, all designed to deal with this type of threat.

These resources can be rapidly deployed, placed on heightened alert and respond to the North Korean test. All that's required is an executive decision. Based on his testimony before Congress, it sounds like Admiral Keating is still awaiting orders, even at this (relatively) late hour.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The On Again/Off Again Deal

For years, there has been considerable debate within the intelligence community regarding Iran's purchase of the S-300 air defense system from Russia. While reports of a pending deal never quite panned out, analysts universally agreed that Tehran was interested in the system. Not only would the S-300 fill a critical air defense gap, it would force adversaries (read: the U.S. and Israel) to reconsider attack plans.

The missile purchase apparently moved from the "possible" to the "inevitable" category late last year, after senior U.S. defense officials said that a deal had been concluded. It was the highest confirmation to date that Iran would acquire the S-300, echoing similar claims in the defense press and Russian media circles.

But other sources reported that the contract had not been signed. In February, Reuters claimed that Iran's defense minister made a pitch for the air defense system during a visit to Moscow, suggesting that earlier claims were premature, downright false, or the "deal" had been pre-empted by other events. Officials in Washington suggested those "events" might be some sort of "missile swap," with the U.S. trading its planned missile defenses in Eastern Europe for Russian help on the Iranian nuclear issue--and cancellation of the S-300 transfer to Tehran.

While that sort of trade is straight out of the Obama playbook, we expressed grave doubts about that scenario. The air defense deal was worth too much money (well over $1 billion) and besides, Moscow probably believes that Mr. Obama will gut our missile defense programs, without any significant concessions on their part. For those reasons, a "swap" was highly unlikely, and sure enough, new information supports that assessment.

According to the Associated Press, a senior Russian defense official has confirmed that an S-300 deal with Iran was signed more than two years ago, but the weaponry has not been delivered. The official disclosed that development in conversations with Russian reporters. He did not say why that contract remains unfulfilled, but suggested that completing the transfer will depend "on the current international situation and the decision of the country's leadership."

There are also suggestions that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will use the missile deal as a potential bargaining chip in next month's meeting with President Obama. But that ignores Mr. Medvedev's previous comments on the matter; barely two weeks ago, he said there would be "no haggling" over the nuclear issue (and, we presume, the S-300 sale). Medvedev's remarks came in response to a report in The New York Times, outlining a missile swap proposal from Mr. Obama to his Russian counterpart.

Despite the delay, it seems almost certain that S-300 deliveries to Iran will begin in the not-too-distant future. In fact, there are probably other reasons for the deferred delivery, ranging from Iran's legendary reputation for slow payment, to the change of political leadership in Washington. There's also the possibility that Iran is simply waiting its turn in the production line, behind customers like China that have made significant purchases of the air defense system.

There's one more factor that may influence the delivery schedule--the recent change of government in Israel. With the conservatives now in charge, Tehran is undoubtedly clamoring for the S-300, as a hedge against a potential Israeli air strike. With air deliveries and Russian contractors at the controls, Iran could establish an initial operating capability in a matter of weeks, rather than months.

If the AP report is accurate, the S-300 deal has been "on" for some time, it's just a matter of delivering the hardware to Tehran, and training Iranian crews. That's why we still believe the advanced SAM system will appear in Iran sometime this year, and there's little that Mr. Obama can do (or perhaps we should say, is willing to do) in altering that timetable.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Procurement Holiday Begins

From this blog, almost four months ago...

"..there's another element of the Clinton legacy (and the 1990s) that often goes ignored. We refer to the so-called "procurement holiday" that gripped the Pentagon during that decade. Critical decisions on major weapons programs were postponed or shelved, forcing the Pentagon to extend the service lives of existing systems.

Investor's Business Daily aptly described the problem--and its consequences--in an editorial published earlier this year: In the first six years of the Clinton administration, Bush 41's budget projections for weapons procurement were slashed by $160 billion. For fiscal 2000, the Congressional Budget Office said $90 billion a year was needed to hold procurement steady. The Clinton procurement budget was a mere $55 billion. During the Reagan buildup (fiscal 1981-87), we spent an average of $131 billion on procurement.

