Saturday, October 31, 2009

That Makes Two

For the second time in less than a month, an Air Force wing commander has been fired at Minot AFB, North Dakota.

Air Force Times reports that Colonel Joel Westa, Commander of the base's 5th Bomb Wing, was relieved of his post on Friday afternoon, after senior officials "lost confidence" in his ability to lead.

Westa was dismissed by Major General Floyd L. Carpenter, Commander of 8th Air Force, headquartered at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. Eighth Air Force is in charge of all USAF strategic bomber units, including the B-52 wing at Minot.

Westa, a master navigator, lost of the confidence of Carpenter because of his “inability to foster a culture of excellence, a lack of focus on the strategic mission … and substandard performance during several nuclear surety inspections (NSIs), including the newly activated 69th Bomb Squadron,” according to a statement issued by 8th Air Force.

“Perfection is the standard,” Carpenter said in the statement. “We will continue to demand exacting focus, attention to detail, discipline and dedication to the highest principles and standards for all activities surrounding the nuclear enterprise.”

Westa's firing came just two weeks after the Commander of Minot's 91st Missile Wing, Colonel Christopher Ayers, was dismissed from his post for similar reasons. A spokesman for Air Force Space Command said Ayers' superiors also "lost faith in his ability to command," citing a series of accidents, incidents of misconduct, and a failed nuclear surety inspection during his tenure. The commanders of the wing's maintenance group and missile maintenance squadron were also fired.

Ayers has since been reassigned to the Headquarters of Air Force Space Command, the parent organization for the Air Force's ICBM mission. Space Command is preparing to transfer its missile assets to Global Strike Command, which will oversee both ICBM and nuclear-capable bomber units.

Westa's next assignment has not been determined. Contacted at his home by Air Force Times, he declined comment. Colonel Westa has been replaced at Minot by Colonel Douglas Cox, who previously served as Vice Commander of the 36th Wing at Andersen AB, Guam.

There is no shortage of irony in the circumstances surrounding Westa's departure. It comes almost two years to the day after he arrived at Minot, replacing Colonel Bruce Eming, who was also fired. Emig's dismissal was the result of a highly-publicized incident involving the inadvertent "transfer" of nuclear weapons from Minot to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.

During that mishap, crews at Minot failed to ensure that nuclear warheads had been removed from cruise missiles, being flown to Barksdale for inactivation. The crew of a Barksdale B-52 (serving as the transfer aircraft) also failed to detect the mistake, which wasn't discovered until hours after the giant bomber landed in Louisiana.

The incident prompted a series of Air Force and Defense Department investigations, which resulted in disciplinary action for dozens of personnel and revised standards for handling, protecting and maintaining nuclear weapons.

Fixing the problems at Minot fell on the shoulders of Colonel Westa, who was Vice Commander of the Andersen wing before being transferred to North Dakota. Shortly after taking the reigns of the 5th Bomb Wing, Westa announced ambitious plans for re-certifying the unit, which had lost its authority to conduct nuclear operations after the transfer debacle. At the time, Colonel Westa confidently predicted that the B-52 wing would regain its nuclear certification by "February 2008."

Almost immediately, that timetable hit a major snag. In mid-December 2007, the 5th Wing underwent an Initial Nuclear Surety Inspection (INSI), in preparation for the NSI that would follow. When the preliminary evaluation ended, both Westa and Minot's Chief of Public Affairs, Major Laurie Arellano, announced that the unit would be "given more time" to get ready for the nuclear surety inspection.

While the Air Force refused to divulge the reason for the extension, sources told In From the Cold the 5th Bomb Wing had received a grade of "Not Ready" on its INSI. While technically not considered a failing mark, the INSI results suggested continuing problems in the nuclear unit, and indicated the wing was not ready for the NSI.

With additional preparation time, the B-52 wing passed its INSI in March of last year. But two months later, it received a failing grade during an NSI from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which assists the Air Force in conducting nuclear evaluations. Inspectors from the agency found numerous security discrepancies during the May 2008 evaluation, including sentries who were playing games on their cell phones during the simulated movement of nuclear weapons.

While the 5th Wing earned passing grades in other areas, the security problems were enough to generate a failing score for the overall inspection. That resulted in the dismissal of Lieutenant Colonel John Worley, Commander of Minot's 5th Security Forces Squadron, the unit charged with protecting the base and nuclear assets within its perimeter. Air Force sources told this blog that Worley continued training for a local marathon in the months leading up to the inspection, despite the focus on Minot and its nuclear problems.

The 5th Bomb Wing finally passed all portions of its NSI in August 2008, almost a year after the original "transfer" incident. But problems continued to plague the Minot bomber unit and the co-located missile wing.

For the 91st, there were two major mishaps involving vehicles used to transport nuclear missiles and components. The most recent accident occurred in August, when the driver of a component truck lost control, causing the vehicle to roll onto its side. An Air Force investigation revealed that the driver was trying to remove "a large insect" from his neck at the time of the incident.

Additionally, the 91st failed a nuclear surety inspection during Ayers' tenure as commander, and three officers were disciplined for falling asleep with nuclear launch codes in their possession. In a separate incident, an airman failed to secure a safe containing missile operations procedures. Officials found nothing was missing from the safe.

Still, the cumulative effect of the various incidents caused Air Force Space Command to lose confidence in Ayers, who was fired as the missile wing commander on 14 October.

Colonel Westa also ran into problems after helping the 5th Bomb Wing regain its nuclear certification and pass required inspections. As part of its revised "nuclear roadmap," the Air Force added a second B-52 squadron to Westa's wing, in an effort to provide "operational depth."

The new unit, the 69th Bomb Squadron, was activated less than two months ago, but senior officers were reportedly unhappy with efforts to bring the unit to full operational status. Air Force Times also reported the squadron had difficulties during its first nuclear evaluation, another factor in Westa's dismissal.

Some observers view the firings of Ayers, Westa (and others) as the imposition of badly-needed accountability in the Air Force's nuclear enterprise. But others argue that the new inspections are "almost impossible to pass," given years of inattention to the service's nuclear weapons systems and the personnel who operate and maintain them. Without more money (and training), they warn, the string of recent failures is likely to continue.

Air Force leaders, along with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have promised to provide the required resources. But meeting that commitment may prove difficult, if not impossible. The Obama Administration is planning massive cuts in the nation's nuclear stockpile. Against that backdrop, the Pentagon may be hard-pressed to furnish the training and acquisition funds needed to rebuild our nuclear arsenal.

Making matters worse, there is also a severe shortage of trained personnel to operate and repair nuclear systems. That problem is the result of several factors, ranging from the "merger" of the conventional and nuclear munitions career fields, to the employment of nuclear specialists in other tasks, including guarding prisoners in Iraq.

Obviously, the only effective cure for the "experience" problem is time--and lots of training. Until that happens, missile and bomb wing commanders will be sweating their NSIs, knowing that much of their workforce is still green.

Best of luck to Colonel Cox and Colonel Fred Stoss, the new commander of the 91st. They'll need it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Desperate Hours in Sudan

Kudos to staff writer Michael Hoffman of Air Force Times. Mr. Hoffman--the first reporter to uncover the inadvertent transfer of nuclear weapons between Air Force bases in North Dakota and Louisiana in 2007--has discovered another event the service would rather forget.

It happened almost three years ago, at a remote airfield in Sudan. An Air Force HC-130, normally used to coordinate search-and-rescue missions, was assigned a seemingly routine task. The aircraft (and its eleven man crew) were dispatched from their deployment base in Djibouti, to pick up a U.S. military officer assigned to the U.N. mission in Darfur. The officer's wife was pregnant and had fallen ill; the HC-130 would cover the first leg of his journey home.

But the pick-up mission proved anything but routine. Sudanese soldiers at the crew's destination (Al-Fashir Airfield) were convinced the Americans were there to collect evidence of war crimes, and not retrieve the liaison officer. As Michael Hoffman describes it:

At 8 a.m. under fair conditions, PAT 332 took off from Camp Lemonier and flew 3½ hours to Khartoum. Waiting for them on the ground was a U.S. Embassy representative. An hour later, the plane took off for Al-Fashir.

The HC-130 made its approach to Al-Fashir two hours later. As the wheels touched down, crew members watched as Sudanese soldiers — 50 to 100 feet apart along both sides of the runway — turned and pointed their AK47s at the plane. Also near the airfield were anti-aircraft guns. In the background was a garrison, not shown in the images.

Waiting for the plane were two U.S. military liaisons with six locked duffel bags. One of the men, the crew members assumed, was the father-to-be. They were wrong. The military liaison they had come to pick up was already gone, the men said. He had left five days earlier but needed his bags of equipment and four 9mm pistols.

The crew members loaded the bags and hid the guns in the plane before they checked in with airfield officials, who requested that co-pilots 1st Lt. Timothy Saxton and 1st Lt. John Cuddy deliver their flight plan to the air traffic control tower. Saxton and Cuddy agreed to do as requested but asked if they could keep the plane’s engines running while the officers were driven to the tower because one of the turboprops was hard to start. Their request was denied, and they shut down PAT 332.

