Sunday, December 29, 2013

"Leaders" Behaving Badly

Christmas has come and gone, but it's not too late to bequeath a few lumps of coal to so-called "leaders," caught in the act of behaving badly.

We'll begin with Air Force Major General Michael Carey.  He was removed from his post as Commander of 20th Air Force at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming back in October, amid reports of "misconduct" during a trip overseas.  More recently, we leared just what General Carey did during the trip to Russia last July.  Excerpts from the investigation report--released by the Air Force just before the holidays--were printed by the Washington Post.  It suggests conduct worthy of a drunken college student (with apologies to spring breakers everywhere), and not a senior Air Force leader.  A few choice nuggets:

"Major General Carey consumed alcoholic beverages to the extent that it impacted his conduct during briefings, during the banquets, during the tour of the monastery and on the walk to Red Square for dinner."


"...Carey stated he only had about half a dozen shots of 8 ounces and sipped on some toasts and finished his class on others.  He also stated he didn't remember the particulars of any of his toasts other than them being about camraderies.  When asked if he was intoxicated when he left the banquet, he declined to answer.


"Lt Col [Redacted] also recalled the two women's arrival and that Major General Carey got up and went to the table with the two women, "the two young ladies came in and said hello to everyone at the table...which surprised me.  And then the General and the translator went over and sat with them."

Another member of the delegation--also interviewed by investigators--recalled Carey dancing with one of the women.  Other witnesses reported that Carey's heavy drinking began during a stop-over in Switzerland, before the group traveled to Russia. Judging from their testimony, it seems clear that Carey had little concern for the "image" he was projecting, or potential security threats.  What are the odds that the inebriated general might have "bumped" into a Russian intel operative (or two) during his trip? 

Within 90 days of his return from Moscow, General Carey had been sacked as commander of 20th Air Force, which is in charge of the Air Force's three, land-based ICBM wings.  And rightfully so.  At the time, various conspiracy theories were advanced, claiming that Carey was the victim of an Obama Administration plot to remove a number of senior officers from their posts, and replace them with individuals who might be more supportive of White House policies.  But it appears that General Carey's dismissal was nothing more than the result of bad behavior and poor judgement on his part.  

Still, there is another element to this story.  The Air Force has not announced if Major General Carey has been punished for his misdeeds, aside from the dismissal from command.  In fact, there's ever reason to believe that Carey will quietly slither out the door a few months from, pension and retirement benefits fully intact.

We're not advocating that Carey be dismissed from service.  But his dismal conduct during an official visit--not to mention the security risks from fraternizing with those two female agents--deserves a bit more than a slap on the wrist.  Besides, it seems highly unlikely that General Carey's drunken spree was simply a one-time event.  In our experience, the drunks and other miscreants have a long history of such behavior that finally catches up with them.  It would not surprise us to learn that Carey had similar issues in the past, but they were either ignored or covered up.

That's why the new Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and the Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh, could send an important signal by taking one of Carey's stars (or busting him back to Colonel) and imposing a substantial fine, before approving his retirement request.  Such a move would clearly get the attention of senior officers and officials, and possibly deter similar behavior in the future.

In fairness, Carey is something of a piker compared to his civilian counterparts on Capitol Hill.  Led by Congressman Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray, they came together--in that celebrated spirit of bipartisanship--to limit future benefits for military retirees and wounded veterans.  In an opinion piece for MSNBC, former Army Captain (and Pennsylvania Congressman) Patrick Murphy noted that his former colleagues reached a budget deal on the backs of those who served:

"While the budget agreement may help to avert another government shutdown, it does so in no small part through unprecedented cuts to veterans’ benefits, including a 1% reduction in promised cost-of-living increases for military retirees under 62 years old. That amounts to a $6 billion cut in benefits.

Congress usually waits until after our troops come home before they start gutting benefits. But 47,000 troops are spending Christmas on the ground in Afghanistan. Troops who just watched their elected leaders kneecap their retirement security. Just when you thought Congress couldn’t get any lower, they broke faith with our troops once again.

A sergeant first class with two decades of service earns roughly $32,000 annually ($2637/month). Under these cuts, his or her pension will lose some $80,000 over the next 20 years. The Republicans pushing these cuts claimed the agreement wouldn’t affect the benefits of disabled veterans, many whom can’t work and rely disproportionately on their pensions to pay their bills and feed their families."

Murphy, a Democrat, places most of the blame on Republicans--and he has a point.  Language reducing  benefits for military retirees was part of the original bill, and GOP lawmakers (as well as Democrats) made no effort to change the measure until their little "plan" was discovered.  Now, our elected leaders are falling over themselves, pledging to "fix" the cuts as soon as they reconvene in January.

A couple of points.  First, given the priority assigned to cutting military pensions, you'd think that retirees and veterans are literally breaking the federal budget.  Fact is, military retiree pensions total just $4 billion a year, less than 1% of the DoD budget.  If the cuts remain in place, the total savings, over a 10-year period, would be just $6 billion.  That's little more than an accounting blip in a federal budget that totals more than $3.4 trillion.

Secondly, Congress is not requesting similar sacrifices from other groups who receive federal benefits, and there's a political calculation behind that omission.  Ryan, Murray and the rest believe that military retirees and wounded vets aren't a large enough voting bloc to affect the outcome of future elections.  That's rank cynicism of the first order.

But their calculus may be a bit off, at least on the GOP side.  Republicans who voted in favor of the budget deal may face primary battles in 2014--from challengers who are military retirees or veterans.  Democrats are also recruiting candidates with a military background, but they too, will pay a price for supporting the Ryan-Murray plan.

They deserve nothing less.                            

Monday, December 16, 2013

Huckabee Bows Out

Mike Huckabee's syndicated radio talk show went out with a whimper last week.  The former Arkansas governor announced earlier this year that he would end his daily talk program at the end of 2013, fueling speculation that he's gearing up for another run for the presidency in 2016.

And rumors about a new campaign may be true; by the time the next campaign begins, it will have been eight years since Huckabee's first, failed run for the White House and like all of us, he's not getting any younger.  So, 2016 may represent that "now-or-never" moment.

However, Mr. Huckabee has managed to stay busy since his last campaign, becoming a peripatetic media personality.  He provides daily commentaries for Cumulus Media (in a slot once occupied by Paul Harvey), anchors a weekly TV show on the Fox News Channel, and until this month, hosted a three-hour talk show that aired opposite Rush Limbaugh in many markets.     

According to Huckabee, show prep for the talk program took "8 or 9 hours a day," time that can (presumably) be used to plan another run for the White House.  But all of this political speculation serves another purpose as well: it masks the rather inconvenient fact that Mr. Huckabee's talk show was a major flop.  More from David Hinckley of the New York Daily News: 

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has become the latest radio talk show host to fail in his assault on Mount Rush Limbaugh.

Huckabee said Wednesday he would end his syndicated show Dec. 12, 20 months after it launched as a rival in Limbaugh's time slot.

He said his decision was "mutual" with his syndicator, Cumulus.

Huckabee, who did not have a New York outlet, said when he launched the show that he would "focus on civil discourse on complicated topics."

That is, he would still be conservative like Limbaugh, but he would not have the same combative on-air style.

He declared Wednesday, "We have done that and done it well."

His show had the same folksy, down-home style, frequently sprinkled with humor, that had made him a popular guest for years on other radio and TV shows.

As a solo act, though, he did not catch on with a mass listening audience. He was only heard on about a third as many stations as Limbaugh, and there were few signs that he was winning head-to-head competitions.

Lest we forget, Huckabee entered the talk show wars amid the furor over Rush's remarks about then-Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke and female contraception.  At the time, Cumulus claimed that Limbaugh's comments cost them "millions" in lost advertising dollars and some insiders predicted that "many" stations would dump Rush for Huckabee--claims that the former governor and his syndicator did nothing to dissuade. 

But when the smoke cleared, Huckabee was nothing more than another failed challenger.  His show aired on second and third-tier stations in many markets, and attracted only a fraction of Rush's audience and his advertising revenue. 

It's also worth noting that Mr. Huckabee and Cumulus reached their "mutual agreement" to end his program during one of the biggest shake-ups in talk radio history.  Earlier this year, Cumulus seemed ready to drop Rush from its major market stations, including WABC in New York; WLS (Chicago), WJR (Detroit) and WMAL in Washington.  That move would have created immediate openings for the Huckabee program but ultimately, Cumulus decided to keep Rush.  And, when the radio conglomerate decided stop carrying Sean Hannity's show, it announced plans to fill his afternoon time slot with another Cumulus talker, Michael Savage. 

