Monday, January 31, 2011

NEO on the Nile?

The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD-3). Currently on station in the Red Sea, the Kearsarge may lead a non-combat evacuation operation (NEO) of U.S. citizens from Egypt (Wikipedia photo).

According to the State Department, more than 200 Americans have left Egypt on hastily-arranged evacuation flights.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. A department spokesman says 2,400 U.S. citizens have contacted our embassy in Cairo about getting a seat on government-chartered evacuation jets. At least 900 Americans are expected to leave Egypt on Tuesday (and 1,000 more on Wednesday) as that nation teeters on the brink of revolution.

Continued political turmoil and rioting in Egypt is raising the possibility of a non-combat evacuation operation (NEO) to remove more than 90,000 Americans from that country. While the State Department would prefer the current system of charter flights, the Pentagon is prepared to send in the Marines, if necessary. The amphibious assault ship, USS Kearsarge, and an amphibious transport dock, USS Ponce, are currently on station in the southern Red Sea.

Using helicopters and landing craft, Marines from the two vessels could go ashore and supervise the evacuation of U.S. citizens and those from other countries as well. While the Kearsarge and Ponce have already deployed most of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) into Afghanistan, there are still about 1,000 Marines aboard the amphibious ships--enough to reinforce the detachment at the Cairo embassy and secure evacuation sites across the country.

As we noted four years ago, any NEO is a potentially dicey operation, particularly if conditions in the host country continue to go south. There's also the question of exactly how many Americans and third-country nationals might show up at evacuation points. The number of U.S. citizens in the country varies from 50-90,000 (depending on whose estimate you believe).

But NEO planners base their operations on the "rule of three," meaning that for every American known to be in the country, there may be two more who request evacuation. So, the Marines of the 26th MEU and the sailors of the Kearsarge and Ponce could be tasked to remove more than 100,000 people from multiple locations. And, if the current upheaval takes on an anti-U.S. tone, that task becomes infinitely more complex.

Over the weekend, some observers wondered why the U.S. had not ordered an evacuation of non-essential personnel, noting that other countries were already removing their citizens. But a short time later, the embassy in Cairo encouraged Americans to leave Egypt, and announced that charter flights would begin today. Still, it will take a lot of passenger jets to evacuate thousands of Americans, and there are no guarantees that Cairo International (and other Egyptian airports) will remain open until the job can be finished.

That's why Kearsarge and Ponce may be called upon to finish the job. Keep the sailors and Marines aboard those vessels in your thoughts and prayers in the days ahead. They may be tasked for the biggest NEO since the fall of Saigon, and that's no exaggeration.
ADDENDUM: CNN is reporting that a small Marine security detail has arrived at our embassy in Cairo. The contingent, totaling about a dozen Marines, is part of a fleet anti-terrorism unit. Not a harbinger of a NEO, but the deployment is useful for assessing security at the embassy compound--and coordinating planning for operations that may be in the offing.


A federal judge in Florida has ruled that President Obama's health care reform plan is unconstitutional, in its entirety.

In a ruling released just moments ago, Judge Roger Vinson struck down the 2,000 page health care law, saying that Congress overstepped its bounds by mandating that all Americans buy health insurance. And, Judge Vinson said the individual mandate cannot be "stripped" from the law, ruling the entire plan unconstitutional.

Vinson made the ruling in response to a lawsuit brought by 26 states, which sought to block the health care law.

In case you're wondering, Vinson was appointed to the federal bench by Ronald Reagan.

Elections matter.

Meanwhile, Back on the Beach

Call it inevitable...

As the situation in Egypt continues to deteriorate, the first wave of "big name" American TV anchors has arrived to cover the story. ABC's Christiane Amanpour of "This Week" anchored that broadcast from Cairo on Sunday, and CNN's Anderson Cooper is reporting from the Egyptian capital as well. We're also guessing their counterparts from NBC and Fox will fly in shortly, if they haven't already arrived.

Readers will note that we didn't mention CBS, the organization that once set the standard for broadcast journalism. While the network has staffers in Egypt, Evening News anchor Katie Couric is not among them. Where is Ms. Couric, you might ask? Frolicking on the beach in Florida with her boy-toy, Brooks Perlin. And later this week, she makes a guest appearance on Glee. Gee, that should cement her next Peabody Award.

No one begrudes the CBS anchor a little time off with her significant other. We also recall that the sainted Walter Cronkite once did a cameo on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But with Egypt slipping into anarchy, you'd think Ms. Couric would be heading for Cairo, or someone at CBS would request that she cut her vacation short and get on a plane. Say what you will about Dan Rather (and we're certainly not among his fans), but he never shy about leaving the studio for a big story.

Couric's sojourn in South Beach (as Cairo burns) may be another indicator of her departure from CBS. Her broadcast remains mired in last place, while CBS is paying her $15 million a year. It's a given that she will have to take a pay cut to remain at the network. Meanwhile, media insiders say she's leaving the anchor desk for a day-time talk show, possibly produced by former NBC Entertainment President (and Today show honcho) Jeff Zucker.

But her remaining months at CBS may not be very comfortable. Skipping a big story won't win you any friends in the newsroom or the executive suite, and it may be another indicator of her pending departure. If Couric doesn't show up in Cairo this week, her departure from CBS is all-but-a-done-deal.
ADDENDUM: Late update from TVNewser: Katie Couric is on her way to Cairo, tanned, rested and ready.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Better Hope He's Right

John Guardino at The American Spectator blog believes the current revolt in Egypt will result in a showdown between the nation's military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Ultimately, he believes the armed forces will prevail:

Egypt, then, has turned a decisive corner, and there is no going back. Mubarak is history. Egypt's rising middle class is demanding greater political freedom and economic opportunity.

Mubarak long ago should have been instituting political reforms that allow for a more representative government. That he did not do so is why Egypt is now being rocked by violent protests.

And while Islamist elements may well try to take advantage of the Egyptian revolution, they face one almost insurmountable obstacle: the Egyptian military, a professional force and a nationally respected institution which views itself as the guardians of greater Egypt.

Indeed, the Egyptian military is not dominated by Islamists; and it will not allow Egypt to descend into total anarchy.

It was the military, Mr. Guardino notes, who led a 1952 coup aimed at rooting out corruption and establishing a more representative government. One of the members of that movement was a young officer named Anwar El Sadat, who later signed the Camp David peace accords, establishing peace with Israel.

Yet, Sadat died at the hands of Islamists within the ranks of his own military. Attending a military parade 6 October 1981, Mr. Sadat was gunned down by soldiers aligned with Egyptian Islamic Jihad who stormed the reviewing stand, firing automatic weapons and tossing grenades.

