Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Changing Course

For more than a week, the USS John S. McCain has been shadowing a North Korean merchant vessel, believed to be carrying illegal weapons.

Now that ship--the Kang Nam--appears to be heading back home. As the AP reports:

U.S. officials said Tuesday that a North Korean ship has turned around and is headed back toward the north where it came from, after being tracked for more than a week by American Navy vessels on suspicion of carrying illegal weapons.

The move keeps the U.S. and the rest of the international community guessing: Where is the Kang Nam going? Does its cargo include materials banned by a new U.N. anti-proliferation resolution?

Originally, the North Korean cargo vessel was believed enroute to Myanmar, carrying a load of missile parts. The two rogue nations have drawn closer in recent years, although Myanmar has little need for ballistic missiles. However, various intelligence agencies and anti-proliferation groups have reported that Pyongyang has been attempting to sell missiles to the Myanmar regime since 2005.

There is also the possibility that Myanmar was merely a trans-shipment point, but those reports are also unconfirmed. With U.S. naval vessels trailing the Kang Nam--and hints that we might board and search the vessel--North Korea decided to recall the ship and its cargo.

Still, no one can actually be sure the the Kang Nam is heading back to the DPRK. In the past, North Korean ships involved in illicit activities (most notably, drug running) have operated from Chinese coastal waters. Under that scenario, the vessel would rendez-vous with another ship and transfer the cargo.

However, given the constant surveillance of the Kang Nam, accomplishing that transfer would be difficult, if not impossible. It's also unlikely that Beijing would want to be associated with that activity, particularly as U.S. envoys press China to put more pressure on Pyongyang.

The most likely scenario? In a few days, the Kang Nam slips back into port at Nampo, and the cargo is unloaded. Then, it's shipped to Sunan Airfield, near Pyongyang, and loaded onto an IL-76 transport, which flies the cargo to the customer.

As we noted almost three years ago, North Korea has long used airlift to move high-value cargo to its most important clients, including Iran. And that illustrates a rather serious "hole" in current efforts to contain Pyongyang. While the U.S. (and other naval powers) are actively tracking DPRK maritime shipments, there is no comparable effort for air transfers.

In some cases, those shipments would be almost impossible to stop. With a lighter load, an IL-76 can fly non-stop from North Korea to Iran. However, those flights do require direct routing (through Chinese or Russian airspace). Without it, North Korea or Iranian airlifters would be forced to make refueling stops, providing an opportunity for the U.S. to lobby for third-party inspections, or deny access to the airfields.

As with other attempts to pressure Pyongyang, China would be a key player in eliminating the air option. But (apparently) there are limits to Beijing's cooperation. Intelligence reports indicate that North Korean IL-76s sometimes use Chinese airfields during flights to the Middle East. Without more assistance from the PRC, North Korea's "air bridge" will remain open, and Kim Jong-il will retain a critical option for shipping missile and WMD cargoes to his customers.

What Supersonic Looks Like

An F-22 Raptor breaks the sound barrier during a fly-by of the carrier USS John Stennis last week (U.S. Navy photo)

If we had a prize for the shot of the week, we'd give to it Navy photojournalist Ron Dejarnett. He took the photo you see above last week, during Exercise Northern Edge in the Gulf of Alaska. Dejarnett captured an Air Force F-22 passing through the sound barrier, as it flew over the USS Stennis.

It's hardly the first time a fighter aircraft has been photographed at Mach 1. In fact, one of our favorite images shows a Navy F/A-18 breaking the sound barrier during a fly-by of the carrier Constellation in 1999.

Ensign John Gay's famous photo of a Hornet hitting Mach 1 near the USS Constellation. He captured the shot with a Nikon 90S, using a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second. Gay's iconic image took first place in a 2000 world photography contest.

For the physics-and-engineering crowd, LiveScience.com offers this explanation of the effect depicted in the photographs:

A layer of water droplets gets trapped between two high-pressure surfaces of air. In humid conditions, condensation can gather in the trough between two crests of the sound waves produced by the jet. This effect does not necessarily coincide with the breaking of the sound barrier, although it can.

Indeed, it can.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Today's Reading Assignment

...The incomparable Mark Steyn, writing at National Review, on the need to burst the "bubble" that surronds modern politicians, and--apparently--prompts some of their outrageous behavior (latest example: South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, just back from that trip to see his mistress in Buenos Aires).

A few of Steyn's gems from his essay:

The plot owed less to Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber than to one of those Fox movies of the early Forties in which some wholesome all-American type escapes the stress and strain of modern life by taking off for a quiet weekend in Latin America, and the next thing you know they’re doing the rhumba on the floor of a Rio nightclub surrounded by Carmen Miranda and 200 gay caballeros prancing around waving giant bananas. In this case, the gentlemen of the South Carolina press were the befuddled caballeros and Governor Sanford was bananas.


Instead, we have the governor of South Carolina resorting to subterfuge worthy of one of those Mitteleuropean operettas where the Ruritanian princess disguises herself as a scullery maid to leave the castle by the back gate for an assignation with a dashing if impoverished hussar garbed as a stable lad. Perhaps some enterprising producer would like to option a Carolinian update of Prince Bob, the hit of the 1902 theatrical season in Budapest, in which the eponymous hero, a son of Queen Victoria, escapes “the bubble” of Buckingham Palace by getting out on the streets and wooing a Cockney serving wench.

And finally, Steyn offers this hilarious reminder that Americans still take a back seat to the Brits when it comes to sex scandals:

I was asked the other day about the difference between American and British sex scandals. In its heyday, Brit sex was about the action — Lord Lambton’s three-in-a-bed bi-racial sex romp; Harvey Proctor’s industrial-scale spanking of rent boys; Max Mosley’s Nazi bondage sessions, with a fine eye for historical accuracy and the orders barked out in surprisingly accurate German; Stephen Milligan’s accidental auto-erotic asphyxiation while lying on a kitchen table wearing fishnet stockings . . . With the exception of the last ill-fated foray, there was an insouciance to these remarkably specialized peccadilloes.

By contrast, American sex scandals seem to be either minor campaign-finance infractions — the cheerless half-hearted affair with an aide — or, like Governor Sanford’s pitiful tale (at least as recounted at his press conference and as confirmed by the e-mails), a glimpse of loneliness and social isolation, as if in the end all they want is the chance to be sitting at the bar telling the gal with the nice smile, “My wife, and my staffers, and my security detail, and the State House press corps, and the guy who writes my Twitter Tweet of the Day, don’t understand me.”

The cure for this sort of behavior is smaller government, Steyn writes. Part-time legislators, with limited responsibilities and lots of time outside the "fishbowl." That reminds us of an effort in Arkansas during the early 80s to further limit sessions of the General Assembly. At the time, state lawmakers met for only 30 days every two years, if we recall correctly. Reformers suggested an even more abbreviated session, say 2 days every 30 years.

They were only half-joking.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Obama Gets it Half-Right

In describing the federal budget process, the late Senator Everett Dirksen famously observed, "A billion here, a billion there, eventually you're talking about real money."

So, with President Obama spending and taxing trillions on everything from the economic stimulus to cap and trade, it's surprising to hear he might veto the latest defense bill over a paltry $972 million.

According to ABC News White House Correspondent Jake Tapper, Mr. Obama is threatening to do just that, because the measure contains funding for the F-22 stealth fighter and an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

Specifically, President Obama opposes the inclusion of $369 million in the bill for more F-22 fighter jets and $603 million for development and procurement of the alternative engine program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program.

If the final bill presented to the president contains either of those provision, a White House statement released Wednesday threatened, "the president's senior advisers would recommend a veto."


The White House also expressed objections to other provisions in the bill restricting aircraft retirements and limiting U.S. engagements with NATO and European allies regarding missile defense programs, as well as other provisions, but none of them were objectionable enough to merit a veto threat.