Put another way, the hand-writing was on the wall for Huckabee when Cumulus elected to keep Rush.  Mr. Limbaugh's program has the highest syndication fees in the industry; not only do local stations pay a hefty price to carry the show, they must also split the advertising revenue with Rush and his syndicator, Clear Channel.  In the end, Cumulus decided it was better to split a larger pie with Limbaugh than keep all of the revenue derived by one of its own programs.  Promoting Savage to afternoon drive merely added insult to injury; Savage has carved out a large audience in the evening hours, but his appeal during drive time is unknown.  Still, Cumulus saw Mr. Savage as a better bet than the "civil discourse" offered up by Mike Huckabee.  

But don't cry too much for the former governor.  He's still earning a seven-figure income between the daily radio commentaries and the weekend show for Fox.  In fact, it's a bit surprising that he's contemplating another run for the presidency, which would require a temporary halt to his broadcasting ventures.  At this stage of the game, Mr. Huckabee is still a second-tier candidate and there doesn't seem to be a groundswell for an ex-pol who is now better known as a broadcaster than a candidate.                   

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Purge in Pyongyang

***UPDATE/17 December***

ABC News reports that Kim Jong-un's aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, is missing from the latest official potrait of DPRK leadership, taken this week at a ceremony marking the two year anniversary of Kim Jong-il's death.  Her absence suggests she has met the same fate as her husband, Jang Song-thaek, who was tried and executed earlier this month, for alleged crimes against the regime. 

If confirmed, the significance of Kim Kyong-hui's demise cannot be overstated.  She was the sister of Kim Jong-il and the only daughter of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the North Korean state.  It was tantamount to a member of Britain's royal family being tried for treason, and summarily executed.   

With the (apparent) elimination of Kim Kyong-hui, leadership in Pyongyang has coalesced around Kim Jong-un.  It is a stunning turn of events; when he was named as his father's successor, there was open speculation that the younger Kim would be unable to hold the reigns of power, or would be something of a figurehead, with Jang and his wife serving as the real power behind the throne.  Two years later, there is no doubut about who is calling the shots in North Korea.

But winning the power struggle doesn't mean that Kim Jong-un is fully prepared to run his country.  North Korea's economy remains a mess and there are genuine concerns that the third-generation dictator, brimming with over-confidence, may provoke another confrontation with South Korea and the United States.  ROK Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin described the execution of Jang as "the most important turning point" in North Korean history, and said there is a "high possibility" of North Korean provocation between January and March of next year. 

Mr. Kim did not choose those months by accident.  That period coincides with the peak of the Winter Training Cycle (WTC) by the DPRK military.  It's the time of year when North Korea's armed forces conduct the bulk of their training, culminating in a nationwide defense exercise in late March. 

The South Korean defense minister's comments suggest that analysts are expecting a busier-than-normal WTC this year.  As we've noted in the past, the WTC receives virtually no coverage in the U.S. media, which speaks volumes about the current state of national security coverage.  Perhaps someone in the Pentagon press corps will ask about those troubling comments from Seoul, and what the United States is prepared to do when that provocation comes.


It looked like something out of Iraq, shortly after Saddam Hussein seized power: a high-ranking official, accused of countless crimes, being dragged from his seat before other assembled dignitaries.  The public humiliation was quickly followed by a trial and execution, reminding all who had gathered in that hall that they served--and lived--at the dictator's discretion.

Except this episode didn't take place in Saddam's Iraq in the 1970s.  It occurred in recent days in North Korea, where the uncle of the third-generation tyrant, Kim Jong-un was sacked and put to death for a long list of alleged crimes against the state.

Jang Song-thaek was more than an apparatchik who married well (his wife is the sister of the late dictator Kim Jong-il and a powerful figure in her own right).  When Kim Jong-il suffered a debilitating stroke in 2008--and began to face his own mortality--he turned to his sister and her husband to guide Kim Jong-un during the transition period that would follow his death.

At the Weekly Standard, Korea scholar Dennis Halpin describes the critical role Jang played in mentoring his nephew--and maintaining relations with China, the ally that ultimately guarantees the survival of North Korea:

Jang’s elevated status in the new regime was confirmed when, as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC), he was dispatched in August 2012 on an official visit to China, isolated North Korea’s sole ally and guarantor. Kim Jong-un himself, in contrast, has yet to garner such an invitation to Beijing as the new leader of North Korea, although South Korean president Park Geun-hye was invited within six months of her assumption of office. Using convenient excuses, such as the Chinese leadership transition, Beijing has repeatedly rebuffed Kim Jong-un’s request to travel there. The Chinese leadership is apparently piqued by his erratic and provocative behavior, including a series of missile launches and even a nuclear test, which has embarrassed Beijing and severely disrupted Six-Party diplomacy.

But it was more than a diplomatic snub that prompted the purge of Jang Song-thaek.  Some of the charges against him (including corruption) were probably true; but Jang is one of hundreds in the DPRK's ruling plutocracy who has enriched himself at the state trough.  The ruling Kim dynasty has accumulated a family fortune that totals more than $1 billion dollars, a remarkable feat considering the economic ruin they have foisted upon North Korean, including the infamous famine of the mid-1990s that killed more than one million peasants.

Consider the example of Kim Jong-un's older brother, Kim Jong-nam.   He is best known as a high-roller customer in the casinos of Macau and for being deported from Japan, when he tried to enter that country on a forged Dominican passport.  The older Kim lives in China, sends his son to an exclusive school in Bosnia and enjoys a lavish lifestyle, despite having no apparent job.  There's every reason to believe that Kim Jong-nam is living off the spoils of the family enterprise, but there have been no calls to return him to DPRK for the same sort of reckoning that Jang Song-thaek received.  Apparently, blood is thicker than water.

So why get rid of uncle who helped secure your grasp on power?  For starters, Jang Song-thaek was reportedly estranged from his wife, Kim Kyong-hui, the paternal aunt of Kim Jong-un and a general in the North Korean Army.  Obviously, the marital tiff didn't improve Jang's standing in the family.

Then, there was Uncle Jang's reputation as China's man in Pyongyang.  According to Mr. Halpin and other analysts, Beijing saw Mr. Jang as a conduit into the highest levels of North Korean government, someone who could convey the PRC's instructions to its troublesome ally.  Getting rid of Jang was a not-so-veiled message to Beijing: Kim Jong-un is calling the shots in North Korea and resents attempts at interference.  Traditionally, the DPRK has been very careful in conveying such messages; without China's economic support and other forms of assistance, North Korea would quickly collapse.  Officially, Beijing had no reaction to Jang's execution, but Chinese military units staged an exercise near the North Korean border, just hours after the purge was announced.

Jang's demise also affirms Pyongyang's intent to continue with its failed economic policies.  Kim Jong-un's late uncle was one of the few senior leaders in the DPRK who was open to the idea of Chinese-style economic reforms.  China has been trying to goad North Korea into following its lead for more than 20 years, hoping that actual economic growth in the worker's paradise will reduce the massive subsidies Bejing pays to keep its neighbor afloat.  In the wake of recent events in Pyongyang, hopes for economic reform are as dead as their leading patron.  So, China must be prepared to keep writing those checks, or reduce the subsidies and worry about what Kim Jong-un might do next.

Ultimately, the purge of Jang Song-thaek was little more than the removal of a potential threat by a dictator consolidating his hold on power.  Jang was useful during the transition stage, but with Kim Jong-un now feeling more secure in his position, there was little reason to retain a powerful potential rival, with established ties in the military and political establishment.  More of Jang's allies will be liquidated in the coming weeks, allowing Kim Jong-un to fill their positions with individuals loyal to him.  SOP in the world's only hereditary communist regime.  There was a similar purge when Kim Jong-il took control in 1994, and the same thing will happen again when his son departs the world stage.

The danger, of course, lies in the havoc that Kim Jong-un might create in the years before that happens.  Eliminating his uncle--and other rivals--was a predictable step, though it occurred well before many observers believed it would happen.  Now the question is how far North Korea's new ruler may carry the purge.  The two-year anniversary of Kim Jong-il's death is fast approaching and there will be a state ceremony in Pyongyang.  It will be interesting to see if Kim Kyong-hui, the only daughter of Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-un's "other" designated mentor will be on the reviewing stand. 

And beyond that, the world must contend with a youthful tyrant who is feeling his oats, and may be suffering from an extreme case of misplaced self-confidence.  Couple that with a fading America on the global scene and you've got an explosive situation in northeast Asia, one that won't change anytime soon--unless Beijing decides to reign in its client in Pyongyang.                      