Thirty years later, we can only wonder how much influence the Islamists have attained within the Egyptian military--not at the flag ranks, but among junior officers and ordinary soldiers, those most likely to side with the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical elements.
ADDENDUM: Late reporting from Cairo suggests that operatives from Hamas have crossed into Egypt from the Gaza Strip, linking up with members of the Brotherhood to provide assistance and support. Calling that development disturbing would be a grave understatement.

Friday, January 28, 2011

What the President Knew (and Didn't Know)

As the situation in Egypt spirals out of control, the Obama Administration is trying to play both sides of the fence--and put the best possible spin on a worsening crisis.

Friday evening, the White House announced that Mr. Obama had a 30-minute phone conversation with embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, encouraging him to restore cell phone and internet service in his country. Those communication channels were cut earlier in the day, part of Mubarak's attempt to complicate organization efforts by the opposition.

And, in an effort to distance the administration from Mr. Mubarak--a reliable U.S. ally for three decades--the White House trotted out political advisor David Axelrod for an "exclusive" interview with Jake Tapper of ABC. During their conversation, Mr. Axelrod eagerly volunteered that President Obama has "confronted" Mubarak on Egypt's human rights abuses "on several occasions" in recent years.

That message was clearly aimed at the growing throngs of protesters in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities. While the riots have not acquired an anti-American tone (at least not yet), many of those participating in the uprising openly chastised the U.S. for its long-time support of the Mubarak regime. That criticism will likely grow in the hours ahead, with word that the Muslim Brotherhood is now taking an active role in the protests. The Brotherhood (which has been officially banned in Egypt for decades) never misses an opportunity to attack the U.S., through propaganda or other channels. It's almost certain that the protests will become stridently anti-American in the next few days--if not sooner.

That's one reason Washington sent out feelers to the opposition on Thursday. But, on the other hand, we're not quite ready to thrown Mr. Mubarak overboard--at least not yet. When PBS anchor Jim Lehrer pressed Joe Biden on the Egyptian president's record, the Vice President refused to describe him as a dictator. That showed continuing support for the Mr. Mubarak--for that moment. But a few hours later, as protesters clogged the streets of Cairo once more, it became apparent that Washington was hedging its bets, demanding the Mubarak regime respect human rights, and that both sides refrain from violence. Mr. Mubarak wasn't exactly tossed under the bus, but it was hardly a rousing show of support.

Meanwhile, there are nagging questions about the U.S.'s role in forementing the rebellion and whether the President was surprised by the sudden threat to Egypt's stability. As for the first issue, the U.K. Telegraph reports that American diplomats aided an Egyptian dissident's participation in an activist's conference in New York in 2008, hiding his identity from Mubarak's security services. In return, the dissident told American diplomats in Cairo that a coalition of regime opponents would attempt to topple the Egyptian leader in 2011. So, if the Telegraph report is true--and they published a classified U.S. cable that supports the story--then Washington helped put these events in motion.

We should note, however, that the British paper failed to put this development into proper context; as the American Spectator reports, the dissident's support was part of a program, advanced by the Bush Administration, to support legitimate democratic reforms in Egypt and elsewhere. Since then, the Obama team has discontinued the initiative, and appears to be "winging it" on the current crisis. Foreign policy expert Robert Kagan told the Politicio that he was "stunned" by the lack of planning in response to (or in advance of) the current upheaval in Egypt.

The lack of preparation apparently extends to the State Department, which forgot about the Egyptian dissident's vow about a coup attempt in 2011. Indeed, the Obama Administration has been ad-libbing its way through the crisis all week. One of the key indicators: Friday's Presidential Daily (Intelligence) Brief, or PDB. Last night, NBC White House Correspondent Chuck Todd breathlessly reported that Mr. Obama's daily brief lasted 40 minutes and it was devoted entirely to the situation in Europe.

The focus is unsurprising, but the length is. During my own career as a spook, I briefed senior officers and civilian officials during several conflicts and crises, including the invasion of Panama; the First Gulf War and Operation Allied Force. The longest brief I ever delivered for any of those events was 10 minutes--including questions from the audience. Of course, my audiences were fully prepared for what was unfolding. Friday's marathon PDB suggests a commander-in-chief playing catch-up on fast-moving events.

If it's any consolation, he's not alone. This type of situation is the most difficult for any administration. There's little they can do, except observe and issue periodic statements designed not to inflame any of the factions.

But this situation is slightly different. The "dominoes" of U.S.-backed Arab governments are beginning to topple, across North Africa and into the Middle East. Think about the consequences of Islamist governments in control of Egypt (and the Suez Canal); Jordan and Yemen, among others. American access to key waterways could be effectively blocked, making it much more difficult to move warships between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, to the Persian Gulf.

Ironically, the canal is less important for U.S. trade; many of the tanker and container vessels moving crude and products to North America are too large to pass through the canal. However, access problems at the canal would have a devastating effect on the European economy, so there will be pressure from our NATO allies to keep the waterway open.

The loss of Egypt and Jordan would also have dire consequences for Israel. Thirty years of peace with those Arab neighbors would come to an end, and Tel Aviv would (again) be surrounded by hostile foes, committed to the eradication of the Jewish State, and supported by an Iranian regime on the verge of going nuclear. That must be a part of our strategic calculus as well. If Mubarak goes, the tenure of Jordan's King Abdullah will be measured in days, and the West Bank will probably fall under the control of Hamas as well. Meanwhile, Israel's most implacable foe (Syria) sits on the Golan Heights, while Hizballah controls the "new" government in Lebanon. If that isn't a nightmare scenario for Mr. Netanyahu, we don't know what is. What is the U.S. prepared to do to ensure Israel's security in that sort of environment.

And beyond that, how do we respond when the protest movement advances to the Persian Gulf Region? Those oil-rich states, long controlled by autocratic monarchs, are ripe for revolt as well. This is hardly a movement that is limited to Egypt or Tunisia, and there are plenty of Islamists (read: terrorists) ready to stoke the fires of revolution in places like Saudi Arabia; Oman, Dubai and Kuwait.

Despite those past "lectures" to Hosni Mubarak, it seems likely that Mr. Obama (and his administration) was blind-sided by this crisis. We can only hope that he gets up to speed quickly and develops some sort of strategy to protect U.S. interests, including the Suez Canal. The consequences of inaction would be enormous.
ADDENDUM: Recent bulletins from Cairo report that Mr. Mubarak has installed his intelligence chief, Omar Sulieman, as Egypt's new vice president. That's not the sort of move Mubarak would make if he was planning to surrender power. The new VP is well-known to U.S. intelligence officials; he's ruthless, extremely competent and not shy about cracking skulls to keep the regime in power. If Mubarak can retain the support of his army, the situation in Cairo (and other Egyptian cities) may resemble Tiananmen Square before the end of the weekend. What happens then is anyone's guess.