As we noted last week, Congressional supporters of the F-22 are vigorously fighting efforts to cap production at 187 jets. By a narrow margin, the House Armed Services Committee recently appropriated additional money for the Raptor, funds that will purchase parts and keep the assembly line open until Congress can (presumably) find money for additional aircraft.

But the administration has other ideas. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has long opposed the Raptor, believing the aircraft has little use in low-intensity conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan. Budget czar Peter Orszag is also against the F-22, but for different reasons. Dating back to his days as Director of the Congressional Budget Office, Dr. Orszag has favored draconian cuts in Pentagon procurement programs, with the Raptor at the top of that list.

Still, that position ignores a few inconvenient truths about U.S. military policy and the F-22. First, U.S. military strategy is predicated on air supremacy; existing fighters like the F-15 and F-16 are getting long in the tooth, and their qualitative advantage is slipping. The Raptor is supposed to widen that gap, but if production ends at less than 200 aircraft, the USAF will only have enough aircraft to deploy 4-5 squadrons, given projected training requirements, maintenance and potential attrition. That's a rather slim margin for such scenarios as a China-Taiwan conflict.

Still, if Mr. Obama is wrong about the Raptor, he deserves credit for trying to kill the F-35 "alternative" engine effort. We've written about the program at length; it's nothing but pure defense pork, aimed at funneling more money to General Electric, which builds the engine.

To date, members of Congress have funded the alternate engine program to the tune of $1.6 billion. Never mind that its rival power plant (from Pratt & Whitney) has consistently outperformed the GE product. Or that the Air Force has stressed that F-35 doesn't need an alternate engine. Or that producing another jet engine will actually make the JSF more expensive.

As you might expect, the alternative engine has some high-powered sponsors, including Ted Kennedy. Before his recent health crisis, the Massachusetts Senator inserted multiple earmarks to support the GE engine, the most recent totaled $100 million. Kennedy based his support on the company's supposed plans to build the jet engine in his home state. But, as air power analyst Loren Thompson observed almost two years ago, GE has never confirmed Senator Kennedy's claims and actually has a 50-year history of shuttering engine plants in New England.

Given Mr. Kennedy's staunch support for the alternate engine, it's a bit surprising that the White House would use that program as grounds for vetoing the defense bill. Perhaps the administration believes its support for national health care--Senator Kennedy's pet program--will trump opposition to the GE engine. There's also a chance the White House is simply bluffing, or won't fight Congressional attempts to override the veto.

Whatever his reasoning, President Obama's opposition to the alternative engine program is completely justified. Now, if he'd only show similar conviction on more pressing matters, like North Korea and Iran.

The Death Beat

As word of Michael Jackson's passing hit the airwaves (and internet) on Thursday afternoon, we were reminded of a similar day, more than 30 years ago. We refer, of course, to the passing of Elvis Presley in Memphis on August 16, 1977.

In many respects, Elvis's demise set the media template for covering the death of pop icons, although some of the reporting was reserved--even dignified--by today's standards. After all, when Elvis died, CNN was still three years away from its launch; the world wide web was limited to a few universities and defense department offices and Jack Dorsey, the inventor of Twitter, was only nine months old.

Still, there are obvious similarities in the reporting of Elvis's death and that of Michael Jackson; the breathless coverage, the relentless speculation, and conveyed shock over the passing of a performer who transcended ordinary stardom. But, in contrast to the media firestorm that ignited with Jackson's arrival at a Los Angeles hospital, initial press accounts of Elvis's passing were almost accidental, more the product of timely tips to the Memphis media, rather than tenacious reporting.

As recounted in Janice and Neal Gregory's fascinating book "When Elvis Died," the first journalist to report Elvis's death was Dan Sears, a newscaster for WMPS-AM, a Top 40 outlet in Memphis. Like most stations of that era, WMPS maintained a news department largely to satisfy FCC requirements for community programming. But when Elvis was pronounced dead at a local hospital, someone decided to give WMPS a call:

"It was about two minutes before 3:00 p.m., when Sears finished the "five before the hour" newscast. As he waited for the recorded commercial to end so he could tack on the latest stock quotations and the weather forecast, a staff assistant handed him a note saying Elvis had died at Baptist Hospital.

"Ah, another rumor," he said to his messenger, a new employee at the station. "Where'd you get this?"

"From the hospital," she replied.

"You mean they made an announcement?"

"Yes, they called--

The commercial ended. Sears swiveled back to his microphone and introduced the bulletin. "This has just been handed to me."

He signed off the news segment, then, as the music came up, he walked over to the news tickers. He got an uneasy feeling. No Presley stories were moving on the wires."

Another outlet that took a chance on a tip was WHBQ-TV, then the ABC affiliate in Memphis. As the Gregorys recount in their book, a police dispatcher told the station that something was up at Graceland, the Presley estate. Kathy Wolff, WHBQ's assignment editor, sent a photographer to Baptist Hospital and began phoning police contacts. By 3:15 she had confirmation from two sources that Elvis had died.

But WHBQ's news director was on vacation, and neither Ms. Wolfe nor the station's executive producer had the authority to interrupt programming. It took them a few more minutes to convince the station program director to air the bulletin. Then, there was the question of who would deliver the news. None of WHBQ's anchors were available, so Wolfe dictated a bulletin to reporter Jack Chestnut, who stepped in front of camera and repeated it, verbatim.

The time was 3:32, roughly half an hour after Sears' initial report, and more than 15 minutes ahead of WHBQ's rival, WMC-TV. In the minutes that followed, the wire services began moving bulletins that alerted the rest of the world. Two of the three network evening newscasts led with Elvis's demise and the same networks (ABC and NBC) aired specials on his life and career later that night. In those days, it was as close as television got to non-stop coverage of a celebrity death.

Today, the TMZ reporter that broke the Jackson story will probably get his/her own cable show, and a fat book deal--at a minimum. Four decades ago, none of the Memphis reporters gained lasting fame--or riches--for scooping their colleagues on the death of Elvis Presley. These days, the passing of a pop icon is infinitely more profitable for the working press.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Poor Michelle Obama. According to the Washington Post, she feels "unfulfilled," and is looking for a larger role in her husband's administration.

For weeks, Michelle Obama had been telling her staff and closest confidantes that she wasn't having the impact she wanted. She is a woman of substance, with a background in law, public policy and management, who found herself relegated to role model in chief. The West Wing of the White House -- the fulcrum of power and policy -- had not fully integrated her into its agenda. She wanted more.


Although [Barack] Obama's job-approval ratings have soared (editors note: huh?), the first lady -- a Harvard-educated lawyer -- wasn't satisfied with coasting. She is hiring a full-time speechwriter and has instructed her staff to think "strategically" so that every event has a purpose and a message. She doesn't want to simply go to events and hug struggling military families, she said; she wants to show progress. "Her desire is to step out more and have deliverables," said communications chief Camille Johnston. "It's about things that are coming up that we want to be a part of: child nutrition reauthorization act, prevention and wellness for health-care reform."

In the past couple of weeks, Obama has been more vocal about the specifics of the president's health plan, and she will play a substantive role in promoting it. She will soon announce the creation of an advisory board to help military families. And she will be the face of the administration's United We Serve, a summer-long national service program, which she launched on Monday. Even her social events have a message: She let congressional families know that before the annual White House barbecue today, the 500 guests are expected to show up at Fort McNair to stuff camp backpacks with goodies for the children of military personnel.

There's a certain irony in Ms. Johnston's comments--and Mrs. Obama's push for a wider role in policy-making. Not so many months ago, we were told that the First Lady had found her signature issue, serving as an advocate for the nation's military families. But apparently, that effort has lost its luster, despite the upcoming event at Fort McNair.

In fact, Michelle Obama's last "military event" was more than three months ago, during a highly-publicized visit to Fort Bragg. Fawning coverage from McClatchy (and other press services) suggested that Mrs. Obama was fulfilling her pledge--made during her husband's presidential run--to focus on the plight of military families.

Obama showed her appreciation for both soldiers and their families on Thursday during a visit to Fort Bragg and Fayetteville. The base is one of the largest in the world, and the city that abuts it recently was named the most military-friendly in the nation.

