Monday, May 31, 2010

The Arlington Ladies

In 1948, Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenburg and his wife Gladys paid a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. As they stood among the rows of headstones, they noticed a funeral in progress. An airman was being laid to rest among the nation's heroes. But there were no mourners; just the honor guard and the chaplain. It's unclear if the airman had no family, or they simply couldn't afford the trip to his funeral.

General and Mrs. Vandenburg were stunned and saddened by what they witnessed that day. After she returned from the cemetery, Mrs. Vandenburg organized a group of Air Force wives to attend the funerals of all fallen airmen--to ensure that none were buried alone. Army and Navy wives quickly followed suit, and the Arlington ladies were born.

Seven decades later, the ladies still maintain their vigil, attending every funeral held at Arlington. In a remarkably moving account, Helen O'Neill of the Associated Press tells the story of these remarkable volunteers:

Always elegantly dressed, often in hats and gloves. Always standing, hand over heart, a respectful distance from the grave. Always mindful of history.

The ladies know every inch of Arlington's 624 manicured acres, from the stones of freed slaves marked "unknown citizens" to the grave of the first soldier interred here (Private William Christman, a farmer from Pennsylvania who fought in the Civil War) to Section 60, where the men and women who lost their lives in the current wars are buried.

"So many stones, so many stories," says Paula Mckinley, head of the Navy ladies, as she drives through the cemetery one recent spring day, stopping at a section not far from the throngs of tourists at President John F. Kennedy's grave. Baldwin. Curtis. Sanchez. She walks among their headstones reciting their names.

With her booming voice, red hair tucked under a straw hat, and brisk manner, Mckinley, whose husband is a retired Navy officer, is a striking figure. But she is subdued by the graves, reverential. "They all deserve to be remembered, and to be visited," she says.

McKinley, who has been an Arlington lady for 21 years, drives a little further. She stops by a grove of willow oaks, searching for a specific plot.

"Here you are, sweetheart," she says, gently touching the stone of a young woman Navy officer who died in an accident at the age of 25. The officer's mother called from California one day — on her daughter's birthday — and asked if an Arlington lady could put flowers on the grave. Now McKinley visits regularly. She says it's the least she can do.

These days, Arlington is a busy place. World War II-era veterans are leaving us at a rate of 1,000 every week. Our population of Korea and Vietnam vets is aging, and of course, there are the young women and men who give their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. On an average day, there are 30 funerals at the cemetery; an Arlington Lady is present for each one.

In an era when many Americans are increasingly disconnected from the military, the service and patriotism of the Arlington ladies is both inspiring and reassuring. On this Memorial Day (and every day), there are those who still remembers the sacrifice of our nation's heroes, and those who are leave behind.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Miracle of the Little Ships

The auxiliary ketch "Caronia," one of hundreds of little ships that assisted in the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. Built in 1927, the 39-foot vessel was expected to participated in this year's 70th anniversary return of the little ships to the French port, where they helped rescue over 330,000 allied soldiers (Association of Dunkirk Little Ships photo).

Seventy years ago this weekend, the future of western civilization hinged, quite literally, on a slender sea corridor, stretching from the beaches of northern France, to the channel ports of Great Britain.

On those beaches, the rumble of artillery grew closer with each passing day. Adolf Hitler's blitzkrieg through the Low Countries and France was reaching its zenith. In less than a month, his panzer legions had achieved what many military experts believed impossible, achieving a complete victory on the western front.

Attacking in the north, through The Netherlands and Belgium, Germany's Army Group B pushed Allied units back into France and towards the coast. In response, the Supreme Allied Commander on the western front, French Maurice Gamelin, committed his reserves, believing those forces--and the defenses of the Maginot Line--would stop the Nazi advance.

Four days later, on 14 May, the Germans launched a second assault through the Ardennes Forest, a region considered "impassible" for vehicle and tank traffic. German forces, part of Army Group A, advanced rapidly on Sedan and then turned towards the coast, effectively flanking Allied forces.

By May 22, the defeat had become a rout. Allied counterattacks near Aras failed to halt German mechanized forces, which had already reached the coast, effectively isolating the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from the main body of French and Belgian troops.

The tactical situation was grim, at best--and many considered it hopeless. Most of the British troops (and the French 1st Army) bottled up in a narrow (20 x 60 mile) corridor, leading to the French port of Dunkirk, on the English Channel. Their only hope was an evacuation by sea.

But that plan was risky; German troops were closing in on Dunkirk; the seaport's piers could not be used because of bomb damage and many of of the vessels in the British evacuation armada--particularly Royal Navy destroyers--could not operate in the shallow waters along the beaches, where British and French troops began to gather, awaiting pick-up.

Planning for the evacuation began shortly after the failed counter-attack at Aras. The BEF Commander, Lord Gort, observed that his position was precarious and the rescue operation might produce only modest results. As he told Anthony Eden, the British Secretary of State for War, "I must not conceal from you that a great part of the BEF and its equipment will inevitably be lost even in the best circumstances."

Under the direction of Royal Navy Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsey, the evacuation mission at Dunkirk, code-named Operation Dynamo, began on 27 May--only two days after the plan was approved. At the time, Gort believed the British/French defenses around the port might hold for two days, allowing the rescue of up to 45,000 British soldiers, less than 20% of those who remained in France.

And, the rescue effort got off to a poor start. Only 7,000 soldiers were plucked from the beaches on that first day, with another 11,000 rescued on 28 May. Those numbers increased dramatically with the arrival of the "Little Ships of Dunkirk," a collection of more than 700 shallow-draft vessels that could negotiate the waters along the beaches. The flotilla included yachts, ferries, pleasure boats and other craft moored on the River Thames and along the southern and eastern coasts of England.

In the scramble to augment the Royal Navy at Dunkirk, some of the small vessels were formally requisitioned by the British Ministry of Shipping; others were simply taken when the owners couldn't be rescued. In a few cases, civilian skippers were allowed to pilot their vessels to Dunkirk, but most were under the command of naval officers or experienced merchant seamen. Many of the small craft were used to shuttle soldiers from the beaches (and Dunkirk Harbor) to larger ships that carried them back to England. But some were large enough to accommodate large numbers of troops and made multiple, round-trip voyages between evacuation sites and ports in southern England.

The impact of the little ships was immediate--and dramatic. On 29 May, with the Little Ships fully engaged, 33,000 troops were evacuated through the harbor and 13,000 more were plucked from the beaches--a one-day total of 47,310. Over the days that followed, evacuation totals continued to grow; over 53,000 troops were rescued from Dunkirk on the 30th, and 68,000 on the 31st of May. By the time the operation ended on 4 June, 338,000 British, French, Belgian and Polish troops had been evacuated from the continent.

But the "miracle" came at a high price. Virtually all of the BEF's artillery, tanks and heavy equipment had been left behind in France. And, the Germans exacted a heavy toll among the sea armada conducting the evacuation and RAF units that provided air cover. By some estimates, the Royal Air Force lost almost 500 aircraft supporting the Dunkirk mission, and as many as 200 sea craft were sunk during the operation as well.

Additionally, the success at Dunkirk proved a badly needed boost for British morale, at a time when the nation's fortunes were at low ebb. Before the evacuation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill privately worried about losing the war. After all, if most of the BEF had been left behind in France, there would be no Army to defend Britain against the expected German invasion. But with much of the BEF returned to British soil, Churchill and his military leaders had at least the foundation for a new Army.

To be fair, the British "victory" at Dunkirk encompassed much more than the small boats. The heroic sacrifice of French and British troops, fighting desperate rear-guard actions, kept the Nazis out of the city for more than a week, allowing thousands of their comrades to escape. And, as he did so often during the war, Adolf Hitler managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, halting his panzers for three days outside Dunkirk. That pause gave the allies time to reorganize defensive lines and finalize evacuation plans.

Additionally, the unseen hand of fate (read: Providence) seemed to favor the allies. Weather in the English Channel in the late spring is often bad. But the last week of May, 1940 saw calm seas and gentle winds--ideal conditions for conducting the evacuation. At one point, an area of low pressure appeared to be making a beeline for the Channel and threatened to interrupt the evacuation. But the storm veered north towards Ireland and Scotland, giving the rescue fleet a few more days of good weather to finish the job.

This weekend, more than 50 Little Ships were expected to make the crossing from Dover to Dunkirk, commemorating the defining moment that saved an Army and the civilization it represented.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lt John Finn, RIP

Navy Chief Aviation Ordnanceman John Finn after being awarded the Medal of Honor in 1942. Finn received the nation's highest award for valor for his actions on December 7, 1941, when he manned a machinegun position for more than two hours, defending his base against Japanese attacks (Wikipedia photo).

Sadly, most Americans had never heard of retired Navy Lieutenant John Finn until his death was announced earlier today.

