Friday, September 30, 2011

The Shopping Trip

It may be the worst piece of political stagecraft since George H.W. Bush visited a grocery store 20 years ago and expressed amazement at a checkout scanner--a device that was long-since familiar to "ordinary" Americans.

But this time, it wasn't a commander-in-chief who looked out of place; it was First Lady Michelle Obama, during Thursday's trip to a Target store in Alexandria, Virginia. After Mrs. Obama was repeatedly criticized for her lavish vacations, designer clothes and general taste for the good life, someone in the White House decided she needed a little image work, making her seem less like Marie Antoinette, and more like the common folk who are trying to stretch a buck.

“One thing she loves to do is shop at Target,” President Barack Obama said of his wife Friday in an interview with Philadelphia radio personality Michael Smerconish. Mr. Obama's comments were eagerly reprinted in the Politico, ready to advance the narrative that the FLOTUS simply needed to get out of the White House "bubble" for a little while.

Give me a break. Does anyone outside the Politico staff (and the rest of the White House press corps) really believe that? As is often the case with this administration, the "official" version of events doesn't quite square with reality.

For starters, there's no such thing as an "impulse" trip by the POTUA or his spouse. Even for a short jaunt to Target, security must be coordinated--in advance--by the various agencies involved, including the Secret Service; the Washington, D.C. police force; the Virginia State Police and the local department in Alexandria.

And of course, the First Lady simply doesn't stroll into a store that hasn't been carefully searched (and re-checked) before she enters. It's a given that Target's corporate headquarters was contacted days in advance and preparations at the store began long before Mrs. Obama showed up. We're also guessing there was a heavy security presence around that store hours before the visit began; after all, it takes time--and effort--to deploy snipers, undercover officers, canine teams and the other precautions that accompany that type of visit.

There's also the little matter of the press coverage generated by the Target run. What a coincidence--an Associated Press photographer just happened to arrive in time to snap pictures of Mrs. Obama in the checkout line. And this wasn't some stringer or general assignment shutter jockey; the AP photog who got the exclusive was Charles Dharapak, who's been assigned to the White House beat for years. Gee...what are the odds that Mr. Dharapak shows up at the same store Michelle Obama is shopping at without a tip from the White House Press Office? Approximately zero.

El Rushbo deserves credit for doing what the MSM wouldn't dare, describing the "event" in more realistic terms: "“What a phony-baloney plastic banana good-time rock-and-roll optic photo-op that was,” he said on his Friday radio show.

Mr. Limbaugh was also one of the few observers who bothered to look in the First Lady's shopping basket, casting further doubts about the motive behind the shopping expedition. Among the items purchased? A bottle of Lysol cleaner. That's a rather odd choice, considering that Mrs. Obama and her family live in a government mansion (with a professional house-keeping staff) that buys cleaning supplies by the truckload through the General Services Administration.

Too bad Mr. Smerconish didn't ask the President what his wife was going to clean with that Lysol. As one wag observed, the last First Lady who actually cleaned the White House was Dolly Madison, after the Brits torched the place during the War of 1812. Since then, all the dusting, scrubbing and other chores have been handled by the White House staff. So, what's the probability that Mrs. Obama will personally use that bottle of Lysol to disinfect the White House living quarters?

You'd think that even the "journos" at Politico would be able to figure that one out.
ADDENDUM: To be fair, all administrations create photo ops on a daily basis. But few have been as transparent or clumsily constructed as the Target visit. Could you imagine the reaction if a Republican First Lady, say, Laura Bush, conducted a similar shopping trip? The same reporters who fret over Michelle Obama's tough life in the bubble would be in high dungeon over an obvious political stunt and efforts at "media manipulation."

We should also note one other curious element to this story--one that even the Politico scribes have picked up on. Since Mrs. Obama's visit on Thursday, the staff at the Alexandria target have been on virtual lock down, with only the manager authorized to speak with the press--and only by telephone.

And just how much did the photo-op cost the taxpayers? A former member of the White House presidential advance team (which performs similar services for the First Lady) put the tab (conservatively) in the "tens of thousands of dollars." The source notes that, along with security, there was also a requirement to establish secure comms at the site (through the White House Communications Agency); determine the location of the nearest medical facilities and coordinate treatment planning, in the event of an emergency. Those tasks--and others--are part and parcel of any trip by the president or the first lady, and they require time, money and personnel to complete.

Put another way, that was a very expensive bottle of Lysol.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

MANPADs for the NYPD?

On the streets of New York? In an interview with CBS News, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly stated his department has the ability to "take down" aircraft which threaten the city--without assistance from the federal government. Kelly's comments have raised speculation the NYPD has acquired a system like the Boeing Avenger, shown here during a 2003 deployment in Washington, D.C. The Avenger has Stinger missiles mounted on a HUMVEE (UPI photo).