Friday, December 13, 2013

Farewell to the Warthog (Sort of)

The A-10 Thunderbolt II, arguably the greatest close air support aircraft in history.  But the Air Force's A-10 fleet may be facing retirement, due to defense budget cuts (USAF photo via Aviation Week) 

If you're a friendly ground-pounder, it's one of your best friends; if you're an enemy foot soldier or tank crew member, it's your worst nightmare.  "It" is the Air Force A-10, which has dominated the close air support (CAS) battle for more than 30 years, eviscerating thousands of bad guys--and hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles and fortified fighting positions--from Iraq to Afghanistan, and saving the lives of thousands of American and allied troops in the process.

But sadly, the A-10 may not survive the next round of budget battles in Washington.  Even with the recently-negotiated "budget deal" (which may lessen the impact of sequestration on the Pentagon), the armed forces are still facing draconian cuts.  The Air Force, for example, is looking at retiring its KC-10 tanker fleet, along with its operational B-1 bomber squadrons.  Defense analysts says the reductions are necessary to fund current procurement programs and future weapons systems, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the USAF's "next generation" bomber.

Getting rid of the KC-10 (the military's version of the DC-10) is a tough call; until the KC-46 arrives in a couple of years, the "Extender" is the only tanker that can refuel aircraft by boom and by probe-and-drogue on the same mission.  It's a valuable capability, particularly if you're support supporting Air Force and Navy aircraft simultaneously.   The KC-10 can also carry more fuel, making it a useful adjunct to our larger fleet of KC-135 model tankers, which will soldier on until the KC-46 becomes operational.

Similarly, the B-1, or "Bone" as its known in the Air Force, has overcome early operational issues to become a valuable element of our manned bomber force.  But in this budgetary environment, the Air Force can't afford a mixed force of B-1s, B-2s and B-52s.  So, the small wing of stealth bombers will remain, along with about 70 B-52s at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana and Minot AFB, North Dakota.  Retirement of the B-1 will mean even more rotations for the bombers that remain, translating into higher operations and maintenance costs for those aircraft.

Still, the projected retirements of the KC-10 and B-1 will be far less controversial than plans to radically downsize the A-10 fleet.  The Air Force still operates more than 200 of the ground support aircraft, built around the GAU-8 30 mm cannon which is designed to make mincemeat of enemy armor.  The "Warthog" has been a stalwart of almost every U.S. military campaign over the past 30 years; with its incredible mix of firepower, survivability and loiter time, the A-10 is the grunt's best friend, able to linger over the battle area for hours at a time, while delivering the support that sometimes means the different between victory and defeat.

The A-10 was originally designed to engage Soviet tank formations pouring through the Fulda Gap, but it transitioned seamlessly to mix of medium and low-intensity conflicts that have been America's wars since the early 1980s.   From the "highway of death" in Kuwait to countless firefights with terrorists in Afghanistan, the "Hawg" has reaffirmed its status as a premier CAS platform.

So why retire such a valuable aircraft?  The answer is rooted in the world of shrinking budgets and service rivalries that often characterize battles over military roles and missions.  After World War II, the Army made occasionally forays to take complete control of the CAS mission, arguing that their platforms should provide most of the support for friendly troops on the ground.  According to the Army, it should be their pilots flying support missions for ground units in contact, and not the Air Force.

In response, the USAF noted that its creation of the Tactical Air Control System (TACS) brought order out of the chaos that governed early attempts at CAS during the Second World War.  The service also fielded a series of manned aircraft assigned to the CAS effort, culminating with the A-10.  Air Force was keenly aware that the Army was still interested in appropriating the mission, as evidenced by the various attack helicopters and artillery systems that entered the service's inventory over the years.  At one point, there was supposedly a "grand bargain" on the table; the Air Force would transfer its A-10s to the Army, in exchange for the medium and long-range air defense missions.  But the Army blinked, preferring to keep its Patriot batterys instead of acquiring the A-10.

So, the Warhog remained a part of the USAF inventory, even if the "manly" men (and women) who ran the service were less-than-enamored with the A-10.  Still, no one could find anything that could replace the Hawg for the CAS mission, including the notorious "A-16" experiment.  That involved hanging a 30mm gun pod on an F-16 and other improvements that were supposed to optimize the Viper for supporting ground troops.  That lasted until everyone realized that the A-10 could carry much more ordnance, had better loiter time and was more survivable in a low-to-medium threat environment. 

Sure, the A-16 was faster, but it only had nine hardpoints (versus a dozen on the Hawg).  Making matters worse, the gun pod had to be mounted on the centerline and exhaust gases from the gun sometimes entered the intake of the F-16, causing its single engine to flame out.  Not exactly a "fun" scenario for a pilot at low level, trying to dodge hostile fire and engage the enemy.  And if that weren't bad enough, the A-16 had two (wingtip) stations that could only carry air-to-air missiles (useless for the CAS mission) and needed at least one tank of gas to have any endurance.  No wonder that A-10 "replacement" was quickly and quietly retired from service.

And of course, the Hawg always had the Army and the Marines in its corner.  If you're a grunt in a firefight, you appreciate the value of a heavily armored CAS aircraft that could loiter over the battlefield for extended periods and put a lot of firepower on target.  As someone once observed, an infantryman doesn't really care where air support comes from, as long as it's there when he needs it and takes out the bad guys.

But this time around, the Army and Marine aren't raising as much of a fuss about the A-10's possible retirement.  That's because they're fighting their own budget battles, and have their own dogs in the CAS hunt.  The Army, for example, has invested billions in the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and its latest version, the Apache Longbow.  By comparison, the Marines are still making do with aging Cobra attack choppers,  but they are one of the key players in the F-35 program.  Various buyers are touting CAS as a mission for the F-35, which can handle the assignment in higher-threat scenarios. 

There may be some truth in that claim, but here's another inescapable fact: the complete retirement of the A-10 would be a colossal mistake.  While there are genuine concerns about facing adversaries with advanced air defense systems in the future, there is also consensus that many future conflicts will look a lot like Afghanistan and Iraq; COIN operations against terrorists and other insurgent groups with little more than aging shoulder-fired SAMs and heavy machine guns.  The rugged A-10 is tailor-made for that kind of fight, so there will be at least a "niche" market for the Warthog for decades to come. 

Unfortunately, there may not be enough money to keep a limited number of A-10s in service.  Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week summed up the dilemma rather nicely in this recent opinion piece:

"...The Air Force is in a fiscal trap that is partly of its own making. Aging combat fleets and an unmanned aerial system (UAS) force that can't survive against any form of air defense are two of its closing walls. The service cannot find the will to escape from its commitment to raise its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter buy rate to 80 per year, but it also sees a stark need for aircraft with longer range.

The way to make big savings, the service argues, is to chop entire fleets, shut down their training and logistics infrastructure, and stop paying modernization bills. The KC-10 and B-1 bomber—alongside the A-10—are in just the first wave, but older F-16s and F-15C/Ds are next.

Unfortunately, the A-10 has been the big, ugly symbol of the CAS debate since its conception in the 1960s. The USAF only built it in the first place, it is argued, to deflect the Army's attempt to take over the mission with the fast and costly AH-56A Cheyenne compound helicopter. Now, say the boot-centric warfare believers, the USAF wants to dump CAS completely.

That argument is off-target. In the last 10 years, the USAF and its allies have provided CAS using fighters, helicopters and gunships....within this family, the A-10 is different but not unique. What it brings to the party is better persistence than a supersonic fighter, lower cost per hour and—its advocates argue that this is crucial—flight characteristics that are better suited to operations beneath an overcast."

True, the A-10 isn't the only arrow in the CAS quiver.  But can anyone name a platform--current or planned--that will do the Warthog's job with the same efficiency and effect?  Get back to us when you have an answer.                    

Monday, December 02, 2013

The Crowded Skies

It's getting a little crowded in China's recently-declared air defense intercept zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. 

Beijing claims its has scrambled fighters into the area, after the U.S., Japan and South Korea flew military aircraft through the zone, which lies between the northern tip of Taiwan and the southern coast of Japan's home islands.  Two USAF B-52 bombers transited the area last week, followed by sorties from Japanese F-15s and P-3s, along with military jets from South Korea. 

More flights will likely follow; American intelligence-collection aircraft (RC-135s and EP-3s) routinely operate in the area, and Washington and its allies are determined to exercise their freedom of navigation rights through what (was) unrestricted, international airspace just two weeks ago.

In response, the PRC has scrambled its most advanced fighters, the indigenous J-10 and the Russian-designed SU-30MKK, which reportedly "shadowed" U.S., Japanese and South Korean aircraft that flew through the air defense zone.        

Of course, military aircraft aren't the only ones operating in the area.  Dozens of commercial flights pass through the area each day and for now, U.S. carriers are complying with Beijing's demand that they file flight plans in advance, and "accept" instructions from Chinese controllers while airlines from Japan and South Korea are not.  With the potential for miscalculation growing, the U.S. airlines want to ensure their jets are not targeted inadvertently.  Given the middling response (to date) from the Obama Administration, airline execs probably felt they had no other choice.   By comparison, Japanese and ROK carriers are refusing to buckle to Beijing's pressure and it would be nice if their American counterparts showed a little solidarity.