And the effects of Mr. Clinton's procurement holiday are still being felt today, almost a decade after he left office.

"The U.S. Air Force has been engaged in continuous combat for the last 17 years with fewer airplanes today than in 1990 — only increasing their age more quickly. Moreover, current Air Force plans call for retiring two F-15s for every new F-22 brought into service."

But if Barack Obama has his way, the USAF--and the other services--will never catch up. The Boston Globe reports that Defense Secretary Robert Gates will unveil a plan later this month to cut billions from new weapons systems.

Two defense officials who were not authorized to speak publicly said Gates will announce up to a half-dozen major weapons cancellations later this month. Candidates include a new Navy destroyer, the Air Force's F-22 fighter jet, and Army ground-combat vehicles, the officials said.

More cuts are planned for later this year after a review that could lead to reductions in programs such as aircraft carriers and nuclear arms, the officials said.

The Globe depicts Gates as the chief architect of the plan, noting his well-publicized observation that the U.S. "cannot expect to eliminate national security risks through higher defense budgets, to do everything and buy everything,"

To be sure, Mr. Gates (like any SecDef) wants to put his stamp on the Pentagon. And he's not the first defense chief to oppose weapons systems that are grossly over-budget and behind schedule.

But the secretary isn't the only engineer driving this train. Like his predecessors, Dr. Gates has to live within the overall parameters established by the commander-in-chief, his budget team and Congressional leaders. However, the impact of those influences is conspicuously absent from the Globe article.

As we observed last year, members of the Obama Administration and key Democrats on the Hill made it very clear--there would be cuts in defense spending. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office offered something of a blueprint in January, issuing a key study that suggested an "alternative" defense plan, with massive cuts in weapons programs. Among its recommendations:

-- Reducing the number of aircraft carriers from 11 to 10.
-- Cancelling the Army Future Combat System (FCS) program in favor of upgrades to existing tanks and armored vehicles.
-- Eliminating the Air Force's next-generation tanker (KC-X) and spending part of that money on modifying 50-year-old KC-135s and KC-10s that date from the 1980s.
-- Limiting Marine Corps purchases of JSF to the number needed to replace the AV-8B Harrier
-- Cutting the Air Force JSF buy in half.
-- Delay acquisition of the Navy's next-generation cruiser (CG-X) for a decade.

In case you're wondering, the CBO study also calls for a halt to F-22 production. In other words, it's hard to tell where Mr. Gates' proposal begins and the budget office plan ends. Never mind that the CBO is suggesting a risky, even dangerous procurement strategy--putting off key weapons purchases for years or decades--despite the dangers of a multi-polar world. Of course, it helps that the former CBO director is now running the Office of Management and Budget, giving him tremendous clout in military spending matters.

We should also note that military leaders almost universally oppose these recommendations. So, in eliminating programs like the F-22, Mr. Gates is bucking the advice of his own generals and admirals. But the SecDef didn't reach the rarefied air of the E-ring by ignoring the prevailing political winds.

It's hard to swim against a tsunami, and Bob Gates clearly knows how to follow the current. That's why Globe article strikes us as little more than Pentagon spin, trying to put the best face on a bad situation.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Michael Hoffman of Air Force Times has confirmed what the Danger Room first reported last week. An Air Force fighter shot down an Iranian UAV, in Iraqi airspace, last month. And it wasn't a case of "accidentally straying" across the border:

Coalition Air Forces tracked the Iranian drone for 70 minutes after it entered Iraqi airspace Feb. 25 before shooting it down 60 miles northeast of Baghdad, said 1st Lt. John A. Brimley, a spokesman at Multi-National Forces-Iraq, in a statement.

An Air Force F-16 actually downed the UAV, identified as an Ababil-3. Details of the engagement have not been released, but we still believe an AIM-9X was most likely used to destroy the drone.

The Trouble With NIEs

For many Americans, the infamous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program was a head-scratching moment. After months of research, writing and editing, the nation's intel community offered a contradictory, bottom-line assessment on Tehran's nuclear intentions.