One more thought: that 40-minute PDB is also significant in this regard. While the presentation likely included video from media reporting, the unusual length also suggests a substantial stream of intelligence reporting on the uprising. That is encouraging, but it also raises the question of how much information Mr. Obama had received on conditions in Egypt before the uprising began.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Owning Up

Two high-profile examples of personal responsibility played out yesterday, thousands of miles apart, and with very different results.

In a military courtroom at Scott AFB, Illinois, Chief Master Sergeant William Gurney pleaded guilty to 13 of 19 sex-related charges against him. Gurney, the former senior enlisted member of Air Force Material Command, is being court-martialed for engaging in improper relationships with 10 female subordinates. Some of the sexual trysts involved Gurney's wife.

Saying he was caught up in a "cycle of sin," Gurney entered the guilty pleas shortly after the court-martial began. Military judge Colonel Thomas Crumbie also dismissed one obstruction charge against the former command chief, allowing prosecutors to move ahead with five other specifications against Gurney.

Interestingly, the defendant did not make a deal with prosecutors before admitting guilt to the 13 charges. Those offenses carry a maximum sentence of 14 1/2 years in prison, and Gurney could receive more jail time for the five additional charges, ranging from indecent conduct, misuse of his position and maltreatment of two female senior airmen. Gurney, a 27-year Air Force veteran, also faces possible dismissal from service, along with the loss of his military pension and other benefits.

In his statement to the judge, Gurney took responsibility for his actions. As Air Force Times reports:

“I failed not only as an airman, but as a husband,” Gurney told Cumbie while describing the details of each of the charges.

Gurney admitted to seven specifications of dereliction of duty stemming from improper relationships with women; one count of improper use of his government e-mail account, computer and cell phone; one count of indecent conduct stemming from a threesome with his wife and another airman; and four counts of adultery.

In his statement, Gurney described the circumstances behind each guilty plea. He admitted to feeling flattered by the attention several of the women showed him. He also alluded to “a lot going on in my life” and said he acted selfishly.

Gurney concluded the descriptions of most guilty pleas with a similar refrain: “My actions were wrong, and I had no legal justification or excuse for them.”

Gurney's actions surprised some observers. Many high-profile Air Force defendants have reached plea deals prior to courts-martial, allowing them to receive less severe punishment and retain their retirement pensions.

Some analysts also suggested that Gurney (a career intelligence specialist) might try a variation of the defense used by Colonel Michael Murphy, the former commander of the Air Force Legal Operations Agency who was court-martialed for practicing military law without a license. The judge in Murphy's case ruled that he could not be punished even if convicted because his former superiors at the White House refused to release classified details of his service, preventing Murphy's attorneys from presenting the "good airman defense." Murphy was allowed to retire form the Air Force last year--pension intact--but as a First Lieutenant, the last grade at which he served honorably.

At least one former military lawyer suggested that Gurney may have acted against the advice of legal counsel. "Not what I would have recommended," said the former JAG officer who noted that Gurney was cleared for a number of sensitive programs during his career. Releasing details of those programs in court testimony might have been difficult, providing a potential foundation for a defense similar to Murphy's. But Gurney elected to plead guilty to most of the counts against him, electing to take his chances with the officer-only jury that will decide his fate.

Two thousand miles from that Air Force courtroom, another high-profile figure elected to take a pass on personal responsibility. We refer to Ted Williams, the former homeless man and radio personality with that golden voice. He catapulted to fame a couple of weeks back, when reporters for the Columbus (OH) Dispatch found him living on the streets. Williams, whose radio career was curtailed by drugs and crime, has since made the rounds of various talk shows and scored a couple of well-paying voice-over gigs, for Kraft Foods and MSNBC.

In Los Angeles for a taping of the "Dr. Phil" show, Williams had a rather noisy reunion with some of the children he had abandoned years ago. And despite claims of being "clean and sober" for the past two years, Mr. Williams quickly picked up his old habits. His daughter reported that Williams consumed a bottle of vodka and several beers before their fight, which ended when police were summoned to his hotel.

Attempting to get Williams back on track, Dr. Phil sent him to a pricey rehab facility. But yesterday, Mr. Williams walked away from treatment--against the advice of his therapists. Williams's immediate destination was unknown, but he seems headed for the same cycle of drinking and drugs that destroyed his life before.

To be sure, Ted Williams won't hit rock bottom right away. The guy has talent, and there are still a few folks who want to cash in on his sudden celebrity. There's no reason Williams won't earn a six-figure income this year, although most of that money will probably be spent on alcohol and drugs. Needless to say, the impending crash won't be pretty. We can only hope it won't be fatal.

Meanwhile, Chief Master Sergeant Gurney is facing the personal ruin that comes with a courts-martial and the end of a military career. But at least Chief Gurney is taking responsibility for his actions, and that's an important first step. He doesn't have a future in the Air Force, but judging from his actions in the courtroom, Gurney has taken a hard look at himself, and is owning up to his misdeeds. Somewhere down the line, there appears to be hope for William Gurney.

Unfortunately, that's more than we can say for Ted Williams.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Legacy of Vega 31

Wreckage of a USAF F-117, shot down over Serbia during Operation Allied Force almost 11 years ago. Recent reports suggest that China bought pieces of the downed jet, and copied the stealth technology for use in their new J-20 fighter.

March 27, 1999: it was the fourth night of Operation Allied Force, the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia. The effort's initial phase had gone remarkably well; U.S. and allied aircraft had inflicted heavy damaged on Serb air defenses and other critical targets, without the loss of a single NATO aircraft. When the Serbs tried to fight back, they generally paid a high price; three of their MiG-29 Fulcrums had been shot down in the early hours of the conflict, and a number of surface-to-air missile (SAM) batterys had been knocked out of action as well.

But the Serbs would soon exact their revenge--and against an unlikely target. The first U.S. aircraft lost in Allied Force was an F-117 stealth fighter. Almost invisible to radar (and largely invulnerable to enemy air defenses), the Nighthawk had made its reputation over Iraq almost a decade earlier and was assigned to high-value Serbian targets.

After dropping his bombs near Belgrade, Lt Col Dale Zelko turned his F-117 towards the northwest, in the general direction of Aviano AB, Italy, where the stealth jets were deployed. It was his second sortie of Allied Force and everything seemed routine--or, as routine as a combat mission could be--until the aircraft's defensive system went off, telling Zelko that his jet (Callsign Vega 31) was being targeted by enemy air defenses.

