Sunday, May 31, 2009

Five Guys, Three-Letter Agency

It probably won't make the President's "public" calendar, but Navy Vice Admiral Robert Murrett will soon pay a visit to the White House.

Murrett's job? Get Barack Obama up-to-speed on the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), the organization Murrett has led since 2006. As you probably know, the agency came up in conversation as Mr. Obama stood in line at a D.C. hamburger stand on Friday. Engaging a fellow patron named Walter in casual conversation, the President appeared clueless when the man identified himself as an NGA employee.

A transcript of their chat, courtesy of C-SPAN and Ben Smith at the Politico:

Obama: What do you do Walter?

Walter: I work at, uh, NGA, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Obama: Outstanding, how long you been doing that?

Walter: About six years

Obama: Yea?

Walter: Yes.

Obama: You like it?

Walter: I do, keeps me...

Obama: So explain to me exactly what this National Geospatial...uh...

Walter: Uh, we work with, uh, satellite imagery..

Obama: Right

Walter: [unintelligible] systems, so...

Obama: Sounds like good work.

Walter: Enjoy the weekend.

Obama: Appreciate it.

Mr. Smith speculates that NGA "isn't getting much time in the President's daily brief," which (supposedly) explains why Obama hasn't heard of the agency. Never mind that NGA has over 9,000 employees around the world, making it fourth-largest among the three-letter spy agencies. Or that NGA, as its name implies, provides most of the nation's satellite imagery and other forms of geo-spatial intelligence.

It's not a matter of face time. Traditionally, the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) has included a healthy dose of satellite imagery, which accompanies the various articles found in the update. Images provided by NGA are emblazoned with that organization's logo, but (apparently) it didn't make much of an impression on the intel consumer-in-chief.

And, Mr. Obama's introduction to NGA and its capabilities came long before he entered the Oval Office. As a Senator, one of Obama's "signature" legislative accomplishments was passage of a bill (co-sponsored by Indiana Republican Richard Lugar) which provides funding for the destruction of conventional weapons stockpiles, and the intercept of WMD materials. As you might expect, NGA plays a key role in supporting that effort, furnishing imagery and other products that track conventional weaponry and WMD sites.

NGA analysts routinely provide briefings for members of Congress and their staffers. Given his "interest" in the non-proliferation issue, there's a good bet that Senator Obama sat through a presentation from NGA, or a joint intelligence team that included experts from the agency. But again, the organization's unique capabilities and products failed to register on Mr. Obama, resulting in that stilted exchange with Walter, waiting for a burger at Five Guys.

As Commander-in-Chief, there is no requirement for Mr. Obama to know the intricate details of how the government's 16 intelligence agencies operate. But as the ultimate customer for intelligence, you'd think he'd have a little more interest in an organization that employs thousands of Americans, spends billions of dollars every year, and provides critical intel that helps him formulate policy decisions.

That's why Admiral Murrett will soon come calling at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Mr. Obama is not a student of the U.S. intelligence community, but he is a master of the art of politics. Friday's exchange at the burger joint was clearly a major gaffe, although it's received little attention outside of the Politico or conservative blogs.

If we've learned anything about President Obama during his time in office, it's this: he appears to have a thin skin, and doesn't take kindly to personal embarrassments. So, it's time for a little sit-down with Admiral Murrett on the finer points of NGA, just in case the president finds himself in another line, and wondering aloud about this "National Geospatial" organization that supports him on a daily basis.

NGA doesn't need more face time, Mr. Smith. What they need is a commander-in-chief who's a bit more engaged on the intelligence system, its agencies and their capabilities.


ADDENDUM: Can you imagine how the press would have reacted if George W. Bush had uttered similar comments about one of "his" intelligence organizations?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Leno Signs Off

Jay Leno may go down in history as the least appreciated host in the history of the "Tonight Show." He replaced the man many considered irreplaceable (Johnny Carson), and was selected for the job over his heir apparent, David Letterman.

Against that backdrop, many in the TV business thought Leno was destined to fail, particularly after Letterman moved to CBS. And sure enough, Leno struggled, ratings-wise, during the early years of his tenure. David Letterman's CBS show became a critical favorite, and he consistently attracted a larger audience. While there was no talk of replacing Leno (the show remained highly profitable and he earned far less than Carson), more than a few TV execs suggested that NBC had "blown it" by allowing Letterman to sign with CBS.