Tonight's edition of 60 Minutes featured a segment on one of the world's most sophisticated anti-terrorism units--the New York City Police Department. Over the past decade, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly (and the city) have spent $3 billion on measures designed to prevent or mitigate future attacks.

According to Kelly, more than 1,000 NYPD officers are assigned to the counter-terrorism unit, which was essentially created after the 9-11 attacks. In his interview with Scott Pelley, outlined the obvious strategy behind this organization, and one of its very surprising capabilities:

Ray Kelly: We're the number one target in this country. That's the consensus of the intelligence community. We're the communications capital. We're the financial capital. We're a city that's been attacked twice successfully. We've had 13 terrorist plots against the city since September 11. No other city has had that.


We were with him, in his hi-tech command truck last Wednesday when he headed to the east side as New York hosted the United Nations General Assembly. He wanted to be there when President Obama arrived. To prepare for those 137 heads of State, Kelly has to understand the threats that all of those foreign leaders have at home so their local troubles don't play out here.

Kelly: We have to look abroad. We do that with the Secret Service, to see what the issues are in another country. Does that raise the threat level here?

The threat level in New York was already high. Intelligence said that there could be a car bomb attack on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and that worry had still not been resolved.

Extra: Kelly on 1993 WTC attack

Vinny Giordano [nat sound]: All our interior and exterior checkpoints are up and running. Bomb squad's completed all its sweeps and their Ops are up.

Kelly had the tower of the U.N. Secretariat building surrounded. Snipers on the roof tops, divers in the river, helicopters above. Mr. Obama slipped into the U.N. with the Secret Service, under the blanket of the NYPD. All of this came just ten days after Kelly's team had secured the most sensitive event in the nation.

It was the 9/11 National Memorial on the tenth anniversary of the attack on America. Osama bin Laden had written about attacking again on this very day. And Kelly had more than 8 million New Yorkers to protect.

As the names of the fallen were being read, Kelly was watching from his brand new Joint Operations Center.

From here he can see everything. All in one cavernous room Kelly has representatives from the military, the FBI, Federal Emergency Management, state and local first responders. The center is a symbol of the 10 years and three billion dollars that he has spent to prepare for every kind of threat.

Pelley: Are you satisfied that you've dealt with threats from aircraft, even light planes, model planes, that kind of thing?

Kelly: Well, it's something that's on our radar screen. I mean in an extreme situation, you would have some means to take down a plane.

Pelley: Do you mean to say that the NYPD has the means to take down an aircraft?

Kelly: Yes, I prefer not to get into the details but obviously this would be in a very extreme situation.

Pelley: You have the equipment and the training.

Kelly: Yes.

Obviously, there are only a certain number of ways to bring down an aircraft, namely jet fighters, anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles. Since we haven't seen any F-15s or F-16s with NYPD markings (or AAA guns deployed around New York), it seems rather obvious that the New York police force has been equipped with shoulder-fired SAMs, most likely a Stinger variant.

While we understand the reasoning behind this capability, it does raise some pertinent questions, namely, what are the ROE for downing a suspect aircraft, and what coordination--if any--would occur before an NYPD aims his MANPAD, uncages the seeker and pulls the trigger. Under most scenarios, we assume there would be some warning from NORAD, alerting the police to the situation and giving them time to deploy MANPAD teams.

But we're also reminded of the confusion that might exist under such circumstances. For well over an hour on the morning of September 11, 2001, no one was really sure how many planes had been hijacked, and when United Flight 93 crashed in rural Pennsylvania, senior government officials assumed it had been shot down by U.S. Air Force F-16s. Only later did they learn that heroic passengers had thwarted the terrorists' plans by storming the cockpit and forcing them to crash the jetliner into the ground.

More than a decade later, coordination between NORAD and other government agencies has improved dramatically. But there can't be any hesitation (or uncertainty) when a police MANPAD team is dispatched to intercept a plane that appears to threaten New York City. Under those conditions, the NYPD (and its partners in the anti-terror mission) have only one chance to get it right--or horribly wrong.
While Mr. Kelly won't provide specifics on his department's "air defense" system(s), one likely candidate is the Boeing Avenger system, which consists of pedestal-mounted Stinger missiles on a HUMVEE chassis. The Avenger has been deployed around the nation's capital on several occasions, in response to increased terror threats. Still, if the NYPD has this system, it's rather amazing that the distinctive vehicles have never been seen in New York.

Another option would be Stingers carried in ordinary police vehicles, manned by officers trained in MANPAD operations. However, that employment method would have a major drawback--limited communications. An Avenger vehicle has the ability to link into air defense network, giving gunners a complete air picture, making it easier to track and engage threat aircraft.
ADDENDUM: Sources tell the New York Post the police department's "anti-air" capabilities consist of a .50 caliber sniper rifle which could--theoretically--be used to target vital components on a threatening aircraft (talk about a one-in-a-million shot). And Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters that the NYPD's air defense weaponry "could not" have prevented the 9-11 attacks, suggesting the department's capabilities are less robust that originally believed. However, the mayor refused to discuss specifics, suggesting (again) that the NYPD may have more in its anti-air arsenal than a sniper rifle.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Not Exactly Shovel Ready

Andrew Malcolm of the Los Angeles Times is (apparently) the only media figure that caught President Obama in another embarrassing gaffe the other day.