Second later, a Serb SA-3 exploded near the F-117, sending it out of control. Realizing the aircraft would not survive, Zelko pulled the ejection handles and left the crippled jet. What followed was a six hour search-and-rescue mission to recover Lt Col Zelko before he could be captured by Serb security forces. The story of that rescue has been retold in various publications, including this detailed, 2006 account by Darrel Whitcomb of Air Force magazine. It's an amazing read, and a fine tribute to the chopper crews, A-10 pilots and pararescuemen who flew deep into Serb territory to retrieve Colonel Zelko.

But the final flight of Vega 31 may have another legacy. In recent days, various media outlets have reported that technology used in China's new stealth fighter may have been copied from the downed F-117. According to the U.K. Telegraph, Chinese agents scoured the Serbian countryside for Nighthawk components after it crashed:

..The Admiral who was Croatia's chief of staff during the Kosovo War has said he believes that China formulated the technology for its J-20 jet from an American F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter that was shot down over Serbia in March 1999.

"At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents criss-crossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers," Admiral Davor Domazet-Loso said. "We believe the Chinese used those materials to gain an insight into secret stealth technologies."

Admiral Domazet-Loso's account is hardly a revelation; in the months following Allied Force, various intelligence accounts suggested that much of the aircraft's wreckage had been shipped to Russia and under the regime of then-President Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia routinely shared military information with Moscow, Beijing and even Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Of course, there are legitimate questions about how much information China might have obtained from the remnants of that F-117, and the role it played in development of the new F-20. However, it is also worth noting that the Nighthawk's systems were roughly 20 years old at the time of the shoot down, and stealth technology had advanced steadily since the early 1980s. For example, the F-117 made heavy use of its angular design (and radar-absorbent material) to reduce its radar signature.

By comparison, the F-22 relies more on advanced shaping to deflect radar signals away from enemy antennas. The Raptor also employs an on-board signature management system which measures the aircraft's "vulnerability" throughout the electromagnetic spectrum, alerting pilots and maintainers when key features need attention. Yet, the F-22 doesn't trade performance for stealth, as the F-117 did.

While the J-20 is clearly patterned after the Raptor, we still don't know how much of its low-observable capability is attained by shaping (versus RAM), and whether its sensors are stealthy as well. And that represents a critical design feature. For example, if the J-20 has a conventional, high-energy pulse-doppler air intercept radar, that would largely negate the stealth characteristics, providing adversaries with an easy way to detect and track the jet.

At this point in its development, it's quite possible the J-20 has avionics similar to those found on SU-33s in the PLAAF inventory, while operational models--entering service at the end of this decade--will have more advanced sensors. While the new Chinese fighter looks impressive, Beijing has a long way to go in producing them in large quantities, with the sensor options and weaponry that truly maximizes their capabilities.

As for that "collection effort" in Serbia, the Chinese were merely following a time-honored custom. Why spend billions on research and development when you can copy existing technology and improve upon it? Russia elevated "reverse engineering" to an art form during the Cold War and Beijing is continuing that tradition today. And, if you believe the U.S. is above that sort of behavior, think again.

In early 1945, an Army Air Corps Colonel named Harold Watson was given a critical assignment: send teams of scientists, engineers and intelligence specialists into Germany (alongside advancing Allied forces) and "appropriate" advanced Nazi weaponry before it could be destroyed, or captured by the Russians. Watson and his men proved adept at their task; they captured enough German jets to fill up the deck of an escort carrier, which ferried them back to the United States. The U.S. team was also successful in identifying--and recruiting--German scientists from advanced aircraft and rocket programs. Many of our post-war efforts in those areas owed a debt to Watson and his teams.

Later promoted to Major General, Watson became an early commander of the Air Technical Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio. Today, the organization is known as the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), but one of its primary missions is the analysis and assessment of foreign military technology. The street that leads to NASIC's headquarters is named for General Watson, who understood the value of "borrowed" technology.


ADDENDUM: As for the event that reportedly gave China access to our early stealth technology (the downing of Vega 31), that "wound" was largely self-inflicted. As we've noted previously, planning teams for Allied Force used the same ingress and egress routes for strike aircraft; the Serbs quickly caught on and deployed their air defenses accordingly. They were also aided by spies, parked on public roads near Aviano AB. With cell phones, they reported the departure and arrival of various Allied aircraft--information that was quickly relayed to air defense crews in the field.

So why didn't the Serbs shoot down more NATO aircraft? Several reasons, actually. First, the introduction of advanced, precision-guided munitions allowed most bombing runs to be conducted from medium altitude, taking attack jets largely out of the AAA envelope. Additionally, the Serb fighter force was a non-factor after the first night of the air war, and their SAM force consisted mostly of antiquated SA-2 and SA-3 missiles. Radars associated with those systems were very vulnerable to jamming and the threat of Allied HARMs kept most of them off the air for extended periods.

Still, the downing of that F-117 proves it is possible for legacy air defense systems to threaten advanced aircraft--particularly if we help the enemy with predictable routing and interval times between formations. Incidentally, the Serb SA-3 commander that brought down Vega 31 was considered among the best in the FRY defense forces and after the war, he made several visits to the U.S., sharing his secrets with us--for a price, of course.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Buh-Bye Keith

We called this a few months ago...predicting that Keith Olbermann's days at MSNBC were numbered. But at the time, we thought the insufferable host might be plotting his own escape:

Olbermann is unhappy at NBC. His role on Sunday night football was eliminated this season, and he's also been banished from election coverage on the broadcast network. Meanwhile, CNN's prime-time ratings are in free fall, and their latest 8 p.m. offering, the dreadful Parker/Spitzer, is DOA. It's hardly a secret that CNN is already looking for a replacement in this time slot, and Olbermann's audience (while only a fraction of Bill O'Reilly's on FNC) would be a major improvement for the third-place cable news channel.

Unfortunately for CNN, Olbermann is currently locked into a four-year contract with MSNBC. However, violation of a network policy would give NBC an excuse to fire Olbermann, who (presumably) would surface at CNN (with a bigger contract and expanded role) in the very near future. If CNN has approached the MSNBC host (or his agent), then Olbermann may have been emboldened, believing he had nothing to lose--and maybe, a better deal to gain--if his political donations landed him in hot water. Additionally, if NBC decides to fire Olbermann, that could negate the "no compete" clause in his contract, allowing him to appear on CNN sooner, rather than later. So, there might be a method to Olbermann's latest act of madness.