According to various media reports, Japan has dispatched its E-767 AWACS to monitor activity in the air defense zone (and control F-15s patrolling in the area), and China's KJ-2000 AWACS has been active in the area as well.  It's also a safe bet that American E-3s from Kadena AB, Okinawa are on station, along with the afore-mentioned RC-135s and EP-3s. 

Having AWACS and SIGINT aircraft in the area improves situational awareness immeasurably and providing that type of coverage has become mandatory for most air operations.  It's a pretty safe bet that while the the B-52s were transiting the ADIZ, they received real-time updates on PRC air and emitter activity from Kadena-based E-3s and RC-135s, or an EP-3 based out of Japan.  Having worked with these platforms on numerous occasions, I can testify to the abilities of USAF and USN crews to create a "melded" air picture, blending radar, voice and eletronic intelligence data into a comprehensive product for tactical customers and operational commanders.

It's also worth noting that the United States has an F-15 wing at Kadena, along with an F-16 wing at Misawa AB, Navy fighter jets at other locations in Japan and additional assets (F-22s, tankers and heavy bombers) that rotate to the region on a regular basis.  Given those assets, it's logical to ask why the U.S, acting in concert with its allies, doesn't mount a more forceful response to Beijing's provocation.  No one is talking about engaging PRC aircraft, but the Americans, Japanese, and South Koreans could maintain "barrier" combat air patrols (BARCAPs) along the western reaches of the ADIZ.  That would send a clear message to China that its expanded ADIZ is illegitimate and will not be tolerated.

Yes, that type of operation would be a major undertaking, but there's no reason the U.S., Japan and South Korea couldn't implement--and sustain--the effort for a period of months.  All operate modern air and naval forces, with state-of-the-art communications and command-and-control capabilities.  During the 1990s, Washington and its allies maintained continuous no-fly zones over Bosnia and Iraq for a period of years.  Compared to that effort, BARCAPS over the East China Sea would require fewer aircraft, and the cost could be shared more equally. 

It would also expose potential weaknesses in Beijing's growing military machine.  The PRC has only a handful of AWACS aircraft and airborne SIGINT platforms, placing a limit on potential operations, particularly at greater distances from the Chinese coast.  Beijing is also restricted in its airborne tanker capabilities, forcing them to patrol closer to shore, or limit on-station time for their fighters. 

But there are (apparently) no plans for a more muscular airpower display in the Chinese ADIZ.  Team Obama doesn't want to ruffle Beijing's feathers, since they are a key trading partner and a major buyer of U.S. debt.  There's also the matter of paying for an extended military operation; with the bureaucrats looking to shut down stateside military commissaries (to save $1 billion a year), Pentagon accountants are terrified at the potential bill for a long-term air mission in the Far East (never mind that Tokyo and Seoul, the primary beneficiaries of the action, could foot much of the bill). 

There are also concerns about aging American aircraft.  Those F-15s at Kadena are getting long in the tooth (some pilots are now flying Eagles once operated by their fathers, more than 20 years ago) and maintenance costs are piling up.  By some estimates, ground crews spend three times as many hours prepping an F-15 for a single sortie, and there are concerns that again jets might suffer another catastrophic structural failure, like the one in 2007 that grounded the entire F-15 fleet for several months.                     

Instead, Vice President Joe Biden is being dispatched to Asia for talks with our allies.  That should produce more diplomatic rhetoric, but little in the way of action.  To be fair, the Obama Administration (and our allies in the Far East) did the right thing in challenging China's expanded ADIZ.  But it's also very likely that Beijing will attempt similar gambits in the future, trying to expand its sphere of influence in the region, and gain control of vital natural resources.  At some point, the U.S. must fashion a tougher response that a few military flights across disputed airspace, even when dealing with a superpower, vice regional irritants like the old Serbian regime and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.                                

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

About Those Benefits...

For anyone who was career military, you can easily list those "guaranteed benefits" that were promised from that first visit to the recruiter's office. 

Let's see...on-base healthcare for life, covering the military member and spouse; 

A pension after 20 years of honorable service, pegged at 50% of your base pay, (and)

Lifetime access to the commissary, base exchange and other on-base services. 

So how are those benefits holding up?  Not very well, it would seem.  I retired in time to collect my pension, but various advisory boards and think tanks are recommending major changes to compensation for armed forces members, including an end to 20-year retirement.  One proposal would still encourage service members to retire from the military at some point between 15 and 30 years, but they wouldn't start collecting their pension until age 62. 

Never mind that 20-year retirement has been highly successful, or that the typical service member who leaves at after two decades on active duty is an E-6, who brings home less than $2,000 a month, after taxes and other deductions.  The "experts" believe that a civilian-style retirement plan would somehow be attractive, and--more importantly--reduce costs. 

On the healthcare front, military retirees were pushed into an HMO-style system called TriCare more than a decade ago.  There were problems with access in some locations (many physicians didn't want to comply with the onerous regulations associated with TriCare Prime, the "Cadillac" version of the health plan).  And more recently, the Pentagon has announced plans for increased premiums and co-pays, to deal with rising healthcare costs.  At one time, TriCare was less attractive than many private-sector plans but with millions losing their coverage due to Obamacare, the military retiree plan is looking like a better deal. 

Still, there is cause for concern.  It's not inconceiveable that the military could follow the example of corporate America and simply drop retiree coverage, offering instead an annual payment that could be used to buy a policy from a private insurer or (God forbid) on one of the Obamacare exchanges.  At the very least, TriCare will become more expensive in the years to come, though the situation of military retirees is still far better than the millions of Americans who are losing coverage, thansk to the "Affordable Care Act." 

And sadly, there is one more "guaranteed" benefit that is slowly eroding.  The Pentagon is now looking at closing its stateside commissaries, which offer discounted groceries for active-duty personnel and retirees.  From the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot

"...the Defense Commissary Agency has been asked to develop a plan for shutting down 178 commissaries in the United States. About 70 commissaries serving U.S. military personnel overseas would not be affected.

The measure reportedly was discussed during a planning meeting related to the Pentagon's 2015 budget request, which is due in February.

Even if such a plan were included in the defense budget, it would have to get congressional approval. That would be a high hurdle: Lawmakers are often reluctant to trim military benefits.

More than 100,000 Hampton Roads residents and their families are eligible to shop at the region's five commissaries, where active-duty families and military retirees can buy groceries and household goods tax-free.


Commissary shoppers are required to pay a 5 percent surcharge on all purchases, which goes toward building construction and maintenance. The salaries of commissary workers are paid through a $1.4 billion annual subsidy from the federal government.

Even with the surcharge, most of the name-brand goods sold at the commissaries go for about 30 percent less than at private grocery stores, according to Department of Defense estimates."

The commissary is an important benefit, not only for retirees, but for junior active-duty personnel with families.  If you're an E-4 with a couple of kids--and stationed in a high-cost-of-living area, that 30% savings at the commissary goes a long way towards maintaining the monthly budget.  And lest we forget, at least 5,000 military families are currently receiving food stamps, despite Pentagon efforts to provide supplemental subsistence payments to lower-ranking personnel with large families.  Commissary sales paid for by that program have more than trippled since 2008, reaching almost $100 million last year.  That's a small fraction of the $6 billion in commissary sales in 2012, but it's an important benefit for struggling military families--their food dollars go a lot further at the commissary than at competing civilian stores. 

This proposal has been making the rounds for several months.  During an appearance at Camp Pendleton in August, President Obama took note of the issue, saying that "closing commissaries is not how a great nation should be treating its military and military families."  Yet, the plan to shut down stateside commissaries is still on the table.  No wonder that many commissary patrons put the President's remarks in the same category as his famous line about "keeping your healthcare plan."  By that standard, commissaries at CONUS bases will go the way of the individual health insurance market in the near future.        



Monday, November 25, 2013

After America (Persian Gulf Edition)

Early in Barack Obama's first term, unnamed members of his senior staff said one of the administration's goals was to "manage America's decline" on the world stage.  And on that count, they seem to be succeeding quite well.  U.S. gains in Iraq--won with considerable blood and treasure--are dissipating rapidly; the situation in Afghanistan is going from bad to worse, and our adversaries on the world stage (think: Russia, China, Iran and North Korea) are resurgent, figuring they have nothing to fear from Mr. Obama and his national security team.