In making the trip, Obama is beginning to define her White House role. She has said the needs of military families will be one her top priorities.

"Military families bear a very heavy burden," Obama said. "They do it without complaint. But we as a nation need to find a way to lighten their load."

Apparently, the plight of our military families has greatly improved over the last few months (pardon our sarcasm), or Mrs. Obama is angling for "bigger" issues, as indicated by the Post report.

Truth be told, we're always a little suspicious of any politician--or politician's spouse--who suddenly "discovers" the military. It's worth remembering that Mrs. Obama's discussions with military families began at a rather opportune moment during last year's campaign--about the time her husband took a pass on visiting wounded warriors at an Army medical center in Germany.

Additionally, those forums had all the trappings of a campaign event. As the Military Times papers reported last August, participation in Michelle Obama's Norfolk meeting was limited to armed forces members, dependents and retirees who were campaign volunteers, or invited by the campaign. Not exactly a "cross-section" of the U.S. military.

Obviously, Mrs. Obama is free to create her own role in the White House, and pursue as many policy issues as she chooses. But it also seems clear that her interest in military family issues is on the wane. That won't go unnoticed by the very people she promised to help.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Price is Right

A few months ago, U.S. forces were on the verge of losing Manas AB, Kyrgyzstan, a key installation supporting combat operations in Afghanistan.

Just four months ago, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev stunned Washington when he proposed evicting American forces from Manas. Kyrgyzstan's Parliament endorsed the measure, and a withdrawal from the airbase seemed all-but-inevitable. Many analysts detected the fine hand of Moscow in the decision; the Russians (reportedly) offered increased aid to the Bishkek government--if they would end the basing agreement with the U.S.

But it looks like our forces won't be leaving Kyrgyzstan anytime soon. On Tuesday, a Kyrgyz parliamentary committee approved a plan that will allow the U.S. military to continue using the airbase. In return, Washington is prepare to triple its rent payments for Manas, raising them to $51 million a year.

The deal comes at a critical time. With operations ramping up in Afghanistan, our forces need the airbase more than ever. Thousands of troops pass through Manas each month, as they rotate in and out of Afghanistan. The installation also serves as a forward base for U.S. tanker aircraft, which refuel fighter, bomber and reconnaissance aircraft operating over the battlefield.

Without Manas, tanker units would be forced to operate much farther from Afghanistan, at bases in the Persian Gulf region. That would mean longer transit times to refueling tracks, decreased offloads, and more sorties to sustain current levels of support.

While many experts expressed doubts that Manas could "be saved," Defense Secretary Robert Gates remained optimistic. As a senior government official in four administrations, Dr. Gates understands that even sensitive matters--like basing rights--often come down to who can write the biggest check.

About that "Spy Satellite" Program

Democratic Congressmen and the civil liberties crowd are cheering an Obama Administration decision to kill a controversial spy satellite program at the Department of Homeland Security.

As The Wall Street Journal reports:

The program would have provided federal, state and local officials with extensive access to spy-satellite imagery — but no eavesdropping capabilities— to assist with emergency response and other domestic-security needs, such as identifying where ports or border areas are vulnerable to terrorism.

It would have expanded an Interior Department satellite program, which will continue to be used to assist in natural disasters and for other limited security purposes such as photographing sporting events. The Wall Street Journal first revealed the plans to establish the program, known as the National Applications Office, in 2007.


The plans to shutter the office signal Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's decision to refocus the department's intelligence on ensuring that state and local officials get the threat information they need, the official said. She also wants to make the department the central point in the government for receiving and analyzing terrorism tips from around the country, the official added.

Lawmakers alerted Ms. Napolitano of their concerns about the program-that the program would violate the Fourth amendment right to be protected from unreasonable searches-before her confirmation hearing.

Readers will note that Secretary Napolitano's plans to "refocus" her department are short on details. Getting intelligence information to local and state agencies should be a primary goal of DHS, but the devil's in the details. One reason the Bush Administration pressed for a National Applications Office at the agency was to flatten bureaucratic lines, allowing intel organizations to funnel data to local law enforcement and disaster management agencies.

As a friend of this blog reminds us, the need for an applications office (or similar department) became painfully evident in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 1995. Faced with incredible devastation across a broad section of the Gulf South, local officials begged the federal government for satellite imagery--and other intel products--that would allow them to pin-point the hardest-hit areas, and concentrate relief services in those communities.

In theory, there were mechanisms in place four years ago to declassify the information, and provide it to state and local leaders. But the system didn't work. Our friend made a courtesy call to his counterpart at DHS, and discovered that the promised imagery and other information was being held up by various intel bottlenecks.

Over the days that followed, a lot of people at DHS, the Pentagon, NORTHCOM and various intel agencies worked to ease the logjam, and disaster managers finally began to receive the information they needed. But the system remained broken; our friend was part of a team that spent months trying to fix the process, and prevent similar problems in the future. The National Applications Office was part of the "reform effort."

But Democrats on the Hill viewed it as a threat to civil liberties, and so did the ACLU. Never mind that the "local" consumers had no "eavesdropping" capabilities--in other words, they had no real ability to task the system, so concerns about "domestic spying" and invasion of privacy were overstated, at best.

Meanwhile, the program had legitimate applications in such functions as border and port security--where broad area imagery coverage is useful, even essential. Without the applications office, getting that information may become more difficult; the new DHS division was supposed to coordinate support across the intelligence community. Who knows? Perhaps Ms. Napolitano will return her agency to the "bad old days" (before Katrina) when the support coordination was assigned to a single, over-worked employee.

The DHS announcement came just days after an upstate New York TV station reported that a Predator drone is now patrolling part of the U.S.-Canadian border. Operated by DHS and the Customs Service, the UAV monitors traffic on Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, and land areas adjacent to those waterways. According to WWTI-TV, the operation is part of a three-week evaluation, to determine the drone's suitability for law enforcement.

Obviously, a UAV--controlled directly by DHS--poses a far greater threat to individual liberties than a satellite that can't be tasked by law enforcement. But Predator flight operations (and their associated ground stations) mean jobs in local communities, so politicians aren't too worried about a possible invasion of privacy, or domestic spying. Call it selective outrage--or hypocrisy.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Why the Mullahs Will (Probably) Win

Our newest column at Examiner.com looks at the obstacles facing anti-government forces in Iran. Despite the courage of protesters in Tehran (and other cities), their chances of achieving regime change apper slim, and are fading rapidly.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Reality Sets In

In recent days, a certain reality has crept into the Obama Administration's outlook on North Korea. To be sure, diplomacy remains the favored technique for dealing with Pyongyang; as of this writing, the U.S. is said to be working on a regional summit to discuss the DPRK and the threat it poses. Realistically speaking, there's not much of a chance the gathering will produce any sort of breakthrough, but the striped-pants crowd is determined to press ahead.

Meanwhile, other elements of the administration have (apparently) realized that diplomatic notes and appeals for talks don't have much impact with Pyongyang. And, with another TD-2 being prepped on the launch pad, the Defense Department--presumably with the blessings of the commander-in-chief--has ordered a series of missile defense deployments in Hawaii, a potential target for the North Korean missile.

The transformation is rather remarkable. Less than three months ago, in the run-up to the most recent TD-2 test, various government officials told us not to worry. "It's a space launch vehicle," stated Admiral Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence. Defense Secretary Robert Gates downplayed the threat, noting North Korea's history of technical problems with the TD-2.

This time around, the tone from defense leaders is decidedly different. While some still doubt that the DPRK missile can reach U.S. territory, Mr. Gates is taking no chances. Ground-based missile interceptors in Alaska and California are on alert; a THAAD missile defense battery has been deployed to Hawaii and a giant, sea-based early-warning radar has been positioned near the islands.