It came during his heavily-publicized speech next to the Brent Spence Bridge, spanning the Ohio River between Covington, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio. The "optics" (as the political class describes them) were aimed at generating support for Mr. Obama's new jobs bill. Never mind that the bridge he used as a backdrop isn't falling down; it's merely congested and much of that problem will be alleviated by the planned construction of a new bridge across the Ohio, about five miles downstream. Unfortunately, the project won't get underway until 2015, so construction workers hoping to build the new span won't be hired for another 48 months or so.

Of course, Mr. Obama didn't mention any of those inconvenient facts in his speech. But he did make one rather astonishing claim, as Mr. Malcolm reminds us:

Now, we used to have the best infrastructure in the world here in America. We’re the country that built the Intercontinental Railroad, the Interstate Highway System. (Applause.) We built the Hoover Dam. We built the Grand Central Station. (Applause.)

So how can we now sit back and let China build the best railroads? And let Europe build the best highways? And have Singapore build a nicer airport? At a time when we've got millions of unemployed construction workers out there just ready to get on the job, ready to do the work to rebuilding America.

The Intercontinental Railroad? Is that the one that connects San Francisco and Tokyo, or New York and London. Obviously, they don't exist. We assume President Obama was referring to the transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869. It remains a marvel of engineering and speed, largely because immigrant work crews didn't have an OSHA inspector demanding hearing protection for everyone, or the EPA trying to protect every bug, bird and snake that lived along the railroad's right-of-way.

Which leads us to another element missing from Mr. Obama's address: The legal and regulatory difficulties associated with many of his beloved infrastructure projects. Securing authorization for a new airport serving a major city would be a nightmare, complete with scores of lawsuits and endless red tape, ensuring that the project complies with thousands of federal, state and local rules (assuming it ever gets off the ground). That's a big reason that most localities are content to expand or improve existing facilities, avoiding the 20 years (and billions of dollars) required to build a major airport from scratch.

It's also worth noting that some of the overseas projects touted by President Obama are being described as failures. China's high-speed rail network, often touted as a "model" for the U.S., has run up close to $300 billion in debt, and most travelers still prefer slower (but much cheaper) buses. In fact, it's hard to find a bullet train line anywhere that's making money.

Clearly, Mr. Obama isn't going to sweat those details. He's desperately trying to sell his jobs bill and paint Republicans as obstructionists who want Americans to remain unemployed. Besides, if most Americans actually read the jobs plan, they'd see it for what it is: Stimulus II (or is it III), aimed at benefiting the president's friends in big labor and the public employee unions. Never let the ugly truth get in the way of a good political narrative.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

An Inauspicious Debut

This is the time of year when TV stations roll out their new syndicated offerings--those programs (mostly talk shows) that air in the morning and late afternoon, and provide lead-in audiences for local news shows. Since news is a critical revenue source, it's important to have a lead-in program that actually delivers an audience.

The latest crop of syndicated shows are making their debut this week, and at least one high-profile project is stumbling out of the gate. We refer to the daytime talk fest hosted by CNN star Anderson Cooper. Its debut on Monday drew the second-lowest rating of any daytime talk show (only Wendy Williams had a smaller audience). Meanwhile, some of Cooper's competitors (most notably, Dr. Oz) posted significant audience gains.

Obviously, one day does not make an entire season, and there's still time for the audience to "discover" Mr. Cooper's program, as TV execs like to say. But it's clearly not what Warner Bros. television had in mind when they approved this project and signed Cooper to a lucrative contract.

Still, the early results aren't exactly surprising, considering the host's track record at CNN. Mr. Cooper has anchored an evening news program at the cable network for years, and his broadcast runs far behind the competition on Fox News Channel and is occasionally bested by MSNBC as well. In other words, Cooper hasn't exactly been an audience magnet in cable news; so why did the folks at Warner Bros. think he'd fare any better in the cutthroat world of syndicated TV?

But in the parallel universe of the MSM, performance is sometimes secondary to your connections. Mr. Cooper became a household name at CNN, a network synonymous with the kind of news coverage that turns off millions of viewers. But since TV executives run in the same circles as media personalities (and hold the same world view), giving Anderson Cooper at daytime show was a perfectly logical step. The real surprise (from their perspective) is why most Americans are ignoring it.