And the news only gets worse.  This weekend brought the news of a "deal" between the U.S., its European allies and Iran on Tehran's nuclear program.  Word of the agreement was greeted with suspicion and derision; In an interview with Aaron Klein on WABC radio, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon noted that his nation was not part of the negotiations, and that Jerusalem would do "whatever is necessary" to keep Iran from going nuclear. 

Mr. Klein is also reporting that Israel is taking additional steps to prepare for a possible military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.  According to Egyptian intelligence sources, Israeli officers have been inspecting bases in Saudi Arabia, which could be used as staging grounds for the attack.  Needless to say, Israel's use of bases in an Arab country to hit Iran would be unprecedented and normally, Riyadh would quickly dismiss such claims.  But as of Sunday evening, the Saudi government had done nothing to dismiss the report.            

Nor is Mr. Klein the only journalist to report a potential, secret alliance between the Saudis and Israelis.  One week ago, the U.K.  Sunday Times reported that Israel and Saudi Arabia are cooperating on military plans that would allow IAF warplanes to use Saudi airspace for an attack against Iran's nuclear facilities.

ONCE they were sworn enemies. Now Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency is working with Saudi officials on contingency plans for a possible attack on Iran if its nuclear programme is not significantly curbed in a deal that could be signed in Geneva this week.

Both the Israeli and Saudi governments are convinced that the international talks to place limits on Tehran’s military nuclear development amount to appeasement and will do little to slow its development of a nuclear warhead.

As part of the growing co-operation, Riyadh is understood already to have given the go-ahead for Israeli planes to use its airspace in the event of an attack on Iran.

There is also renewed speculation that Saudi Arabia will pursue its own nuclear option.  The Saudi monarchy has been a silent partner in Pakistan's nuclear program for decades, investing billions of dollars with the understanding that Islamabad would deliver nuclear weapons to Riyadh if the need arose.  Pakistani-produced nuclear warheads could be mounted on Saudi intermediate-range missiles in a matter of months, giving the kingdom its own, independent strike capability.  Other Gulf states could pursue their own weapons program, setting the stage for a full-scale nuclear arms race in one of the world's most voliatle regions. 

If the Obama Administration is worried about that scenario, it wasn't apparent on Sunday.  There was the usual blather about the need to verify Iranian compliance and threats of additional sanctions if they don't.  But it was also clear the White House and State Department were very pleased with themselves.  Never mind that Iran essentially got what it wanted and still retains a "break out capability" to develop nuclear weapons, despite negotiated caps on Iranian uranium enrichment capabilities and slowed development of a heavy-water nuclear reactor, which can be used to produce plutonium. 

Some would say that the Iranian nuclear deal lessens the possibility of an Israeli strike, since the agreement has the support of the U.S. and its major allies.  But we would make the counter-argument; facing Iran on its own, Israel has little choice but to mount a military operation.  And apparently, it has some rather surprising allies who are willing to support that effort.   Afterall, the U.S. "negotiated" its way to a nuclear-capable North Korea.  Why will Iran be any different?  Against that backdrop, Israel has no other option.            

The Forgotten Anchor

November marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  To  a lesser degree, it is also remembered as (perhaps) the finest hour in the history of broadcast television, a moment when the medium reached its full potential, informing and--to some degree--unifying a nation in one of its darkest hours. 

Much has been written about that fateful day in Dallas and the men and women who tried to cover the death of a President.  Some, such as Chet Huntley and Walter Cronkite, were already icons; for others, like Dan Rather, the JFK assassination became a career-changing moment.  As one of the CBS correspondents on the scene, Rather played a pivotal role in the non-stop coverage that unfolded over the next four days.  Within a few months, he was promoted to the White House beat, followed by other high-profile assignments in London, on "60 Minutes," and eventually, appointment as Cronkite's successor.

The long weekend also cemented the reputation of Frank McGee as one of NBC's most talented anchors.  McGee had been recruited a few years earlier from an unlikely location--the network's affilate in Montgomery, Alabama. 

Normally, network news executives preferred to hire new reporters from larger markets, or one of their owned-and-operated stations.  But Montgomery was at the center of the civil rights story, and a number of NBC correspondents and producers had worked with McGee, who was news director and anchor at WSFA-TV.  Impressed with his work, NBC offered him a job in New York, and he quickly became a mainstay on breaking news and political coverage.

When wire service teletypes began chattering with the first bulletins from Dallas, the network news divisions sprang into action.  But in those days before cell phones, the internet, and lightweight cameras, getting on the air took a bit of effort.  Walter Cronkite read CBS's first report off camera, while technicians moved cameras and lights into the newsroom. 

NBC was equally unprepared for breaking news in the middle of the day.  The network didn't have live programming during the 1 o'clock hour (eastern time), giving local stations a chance to air their own programs and providing a lunch break for much of the technical staff.  The network's flagship station, WNBC-TV, was airing a re-run of the John Forsythe sitcom "Bachelor Father" when a news editor ran to the announcer's booth, where Don Pardon was on-duty for the local station and the network.  He informed Pardo that President Kennedy had been shot; the network was interrupting programming and the NBC staff announcer would read a bulletin ripped from the news wires.  At 1:45 pm, Pardo delivered the following update:


Pardo would deliver one more bulletin while NBC assembled its news talent in a small, paneled studio.  Chet Huntley, one-half of the "Huntley-Brinkley" report was joined by Frank McGee and a third journalist, Bill Ryan.  In 1963, Mr. Ryan was best-known as co-anchor of the "Ryan-Pressman Report," New York City's first 30-minute local newscast that aired on WNBC.  He also anchored afternoon newscasts for NBC Radio; in fact, he was preparing the network's 2 pm radio news update when a staffer informed him of the assassination attempt and told him to join Huntley and McGee in the breaking news TV studio.  The anchor trio began reporting the story at 1:53 pm, providing audio coverage over a bumper slide until NBC's cameras were ready, and began transmitting video four minutes later.

Over the next four days, Huntley, McGee and Ryan led much of NBC's coverage.  But their work in the first few hours following the assassination set the tone for what followed.  Despite enormous pressure and limited technology, they offered clear, concise coverage of the day's terrible events.  Watching video of their work, viewers will note the lack of speculation and conjecture that so often clouds today's coverage of breaking news.  The NBC anchors stuck to the facts, as did their colleagues at CBS and ABC.

While a number of journalists excelled on that tragic day, few performed better than Bill Ryan.  Working with little more than wire service copy and phone reports from reporters in Dallas and Washington, Mr. Ryan was unflappable, delivering the grim news with an authority and context that was sometimes missing amid the chaos and horror of the moment.  Interviewed years later about his long broadcasting career (and role in NBC's coverage of the JFK assassination), Don Pardo recalled "a local guy (Ryan)...who was very impressive."  Fortunately, the networks recorded their coverage of that terrible day, and it can be viewed on YouTube, among other sites.       

Indeed, Mr. Ryan and Frank McGee handled much of the anchor duties for NBC; Chet Huntley, the face of the network's news division, seemed a bit flustered on that fateful afternoon, and left the anchor desk before NBC concluded the day's coverage.  He was in better form over the next three days, as NBC tried to gain ground against rival CBS. 

At the time, NBC still led the evening news race, but CBS was widely praised for its coverage on the afternoon of JFK's assassination.  Not only was Walter Cronkite on the air ahead of his rivals, CBS also benefitted from having more resources on the ground; they had multiple reporters covering the presidential visit to Texas and the network's Dallas affiliate (KRLD-TV) was handling the pool feed for the event. 

For whatever reason, NBC elected not to take the feed, while ABC and CBS had access to that coverage.  In fact, it was KRLD news director Eddie Barker who first reported that "something terrible" had happened as Kennedy's motorcade passed through Dealy Plaza.  His comments were heard by Dan Rather, who immediately relayed that information to New York.  By comparison, NBC had only one reporter on the scene--White House correspondent Robert MacNeil--who was working without a camera crew.  Adding insult to injury, when Mr. MacNeil was able to contact the network newsroom in New York, an editor put his call on hold.

Despite those glitches, Bill Ryan did yeoman work for NBC on that afternoon in November, and over the days that followed.  But oddly enough, he never reached the pinnacle of TV news.  After 26 years at NBC, he moved into semi-retirement, working as a newsman at smaller stations along the east coast.  On the 25th anniversary of the assassination, columnist Bob Greene found Mr. Ryan at West Virginia Public Television, serving as a senior reporter/producer, and hosting a weekly public affairs program. 

In one of his few interviews on the assassination, Ryan remembered thinking that he "absolutely could not say the President was dead until he was 100% sure."  He also recalled a lack of "human or emotional reactions" during that first afternoon.  Instead, the NBC reporter was more focused on trying to provide coherent coverage from little more than AP and UPI wire copy, ripped from the teletype and handed to him.  "Did I say this before?  Do I give this information again?"