Our latest column for Examiner.com looks at reasons behind this change in posture. The good news is the administration appears ready to deal with Pyongyang in a more forceful manner. The bad news? We're still not sure how far President Obama is willing to go in defending our interests in northeast Asia.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Not Dead Yet

The Obama Administration's plans to end production of the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter have hit something of a snag. As The Wall Street Journal reports, the House Armed Services Committee voted yesterday to spend an extra $369 million to keep the Raptor assembly line open.

Each F-22 carries a price tag of at least $130 million, so the supplemental funding won't go very far in buying additional aircraft. But if the measure is approved by the full House and Senate, it would provide a "down payment" on 12 more Raptors that Congress wants to buy in Fiscal Year 2011, providing money for materials and other items need for actual production.

Wednesday's vote was close--the spending proposal was approved by just one vote, 31-30. Still, it represented a rebuke to the White House and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who want to cap the F-22 inventory at just 187 aircraft. Congressional supporters of the Raptor believe the Air Force needs at least 240 of the fifth-generation fighters.

Spokesman for Lockheed-Martin, the plane's primary contractor, offered a guarded reaction to the House vote. While the company would like to build more F-22s, it is well aware of opposition to that plan by Mr. Obama and Mr. Gates. Additionally, the company is pushing for a major funding increase for production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a program that is much more important for Lockheed's long-term bottom line. Clearly, the defense contractor doesn't want to do anything that might jeopardize support--or funding--for the JSF.

In an interview at the Paris Air Show on Monday, Mr. Stevens said the company had worked very hard to keep F-22 production going but once Mr. Gates made clear the program would stop at 187 jets, he felt he had to abide by the Obama administration's Pentagon priorities.

"Our role is not to fight the decisions that others make that do not align with our preferences," he said. "It's not who we are professionally."

Meanwhile, there has been another interesting development in the F-22 saga. Japan has made another push for acquiring the Raptor, suggesting that it may look at "non-U.S." aircraft if its request is rejected. To date, Washington has denied potential exports of the F-22 because of its advanced technology.

But with USAF production nearing an end--and lots of high-paying manufacturing jobs on the line in states like Georgia and Washington--there are indications that the U.S. government may re-consider, and offer a slightly-less-capable version to the Japanese. Similar proposals might be extended to other close allies (like Australia and Great Britian) that are also looking to replace aging fighters.

The F-22 battle is also important in another sense, one that has nothing to do with exports or corporate profits or American jobs. Congressional support for the Raptor may be an early indicator of how far the House and Senate are willing to go in supporting--or bucking--the defense procurement priorities laid out by the Obama Administration. Yesterday's committee vote doesn't necessarily mean more Raptors on the ramp, but it is an encouraging first step.

*** UPDATE***

While the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff have "accepted" Mr. Obama's plan to end F-22 production, at least one senior general is breaking ranks. General John Corley, commander of Air Combat Command, says limiting the Raptor fleet to 187 aircraft will put U.S. military strategy "at high risk." Corley made his comments in a letter to Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, who asked for the ACC Commander's assessment. Excerpts from General Corley's letter were leaked to Congressional Quarterly:

“In my opinion, a fleet of 187 F-22s puts execution of our current national military strategy at high risk in the near to mid term,” Corley wrote in the June 9 correspondence. “To my knowledge, there are no studies that demonstrate that 187 F-22s are adequate to support our national military strategy.”

Corley’s command organizes, trains and equips the Air Force’s squadrons. His letter represents the clearest rebuke yet from within the military of the administration’s decision to end production of the F-22 and could give some in Congress pause about ratifying one of the highest-profile proposals in Obama’s first defense budget request. There are growing signs that some pivotal lawmakers may be leaning that way.

As you've probably guessed, General Corley--or more correctly, his command--has a dog in the F-22 fight. As part of its "train and equip" mission, ACC controls most of the Air Force's F-22 fleet. Buying another 60 Raptors (as advocated by Congressional supporters) would allow ACC to fully equip its Raptor squadrons and provide more power for combatant commanders.

Why is General Corley sticking his neck out? A significant number of Air Force generals are clearly unhappy with the current F-22 procurement plan, and Corley has nothing to lose. His retirement date was announced a few weeks ago. He will be replaced at ACC by General William Fraser III, a former ACC Vice Commander who now serves as the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Double Standard

Somewhere, Tex Antoine is rolling in his grave.

New Yorkers of a certain age remember Mr. Antoine as a popular TV weatherman, first at WNBC-TV, and in the later stages of his career, at WABC. He was part of the original "Eyewitness News" team at Channel 7 that achieved phenomenal popularity--and ratings gold--in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Using a "happy talk" approach to the news, members of the Channel 7 news team were encouraged to ad lib on camera, offering their own one-liners in response to the day's events. Mr. Antoine, a broadcast veteran who got his start as an NBC page, was always quick with a quip, and one evening in late November 1976, it ended his career.

Leading into Antoine's weather segment on the 6 p.m. news, anchor Bill Beutel read a tragic story about the rape of a five-year-old girl. It was an awkward segue under any circumstances, but Antoine (incredibly) found fodder for a joke. "If rape is inevitable," he told stunned viewers, "lie back and enjoy it."

Moments later, an ashen Beutel apologized on the air and his co-anchor, Roger Grimsby, led the 11 o'clock broadcast with an extended apology. Antoine was immediately fired and, except for a brief stint at WNEW-TV, he never held worked in television again. Mr. Antoine died seven years later at the age of 59, a broken man.

More than a quarter-century later, few in the media have suggested that David Letterman be fired for his tasteless joke about Sarah Palin's teenage daughter being "knocked up" during a visit to Yankee Stadium.

Never mind that the talk show host's various "apologies" sound more like efforts to justify his remarks. In his latest mea culpa, delivered during Monday night's broadcast, Letterman said he checked with staffers to ensure that Governor Palin's oldest daughter (Bristol) was "over 18" before delivering his comments. According to Dave's twisted logic, that supposedly excused a punch line about a young woman being raped by by Yankees' star Alex Rodriguez. Making matters worse (if that's actually possible), the daughter present at the stadium that evening was Willow (age 14), and not her older sister.

Sarah Palin has officially accepted Mr. Letterman's latest apology, but she's more charitable than we would be under the same circumstances. Judging by his own words, the late-night king appears is more upset that we didn't get "his joke," and less concerned about its potential impact on the Palin girls--and millions of other young women.

"It's not your fault that it [the joke] was misunderstood, it's my fault," Letterman told his audience. "So I would like to apologize, especially to the two daughters involved, Bristol and Willow, and also to the governor and her family and everybody else who was outraged by the joke. I'm sorry about it and I'll try to do better in the future. Thank you very much."

In a just world, David Letterman would now be in the unemployment line, with lots of time to think about his comments. But as an icon of the liberal media, Mr. Letterman doesn't have to worry about being held to same standard as other public figures. In that universe, it's perfectly appropriate to make rape jokes--as long as the targets are the daughters of prominent Republicans. After all, didn't Playboy recently publish a writer's "rape list" of conservative women? That list made it through the magazine's editorial process, and was only pulled after a public outcry.

Way back when, WABC made the right decision when they fired Tex Antoine for his disgusting remarks. But four decades later, a major publication and a television network find it impossibly difficult to apologize for the same type of feckless comments, and punish the offenders. By today's gutter standards of the MSM, Mr. Antoine wasn't a crude misogynist--just a "performer" who was ahead of his time.

Monday, June 15, 2009

What Took So Long?

The 43rd Airlift Wing at Pope AFB, North Carolina has a new commander. Colonel James Johnson took over the wing today, after his predecessor, Colonel John McDonald, was fired.

Officially, the Air Force won't say why McDonald was canned. But he gained a reputation as a martinet during an assignment as a group commander at an airbase in Kuwait. Given McDonald's track record, we'd say his dismissal was inevitable. More on Colonel McDonald--and his past antics--in our new article for Examiner.com.

The Farce in Iran

Thoughts on the "fair and honest" election in Iran, from Amir Taheri of The Wall Street Journal and the editors of National Review.