This much is certain: local stations that bought the Cooper program won't wait indefinitely for ratings to improve. If audience levels remain low, look for local stations to move the show to a graveyard time slot (1 am or later), before bailing on the project entirely. With millions of dollars of revenue at stake, particularly in the larger markets, local affiliates can't afford to stick with a turkey.

Cooper's slow start also offers a cautionary tale for other programmers already working on the next generation of celebrity talk shows. Katie Couric's daytime program will start airing next September and it's already being touted as a sure-fire winner. After all, Ms. Couric was the Queen of Morning TV for more than a decade, and the viewers who watched her on "Today" are bound to flock to her talk show. Never mind that she was a total flop as anchor of the "CBS Evening News," and she has the same type of media pedigree as Anderson Cooper. Sounds like a can't-miss ratings bonanza to us.

Today's Reading Assignment

...from Newt Gingrich, on the rapidly escalating crisis in the Middle East--and no discernible response from Washington (what a surprise).

The former Speaker of the House is not alone. Various outlets (including our little blog) have voiced similar concerns in recent months. However, it is rather surprising that Mr. Gingrich puts Iran's imminent entry into the nuclear club at #5 on his list. In our estimation, that should be our #1 concern.

The entire piece is well worth the read at Human Events.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

How Did Barksdale Pass?

Newly-Released Report Raises Questions About Unit's Nuclear Readiness After the 2007 "Minot Incident"

by Nate Hale

Four years ago this month, an evaluation team from Air Combat Command arrived at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, to conduct a Limited Nuclear Surety Inspection of the 2nd Bomb Wing, the Air Force's largest B-52 unit.

But it was anything but a routine inspection. Events that unfolded just days earlier gave a new urgency to the evaluation, making it a bellwether for the Air Force's troubled nuclear enterprise.

Less than three weeks before the inspection team arrived at Barksdale, the 2nd Bomb Wing had been involved in one of the most serious nuclear incidents in the nation's history. On 29 August, one of the unit's B-52s began a 1,200 mile flight from Minot AFB, North Dakota to the Louisiana installation. The giant, eight-engine bomber was carrying six cruise missiles scheduled for deactivation. It was supposed to be a normal ferry mission, part of the planned retirement of early-model AGM-129 air-launched cruise missiles. Once at Barksdale, the missiles would be downloaded from the giant bomber, demilitarized and destroyed, in accordance with arms control protocols.

But unknown to crews at Barksdale, their counterparts at Minot had committed a grave error. The missiles slated for transfer to Louisiana had their nuclear warheads removed, a mandatory procedure before a ferry mission. But personnel at the North Dakota base mistakenly loaded six nuclear-tipped missiles onto the bomber. Amazingly, the mistake was never detected by teams at Minot that loaded the weapons; the 2nd BW crew that flew the B-52, or personnel at Barksdale that greeted the jet.

In fact, the nuclear warheads were not "discovered" until almost 12 hours later, when a Barksdale load crew arrived to remove the cruise missiles. By that time, the warheads had been officially "missing" for more than 36 hours, a period that included the previous evening at Minot, where the bomber sat, without required security measures, before the flight to Barksdale.

The incident was reportedly classified as Bent Spear, a term used to describe serious nuclear mishaps which may include breaches or violations of security and handling regulations. News of the incident was immediately briefed to senior Air Force officials; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and President George W. Bush.

The military quickly launched a full-scale investigation of the mistaken transfer, and began punishing those deemed responsible for the incident. Within days of the mishap, rumors about firings and dismissals began to make the rounds.

And those rumors were not unfounded; as the official inquiry began to gather steam, the Air Force fired Colonel Bruce Emig (Commander of the 5th BW at Minot); Colonel Cynthia Lundell, commander of Minot's maintenance group, and Colonel Todd Westhauser, leader of the 2nd Operations Group at Barksdale. In that capacity, Westhauser "owned" the B-52 and crew that brought the nuclear warheads to the Louisiana base. Eventually, the discovery of other problems in the USAF's nuclear enterprise would result in the dismissal of the Air Force Secretary and the service's Chief of Staff, along with sanctions for dozens of lower-ranking personnel.

Against that backdrop, the 2nd BW faced the most critical LNSI in its history. For nine days (18-27 September), evaluators from ACC, shadowed by experts from Air Force Space Command and other federal agencies, inspected every element of the bomb wing's nuclear mission. Records were carefully screened; equipment was inspected and wing personnel demonstrated key elements of their unit's nuclear capabilities.

When it was over, the 2nd BW received an overall rating of "Satisfactory," and Air Force officials breathed a sign of relief. Had the Barksdale unit failed its LNSI, the nation's bomber leg of its nuclear triad would have been seriously crippled. Without Barksdale and Minot, America's nuclear bomber force would have been reduced to a handful of B-2 stealth bombers, based at Whiteman AFB, Missouri. But with Barksdale earning a passing grade, that unit could continue its nuclear mission and perform key tasks for the 5th BW as well, while the Minot unit worked to regain its nuclear certification.