After Saxton and Cuddy returned to their aircraft, the HC-130 was cleared for departure. But as the aircraft taxied out, a Sudanese intelligence officer noticed the FLIR ball on the bottom of the aircraft. Concerned that the FLIR had recorded images of bombs being loaded on Sudan's military aircraft at the field--for use against civilian targets in Darfur--a Sudanese intelligence official began barking orders into his cell phone. Seconds later, the HC-130, callsign PAT 332, was ordered to return to the ramp.

Over the hours that followed, the situation grew increasingly tense. A group of Sudanese soldiers surrounded the aircraft. At one point, U.S. military liaison officers--who met the HC-130 when it landed--told the crew they might be arrested and executed. A Sudanese officer also informed the Americans that the crew's two female members would be raped after being taken into custody.

The stand-off continued into the evening, with the crew of PAT 332 caught in the middle. At one point, the radio operator, MSgt Paul Widener, radioed Camp Lemonier in Djibouti and asked if any aircraft had been launched to support them. All aircraft were on the ground, he was told.

Meanwhile, an estimated 150 Sudanese soldiers took up firing positions around the aircraft. The eleven aircrew members (and a six-man security detachment from the Guam National Guard) donned body armor and readied their weapons. But if the Sudanese opened fire with machineguns and RPGs, the Air Force crew stood little chance of survival.

The terrifying ordeal finally ended when a U.S. liaison officer asked to speak with the airfield commander, who demanded payment of a landing fee. He was told the fee had been paid--and didn't ask for proof. With that issue settled, PAT 332 and its crew were finally allowed to leave.

When they returned to Djibouti, the crew faced an equally strange reception. From the Air Force Times account:

A debriefing by an intelligence analyst, psychologist and flight surgeon is standard protocol to reintegrate an airman held hostage. But not even the squadron intelligence officer was waiting when PAT 332 landed because squadron commander Lt. Col. Christopher Austin hadn’t reported the mission as a hostage event to Central Command’s Joint Personnel Recovery Center, which would have put the reintegration process in motion.

An enlisted intelligence specialist had been on the ground at Camp Lemonier and started to debrief the crew members, but an unidentified officer ended the session and ordered everyone to go to bed. They were scheduled to fly a training mission the next day.

The mission left aircrew members with questions about their safety. One worried that his name had been taken by Sudanese intelligence officials and his family was vulnerable. A squadron intelligence officer told him that his name probably had been entered into Sudanese intelligence databases but not to worry about it. The crew member couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

More than 70 days passed before Central Command learned about the mission. None of the documents stated who corrected the report. CentCom intelligence officials tracked down the crew members and National Guardsmen to file a Joint Personnel Recovery Agency report.

The help from Central Command, though, came too late for at least two aircrew members. They now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and are no longer allowed to fly because of their diagnosis. Both list the mission to Al-Fashir as the cause of their symptoms, which include severe anxiety and depression.

To this day, no Air Force official can explain why Lt Col Austin mis-handled the situation so badly--or if higher-ups pressured him to keep the incident quiet. He has not been made available for media interviews.

And, if that's not bad enough, the crew of PAT 332 received a final insult earlier this year. For their cool-headed actions at Al-Fashir, the officers were nominated for Bronze Stars, while enlisted personnel were nominated for Air Force Commendation Medals with the "V" (Valor) device.

But their decorations were down-graded by then Lieutenant General Gary North, the former commander of Air Forces Central Command. A memo from North's office said "justification does not support award recommendation." Instead, the crew of the HC-130 received Air Force Achievement Medals with the Valor device.

Readers will recall that General North is the same flag officer who ran interference for Major Jill Metzger, the Air Force officer who "disappeared" from a mall in Kyrgyzstan in September 2006. When she resurfaced three days later, Metzger claimed that she had been kidnapped. But no evidence to support that theory has ever been found. A number of U.S. law enforcement officials believe that Metzger staged her own disappearance, perhaps to cover-up an AWOL.

According to, General North was present when Metzger was "repatriated." Interestingly, he told two Air Force Security Forces specialists (protecting the flightline) to keep what they saw and heard to themselves. He then pressed his personal coin into their hands, in an effort to seal the deal.

North was willing to go to bat for Jill Metzger, a woman who is an abject liar (and worse). But he rejected modest awards for a heroic crew in a dangerous situation that could have easily triggered a war. Someone needs to ask General North how he justifies that double standard.

As you might have heard, North recently received his fourth star. Go figure.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Price Guarantee

It sounds like something you'd hear on a late night TV commercial for a local car dealer. You know, that irritating guy who promises the lowest price on a vehicle...guaranteed! And if he can't match a competitor's offer, he'll give you the difference, yada, yada, yada.

Of course, no one puts much stock in such promises. So why is the same tactic being applied to the Air Force's $35 billion dollar contract for new aerial tankers?

According to Amy Butler of Aviation Week, the CEOs of Northrop-Grumman and Boeing (the two firms competing for the tanker deal) must sign a certification letter as part of their forthcoming contract proposals. In the letter, the CEOs must guarantee "the performance, schedule and cost claims made in the bid," according to a defense industry source familiar with the requirement. The official spoke with Ms. Butler on the condition of anonymity.

The Pentagon's insistence on a "CEO guarantee" has a lot of aerospace executives scratching their heads. As the defense executive told Amy Butler:

*First, shouldn't the bid itself -- on Boeing or Northrop Grumman letterhead -- implicitly be personally guaranteed by the CEO as well as all officers of the company that submits it? So, why does USAF need this extra certification?

*Second, why then would this rile industry? A CEO should personally back his proposals -- all of them. The only reason I see to distance yourself as a CEO from your company's bid is if the bid is bogus, in which case you are doing harm to your customer and, potentially, your shareholders by proposing it and, possibly, winning on a false strategy (a la FIA).

*Third, is there some extra layer of legal liability this puts personally on the CEO, rather than his or her standard responsibilities? And, so, if not, why does DOD go to the trouble? Is this basically saying that procurement has gone so awry that the proposals aren't worth the paper they are written on?

From the USAF's perspective, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned--and request an extra level of certification. We've devoted numerous posts to the debacle that was--and is--the next generation tanker program. The service's attempt to field a new aerial refueling platform is roughly a decade behind schedule, and past efforts were riddled with corruption, accusations of favoritism, shifting program requirements, and legal challenges.

Judging from the recently-released Request for Proposals (RFP) for the tanker contract, it's clear that the Air Force is making every attempt to hold the line on costs, believing that there is little margin for error (or potential overruns) in its plan to acquire 179 new tanker aircraft. Hence, that request for a CEO guarantee.

But much of this mess can be pinned squarely on the Air Force. The original plan to lease KC-767 tankers from Boeing went down in flames, after it was learned that the service's senior civilian acquisition official had arranged jobs for herself--and two family members--with the defense contractor. Political and legal fallout from the failed lease program set the program back at least five years.

A second try at awarding a contract resulted in a victory for Northrop-Grumman and its European partner, EADS, which offered a tanker version of the Airbus A330 jetliner. But Boeing cried foul, claiming that Air Force specifications were vague, and that the service actually favored the larger Northrop-Grumman entry when its requirements suggested a smaller airframe like the 767. Boeing's protests were eventually upheld; the Northrop-Grumman contract was tossed out and the acquisition process returned to square one.

But the tanker woes didn't stop there. At one point, the Pentagon stripped the USAF of its authority to select a new refueler, transferring that responsibility to then-DoD acquisitions chief John Young. The service eventually regained control of the selection process, but it's no surprise that Air Force acquisition managers are a little bit nervous--and gun-shy.

Meanwhile, members of Congress aligned themselves with the two competing teams, hoping to bring home the bacon to their constituents. Several key members of the House and Senate actually suggested a "split buy" for the tanker, with Boeing and Northrop-Grumman sharing in the spoils. Never mind that such a program would result in significantly higher costs for parts, maintenance, and training, since the Air Force would wind up with two new tankers, rather than just one. Thankfully, support for the split buy seems to have cooled in recent months, but it shows the level of in-fighting associated with the tanker deal.

As for the newly-mandated price guarantee, it's supposed to prevent a common tactic in defense contracting. You probably know how it goes; a defense firm offers a rock-bottom price for a new system, which the Pentagon quickly accepts, believing it is getting a great deal. But, inevitable cost overruns creep into the picture, forcing DoD to re-open the contract and provide more funding.

With its emphasis on cost, there's nothing (at least in theory) to stop the same thing from happening in the tanker program. And that's where that CEO letter apparently fits into the scheme. By forcing the firm's chief executive to certify price and performance data, DoD will have something to use against the company when it requests more additional money.

Unfortunately, that "strategy" ignores a few critical points. With its over-emphasis on cost, the new tanker RFP almost guarantees that one--or both--tanker competitors will submit low-ball bids, aimed at securing the contract at all costs. That would mean the company would take a bath on development expenses, then plead poverty when operational production begins. At that point (several more years and billions into the program), the Air Force would have little choice but to pony up.