Mr. Ryan passed away in 1997, at the age of 72.  Sadly, even the journalism world has largely forgotten his sterling, on-air performance under the most trying circumstances.  But there are lessons to be learned from his steady, professional reporting--lessons largely lost in today's scramble to cover breaking news. 

Watch almost any major story that unfolds quickly and you'll see rampant conjecture, almost non-existent sourcing and mistakes aplenty.  Not too many months ago, many reporters were speculating (some would say hoping) that the individuals responsible for the Boston Marthon bombing were right-wing extremists.  We all know how that turned out. 

That's not to say that errors weren't made on November 22, 1963.  But on the day when some say television came of age, there was remarkable work by many of the anchors who delivered the devastating news.  One of those individuals was Bill Ryan.  And he deserves praise for a job exceptionally well done, even if it comes 50 years late.

ADDENDUM: One of Mr. Ryan's daughters, Kate, followed him into journalism and works as a reporter for WTOP radio in Washington, D.C.  She offered some thoughts on her father's work in a recent post on the station's website.


Monday, November 11, 2013

The Greatest Day in History, Redux

...from this blog on Veteran's Day 2008: George Smiley's post on the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, the "war to end all wars."  As we noted on that occasion, popular history suggests the conflict ended with a whimper rather than a bang, as shell-shocked survivors emerged from the trenches as the guns fell silent on the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month. 

But history is often wrong, and that long has been the case in regard to how World War I came to a close.  Fact is, many Allied generals were opposed to the cease fire and ordered more attacks in the closing hours of the conflicts, hoping to regain more territory from the fading central powers.  From Joseph Perisco's Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day 1918, which was published in 2005:

With the enemy in retreat, French, U.S. and British generals were anxious to press their advantage, even if an armistice was in the offing. That possibility first surfaced on the evening of 7 November, when a German delegation requested terms from Marshal Foch, the Allied Supreme Commander. "I have no proposals to make," Foch told the Germans, informing them that the war would continue while he obtained the consent of allied governments.

"...the senior American commander, General John J. Pershing, considered an armistice "equally repugnant." There can be "no conclusion until Germany is brought to her knees," he said. Conciliation, he claimed, would only lead to future war. Pershing wanted Germany's unconditional surrender.

So, the fighting dragged on, even when it became clear that the armistice would go into effect. The Germans didn't sign the agreement until the morning of the 11th, but radio traffic between various allied headquarters anticipated the war's end. However, few commanders issued orders aimed at limiting combat during the conflict's final hours.

So, the advance continued, with little regard for the cost. The British, still stung by their retreat from Mons, Belgium in the first year of the year, moved to recapture the city as the armistice approached. The commander of a French regiment issued two orders, for an attack to begin at 9 a.m., and to cease-fire at 11 a.m. Canadian troops also launched new assaults as the cease-fire loomed.

But it was the AEF, still a relative newcomer to the war, that launched some of the heaviest attacks in the final hours of the war. One of Pershing's Corps Commanders, Major General Charles Sumerall, ordered his Marines to cross the Meuse River under heavy fire. Hundreds were killed or wounded.

In another sector, an American division commander pressed his attack because the "unit lacked proper bathing facilities," putting (in Perisco's words) "cleanliness above survival." An artillery battery commander named Harry Truman put down one last barrage in the war's closing hours, giving his men a chance to test the "extended range" shells they had just received. In a letter to his wife, Truman expressed a desire to "scalp" a few Germans.

By various estimates, at least 300 American troops died between midnight and 11 a.m. on 11 November. But those numbers are suspect; they do not include casualties among U.S. units attached to British and French units. The actual total is believed to be much higher. Pershing's own, official report indicates that the last American died in battle at 10:59 a.m., only one minute before the armistice went into effect.

All told, as many as 10,000 soldiers were killed or wounded on the western front during the final, desperate hours before the cease-fire took hold.  It was a microcosm of the entire conflict; thousands of lives squandered for no real purpose.  In some cases, the gains on that last morning of the war were measuured in a few yards, as they had been for the previous four years.  Troops in other sectors advanced several kilometers, but to no avail.  The final boundaries would be set at Versailles by the assembled diplomats and politicians, with little regard for territory gained or lost on the morning of November 11, 1918. 

To their credit, a few commanders on the western front knew the armistice was coming and ignored orders to advance.  But they were a distinct minority on that final morning of the Great War.  Too many officers were willing to send their troops--and themselves--into no-man's land for one last time, with no regard for what might be gained (or lost) in a final, futile charge.   


Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Next Disaster

UPDATE/10 Nov/ 

The terms "backbone" and "France" are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, but today marks an exception to that general rule.  According to various media accounts, the proposed nuclear deal between Iran, the United States and the EU powers fell apart when France objected to its generous terms.

Think about that for a moment.  The socialist government of France is worried that the U.S. and its allies are going too easy on the mullahs and their nuclear program, while everyone else couldn't wait to sign on the dotted line.  Call it a minor miracle.  Call it a triumph of common sense. 

Vive la France. 

Incidentally, the nuclear talks are set to resume later this month, giving Secretary of State John Kerry a little time to "work" on his French counterparts.  This "very bad deal" isn't dead yet.


It's scary to contemplate, but there may come a moment--in a matter of just weeks or months--when we'll look back on the failed Obamacare roll-out with a tinge of nostalgia. 

You see, there is another debacle looming on the horizon, in the foreign policy arena.  It's a catastrophe that will make a fatally-flawed health care plan look like a minor policy blunder.  Borrowing a phrase from former President George H.W. Bush, what you "don't know about domestic policy" loses elections; what you don't know about foreign policy gets people killed.  And a lot of people may die in the Middle East in relatively short order.

The door to disaster is being opened by an apparent deal between Washington and Tehran on the Iranian nuclear program.  Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Geneva today to join the talks, amid word that an agreement is near.  While details have yet to be announced, sources suggest that Iran will be allowed to keep its nuclear efforts, while giving up virtually nothing in return.  At National Review, Elliott Abrams explains just how bad the proposed deal would be:

Iran gets billions of dollars in financial relief — the amount is unclear but relief from gold-trading sanctions alone is worth billions — and starts the process of reversing the sanctions momentum. Henceforth there will be fewer international sanctions, not more. In exchange, does it pull back from its nuclear-weapons program? From what we know now, it does not. Not one centrifuge is taken apart, as Netanyahu noted: There are 18,000 today, and 18,000 under this deal. Natanz and other sites remain intact. Not one ounce of enriched uranium is shipped overseas. Apparently Iran won’t enrich beyond 3.5 percent under this deal, but can build up limitless stocks of low-enriched uranium.

Abandoned here is the test of whether Iran needs any of this for a genuinely peaceful program; abandoned are the unanimous U.N. Security Council and IAEA Board resolutions that called for zero enrichment; abandoned is the test of whether Iran is truly further from a bomb.


The Obama administration entered these negotiations from a position of strength; Iran needs sanctions reflief badly.  But it acted as if we were the weak party, desperately seeking a deal, any dea.  The wily Iranian negotiators smelled this instantly and struck.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was even more blunt, calling it "a very bad deal."  He also noted that Israel is not bound by any agreement between the U.S. and Iran, and remains ready to defend its interests.

In an interview with NBC News, Mr. Obama said the current talks were not aimed at sanctions relief.  But Eli Lake at The Daily Beast discovered that the U.S. began easing financial restrictions on Iran several months ago. 

Bottom line: Iran's path to the nuclear club just got a lot easier, and the Middle East is quickly plunging into chaos.  An Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities is now inevitable, and could lead to a wider, regional conflict. 

There is also the spectre of a nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf, involving some of Tehran's neighbors.  The BBC reported   earlier this week that Saudi Arabia has already "ordered" nuclear weapons from Pakistan and could take delivery shortly after Iran joins the nuclear club.  The Saudis have been silent partners in Islamabad's nuclear program for years, with the understanding that the Paks would provide nuclear arms (and expertise) if Riyadh deems it necessary.  Other Gulf states--including the United Arab Emirates and Qatar--might embark on similar efforts, to protect their own interests.

What about the U.S. nuclear umbrella?  At this point, American credibility in the region is at a low ebb and many leaders have no faith in U.S. promises to defend them.  That's why a senior Saudi official paid a highly-publicized visit to Moscow earlier this year and there have been recent overtures from the Egyptian military to their Russian counterparts, five decades after Anwar Sadat severed ties with the Soviet Union.  No wonder Vladimir Putin is so anxious to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran; not only does his ally get a clear path to a nuclear capability, his own influence (and that of Russia) will grow significantly, as various Arab states look to Moscow for military hardware and security guarantees.