As Mr. Taheri notes, the scale of electoral deceit in Iran was both breath-taking and preordained:

No one knows exactly how much electoral fraud took place. The entire process was tightly controlled by the Ministry of Interior under Sadeq Mahsouli, a general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and a senior aide to Mr. Ahmadinejad. There was no independent election commission, no secret balloting, no observers to supervise the counting of the votes, and no mechanism for verification. It is impossible to know how many people voted and for whom.

Mr. Ahmadinejad was credited with more votes than anyone in Iran's history. If the results are to be believed, he won in all 30 provinces, and among all social and age categories. His three rivals, all dignitaries of the regime, were humiliated by losing even in their own hometowns. This was an unprecedented result even for the Islamic Republic, where elections have always been carefully scripted charades.


Then something unprecedented happened. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on all issues of national life, published a long statement hailing Mr. Ahmadinejad's "historic victory" as "a great celebration." This was the first time since 1989, when he became supreme leader, that Mr. Khamenei commented on the results of a presidential election without waiting for the publication of official results. Some analysts in Tehran tell me that the military-security elite, now controlling the machinery of the Iranian state, persuaded Mr. Khamenei to make the unprecedented move.

Buoyed by his "victory," Ahmadinejad appears to be "itching for a fight," in Mr. Taheri's words. And why not? The Iranian president believes the U.S. is "all but defeated," and views his other great enemy--Israel--as increasingly isolated. Assuming the anti-election fevor in Tehran (and other Iranian cities) doesn't swell into a threat against the regime, Ahmadinejad will likely pursue his radical policies, at home and abroad, with even greater vigor.

As National Review sees it, the electoral farce affirms that Iran is nothing more than a police state, cloaked in clerical robes:

Many Iranians are displaying the courage of despair, in the knowledge that they have been deceived and cheated. They were promised an election for president. The incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a fanatic who has alienated huge sections of the population, and Iranians’ hope was that this election would provide some sort of test of public opinion. Not the independent official that the title seems to describe, the president is responsible for putting into practice the policies of the “supreme leader,” and as such he is hardly more than a public dogsbody. Under the disguise of clerical robes and turbans, the Islamic Republic is a classic example of thugocracy.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has been remarkably silent on the voting outcome in Iran. Apparently, the White House still hopes for talks with the Iranian regime, the same government that rigged the presidential balloting and denied its people the right to choose their leaders.

While some observers believe the post-electoral unrest can gain traction, past events suggest otherwise. Ten years ago next month, Iranian students rose up against the government in a sudden wave of protests that caught the mullahs off guard. Despite a brutal crackdown by security forces, the unrest continued for several weeks. But, without support from the international community, the regime eventually gained the upper hand. Police and soldiers, backed by religious zealots, raided student dormitories and carried off thousands of demonstrators. Some remain in prison to this day; hundreds were executed.

A decade later, Mr. Obama and other western leaders could strike a (minor) blow for democracy by declaring the Iranian election to be a fraud, voicing support for protesters, and providing clandestine support for pro-democratic elements. Unfortunately, the silence from Washington and various European capitals is deafening. No one apparently wants to offend Tehran; the Europeans want to do business with the regime, and Washington still thinks it can talk Tehran out of its nuclear ambitions.

Meanwhile, the real hope for Iran is being beaten, battered and bloodied in the streets.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The TACP Problem

While the Obama Administration attempts back-channel diplomacy to tamp down tensions with North Korea, our military commanders in the region are doing their job: preparing U.S. and allied forces for the worst-case scenario, i.e., a renewed conflict on the peninsula.

While most analysts believe the chances of a second Korean War remain remote, that doesn't reduce the requirement--or the urgency--of the training mission, particularly in terms of airpower. In a recent interview with Aviation Week, Brigadier General Mike Keltz, the Vice Commander of 7th Air Force, outlined his priorities:

“My first concern is training,” said Brigadier General Keltz. “As the U.S. and South Korean air forces start employing advanced weapons, we will need instrumented ranges big enough to accommodate the greater speeds, altitudes and distances they require so that units can become more mission capable. A new world-class training range also should be [capable of hosting] high-intensity, air-to-air training.”

Another worrisome issue for forces on the peninsula is integrating U.S. and South Korean close air support. Programs are in place to search out Koreans with good English skills to man and train new Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTACs) for a long-term commitment as specialists instead of as one-time, temporary assignments.

South Korea F-4 and F-5 pilots are given Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) assignments as a one-year additional duty tour. As a result, air controllers are just getting proficient when they rotate. The shortage of trained JTACs is evident in the current manning level of only two TACP teams per division and none at lower levels. That shortage would be compounded in wartime by broken, mountainous terrain that restricts line-of-sight communications and creates gaps between units. U.S. officials are trying to promote the idea of pushing TACPs down to battalion level at least.

Obviously, a high-tech, fully-instrumented range is a futuristic, long-term project. Securing the necessary land and airspace represents a major hurdle. The days when we could fly wherever we wanted in South Korea are long since past. With a booming economy--and rapidly expanding population--the South Korean government isn't anxious to surrender thousands of acres of prime real estate for an advanced training range.

On the other hand, General Keltz's worries about joint tactical air controllers are anything but new. During my one-year stint in Korea (Kunsan AB, Class of 1992), I learned first-hand about the controller and language barriers that could hamper an air campaign against North Korean invaders. For our F-16 drivers at "the Kun," a sortie near the DMZ with ROKAF controllers was always an adventure. And, more often than not, they would complain during debrief that the ROKAF TACP provided inaccurate (or conflicting) vectors, or the controllers couldn't speak acceptable English. We passed along our pilot's observations in our mission reports (MISREPs), but the problem continued.

Almost two decades later, we've apparently made little progress on the TACP issue. While U.S. controllers are assigned at the battalion level, the ROKs don't have any TACPs below their division headquarters. That's a major problem, since battalions are brigades represent the primary war-fighting organizations within an Army, but those ROK commanders have no way of directly communicating with their air assets.

From the cockpit, the picture is equally grim. By most estimates, most of the early air war in Korean would be devoted to close air support (CAS) sorties, aimed at blunting the North Korean offensive. While some CAS missions can be pre-planned, the majority are "on call," with air assets responding to specific requests from individual units, processed through the Air Support Operations Center (ASOC). But aircraft tasked through this system still require a skilled controller to orient them to the engagement, and "talk" the pilots onto the target.

And that's where the ROKAF TACP system falls critically short. Not only do most South Korea controllers struggle with English, the majority of them are F-4 and F-5 pilots on a one-year tour. Continuity is virutally non-existent in the limited ranks of ROKAF forward controllers.

So, why not just use American TACPs? There are a couple of problems with that scenario. First, with only one U.S. Army division still "in country," the number of American ground controllers is extremely limited. There are three detachments of terminal attack controllers, assigned at an equal number of Army installations in South Korea. With U.S. and South Korea pilots expected to fly more than 1,000 missions on the first day of the war, there's no way that a handful of American controllers could handle most of the CAS sorties, particularly with ROK units shouldering most of the fighting.

The Aviation Week piece describes elimination of North Korea's long-range artillery as a primary mission for airpower--and the JTACs. Based on our experience, that's only half-right. As one USAF officer points out, we've been watching the DPRK build artillery emplacements along the DMZ for 60 years. In most cases, we have the coordinates for bunker doors or firing positions "dialed in," meaning that ground controllers won't have to direct our pilots to those targets. However, forward observers would be useful in spotting long-range guns "in the open," when they're easier to destroy.

According to intelligence estimates, North Korean tube artillery and multiple-rocket launchers have the ability to fire upwards of 250,000 rounds in the first 24 hours of combat. Many of those shells and rockets would land in the city of Seoul, triggering widespread panic, and complicating allied defensive efforts (imagine trying to get reinforcements through the South Korea capital while millions of civilians stream south, under a relentless rain of enemy fire).