But new questions are being raised about the results of the 2007 inspection at Barksdale. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed almost four years ago by "In From the Cold," the Air Force recently released a lightly-redacted version of the LNSI report. According to experts who reviewed the document at the request of this blog, the report details discrepancies that typically result in a failing grade for a unit.

In particular, they point to the 2nd BW's inability to properly load weapons and generate simulated nuclear sorties during the inspection. Section III of the 36-page report details prolonged efforts by 2nd BW crews to perform essential tasks, including an air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) pylon upload; preparation of a ferry aircraft with one ALCM pylon and one advanced cruise missile pylon, and one complete aircraft generation, from weapons transfer through aircrew acceptance.

As noted in the inspection report, Barksdale personnel struggled mightily to complete their assigned duties. According to evaluators, the first attempt at aircraft generation was terminated after 14 hours, due to problems with weapons handling trailers and generators.

A second try at aircraft generations also failed. The exercise was initially delayed (due to uneven pavement under the B-52 weapons bay), prompting a relocation of the aircraft. As the exercise continued, crews experienced more equipment problems. The second attempt was finally halted at the 15-hour point, when "critical faults" were discovered during post-load checks.

During the next attempt, the 2nd BW attempted to generate two aircraft. The third B-52 was rejected due to a critical fault during post-load checks. Ground crews managed to generate the fourth bomber, but not before another equipment problem (with a lift arm) required a weapons demate/mate.

All told, Barksdale personnel spent more than 30 hours generating a single nuclear-capable aircraft. Yet despite the reported difficulties, the 2nd BW still received a "Satisfactory" grade for the Loading and Mating portion of the evaluation, a rating that left some nuclear experts stunned.

"Tell me this is a joke," said one retired Air Force weapons expert, with more than 20 years of nuclear experience. Pages 9 and 10 [of the report] are enough to result in automatic "Unsats" (unsatisfactory ratings). No pass, go to jail or whatever. If you can't load, you can't be inspected, and if you can't be inspected, you are UNSAT, he continued. "Don't waste the gas to send the team. Where the hell is the leadership?"

The weapons expert who reviewed the Barksdale report spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Another former expert was equally blunt in his criticism of the unit and the evaluation. "It's very, very difficult to believe they could receive a passing grade on any kind of inspection when they were unable to generate a single successful nuclear sortie until the fourth attempt," he said.

The retired Air Force official also observed that evaluators seemed to put most of the blame on faulty equipment--and not the crews that maintained it

"Members of the inspection team (and I'm sure the 2nd Bomb Wing) seem to want to attribute their inability to generate a sorties on equipment failures. However, the sheer amount of failure makes this very hard to accept," he said. "In theory, all of the vehicle inspection and checklist compliance pieces are supposed to ensure that equipment is in good working order. Clearly, in practice, that wasn't the case. It appears they were given a set of mulligans to account for equipment failures and ensure they were able to (eventually" generate a sortie."

The second expert--who also requested anonymity--expressed amazement at another apparent trend in the report. He said the document repeatedly "spins" the lack of a negative finding into a positive one, and offered several examples:

"On page 11, paragraph 2 of the report, 'the weapons loading community overcame numerous equipment malfunctions,' instead of being held accountable for poorly-maintained equipment, they are lauded for how they dealt with failures," he commented.

The expert also chuckled at a paragraph praising Barksdale personnel for following required communications security (COMSEC) practices. "This is ridiculous," he said, "They just described compliance. You can't comply "exceptionally."

As a third example of "spin," the nuclear expert cited a paragraph on page 14 of the report, noting that Barksdale had only one "incident" of a close-in sentry abandoning his post. "Having a sentry leave his position is a huge issue," the former official observed. "They frame his 'one failure' as 'well, it was just one failure and categorize it as a [unit] strength."

The inspection report also highlighted problems that may have contributed to nuclear incident that occurred in late August of 2007. Evaluators found that 2nd BW personnel "did not ensure that markings for ferry payloads and Type 3 trainers were applied or legible prior to use for payload mate to missile." It is unknown what markings--if any--were applied to the nuclear missiles mistakenly transferred from Minot to Barksdale, or if crews at the Louisiana base failed to recognize payload markings when the B-52 arrived.

Overall, the 2007 LNSI at Barksdale evaluated management and performance in 17 different areas related to the unit's nuclear mission. The 2nd BW earned "Excellent" ratings in 10 categories, five were judged as "Satisfactory," and only two were rated "Marginal." Those areas, Program Management and Administration and Unit Administration, received low marks for a critical finding, the certification of non-qualified aircrew members as mission ready. Inspectors found that the unit failed to ensure proficiency in all nuclear-related events before declaring initially-qualified aircrew and "combat mission ready."