Why is the U.S. so intent on signing on to a very bad deal?  Part of the answer can be found in Barack Obama's almost limitless faith in negotiations; if you can reach a deal (he apparently believes), you can somehow persuade the other side to live up to the agreement, no matter what their track record. 

Consider the nuclear accord between the United States and North Korea, reached during the tenure of President George W. Bush.  The agreement was supposed to curb Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions; instead, it allowed North Korea to covertly pursue a nuclear weapons capability while receiving energy aid and other forms of assistance for supposedly "complying" with the deal.  There is no evidence that Iran will be any more compliant with any agreement it might reach with the U.S. and its allies.

Yet, the White House and the State Department are plunging blindly ahead, in part to satisfy the egos of the commander-in-chief and his secretary of state.  Mr. Obama has long viewed himself as a transformational figure on the world stage, an image that was reinforced by his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize early in his first term.  Never mind that President Obama had done nothing to actually earn the award; when read your press clippings long enough, you will finally start believing in your "powers."  Besides, with the president's popularity in decline (thanks to Obamacare), a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran can certainly change the conversation.

Likewise, Secretary of State John Kerry is also in search of a legacy.  Having failed to generate an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, Mr. Kerry now has his sights on Iran, with no regard for the wider consequences.  Perhaps he thinks the inevitable war, the regional nuclear arms race and the other, inevitable reprecussions can be delayed until 2017--or until Mr. Kerry retires to write his memoirs.

Worse yet, you can make a case that President Obama and John Kerry really don't care.  Along with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, they have presided over an administration that has been openly hostile to Israel, to the point of openly complaining about having to deal with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Against that backdrop, is it any wonder that President Obama and our Secretary of State are rushing headlong into the worst diplomatic deal since Munich?  One recalls Winston Churchill's famous reaction to that agreement, noting that England and France had a choice between dishonour and war; you "chose dishonour and you shall have war."

Then again, the current administration doesn't have much use for Mr. Churchill, either.  As you'll recall, one of Mr. Obama's first "decorating" acts at the White House was to remove the bust of the late Prime Minister, which was unceremoniously returned to the British Embassy in 2009.         

Mr. Churchill knew a few things about fixing disasters.  We can only hope Mr. Obama's successor has similar skills.                      

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Missing Man

When CBS presents its special on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, one key figure will be conspiciously absent. 

And we're not referring to Walter Cronkite (or any of the journalists) who have moved on to that big newsroom in the sky.  Instead, we refer to Dan Rather, the disgraced former anchor of the CBS Evening News who played a key role in the network's coverage of that fateful day.  You won't see Mr. Rather on CBS on November 22nd; instead he will participate in NBC's coverage, led by Tom Brokaw. 

On November 22, 1963, Rather was still a relative newcomer at CBS.  He was the network's correspondent based in New Orleans, covering the southern United States, along with central and South America.  Rather was posted there after a six-month initiation in New York (where his work was undistinguished, at best), and a brief stint in the Dallas bureau.  He was one of several correspondents assigned to Kennedy's visit to Dallas, along with the late Lew Wood and Robert Pierpoint. 

When shots rang out in Dealy Plaza, Rather hustled to Parkland Hospital, where the President and Texas Governor John Conolly were taken for treatment.  As doctors battled to save Kennedy's life, Rather tried to gather updates from hospital staffers. 

At one point, Rather was speaking simultaneously with producers at CBS Radio News in New York and a Catholic priest at the hospital.  The cleric informed Rather that the president had died, a snippet that was overheard by producers on the phone.  Asked if Kennedy was dead, Rather answered affirmatively, not realizing what would happen next.  Moments later, veteran CBS radio anchor Alan Jackson intoned "The President of the United States is dead," and began reporting details of Kennedy's demise, citing Rather as a source.  The CBS radio bulletin aired almost 15 minutes before Walter Cronkite and the TV team confirmed Kennedy's death.  In his autobiography, Rather described that interval as the longest of his life. 

It proved to be a career-making turn.  He was promoted to the White House beat (for the first time) in 1964; reporting stints in London and Vietnam followed, putting Rather on the trajectory that eventually led to "60 Minutes" and eventually replacing Cronkite on the Evening News. 

Of course, Rather's 44-year career at CBS ended in ignomy, amid the scandal of "Docugate."  After being forced out at the network, Rather sued CBS for breach of contract, a case that was eventually tossed out.  Giving your employer a colossal black eye--then taking them to court--won't win you many friends in the executive suite.  So that's why "The Dan" (to use Bernie Goldberg's favored term) will appear in NBC's assassination coverage, and not on CBS. 

But the snub of Dan Rather goes deeper than his scandalous departure from CBS and his subsequent legal action against the network.  In his recent Cronkite biography, historian Douglas Brinkley reports that the legendary anchorman made a point to visit CBS Chairman Les Moonves on the morning after Rather's departure was announced.  Cronkite assured Moonves that he "did the right thing," and Brinkley's book reveals a long-simmering feud between Rather and his predecessor. 

Not only did "Uncle Walter" have issues with some of Dan's on-air antics (remember the "courage" sign-off?), it's also clear that he was a bit peeved at being forced from the anchor chair back in 1981.  At the time, CBS had a "mandatory" retirement age of 65, but the rule was not always enforced, and eventually scrapped altogether (Mike Wallace remained a correspondent for "60 Minutes" well into his 80s).  The real reason CBS pushed Cronkite into retirement was to retain the services of one Dan Rather.  With their rising "star" threatening to bolt to ABC or NBC, the so-called Tiffany Network felt it had no other option than "retiring" Cronkite and giving his job to Rather. 

As Goldberg (and others) have documented, Rather ran the CBS news division with a degree of cunning and ruthlessness that would have made Cardinal Richelieu turn green with envy.  Rather relentlessly played favorites, and exiled correspondents and producers who crossed him.  Ed Rabel left the network for NBC after running afoul of the anchor, and Bernie Goldberg was similarly shunned after his famous 1996 critique of network news, in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal.

So when Rather's career hit the rocks, virtually no one at CBS rushed to his rescue.  And his circle of supporters shrank again when he filed that ill-fated lawsuit.  Put another way, Dan Rather didn't burn his bridges at CBS, he absolutely nuked them.  That's why he will spend November 22 in the company of Tom Brokaw, and not with his former network. 


Thursday, October 31, 2013

What Obama Knew

Call it the "Sergeant Schultz defense."  In response to almost any controversy, we are told that President Obama "knew nothing," recalling the famous line from Master Sergeant Hans Georg Schultz, the inept POW camp guard in the 60s TV sitcom, Hogan's Heroes.

Of course, the actor who played Schultz (John Banner) had a reason for feigning ignorance; he was potraying a character who was supposed to be bumbling.  Mr. Banner preferred it that way; he was a Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis in the late 1930s, a path followed by co-stars Werner Klemperer and  Leon Askin.  All three lost family members in the Holocaust, and they found it ironic that many of their on-screen roles were Nazis or German soldiers. 

So what is Mr. Obama's excuse?  Pick any scandal, from Benghazi to the IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the President was out of the loop.  Never mind that he participated in a White House meeting on the security of our diplomatic facilities the day before the attack in Libya (emphasis ours), or that the IRS commissioner visited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on numerous occasions, while the agency was systematically denying tax-exempt status to various Tea Party organizations.  Borrowing a line from another famous know-nothing (Vichy police Captain Louis Renault in Cascablanca), Mr. Obama must have been "shocked....shocked to learn such things were going on during his administration.

Ordinarily, such sophistry wouldn't get past the mainstream media, but with most of the press corps carrying water for the administration, they've been willing to take Mr. Obama at his word, however dubious it may be.  So whenever the President runs into trouble, he simply borrows a page from the guard at Stalag 13, and feigns ignorance.  Of course, it certainly helps that the mainstream media has helped sustain this charade; whenever the President claims he learned about the latest scandal in the morning paper, the stenographers in the White House press corps go to dramatic lengths to figure why he was uniformed.

Consider the latest revelations from the NSA global surveillance scandal.  In recent weeks, we've learned that the agency has spied on virtually everyone, including the Pope; leaders in Brazil and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  News that NSA intercepted Ms. Merkel's cell phone conversations prompted an angry call from the German leader to President Obama.  In response, we assume that he gave the same, lame explanation that he's been offering the American public.  That's right, the American President had no idea that the NSA was monitoring the communications of his foreign counterparts.

Naturally, that excuse has more holes than a block of Swiss.  First, isolating the phone traffic of the German Chancellor--out of billons of cell calls made daily--was a rather impressive feat of spycraft.  Secondly, the contents of such conversations aren't part of the daily haul, disseminated to all consumers with access to TS/SCI information, via JWICS.  If we had to guess, we'd say the Merkel conversations were part of a SAP/SAR initiative (Special Access Program/Special Access Required).  That means that only a handful of individuals in the U.S. government were briefed on the material, and participants had to sign a special non-disclosure agreement for that specific program.