But Finn was a remarkable man who deserves remembrance and recognition on his passing. Not only was he the nation's oldest Medal of Honor recipient at the time of his death, Finn could also be described as the nation's first hero of World War II.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Finn was a Navy Chief Aviation Ordnanceman, assigned to the Naval Air Station at Kaneohe Bay, on the island of Oahu. Chief Finn and his wife lived in military housing nearby; on that fateful Sunday, he was awakened--and puzzled--by the sound of gunfire.

"They need you down at the squadron," a neighbor told him. Finn jumped into his car and sped toward the air station. When he arrived, Chief Finn found the base under attack by Japanese aircraft. Kaneohe Bay, on the north end of Oahu, was actually bombed before Pearl Harbor; Finn and his men were among the first Americans to enter combat during the Second World War.

As Chief Petty Officer in the ordnance section of a PBY patrol squadron, Finn knew how to operate the machine guns mounted on those lumbering aircraft. Some of the sailors in Finn's department had managed to salvage one of those weapons from a damaged PBY, and the squadron's painter was trying to engage enemy aircraft.

As he later told an interviewer: "I said, 'Alex, let me take that gun'...knew that I had more experience firing a machine gun than a painter."

Finn then found a movable platform used for gunnery training, attached the .50 caliber machine gun, and pushed the platform into an open area, from which he had a clear view of the attacking aircraft. He fired on the Japanese planes for the next two hours, even after being seriously wounded, until the attack had ended. In total, he received 21 distinct wounds, including a bullet through the foot and an injury which caused him to lose feeling in his left arm.

"I got that gun and I started shooting at Jap planes," Finn said. "I was out there shooting the Jap planes and just every so often I was a target for some," he said, "in some cases, I could see [the Japanese pilots'] faces."

After the enemy departed, Finn accepted only rudimentary aid for his wounds, then returned to duty, helping his men prepare for more Japanese attacks. Later, he was ordered to receive additional treatment for his multiple injuries; he would remain in the hospital for more than two weeks.

In September 1942, Finn was formally presented the Medal of Honor by Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet. By that time, Finn had been commissioned as a Navy Ensign and remained on active duty until 1947. He remained in the reserves until 1956, retiring as a Lieutenant.

Like other MOH recipients, Finn was modest about his achievements, saying he was only doing his job. “I read about other guys with the medal who lost their lives or really suffered in wars and I think about myself. I was just an uneducated man who got mad as hell one day,” he said in 1984.

A grateful nation would disagree.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A New Dawn for "Reveille" at Ellsworth

With a single decision, Colonel Jeffrey Taliaferro created quite a tempest at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota.

Earlier this month, Taliaferro, Commander of the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth, ended the playing of "Reveille" each morning, saying there's "no compelling reason to keep it." Colonel Taliaferro said he eliminated the bugle call because of noise complaints.

And, to a some degree, Taliaferro had a point. At virtually all military installations (except for basic training facilities), the start of the duty day is no longer tied to that early-morning bugle call. Lots of airmen Ellsworth personnel were on the job before reveille played at 0630, local time. Other military personnel began their duty day at 0730, while most civilian workers arrived at 0800.

"There's nothing that said we had to play it," Taliaferro told the Rapid City Journal. "We weren't taking any actions based upon it. It didn't honor any specific segment and didn't honor the flag. It was the start of the duty day." The Colonel also thought base residents would appreciate the pre-dawn silence, no longer interrupted by reveille.

But Taliaferro was sadly mistaken. Some members of the Ellsworth community still take military traditions seriously, even if their wing commander doesn't like reveille.

In an effort to preserve the centuries-old custom, two military spouses (Janelle Rice and Holly Sweeney) launched a Facebook group, "I Want Reveille Back at Ellsworth AFB." The forum quickly attracted almost a thousand supporters--far more than the base's "official" Facebook page, which has less than 400 members.

Others found Taliaferro's "quest for quiet" to be a little bit silly. After all, the 28th Bomb Wing is equipped with the B-1 Lancer, considered by many to be the loudest aircraft in the Air Force inventory. With the bombers operating at various times of the day (and night) "there are no quiet hours at the base" a former Ellsworth airman told the Journal.

Colonel Taliaferro said he was stunned by reaction to the "no reveille" decision and quickly reversed course. Last Saturday, on his own Facebook page, the wing commander announced that the morning bugle call would return to Ellsworth, beginning this week. Reveille will now sound at 0730 at the South Dakota base, instead of 630.

To be sure, many Americans wouldn't understand a controversy over an early morning bugle call. But if you've never served (or been a military dependent), it's almost impossible to explain. It's part of our tradition and culture, and--thankfully--there are those who still appreciate that. Even a certain O-6 who needed a little refresher course.

Monday, May 24, 2010

More of the Same

"Ready for War" screams the blood-red headline at the Drudge Report, accompanied by a photo of a South Korean soldier, staring down the sight of his M-16. At the link, readers find an Associated Press story, via MSNBC, reminding us that these are dangerous times on the Korean peninsula.

According to the AP account, Washington has offered its support for Seoul's plan to slash trade with North Korea and haul its communist rival before the UN Security Council, in response to last month's torpedo attack that sank a ROK Navy vessel, killing 46 sailors.

[South Korean] President Lee Myung-bak laid out the economic and diplomatic measures aimed at striking back at the impoverished North, including halting some trade and taking the regime before the Security Council.

International investigators concluded last week that a torpedo from a North Korean submarine tore apart the warship Cheonan on March 26 in the Yellow Sea off the west coast in one of South Korea's worst military disasters since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Lee said it was another example of "incessant" provocation by North Korea, including a 1983 attack in Myanmar on a South Korean presidential delegation that killed 21 people, and the bombing of an airliner in 1987 that claimed 115 lives.

"We have always tolerated North Korea's brutality, time and again. We did so because we have always had a genuine longing for peace on the Korean peninsula," Lee said in a solemn speech at the War Memorial.

"But now things are different. North Korea will pay a price corresponding to its provocative acts," he said, calling it a "critical turning point" on the tense Korean peninsula, still technically in a state of war because the fighting ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

For its part, Pyongyang has denied any involvement in the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean corvette. Late last week, a government spokesman said any attempt to punish Pyongyang would result in "all-out war."

It's the kind of threat that North Korea has made on countless occasions in the past. And, come to think of it, if this incident (and the international reaction) seem vaguely familiar, it should. Once again, the DPRK is playing a game of brinkmanship, testing the reactions of South Korea, the United States and the international community.

Indeed, the AP story reminds us that Pyongyang has played this game before. Twenty-three years ago, on the personal orders of Kim Jong-il, North Korean agents placed a bomb on a ROK jetliner during a stopover in Abu Dhabi. The plane blew up over the Adaman Sea, enroute to South Korea; 115 passengers and crew members aboard the aircraft were killed.

The airliner attack came only four years after other DPRK operatives tried to decapitate key members of South Korean government, during a state visit to Burma. Twenty-one people--including several cabinet officials--died when when a series of explosions ripped through the country's martyr's memorial, a planned stop for the South Korean delegation. Then-ROK President Chun Doo-hwan escaped injury only because he was running behind schedule, and wasn't present when the bombs went off. Once again, the attack was again linked to Kim Jong-il, then the #2 leader in the North Korean regime.

Yet, those deadly incidents represent only a fraction of Pyongyang's strikes against South Korea and the United States. An AP chronology lists at least nine major attacks by North Korea since 1967. During that same period, the DPRK has also lashed out at the U.S., capturing the intelligence collection ship, the USS Pueblo, in January 1968. A U.S. sailor died and the rest of the crew was held in brutal captivity for almost a year, before being released.

Fourteen months later, DPRK fighter jets shot down a U.S. Navy EC-121 "Warning Star" aircraft over the Sea of Japan, killing the entire 31-man crew. And, in August 1976, a group of North Korean soldiers attacked a tree-clearing party in the Joint Security Area in the DMZ. Two U.S. Army officers were murdered.

Collectively, these incidents have claimed the lives of hundreds of South Koreans and U.S. military personnel. But the response to the murderous provocations have been remarkably similar. While the Pueblo capture prompted an American military build-up on the peninsula (and there was a show-of-force after the tree-chopping episode), recent reactions have been more muted, limited to diplomatic protests and attempts at expanded sanctions.

Obviously, this sort of "punishment" doesn't strike fear in the heart of Kim Jong-il and his senior generals. So, North Korea has continued its series of violent confrontations, culminating in the March torpedo attack on the Cheonan. From Pyongyang's perspective, it's a convenient way to refocus world attention on its "concerns" (read: more aid and concessions from Washingon and Seoul), and that tactic succeeds more often than not.

This time around, the South Korean government is promising to take a tougher stance. After the results of the Cheonan inquiry were announced, various ROK officials stated their country would now exercise its inherent right to self-defense. The U.S. quickly lined up behind its ally, promising expanded "consultations" between senior American generals and their South Korean counterparts.

But that hardly represents a change in policy. South Korea military forces have often responded to DPRK military provocations by returning fire. Indeed, last month's North Korean torpedo attack was a response--at least in part--to a series of naval battles along the Northern Limit Line, the maritime extension of the DMZ. ROK navy units got the better of those engagements, which date back more than a decade. Anxious for revenge, Kim Jong-il ordered the attack on the Cheonan.