The report lists more than 30 findings during the Barksdale inspection, including those serious issues in weapons loading/aircraft generation and aircrew certification. That raised concerns about pressure on the evaluators to generate a satisfactory score, and prevent de-certification of the 2nd Bomb Wing. The former Air Force official believes "external pressures were driving inspectors to deliver a passing grade."

"While there is no way I can say with certainty that the pressure affected the outcome," he continued," It's" very difficult to imagine a situation where an inspection team would be willing to deliver the message if there was any possible way it could be avoided."

After passing the 2007 inspection, the 2nd BW continued its nuclear mission and performed critical duties at Minot as well, while the 5th Bomb Wing struggled to regain its certification. Personnel from the Louisiana base remained at Minot through the first half of 2008, until the 5th Wing was re-certified to perform its nuclear mission. Had Barksdale failed its evaluation in the fall of 2007, the re-qualification process would have been much longer and more complex, crippling the bomber leg of the nuclear triad for months, and limiting options for strategic planners.

Observers note that the Barksdale evaluation was the first "no-notice" inspection conducted in the wake of the Minot incident. The 2007 event ushered in an era of more rigorous nuclear standards and evaluations, as well as a reorganization of the USAF's nuclear enterprise. Almost two years later, Global Strike Command became operational and took charge of the Air Force's nuclear mission from its headquarters at Barksdale.

Creation of the new command was one of the recommendations from a task force (chaired by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, who chaired a task force that investigated the Minot incident. The Schlesinger panel discovered that nuclear expertise in the Air Force had been badly eroded by a variety of factors, ranging from decreased emphasis on the mission, to the use of technicians in other capacities (such as guarding prisoners in Iraq).

Over the past two years, there have been fewer reported problems in the Air Force nuclear enterprise, but there were clear growing pains. After the Minot incident, four more USAF wings failed their nuclear surety inspections in 2008 and 2009, leading (in some cases) to more personnel changes. The 5th Wing also failed its initial NSI in May 2008, though it regained its nuclear certification, and passed a make-up evaluation three months later.

The service was also embarrassed by the mis-shipment of nuclear components to Taiwan in early 2008, an event that led to more calls for greater accountability, and changes in Air Force nuclear operations. At least six USAF generals were disciplined over that matter, along with a larger number of lower-ranking officers. The sanctions were announced just weeks after the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Michael Moseley and the Air Force Secretary, Michael Wynne, were asked to resign because of continuing problems in the nuclear enterprise.

Air Force public affairs officials did not respond to e-mail requests for comment on the 2007 report.

No explanation was given as to why it took so long to release the report. Only two paragraphs in the report were redacted, included a brief section describing the "health" of Barksdale's nuclear stockpile at the time of the evaluation. The report was originally classified "For Official Use Only/DoD Unclassified Controlled Nuclear Information." Release of the 2007 report was authorized by Major General Harold Mitchell, the Air Force's Deputy Inspector General.

Some of the personnel connected with the original Minot episode have remained in the service. Colonel Emig, the 5th Bomb Wing commander who was fired in the weeks after the incident, now runs the Irregular Warfare Division at Air Combat Command Headquarters, and has played a major role in shaping Air Force UAV operations. Colonel Westhauser, the former commander of the 2nd Operations Group at Barksdale, is now assigned at Maxwell AFB, AL, where he is Director of Doctrine Development at the Curtis LeMay Center.

Friday, September 09, 2011

The Al Qaida Jobs Plan?

President Obama unveiled his latest jobs plan for America last night. There were no real surprises, and critics said Mr Obama's proposal--outlined before a joint session of Congress--was little more than a rehash of policies that have already been tried, but with no appreciable success.

Meanwhile, the administration may be (inadvertently) implementing a jobs program overseas. We refer to this week's announcement for deep troop cuts in Iraq, which could undermine security gains, and put more terrorists back to work. As Fox News reported:

The Obama administration has decided to drop the number of U.S. troops in Iraq at the end of the year down to 3,000, marking a major downgrade in force strength, multiple sources familiar with the inner workings and decisions on U.S. troop movements in Iraq told Fox News..

Senior commanders are said to be livid at the decision, which has already been signed off by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

There are currently about 45,00 U.S. troops in Iraq. Commanders requested a reduction by year's end, but according to Fox, it wasn't enough for the White House. When they suggested a reduction to 10,000 the administration decided the final number would be just 3,000. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has already signed off on the plan, over the objections of senior military officials, who complain the dramatic cutback will leave them unable to meet mission requirements:

"We can't secure everybody with only 3,000 on the ground nor can we do what we need to with the Iraqis," one source said. Another source said the actual total could be as high as 5,000 when additional support personnel are included.

A senior military official said by reducing the number of troops to 3,000, the White House has effectively reduced the mission to training only.

"There is almost no room for security operations in that number; it will be almost purely a training mission," this official said. The official added that a very small number of troops within that 3,000 will be dedicated to counter-terrorism efforts, but that's not nearly what Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, wanted.