Additionally, we wonder how the "CEO guarantee" can be enforced when some corporate leaders are hired (and fired) at the frequency of baseball managers. In other words, can the Air Force--and the Pentagon--hold Boeing or Northrop-Grumman to guarantees made by a former CEO?

Put another way, "price guarantees" for the next-generation tanker will prove as reliable--and trustworthy--as the deal promised by your local car dealer. Somehow, the defense acquisition process has taken another step backward, at the very moment the Air Force needs new tankers.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Case for Nukes

As the Obama Administration strives for a "nuclear-free" world, there are reminders that such weapons play a vital role in our security, and actually deter potential aggressors.

Consider this UPI dispatch out of Seoul from a couple of days ago (H/T: Considering the growing threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea, a group of scholars and retired military officers are urging the re-introduction of tactical nukes in South Korea.

Readers may recall that President Obama has vowed to extend the U.S. nuclear umbrella "wide enough to protect the South." But that guarantee has been met with skepticism in some circles; it's hard for square that promise against the administration's plan to make deep cuts in our nuclear arsenal.

Cheon Seong-whun, a researcher at the government-run Korea Institute for National Unification, said the nuclear umbrella was "fragile" and not enough to shield South Korea from North Korea's nuclear threats. A nuclear umbrella also given to Japan by the United States in the past, he said, was a "negative security assurance" that has raised "a question of credibility."

If the United States is ready to launch a nuclear strike against the North to protect the South under the umbrella, he explained, it could face risks of retaliatory nuclear attacks on U.S. soil by the North, which is developing long-range missiles designed to carry a nuclear warhead that could hit the continental United States.

"There is doubt that the United States could protect Seoul at the risk of nuclear attacks on New York or Los Angeles," Cheon said at a recent forum in Seoul. "The United States should consider redeploying tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea to effectively deter North Korea's nuclear threats."

The United States withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea under a 1992 inter-Korean accord to make the peninsula nuclear free. The United States has tens of thousands of troops stationed in the South as a deterrent against the North under a mutual defense treaty signed just after the 1950-53 Korean War.

Cheon's statements may be something of a first; a ranking official at a government-run think tank, openly urging the return of U.S. nukes to his country. And, given the organization's affiliation with the ROK government, it is almost certain that Mr. Cheon's proposal has wide support within the South Korean security apparatus. Put another way; the current Korean government has little faith in Mr. Obama's promises and is looking for a more tangible guarantee, in the form of tactical nukes, ready for use in the event of a North Korean attack.

Needless to say, the South Koreans aren't holding their breath. The last U.S. nukes were withdrawn from the peninsula in 1992, part of the post-Cold War draw down initiated by then-President George H.W. Bush. The former commander-in-chief also believed that the move would lessen tensions in Korea--call it a unilateral good will gesture.

We know how that turned out. While the U.S. reduced its deterrent presence, North Korea accelerated efforts to develop its own nuclear weapons, culminating in nuclear tests in 2006 and earlier this year. As Pyongyang continues to add to its arsenal, officials in Seoul see a renewed, American nuclear presence as a valuable hedge.

South Korea's suggestion should also be viewed as a warning to the United States. Like Japan, South Korea has the technical and financial means to rapidly develop nuclear weapons. By some estimates, Tokyo could build its first bomb in a year, and Seoul wouldn't be far behind. If our allies in northeast Asia doubt our resolve--and our willingness to cover them with our strategic umbrella--they may well embark on their own nuclear programs.
In a similar vein, John Noonan of The Weekly Standard makes a brief, but compelling case, for resurrecting the Peacekeeper ICBM program. Unilaterally shelved by former SecDef Don Rumsfeld (as a cost-saving measure), the 10-warhead missile had exceptional accuracy, and in Mr. Noonan's words, "scared the hell out of the Russians."

Why bring back the Peacekeeper? Because Moscow has continually modernized its missile arsenal over the past decade, introducing the new SS-27 Topol M ICBM. The Russians are also circumventing START provisions (which ban development of new missile systems with multiple warheads) by creating a road-mobile system of the SS-27, dubbed the RS-24.

To match that deployment, the U.S. could re-introduce the Peacekeeper, formerly based in silos at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming. Because we retired the Peacekeeper on our own, it is not subject to START limitations. Put another way, there is nothing to keep us from bringing back the ICBM, except our own resolve.

And regrettably, that's where our current national security team comes up short. They ditched missile defense systems in Europe, in hopes of a reciprocal move from Moscow. At last report, the Obama Administration was still waiting. Given that precedent, there is absolutely no chance that the President would reintroduce the Peacekeeper, and incur the wrath of the Russians.

Dead Man Campaigning

Election Day in Virginia is more than a week ago, but you can (apparently) stick a fork in Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds. And if you don't believe us, just ask the Washington Post.

Today's edition of the paper has something of a rarity: an article explaining why Deeds will lose before voters go the polls (emphasis ours). More accurately, the Post claims that Mr. Deeds rejected advice from Mr. Obama's political machine and other top Democrats, setting the stage for a likely electoral defeat in November.

Senior administration officials have expressed frustration with how Democrat R. Creigh Deeds has handled his campaign for governor, refusing early offers of strategic advice and failing to reach out to several key constituencies that helped Obama win Virginia in 2008, they say.

Democratic strategists said that over the summer, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) offered Deeds advice on winning a statewide election. Among other things, Kaine, who is also chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told Deeds that he should lay out more of his own vision and stop attacking Republican Robert F. McDonnell so ferociously. But Deeds did not embrace the advice, according to a national Democratic strategist.

A senior administration official said Deeds badly erred on several fronts, including not doing a better job of coordinating with the White House. "I understood in the beginning why there was some reluctance to run all around the state with Barack Obama," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about the race. "You don't do that in Virginia. But when you consider the African American turnout that they need, and then when you consider as well they've got a huge problem with surge voters, younger voters, we were just a natural for them."

A second administration official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "Obama, Kaine and others had drawn a road map to victory in Virginia. Deeds chose another

Huh? We're still scratching our heads over that one. Truth is, Mr. Deeds has been following the Obama script, but it's not playing very well in the Old Dominion.

Consider the "attack" factor. While the White House faults Deeds for going negative on his Republican opponent, he was merely following the example of Mr. Obama. In an analysis published last fall (about a month before the Presidential election), the A.C. Nielsen Company found that Obama's ads were just as negative as those of John McCain. So much for post-partisan politics.

Additionally, Mr. Deeds staked out all the "right" positions on the issues. He's pro-abortion; supports big tax increases to pay for new spending programs, and backs President Obama's cap-and-trade scheme. Sounds like an Obama Democrat to us.

Unfortunately, Deeds' stand on environmental and fiscal issues have become political krypton's. Virginians understand that cap-and-trade would kill thousands of jobs in the state's coal mining industry and at the ports in Hampton Roads, where the mineral is shipped around the world. They also realize that Mr. Deeds' other proposals would add thousands more to their annual tax bills, in the midst of an economic recession.

It's also worth noting that Creigh Deeds' polling decline mirrors that of Barrack Obama. Earlier this week, Survey USA released a new poll that shows the Democratic candidate trailing Republican Attorney General Bob McDonnell by 19 points. While few observers believe McDonnell will win by that sort of margin, other surveys show him with a consistent lead of six-to-eight points, while Deeds' support craters among independents and other key groups.

To be fair, the Democratic state senator is a plodding candidate and his attacks on McDonnell have absolutely back-fired. With the notable exception of the Washington Post, the region's newspapers have criticized Deeds for his disingenuous and "deceitful" attack ads.

Against that backdrop, it's little wonder that some Democrats are sitting this one out. Former Governor Doug Wilder refused to endorse Deeds and one of Governor Tim Kaine's key fund-raisers (Black Entertainment Television co-founder Sheila Johnson) has signed on with McDonnell.

To their credit, the Post accurately identifies the reason for the early finger-pointing. The Virginia governor's race has become an early referendum on Mr. Obama. and the verdict will be devastating for the White House. No wonder the administration's political team was so anxious to talk to the WaPo and start laying out the blame.

Meanwhile, sources within the Deeds camp claim they've done "almost everything" the White House requested. We can't wait to hear their version of events, now that the Obama team has initiated the blame game. In an effort to protect the Annointed One, Mr. Deeds and his campaign are being thrown under the bus. It will be fascinating to see if they go willingly, or offer their public version of how Mr. Obama (and his policies) helped set the stage for a major electoral setback in Virginia.

Monday, October 19, 2009

One More Reason for a Male-Only Silent Service

As the Navy brass prepares for a "co-ed" submarine force, they might consider the impact of human biology on other elements of the service.

Navy Times reports that some shore commands in Norfolk, Virginia are heavily staffed by pregnant sailors, and some commanders are complaining about the lack of proper manning to carry out their missions.

The problem--and leadership complaints--resulted in an investigation by the Navy IG. According to the IG report, some of shore-based organizations in the Norfolk area have pregnant sailors in up to 34% of their billets. And due to restrictions associated with their medical condition, the sailors (in many cases) cannot perform all of their assigned duties, placing an added strain on shore commands.