While concluding that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons development effort in 2003, analysts noted Iran was still working on other functions required to produce an atomic bomb, including uranium enrichment and development of long-range delivery platforms. In other words, the pause was something of a mirage, but the NIE served its apparent purpose: preventing the Bush Administration from launching military action against Iran.

All NIEs are produced under the auspices of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), which was created in 1979 to serve as a focal point for mid-term and long-term strategic thinking within the community. As part of its portfolio, the NIC inherited responsibility for National Intelligence Estimates, the latest version of long-term assessments that were first produced in the 1950s.

The NIC has been in the news recently, thanks to the Obama Administration's attempt to install Ambassador Charles Freeman as the new chairman of that body. Freeman's nomination drew fire from all sides of the political spectrum. Critics derided Freeman for his anti-Israeli statements; his cozy relationship with the Saudi government, and a dismissive attitude toward the 1989 Tinammen Square crackdown.

Lost amid that shuffle was another disqualifier--the fact that Ambassador Freeman had no prior intel experience, except as a consumer of intelligence products. With that hole in his resume, the Ambassador was an odd choice to supervise--and revitalize--the production of key intel estimates.

But as Mark Lowenthal reminds us in today's Washington Post, the NIE process has serious problems that go well beyond the National Intelligence Council. For six decades, the intel community has generated key assessments (including the flagship NIEs) that are ponderous, occasionally irrelevant--and rarely read by their target audience, including senior elected officials and other policy-makers.

The roots of the NIC go back to the early 1950s, when Director of Central Intelligence Walter Bedell Smith created an Office of National Estimates to produce long-term strategic analyses that would provide the president and his senior advisers with the consensus views of the government's various intelligence agencies. These documents, called National Intelligence Estimates, quickly ran into trouble. As early as the mid-'50s, a survey found that the main audience for these lengthy documents was junior staff members who used the estimates to help them brief their superiors. The survey also found that NIEs were considered too ponderous and that readers questioned how the "consensus" was achieved.

It hasn't gotten any better since then. In fact, not only are the estimates too unwieldy to be of any use, they generate distracting and dangerous controversy because they are so susceptible to political "cherry-picking."
Take one of the most infamous examples. The 2002 estimate claiming that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction had little influence on anyone's decision about going to war. Only six senators actually read the NIE, but 77 voted to authorize the use of force. As analytically flawed as that estimate might have been, the one intelligence "sin" the council did not commit was "politicization" -- that is, writing what the policymaker wants to hear. Even the Senate intelligence committee's investigation of the Iraq NIE agreed; it wasn't politicized to support invasion.


But these controversies actually exaggerate the importance of these documents in the policy process. The estimates haven't improved much since that survey of 54 years ago. They remain long, ponderous, sometimes tortuously written and largely lacking in influence. As a senior intelligence officer during the Bush administration, I led a team that conducted an extensive biannual review of intelligence performance. As part of this evaluation, we asked senior policymakers which intelligence products they found most useful. In each evaluation, NIEs came in last or next to last.

Lowenthal, who served as Vice-Chairman of the NIC from 2002-2005, understands that the process is broken. But he doesn't offer any real recommendations for fixing the problem, and there's the rub. Everyone hates the current approach, but no one seems able to come up with a better one.

A few wags have suggested scrapping the system altogether, and there's a certain logic in that. Still, the intelligence community can hardly abandon the long-range estimate business, nor can it avoid consensus assessments on critical subjects.

As a first step toward reform, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) might consider wider community representation within the council. Currently, most of the members fit a particular template, which is long on advanced degrees and academic expertise in specific geographic areas or geopolitical issues. In terms of agency experience, the NIC is heavily weighted toward former CIA and State Department officials.

Nothing wrong with that, but wouldn't the NIC benefit from experts draw from other organizations? It's rather stunning that the council's current membership does not include a single career officer from the National Security Agency, or someone who "grew up" on the operations side of the CIA. And, despite the impact of intel assessments on our armed forces, only one council member has a background in military intelligence. There also appears to be a lack of expertise in emerging intel technologies (think MASINT) at the upper levels of the NIC.