Popular legend has it that Leno's fortunes forever changed on an evening in 1995, when actor Hugh Grant was the featured guest. Grant had just been arrested during an encounter with a prostitute, and his appearance attracted a huge audience. Leno's opening query to Grant--"What the hell were you thinking"--became a TV classic, and viewers liked what they saw. From that moment on, Leno and the Tonight Show became dominant in late night, a position they retained for the next fourteen years.

In reality, Leno closed the gap with Letterman long before the Grant interview, but that moment provided the spark that largely ended the ratings battle. Since 1995, Letterman has remained mired in second place, and fell behind ABC's "Nightline" earlier this year. More impressively, Leno held on to the top spot despite declining ratings for NBC's prime time line-up, which delivered a smaller lead-in audience for the Tonight Show.

Despite generating enormous profits for the network--and its corporate parent, GE--Leno was under-valued by his employer. In 2005, NBC rewarded him by announcing that Conan O'Brien would take over the Tonight Show four years' hence. After early ratings woes in the 12:30 time slot, O'Brien found an audience as Letterman's NBC replacement, and there was concern that he might leave NBC.

But a funny thing happened on the path to succession. O'Brien's ratings slipped; on some nights, he finished behind Craig Ferguson, the latest host of the Late, Late Show on CBS. Suddenly, some of the suits at NBC began to have private doubts about Conan and The Tonight Show.

And there were signs that Jay Leno was weighing his options, too. Reports suggested that the departing host was talking with Fox and ABC, who were anxious to sign Leno and put him against O'Brien. If Conan was struggling against Craig Ferguson, the thinking went, then he could have real trouble against Leno, fronting a new show on a different network.

So, NBC came up with a compromise. O'Brien still got the Tonight Show, but Leno would up with a new gig, hosting a prime time talk show that will air from 10-11pm, five nights a week, beginning in the fall. It's a bold gamble for the fourth-place network, and many observers are predicting failure already. Then again, we heard similar predictions 17 years ago, when Jay Leno took over for Johnny Carson.

ADDENDUM: While Leno is considered "less influential" than Letterman, he did invent a classic bit that speaks volumes about America and our education system. We refer, of course, to his "Jay Walking" segment, which became one of the show's most popular features.

Armed with with nothing more than a couple of photographs (say Chief Justice John Roberts and Britney Spears) Leno would ask passers-by to identify the individuals. Invariably, the pedestrians recognized the pop figure, but had no clue about the other person's identity. In that sense, "Jay Walking" was funnier--and scarier--than anything we ever saw on Letterman.

Friday, May 29, 2009

What Crisis?

You'll be happy to know that there isn't a crisis in Korea, despite Pyongyang's recent nuclear test and a series of missile launches. If you don't believe us, just ask Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Our new column for looks at Mr. Gates assessment, and how it squares with reality on the ground. To be sure, there are no signs of an imminent invasion of South Korea by the DPRK, but with most of Kim Jong-il's army deployed near the DMZ, intelligence warning for a limited attack would probably be measured in hours, not days. And besides, there are plenty of hostile acts that North Korea could launch without sending its troops into South Korea.

Obviously, no one can predict Kim Jong-il's actions with complete certainty, but keep watching for these scenarios in the coming days: 1) A major naval confrontation along the Northern Limit Line (the maritime extension of the DMZ), and 2) Potential engagements of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft by NKAF fighters, or long-range SAMs. Coincidentally, the most recent North Korean missile test involved a modified SA-5, a weapon ideally suited for intercepting stand-off recce platforms like the U-2 and RC-135.