Making matters worse, any "new" war in Korea would be won (or lost) in the first week. After that, the influx of U.S. airpower and ground reinforcements would halt the North Koreans in their tracks. But for that strategy to work, existing forces on the peninsula have to hold the line, and that means optimum employment of airpower, with accurate guidance from controllers on the ground. Unfortunately, continuing problems with the ROKAF TACP system will almost certainly mean communications and coordination problems, inevitably leading to missed targets and unsuccessful CAS sorties.

General Keltz isn't the first American commander to face this issue, and he won't be the last. Put another way; that state-of-the art training range will be a reality long before the South Korean TCAP system achieves the needed level of proficiency.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Passenger Manifest

While recovery teams pull bodies and wreckage from the South Atlantic, French authorities are investigating a potential terrorist link to the crash of Air France Flight 447.

According to Sky News, French security officials have determined that two of the jet's 228 passengers had names linked to Islamic terrorism, and appeared on a list of individuals considered "a threat to the French Republic."

Agents from the DGSE (the French intelligence agency that performs functions similar to the CIA and DIA) made the connection while reviewing the passenger manifest for Flight 447, which departed from Rio de Janiero on 31 May. The Airbus A330 went down in violent weather off Brazil's northwest coast, about six hours into the flight to Paris.

An intelligence source told the paper L'Express that the link between passenger list and known terrorists was "highly significant," though the evidence is not conclusive. French authorities are now working to determine birth dates and family connections for the two passengers, attempting to determine if they are, indeed, the same individuals who appear on the terrorism list.

At this point, with the airliner's "black boxes" sitting on the bottom of the Atlantic, the exact cause of the crash remains a mystery. Weather was certainly a factor, although other jets negotiated the same conditions. Additionally, meteorological data suggests that the turbulence encountered by Air France 447 may not have been as bad as first thought.

Other theories center on the plane's computers and its fly-by-wire control system. Automated messages from the airliner indicate severe systems degradation and failures in the final minutes of its flight. But even that theory is a bit suspect; fly-by-wire technology (first used in military aircraft like the F-16) is a triple-redundant system. A complete failure of the flight control computers--and the surfaces they control--is a virtual impossibility, at least that's what the engineers say.

However, aircraft have a way of proving that the impossible sometimes happen. Twenty years ago this summer, United Airlines Flight 232 crashed while attempting an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa. The DC-10 lost all hydraulics after the failure of the plane's #2 engine, mounted on the tail. Shrapnel from the disintegrating engine punctured the jet's three hydraulic systems, leaving the pilots with only thrust from the two remaining engines to control the aircraft.

Almost everyone has seen the final moments of Flight 232. Just a few feet above the runway, the jetliner's right wing dipped and touched the ground, sending the DC-10 into a fiery cartwheel. One hundred and eleven people died, but miraculously, 185 passengers and crew survived, largely because of the skill of the cockpit crew, led by Captain Al Haynes.

The conditions that brought down United Flight 232 represented a "statistical impossibility" (according to safety experts), but they happened nonetheless. Similarly, the advanced flight management and control systems on that Airbus A330 aren't supposed to fail en mass, but that's one of the theories that investigators are pursuing.

Of course, the real question is whether the crash of Air France 447 had a little human assistance, in the form of those two passengers with names that turned up on that terrorist watch list. At this point, terrorism can't be ruled out, and it will be interesting to see what the DGSE turns up as they dig into the background of those passengers.


ADDENDUM: Whatever the cause, air safety experts will almost certainly learn from the Air France disaster, and those lessons can (hopefully) save lives in the future. The techniques used by Al Haynes on United 232 have been widely studied, and the airline Captain (now retired) still shares his expertise with pilots and other aviation groups.

Fourteen years after the Sioux City disaster, a DHL crew, flying out of Baghdad, faced similar circumstances after their cargo jet (an Airbus A300) was struck by a surface-to-air missile. The crew managed to return to Baghdad and get their plane on the ground, executing the only "safe" landing in commercial aviation history with a complete hydraulic failure. Incidentally, the Captain of that Airbus learned how to use differential thrust control techniques in a seminar he attended. The instructor for that course was Al Haynes.

UPDATE: The U.K. Telegraph reports that the two passengers whose names matched those on a terror watchlist have been ruled out as a cause of the disaster. French security officials say the dead passengers "only shared the same name" with known Islamic radicals. The Telegraph reports that the investigation is now centering on faulty airspeed indicators, which began sending "incoherent" readings to the aircraft's crew and control system, about four hours into the flight. The false readings could prompt the pilot's to fly the aircraft faster than the Airbus could withstand, or too fast for the stormy weather conditions.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Same (Spy) Story, Different Characters

Our new column at Examiner.com looks at the nation's newest spy scandal, involving retired State Department official Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn. Both are accused of passing classified information to Cuba for decades.

If the outline sounds familiar, it should. Eight years ago, the FBI arrested Ana Montes, the senior Cuba analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, on similar charges. Ms. Montes eventually entered a guilty plea on espionage charges and is now serving a lengthy prison sentence.

In both cases, Cuban intelligence was able to identify willing recruits (both the Kendalls and Ms. Montes were motivated by ideology, not financial gain), encourage their entry into government service, and utilize them as long-term espionage assets. Ana Montes was a Cuban agent throughout her DIA career; ditto for Kendall Myers, who worked at the State Department for almost 30 years.

Ms. Montes' betrayal caused exceptionally grave damage to our national security. The impact of the Myers' scandal is still being calculated. We can only wonder if other Cuban moles remain buried in our diplomatic and intelligence bureaucracies.

And here's the scary part: it took counter-intelligence agents 15 years to catch up with Ana Montes, and Myers was arrested two years after his retirement. Clearly, our spy catching operation remains woefully deficient.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

A Dawn Like Thunder

A Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber, with pre-war markings. Fifteen of these aircraft, assigned to Torpedo Squadron 8 of the USS Hornet, were shot down on the second day of the Battle of Midway and only one crew member survived (Wikipedia photo).

Sixty-seven years ago today, 15 torpedo bombers launched from the carrier USS Hornet on the second day of the Battle of Midway. As a group, they turned towards the Japanese fleet, and their own appointment with destiny.

The aircraft were Douglas Devastators, assigned to Torpedo Squadron 8 of the U.S. Navy. Crewed by a pilot and a rear gunner, the antiquated Devastators had a simple, yet crucial mission: find the enemy carriers, launch torpedo attacks at low altitude, and sink the capital ships of the Japanese fleets.

It was a daunting task. A successful torpedo strike required crews to fly at wave-top level, directly at enemy vessels, which were heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns and fighters. Making matters worse, the Devastators were slow--even in comparison to other torpedo bombers--and their only "defense" was the skill of their pilot, and meager defensive fire from the rear gunner's .30 caliber Browning machineguns.

Navy tactics called for coordinated attacks against an enemy fleet, improving prospects for success (and survival for the aircrews). While the torpedo bombers penetrated at low level, dive bombers were supposed to strike from medium altitude (with escort from U.S. fighters), dividing enemy defenses. But coordination was often difficult to achieve, due to poor communications, the limited fuel capacity of strike aircraft, and other factors.

As anyone who has studied Midway knows, coordination was nonexistent as Lieutenant Commander John Waldron, the leader of Torpedo 8, began his run toward the Japanese carriers. Without fighter escort--and without enough fuel to make it back to the Hornet--Waldron and his crews elected to press their attack, against overwhelming odds.

It was a suicide mission. All of the Devastators were shot down by enemy Zeros or anti-aircraft fire from the ships. Only one man, Ensign George Gay, survived. Waldron and the rest of his men died, without scoring a single hit on the Japanese carrier force.

But the sacrifice of Torpedo 8 was not in vain. Torpedo squadrons from the Yorktown and Enterprise arrived moments later and initiated their own attacks, with losses that were nearly as heavy. But the waves of torpedo bombers forced the Japanese to concentrate their defenses at low level, creating an opening for the dive bombers, led by Lieutenant Commanders Wade McCluskey and Maxwell Leslie. In minutes, their formations transformed three of the four Japanese carriers into blazing hulks, forever altering the course of the Pacific War.