To be fair, major assessments are never based on a single intelligence discipline, and the council has plenty of experts among its support staff--and the agency analysts who contribute to the process. But, to effectively guide long-term Intel assessments, the NIC needs to reflect the current threat environment, and the expertise required to analyze those issues. Facing terrorism and other transnational issues, a council populated by "old line" experts on the Soviet Union, China and traditional geographic regions could certainly use some fresh perspectives.

Not to mention an end to the politics that produced aberrations like the Iran NIE.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Knocking Down a Drone

U.S. military sources tell Noah Shachtman of the Danger Room that one of our fighters shot down an Iranian drone over Iraq last month.

Details of the incident remain sketchy, and there was no media reporting on the subject prior to Shachtman's account. But the shoot down provides yet another reminder of the "shadow war" fought between the United States and Iran, amid the larger conflict in Iraq.

Since American forces entered Iraqi territory six years ago, Tehran has spared no effort to target our personnel. Operatives from Iran's Qods force have supplied funding and weapons to insurgents, including rockets and explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), used in the deadliest IEDs that destroyed hundreds of military vehicles and killed scores of our troops. In response, U.S. special forces have quietly targeted Iranian operatives, arresting dozens and killing others.

Now, as Mr. Shachtman reports, the shadow conflict has entered another phase, with the recent drone engagement. Iran has long accused U.S. aircraft of illegally entering its airspace, but this is the first time we've acknowledged that Tehran's drones are operating over Iraq, and subject to intercept by our fighters.

The Iranians operate several different types of UAVs, which are used primarily for surveillance. Tehran's most widely deployed drones include the Ababil ("Swallow") which has a wing span of 10 feet and a cruising speed of roughly 160 knots. Iran has also produced a smaller drone, the Mirsad, which has been exported to Hizballah units in Lebanon.

Tehran also claims that it has developed a new, stealthy UAV, with a range of up to 600 miles. But Iran often exaggerates its military capabilities, and reports of the stealth drone have not been confirmed.

But there is little reason to doubt the shoot down story. The Iranians want to keep an eye on American forces in Iraq and with the insurgency in serious decline, Tehran has fewer opportunities for "eyes on the ground." Additionally, platforms like the Ababil can cover more territory--assuming they remain undetected.

By sending UAVs over Iraq, Iran may be trying to exploit perceived weaknesses among U.S. air defenses assets. Patriot batteries left the country years ago, and much of the radar coverage comes from ground-based assets, rather than AWACS. That means our radar "picture" is subject to coverage gaps caused by terrain, ducting and other factors.

Still, we managed to find that Iranian UAV and shoot it down, which is no mean feat. With their small size and slow cruising speeds, drones are notoriously difficult to detect. U.S. SIGINT operators used to watch--and listen--with amusement as Saddam's air defense units tried to track and engage our Predator UAVs. Even with vectoring from ground controllers, Iraqi fighters typically flew past their targets. Once in a great while, the Iraqis managed to knock down a Predator with AAA fire, but we can't recall a single, successful air-to-air intercept, despite dozens of attempts.

Successfully engagement of a drone is (typically) a multi-faceted operation, combining signals intelligence, radar tracking, the right air-to-air weapons and a skilled fighter pilot. We're guessing that SIGINT providing initial cueing and tracking through the intercept/exploitation of radio conversations, and guidance signals unique to the drone. With that information, air or ground-based weapons controllers knew "where to look," and vector the fighter to the right location.

Despite those advantages, a successful intercept was hardly assured. It's likely that both the radar platform and the fighter pilot probably had to adjust the Doppler gates on their radar, to compensate for the UAV's slow speed.