But remember, whatever happens in the days ahead, it's not a "crisis."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Today's Reading Assignment(s)

A pair of compelling op-eds, from recent editions of the Washington Times:

In Wednesday's paper, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Frank Gaffney examines the "shrinking" U.S. deterrent, and its implications for global security. As Mr. Gaffney observes:

With that [nuclear test] and a series of missile launches that day and subsequently, the regime in Pyongyang has sent an unmistakable signal: The Hermit Kingdom has nothing but contempt for the so-called "international community" and the empty rhetoric and diplomatic posturing that usually precede new rewards for the North's bad behavior. The seismic waves from the latest detonation seem likely to rattle more than the windows and members of the U.N. Security Council. Even as that body huffs and puffs about Kim Jong-il's belligerence, Japan and South Korea are coming to grips with an unhappy reality: They increasingly are on their own in contending with a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Until now, both countries have nestled under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. This posture has been made possible by what is known in the national-security community as "extended deterrence." Thanks to the credibility of U.S. security guarantees backed by America's massive arsenal, both countries have been able safely to forgo the option their respective nuclear-power programs long afforded them, namely becoming nuclear-weapon states in their own right.

A bipartisan blue-ribbon panel recently warned the Obama administration that extended deterrence cannot be taken for granted. In its final report, the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States unanimously concluded: "Our military capabilities, both nuclear and conventional, underwrite U.S. security guarantees to our allies, without which many of them would feel enormous pressures to create their own nuclear arsenals. ... The U.S. deterrent must be both visible and credible, not only to our possible adversaries, but to our allies as well."

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is moving in exactly the opposite direction. Far from taking the myriad steps needed to assure both the visibility and credibility of the U.S. deterrent, Mr. Obama has embraced the idea of eliminating that arsenal as part of a bid for "a nuclear-free world."

Gaffney also notes that Mr. Obama has steadfastly refused to modernize our nuclear arsenal, despite pleas from defense experts. Instead, he remains committed to cutting the nation's nuclear stockpile, which will leave us with an inventory of aging weapons, with even less deterrent value.

Thursday's edition of the Times has another worthy read, from former Defense Secretary William Cohen, the type of "moderate" Republican preferred by the chattering classes. In his commentary, Mr. Cohen condemns planned cuts in missile defense by the Obama Administration:

Reducing the funding commitment to our missile-defense system by $1.4 billion, as the Obama administration has done, sends the signal that we do not take the threats of rogue regimes seriously, and are willing to take the risk that current technologies are sufficient to prevent devastating accidents or miscalculations.

Given the disturbing geopolitical events that are now unfolding, it is imperative that we err on the side of safety. The consequences are too grave to allow our leadership to claim at some future time that they were taken by surprise.

Cutting missile-defense funding at this critical juncture sends the wrong signal to both our adversaries and our allies. It would embolden North Korea, Iran and other rogue states to pursue missiles of increasing range. It would also confuse our allies and undermine their trust in America's security guarantees. If the United States is vulnerable to the threat of a missile attack by a rogue state, allies could lose confidence in America's nuclear deterrent - which could lead nations such as Japan to pursue a nuclear deterrent of their own.

"Could lose confidence?" We'd say Tokyo and Seoul have long passed that point. Lest we forget, Japan actively debated shooting down that Tapeodong-2 on its own, until Washington engaged in a bit of diplomatic arm-twisting. Now, with North Korea firmly in the nuclear club, Tokyo won't be as compliant next time around. And a nuclear-capable Japan is becoming a real possibility.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Fast-Track to Failure

Our current column at looks at the growing crisis on the Korean peninsula, and Barack Obama's apparent inability to deal with it. Some might argue that Mr. Obama inherited a bad situation from the Bush Administration and the failed, Six Party approach. There's an element of truth in that, but it's also clear that the new president has made things even worse.

In a week when North Korea has successfully tested a nuclear weapon, launched more missiles and threatened to attack allied warships, President Obama responded with a demand for tougher U.N. sanctions. Kim Jong-il must be quaking in his boots at our "forceful" reply.

That's one reason that things will get worse in northeastern Asia long before they get better. Expect some sort of military clash on the peninsula in the coming weeks (keep your eye on the western waters off the DMZ), or an ambush of our reconnaissance aircraft. What happens after that is any one's guess, but Russia has warned that a renewed Korean conflict could go nuclear. There's more than a little hype in that assertion, but this week's nuclear test reminds us that the situation in Korea has irrevocably changed.

Monday, May 25, 2009

As We Remember

Our newest column for looks at Memorial Day, and some of the heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Today's Reading Assignment

In a recent post, Michelle Malkin absolutely nails the hypocrisy of President Obama--and the American left--on the Memorial Day holiday.

President Barack Obama saluted veterans and urged his countrymen to do the same this Memorial Day weekend, saying the nation has not always paid them proper respect.