Still, that reasoning would contradict our final theory, namely that the MSNBC anchor can't handle any degree of success. Over a 30-year broadcasting career, Olbermann has been fired (or walked away) from a number of plum jobs, including his most famous gig, as Dan Patrick's partner on ESPN's SportsCenter.

Indeed, Olbermann's reputation as a difficult employee is nearly as long as his resume. Fresh out of college, he was almost fired from his first sportscasting job, after telling his bosses at UPI radio service that their inept management made the network a "small time" operation. He followed that with a rocky, three-year stint at CNN, and a few months as sports anchor at Boston's WCVB-TV. Only in his mid-20's Olbermann was seemingly washed-up, out of work and living back at home with his parents in suburban New York.

Still, there were a few folks willing to take a chance on Olbermann. After stints at two TV stations in Los Angeles, he landed at ESPN, becoming part of the marquee team on SportsCenter. But Olbermann made plenty of enemies at the network; he battled with ESPN executives and subjected on-air colleagues to blistering criticism (with the exception of Dan Patrick). He left the sports channel under a cloud in 1997 and was personally fired from Fox Sports by Rupert Murdoch in 2001. A fellow sports anchor at ESPN once observed that Olbermann doesn't just burn bridges, he napalms them. When the sports channel celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2004, Olbermann was conspicuously absent from the reunion of current and former hosts--a reminder that he is still reviled in Bristol.

Six years later, he's apparently worn out his welcome again, this time at MSNBC.

As you may recall, our post was prompted by Olbermann's brief suspension from the network for making campaign contributions to several Democratic politicians--in violation of NBC policies. While some believed Olby's days were numbered, other media insiders predicted MSNBC would stick with the controversial host, since he had the highest ratings on the network. But then came Friday night's stunning announcement, as reported by the AP:

MSNBC's most successful and controversial personality for his outspoken liberal prime-time program, gave an abrupt goodbye to viewers and said Friday was his last show.

It was not immediately known if he quit or was fired. Olbermann did not address the question, and MSNBC said only that they and Olbermann had ended their contract. He signed a four-year contract two years ago.

"MSNBC thanks Keith for his integral role in MSNBC's success and we wish him well in his future endeavors," the network said in a statement.

While the reason for Olbermann's sudden departure was not immediately revealed, some believe it was related to Comcast's pending takeover of NBC, suggesting that the cable conglomerate might want more balance on the network. True, some Comcast executives have donated to the GOP, but the vast majority of their contributions have gone to Democrats. Moreover, the revamped MSNBC line-up remains exclusively liberal, so any "turn to the right" is still a ways off.

As we speculated in November, there are more likely reasons for the change. First, Comcast is extremely focused on the bottom line; the company saw little reason to pay big bucks to a host that delivered less than half the audience of his cable news competitor, Bill O'Reilly (Olbermann's last contract, signed in 2009, paid him $30 million over four years. Secondly, Mr. Olbermann probably viewed his problems at NBC as an opportunity to jump to CNN, which is looking for anything that will draw an audience at 8 pm. Finally, even the execs at NBC had grown tired of his antics and were willing to cut him loose, figuring Lawrence O'Donnell (who inherits the 8 pm slot on MSNBC) can generate similar numbers--and reduce the talent payroll, to boot.

At this point, Mr. Olbermann better hope CNN is interested. Beyond that ratings-challenged network, Olbermann has few job options right now. That anchor at ESPN pegged Olby right; he doesn't simply burn bridges, he obliterates them. Consequently, there is a long list of TV executives who hate Olbermann with a passion and will never hire him again. You can now add the folks at NBC to the list (remember: this was Olbermann's second stint at that network).

From their perspective, the TV host might be described as "The Worst Person in the World."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Some Savings

Trying to sell their health care "reform" plan, President Obama and the Democrats touted various benefits to consumers. Among them: the option of letting families continue coverage on young adults until the age of 26.

Perhaps I'm just uninformed, but that provision struck me as a solution in search of a problem. Once upon a time, "children" became responsible for their own health care once they reached adulthood. I remember a conversation with my father, shortly after graduation from college. It was short and to the point; having finished my education and landed a job, I was being dropped from the family's health care plan, effective at the end of the month. As of that date, I was on my own.

In hindsight, there was nothing cruel or unfair about my father's actions. Why should he continue health coverage on an adult son who was gainfully employed and living on his own? Of course, I was working at a small market radio station which didn't offer health care to its employees and I couldn't afford insurance on my own.

So, for the next couple of years (before joining the military) I did the same thing as most of my peers: I paid out-of-pocket for routine treatment and prescriptions, while trying to move up the career ladder to a station that did offer health insurance, or paid enough so I could buy it on my own.

Flash forward thirty years and the Democrats have finally closed that critical gap in health insurance. Sure, it's little more than a sop to the slacker vote, but the extension of coverage to young adults was hailed as some sort of breakthrough--unless you're actually paying the bill.

You see, we're finally getting a look at how much the extended care will cost families, courtesy of the military's TRICARE health program. When Obamacare was signed into law, the Pentagon moved quickly to meet its various provisions, including the young adult option, which will go into effect later this year. But it won't be cheap, according to military columnist Tom Philpott:

This spring, though an exact date is not yet set, TRICARE coverage will be made available to young adult military dependents out to the age 26, and that extra coverage will be available retroactively to Jan. 1 this year.

But for this expansion in TRICARE coverage, by as much as three to five years, these young adult dependents will have to pay a premium set high enough to cover the entire cost of the program.

The exact charge is not yet known but unofficial estimates have ranged from $1400 to $2400 a year or about $116 to $200 a month.

The bottom line is that Congress didn't achieve for military families what was gained for other American families, at least on adult dependent coverage, through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

This is hardly surprising. Subsidizing coverage for young adults under the TRICARE program would cost an extra $300 million a year--something the Pentagon (correctly) surmised that it cannot afford. So, the cost is being passed on to military families who want to take advantage of the option, with premiums as high as $200 a month.

And TRICARE beneficiaries aren't the only ones who will pay more to cover adult dependents. As Mr. Philpott notes in his column, civilian families under "non-group" health plans will face similar premium increases. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that at least 75,000 young adults fall into that category and their parents will pay as much as military families for coverage.

Gee...didn't Mr. Obama promise that his plan would lower a typical family's health care costs by $2,000 a year? But if you're a TRICARE beneficiary (or a civilian with non-group coverage) and you want to maintain coverage for a young adult son or daughter, get ready to pay through the nose.