The weapon (most likely) used to down the drone was an IR-guided missile--probably an AIM-9X. Radar tracking issues would make for a difficult AMRAAM shot, and modern fighters carry about 500 rounds of ammunition for their on-board cannon. With burst "limiters," that's enough for no more than 3-4 passes, assuming you can maintain track on the UAV.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Just Another, Responsible Space-Faring Nation

...Or at least, that's the image that North Korea is trying to project. In advance of the planned "satellite launch" (now officially scheduled for a five-day window in early April), Pyongyang is dutifully informing various international agencies of its intentions. From Bloomberg:

North Korea has informed the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) of the launch, the official Korea Central News Agency said. The U.S. and South Korea say there are signs North Korea is planning to test a Taepodong-2 missile that is technically capable of reaching Alaska.

The communist regime is trying to minimize tensions by giving advanced warning, said Choi Jong Kun, a political science professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. North Korea gave no official notification when it tested a Taepodong-1 missile in 1998, which flew across Japan before landing in the Pacific Ocean.

“North Korea doesn’t want a confrontational relationship with the U.S., so it’s taking proper steps this time,” Choi said.

Based on information supplied by Pyongyang, ICAO officials have issued their own warning to aviators. McKittrick, the missile defense expert who blogs at Closing Velocity, notes the projected flight path creates two danger areas: one in the Sea of Japan, where the first stage booster is supposed to splash down; the other is located east of Japan.

In his latest blog post on the DPRK test, McKittrick also supplies a helpful graphic, showing the missile's planned trajectory. Not only will the Tapeodong-2 overfly Japan, the projected flight axis will carry the missile towards Hawaii, though it is expected to fall short of that location.

Talk about sending a signal. If all goes as planned, North Korea will demonstrate its ability to target Japan and U.S. possessions in the Pacific region. Intelligence analysts believe the TD-2 has sufficient range to reach Alaska and Hawaii (in its present configuration). Pyongyang has also tested a more powerful engine for the missile, potentially putting our west coast cities within reach.

But not to worry; remember, this is nothing more than a satellite launch, and North Korea is doing what any other, aspiring space power would do. We concur with McKittrick's assessment; the "satellite" scenario is probably nothing more than a ruse, aimed at preventing an intercept attempt by the U.S. or Japan.

As we've observed in previous posts, the DPRK used a similar cover story in 1998, when they launched a TD-2 over Japan. That test was also supposed to send a satellite into orbit, but there was one slight problem: the satellite was never detected.

Meanwhile, North Korea can test advanced missile technology, with little threat of outside interference. In fact, prospects of a U.S. shootdown appear virtually nil. A couple of days ago, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), retired Admiral Dennis Blair, said he believes the North Korean launch will be a satellite launch. Other members of the Obama Administration have stated that the U.S will not disrupt a satellite deployment.

Officially, the White House hasn't announced a response plan for the TD-2 launch, and there seems to be some confusion between civilian officials and their military counterparts. Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, reminded reporters that we could shoot the missile down, if Mr. Obama gave the order (emphasis ours). For his trouble, Keating incurred the wrath of White House officials, who suggested that the admiral's comments might "derail" efforts to engage Pyongyang.

It it's any consolation to Admiral Keating, the Japanese are a bit confused as well. In fact, Tokyo warned today that it may shoot down the missile, if it threatens Japanese territory.

Let's assume, for a moment, that Japan makes good on its promise; it would represent an extraordinary move for a country that officially renounces war in its constitution. Tokyo's unilateral announcement suggests two possible scenarios; (A) The U.S. has failed to coordinate an effective, regional response plan for the TD-2, or (B) Washington is prepared to let the launch occur, with little regard for wider security implications.

Kim Jong-il must be absolutely thrilled. In less than a month, he'll get a chance to showcase North Korea's first ICBM, and drive a wedge between the U.S. and its most important Asian ally. Meanwhile, the Obama team keeps plotting new overtures toward Pyongyang. Good luck with that.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How Israel Beat Hamas

David Eshel of Aviation Week reports that improved tactics, new weaponry and superb intelligence allowed a "conventional" military to defeat an asymmetric foe:

Israel used a variety of tactics to outflank and defeat Hamas in its own territory. These included long-term planning, meticulous intelligence-gathering, deception and disinformation. Although the attack had been prepared for weeks, operational security and a well-planned deception campaign took Hamas by surprise when it finally happened, despite Israel’s repeated warnings that the rocket attacks would trigger a war.