While the legend of Torpedo 8 was secured in that heroic, sacrificial attack, the squadron's story did not end there. Historian (and former New York Congressman) Robert Mrazek published a new history of the unit last year, detailing its service before--and after--the Battle of Midway.

Mrazek's book, A Dawn Like Thunder, traces the squadron from its pre-war days in Norfolk, Virginia, where it joined the Hornet after the carrier was commissioned in 1941 (Waldron was Torpedo 8's first commanding officer). After the U.S. entered the war, Waldron ran the "squadron like there was no tomorrow," working his aircrews and support personnel from early in the morning until well after dark.

In early 1942, the Hornet headed for the Pacific, taking Waldron and most of the squadron to war. A smaller contingent of pilots, gunners and ground crews headed for New York to take delivery of the new, Grumman TBF Avenger, the Navy's new torpedo bomber. After checking out in the Avenger, the rest of Torpedo 8 was supposed to link up with their squadron mates in the Pacific.

But the reunion never occurred. The squadron's Avenger "detachment" made it to Midway, but they operated from the island, rather than the USS Hornet. Despite having better aircraft, the fate of those crews was nearly as grim; of the six TBF's that launched from Midway, only one survived.

Yet, as Mr. Mrazek reminds us, the history of Torpedo 8 didn't end with that epic battle. Despite their appalling losses, the squadron was quickly reconstituted and participated in the Solomons Campaign, operating (again) from the Hornet until the carrier was sunk. After that, the unit flew from Guadalcanal, part of legendary "Cactus Air Force" that supported Allied ground and naval operations. Losses remained heavy; before the squadron was finally disbanded, it was down to a single, flyable aircraft and a handful of aircrews.

An excerpt from the book--and an interview with Mr. Mrazek--can be found on the NPR website. A Dawn Like Thunder is a superb read, well-researched and well-written. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the full story of Torpedo 8.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Other Targets

When Abdulhakim Muhammad shot two soldiers outside a Little Rock recruiting office on Monday, local police tried to depict the event as an isolated incident. But the subsequent investigation--and its revelations--suggest that the Arkansas attack may have been the first step in a planned campaign of terror.

Muhammad's rampage resulted in the death of 23-year-old Private William Long, and the wounding of 18-year-old Private Quinton I. Ezeagwula. Both were shot as they stood outside a recruiting center, where they were on two-week, temporary-duty assignments. Muhammad has told investigators that he would have killed more soldiers, had they been outside with Long and Ezeagwula.

A search of the suspect's vehicle and personal computer revealed a small arsenal of weapons and information on other possible targets. Federal agents say that Muhammad had conducted on-line searches for other cities, including Atlanta; Louisville, Kentucky, New York City and his hometown, Memphis, Tennessee. Targets in those locations reportedly included a Jewish center, a daycare facility, a Baptist church and (possibly) other military recruiting centers.

Meanwhile, authorities have also confirmed early reports that Muhammad traveled to Yemen after his conversion to Islam. A "well-placed" source tells Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch that Muhammad sought to study with Yahya Hajoori, a radical Yemeni cleric.

While it's unclear if Muhammad achieved that goal, it has been learned that he converted to Islam at the age of 19, while attending Tennessee State University in Nashville. After his sojourn in Yemen, Muhammad returned to the U.S. and went to work for his father's tour bus business, which opened a Little Rock office earlier this year.

Details of Muhammad's stay in Yemen remain vague, as do his activities since returning from the country. But whatever he was up to, it was enough to attract the attention of the FBI. Officials have confirmed that the bureau's anti-terror task force had been monitoring the suspect since he returned to the United States.

Clearly, there is much we don't know about the five-year period between Muhammad's "conversion," and the deadly events in Little Rock two days ago. But it seems increasingly unlikely that the murder of Private Long and the wounding of Private Ezeagwula were the acts of a lone crazy. Mr. Muhammad was clearly influenced by radical elements overseas; the real question is what role those elements played in his return to America, and the murderous events that unfolded on Monday.

No Accident

If you believe the so-called "experts," the recent, on-line publication of a detailed report on U.S. nuclear facilities was nothing more than an "accident."

The 266-page summary, which provided detailed information on civilian nuclear sites and programs, was posted at a Government Printing Office website until Tuesday night, when it was suddenly removed. That action followed disclosure of the document's existence--and its accessibility--at a web site devoted to government secrecy.

According to The New York Times, the report was marked "Highly Confidential" and listed hundreds of civilian reactors and research facilities linked to government nuclear programs. In some cases, the document provided maps that showed the precise location of fuel stockpiles used for nuclear weapons.

While analysts debate the damage caused by the disclosure, the Times managed to find an expert who dismissed the report's publication as little more than a clerical error:

“These screw-ups happen,” said John M. Deutch, a former director of central intelligence and deputy secretary of defense who is now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s going further than I would have gone but doesn’t look like a serious breach.”

Of course, there is no small irony in Mr. Deutch's comments. As you'll recall, he was dismissed as CIA Director during the Clinton Administration for a colossal security blunder. Investigators discovered the Mr. Deutch not only took home highly classified intelligence files, he uploaded them on a personal computer that was linked to the internet. The CIA has never disclosed if foreign intelligence agencies were able to access Mr. Deutch's computer, and download secret files stored on his personal computers--machines that were never cleared for classified use.

Apologist for Mr. Deutch tried to depict him as a computer neophyte--a latecomer to the world of laptops--but that defense only goes so far. A CIA investigation into Deutch's computer files revealed that the CIA Director first tried to retain his machines, which had been purchased by the agency. When that request was rejected, Mr. Deutch apparently tried to reformat his computer, in an attempt to erase the classified files. He even sought help from technical experts at CIA HQ in an effort to reformat computer memory cards, a request that first raised questions about the director and his security habits.

In other words, Mr. Deutch willfully broke the rules, although he was never prosecuted and received a pardon from President Clinton. The "willful intent," so apparent in the Deutch case, is also evident in the "accidental" publication of that nuclear report. In other words, someone made a conscious decision to put the document on that unclassified government web site.

How can we be so sure? Government policy mandates the creation, editing and publication of classified reports on systems cleared for that type of information. Typically, a "confidential" report would be produced on a SECRET-level system, and published on an intranet cleared for that level of data. In the Department of Defense, the intranet for SECRET information is called SIPRNET. Other government agencies also have access to SIPRNET, or utilize their own SECRET-level intranets.

Getting that report on that unclassified web site, took several deliberate steps (or mistakes, depending on your perspective). First, the document had to be downloaded from a classified system and then copied or uploaded onto the unclassified site. Quite a series of missteps, wouldn't you say?

However, tracking down the guilty party should be relatively easy--assuming that the Obama Administration is interested in sealing the security breach. Government computer systems (at all levels) are extensively monitored, and employees must log on/log off using a personalized access card. Consequently, it shouldn't be too hard to find out who download the report, then uploaded it on the unclassified system.

One final note: many of the government's classified systems won't accept "outside" media, meaning you can't stick an unclassified flash card, floppy disk, CD-ROM or DVD into the appropriate drive and download information. Obviously, the feds haven't released details on the system(s) involved in this compromise, so we can't be completely sure how the information was transferred.

But one thing is clear: given the steps required, the posting of that report on an unclassified government web site was anything but an accident or a simple "screw-up."

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Wrong Man for the Job

The Obama Administration appears poised to fill a critical vacancy on its national security team. Various defense sources indicate that retired Air Force General Bruce Carlson will be the next Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the semi-secret organization that designs and operates the nation's spy satellites.

While an official announcement has not been made, Carlson--who retired from active duty in January--would replace Scott Large, who resigned from the agency on 18 April. Large announced his departure one day after President Obama approved plans for a new generation of electro-optical imagery satellites, which will be overseen by the NRO.

By most accounts, Large's sudden retirement was largely due to circumstances beyond his control. The former NRO director was "tarred" with the failure of Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), a proposed network of spy satellites that was cancelled due to its inordinate complexity and massive cost overruns.