The question now is: will Seoul expand its self-defense options, to include attacks on bases and other facilities that support North Korea attacks. Under that scenario, a DPRK-initiated firefight along the DMZ could not only bring return fire in that sector, but possible air and missile strikes on support elements for North Korean units that launched the attack. The danger, of course, is that Pyongyang could respond in kind, causing the incident to spiral out of control.

As for that "close" coordination between U.S. and South Korean military leaders, that also represents a continuation of long-standing policies. For more than 50 years, the four-star American general who leads U.S. forces in South Korea has also been designated as the wartime commander of ROK forces. While that arrangement is slated to change by 2012, the level of coordination between U.S. and South Korean military leaders will not. Senior officers work side-by-side and interact on a daily basis. Aside from "special planning" for a specific contingency operation, it's hard to see how U.S.-ROK military coordination could significantly increase over present levels.

Put another way, Washington and Seoul are going through the usual motions that follow a major North Korean provocation. There will be talk of closer military coordination; vows of a less restrictive "self-defense" policy and even consultations with China. But in the end, little will change. Over the coming months, military alert levels will be relaxed and we may see a resumption of nuclear talks--provided the U.S. and South Korea deliver more aid. At that point, relations on the peninsula will return to "normal" and we'll keep muddling along--until North Korea stages the next crisis.


ADDENDUM: As is normally the case, the current stand-off in Korea has raised speculation about the possible resumption of hostilities (remember: the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a formal surrender). While anything is possible in the Land of the Morning Calm--particularly with Kim Jong-il calling the shots in Pyongyang--the prospects for war are decidedly low, for a rather obvious reason: North Korean military readiness is at its lowest point in the summer months, when troops are normally dispatched to work in the fields. Many units actually stop training in the summer time and those still on the job (including the North Korean Air Force) operate at greatly reduced levels.

As a result, most analysts believe that a major DPRK attack would likely occur in the February or March, towards the end of the annual Winter Training Cycle (WTC), when readiness levels are at their peak. Still, Pyongyang retains sufficient combat power to threaten its enemies in the south, through artillery sites along the DMZ (that can actually target much of Seoul); missile attacks and operations by special forces personnel. Earlier today, Kim Jong-il reportedly told his military to "prepare for war." That's probably a bluff, but in Korea, one never knows.

And, lest we forget, the Korean War began in the summer--60 years ago next month.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Bye-Bye Blair

In hindsight, the resignation of Admiral Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence was hardly surprising; indeed, it was only a matter of time.

Admiral Blair, who headed U.S. Pacific Command before retiring and assuming the DNI post, had been on the outs with other members of the Obama Administration. His tumultuous, 16-month tenure was marked by a series of comments that proved embarrassing to the White House and turf battles with other members of the national security team, including CIA Director Leon Panetta and Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan.

Blair's resignation, which is effective next Friday, was announced only two days after a Senate report criticized the DNI's office (and other intelligence organizations) for failures that allowed the "underwear bomber" to board a U.S.-bound jetliner on Christmas Day. The suspect in that case, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was already known to American intelligence--thanks to a warning from the man's father, a prominent Nigerian government official--but the National Counterterrorism Center, which fell under Blair's supervision, failed to connect the dots. As aa result, Abdulmutallab came perilously close to detonating his bomb, and destroying an airliner with almost 300 people on board.

Mr. Blair's problems were compounded by the incident's aftermath. The DNI stated publicly that the would-be bomber was an ideal candidate for questioning by specialists from the High Value Interrogation Group, and not the law enforcement officials who handled Abdulmutallab's interrogation. But there was only one problem: the interrogation group wasn't ready for operations at the time, making Blair appear ill-informed, even foolish.

If that wasn't bad enough, Admiral Blair also disclosed that the suspect was cooperating with interrogators. That incensed officials at the FBI's counter-terrorism unit (and the CIA) who were trying to locate Abdulmutallab's accomplices before they could go underground. He also made enemies with Leon Panetta by attempting to place a DNI representative at U.S. embassies overseas, by-passing the network of CIA station chiefs who are normally responsible for our intel operations within that country.

But in fairness, Blair isn't the only member of the Obama national security team to make ill-advised remarks, or commit serious blunders (hellooo, Janet Napolitano). But, unlike Ms. Napolitano or Leon Panetta, Admiral Blair is not a career Democratic politician. And, unlike Mr. Brennan, Blair generally favored a more aggressive approach towards terrorism and intelligence-gathering, a position that didn't sit well with the White House.

Besides, the administration needed a sacrificial lamb for its recent intelligence failures. Between the Fort Hood shootings; the attempted airliner bombing on Christmas Day and the recent, failed car bombing attempt in Times Square, the Obama team has amassed a rather troubling record in records. By forcing Blair's resignation, the President creates the impression of change and accountability within the intelligence community. But that impression is illusory, at best.

That's because key security positions are still filled by incompetents (like that former governor of Arizona masquerading as DHS Secretary) and professional bureaucrats (read: John Brennan) who seque from administration to administration, with little positive impact on the nation's security.

With his departure, Admiral Blair is being hailed as one of the few rational voices on the Obama security team. But truth be told, Blair was a poor choice for DNI; before he became the nation's top intelligence officer, the career navy officer's only experience was as a consumer of intelligence. Consequently, he lacked the background to meld 16 different intel agencies and organizations into an effective team. It's a fault he shares (to some degree) with his predecessors, who enjoyed only middling success in trying to build a unified intelligence apparatus.

As for who comes next, it's any one's guess. Various Washington sources suggest that Mr. Obama has already interviewed two potential candidates, and those individuals have either been rejected, or turned down the job. If the President had his druthers, he'd probably nominate John Brennan, but his past comments make him all-but-unconfirmable.

Remember: Brennan is the same guy who described Hizballah as an "interesting" organization, suggesting that we should try to "build up" moderate elements within that terrorist group. He also refers to Jerusalem as "Al-Quds," the same name bestowed upon that holy city by Islamic radicals, and once said a 30% recidivist rate for released terrorists "wasn't bad."

With Brennan a non-starter, the name of James Clapper has surfaced. Clapper, a retired Air Force Lieutenant General, who was Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) when he left active duty in 1995. During the administration of George W. Bush, he served as Director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), which processes and analyzes data collected by our spy satellites and other sensors. Under Mr. Obama, Clapper has held the post of Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. Obviously, General Clapper would bring an exceptionally strong intel background to the DNI post--something that is desperately needed.

But if Jim Clapper becomes the next DNI, his success (or failure) won't be based on his professional or technical expertise. Instead, he will be measured by his ability to win bureaucratic battles, forge key alliances and focusing our intelligence assets on prevailing threats, without the filter of political correctness. General Clapper certainly has the right background for the job, but given the demands of the DNI post, many wonder if anyone can actually get the job done.

Hopefully, we'll learn the answer to that question very soon. Director of National Intelligence is too important to leave vacant for an extended period, like the head job at TSA. If General Clapper declines the post, we hope Mr. Obama has a Plan B, C, and D, to get someone qualified in the DNI slot, and sooner, rather than later.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Sign Says it All

The Dale Mabry gate at MacDill AFB, Florida. The entrance was closed earlier this evening after a man attempted to crash through the gate and was shot dead by security personnel (WTSP-TV photo)

**UPDATE/9:48 pm EDT//Base officials tell the Associated Press that the incident began as an altercation at an on-base camp site. The man fled on a motorcycle and security personnel tried to stop him. The suspect evaded security forces and went to the Mabry gate, where he was engaged and shot by security personnel. Officials have not released the man's name. Use of the camping facility is normally restricted to personnel with access to the base.

When driving by an Air Force base or other secure, federal facility you probably saw a sign on the perimeter fence. It informs the reader that the use of deadly force is authorized in defending the installation. An Air Force Instruction (131-207) outlines criteria for using deadly force, including the inherent right to self defense; defense of others, the protection of assets vital to national security and the potential for serious offenses against persons, among others.

Those criteria were apparently satisfied outside MacDill AFB, Florida this evening. According to WTVT in Tampa (and other media outlets) a man armed with a knife tried to crash his vehicle through the base's main gate on Dale Mabry Avenue and was shot by security officers. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Base security officials and Tampa police are investigating the incident. Vehicles entering and leaving the base are being re-routed through another gate.

There is no word on the man's identity, or his possible motive for driving through the gate.

MacDill is home to the headquarters of U.S. Central Command, U.S. Special Operations Command and an Air Force tanker wing, among other organizations.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Birds of a Feather

If you believe Connecticut Attorney General (and U.S. Senate candidate) Richard Blumenthal, then you believe he simply "misspoke" in claiming--on multiple occasions--that he served as a Marine in Vietnam.

But, thanks to The New York Times, we know Blumenthal's assertion simply wasn't true; in other words, he lied to voters on multiple occasions, depicting himself as a Marine Corps combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

The Times reported that Blumenthal had repeatedly distorted his military service. The story included quotations and a video of Blumenthal saying at a 2008 event that he had "served in Vietnam."