Operation Cast Lead began with devastating air strikes. The Israel Air Force (IAF) hammered targets in the Gaza Strip with jets and helicopters.

Prime targets were the Rafah tunnels under the Egyptian border, through which Hamas smuggled weapons and money, much of it from Iran (DTI February, p. 43). The IAF used sophisticated weapons including earth-penetrating bombs to destroy the “tunnel city.”

Among those weapons was the new PB500A1 from Israel Military Industries, a laser-guided hard-target penetration bomb based on the 1,000-lb. Mk-83 “dumb” bomb. It is reportedly capable of penetrating 2 meters (6.5 ft.) of reinforced concrete. Unconfirmed reports claim the IAF used Boeing’s GBU-39 small-diameter bomb for the first time. High-precision weapons were also deployed throughout the battle to destroy bunkers and weapon depots.

Following a week of precision bombing, the ground campaign opened with three infantry brigade task forces simultaneously entering the Gaza Strip from several directions. Four brigade commanders, all colonels, fought on the front lines with their troops throughout the two-week ground offensive in the northern Gaza Strip: Herzi Levy of the paratroopers brigade; Avi Peled of the Golani brigade; Ilan Malka of the Givati brigade; and Yigal Slovick of the 401st armored brigade.

The infantry brigades approached their objectives from unexpected directions, avoiding previously used routes in which Hamas created boobytrapped bunkers and tunnels. Slovick’s armored brigade, fielding the latest Merkava Mk4 main battle tank, raced unopposed to block access from Rafah and Khan Yunis to Gaza City, cutting supply lines to Hamas from the south.

UAVs also played a critical role, greatly enhancing situational awareness for commanders on the ground, and improving the accuracy--and timeliness--of supporting fires:

Each brigade combat team was assigned a UAV squadron for close support, with ground-control operators at forward headquarters calling in air strikes from standby attack helicopters and, if necessary, identifying targets to fixed-wing assets cruising over the combat zone. Aerial surveillance from Heron and Hermes 450 UAVs and Apache attack helicopters provided an unprecedented level of real-time close air support in response to time-critical targets. A high degree of situational awareness was achieved by maintaining at least a dozen UAVs in flight over Gaza at all times. These aircraft saved the lives of Israeli soldiers and civilians by detecting Hamas ambushes and rocket launch sites and directing aircraft, tanks and artillery to the targets.

One retired IDF general even said the Gaza campaign was "so successful" that it could become part of the "historic memory" of Middle East nations for years to come. In other words, the pounding inflicted on Hamas could deter other hostile powers (like Iran) and terrorist organizations (read Hizballah) from provoking Israel.

That may be a stretch, but a few things are readily apparent. First, the IDF took a hard look at its failed effort to "destroy" Hizballah in 2006, and incorporated necessary changes in hardware and tactics. Obviously, Gaza was a much different operation than the Lebanon campaign, but the integration of air and ground power was much more successful, and Israel's intelligence services were on top of their game.

Secondly, the Israeli military borrowed from the U.S. example in Iraq, putting real-time UAV imagery in the hands of tactical commanders. The technology described by Aviation Week sounds a lot like Rover, the laptop-based system that allows ground commanders to "see what the drone sees" and act accordingly. That's one reason that Israeli units were able to identify ambushes and booby-trapped structures before they could threaten friendly troops.

Mr. Eshel's article appeared one day before National Review ran an excerpt from a new book by David Kilcullen, the Australian counter-insurgency who served as a senior adviser to General David Petraeus in Iraq. Analyzing the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Kilcullen notes that the terrorists have proven resourceful and adaptive.

Over the past three years, Taliban elements have honed their skills in such tactics as ambushes, sniping and IEDs, while taking advantage of a clandestine network that combines "full time" fighters and local sympathizers. But Kilcullen notes that the Taliban is not without its weaknesses. Local commanders, fighting on the same ground for years, tend to follow set routines, with limited maneuver options (a product of habit and geography).