For families covered by large, group plans, the cost of insuring young adults will be lower--if you believe HHS figures. By their estimates, the added coverage costs, spread over a larger risk pool, will result in annual premium increases of $62 to $149 a year.

But take those figures with a huge grain of salt. There's no reason to believe that other insurance companies won't adopt the TRICARE pricing model for this particular market segment--particularly if it will help offset some of the other, onerous burdens of Obamacare. Additionally, as the new system squeezes more companies out of the health insurance business, there will be less competition, forcing higher premiums for consumers.

Meanwhile, the free market still offers the best solution for this so-called problem, at least for now. Most insurance companies still offer affordable coverage options for young adults, with annual premiums of less than $1,000 a year (depending on your state of residency). Most have 20-30% co-pays, but these plans offer prescription drug coverage and cap out-of-pocket expenses at $4,000 a year (or less). It's the type of program that most young adults can afford, or (if necessary), their parents can foot the bill.

In a sane world, DoD (and its TRICARE contractors) would be steering young adults into that type of private plan, or into the Medicaid system for those with serious medical conditions. But, thanks to the mandates of Obamacare, DoD is compelled to offer a "young adult option" with far higher premiums than comparable private health care policies. And, we're guessing that the cost for that coverage will only increase. As more military families opt out of young adult coverage, those who remain will be stuck with an ever-increasing bill.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Schumer's Ploy

This was inevitable...

When investigators discovered that Arizona gunman Jared Lee Loughner had been rejected by the Army (because of admitted drug use), it was just a matter of time before some politician connected the dots: Hey, let's require military recruiters to report anyone with a history of drug abuse to other federal agencies!

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), come on down. Earlier this week, Mr. Schumer proposed that federal officials who learn of an individual's illegal drug use must report that information to the FBI. The admission would then go into a federal database, and be used to deny the individual the right to purchase a gun.

Noting that the alleged shooter in the Tucson massacre had admitted to military recruiters that he had used drugs on several occasions, Schumer said he is proposing to the Justice Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that the military be required to to notify federal officials about such admissions. He said such a process does not require new legislation.


Schumer said if military recruiters or other officials report admissions of drug use to a national database, those individuals could be denied a gun.

After Jared Loughner was interviewed by the military, he was rejected from the Army because of excessive drug use. Now by law, by law that's on the books, she should not have been allowed to buy a gun," Schumer told NBC.

"But the law doesn't require the military to notify the FBI about that and in this case they didn't. So I--this morning--I'm writing the administration and urging that be done and the military notify the FBI when someone is rejected from the military for excessive drug use and that be added to the FBI database."

Obviously, Schumer's "proposal" is little more than a thinly-veiled effort to restrict Second Amendment rights. But unfortunately, his suggestion may gain traction, given the fallout from the Tucson tragedy and the administration's own feelings on gun control. We can hear the arguments now: This is a reasonable proposal; it won't require any new laws and it might prevent a similar massacre in the future.

But even a cursory examination reveals that the Schumer suggestion is a horribly bad idea, on multiple levels. First, it places a undue burden on military recruiters, who talk to literally dozens of potential recruits during any given week. We're reasonably sure that Senator Schumer has no idea (read: doesn't care) how much work--and paperwork--is involved in processing a single person into the U.S. military.

Now, on top of all that effort, Schumer wants armed forces recruiters--who often work in a "one-deep" office, miles from the nearest military installation--to screen all of their contacts for illegal drug use and report it to the FBI. Memo to Mr. Schumer: in 21st Century America, most of the young men and women who express an interest in military service are ultimately rejected, for a variety of reasons. So, the recruiter must wade through his list of rejects, looking for individuals whose drug use might make them a future, crazed gunman.

Readers will also note that Senator Schumer didn't bother to define the level of illegal drug use that should be reported to the FBI. Why is that an issue? Because the U.S. military, thank God, has standards that are much tougher than society as a whole. By regulation, the armed services routinely reject applicants who fail a urinalysis test, or admit to the recreational use of marijuana (or other drugs) on more than 15 occasions. That's the way it should be. We don't want stoners (or drunks) handling classified information, or maintaining multi-billion dollar weapons systems.

But that doesn't necessarily mean those same individuals should be denied the right to own a gun. In many cases, that rejection by the military is a wake-up call, convincing young people to give up the weed or the booze and become responsible adults. Those individuals, with no arrest record or convictions on file, should not be penalized for what they told a military recruiter years ago. Under current laws, persons in that category are still eligible for gun ownership, and we see no reason to change.

Besides, the type of drug use in Lougher's case was not a clear predictor of his future rampage. We're guessing the marijuana didn't help, but no one can make the case that Lougher was pushed over the edge because of his drug use. Indeed, the type of activity that Lougher told the Army about is a misdemeanor offense in much of the country.

Ask yourself this question: Do we really need to create a national database of young people who have admitted to marijuana use, and send the FBI to pay them a visit--on the very remote chance they might buy a gun and go off the deep end? Personally, I'd rather see the FBI devote its resources to more important tasks, such as tracking down the thousands of individuals from terrorist havens who enter this country each year. That group poses a far greater menace than military rejects who admit to past recreational drug use and may choose to buy a gun some day.

Schumer's proposal creates civil liberties issues as well. Requiring military recruiters to report applicant's admitted drug use could be construed as a form of illegal domestic surveillance. There's also the matter of where the reporting might end. At some point, most recruits fill out a SF-86, which provides background information for their security clearance. Would Mr. Schumer like the military to hand over those as well? Compared to recruiter interview forms, the SF-86 is a veritable goldmine of information on past residences, associations and travels.

And while we're on that topic, what about notes from the Defense Investigative Service agents who interview the family and friends of those applying for a clearance? Did we mention that some of the claims made in those interviews are unsubstantiated? Now, imagine all that information making its way into a national database, accessible to legions of bureaucrats and available for all sorts of purposes. Gee, whatever happened to that supposed right to privacy that the left keeps harping about?

If it's any consolation, the Schumer proposal is still a ways from becoming a legal requirement. But don't discount that possibility, since it can be implemented without new legislation. Stroke of the pen, law of the land, as the Clintonistas used to say.
ADDENDUM: Hard-core libertarians and the folks at NORML should not interpret this as an endorsement of legalizing drugs. Far from it. We still support the "zero tolerance" policy of the U.S. military and wish the same standard could be applied to military recruits. Unfortunately, the armed services have elected to tolerate certain levels of recreational drug use among prospective enlistees, due to the widespread use of marijuana among those in the primary recruiting cohort (18-25 year-olds).