In his weekly radio and Internet address Saturday, Obama said people can honor veterans by sending a letter or care package to troops overseas, volunteering at health clinics or taking supplies to a homeless veterans center. He said it could also mean something as simple as saying “thank you” to a veteran walking by on the street.

“We have a responsibility to serve all of them as well as they serve all of us,” Obama said. “And yet, all too often in recent years and decades, we, as a nation, have failed to live up to that responsibility. We have failed to give them the support they need or pay them the respect they deserve.

Who is this “we?” Let’s name names:

Tell it to
Janet Napolitano.

Tell it to the Gen. Betray Us smear merchants at Move On.

Tell it to the anti-military academics at Penn State and Columbia and every other ivy-covered institution.

Tell it to the anti-military recruiter thugs on campuses across the country.

Tell it to all the
Winter Soldier fakers and phonies .

Hear, hear.

Stating the Obvious

Appearing on ABC's "This Week," the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, affirmed what clear-thinking folks already know: Iran wants a nuclear weapon.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me move on to the issue of Iran. You said that Iran is on a path to building nuclear weapons. But the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate concluded with a high degree of confidence that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programs. So do you believe that intelligence estimate is outdated? Is it no longer accurate?

MULLEN: Well, I believe then and I still believe that Iran's strategic objective is to achieve nuclear weapons, and that that path continues. Their leadership is committed to it. They conducted a missile test this last week that was successful, which continues to improve their missile delivery system and capability. Their intent seems very clear to me, and I'm one who believes if they achieve that objective, that it is incredibly destabilizing for the region. And I think eventually for the world.

Admiral Mullen's answers also proved that every four-star is a politician, to some degree. When George Stephanopoulos asked if Iran might be bluffing about its nuclear intentions--afterall, the Supreme Leader has declared nukes to be immoral--the JCS Chairman used that query to endorse President Obama's "engagement" policy:

STEPHANOPOULOS: And I guess, it's possible they could just be lying. But it does seem odd that a country that the Islamic Republic that bases its legitimacy on being a guardian of Islam that would develop weapons that it considers immoral. That would seem to undercut their own legitimacy.

MULLEN: Well, I think that speaks to the importance of the dialogue that President Obama has stated he wants to initiate and to really wring out, whether that's how the Supreme Leader feels. Certainly from what I've seen, Iran on a path to developing nuclear weapons.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you don't believe it? That they don't want nuclear weapons.

MULLEN: At this point no.

Admiral Mullen also said there is a "narrow window" to block Iran from realizing its nuclear ambitions. Readers will note that Mr. Stephanopoulos didn't press the JCS Chairman on a rather obvious question: how will months of additional talks--the approach favored by Mr. Obama--achieve that desired goal, when years of EU-led negotiations failed? And more importantly, why would Tehran abandon its nuclear goals, now that it is so close to achieving them?

There's also that lingering question of what the U.S. is prepared to do if diplomacy fails, as it almost certainly will. On that count, the Yaakov Lappin of the Jerusalem Post suggested last week that President Obama has "come to terms" with a nuclear Iran. That may be one reason that administration statements on Iran don't include the implied use of force--if Tehran fails to abandon its nuclear program.

That's one "change" that the mullahs can definitely believe in.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Turn for the Dangerous

Our new article for looks at the implications of today's missile test by Iran. With the successful launch of a solid-fueled Sajjil-2, Tehran has re-affirmed its plans to field advanced missiles, capable of hitting Israel and U.S. targets throughout the Middle East.

But the Sajjil-2 is more than just a new Iranian missile. It's a first-strike weapon, designed to put a chemical, biological or nuclear warhead on an Israeli target with minimal warning. Over the past decade, Tehran has invested heavily in underground complexes for its short and medium-range missiles.

Some of those facilities--like the base at Bakhtaran--have launch portals built into the roofs of hardened bunkers, allowing missiles to be launched from inside. Such facilities are ideal for staging surprise attacks, and solid-fuel missiles support that strategy. They can be launched with minimal preparation, and the solid-fuel technology is less volatile that the liquid fuel used in older Iranian missiles.