It's the same sort of pattern that helped seal the fate of Hamas in its showdown with the IDF. While comparisons between the Afghan War and the Gaza campaign must be drawn carefully, predictability can be fatal in any military operation.

Preparing for war with Israel, Hamas built its trap carefully, believing it could draw the IDF in kill zones at a time and place of its choosing. When the Israelis responded with innovative tactics, precision weaponry, precision intel and surprise, Hamas had no answer. As Kilcullen observes, the same tendencies can be exploited in Afghanistan, assuming that President Obama is actually committed to winning the war.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Worst Possible Choice

Just when you thought the Air Force tanker competition couldn't get more muddled....

According to Congressional Quarterly, the Obama Administration has directed the Pentagon to delay the purchase of new refueling aircraft for five years, and cancel plans for a new bomber. If that decision holds, it would push delivery of new tankers well into the next decade, significantly delaying the Air Force's number-one acquisition program.

We emphasize the word "if," because members of Congress have already vowed to push back on any tanker deferment. In an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Congressman Jo Bonner of Alabama made it clear that additional delays are unacceptable:

The Air Force has consistently said the tanker replacement program is its No. 1 priority. It strains credibility to think a new administration would delay this program five years, denying our military its top equipment need," said Bonner.

"Our nation relies heavily on tankers to project power around the globe, and the average age of our current fleet is 50 years old," Bonner said. "We have been trying to replace these aging aircraft since 2001 – an additional delay would be dangerous to our national security and unsupportable here in Congress. I am hopeful there is no validity to this rumor of an administration delay to this critical program."

One of the contenders for the tanker contract is a Northrop-Grumman entrant (based on an Airbus plane) that would be assembled and modified in Mobile, Ala., part of Mr. Bonner's Congressional district. The Northrop jet is competing against a Boeing tanker, based on its 767 jetliner.

Other sources on Capitol Hill downplayed the report, describing it as part of the "normal" budget process. But call us unconvinced; fact is, efforts to delay (or cancel) the tanker program have been gathering steam in recent months.

As we reported in early January, a recent Congressional Budget Office study recommends deep cuts in defense procurement, saving an estimated $440 billion between 2010 and 2025. Among various options, the report suggests eliminating the next-generation tanker project (KC-X), and using some of that money to refurbish Eisenhower-era KC-135s.

The budget office study is important, for a couple of reasons. First, it satisfies Mr. Obama's desire to cut defense spending by as much as 10% a year. Secondly, the former head of the CBO, Peter Orszag, is now running the Office of Management and Budget, putting him in a powerful position to shape future defense budgets--and implement the recommendations of the study.

Under Mr. Orszag's leadership, the CBO report is emerging as a template for Mr. Obama's defense plans. The study also recommends deep cuts in the Joint Strike Fighter program and limiting--or capping--production of the F-22 Raptor. Air Force officials recently mounted a campaign for 60 additional airframes, which would bring the total inventory to 243.

But sources tell Aviation Week that the service is finding diminished support for the stealth fighter in the Obama Administration. They expect the White House to okay production of 20 additional jets--far below the number requested by the Air Force.

While Pentagon acquisition czar John Young recently a memorandum that keeps all procurement options open, most observers believe that final Raptor totals will be closer to the CBO recommendation (183), than the number wanted by the Air Force (243-331).

Likely cuts in JSF and F-22 production are bad enough, but the tanker delay may represent the worst possible choice. In-flight refueling is a true force multiplier, essential to strike, surveillance and mobility operations around the world.

Further delays in the acquisition process will place a greater strain on existing resources, accelerating the wear and tear on the KC-135 fleet. That, in turn, will drive the retirement of more aging airframes, leaving the military with even fewer tankers to do the job.


ADDENDUM: The Obama decision would be equally devastating for the next-generation bomber. Cancelling the current program would delay a replacement until sometime after 2020. That puts the development--and fielding--of a new bomber aircraft much closer to the planned retirement date of the B-1 and B-2. At that point in the process, there will be even less margin for error.