Friday, January 14, 2011

Today's Reading Assignment

A favorite patch of USAF missile launch crews (photo courtesy The Danger Room)

In the missile fields of Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota, death wears a Snuggie. John Noonan, a defense writer and policy adviser, previously served as a missile launch officer at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming. He described life in the launch complex in a recent column for the Danger Room:

At a small United States Air Force installation in eastern Wyoming, I’m sitting at an electronic console, ready to unleash nuclear hell. In front of me is a strange amalgamation of ’60s-era flip switches and modern digital display screens. It’s the control console for launching an intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM.

On an archaic display screen in the center of the console, three large letters blink in rapid succession. “EAM inbound,” says my deputy commander and the second member of the launch crew. An emergency-action message is on its way, maybe from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, maybe from the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, maybe even from the president. We both mechanically pull down our code books, thick binders swollen with pages of alpha-numeric sequences, and swiftly decipher the message.

After nearly four years of pulling ICBM-alert duty, this process is instinctive. I deliberately recite the encrypted characters to ensure my deputy is on the same page, literally and figuratively, as six short characters can effectively communicate a wealth of information through the use of special decoding binders. “Charlie, Echo, Seven, Quebec, Golf, Bravo, six characters ending in Bravo.” My partner concurs, scribbling in his code book.

“Crowd pleaser,” he adds without emotion, referring to a war plan that mandates immediate release of our entire flight of nuclear missiles, 10 in all.

Of course, this is just a training scenario. The coded orders are a simulation. The console is a mockup of the real thing, stowed away in a larger hanger and serviced seven days a week by a small staff of Boeing contractors.

But before a missileer can unleash Armageddon, he/she must be properly attired:

In a favorite missileer uniform patch, the Grim Reaper sits at an ICBM console, dressed in bunny slippers. In the real world, death wears a campus T-shirt, JCrew bottoms and the ubiquitous Snuggie. The silly blanket-robe hybrid is suited to the missile force, keeping an officer toasty while allowing him to interact with the weapons console unobstructed.

Missileers learn that on alert, comfort is as important as humor. One enterprising fellow liked to string a hammock between the two command chairs and stretch out for his long shifts at the console. Videogame systems are forbidden, a rule that was mocked until it got out that wireless Nintendo Wii controllers could cause the system to detect a false electromagnetic pulse attack and shut down.

I used to imagine that I’d have some sort of stiff-upper-lip moment should I receive “the order,” where I’d shed the Snuggie and slippers, zip up my flight suit, and make imperial references about “going out proper.”

A personal aside: when I was selected for commissioning by the Air Force back in the 1980s, I put missileer at the top of my officer job preferences. My rationale was simple: missiles offered early command experience and I could earn a free master's degree during my stint at Minot, Warren, Whiteman or the other "Garden Spots" associated with missile duty.

Of course, Rule #1 of military service is "Be careful what you wish for," and Rule #2 is "Don't volunteer for anything." Apparently, the Air Force was a little leery of anyone that anxious to be a missileer. So, when my assignment came down, I discovered I was bound for intel, and not missile duty.

Later, I discovered how fortunate I was. Most of my OTS instructors were missileers. Even at that point--with Minuteman, GLCM and Titan all on-line--the future for the career field looked bleak, and many wound up serving out their careers in other AFSCs. Intel turned out to be a fortuitous choice and I spent the rest of my career as a spook--a job I truly enjoyed.

Still, I've always had the greatest respect for missileers. Their mission represents the ultimate guarantee of our national security and besides, they're right up there with fighter jocks in terms of their own, unique culture, as illustrated by the following, true-life stories.

Before the end of the Cold War, some of the drills/simulations were very realistic (some might say a bit scary), particularly if something unusual was going on among Russia's nuclear forces. One night at Whiteman, a Minuteman crew commander was convinced an alert was the real deal and became slightly flustered. In violation of every OPSEC principle (and most SAC regulations), the commander called the base command post and asked to be patched through to his wife at their home, even as he and the deputy crew commander worked through their launch authentications and checklists.

Roused from her sleep, the wife heard her husband scream: "Head for the hills, honey, it's World War III." He then hung up, fully expecting to unleash global thermonuclear war in the moments that followed. His wife, in the finest tradition of USAF spouses, called her best friend (the wife of another missileer), and she called someone else. Within a few minutes, there was a small convoy of frightened wives, children and pets heading out of Knob Noster and Warrensburg, Missouri, bound for the Ozarks. Needless to say, the missileer who started the panic never pulled another alert.

During another drill, a missile crew commander was more concerned about launching his missiles (and leaving this world) in the correct uniform. When the EAM came down, the commander and his deputy were sitting in their underwear because the launch complex's air conditioning was on the blink. "Where's my gun?" the MCC shouted, referring to the pistol that all crew members carried. "If I'm gonna die, I'm going out with my gun on." So, sure enough, he strapped on his pistol and holster over his tighty-whiteys and proceeded through the checklists.

And, as you might imagine, missile duty means the crew is responsible for a wide array of classified information, including secret codes and other COMSEC material. As an intel officer at a TAC base, I was assigned to perform an investigation of a fighter squadron adjutant who couldn't handle her squadron's COMSEC account. As I recall, the Deputy Commander for Operations let her off with a slap on the wrist (we eventually accounted for all of the COMSEC material), but made it clear that the Lieutenant needed to find a new vocation, and made a call to the USAF Personnel Center. Her next job in the Air Force? Missileer.

A tip of the hat to all those, past and present, who have stood watch "on the brink of man-made hell"--in their bunny slippers.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Meanwhile, Back in Beirut

Putting it bluntly, this has not been a good week for American security policy.

On Tuesday, China snubbed visiting Defense Secretary Robert Gates with the first test flight of its new stealth fighter. Readers will recall that Dr. Gates was on a fence-mending mission to Beijing when the J-20 made its maiden flight. The test reaffirmed China's emergence as a technological super-power, and the fact that many in the ruling elite (political and military) don't want better relations with the United States.

Then, just a day later, there was an equally troubling development in the Middle East. Hizballah ministers pulled out of Lebanon's fragile "unity" government, just as that nation's Prime Minister, Saad Hariri sat down for a meeting with President Obama in Washington. The move was yet another embarrassment for the administration, which has strongly backed Mr. Hariri's government, hoping to avoid a complete Hizballah takeover of Lebanon.

The move was yet another reminder of how much influence the terror group (and its sponsors in Iran) have in Lebanese affairs. Hizballah's withdrawal from the ruling coalition was prompted by the on-going UN tribunal into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the father of the current leader. The elder Hariri was killed by a massive car bomb in 2005, an act of political terror widely blamed on Hizballah and its friends in the Syrian intelligence service.