It doesn't take a strategist to figure this move is about saving money (and politics), rather than military realities on the ground. Obviously, U.S. forces can't stay in Iraq forever, but commanders clearly want a more gradual withdrawal, to avoid compromising hard-won security gains. Meanwhile, the White House was worried about election-year "optics," and decided to press ahead with the larger reduction.

Which brings us to the jihadi "jobs" factor. Recent reports indicate that Al Qaida in Iraq is down, but certainly not out. But with fewer American troops involved in security operations, the terrorists may have new opportunities to replenish their ranks and increase attacks against U.S. personnel and our Iraqi allies. Iran will reap similar benefits, and will likely ramp up its own terror efforts inside Iraq. So, our "hurry up" plan to exit that country will have the unintended consequence of putting more terrorists back to work.

It's worth noting that August was the first month when the U.S. did not record a single military death in Iraq. That's rather remarkable, and it was a long time coming. Barely five years ago, upwards of 100 U.S. troops were being killed each month in Iraq, as the "surge" took the fight to the terrorists, a move that (ultimately) broke the back of the terrorist network and brought stability to that war-torn country.

It would be nothing sort of tragic to surrender those gains--and give new life to terrorist networks in Iraq--simply for short-term political expediency. But that possibility is quite real, given the administration's haste to get out of Iraq.


South Korean political sources say a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing on the peninsula earlier this year, after extensive jamming from North Korea.

An unnamed official told AFP that the incident occurred on the afternoon of 4 March, about 45 minutes into its mission. The U.S. aircraft received jamming at five to 10 minute intervals which interferred with its GPS system, forcing it to return to base.

[An] aide [to the ROK Parliament Defense Committee] aid the plane suffered disturbance to its GPS system due to jamming signals from the North's southwestern cities of Haeju and Kaesong as it was taking part in the annual US-South Korea drill, Key Resolve.

The incident was disclosed in a report that Seoul's defense ministry submitted to Ahn Kyu-baek of parliament's defense committee, the aide to Ahn said.

Spokesmen for the defense ministry and US Forces Korea declined to comment..

The jamming also reportedly affected South Korean patrol boats in the Yellow Sea and civilian air traffic operating from Kimpo Airport near Seoul.

This incident is significant for a couple of reasons; first, jamming is considered an act of war, and could have resulted in an armed response by the U.S. or South Korea, if either country was so inclined. But, given the collective willingness of Washington and Seoul to ignore such provocations as last year's sinking of a ROK corvette, and the shelling of a South Korean island near the DPRK coast, Pyongyang figured they had nothing to lose, and once again, they were right.

The jamming also suggests that North Korea has upgraded its modest electronic warfare capabilities. While GPS jammers have been on the arms market for a number of years, Pyongyang's capabilities in this area were limited. If the report is accurate, the DPRK may have acquired a more powerful GPS jammer, capable of affecting navigation systems over a wider area, (potentially) impacting a host of activities, from intelligence collection to precision weapons applications.

Note the use of the term "potential." That's because we have some counter-measures for GPS jamming that can lessen its impact on the battlefield. Needless to say, we weren't going to demonstrate those capabilities during Key Resolve or any other routine exercise. So, North Korea can keep guessing about the effectiveness (and survivability) of its GPS jammers in a combat environment.

While the type of aircraft involved in the incident was not disclosed, it was probably an RC-12 Guardrail; an RC-7 ARL (Airborne Reconnaissance Low), or a U-2. All three aircraft can collect various forms of intelligence, and none have an on-board navigator. Relying on GPS data for everything from flight navigation to sensor slewing, the presence of heavy jamming would be enough to force the pilot or aircrew to abort the mission. Not only would the interference make some intel collection more difficult, it would also increase flight safety risks.

By comparison, other intel platforms (notably the Air Force RC-135 and Navy EP-3) have on-board navigators, allowing them to continue operations in the face of GPS jamming. However, the electronic noise would have some impact on intel collection by those aircraft as well--but probably not enough to force mission termination.

Still, the AFP report should be taken with a grain of salt, since it came from political sources. "Jamming" might be something of a cover term for something more sinister, like the illumination of a U.S. recce aircraft by a North Korean SA-5 site. The long-range SAM system poses virtually no threat to fighter aircraft, but it is capable of engaging reconnaissance, battle management and other support platforms at long range. Being "painted" by an SA-5 radar for an extended period would be sufficient grounds to terminate a recce mission, given the platform's potential vulnerability to that system.