The IG has asked Navy personnel officials to review the new rules for Navy mothers-to-be and consider the work conducted by each rating and how pregnancy affects a sailor’s ability to do that work.

The spike in pregnant sailors assigned to some units comes after the Navy changed its rules for handling mothers-to-be. And it’s compounded by a baby boomlet in the Navy community.

When sailors on sea duty become pregnant, they are transferred to shore-based commands that fit certain criteria, such as being close to a Navy medical center. The length of that assignment changed in June 2007, when the Navy extended the postpartum tour from four months after a child’s birth to 12 months. Combined with a nine-month pregnancy, that puts expectant mothers on limited duty for up to 21 months.

Now, shore industrial and aviation commands say they are receiving more pregnant sailors — from 15 percent to 34 percent of authorized billets, in some cases — who are unable to fulfill essential duties because of their pregnancy, according to the IG.

“If pregnancy trends remain constant, the new pregnancy distribution policy could have over 2,500 sailors counting against shore duty commands in ratings where they are not able to conduct mission-essential work within industrial or hazardous material-type conditions,” the IG report, based on a site visit to Hampton Roads, Va., in March and April, concludes.

But the impact is felt far beyond shore installations. As the Times article indicates, many sailors move to shore duty after becoming pregnant. That means that male sailors (or non-pregnant females) wind up filling the ship billets vacated by the mother-to-be. Unfortunately, the article doesn't indicate how many of the females in Norfolk-area shore commanders were transferred from sea duty after discovering they were pregnant.

Talk to Navy officers and senior NCOs and you'll get a real earful on the effects of this problem. While acknowledging that many female sailors are simply trying to balance a naval career against their desire to start a family, others are gaming the system, they say. In some cases, they say female sailors become pregnant to avoid a projected deployment, or get out of an assignment they don't like.

Years ago, sailors who became pregnant while on active duty were immediately dismissed from the service. By comparison, today's family-friendly Navy goes to great lengths to accommodate pregnant sailors, and there's not much a Captain or Master Chief can do except grit their teeth and suck it up.

You'd think the IG report would offer a cautionary tale for the submarine force and its plan for mixed-gender crews. Running an attack boat or a boomer takes an exceptionally well-trained, cohesive team of officers and enlisted members. Simply stated, the silent service can't afford the kind of turnover caused by pregnancies in other Navy organizations.

But such concerns are being ignored in the rush to break down one last bastion of male service. Sub skippers and Chiefs of the Boat know what's on the way, but speaking out would be a career killer. If the IG's findings are any indication, we'll soon be reading about training, turnover and reliability problems in the sub fleet, thanks to female crew members who decided to get pregnant.

More Time?

According to David Ignatius of the Washington Post, Iran may not be as close to a nuclear weapon as we might believe. In a column published last Friday, Mr. Ignatius reported that Tehran's supply of low-enriched uranium--the potential feedstock for a nuclear weapon--has impurities that could cause centrifuges to break, if the Iranians attempt to raise it to weapons grade.

That assessment is based on a recent article in Nucleonics Week, a nuclear industry trade publication. Sources tell the magazine (published by a division of McGraw-Hill) that Iran has been unable to remove all traces of molybdenum from the gaseous form of uranium, produced at a plant near Esfahan. After being converted to a gas, the uranium is enriched in centrifuges at the Natanz complex, and (presumably), a similar plant, recently discovered near the holy city of Qom.

But if Iran's existing stockpile of LEU is contaminated, that would greatly hinder efforts to produce a nuclear bomb. Building a bomb's nuclear core from highly enriched uranium--Tehran's most viable option at present--would require decontaminating remaining supplies of low-enriched uranium. That process could take years to complete, meaning that Iran may not be on the threshold of producing its first nuclear weapon.

The contamination problem may also provide an explanation for Iran's sudden willingness to go along with western proposals for uranium enrichment. At a preliminary meeting on its nuclear program (held in Geneva earlier this month), Tehran tentatively agreed to send its LEU to Russia, where it would be raised to the 19.75% purity level, required for use in medical isotopes.

Still, there are serious issues with the scenario outlined in Nucleonics Week and the Post. For starters, the magazine (and Mr. Ignatius) assume that Iran is fully wedded to the notion of building its own bomb, from its own nuclear material.

While that is clearly Tehran's long-term goal, it is not the only option available. If their stockpile of LEU is hopelessly contaminated, the Iranians could simply buy weapons-grade material from their good friends in North Korea. True, Pyongyang has had its own problems with the nuclear cycle (their first bomb test in 2006 was largely a fizzle), but the DPRK is much further along in the process, and would be glad to sell required materials to Iran, along with blueprints for a viable weapon.

As we've noted in previous columns, both North Korean and Iranian cargo airlift fly regular missions between Pyongyang and Tehran, carrying missile parts, munitions, small arms and God-knows-what-else. Unlike North Korea's merchant ships (which are subject to boarding and inspection on the high seas), there has never been any attempt to block the air traffic. It would be relatively easy for an IL-76 to fly the right material from North Korea to Iran, undetected.

And for that matter, Tehran could simply buy a finished nuclear device from Kim Jong-il. Desperate for hard currency, Pyongyang has no problem selling nuclear technology to anyone with enough money. Intelligence reporting suggests that Iran was an "investor" in that Syrian nuclear facility bombed by Israel two years ago. The complex was designed and built by North Korea. Acquiring needed technology (or a finished weapon) would shatter the "extended" timetable outlined in recent press reports.

Additionally, not all experts concur with the "problems" outlined by Nucleonics Weekly. Indeed, the consensus among western spy agencies is that Iran will join the nuclear club sooner rather than later. Many analysts believe Tehran is only a year away from being able to produce a nuclear bomb--one reason that Israel is pressing for new, tougher sanctions against Iran by early 2010. If that doesn't happen, Tel Aviv will launch a long-threatened attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

While the magazine's report cannot be completely dismissed, it seems to represent a minority view. However, even that sort of thinking can be dangerous. Barely two years ago, the U.S. intelligence community embraced an equally remote possibility in that infamous NIE which declared that Iran halted its nuclear weaponization efforts in 2003. Senior officials spent much of the next year back-peddling on that conclusion, but the damage was already done. The intel foundation for a possible military strike on Iran had been shattered, and Iran gained more time to pursue its nuclear ambitions. We will soon learn if claims about contaminated LEU give the Iranians another reprieve.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Your Education Dollars at Work

Over at National Review's Phi Beta Cons blog, Robert VerBruggen asks a rather indelicate question. Instead of offering student loan debt relief to active duty military personnel, why not simply raise their salaries, and let them decide to use the money?

As Mr. VerBruggen notes, a recently-introduced Senate Bill is aimed at closing a loophole in the student loan program. Military personnel, serving overseas, are currently charged interest on their student loans. The measure, co-sponsored by 14 Senators, would prevent interest from accruing on the loans of military personnel--including members of the National Guard--while they serve on active duty. According to Washington Monthly, the interest free period would be limited to 60 months, and generate an average savings of $1,100-1,400 for each military member.

To some degree, VerBruggen has a point, though his argument is poorly focused. For starters, we'll assume that the student loans in question were used before the individual joined the military. With generous tuition assistance for active duty personnel (and GI Bill benefits for those on active service and qualified veterans), there should be little need for personnel in those categories to take out student loans.

Additionally, virtually all of the services have student loan forgiveness programs for new enlistees. By signing up for a specified period of service, new troops can have their students loans wiped away--and still qualify for active-duty education benefits. Instead of offering an interest-free period, it might be more practical to expand the loan forgiveness programs.

In terms of raising pay, VerBruggen's proposal would create something of a problem. Special pay--including re-enlistment bonuses--is paid to service members who possess specific skills, or volunteer for particular career fields. There is no precedent (that we know of) to pay Private Smith an extra $200 a month to service interest on his student loan, while his comrade gets less compensation because they don't have education debt.

Besides, if National Review is genuinely concerned about disparity and waste in the DoD education budget, they're barking up the wrong tree. We would suggest a closer look at the Tuition Assistance (TA) program for military personnel, which provides up to $4,500 a year for the cost of college classes.

Tuition assistance has been around for decades, and (overall) it has been a highly successful program. Thousands of military personnel have earned college degrees, enhancing their skills and those of the military as a whole.

For years, TA compensation was capped at 75% of a course's tuition costs. Military members picked up the rest, and paid for incidental costs, including books and technology fees. To help service members, many colleges offered discounted tuition rates and book scholarships, reducing out-of-pocket costs.

In 2002, the military decided to raise the payment rate from 75% to 100% of tuition costs. Pentagon officials viewed it as a necessity; with an improving civilian economy (and increased operations tempo associated with the War on Terror), increased TA rates were deemed essential to the military's recruiting and retention strategy.

Besides, conventional wisdom suggested that the expanded program wouldn't cost that much. In early 2002, one of the Air Force's highest-ranking budget officers predicted that the new TA program would require (at most) a 25% increase in funding. A Chief Master Sergeant told the general that his projection was dead wrong; program costs would skyrocket, he warned.