The newspaper also said Blumenthal intimated more than once that he was a victim of the abuse heaped on Vietnam veterans upon their return home.

At a veterans event in Shelton, Conn., for example, he said, "When we returned from Vietnam, I remember the taunts, the verbal and even physical abuse we encountered," according to a 2008 Connecticut Post story.

Blumenthal, 64, joined the Marine Reserve in 1970 and served six years, none of it overseas. He put in much of his time in Washington, where he took part in such projects as fixing a campground and working on a Toys for Tots drive, according to the Times.

He received at least five military deferments that enabled him to stay out of the war between 1965 and 1970, during which time he went to Harvard, studied in England and landed a job in the Nixon White House. Once he secured a spot in the Marine Reserve, he had almost no chance of being sent to Vietnam, the newspaper reported.

Today, Blumenthal tried to publicly defuse the scandal, dismissing the matter as a "few misplaced words." From the AP account of his press conference:

"On a few occasions, I have misspoken about my service and I regret that. And I take full responsibility," said Blumenthal, a trim, square-jawed figure with the bearing of a military man. "But I will not allow anyone to take a few misplaced words and impugn my record of service to our country."

Others--including real Vietnam veterans--might disagree with that characterization. He would never admit it, but with today's mea culpa, Mr. Blumenthal moved to the front ranks of America's military frauds. It's a sad and sorry formation, population by those who never served and those who did wear the uniform, but sought to embellish their military resume.

While the Connecticut attorney general clearly falls into that latter category, it doesn't excuse or lessen his fraud. In fact, there was a certain amount of calculation in his deceit; Mr. Blumenthal clearly believed that a sycophantic press would accept his claims without question, and he carefully constructed his lies (intentionally or unintentionally), to remain outside the confines of the federal Stolen Valor act, which makes it a crime to claim military awards, promotions and honors that were never received. Unlike other phonies, Blumenthal never claimed awards for heroism or battlefield promotions. As far as we can tell, it isn't against the law to claim you served in Vietnam when, in reality, your military career was confined to the CONUS.

Still, the good people of Connecticut deserve better, and if Blumenthal was a man of honor, he'd drop out of the race and resign as attorney general. After all, why should voters put their trust in a man who lied (repeatedly) about his military service for years. And, if he's willing to fib about a relatively brief portion of his career, what else would he be willing to fabricate?

But the Nutmeg State is reliably Democratic, and insiders say Blumenthal will likely capture his party's nomination and remain the front-runner for that Senate seat. That's a rather sad commentary on the electorate in Connecticut, and Richard Blumenthal's serial deceit. But it wouldn't be the first time a state has elected a Senator who has willingly distorted his military record.

We refer, of course, to Tom Harkin of Iowa. Through the years, Mr. Harkin made a number of misleading statements about his service as a Navy pilot in the Vietnam era. At one point, Harkin claimed to have flown "reconnaissance" and "combat patrol" missions over South Vietnam, but later conceded that he was actually a ferry pilot, returning repaired aircraft from a maintenance depot in Japan, to other bases in Southeast Asia.

Perhaps Mr. Harkin could stump for Richard Blumenthal. After all, the would-be Senator doesn't mind the company of men who fudge their military resumes. At yesterday's press conference, he was joined by a number of veterans and other supporters. Among that group was one Elliot Storm, a.k.a. William Joseph Trumpower, a veterans organizer for the Blumenthal campaign.

Unlike the candidate, Mr. Trumpower is a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam. But the "organizer" has also embellished his own military resume over the years, claiming multiple purple hearts (he only received one) and two Bronze Stars with the "V" device. Trumpower also wears the gold bars of a Second Lieutenant, claiming he received a commission through the Marine Corps.

But according to the POW Network, a group that helps expose military frauds, Trumpower was never an officer, and he never received the Bronze Star. Based on FOIA information, here is a listing of Trumpower's actual decorations:

ACTUAL - National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Purple Heart w/1*. Served 11 Oct 1968 to 30 Jan 1970 as a USMC rifleman (MOS 0311). Has enlisted service number (not officer's)

Yet, there stood Trumpower at yesterday's press conference, invited to stand with Blumenthal. It's unclear if the campaign was aware of Mr. Trumpower's phony military claims, but he exposed within minutes by several posters on Free, familiar with the database maintained by the POW Network.

At this point, Blumenthal's race has moved from a slam dunk to a toss-up. And, with friends like Elliot Storm/Trumpower hanging around, the military issue will continue to haunt his campaign.

Perhaps Blumenthal could reach out to a Democratic politician who actually served in Vietnam and is proud of his achievements. You know, someone like John Kerry.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

An Early Return

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il apparently returned home empty-handed after his recent, high-profile trip to China.

According to South Korea's JoongAn Ilbo, Kim cut short his visit after PRC officials denied his request for "extraordinary" economic assistance.

China told North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during his recent visit that it will respect international sanctions imposed on Pyongyang and refused to provide extraordinary economic assistance, an informed source here told the paper.

According to the source, the Chinese government’s position prompted Kim to cut short his stay in China. “At the luncheon between Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Kim on May 6, the Chinese government informed the North that China will not provide aid outside the framework of the United Nations Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang,” the source said.

“After Beijing’s position was explained, Kim shortened his schedule in China.”

While Kim's visit to China was scheduled to last until 7 May, he rushed home a day early, after PRC officials rejected his request for additional economic help.

As with previous trips to the PRC, Kim met with PRC officials amid a near-total news blackout. Chinese government spokesmen refused to confirm the North Korean leader was in their country, although footage of Kim's visit appeared on Japanese and South Korean TV.

Those clips indicate that Kim Jong-il has not fully recovered from a near-fatal stroke in 2008. Snippets that aired in Tokyo and Seoul showed a thinner and balding Kim--possible side effects of dialysis treatment. Kim also appeared to drag his left foot as he walked and his left arm hung almost motionless.

Despite his frail condition, western analysts viewed Kim's China trip as critical for the future of his regime. UN sanctions have further squeezed the DPRK's virtually bankrupt economy, and Pyongyang needs additional Chinese aid to remain afloat, allowing Kim to fund military projects and purchase consumer goods for key supporters. Under current UN sanctions, foreign donors can only provide humanitarian aid.

The trip was also viewed as an introduction (of sorts) for Kim's youngest son--and designated successor--Kim Jong un. With his health declining, Kim Jong-il clearly wants to cement the succession process, and hoped the Chinese would offer tacit support for his plan. But he was rebuffed on both counts, prompting Kim to hop on his armored train and head for home.

Pyongyang has long boasted of its "special relationship" with Beijing, and China remains its most important ally. But from the PRC's perspective, those ties are producing diminishing returns. While North Korea creates problems for China's economic rivals in Seoul and Tokyo (forcing them--along with the U.S.--to spend billions countering the DPRK military threat), Pyongyang has also become a headache for its patrons in Beijing.

Consider the run-up to Kim Jong-il's most recent trip. It came barely a month after a ROK naval vessel blew up and sank in contested waters near the North Korean coast. While the DPRK has denied involvement, South Korean and U.S. investigators believe the ship was sunk by a torpedo, launched from a North Korean sub. While Kim's visit had been in the works for months, the Chinese were clearly miffed at hosting him in the wake of that torpedo attack.

But Beijing isn't quite ready to give up on North Korea. If China was so inclined, it could pull the plug on all aid to the DPRK, and push the hermit kingdom to the brink of collapse. But that would create even more unrest on the Korean peninsula, so the PRC voiced its displeasure by denying Kim more substantial aid, while still providing humanitarian assistance. Other reports suggest Beijing okayed a new line of credit for Pyongyang last fall, but there is no evidence of that assistance has been delivered.

Unfortunately, the fallout from Kim Jong-il's failed visit will be felt far beyond North Korea. When the North Korean leader doesn't get his way, he usually responds by ramping up tensions on the peninsula, followed by an offer to de-escalate and return to the long-stalled, Six Party nuclear talks. ROK warships fired on intruding DPRK vessels a few days ago, and (with the crab fishing season underway), another major naval clash is within the realm of possibilities. So are additional missile launches and a third nuclear test.

Meanwhile, their are renewed concerns about a potential collapse of Kim's regime. Writing in The Diplomat last week, Professor Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College warned that North Korea's neighbors (and the U.S.) must be prepared for a rapid collapse of the DPRK. He believes the country's economic death spiral, coupled with the "inexperience of the putative successor" and the "unknown reliability of security forces in the event of Kim Jong-il's death" have set the stage for Pyongyang's short-term implosion. Pei believes it's time for the regional powers in northeast Asia to develop joint plans for handling that contingency. Good luck with that one.

To be fair, rumors of North Korea's collapse have been making the rounds for years. And somehow, Pyongyang has defied the odds, even if it meant mass starvation among its peasant population and other deprivations. But this time, it may be different. Scattered opposition to Kim's regime has actually emerged in North Korea--something unthinkable just a decade ago. Additionally, Pyongyang's dire economic straits will make it more difficult for Kim Jong un to hold the reins of power--and he will enter the post with far less experience (and support) than his father.