As we note in the article. development of the Sajjil-2 reduces Israel's warning time to a matter of minutes. Liquid-fueled systems like the Shahab-3 require longer preparation time (more than a an hour in some cases) and--preferably--outside an enclosed bunker, where a fuel leak could be disastrous.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Late in the Game

Today's Wall Street Journal has a must-read editorial about Iran's nuclear ambitions, and our own inability (read: refusal) to block them.

As the Journal notes, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, a lifelong Democrat, has been quietly prosecuting major cases against illicit Iranian financing and procurement networks. These organizations, stretching from Iran to Europe (and even the United States) amount to what Mr. Morgenthau describes as Tehran's "shopping list for materials related to weapons of mass destruction."

Missile accuracy appears to be a key Iranian goal. In one of Mr. Morgenthau's cases -- the prosecution of Chinese citizen Li Fang Wei and his LIMMT company for allegedly scamming Manhattan banks to slip past sanctions on Iran -- the DA uncovered a list that included 400 sophisticated gyroscopes and 600 accelerometers. These are critical for developing accurate long-range missiles. He also found that Iran was acquiring a rare metal called tantalum, "used in those roadside bombs that are being used against our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan." So much for the media notion that Iran has played no part in killing American GIs.

Mr. Morgenthau also noted that the material shipped by LIMMT "included 15,000 kilograms of a specialized aluminum alloy used almost exclusively in long-range missile production; 1,700 kilograms of graphite cylinders used for banned electrical discharge machines which are used in converting uranium; more than 30,000 kilograms of tungsten-copper plates; 200 pieces of tungsten-copper alloy hollow cylinders, all used for missiles; 19,000 kilograms of tungsten metal powder, and 24,500 kilograms of maraging steel rods . . . especially hardened steel suitable for long-range missiles."

Lest anyone think that these materials may have innocent uses, Mr. Morgenthau added that "we have consulted with top experts in the field from MIT and from private industry and from the CIA. . . . Frankly, some of the people we've consulted are shocked by the sophistication of the equipment they're buying."

Morgenthau recently laid out his case in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and its chairman, Senator John Kerry. The committee recently reported that Iran is making nuclear progress on all fronts, and could produce enough fissile material for a weapon in as little as six months.

Evidence uncovered by Mr. Morgenthau and his staff merely affirms what we've been saying for years. Developing a nuclear capability requires a three-pronged effort. Prospective nuclear powers not only need the bomb, but reliable delivery platforms and the intelligence to effectively target their weapons.

And, by all indications, Tehran is on track to reach its goals in these areas. Iran's fledgling space program (and ties with countries like Russia and China) will yield satellite imagery that will support the targeting process. Meanwhile, technology acquired through various front and dummy companies on four continents will result in more accurate missiles to deliver the weapons. In other words, when Iran acquires the bomb, it will also have the delivery systems and intelligence required to put that weapon on its intended target.

The Obama Administration's response? Let's give nuclear negotiations more time to work. As Mr. Morgenthau told the Senators, it's late in the Iranian nuclear game, and we don't have much time. Put another way, the time for talk is past.

The Beast of Kandahar

The so-called "Beast of Kandahar," a mysterious UAV that was recently photographed in the skies over Afghanistan. The aircraft bears a striking resemblance to the failed "Polecat" UAV, developed several years ago by Lockheed's Skunk Works (photo courtesy of Air & Cosmos, via Aviation Week).

Aviation circles have been buzzing over a mysterious UAV, recently photographed near the allied airfield at Kandahar, Afghanistan.

A French magazine, Air & Cosmos, was apparently the first to publish to picture of the aircraft earlier this year. The photo quality isn't particularly good, but even untrained eyes can recognize that the UAV isn't a Predator, Reaper or Global Hawk, types often seen over Afghanistan and Iraq.

So what is the mystery aircraft? The folks at Aviation Week have noted a similarity between the "Beast of Kandahar" and Lockheed's "Polecat" demonstrator, which was (supposedly) cancelled after a crash in 2006. But the sighting in Kandahar suggests that Polecat--or elements of the design--are living on, in a stealthy UAV that is either operational, or undergoing flight testing in a combat theater.