Seven years later, the numbers prove the wisdom of the Chief's warning. The Air Force's TA budget has grown three-fold over this decade (while overall force levels have slightly declined), far out-pacing inflation and annual tuition increases imposed by most colleges and universities.

And, some of that money was clearly wasted. An investigation by the Air Force Audit Agency found at least 17% of the tuition funding was spent on courses and programs with no military value. In 2005, the agency discovered at least $25 million was allocated for classes that provided no return to the service. Some of the more popular programs in that category included courses on financial planning, golf, and preparation for licensing as a real estate agent.

In 2010, the Air Force will spend an estimated $200 million on tuition assistance. Most will go to dedicated airmen who are pursuing legitimate educational programs--programs that will benefit both the individual and the service as a whole. But if the audit agency's estimate is correct (and no one has disputed it), the Air Force will waste $34 million on bogus courses that enhance personal hobbies, or prepare service members for civilian careers.

True, it's hard to begrudge a golf class or real estate seminar for someone who's spent years in Iraq or Afghanistan. But 53% of today's airmen have never deployed to a combat zone, so that argument only goes so far in Air Force circles. Besides, no one ever said the military should have to pay to improve your golf game, and if you're looking to prepare for a post-military career, there are other ways to pay for it (virtually everyone leaving active duty is qualified for the GI Bill).

At least one Air Force commander (four-star, now retired) tried to crack down on TA abuse, but had to abandon the effort. He discovered that the rules were written so loosely that virtually any college course or program of study met the criteria. No wonder that 35% of the airmen enrolling for classes in the first year of 100% TA had never taken a class before.

The "old" tuition assistance program was far from perfect, but it had one clear benefit. By forcing military members to invest some of their money, it separated serious students from the hobbyists, and those who simply wanted to cash in on a "free" program. It also made military students more savvy consumers; with some of their hard-earned dollars on the line, they searched carefully for programs (and universities) that truly met their needs.

Unfortunately, those days are long since past. The mega on-line schools have entered the military market in recent years, attracted by a large pool of eager students and hundreds of millions of dollars in TA money. Lobbyists for those schools (and their trade groups) would fiercely battle any attempt to limit tuition assistance, including requirements that funded courses benefit both the student and the military.

Indeed, "Big Ed" has been successful in pushing for an expansion of education benefits within the armed forces. The recently-implemented Post-9/11 G.I. Bill allows armed forces members to transfer unused benefits to spouses and dependents, and the Pentagon recently created something called "MyCAA accounts." That program provides up to $4,500 for military spouses, allowing them to develop "portable" career skills that will improve employment prospects after future military moves.

Regulations for the MyCAA program are equally vague; spouses can use the money for anything from college courses and cosmetology programs, to preparation sessions for a real estate license exam. It's too early to say how much of this money is being wasted, but the pattern has already been established.
ADDENDUM: In fairness, we should note that military TA is a model of efficiency compared to the federal student loan program. Members of the armed forces who fail to complete a class (or simply flunk) are forced to repay full tuition for the course--and quickly. Compare that to enforcement practices for student loans; admittedly, it's tougher for deadbeat students to get by without paying the loan, but repayment often takes years, compared to just weeks in the military.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Help is on the Way (Sort Of)

There is some genuinely good news on the military manpower front. Not only did all of the armed services meet their recruiting goals in Fiscal Year 2009, they also exceeded their projections for the number of troops entering basic training.

According to The Washington Times, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps sent 169,000 new recruits to boot camp in the fiscal year that ended on 30 September. That's 5,000 more than the Pentagon's original projection, making 2009's training total the highest since 1973, the first year of the all-volunteer military.

More troops in training means eventual relief for units stretched thin by constant deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. We stress the word "eventual," because some of those recruits only recently reached their first duty assignments, after completing basic training and required technical schools.

Meanwhile, many of their comrades are still in training. It takes more than a year to train a military pilot, and technical training for some enlisted specialties are nearly as long. For example, a prospective Chinese linguist who just signed in at the Defense Language Institute won't graduate until late 2010, and more training will follow at their first duty assignment. A running joke among airborne linguists (who fly on USAF RC-135 and Navy EP-3 platforms) is that the end of upgrade training coincides with their eligibility to re-enlist.

Obviously, it takes time for any new military member to gain experience and proficiency, regardless of their rating, MOS or AFSC. A grunt who's been through the required training is qualified to go on patrol, but developing the so-called "strategic sergeant"--vital to counter-insurgency operations--is a process measured in years, not months. And, it takes even longer to produce the platoon leaders and company commanders who direct small unit operations.

Groundwork for the current surge in recruit training was laid in early 2007, when President Bush announced plans to expand the size of the Army and the Marine Corps. Under that proposal, the Army would gain an additional 65,000 soldiers, while the Corps would add 27,000 new Marines. The expansion was slated for completion by 2012, although the original timetable is somewhat in doubt, as far as the Army is concerned. Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed another 20,000 troops for the Army, meaning the build-up will take even longer to complete.

Put another way, the military is about half-way through the original build-up plan, recruiting (and training) the personnel that will expand the ranks of the Army and Marine Corps, while maintaining existing force levels in the Navy and the Air Force. Predictably, it will take longer for the new recruits to reach desired experienced levels. That's why real relief--for some military organizations--is still a few years down the road.

And for others, it may never occur. Ask anyone assigned to a "low density/high demand" units (special forces; AWACS and airborne SIGINT, to name a few). They've been on the deployment treadmill for more than a decade, with little relief in sight.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Rift?

A regular military exercise involving the U.S., Israel, Italy, Turkey (and other NATO elements) was suddenly cancelled last week, just days before it was scheduled to begin.

The U.S. suddenly scrapped plans for the Antolian Eagle drill after Ankara announced plans to pull-out of the exercise, citing participation by Israeli Air Force units. Turkish officials told their counterparts in Tel Aviv they could not abide IAF participation in the exercise, believing the Israeli jets would be the same ones that bombed Palestinian targets in Gaza earlier this year, during Operation Cast Lead.

According to the Jerusalem Post (and Israeli Radio), the final cancellation came after U.S. and other NATO members threatened to pull out if the IAF was not allowed to participate.

While Ankara is clearly trying to improve its standing with neighbors (read: Russia) that supply much of its energy needs. Moscow, of course, has substantial investments in nearby Iran--investments that could be threatened if the IAF launches an attack against Tehran's nuclear facilities.

Given their relationship with Tehran (and the money they stand to make) the Russians have a clear motive for keeping the IAF out of an exercise that could sharpen skills for a near-term strike on Iran. As for the Turks, barring participation by the IAF not only placates Moscow, they also score brownie points in the Muslim world, by taking a belated stand against Israeli "aggression."

Turkey's sudden aversion to the IAF would creates operational issues for Tel Aviv. For starters, the recently-announced ban would make it more difficult for the Israelis to access training facilities in Turkey. Israeli fighter squadrons have routinely deployed to Turkish air fields over the past decade, taking advantage of range facilities and vast areas of uncontrolled airspace, allowing IAF pilots to practice the long-range navigation, dogfighting and weapons employment skills that would be used during an attack against Iran.

Ankara's decision would also make it difficult, if not impossible, for Israeli jets to use Turkish airspace for a strike on Tehran's nuclear facilities. Analysts have long speculated that the most feasible attack route lies near the border between Iraq and Turkey, utilizing a commercial air corridor.

Under that scenario, Israeli tankers would masquerade as civilian airliners, with the strike aircraft flying close behind, in "resolution cell" formation, hiding inside the radar shadow of the larger jets. Turkish cooperation would make the long distance flight much easier, and increase chances for tactical surprise.

But there may be a method to Ankara's apparent madness. By suddenly rejecting the aerial participation of a long-time ally, the Turks are giving themselves breathing room, in anticipation of an Israeli strike against Iran. That way, when the IAF streaks across Turkey's southern border, Ankara can claim that the raid was conducted without their support and approval. Like other Muslim countries, Turkey cannot be publicly viewed as condoning an Israeli strike, even if many officers on Ankara's general staff support its goals.

That may explain why Israel's reaction to the Turkish decision was rather muted--and why the U.S. reacted to quickly in cancelling the exercise. Truth is, the drill could have proceeded without Israeli participation, but Washington's decision gives a little bit of political cover to all involved.

There is a chance that the new "rift" between Tel Aviv and Ankara in genuine, and rooted in Turkey's reaction to the Israeli campaign in Gaza. But there is also the very real possibility that the exercise cancellation is a hint of things to come--an operation that may require access to Turkish airspace, without the "formal" approval of the general staff, or the civilian government.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Admonishment

Retired Air Force General Mike Moseley achieved a rather ignominious legal first this week.

More than a year after he was dismissed as the service's Chief of Staff--due to problems in the USAF's nuclear enterprise--Moseley received a Letter of Admonishment for another scandal that occurred during his tenure. With receipt of that letter, Moseley gains the dubious distinction of being the only Air Force Chief of Staff to be sanctioned by the service after leaving office (emphasis ours).

General Moseley was punished for his role in the "Thundervision" controversy. We've been covering the scandal since it first broke more than three years ago, with word that another retired four-star, General Hal Hornburg, was under investigation by federal authorities.