The coming months on the Korean peninsula will prove interesting--and potentially perilous.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Still Serving

Vietnam (and Air Force) veterans of a certain age remember Lieutenant Colonel Joe Jackson and what he did at Kham Duc, South Vietnam on May 12, 1968. Jackson, a veteran of three wars, was a C-123 pilot who volunteered for an exceptionally dangerous mission--attempting the rescue of a three-man Air Force combat control team from Kham Duc, which had been overrun by enemy forces.

Against long odds, Jackson and his crew managed to retrieve the combat controllers. For his heroism, Colonel Jackson received the Congressional Medal of Honor. From the medal citation:

Hostile forces had overrun the forward outpost and established gun positions on the airstrip. They were raking the camp with small arms, mortars, light and heavy automatic weapons, and recoilless rifle fire. The camp was engulfed in flames and ammunition dumps were continuously exploding and littering the runway with debris. In addition, eight aircraft had been destroyed by the intense enemy fire and one aircraft remained on the runway reducing its usable length to only 2,200 feet. To further complicate the landing, the weather was deteriorating rapidly, thereby permitting only one air strike prior to his landing. Although fully aware of the extreme danger and likely failure of such an attempt. Lt. Col. Jackson elected to land his aircraft and attempt to rescue. Displaying superb airmanship and extraordinary heroism, he landed his aircraft near the point where the combat control team was reported to be hiding. While on the ground, his aircraft was the target of intense hostile fire. A rocket landed in front of the nose of the aircraft but failed to explode. Once the combat control team was aboard, Lt. Col. Jackson succeeded in getting airborne despite the hostile fire directed across the runway in front of his aircraft. Lt. Col. Jackson's profound concern for his fellow men, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself, and the Armed Forces of his country.

But the Medal of Honor was just the capstone of an extraordinary aviation career. He was a B-24 Liberator pilot during World War II; in Korea, he logged 107 combat missions flying F-84 jet fighters. Later, he was one of the first military pilots to fly the U-2, and Jackson planned and directed aerial reconnaissance missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He is also credited with developing techniques for navigating and landing jet aircraft in poor weather, and tactics for mass, transoceanic ferrying flights.

Given his accomplishments, it should come as no surprise that Colonel Jackson is still serving today, at the age of 87. He was featured on Friday's edition of NBC Nightly News for his volunteer work in Kent, Washington, where Jackson lives in retirement. Correspondent Christina Brown describes Jackson's current efforts as "an act of service, born of routine:"

At 87 years old, Joe Jackson hasn't let age, the slow decay of his sight nor the typical aches and pains that accompany the senior years slow him down. Every Monday for the past 18 years--and I do mean EVERY Monday--you can find Jackson at the Covington Safeway grocery store in Kent, Washington, a suburb outside Seattle, picking up donated groceries with his friends. Then the group travels to Kent Lutheran Church and delivers the food so volunteers can prepare meals for the church's Monday supper.

The diners on Monday evening typically aren't the same people who attend Sunday morning service. They're the community's homeless and working poor--or, in Shelly Gaub's case, who's on Social Security and says she doesn't make a lot of money, they come because, "It's nice to get away, to be able to talk." When I asked her if she knew from where her next meal might come, she simply replied, "God is always there to provide."

Jackson and Gaub have never met, and perhaps never will, but they're part of one another's weekly routine. To Gaub, Jackson is a faceless, nameless angel, just part of God's plan to help bring food to her table.

And until last night, most of the people served by the church's food ministry were unaware that the man who collects the food for their meal is a military hero, recipient of the nation's highest award for combat valor.

In a brief interview with the reporter, Colonel Jackson was quiet and unassuming--about what you'd expect. Over the years, I've had the great honor and good fortune to meet several CMOH recipients; to a man, their persona matches that of Joe Jackson: modest, unpretentious individuals who discuss their combat experiences reluctantly, and down-play their own valor.

Kudos to NBC for featuring Colonel Jackson and his decades of selfless service. Next week, Nightly News will focus on "celebrities who are making a difference." You know, the same Hollywood types that are sometimes paid to appear at charity events, or place unreasonable demands on event organizers.

Memo to Brian Williams and the crew at NBC: Give us more stories like the one on Colonel Jackson, and skip the celebrity phonies. I'm guessing that we've already heard about some of their charitable achievements--they've been crowing about them for years on Entertainment Tonight and in the pages of People magazine.
ADDENDUM: Colonel Jackson is also unique in the fact that he was one of two men from Newnan, Georgia to earn the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. Jackson and the other Newnan native, Marine Corps Major Steven Pless, received the award from President Lyndon Johnson during the same White House ceremony and they earned the CMOH for the same type of mission--daring rescues under intense enemy fire. The similarities between Jackson and Pless led President Johnson to observe "there must be something in the water" down in Newnan. Sadly, Pless was killed in a motorcycle accident barely six months after the White House ceremony.

Different Spanks for Different Ranks

The "pride" of Air Force Material Command, Major General David Eidsaune, shortly after his arrest for DUI in February. According to a command spokesperson, Eidsaune has already been "punished" by his boss (General Donald Hoffman) and the sanctions did not involve a reduction in grade or loss position (Henderson, NV Police Department photo via Air Force Times)

It's no secret: a DUI conviction in the military is (normally) a career killer.

If you're an enlisted member, you will likely receive military punishment on top of your civilian sentence. Expect to lose your security clearance and say good-bye to any chance at promotion or reenlistment. For officers (below the grade of Colonel) it's essentially the same drill, although some are allowed to finish out their careers.

But, if you're a flag officer, it's a different game.

During my career, I knew of a four-star who--reportedly--had a pair of DUIs at two different bases. This officer had other ethical and conduct problems as well, but it didn't prevent his rise to leadership of a major command. In retirement, the former four-star has run his own consulting firm, maintained a security clearance and won several DoD contracts.

And, Major General David Eidsaune appears to be following in his dubious footsteps.

Eidsaune, you'll recall, was arrested on DUI charges by police in Henderson, Nevada on 9 February, while he was TDY to Nellis AFB. At the time, General Edisaune was Director of Air, Space and Information Operations for Air Force Material Command, headquartered at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio.

However, his arrest did not affect a subsequent reassignment as AFMC's Director of Strategic Plans, Programs and Analyses. Major General Eidsaune moved into that job in mid-March, about five weeks after his DUI arrest in Nevada. Both jobs require a Top Secret/SCI security clearance; Eidsaune's access to classified information was apparently unaffected by his run-in with the law, an event that would have resulted in a suspended clearance for lower-ranking airmen.

And, Eidsaune has already been punished by his boss, AFMC Commander General Donald Hoffman. A command spokesman told Air Force Times that Hoffman has "already taken appropriate action" before General Eidsaune faced civil sanctions in Nevada. Eidsaune's punishment has not been disclosed, but he did not lose his position or his current rank. Most observers believe General Eidsaune received either a letter of reprimand or a letter of admonishment, which will end his chances at future promotion.

But that sanction is far less severe than the punishment imposed on enlisted personnel and lower-ranking officers. Enlisted members would almost certainly face an Article 15 (non-judicial punishment), resulting in the loss of a stripe, forfeiture of a portion of their pay for several months, and the eventual end of their military careers. Officers would also receive an Article 15, with an accompanying fine and possible separation from the service. Offenders in both groups would also lose access to classified information and face an uphill fight in restoring their clearances.

Predictably, the civilian judge in Nevada was tougher on Eidsaune than his boss at Wright-Patterson. The general had his day in court this week, and received a $577 fine. He was also ordered to attend driving school, participate in a victim-impact panel and undergo a chemical dependence assessment. The judge also handed down a jail sentence of 60 days, with all but two of the days suspended, and he received time-served credit for those two days.

Eidsaune's "civilian" sentence was appropriate for a first-time DUI offender in the state of Nevada. But his military punishment was an embarrassment to everyone who wears the Air Force uniform. It's only the latest affirmation that USAF generals are a privileged class, virtually immune to the sanctions imposed on mere mortals. If Eidsaune had been a lower-ranking officer, he would have been fired from his job, stripped of his clearance and exiled to some windowless office while the service decided on his ultimate fate (administrative separation versus being allowing to serve until retirement).

We're guessing that General Hoffman is thankful his subordinate didn't kill or injure anyone during his DUI jaunt, or damage any property. That would have left Hoffman in a bind; it would be tough (read: impossible) to justify Eidsaune's "slap-on-the-wrist" if he had been involved in a wreck that caused injury, death or significant property damage.

Still, it's bad enough that an Air Force flag officer was busted for DUI and had a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit at the time he was pulled over. In this era of "zero tolerance" for alcohol offenses, that should be enough to end Eidsaune's career. Instead, he is being allowed to retain his job--security clearance apparently intact--and keep serving until retirement.