Of course, that raises another question. Exactly what is the UAV's mission in Afghanistan? The Taliban and Al Qaida don't have radars or an integrated air defense system (IADS), so there's no real requirement for a stealthy drone in that campaign. On the other hand, a very low-observable, high endurance UAV would be ideally-suited for keeping tabs on nuclear facilities in neighboring Iran or Pakistan.

The picture below is that of a Polecat during a test flight. No one is saying that the UAV sighted at Kandahar is the same one built by the Skunk Works earlier this decade. But the two aircraft do appear to share a common lineage. If nothing else, as Aviation Week observes, the drones came from the same litter.

Polecat UAV (Aviation Week photo)

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Politics of Military Dismissals

Our new column for Pajamas Media looks at this week's firing of Lieutenant General David McKiernan, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. By our estimation, McKiernan's dismissal was the result of three factors; (1) a Taliban resurgence on the battlefield; (2) Perceptions within the Defense Department that he was the wrong man for the job, and (3) the Obama Administration's desire for a "fresh" approach to the Afghan situation.

Of those factors, McKiernan had direct control over just one--the battlefield situation in Afghanistan. He couldn't stop the sniping within the Pentagon, and when Mr. Obama began talking about change in Afghanistan (without offering specifics), McKiernan was essentially

However, General McKiernan isn't the first American commander who inherited an untenable position and was fired when failure inevitably occurred. The cases of Major General John Lucas and Brigadier General Haywood Hansell offer interesting parallels from World War II.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Making Every (Military) Vote Count

During the run-up to last year's presidential election, there was the predictable hue-and-cry about making sure that "every vote was counted." Fine, we said, but what about military voters? Fact is, members of the armed services are the most disenfranchised segment of the electorate. Thousands of absentee ballots from military members (and their dependent) go uncounted every election, thanks to rigid submission deadlines, witness requirements and problems with the postal system.

And the situation is getting worse--not better. According to the Congressional Research Service, at least 28% of ballots from deployed service members went uncounted last fall. The finding was part of a study released by the CRS on Wednesday.

Using data from seven states with the highest number of active duty military personnel (California, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia and Texas), the CRS found that votes from thousands of service members were never collected, or never counted.

New York Senator Charles Schumer requested the study and he said the problem is worse than in 2000, despite a "massive effort" to improve the absentee voting process.


Maybe we missed something at the state level, but Congress has done virtually nothing to make it easier for military personnel to cast absentee ballots. As we detailed last year, Democratic Senators and Congressmen refused to support even modest reforms, including a proposal from Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy of California. Mr. McCarthy introduced a bill that would simply require the Defense Department to return completed absentee ballots by air mail, cutting delivery time from 3-4 weeks, to just a few days.

There is no record of Mr. Schumer or other Democrats offering a similar measure in the Senate.

In fact, Democratic leaders in the House refused to support a simple proposal from Missouri Republican Roy Blunt, who offered a resolution demanding that the Defense Department "do more" to help military personnel cast their absentee ballots. At one point, Mr. Blunt had a promise of support from Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer, the House Majority Leader. But when it was time for action, Mr. Hoyer reneged on his pledge.

Not that we're surprised. There's a reason that military personnel find it difficult to vote, and it's rooted in partisan politics. Members of the armed services are a reliable Republican bloc; they voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush in 2004 and 2004, and for John McCain last year. In a close election, a flood of military absentee ballots could easily swing the contest for the GOP, and that's something that Democrats want to avoid.

Beyond Senator Schumer's phony outrage, we're guessing that the CRS study won't get much play, and there won't be any serious attempts at legislative reform--at least from the Democratic side of the aisle. Meanwhile, military voters are growing increasingly frustrated with the process. By one estimate, only five percent of deployed personnel cast their ballots in the 2006 mid-term elections, and cumbersome absentee procedures are a big reason behind that appalling number.

If the senior Senator from New York is genuinely interested in making it easier for military personnel to vote, he might make a fact-finding trip to Arizona. Last year, then-Secretary of State Jan Brewer implemented an on-line voting system for state residents living overseas. Using state-of-the-art encryption, the system allowed Arizonans to cast their votes on line, safely and securely.

By all accounts, the Arizona system was a major success. There's no reason that DoD (and Congress) can't mandate similar requirements on the other 49 states. But implementing such a system nationwide would mean genuine reform--and more GOP votes--something the Democrats want to avoid.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Meet the New Chief

For blue suiters past and present, the selection of the next Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force is an important barometer. By choosing a new CMSAF, the service's Chief of Staff sends an important message about his views on the enlisted force, and how it will be represented in the years to come.