While Hornburg was eventually cleared of any wrong-doing, the scandal soon ensnared other officers, including General Moseley, then serving as the Air Force's top uniformed officer. This week's punishment (apparently) brings the controversy to a close, ending another, sad chapter in recent Air Force history.

"Thundervision" began with a simple idea. Someone noticed that the Navy's Blue Angels were using a portable, Jumbtron-style TV screen during their air shows. Video coverage of their performance, projected onto the screen, allowed spectators to get a better look at the F/A-18s and their maneuvers. Never content to take a backseat to Navy, someone in the Air Force chain decided that the Thunderbirds needed a similar capability.

But the USAF decided on a different approach. While the Blue Angels got their Jumbotron and video crew for free (in exchange for allowing advertising on the screen before and after their shows), the Air Force elected to hire a contractor. The deal was worth an estimated $50 million, with the winning firm providing air show coverage and other, specified services for the Thunderbirds.

Hornburg entered the picture as a partner in a company called Strategic Message Solutions. His partner was a man named Ed Shipley, who made a fortune in the TV infomercial business. Shipley is also an experienced pilot who owns--and flies--several vintage warbirds, including an F-86 Sabre and an F-4U Corsair.

After retiring from the infomercial business, Mr. Shipley parlayed his flying skills, aircraft collection (and military connections) into a slot with the USAF Heritage Flight, which combines current and historical aircraft for air show demonstrations. At one point, Shipley was one of only nine civilian pilots certified to perform with the team.

To no one's surprise, Hornburg and Shipley's firm won the Thundervision contract back in 2005, despite the fact that other companies offered the same services at a much lower price. When they cried foul, the Defense Department Inspector General launched the first of two investigation into the bidding process, and the conduct of senior officers involved with the contract. The SMS deal was eventually cancelled.

Two separate probes revealed plenty of questionable activity. Not only did SMS get the original contract in near-record time, but the Air Force paid little attention to its much-higher bid. Concerns about cost were apparently brushed aside in the scramble to acquire a video screen capability for the Thunderbirds.

Investigators also discovered that senior Air Force officers went to bat for SMS, including Major General Stephen Goldfein, then-commander of the Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis AFB, Nevada. In that post, Goldfein supervised a number of functions, including the Thunderbirds and their support projects. While he was not authorized to select the winning firm for the video services contract, General Goldfein clearly tried to influence the process. From one of our updates on the Thundervision scandal, posted in June 2008:

As part of his lobbying effort, Goldfein tried to become a voting member of the source selection panel that awarded the contract. Told that he could not serve in that capacity, General Goldfein signed on as an “advisor,” and urged the panel to select SMS over other private firms and a USAF squadron that specializes in audiovisual support.

Members of the selection group told investigators they felt extreme pressure from Goldfein. One even said the experience left him feeling “dirty.” After bowing to General Goldfein’s demands, the chief of the selection panel apologized to his colleagues. “Sorry guys, I caved,” he was quoted as saying.

Goldfein had his own connections to SMS--or so it seems. Before retiring from active duty in January 2005, General Hornburg served as Commander of Air Combat Command and was instrumental in Goldfein's selection for the Nellis post. Leadership of the Air Force Warfare Center is usually a stepping-stone to more important assignments, so perhaps Goldfein felt he "owed" something to General Hornburg, his former boss.

Investigators also found ties between Hornburg, Shipley and General Moseley. In 2005, while the Thundervision contract was still under consideration, the Air Force Chief of Staff and his wife accepted an invitation to spend a weekend at Mr. Shipley's Pennsylvania mansion. General Hornburg and his spouse were also guests at the Shipley home that weekend. The participants claim that the Thundervision contact was never discussed, but the gathering--and its timing--seemed more than coincidental.

Word of the social meeting between Shipley, Horburg and Moseley was revealed in the original DoD IG report on Thundervision. But investigators did not consider the issue of Moseley's conduct, and whether it violated ethical standards.

So, at the urging of Senators John McCain of Arizona and Carl Levin of Michigan, the IG launched a second probe. The inquiry was completed three months ago, about one year after Moseley was fired as Chief of Staff. After reviewing the report, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley imposed the letter of admonishment, and announced his decision this week.

But that begs an obvious question: does General Moseley deserve the delayed punishment? On one hand, the admonishment appears to be a blow for accountability--something sorely lacking in the Air Force in recent years. By sanctioning Moseley in retirement, Secretary Donley reminded USAF personnel that accountability continues--even after they hang up the uniform.

On the other hand, the punishment handed out to Mike Moseley is somewhere below that proverbial "slap-on-the-wrist." General Moseley left active duty last summer; he'll never hold a command position or face another promotion board. So, the admonishment is little more than an exercise in public humiliation for a man who was fired as Chief of Staff. From that perspective, this week's punishment could be viewed as piling on--and an effort to appease Congressional critics.

That's why we wonder if the Moseley case could have been handled in another manner. The General was still under investigation by the IG at the time of his retirement in 2008. If the allegations against Moseley were serious (and they were), why wasn't the general retained on active duty (in a special assistant post), pending outcome of the IG probe. Imposing punishment on an active-duty flag officer would have far greater impact than a letter mailed to a retired general.

But we're guessing that was part of the plan. The IG investigation represented a bit of unfinished business that needed to be wrapped up. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates had no desire to let Moseley linger on active duty, given his perceived failings in the Air Force's nuclear debacle. So, General Moseley got the boot last summer, pushing the Thundervision probe to the back burner--something to be resolved down the road.

And for that reason, we question the letter of admonishment. In our view, a general officer under investigation should not be allowed to retire, though it's happened on several occasions. Nor should a flag officer be allowed to move on to new assignments--something General Goldfein did twice during the Thundervision inquiry. In fact, military regulations specifically prohibit retirements or transfers when a service member is the target of an official probe.

So, why was Moseley allowed to retire last summer and why did Goldfein move on to jobs as Vice Commander of Air Combat Command and Vice Director of the Joint Staff before retirement? Those are the two, unanswered questions of Thundervision and quite frankly, we don't expect any resolution. Military justice remains a two-tiered system, with one set of standards for senior officers (and selected senior NCOs), and the other set for everyone else.

It's a system that allowed Buzz Moseley and Steve Goldfein to break the rules, and receive punishments that are little more than symbolic. Until the service--and DoD--are serious about sanctioning senior officers, they should forego the symbolism of admonishment letters, handed out in retirement. General Moseley took another blow to his reputation this week, but that was about it. With their rank and retirement benefits fully intact, both Goldfein and Moseley have a nice balm for their bruised egos.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Criminals at Your Front Door?

A blog posting by The Hill's Eric Zimmerman seems to confirm our worst fears about the 2010 Census.

Citing a new report by the Government Accountability Office, Mr. Zimmerman reports that the Census Bureau hired as many as 200 employees with criminal records that should have disqualified them for federal employment.

The problem was the result of poor finger-printing techniques by the bureau. According to the GAO, over 35,000 workers were hired for the recently-completed address canvassing process--despite the fact that their fingerprints could not be process.

Without clear, readable prints, the FBI could not complete a full background check on canvassing personnel. But the Census Bureau still hired the workers, and at least 200 criminals slipped through the cracks and participated in the canvassing effort.

However, it is unclear how much contact these individuals had with members of the public; during the canvassing operation, census workers compared actual addresses and residences with those in the existing database and made corrections. Census workers were required to knock on the door of each home as a part of canvassing, and provide information on the process if a resident answered.

Amid continuing concerns about the census--and those hired to conduct it--we forwarded a link to The Hill post (and the GAO report) to a former military colleague. Our friend (we'll call him Bob) worked for the Census Bureau earlier this year, after being laid off by a major corporation. He served as a Field Supervisor for the bureau, managing canvassing operations in nearly a dozen counties in the Mid-Atlantic Region. He has since moved on to an executive position at a non-profit organization. Here is Bob's reply:


I read the blog post (and the GAO summary) with a great deal of interest, given my recent tenure with the Census Bureau. Can't say that I disagree with any of their findings. You'll note that the problems with canvassing went well beyond criminals who couldn't be identified through the background check. The GAO says the bureau has no clue when it comes to cost estimation, one reason that canvassing went over-budget by at least $88 million.

The fingerprint operation, based on my experience, was absolute chaos. We had to complete two fingerprint forms on each employee, literally the day before computer training was scheduled to begin. The prints were necessary not only for background checks, but also to log onto the hand-held computers (HHCs) used by canvassing personnel. Without their prints in the database, individual workers--known as "listers" in the trade--couldn't use their computers, which meant that canvassing would be delayed. We literally had 24-36 hours to get everyone in the system, so the door-to-door effort could begin. Lots of potential for mistakes--including sloppy finger-printing.

Now, consider the size of the effort. I was one of seven supervisors in my region. Each of us had seven or eight teams of listers that we were responsible for--anywhere from 110-135 personnel in all. Everyone was fingerprinted on the same day, and all of those prints had to be rushed to the district office, where other personnel literally worked all night to get them into the database --before they were sent to the FBI. In my experience, the background checks (based on fingerprints) didn't begin until well after the workers were in the field. Why not fingerprint workers at the time they were hired? No one could answer that one.