A few months ago, General Hoffman was confronted with another case of misconduct involving a senior staff member. Command Chief Master Sergeant William Gurney was accused of serial sexual harassment of female subordinates and having extra-martial affairs with at least four women. When those allegations surfaced, General Hoffman immediately fired Gurney and threw the book at him. Chief Gurney will face an Article 32 hearing later this month, to determine if he will be court-martialed for his alleged misconduct.

Clearly, Hoffman's actions were appropriate in the Gurney case. But, his handling of General Eidsaune's DUI was disappointing, to say the least. It merely reaffirms the old military adage of "different spanks for different ranks" and does nothing to discourage similar misconduct among those who wear the stars.
To be fair, the overwhelming majority of military flag officers serve honorably and with distinction. But bad apples like Eidsaune--and that retired four-star--do nothing to enhance the honor and reputation of our highest-ranking military officers.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

With an Assist From Tehran

In case you haven't noticed, the "war of words" in the Middle East has ratcheted up in recent days.

Barely a week ago, Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon assured an audience in Herzliya that Israel has the "know-how" to hit Iran. Ya'alon, a former Chief of Staff for the Israeli Defense Forces, was unusually candid in a speech before the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies. According to Haaretz, the Vice Prime Minister said that Israel is already in a state of conflict with Tehran:

"There is no doubt, looking at the overall situation, that we are already in a military confrontation with Iran," he said. "Iran is the main motivator of those attacking us, with its funding and training of Hezbollah," Ya'alon said.

"There is no doubt that [Israel's] technological capabilities, which improved in recent years, have improved range and aerial refueling capabilities, and have brought about a massive improvement in the accuracy of ordnance and intelligence," he said. "This capability can be used for a war on terror in Gaza, for a war in the face of rockets from Lebanon, for war on the conventional Syrian army, and also for war on a peripheral state like Iran."

Israeli officials have rarely used the term "war" in discussing possible options for dealing with the Iranian nuclear option. And, for good measure, Mr. Ya'alon emphasized that offensive action might be preferable for countering Tehran, rather than defensive measures:

"As far as I'm concerned, offense remains the best form of defense," Ya'alon said, adding that the anti-missile system being developed by the defense establishment "can make things easier for the public, but won't keep Israelis out of shelters in their hour of need. It will, however, significantly reduce the damage caused."

A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later said that Mr. Ya'alon was talking in "generalities" and was not referring to specific strike plans. But there was little doubt the Vice Prime Minister was delivering a sobering message--aimed specifically at Tehran.

And, Israel's words of warning didn't end there. Just yesterday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused North Korea of supplying Syria with weapons on mass destruction. In a meeting with Japan's Prime Minister, Lieberman said Pyongyang's actions threaten to destabilize regions far beyond its borders:

"The cooperation between Syria and North Korea is not focused on economic development and growth but rather on weapons of mass destruction" Lieberman said.

In evidence he cited the December 2009 seizure at Bangkok airport of an illicit North Korean arms shipment which US intelligence said was bound for an unnamed Middle East country.

Lieberman said Syria intended to pass the weapons on to the Lebanese Hezbollah militia and to the Islamic Hamas movement, which rules Gaza and has its political headquarters in Damascus.

"This cooperation endangers stability in both southeast Asia and also in the Middle East and is against all the accepted norms in the international arena," Lieberman was quoted as telling Hatoyama.

Israeli commandos reportedly captured nuclear materials from a secret Syrian research complex near the Euphrates River in 2007, just before the complex was bombed by the IAF. Despite that raid--and threats from Tel Aviv--Pyongyang and Damascus have continued their relationship. As proof of those ties, Mr. Lieberman cited the 2009 seizure of 30 tons of weapons at the Bangkok, Thailand airport. The weaponry was discovered on board a North Korean jet bound for Damascus.

But no WMD material was found during that seizure, conducted by Thai authorities on a tip from the U.S. Lieberman's comments suggest that American and Israeli intelligence agencies have uncovered new information about more deadly cargoes being shipped from the DPRK to Syria. Those shipments may include additional rockets and missiles (some capable of carrying chemical warheads); precursor agents for chemical agents and materials and technology destined for Damascus's fledgling nuclear program.

There's likely an Iranian connection in those transfers as well. Much of the weaponry and other materials are shipped on IL-76 Candid transports, which are operated by the Syrian, North Korean and Iranian Air Forces. Most IL-76 variants can fly 3600-3900 miles unrefueled, but when you add a 20-30 ton cargo, their range is between 2500-3000 miles. In case you're wondering, it's about 4,200 NM from Pyongyang to Damascus.

That means Candid flights between North Korea and Syria (typically) involve a refueling stop. In some cases, the aircraft take a less direct route, trying to use airports--like Bangkok--that are less likely to arouse suspicion. There are also reports that some IL-76s on the Pyongyang-to-Syria route stop at airfields in western China. But the most common refueling point (you guessed it) is in Iran.

From Tehran's perspective, the arrangement is extremely beneficial. Iran is also a customer of Pyongyang, so the flights often include shipments for both Tehran and Damascus. More importantly, airfields in Iran offer a safe haven for the aircraft, their crews and their cargoes. There's no way for international inspectors to "get at" the IL-76s during their stopovers in Iran, allowing them to refuel--or unload their cargo--without interruption.

As we've suggested before, there is one way to stop these flights (or at least make them much more difficult). The Obama Administration should lead an international effort to declare an air embargo against North Korea, pressuring nations like China (and its neighbors in Southeast Asia) to deny overflight rights to any cargo aircraft heading to/from the DPRK. That would force Pyongyang to use water shipments which are more time-consuming, and in many cases, easier to track and interdict.

Of course, reaching that sort of consensus is almost impossible. And, the process is further complicated by the occasional use of private air cargo firms, which handle some of the shipments. Many of those firms are based in Russia; as you might imagine, Moscow has never voiced any support for the idea of an air embargo.

In the meantime, the flights continue and Israel's patience is (obviously) growing thin. IL-76s on an airfield parking ramp would present a rather inviting target for a future IAF raid.

Monday, May 10, 2010

If Your Recent College Grad is Moving Back Home...

...this might be one reason:

Hot Job's list of the Worst-Paying College Degrees. Some of the usual suspects (horticulture, drama and music) are in the Top 10, but they still rank behind Social Work, which finished in the #1 position. What a career track: terrible pay and lousy working conditions for the next 30 or 40 years.

Still, we were surprised to see that "Journalism" didn't make the list. In fact, a 2008 survey by the University of Georgia found that only six in ten J-school grads had a full-time job within six to eight months of graduation. And, the same study found that the average salary for a new grad was only $30,000 a year, which should put journalists ahead of social workers on the worst-paying list.

But then again, that article on poor-paying college degrees was (presumably) written by a journalism school product. Sometimes, the truth is too painful to admit.

You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet

Members of the armed forces and their supporters are expressing shock and outrage over the Pentagon's request that Congress be "less generous" with future military pay raises.

As the Washington Post reported over the weekend, military leaders are concerned about the rising personnel costs, including military health care. They are concerned that the government's generosity is unsustainable, leaving the Pentagon (over the long run) without enough money for new weapons systems, or to repair equipment already in service.

Clifford L. Stanley, the undersecretary of defense for personnel, told a Senate committee in March that rising personnel costs could "dramatically affect the readiness of the department" by leaving less money to pay for operations and maintenance. Overall, personnel expenses constitute about one-quarter of defense spending.

Health care alone is projected to cost the military $51 billion next year, nearly one-tenth of the Pentagon's budget, excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2002, wages have risen 42 percent, compared with about 32 percent for the private sector. Housing and subsistence allowances, which troops receive tax-free, have gone up even more.

So far, efforts to limit future pay increases and other military benefits have been blocked by Congress. A bi-partisan majority--including members opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--have awarded pay raises above those recommended by the administration. Congress is also fighting to ensure that the military's TRICARE health system will be excluded from the Obama Administration's health reform plan.

But the fiscal hand-writing is on the wall, and it's unclear how long Congress can ignore the administration's plan for pay and benefits. Personnel costs represent 25% of the nation's defense budget and roughly 10% of Pentagon spending goes for health care. Recent studies indicate that military health costs have exploded over the past decade, exceeding those in the private sector.

Those increases have prompted some administration officials (and a few members of Congress) to suggest increases in TRICARE premiums and co-pays, which have remained unchanged for more than a decade.

On the pay front, some officials believe that lower raises can actually be justified. They note that military pay has increased 42% since 2002, while wages in the private sector have gone up by 32%. Tax-free housing and subsistence allowances have seen even larger increases. That's why the Obama Administration (through Defense Secretary Robert Gates) is asking for just a 1.4% military pay increase next year.

But most of the arguments are disingenuous at best. True, military pay raises have out-stripped the private sector over the last decade. But that ignores the fact that members of the armed forces were at a compensation disadvantage for decades. In the late 1990s, a Pentagon study concluded that military personnel earned an average of 13% less than their counterparts in the private sector.