On Friday, Chief Master Sergeant James Roy was named as the 16th CMSAF of the Air Force. He will take office next month, following the retirement of his predecessor, CMSAF Rodney McKinley. Chief Roy has something of a non-traditional background for his new job, as we detail for

Missing Details

As some have observed, the recently-released White House report on that New York City "fly-by" is short on details and credible explanations. Despite a week of "digging," the administration has been unable to determine (1) Who had the bright idea for an Air Force One photo-op over the Satute of Liberty, and (2) How the former Director of the White House Military Office (Louis Caldera) wasn't aware of the project until one week before the flight.

Not that it really matters. Caldera has taken the fall for the debacle, and the administration is hoping the whole matter will simply go away. But hoping won't prevent the steady drip of additional details about the mission.

In our latest article for, we note that "official" accounts haven't explained several details, such as how an Alabama Guard unit was selected for the flight (despite the presence of other F-16 units closer to New York), and how much the mission actually cost. By our calculations, the official price tag doesn't seem to include deployment costs associated with sending the Alabama jet to Andrews AFB, Maryland, the staging point for the photo mission.

And, there's the added expense of flying an Air Force photographer from South Carolina to Andrews to participate in the mission, and the disposition of images he recorded from the backseat of the F-16. To date, only one of those photos has been released.

Back to you, Mr. Gibbs.

Our Apologies...

As you've probably noticed, our blogging has been sporadic over the past couple of weeks. Unfortunately, the demands of our "day job" have left little time for updating the site. We hope to return to a "daily" publishing schedule by next week.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Budget-Cutting 101

How does the Obama Administration plan to save money? If you guessed "cutting defense," give yourself a gold star and move to the head of the budgetary class.

The Wall Street Journal reports that defense programs will absorb half of the $17 billion in planned cuts, which will be announced on Thursday. Some of the reductions have already been announced, including plans to halt production of the Air Force's F-22 stealth fighter.

The rest of the cuts will come from domestic programs, although it's unclear if the reductions will actually occur. As one administration official told the Journal, virtually all programs have a constituency, meaning that someone will fight the planned reductions.

Not that it really matters. The reductions are largely symbolic, as the WSJ explains:

Compared with the total $3.6 trillion spending plan for 2010, the proposed trims amount to one-half of 1%. Half the cuts would come from defense, especially Pentagon weapons programs already spelled out by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, such as trimming back the fleet of advanced F-22 fighter planes. The other half would come from programs that have strong support among progressive activists who cheered Mr. Obama's election. Programs targeted for elimination or consolidation include education and housing programs that Democratic aides said will have fierce advocates among traditionally Democratic constituencies.

Given that reality, it's not inconceivable that some of the domestic initiatives will be saved, forcing bean counters to look for more cuts in the defense budget. So the "50% share" for the Pentagon may well rise, as the administration looks for more ways to save money.

OMB Director Peter Orszag says the planned defense reductions include "all of those" outlined by Defense Secretary Bob Gates last month. Programs targeted for down-sizing (or elimination) include the C-17 transport, the airborne laser and the aforementioned F-22. Some analysts believe that the Air Force has been unfairly singled out for budget cuts, with ominous implications for the service and its airpower mission.

But those sorts of arguments don't get much traction. Just today, pollster Frank Luntz advised Republicans to avoid "principled arguments" in battling the White House on health care reform. Embrace the reform mantra, Luntz argued, and advocate efficiency and savings in the GOP plan.

If you can't get American voters to see the folly of socialized health care, then well-reasoned arguments supporting key defense programs stand absolutely no chance. Welcome to the ill-informed, indifferent U.S. electorate of the early 21st Century. The greatest of the "Great Unwashed." Just the kind of voters that Democrats love.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Who's Got the Nukes, Redux

Writing in the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton reminds us that the Taliban's recent gains in Pakistan bring them closer to the unthinkable--control of that country and its nuclear arsenal.

In his op-ed, Mr. Bolton outlines two disturbing scenarios:

One scenario is that instability continues to grow, and that the radicals disrupt both Pakistan's weak democratic institutions and the military.