The problem with the prints can be easily explained: most of the supervisors charged with taking them had no experience in the process. As you know, there is a definite technique involved in recording clear, readable prints. Luckily, I had lots of practice from my days in the military. And, I instructed my crew leaders to find personnel with finger-printing experience in law enforcement or the military. If they didn't have anyone with those skills, I made sure that we had someone qualified to help them out. By Census Bureau standards, our prints were very good (at least, that's what my boss at the district office told me).

Interestingly, the fingerprints did reveal one individual with a questionable past. About two weeks into canvassing, I got a phone call from my supervisor, who told me that one lister's prints had resulted a "match" in the FBI database. Our procedures in that situation were very clear; the worker was immediately removed from the canvassing operation and placed in stand-by (non-pay) status. We collected the individual's equipment, and the lister was instructed to contact the FBI for resolution.

To this day, I have no idea what sort of "flag" was raised by the FBI background check. The individual was not arrested (so it wasn't anything like an outstanding felony warrant), but they never returned to work. So, to some degree, the process worked. But, by the time we identified potential issues with this individual, he/she had been on the job for at least two weeks, and visited scores of homes.

A few final points. The canvassing process was a rush job from start to finish. Originally, the operation was scheduled to last eight weeks, but we completed the task in less than 40 days. There was tremendous pressure to accelerate the job, to save money and make our bosses look good. While field workers (including supervisors like myself) were temporary hires, top managers at the district office were guaranteed 1-2 years of employment, at $20-25 an hour. Not a fortune, but considerably more than the $13.25 listers were earning. The regional office had a sizable, permanent civil service staff.

With the push to "get it done," efforts at quality control were often laughable. While we had a QC team that evaluated our work, many of those personnel were poorly trained. On multiple occasions, my field workers discovered QC checkers were evaluating the wrong area. Most were far less proficient with hand-held computers and maps than our production listers. We also found that some of our work "failed" because the original database was so screwed up that no one could figure it out.

Incidentally (as the GAO observes), this is the first census that used computers for field canvassing. Previously, the census bureau used paper lists and maps. As you might expect, we discovered plenty of "pencil-whipping" from the past operations. One of my crew leaders worked in both the 1990 and 2000 Census, and discovered mistakes in her area dating back at least 20 years. And remember: canvassing is supposed to correct those problems. With the rush to finish the job this time, we questioned whether any of our updates will actually wind up in the revised database. In other words, census teams in 2020 will still be fixing mistakes from 2010--or even earlier.

Lastly, a word about ACORN. There's been a lot of justifiable concern about that organization's relationship with the Census Bureau. But in my particular district, I couldn't find anyone who was associated with ACORN, or had been hired through that its local office. However, my district covered suburban and rural areas, so ACORN probably had little interest in our area. I can't speak for hiring in neighboring districts, which included major urban areas.

I can report that the bureau's hiring practices often bordered on incomprehensible. As we were wrapping up canvassing--and laying off staffers--the local HR office was still interviewing and offering jobs to new personnel. They were supposedly gearing up for the next phase of the operation. Never mind that it was 4-5 months away, and those recently laid-off workers supposedly had first crack at being hired for the second phase of canvassing.

Bottom line: my experience as a census supervisor was unique, to say the least. Lots of good people in the field; my crew included retired teachers, executives and military personnel; single moms, college students and even a retired NSA analyst. As a group, they were hard-working and extremely conscientious. Unfortunately, leadership above our level was often incompetent, populated by a bunch of yes-men (and yes-women) concerned only about protecting their own jobs, and kissing the ass of their boss.

Against that backdrop, it's not surprising that a few criminals wound up going door-to-door. If it's any consolation, listers were not allowed to enter homes during canvassing, even if residents asked them to come inside. However, we had at least one "census imposter" who tried to get into a local home during the operation--we found out only because the home owner knew one of my crew leaders and contacted him.

That's something else the Census Bureau doesn't like to admit; the decennial process also attracts con men and crooks who pose as listers, and trek through neighborhoods in search of potential victims.



Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Accelerating Development of the New Bunker Buster

According to ABC News, the U.S. may be stepping up preparations to bomb Iran. But we have our doubts.

Correspondent Jonathan Karl reports that the Pentagon is shifting resources from other programs to speed development of the so-called Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a weapon that went into development just two years ago.

Dropped by a B-2 bomber, the 30,000 pound bomb is designed to take out deeply-buried and hardened facilities--like Iran's recently-disclosed uranium processing facility near Qom. When the project was first announced in 2007, the Defense Department said it had an "urgent need" for a weapon that could target such facilities.

Now, the MOP program has taken on an even greater urgency. In a budget "reprogramming" request submitted earlier this year, DoD asked Congress to transfer almost $70 million from other accounts, to accelerate development of the bunker-buster bomb, designed the GBU-57A/B. That total includes $19.1 million to buy four of the weapons; $28.3 million to accelerate the bomb's development and testing, and $21 million to integrate the weapon into the B-2 bomber fleet.

But that doesn't mean a stealth bomber will be dropping a MOP on the Qom facility (or Iran's primary enrichment complex at Natanz) any time soon. Production, integration and testing take time, even on an accelerated timeline. Defense Industry Daily recently reported that the program is about 10 months behind schedule, because of problems associated with bomb racks on test aircraft.

Apparently, the MOP is so big that the racks had to be redesigned to accommodate the weapon. With that problem now solved, contractors will conduct test drops from B-52s, before final integration on the B-2. Each stealth bomber will be capable of carrying two of the massive weapons.

At this point, it's hard to say when the giant bomb will be available--though the additional funding is clearly aimed at compressing the development process. And, it's worth remembering that ordnance programs can sometimes achieve operational status in relatively short order.

In the run-up to the first Gulf War, Air Force engineers quickly converted a 8 inch artillery shell into a guided bomb, aimed at destroying bunkers used as a hideout by Saddam Hussein. After only a few weeks of development, a prototype weapon was declared ready for action and flown, non-stop, from McClellan AFB, California, to Taif AB, Saudi Arabia, where deployed F-111s were stationed.

Acting on fleeting intelligence, the weapon was off-loaded from a C-141 transport and mounted on an F-111 that was preparing to launch. The crew got a final brief on employing the bomb as they sat in the cockpit and took off moments later, heading for a location where Saddam was reportedly hiding. A short time later, the F-111 crew dropped the bomb, which destroyed the bunker. Unfortunately, Saddam wasn't at home, but the weapon worked as advertised.

However, we are not predicting a similar scenario for the MOP, for one very important reason. Employment of the weapon relies on the willingness of political leaders to use it, even against "political" targets. So far, the Obama Administration has shown no willingness to use this type of bomb on something like Iran's nuclear facilities--or the leaders who built them--although the White House has increased the use of missile strikes against terror leaders. Under the right circumstances, we can only hope the Commander-in-Chief would show similar resolve in using the massive bomb to target the Iranian threat.

It's also worth remembering that the "crash" MOP effort is designed (in large measure) to fill a gap in our arsenal. Currently, our biggest bunker buster is the GBU-28, which weighs in at "only" 5,000 pounds. And, with the termination of a nuclear penetrating weapon program, MOP becomes our best option--one that must be developed quickly.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Petraeus in 2012?

In its own, inimitable, round-about style, The New York Times speculates that General David Petraeus, the Commander of U.S. military forces in the Middle East, might be a contender for the Republican Presidential ticket in 2012.

The Times arrives at that conclusion--in part--because General Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, is reportedly being frozen out of strategy discussions by the Obama Administration. With the President (supposedly) ignoring Petraeus’s advice—and future promotions unlikely—the paper suggests that Petraeus might be open to a political career in three years.

To some degree, that scenario makes sense. We opined months ago that General Petraeus’s military career will end at CENTCOM, despite his dazzling success in Iraq and his reputation as an expert in counter-insurgency warfare.

But that means little to the current Commander-in-Chief and his fellow Democrats in Congress. By making the surge work—and stabilizing Iraq—Petraeus earned the lasting enmity of the Democratic Party. They want no part of a general who derailed their plans to “cut and run” in Iraq, and would oppose administration efforts to try a similar approach in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Petraeus is viewed as a potential superstar in GOP circles. With a dearth of “name” candidates to lead the Republican ticket in 2012 (other than Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney), many in the GOP would gladly support a Petraeus candidacy, despite his lack of political experience and organization.

Still, there are a number of hurdles the general must overcome in mounting a successful run for office. For starters, he would have to express a genuine interest in the presidency, something he has studiously avoided. Various media reports from 2007 suggested the General Petraeus had voiced an interest in running for the White House, but those accounts were widely dismissed. Indeed, many of the "sources" for those claims were Iraqi and U.S. officials who barely knew the general, and were clearly outside his inner circle.

Officers who have served with Petraeus--past and present--say he has no interest in a political career. Retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor, who served as the general's executive officer when he commanded allied troops in Iraq, told the Times that Petraeus has "never hinted" that he would seek a political career after the military.