And for some highly-trained members of the armed forces (physicians, contracting officers and computer specialists, to name a few), the "gap" between their military paycheck--and what they could earn in the private sector--was even higher. That set the stage for substantial pay raises in the early years of the Bush Administration, trying to bring military compensation in line with the civilian world.

There are also questions about how the Pentagon (and the administration) are comparing military and private sector compensation. Their "typical" example cites an Army Sergeant (E-5) with one dependent who earns an average of $52,000 a year. But that package includes almost $17,000 in housing and subsistence allowances; the Sergeant's base pay is only $34,880 a year.

By comparison, a Postal Service letter carrier earns $80,000 a year in pay and benefits. Unlike his military counterpart, the postal worker isn't subject to frequent deployments, hazardous duty or frequent change-of-duty-station moves. And, as far as we can tell, no one is suggesting a cut in pay for employees of the USPS.

The health care argument is also a bit skewed. As we noted in a recent post, the TRICARE mess began in the mid-1990s, when the Clinton Administration elected to under-fund on-base health care facilities, which treated both active duty and retired personnel and their dependents. To fill the coverage gap, the Pentagon created TRICARE, an HMO-style arrangement that pushed most retirees into that system, with the promise of cost containment and similar savings.

But, as with other government-run health plans, oversight was lacking. Contractors for the various TRICARE regions changed frequently, and the Pentagon kept writing checks to cover their charges. Never mind that many physicians refused to participate in the system's "Cadillac plan" (TRICARE Prime), or that funding on-base facilities would have been much cheaper. As a former Surgeon General of the Air Force noted, a military hospital can perform an appendectomy for about $300; sending the same patient to a civilian hospital for the same procedure (under TRICARE) costs $6,000. Yet, no one is discussing a potential shift away from TRICARE.

If you sense something bigger behind the Pentagon's sudden austerity crusade, give yourself a Gold Star for perception. New-found concerns about personnel and health care costs are simply stalking horses for much larger military budget wars that are on the horizon. In a highly-publicized speech on Saturday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates renewed his call for Pentagon belt-tightening, warning that "dramatic measures" will be required just to sustain current force levels.

In other words, brace yourselves for massive decreases in military spending as the War in Iraq winds down and we begin our withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2011. No one's saying how much of a hit the Pentagon will take, but we've filed away a copy of a 2009 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study that provided an "alternative" strategy for Pentagon procurement. The study outlined potential cost savings of roughly $500 billion (over a 16-year period) by cancelling or down-sizing various weapons programs. The plan was produced under the auspices of former CBO Director Peter Orszag; he is currently President Obama's budget director.

Clearly, Mr. Orszag has some ideas about military spending that don't include substantial increases. In fact, we'd guess that the OMB Director has already set rough parameters for future Pentagon budgets, and the numbers are grim. By trying to contain personnel costs, the military hopes to free up money for weapons programs that might (otherwise) be cancelled. While personnel and procurement represent separate accounts, the funding still comes from the same pile, and it can be easily shifted from one category to the other.

A case in point? During the mid-1990s, the Air Force reduced its ranks by 10,000 personnel. The "savings" were used to fund development of the F-22 Raptor, which was seriously over budget. The additional money kept the program going, but the down-sizing produced a predictable consequence: by the time the Raptor became operational, the USAF was noting a drop in experience levels in certain career fields. Some of the airmen projected to serve as experienced technicians and mid-level supervisors had left the service years earlier, part of the forced exodus mandated to "save" the F-22.

This time around, we're predicting more draconian measures. With our pull-out from Iraq and Afghanistan, look for major cuts in ground forces, i.e., those "additional" Army brigades and Marine Corps regiments added just a couple of years ago. Ground units are extremely expensive and require large numbers of personnel. The potential "cost savings" from that sort of reduction must be tantalizing to Mr. Orszag and his associates.

Look for key weapons programs to get the axe as well. The 2009 OMB study recommended elimination of the Air Force's next-generation tanker (KC-X) and major cuts in weapons systems that survive, including the Joint Strike Fighter. Look for elimination of at least one Navy carrier battle group--and possibly more. Just last week, Dr. Gates questioned the need for "so many" carriers, claiming our sea power "over-match" potential foes.

On the benefits side, look for smaller and less frequent pay increases for active duty personnel and a similar trend in retiree COLAs. In fact, the co-chairman of the President's Debt Commission, former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, has publicly stated that he doesn't believe cost-of-living-adjustments are part of the benefits originally promised to military members. You can also expect higher premiums and co-pays for TRICARE. Never mind that the "typical" armed forces retiree is an E-6 who will receive about $1,800 a month. For someone in that category, TRICARE increases will create a major financial burden.

But those are just the first steps. DoD has the option of pushing retirees and dependents into the public option (imagine how much that would "save") and various politicians have suggested other "fixes" for military benefits, ranging from the delay of pension payments until age 62 for all personnel, to a "means test" for armed forces retirees who want to collect social security. In other words, if your military pension is above a certain level, your social security benefit will be reduced.

When it comes to potential reductions in military benefits, the worst is yet to come.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Overdue Recognition

In the desperate days following the Haiti earthquake, a small group of airmen were largely responsible for keeping the aid flowing. We're referring to Air Force combat controllers; they were among the first military personnel to arrive in Port-au-Prince, and they played a vital role in keeping the airfield open. As we wrote back in January:

"...the combat controllers faced (perhaps) the greatest challenge of all. With power at the airport out--and air traffic control non-existent--the controllers were charged with re-establishing ATC services in Port-au-Prince, allowing relief flights to continue. They were also charged with scouting landing zones where aid could be disseminated by airdrop or helicopter.

Such missions are nothing new for combat controllers, who have participated in virtually every major combat operation and humanitarian mission since World War II. They are among the most highly-trained airmen; earning the coveted scarlet beret takes a minimum of 35 weeks, and the program includes everything from air traffic control and combat controller school, to airborne and dive training. As you might expect, the training is rigorous, equal to that of other special operations personnel; the wash-out rate approaches 70%.

But the controllers who make it through the pipeline are simply indispensable, both in combat and relief missions. Combat controllers routinely deploy with special operations teams; the first Air Force Cross winner in Afghanistan was a controller, TSgt John Chapman, who was killed during Operation Anaconda. Chapman was credited with saving his team after their helicopter was shot down by Al Qaida insurgents.

Combat controllers continue to serve with distinction in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they have also been recognized for missions closer to home. Controllers were among the first military personnel to reach the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, and they led the charge into Haiti this week.

Now, the combat controllers who played such a vital role in Port-au-Prince are receiving some overdue recognition from a rather unlikely source: Time magazine. Among those on its annual "Time 100" list of the "People Who Most Affect Our World" was an Air Force combat controller, Chief Master Sergeant Tony Travis. The brief article that described Travis's decisive actions in Haiti was written by Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, hero of last year's "Miracle on the Hudson."

When Chief Master Sergeant Antonio "Tony" Travis arrived at the Port-au-Prince airport shortly after January's earthquake, there was only one usable runway, the air-traffic-control tower was structurally unsafe, and 42 aircraft were grounded in a space designed for 12. Time was of the essence: the Haitians were in dire need of supplies that had to be brought in by air, but the damage meant that far fewer planes could be accommodated.

In only 28 minutes, Chief Travis set up a makeshift air-traffic-control operation located midfield. Working from a card table, often standing on chairs, he and his team deftly took control of the arrivals and departures. Under his leadership, planes were able to take off and land every five minutes, bringing in 4 million lb. of supplies. For Haitians unable to get to the capital, his team surveyed and controlled four remote drop zones, providing 150,000 bottles of water and 75,000 packaged meals to people who had no other means of survival.

Combat controllers represent one of the smallest "career fields" in the Air Force. Just over 300 enlisted personnel (and a handful of officers) wear the scarlet beret. Their motto "First There," is fitting, since the controllers, inevitably, lead the charge into a hostile landing zone or airfield.

Chief Travis's addition to the Time 100 is certainly commendable. He is certainly deserves the "Hero" accolade bestowed by the magazine, and the Chief is a fitting representative for all the Combat Controllers who kept airfields open--and saved lives--in countless hotspots around the globe.

On the other hand, some of the other "heroes" on the Time list (Bill Clinton; a model who serves as a Goodwill Ambassador for the WHO; tennis star Serena Williams) were dubious selections, at best. Of course, the magazine has a rather broad definition of what a "hero" is supposed to be.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The Next Admirals' Revolt?

There's a battle shaping up between Defense Secretary Robert Gates and one of the most powerful constituencies in the defense community. We're referring to the United States Navy and those who have a stake in the composition (and construction) of our fleet.

Secretary Gates is among those who believe the U.S. can get by with fewer ships, particularly aircraft carriers. At roughly $6 billion a copy (excluding the crew and embarked air wing), American nuclear-powered carriers are the most expensive capital ships ever built, capable of projecting power in the most distant corners of the globe. Formulating a response to almost any crisis, U.S. leaders begin looking for the location of the nearest carrier battle group.