While Large was not entirely responsible for the FIA debacle, he received much of the blame from senior defense leaders. Large was also faulted for not completing a planned reorganization of the NRO. Officials told DoD Buzz in April that the reorganization actually devolved into a "massive dis-organization," with Mr. Large losing control of some functions within his agency. As the chaos continued, Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided it was time for a change.

Supposedly, General Carlson has all the qualities Mr. Large lacked; as a retired four-star (who ran 8th Air Force and Air Force Material Command, among other organizations), Carlson is someone who knows how to take charge and lead. He also has "street cred" with the warfighter community and experience in acquisitions makes him "uniquely qualified" to lead NRO.

But Carlson's record at Material Command suggests he might be the wrong man for the job. When he took charge of the organization in 2005, General Carlson had two major objectives: reign in the bloated civilian bureaucracy that dominates AFMC, and get control of escalating costs associated with the command's acquisition and maintenance depot functions.

By most accounts, General Carlson failed on both counts. Development costs for AFMC-administered weapons programs (including the F-22 and F-35) continued to escalate on his watch. The command's sprawling logistics centers remained middling performers and even gave Carlson a public black eye.

In the spring of 2008, it was revealed that personnel at the Ogden Air Logistics Center in Utah inadvertently shipped nuclear components to Taiwan. More than a half-dozen senior officers in the AFMC chain received non-judicial punishment for their roles in the mistake.

But for many observers, the low point of Carlson's tenure came with a strange request he forwarded to the Air Force Chief of Staff. At the request of AFMC's senior civilians, Carlson asked the Air Force for a waiver on Air Force safety regulations, which mandate the use of a hands-free device with a cell phone while driving.

Apparently, the command's senior civilian mafia believed they should be exempt from safety guidelines established for the entire service. Rather than telling them to get in line with the rest of the USAF, Carlson dutifully submitted the waiver request, which was quickly rejected by Air Force leadership. To many, the "hands-free" waiver request was proof positive that the civilians--and not General Carlson--were running the show at AFMC.

At NRO, Carlson will inherit an organization with many of the same problems. While the reconnaissance office is a fraction of AFMC's size, it is also dominated by entrenched layers of senior civilians, who have become adept at building spy satellites that are technical marvels, but are usually delivered years behind schedule and billions over budget.

It's also worth noting that General Carlson doesn't have much of a space or intel background, other important qualifications for an NRO Director. While he is almost universally described as a "classy guy," and an "experienced leader," many space and intel experts expressed surprise when Carlson emerged as a leader for the NRO post.

Clearly, General Carlson faces an uphill battle in righting the ship at NRO. Assuming he's actually picked to run the agency, Carlson will find himself in the middle of a crucial battle over the future of our spy satellite program. Many within NRO still favor "Cadillac" systems, despite their cost and lengthy development cycles. Meanwhile, other elements within DoD prefer less complex systems that can be deployed more quickly, and in greater numbers.

DoD Buzz also reports that the Obama Administration has had a "hard time" finding someone to lead NRO. In other words, many of the intel and space pros who would be logical choices to run the agency want no part of the bureaucratic food fight. That would suggest that Mr. Obama and his SecDef were looking through second-tier candidates when they decided on General Carlson. It's not often that a retired four-star is thought of in those terms, but clearly the administration could find someone more qualified to lead NRO at this critical juncture in the organization's history.

Having said all that, we wish General Carlson luck in his new assignment (assuming, of course, that he's the nominee). He'll need all of his managerial skill--and a measure of luck--in getting NRO back on track.

Two Shootings, Different Priorities

Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, flanked by his attorney, enters a not guilty plea in an Arkansas courtroom. The Muslim convert is facing capital murder charges in connection with Monday's shooting of two U.S. Army recruiters in Little Rock (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette photo).

After an anti-abortion extremist killed Kansas physician George Tiller on Sunday, the Obama Justice Department swung into action. Just hours after the shooting, Attorney General Eric Holder announced added security for selected abortion providers and the clinics where they work.

A spokesman for the U.S. Marshal's Service has confirmed that federal agents would be guarding abortion doctors and medical offices in the coming days, though the scope of the security operation remains unclear.

Readers will note that Mr. Holder offered no public reaction just 24 hours later, when two U.S. Army soldiers were gunned down outside a recruiting office in Little Rock, Arkansas. Privates William Long and Quinton Ezeagwula were shot by 23-year-old Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, a Muslim convert who spent time in Yemen.

Long died from his injuries at a Little Rock hospital a short time after the shooting; Ezeagwula, who was shot in the neck, is expected to survive.

Both soldiers were recent graduates of basic training, participating in the "Hometown Recruiter" assistance program. Long and Ezeagwula were assigned to the Little Rock office for two weeks, talking to friends and family members about opportunities offered by the Army. The hometown recruiter program has been in existence for more than 30 years, and dates back to the earliest days of the all-volunteer military.

Appearing in court today, Muhammad entered a "not guilty" plea to capital murder charges in connection with the shootings. A prosecutor said the suspect admitted to targeting the soldiers, and said he "would have shot more" had other recruiters been outside. Muhammad also told investigators that he was "upset" over the military's treatment of Muslims.

There are literally hundreds of armed forces recruiting stations across the country, but despite Monday's deadly attack, Mr. Holder apparently sees no need for added security. Never mind that recruiters are unarmed and their offices are (typically) located in storefronts, behind pane-glass windows and doors. While some recruiting centers have added security measures in recent years, most are unprotected. Comparatively speaking, a typical abortion clinic is far more secure than a military recruiting center in the same community.

And never mind that recruiting stations have been the target of an escalating campaign of harassment, intimidation and violence in recent years. Michelle Malkin has chronicled scores of attacks across the country in recent years, but the anti-recruiter campaign has received virtually no attention from the MSM. Given the media's indifference--and the Democratic Party's cozy alliance with the anti-war left--it's no surprise that Mr. Holder is unconcerned about attacks on military recruiters.

But that position may come back to haunt the attorney general and his boss, President Obama. Early reports suggest the Little Rock suspect spent several years in Yemen after his conversion to Islam, and one source indicated that Muhammed may have traveled on a Somali passport. Additionally, the FBI has confirmed that it's anti-terror division was investigating Muhammad before the shooting (emphasis ours).

While Federal authorities have uncovered no evidence of a wider conspiracy (at least not yet), there's much we don't know about the former Carlos Bledsoe. What prompted his conversion to Islam, and how did he make it to Yemen, a hotspot for jihad? Did he come in contact with former Gitmo detainees who migrated to that Middle Eastern nation, and have become a key part of the local Al Qaida affiliate? Was there a Somali connection, and finally, what brought Mr. Muhammad back to the U.S. and sent him on that murderous rampage?

At this point, answers to those questions are in short supply. We have no doubt that the FBI will conduct a professional investigation, but there's a larger issue that must be resolved, since it will set the tone for the inquiry. Simply stated, as the probe unfolds, will Mr. Obama allow his Justice Department to follow all leads, regardless of where they lead?

Thirteen years ago, another Democratic President (Bill Clinton) had an opportunity to aggressively pursue a terror investigation. But he thwarted an FBI probe into the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, believing the search for Iranian masterminds would undermine his overtures toward Tehran.

Obviously, the shootings in Little Rock are vastly different that the massive truck bomb that devastated our military barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 airmen. But the saga of Abdul Hakim Mujahid Muhammad has foreign elements that must be investigated. There's every chance that Mr. Muhammad acted alone, but there is also the possibility that he had assistance and influence from individuals abroad.

As Mr. Obama prepares for his Cairo speech, he might consider a proper balance between building better relations with the Muslim world, and protecting U.S. citizens from its most radical elements. Mr. Muhammad is a product of that environment, and the family of Private Long has every right to know how those elements influenced his murder. They should also ask Mr. Holder why abortion doctors deserve federal protection ahead of our military recruiters.