In terms of political affiliation, General Petraeus is described as a Republican, although he hasn't voted since at least 2003, in an effort to maintain impartiality. Interestingly, Petraeus and his wife own property in New Hampshire, that critical, early primary state. But until he retires from active duty, the general will spend most of his time at CENTCOM Headquarters in Tampa, with frequent trips to Washington and the Middle East.

Still, a political run by Petraeus cannot be completely ruled out. If he is being squeezed out of the Afghanistan debate--as the Times suggests--the general would probably retire after his current stint at CENTCOM. Some would say that is all-but-inevitable, given the treatment he's receiving from the current administration.

If the White House moves away from the counter-insurgency strategy favored by Petraeus and the U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, the CENTCOM leader might request early retirement. On the other hand, it is also easy to envision Petraeus hanging in until the end of his term, out of loyalty to his troops. Under that scenario, General Petraeus wouldn't leave CENTCOM until the fall of 2011, just months before the first presidential primary. If he was extended for a fourth year--unlikely, but not an impossibility---Petraeus would become an even less likely candidate.

Needless to say, there are plenty of Republicans who would willingly build a campaign for Dave Petraeus and he's certainly sharp enough to learn the political game. But entering politics at the presidential level is a risky proposition--just ask the most recent military leader who jumped into the ring, General Wesley Clark. He was supposed to be the Democrat who could end the GOP's monopoly on the national security issue, but Clark was gone before Super Tuesday.

And, unlike General Petraeus, Wesley Clark genuinely wanted to be president. So far, there's no evidence that the CENTCOM commander has that fire in his belly. Republicans can only hope that changes between now and 2012--or 2016.

ADDENDUM: Petraeus has also been mentioned as a possible vice-presidential nominee, but it's hard to envision a retired four-star taking a backseat to a career politician. As a group, they remember the experience of Curtis LeMay with George Wallace in 1968.

Talking to Tehran

After the first round of nuclear talks with Iran last week, we were almost expecting someone to declare “peace in our time.”

So far, that hasn’t happened, but there was plenty of positive spin after the initial meeting between Iranian negotiators and their western counterparts. Depending on which account you believe, Iran has agreed to “outsource” some of its enrichment activities to Russia and continue negotiations with the west. Surely, that’s a reason for optimism, the MSM has declared.

And, the news gets even better. Tehran will allow a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect its previously-secret enrichment facility near Qom in late October. Mohammed El-Baradei, the IAEA Director who’s never actually discovered a rogue state nuclear program—let alone deterred one—is encouraged by recent events in Iran. Shouldn’t we share his optimism?

Or, would the U.S. be better off by taking a more measured (read: suspicious) approach? Writing in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton argued that our position is now less secure, despite the recent thaw with Tehran. As he observed, moving part of the enrichment process to Russia actually undercuts international efforts to prevent Iran's production of nuclear material. It also ensures that a portion of Tehran’s uranium stockpile will survive, in the event of a military strike by the U.S. or Israel.

There’s also the unsettling matter of how this diplomatic effort suddenly came together. After stalling for years, the Iranians suddenly decide to sit down with the U.S. and its partners to discuss their nuclear program. They are also permitting an IAEA inspection of a facility that was previously undeclared—in direct violation of international nuclear accords.

Why the sudden rapprochement? By talking to the west, Tehran believes it can forestall a possible military attack. As long as negotiations are underway, the mullahs judge, the U.S. will prevent the Israelis from launching a preemptive strike. Obviously, there are limits to Israel’s patience. In his recent speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reinforced Tel Aviv’s long-standing vow; if the international community fails to act (a virtual certainty), Israel is prepared to go it alone.

But the window for striking Iran is closing rapidly. Discovery of the Qom facility affirms what many in the intelligence community have long feared: Tehran has successfully dispersed its nuclear program, making it virtually impossible to eliminate the threat in a single strike. Rest assured, there are more “undiscovered” facilities scattered across Iran, contributing research, materials and technology to Iran’s nuclear effort.

More disturbingly, those efforts are about to achieve their desired goal. That leaked annex to the recent IAEA report on Tehran's nuclear program concludes that Iran has the technical data and expertise to build a viable nuclear device. Completion of Tehran’s first A-bomb is only a matter of months away. Once that milestone is achieved, it will become easier for Iran to produce more nuclear weapons and disperse them around the country. At that point, the value of a military strike—as a means of eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat—is virtually nil.

Put another way, the Iranian leadership is simply playing for time. And the current round of talks offers perfect cover. While members of the striped-pants set exchange pleasantries in Geneva, Tehran’s nuclear scientists and engineers are sprinting towards the finish line. At this point, we don’t see any obstacles in their path—with the possible exception of the Israeli Air Force.

To his credit, Neville Chamberlain realized (in the end) that he had been duped by Hitler and led his nation into war against the Nazi threat. It will be interesting to see if current leaders are capable of similar admissions--assuming they ever admit Tehran's duplicity.

Friday, October 02, 2009

A Mess of His Own Making

Media pundits--and more than a few viewers--were stunned by David Letterman's confession of infidelity, which aired during Thursday's episode of his CBS talk show.

Explaining that he had been the victim of an extortion attempt, the host admitted to sexual affairs with female staffers who worked on his program. Letterman did not say how many women were involved, or when the relationships took place. However, media outlets say that one of the women is Stephanie Birkitt, who worked as Letterman's assistant for much of the last decade.

Birkitt recently lived with a man named Robert Halderman, who (coincidentally) is a producer for the CBS news magazine, 48 Hours. During his relationship with Burkitt, Halderman reportedly learned of her past affair with Letterman, and the host's sexual liaisons with other female staff members. Halderman allegedly threatened to expose the affairs if Letterman didn't pay him $2 million.

Mr. Halderman was arraigned Friday afternoon in New York on multiple counts of attempted grand larceny. He posted a $200,000 bond and was released. Halderman has retained attorney Gerald Shargel, who represented mafia don John Gotti, among other high-profile clients. After today's hearing, Shargel said the Letterman episode is "far more complex" than the extortion attempt described in court.

Letterman's on-air confession was clearly an effort to get ahead of the scandal, and depict himself as a victim. And, to a certain extent, he's right. Extortion is a dirty business that affects innocent parties as well--in this case, Letterman's wife and six-year-old son. What they knew about his affairs and the extortion attempt remains unclear. They will clearly suffer from the media firestorm that has been unleashed.

But it is also clear that Mr. Letterman's mess is one of his own making. According to the New York Post, the host's liaison with Ms. Birkitt began well after he entered into a long-term relationship with Regina Lasko, and continued until she gave birth to his son in 2003. The Post also reports that Letterman had affairs with other female staffers. One member of The Late Show staff told the paper that Letterman's extra-curricular activities were hardly a secret. "Even the interns knew about them," a source told People magazine.

And now, the rest of the world will learn the sordid details of those relationships. When Halderman and Birkitt split up, she left behind pictures and correspondence which the news producer used in his extortion attempt. Much of that information will be used as evidence in Halderman's trial. It's also a sure bet that Dave's various office paramours will also be called as witnesses. Describing the upcoming trial as salacious would be an understatement.

There's also the matter of the work environment at The Late Show. Based on what we've learned so far, it sounds like Dave was running his version of the ol' casting couch at the Ed Sullivan Theater. With news of Letterman's affairs now public, will any of Dave's former "girlfriends" now charge him with sexual harassment?

There are also suggestions that the late night host may have offered "incentives" to his former paramours to keep them quiet. He reportedly paid Ms. Birkitt's tuition at a New York-area law school, despite the fact that she left his company several years ago. Former employees describe Mr. Letterman as exceptionally generous, but paying tuition for a former girl friend might also be interpreted as "hush money."

When the talk show host made his vile crack about Sarah Palin's daughter, many conservatives hoped that Letterman would eventually get his comeuppance. We'll take a certain pleasure in watching his squirm through Halderman's upcoming trial and the additional revelations that will certainly come out. Couldn't happen to a more deserving guy.

ADDENDUM: While the expected trial--and press coverage--will trash what's left of Dave's reputation, don't look for him to lose his CBS gig, for a couple of reasons. First, with Conan O'Brien and The Tonight Show struggling, Letterman has regained the top spot in late night for the first time in more than a decade. What's the difference between a #1 show and a #2 or 3 show in a time slot? Millions of dollars a year in ad revenue, even in a soft market. With that kind of money at stake, CBS will be extremely reluctant to rock the boat.

Additionally, the network can always use the dodge that Letterman isn't a network employee. Technically, The Late Show is produced by World Wide Pants, the production firm owned by Letterman and his partners. Issues relating to personal conduct (including sexual harassment) will be referred to Letterman's firm, which will--predictably--decline comment.

Quite a change from the early days at CBS, when the network had rather strict policies on fraternization. If you've seen the movie Good Night and Good Luck, you probably remember the sub-plot involving two of Ed Murrow's producers, Joseph and Shirley Wershba. In the 1950s, the Wershbas were forced to conceal their marriage from CBS co-workers, because network policies said "two workers cannot coexist as one in holy matrimony."

Maybe that rule wasn't such a bad idea after all.