With the tribunal expected to indict Hizballah leaders--and others--in connection with the crime, the terror group decided it was an opportune moment to bring down the government. At this point, it's unclear what may happen next. Installation of the younger Hariri as Prime Minister narrowly avoided a second Lebanese civil war, and the threat of widespread violence has increased with the government's collapse. Israel put its northern military command on heightened alert just hours after Hizballah pulled the plug on Hariri's cabinet.

It's been almost five years since the terror network and the Israelis fought a bloody, month-long war in Southern Lebanon. That conflict grew out of a border incident and its obvious the Netanyahu government doesn't want to be surprised again.

While Lebanon's latest political crises is primarily a result of the UN tribunal--and Hizballah's determination to derail that process--the current situation also creates opportunities for Iran. With Lebanon heading for another period of uncertainty (at best), Tehran's proxies will have a greater opportunity to exert power and expand their arsenal. That, in turn, gives Iran more options for score-settling with Tel Aviv.

Fact is, Tehran is still smarting over the Stuxnet computer worm that infected its nuclear weapons facilities last year. While the source of that worm has never been confirmed, many experts believe it was created--and inserted--by Israeli intelligence. At last report, the Iranians were still trying to get rid of the virus (with only marginal success) and their nuclear weapons program has reportedly been delayed by another two or three years.

So Tehran would like nothing better than striking back at Israel. And Hizballah provides its best option, short of a missile attack that might trigger a nuclear war. By imploding the western-backed government in Beirut, the terror group can advance preparations for a renewed conflict with Israel, improving its positions/facilities in southern Lebanon and even appropriating equipment and personnel from the national army. The United States has poured more than $100 million in equipment and other aid into the Lebanese Army in recent years; there is reason to believe that much of that hardware may fall into Hizballah's hands as the nation falls into political crisis.

The real question is whether Tehran wants to leverage the current situation in Lebanon to start another proxy conflict with the Israelis. That strategy carries obvious risks--if Israel is confident that Iran's nuclear program has been sufficiently delayed, the IDF might be assigned to attack Hizballah's sponsors, along with the terror base in Lebanon. Syria in particular is vulnerable to an Israeli strike, given Tel Aviv's military superiority.

On the other hand, Hizballah has amassed an estimated stockpile of 40,000 missiles and rockets since the end of the 2006 war. Most of those weapons are capable of reaching Israeli territory. During any renewed conflict, the first responsibility of the IAF will be attacking Hizballah launch sites, leaving fewer aircraft for strikes against Damascus and Tehran. And, as we saw five years ago, it is a formidable task to interdict hundreds of rocket and missile launch positions, even in a country as small as Lebanon.

As for the U.S., we're still trying to pick up the political pieces in Beirut, while working with Saudi Arabia to "constructively engage" the Syrians. It's a bad situation, and one that will likely grow worse in the coming weeks.
ADDENDUM: We almost forgot to mention the week's third discouraging security development, this one also in the Middle East. During a visit to Yemen, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed her host's plans to start a terrorist rehabilitation program. The effort to reform jihadists will be apparently based on the Saudi model, which has produced a 40% recidivism rate. Given the number of terrorists running around in Yemen--and the utter failure of other rehabilitation programs--we're sure the Sanaa government can easily smash that record.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Smell of Sour Grapes

To hear Joe Scarborough talk, Glenn Beck owes all of his success to Fox News and Roger Ailes.

On his MSNBC show this morning, Scarborough, the one-time Florida GOP Congressman turned media personality, said Beck was a "no body" before getting a show on FNC:

“I don’t watch Glenn Beck…Glenn Beck was a nobody, and I will say it loud and clear on TV, he was a nobody at Headline News, a nobody, and then Roger Ailes took him under his wings and suddenly he became a superstar,” Scarborough said in an episode of “Morning Joe” that aired Wednesday.

Scarborough added that Beck couldn’t hold his own outside of the Fox News network.

“If Roger Ailes decides to kick him out of Fox News, well, he’ll go back to the Glenn Beck he was before,” he said.

And if that weren't enough, Scarborough said Beck "stirs up hate," and "feeds on people's paranoia." That was Joe's way of saying that Mr. Beck is somehow responsible for the recent massacre in Tucson that claimed six lives.

But a closer examination reveals that Scarborough's rant is less about politics and more about the broadcasting business. Just over two years ago, Scarborough launched a daily show on WABC radio in New York. He was given the coveted mid-morning slot, just after Imus and right before Rush Limbaugh.

It was supposed to be Joe's launching pad to radio stardom. Imus delivers some of the best demographics of any morning drive host in NYC, and Rush's program usually ranks at (or near) the top of his time slot. Scarborough's marching orders were clear: try to hang on to as many of the I-man's listeners as you can, and keep them around until Rush hits the airwaves at noon eastern time.

But a funny (read: predictable) thing happened on Scarborough's journey to the Radio Hall of Fame. His show, on one of the most popular talk stations in the country, tanked--and tanked badly. After just a few months on the air, Joe's show was yanked from WABC, supposedly for re-tooling, in preparation for a national roll-out in the near future.

And who do you suppose was largely responsible for the demise of Joe's radio show? Why none other than Glenn Beck, who dominates the mid-morning talk ratings. Scarborough claimed that his program "beat" Beck in key demos in New York City, but few believe that. If Joe's program was so wildly popular, why did WABC and its owner (Citadel) pull the plug? Where is that "revamped version show? It's been eight months and we're still waiting. Meanwhile, Joe Crummey has been hired for the mid-mornign slot on WABC. Guess he's just keeping the seat warm for the return of Joe and his sidekick, Mika Brzezinski (nod, nod; wink, wink).

Meanwhile, Beck keeps chugging along. He has the third-most-listened to show in talk radio, and is 5 pm Fox broadcast attracts roughly three times the viewers of "Morning Joe" on MSNBC. Not bad for a nobody.

Indeed, we all owe Mr. Beck a debt of thanks. Scarborough is insufferable on TV, and he was even worse on radio. Against Beck, Joe never stood a chance--and rightfully so. Hosting a radio talk show (and doing it well) requires a skill set that only a few possess. That's why the great ones remain at the top year after year after year, while the pretenders come and go.

One more thing: it would appear that Joe is also steamed about Roger Ailes talking Beck "under his wings" and making him a star. You can bet your last dollar that Scarborough would kill for a slot at Fox News, but he's never going to get one, because Mr. Ailes is the best judge of news talent in the business. He clearly knows what to look for in anchors for his #1-rated network, and Joe Scarborough doesn't have it.

And from Joe's perspective, that must be the unkindest cut of all.