But how many carrier battle groups does the United States really need? In a speech to the Navy League earlier this week, Dr. Gates suggested our nation "overmatches" potential foes in terms of our military capabilities. While our Navy maintains 11 carrier groups, he noted, no other country has more than one, suggesting the U.S. could reduce its number of carriers and still maintain military superiority. Gates also wondered aloud "how long" the nation could afford a Navy that operates multi-billion dollar destroyers, submarines and aircraft carriers.

Now, the Navy is firing back. Testifying before Congress on Thursday, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Acquisition, Sean Stackley, said the service is "firmly committed" to maintaining a force of 11 carriers for "the next three decades." The 11-carrier force structure is based on "world-wide presence requirements, surge availability, training and exercise, and maintenance" needs, he said in an opening statement.

Gates' comments have also raised the ire of the Navy's allies in Congress. During yesterday's hearing, Virginia Senator Jim Webb (who served as Navy Secretary under President Reagan) took his own shot at the defense chief:

"I think it would be a very serious mistake to cut back on the defense budget in order to fund ground forces that are in Iraq and Afghanistan, hopefully temporarily," the Virginia Democrat said, "at the expense of these vital shipbuilding programs that take years and years to put into place."

As you probably know, Virginia is home to the nation's largest military shipyard. Guess where those expensive carriers are built?

In fairness, the SecDef has a point. Costs for the Navy's ship-building program keep rising, so the service must down-size the fleet. True, the new combatants are technical marvels (by and large), so you don't need as many. But when you consider the global responsibilities of the U.S. Navy, quantity has a quality all its own.

And what do we get when tax money is invested in a properly-sized--and capable--fleet?

-- The ability to influence, shape or deter events across much of the world.

-- Sustained delivery of combat power or humanitarian relief in support of U.S. national objectives.

-- Continued access to key global shipping routes and transit points.

-- The decisive engagement--and defeat--of adversary air, land, naval and missile forces.

Obviously, such capabilities don't come cheap and when you want them on a global scale, you probably need 11 carriers and the forces that support them. Yes, a carrier battle group is an inviting target for potential adversaries and advanced anti-ship missiles have the ability to sink multi-billion dollar warships. But that same carrier group has impressive anti-air, anti-missile and ASW capabilities, allowing them to operate in high-threat environments. And, with its own, impressive strike capabilities, the carrier group can take the fight to enemy threat systems and eliminate them.

We should also remember that carriers are an invaluable complement to land-based aviation assets and (if the situation dictates) a possible substitute. During the first Gulf War, the Navy sent three carriers into the Persian Gulf; attack aircraft launched from those decks played a vital role in the air campaign against Saddam Hussein's military machine. Carrier aircraft played similar roles in war against Serbia (1998), and more recently, during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Access to land-based airfields isn't always guaranteed; in future operations the carriers may be our only airpower option.

As the world's only super-power, the U.S. is expected to deal with the full spectrum of maritime threats, from the Panama Canal and the Straits of Hormuz, to the Sea of Japan and the Moluccan Strait. If China becomes a Jeffersonian Democracy and various rogue states disappear, the United States can probably afford to cut its fleet and put a few carriers in mothballs. Short of that scenario, we still need the military capabilities provided by the carrier groups and the rest of our fleet.

Secretary Gates' suggestion is extremely short-sighted and that raises another question: in the late 1940s, senior admirals staged a famous rebellion against plans to cut naval power in favor or air and land forces. With Mr. Gates (and his boss in the White House) now aiming for the one of the Navy's most sacred programs--shipbuilding--we wonder: can another revolt of the admirals be far behind?

One more thing: the public war of words on this matter is far from over. Dr. Gates is scheduled to deliver another major speech this weekend, at the Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Kansas. The SecDef is expected to touch on similar themes in his speech at that complex, named for the President who warned, famously, of the military-industrial complex.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Catching Shahzad (Ears in the Sky Edition)

An RC-135 Rivet Joint SIGINT aircraft. Did an airborne intelligence platform--like this one--participate in the search for Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad? (Wikipedia photo)

Shortly after Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad was apprehended, various accounts began to circulate about how the authorities managed to track him down. One of the most intriguging appeared on the WCBS-TV website (and has since been removed). It suggested that intelligence assets were involved in tracing Shahzad's cell phone conversations. We instantly regretted not saving a copy of the story, but The Talkmaster saw the same item, and offered this summary:

They knew he had one of those throw-away cell phones, and they knew the number. It was the number he used to call the lady who sold him the SUV. So, as I understand it, our intelligence people had some "assets" in the air over New York City that were intercepting cell phone calls and sifting through them looking for this one number. Finally they caught this guy making a phone call to the reservations number for Emirates Airlines. Like I said, pretty scary, and impressive.

If we recall correctly, WCBS originally reported that "Army" intelligence aircraft were used in tracking the suspect's cell phone conversations. If that's the case (and no one has actually confirmed the original report by Channel 2), the most likely candidate is the RC-12 Guardrail, a Corps-level Army SIGINT asset that collects communications and electronic intelligence. Operating in groups of three, Guardrail aircraft can collect over a wide area and transmit their "haul" to ground collection stations.

However, Guardrail is somewhat unique among manned intel platforms because there is no on-board capability to analyze the signals it collects--that's why the ground station is so critical. Open-source information indicates the only Guardrail processing vans on the east coast are located at Hunter Army Airfield near Savannah, Georgia. If a ground station was deployed, then someone had to make a fast decision, and the van (and its team of analysts) was likely airlifted to a location in the northeast. Interestingly, the Army finished initial testing of its latest Guardrail aircraft in January of this year; the processor vans were upgraded several years ago.

But to accomplish the kind of signal search/processing used in locating Shahzad, you need a little more horsepower, for lack of a better term. If military assets were used--and that's a mighty big "if" (Posse Comitatus, anyone?)--then a more likely candidate would be the RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft, or possibly, Senior Scout, a compartmentalized SIGINT package that can fit in the cargo bay of a C-130 aircraft with only minor modifications. The linked ANG press release indicates that Scout has worked with law enforcement in the past.

Did we also mention that these platforms (most notably, the RC-135) can beam their collection directly to the National Security Agency for further analysis and dissemination? If you're looking for a single cell phone--in a sea of millions--it's quite helpful to have NSA and its massive collection and identification capabilities on your side.

Still, using an organization like NSA to assist in the hunt for a terrorist (who happens to be an American citizen and is inside our borders to boot) puts the government on shaky legal ground. In most operations of this type, the Justice Department would have to go to the FISA court for a warrant, authorizing electronic surveillance for Mr. Shahzad. But, as we've learned in recent years, it sometimes takes two or three weeks to obtain that type of warrant--too slow to nab a suspected terrorist who may be trying to flee the country.

How would the feds overcome that legal obstacle? This is pure conjecture on our part, but in this type of scenario, something called Echelon would be quite useful. To be sure, the existence of the program (an information collection and sharing agreement between NSA and its British, Canadian and Australian partners) has been widely debated. Officially, NSA has refused to confirm that the program was established and remains operational.

So, for argument's sake, let's say the program exists, and provides significant collection and analysis for the western SIGINT agencies. We'll also speculate that this arrangement is largely transparent, with data being collected and exchanged almost instantaneously. With those capabilities in place, it would be possible for Britain's GCHQ (their version of NSA) to run collection against Faisal Shahzad, then tip U.S. authorities when he made that call to Emirates Air. That would give the feds actionable intelligence, allowing them to converge on JFK Airport, and remove the suspect from the Dubai-bound flight.

We should also mention that the "seamless" relationship allows organizations like GCHQ to receive and analyze information collected from U.S. platforms, like the RC-135. While the raw data was gathered by an American aircraft, the analysis is done by British specialists, who can then pass it on to their U.S. counterparts. It may sound like an unnecessary "extra" step, but if you're under enormous pressure to find an American suspect on U.S. soil--and you don't have the time to dot every "i" and cross every "t" in FISA court, this arrangement can provide an effective work-around?

Did this sort of operation transpire on Monday evening? We may never know, and that's probably just as well. As Mr. Boortz says, such capabilities are amazing, and a little scary, too.

ADDENDUM: Which brings us back to the original item reported by WCBS-TV. Either the story was completely off-base (a distinct possibility), or a federal official spoke a little too freely and the station was asked to spike the story. Additionally, we later managed to find a copy of the station's original report at the left-wing website FireDogLake:

Shahzad, 30, a Pakistan-born U.S. citizen, has been in custody since shortly after midnight. He was hauled off a plane in the nick of time as it was about to fly to the Middle East. CBS 2 obtained air traffic control recording intended to stop the pilots from taking off. The controller alerts pilots to "immediately" return to the gate.

In the end, it was secret Army intelligence planes that did him in. Armed with his cell phone number, they circled the skies over the New York area, intercepting a call to Emirates Airlines reservations, before scrambling to catch him at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

We don't often agree with the folks at FireDogLake, but they got it right in noting that the original WCBS report raises some rather interesting questions. We won't hold our breath waiting for answers.