Often known as Pakistan's "steel skeleton" for holding the country together after successive corrupt or incompetent civilian governments, the military itself is now gravely threatened from within by rising pro-Taliban sentiment. In these circumstances -- especially if, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified recently, the nuclear arsenal has been dispersed around the country -- there is a tangible risk that several weapons could slip out of military control. Such weapons could then find their way to al Qaeda or other terrorists, with obvious global implications.

The second scenario is even more dangerous. Instability could cause the constitutional government to collapse entirely and the military to fragment. This could allow a well-organized, tightly disciplined group to seize control of the entire Pakistani government. While Taliban-like radicals might not have even a remote chance to prevail in free and fair elections, they could well take advantage of chaos to seize power. If that happened, a radical Islamist regime in Pakistan would control a substantial nuclear weapons capacity.

That poses a grave challenge for President Obama, who recently endorsed Pakistan's "official" position that it retains secure control over its nuclear arsenal. But official assurances from Islamabad and Washington are anything but reassuring. As we noted two years ago, Islamabad has been less-than-forthcoming on the subject of its stockpile, creating severe "gaps" for intelligence agencies that monitor Pakistan's nuclear program:

"...While there is general consensus on the size of Pakistan's arsenal, we don't know where all the weapons are stored, and getting that information could prove problematic.

For starters, there's Pakistan's chain-of-command, which is unique among nuclear powers. Even during periods of civilian rule, control of the nation's nuclear arsenal has rested with the Pakistani military, which has tightened its command systems in recent years. Pakistan's National Command Authority, oversees an Employment Control Committee and Development Control Committee, as well as the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), which has operational control of the nation's nuclear forces.

[Former President Pervez] Musharraf reportedly purged the SPD--along with other military commands--early in his tenure. He also added at least 8,000 security personnel to the division, to ferret out potential threats to Pakistan's nuclear stockpile. But there are lingering questions about the loyalties and world view of mid-level and junior personnel within the SPD, the intelligence service (ISI) and other key military organizations. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Islamist influences are growing among lower-ranking personnel, raising doubts about their willingness to protect Pakistan's nuclear arsenal from internal, fundamentalist threats.

There's also the issue of where Islamabad keeps its weapons, or alternately, the key components used to build nuclear bombs and missile warheads. Intelligence officials suggest that Pakistan, keeps much of its stockpile disassembled, partly as a security caution. However, unlike India (which stores components at facilities spread over great distances), Pakistan is believed to keep weapons components relatively close to delivery systems, making it easier to assemble--and use--its nukes. This tactic increases the number of facilities at which nuclear components are stored, complicating Pakistani security measures, and (potentially) outside intervention efforts.

And, the number of nuclear facilities in Pakistan is increasing, thanks to the growth of that nation's ballistic missile program. With Islamabad fielding new short and medium-range systems, the SPD has been on a construction binge, building new missile garrisons and support facilities across Pakistan. Some of the installations simply house missile crews or provide maintenance functions, but others are probably used to store nuclear weapons, or their components.

Determining which facilities are reserved for that function has become more difficult, thanks to Pakistan's growing proficiency in denial and deception (D&D) and operational security. The location of some Pakistani missile facilities was apparently influenced by terrain, with engineers selecting sites where key complexes (including storage tunnels) can be obscured or blend in with rugged topography, making overhead detection more complex.

Pakistan also goes to great lengths to conceal the location and function of key installations. Analysts who follow Islamabad's program say that bases are often referred to by a codeword or number, and some installations have multiple designations. That complicates the process of determining the purpose of an individual site, and how it relates to Pakistan's overall nuclear program. Islamabad also employs other deception techniques--including advanced camouflage netting and activity scheduling (conducting key activities when our satellites aren't looking) to maintain the secrecy of its nuclear program.

In other words, the U.S. doesn't have definitive intelligence on the whereabouts of Pakistan's nukes. It's the type of shortfall that would prove critical if--or when--Washington has to intervene to ensure the security of Islambad's arsenal.

Unfortunately, those gaps mean it will be difficult to account for all of Pakistan's weapons. That means an increased risk that an Islamist regime would almost certainly inherit some nuclear devices and delivery platforms--and the know-how to build more.