On the other hand, if it was GPS jamming, such activity might be considered the prelude to an attack by some sort of air defense system, including the SA-5. That scenario provided even more reasons to end that March mission

However, activity from North Korea's two SA-5 complexes is extremely rare, and there has been some debate about their operational status. Without more details, analysts can only speculate about the time of interference that forced our recce platform to cut short its flight.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Today's Reading Assignment

...from Sallai Meridor, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States. Writing in today's Washington Post, he poses a question we've raised in the past, namely, who's watching Iran while Tehran (and everyone else) are watching the so-called Arab Spring. A few paragraphs of note:

Above all, the mullahs must prioritize the future of their regime and the Islamist revolution. What will happen to Iran if the rage sweeping the Arab world inspires Iranians to take to the streets again, aiming, together with mounting international pressure, to oust the mullahs? Will they follow in Gaddafi’s footsteps? Will they be better prepared than Assad?

While the world might be looking elsewhere, the Iranians have boosted the production of enriched uranium, upgraded the level of enrichment closer to weapons-grade and are reportedly moving essential production aspects to a well-protected underground facility. To the mullahs, who face growing uncertainties and are trying to draw their own lessons from events around them, what could better protect them and enhance their clout than the possession of a nuclear bomb?

Depending on which intel estimate you believe, Iran may be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months from acquiring that insurance policy. What happens then is any one's guess, but one thing seems certain. The odds of the western community forging a comprehensive response (beyond the usual diplomatic protests) is approximately zero. Remember, this is the same bunch that couldn't get together on a strategy from deterring Iran's nuclear ambitions. Expecting western leaders to craft cogent response to a nuclear-armed Iran is simply too much to hope for.

In related news, the Israeli Defense Forces will hold a special drill this week, simulating an enemy strike on the Dimona Nuclear Complex. The Dimona facility, located in the Megev Desert, is believed to be on the target list for Iranian medium and intermediate range missiles, capable of striking Israel and (in short order) delivering a nuclear warhead. Clearly, the Israelis are preparing for a worst case scenario, affirming that they have no confidence in the ability of the U.S. (or its European allies) to prevent Iran from getting the bomb.

Friday, September 02, 2011

On the Way to Camp David

Marine One lifts off from the White House. A presidential helicopter, with President Obama on-board, made an emergency landing en route to Camp David today. A White House spokesman said that "bad weather" forced the president to switch to a motorcade, but there were no reports of threatening conditions in the Washington, D.C. area at the time (Wikipedia photo).

With today's grim jobs report, President Obama decided a little more R&R was in order, so he boarded Marine One for a weekend a Camp David.

But not even the helicopter flight went right, capping a particularly bad week in a presidency that has been filled with them.

According to ABC News, Marine One was forced to land due to "bad weather" before reaching the Presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains.

In a highly unusual maneuver, President Obama’s 30 minute flight to the Presidential mountain retreat at Camp David this afternoon was diverted to an undisclosed landing somewhere in the Washington area and a motorcade assembled to drive him to the Maryland site. White House press secretary Jay Carney tells ABC News a “bad weather call” was made before the President and his younger daughter Sasha even boarded the aircraft.

Carney says they have now arrived safely at Camp David. It remains unexplained why the President would be allowed to board Marine One knowing that the landing site on the mountain was experiencing weather making a landing difficult.

Quite predictably, the "transparent" administration didn't inform the White House press corps about the change in travel plans. The media first because aware of the motorcade from military officers at Camp David, which is actually a U.S. Navy installation.

More puzzling are the weather conditions that prompted Mr. Obama's switch to a motorcade. At the time Marine One departed for Camp David, there was no precipitation across the region. Temperatures in Washington were in the mid-70s at the time, with a southeasterly wind at 10 mph, according to

Call it a hunch, but there is the possibility that the forced landing was the result of mechanical problems and not mechanical issues. While Presidential aircraft are among the best-maintained on earth, they are not immune to the problems that plague "ordinary" helicopters and jet. If there were any sort of technical issue developed during the flight to Camp David, Marine pilots would be under orders to get their chopper--and the Commander-in-Chief--on the ground, as quickly and as safely as possible. It's a given that the Secret Service (along with the military) have identified emergency landing sites along the various routes to Camp David.

But there is one problem with that scenario. When Marine One lifts off from the White House, it is joined by other choppers from HMX-1, the USMC squadron which provides rotary lift for the President and other VIPs. Why didn't Mr. Obama simply switch to another helicopter, which offered the same capabilities as the one transporting him to Camp David? So far, the White House has remained silent on that question. However, we should note that if there were concerns about the same problem surfacing in other presidential choppers, the entire fleet would be grounded.

Another--albeit remote--possibility is some sort of threat (perceived or actual) along the flight route. All helicopters that operate as Marine One have advanced self-defense equipment, but even those systems don't provide complete coverage against advanced man-portable SAMs like the Russian SA-24 "Igla S." That sort of threat would definitely put Marine One on the ground. But there have been no recent threats of that type inside the United States, only general concerns about MANPADS fron Qadaffi's arsenal winding up on the arms black market.

Which bring us back to the question: if it wasn't the weather, then why did Marine One make that unscheduled landing today?