It's also likely that such high-value intelligence found its way into the Presidential Daily Brief on a recurring basis.  So, if the reporting didn't identify Ms. Merkel by name, her identity was probably no secret, based on how the "source" was described.  If one of the participants in a phone call is identified as "a foreign leader," and the conversation relates to German government business, then it's fairly easy to deduce that we were eavesdropping on Ms. Merkel, even if you're as uncurious as Barack Obama.

And if that's no enough, there are enough senior intelligence officials involved with the PDB to answer any questions about sources and methods that might arise.  So far, no one in the press corps has bothered to ask if Mr Obama ever inquired about how we were getting such good information on the personal thoughts and positions of the German Chancellor.

To be fair, plausible denial is a standard tactic in the intelligence business.  When the Russians shot down that U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers in 1960, Washington first claimed that the aircraft (and its CIA pilot) were on a weather reconnaissance mission.  Needless to say, that excuse didn't last very long, despite Washington's best efforts to distance the Eisenhower administration from a major intelligence embarassment.  The U-2 incident reminds us that even plausible cover stories are sometime overcome by the truth, and there's a certain moment when you have to come clean.  It will be curious to see how long Mr. Obama and his handlers cling to the "no nothing" defense.    

Indeed, Mr. Obama's denials may be undercut by his own spooks.  Intel vets basically quickly dismissed at the President's claims, according to Shane Harris and Noah Shachtman at Foreign Policy:

A former White House official, who served in a prior administration, said it was essentially impossible that the president wouldn't know foreign leaders were being monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies, and principally the NSA, as part of regular operations aimed at keeping him informed about diplomatic relations and negotiations. Information on foreign leaders that is based on recorded calls or other signals intelligence is "unique," the former official said, and its nature is obvious to anyone reading or hearing an intelligence report or receiving a briefing. 

"If you saw it, you'd know that it came out of somebody's mouth," the former official said. "I cannot believe that [Obama's national security staff] didn't brief the president on foreign leaders when he was going in to visit with them." Much of that information would have comes from signals intelligence. And the failure to inform the president that a piece of information came from spying on a leader could be a fireable offense, the former White House official said. "It's almost a dereliction not to tell him."

To date, no one has been dismissed from the White House staff--or the NSA--because Mr. Obama "wasn't informed" about surveillance activities directed against dozens of world leaders. 

Draw your own conclusions.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Nuclear Blues

The Air Force's troubled nuclear enterprise is in hot water--again. 

According to the Associated Press, at least two missile launch crews have been caught napping this year with the blast door open on their underground command post.  Regulations stipulate that the massive door--designed to keep terrorists and other threats from gaining access to the launch center and its nuclear codes--can remain open if both crew members are awake, but must be shut if one is asleep.

Sources tell the AP that numerous violations of the rule have occured, but so far, only two crews have been punished.  One of the crews was assigned to the 91st Missile Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota, while the other is part of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Montana.  Both of those units (along with the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming) is responsible for 150 nuclear-armed Minuteman III ICBMs, dispersed in silos up to 100 miles from each installation.  Individual launch crews are responsible for 10 missiles and train for the unthinkable--unleashing nuclear armageddon, if directed by the national command authority.

The blast door violation is merely the latest black eye for USAF nuclear units.  Earlier this year, 17 missile launch officers at Minot were temporarily decertified for nuclear duty after an inspection revealed problems with their performance.  A separate evaluation led to a failing grade for the 341st Wing at Malmstrom, after discrepancies were discovered in a security forces group assigned to protect the missile fields.  The commander of that unit, Colonel David Lynch, was subsequently fired. 

And earlier this month, the Air Force relieved Major General Michael Carey, commander of 20th Air Force, the "parent" organization for the three missile wings.  An Air Force spokesman said Carey's dismissal was related to "personal misconduct" during a temporary duty assignment and was not sexual in nature, or related to U.S. nuclear operations.

Sadly, this latest round of dismissals, failed inspections and disciplinary actions is hardly new.  We've been documenting problems in Air Force nuclear units for more than six years, dating back to an infamous 2007 incident where nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were mistakenly transferred from Minot to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.  Warheads on the missiles (which were being retired from active service) were supposed to be removed before being flown to Barksdale, but various Air Force personnel, ranging from munitions specialists to the crew of the ferry aircraft, failed to notice that the weapons were still armed. 

Since then, the service has suffered through more busted evaluations, more dismissals and more disciplinary actions, yet the problems persist.  In the interim, the Air Force has spent millions on additional training and the creation of a new organization (Global Strike Command), measures that were supposed to fix the problems and provide a new level of direction and leadership for strategic nuclear units. 

But if the recent rash of problems is any indication, GSC has a way to go.  And that invites some rather obvious questions, beginning with the issue of accountability.  How much blame (if any) should be assigned to senior leadership, beginning with Lieutenant General James Kowalski, the current commander.  In a recent interview with the Associated Press, General Kowalski blamed missile blast door problem on a breakdown in discipline among a handful of crews.  That's certainly a factor, but given the recent string of failures, it would seem that GSC's problems go beyond a few missileers who don't follow checklists.  Apparently, the AP didn't ask General Kowalski how much of the blame for the Air Force's nuclear woes fall on his shoulders, and those of his leadership team.   

Indeed, when the 91st Missile Wing experienced its latest failures, senior leadership at Minot expressed concern about "rot" within the crew force.  That's a rather damning indictment, given the gravity of the mission assigned to missile crews, most of whom are in their early 20s and serving their first or second operational assignment.  And, when you factor in the issues that have affected Air Force bomb wings in recent years, there should be genuine concern about problems facing the service's nuclear units and why they persist to this day. 

In fairness, it should be noted that the nuclear mission is extraordinarily demanding, with no room for error.  Failure in a single area during a nuclear surety inspection (NSI) means the wing flunks the entire evaluation, as evidenced by the security problems at Malmstrom earlier this year.  Additionally, inspections are now conducted on a no-notice basis, which means nuclear units must train and prepare constantly, never knowing when the evaluators will show up at the gate. 

But that doesn't excuse the epidemic of failures, either.  The Air Force isn't the only service entrusted with the strategic mission.  Much of the nation's nuclear deterrent resides with the Navy's fleet of ballistic missile submarines, and there have been virtually no reports of inspection failures among those units.  Similarly, there have been few failures among tactical nuclear units in all the branches of the military.  Those organizations must also meet exacting standards for nuclear security, maintenance and operations, yet their evaluation record has been much better in recent years.  Has anyone bothered to ask why the tactical nuke community has fared better, and what lessons (if any) might be adopted by Air Force strategic units?

And that brings us back to that nagging issue of accountability.  Back in the glory days of Strategic Air Command (SAC), the nation's bomber and missile forces remained razor-sharp, a legacy of General Curtis LeMay and his insistence on the highest standards for units under his command.  But with the end of SAC more than 20 years ago (and the end of the Soviet threat), focus on the nuclear mission became blurred and standards eroded.  Nuclear duty, particularly in places like North Dakota and Wyoming, became something to be avoided, if at all possible.  With the advent of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nuclear specialists were sometimes deployed for jobs far beyond their expertise, serving as interrogators and prison guards.  Predictably, training and readiness continued to suffer, culminating in the Barksdale debacle and subsequent failures.  Along the way, a few Colonels and scores of lower-ranking personnel lost their jobs, but flag officers generally escaped blame. 

Case-in-point?  Colonel Michael Fortney presided over two failed inspections as commander of the missile wing at Malmstrom between 2008-2010.  Yet, he was still promoted to Brigader General and today serves as Director of Operations at Global Strike Command.  Some of the O-6s who lost their jobs over similar failures must be scratching their heads, along with those missileers who got hammered for various infractions in recent months. 

As for General Kowalski, he has been confirmed as the next Vice Commander of US Strategic Command, which directs all of the nation's nuclear bomber, ballistic missile submarine and land-based ICBM forces.  His predecessor, Navy Vice Admiral Timothy Giardina, was recently fired amid allegations that he used counterfeit chips while gambling at a casino in Iowa.  Giardina has been reassigned to the Navy staff in Washington (and reverts to two-star rank), but there seems little doubt that he will be allowed to retire as a flag officer.  As for Generals Fortney and Kowalski, their careers are still moving along, and some have speculated that Kowalski's new job is a stepping stone to command of STRATCOM. 

There is plenty of blame to go around for continuing problems in the Air Force nuclear community.  And those failures will likely continue, as along as accountability remains selective in nature.