Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why Rush Will Survive--and Prosper

The media world is atwitter (once again) over speculation that Cumulus Radio won't renew its contracts with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity when they expire at the end of this year.  That move would cost each host about 40 affiliates nationwide, including some of the most important talk stations, such as WABC in New York; WLS (Chicago), WBAP (Dallas) and WMAL in Washington.

But as Mark Twain might observe, reports of Rush's (and Hannity's) demise are greatly exaggerated.  As we noted back in May, there are plenty of options for both hosts in those markets--and others.  In fact, Clear Channel completed the purchase of New York heritage station WOR last year, with an eye towards moving the Limbaugh and Hannity programs to that frequency, and re-formatting the outlet for conservative talk.  That would set the stage for one of the biggest radio battles in the Big Apple since WABC's days as a Top 40 outlet, when it fended off challenges from such rivals as WMCA and WNBC. 

This time around, the outcome is less certain.  Clear Channel, the world's largest radio company, clearly sees an opportunity in New York and other markets.  While the company is heavily saddled with debt, it has more assets, and (more importantly) better talent options through its Premier Radio Networks.  If Rush and Sean move down the dial from 770 to 710 AM, some radio execs believe that many of their listeners will follow them.  That will leave WABC (and other Cumulus stations) with lesser talent, but lower operating costs.  While that may help the near-term bottom line, but it doesn't bode well for long-term audience growth, or increases in advertising revenue. 

One more reason that many in the business don't believe that Rush or Sean are going anywhere in New York, Chicago, Detroit or Washington, D.C.  Negotiations between Cumulus and Premier have clearly hit a snag, and the party that wants a better deal (hellooo, Lew Dickey) is leaking to his friends in the press, who are more than happy to spin the "End of Rush and Hannity" story.  Meanwhile, Clear Channel is hanging tough, threatening to move Limbaugh and Hannity to their own stations, and give Cumulus a run for talk radio supremacy in key markets.

That alone may be enough to force Cumulus to cave.  Readers may remember that Mr. Dickey was complaining that many of his news/talk outlets were under-performing last year, a situation he blamed on Rush Limbaugh's comments about Sandra Fluke.   It was pure baloney, and everyone in radio knew it, but the mainstream press eagerly lapped it up.  No one ever bothered to ask Dickey why his stations were affected by the controversy, while other Rush outlets (like Clear Channel's KFI in Los Angeles) remained among the highest-billing--and most profitable--in the nation.                              

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Hero Among Heroes

Colonel George "Bud" Day, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor as a POW in North Vietnam, died yesterday at his home in Shalimar, Florida at the age of 88.  Day, an Air Force fighter pilot, was the most decorated U.S. service member since General Douglas MacArthur (photo courtesly "Outside the Beltway" blog). 

A genuine American hero has died.

Colonel George "Bud" Day, the legendary fighter pilot who never gave away sensitive information, during five years of torture and deprivation in North Vietnam--and received the Medal of Honor for his exploits--passed away Saturday in Shalimar, Florida at the age of 88.

Almost every airman knows the story of Bud Day--or at least they did before the Air Force went on its recent "sensitivity" and "self-awareness" crusade.  Put it this way: back when the USAF valued a warrior ethos, few men were more respected or admired than Colonel Day, whose conduct was a model for any service member facing a sadistic enemy and impossible odds, with little hope for quick recovery or repatriation.  From his obituary in The New York Times:

When he volunteered for duty in Vietnam and was assigned to a fighter wing in April 1967, Colonel Day, then a major, had flown more than 4,500 hours in fighters.
On Aug. 26, 1967, he was on a mission to knock out a surface-to-air missile site 20 miles inside North Vietnam when his F-100 was hit by antiaircraft fire. He suffered a broken arm and eye and back injuries when he ejected, and he was quickly captured.
Major Day was hung upside-down by his captors, but after his bonds were loosened, he escaped after five days in enemy hands. He made it across a river, using a bamboo-log float for support, and crossed into South Vietnam. He wandered barefoot and delirious for about two weeks in search of rescuers, surviving on a few berries and frogs. At one point, he neared a Marine outpost, but members of a Communist patrol spotted him first, shot him in the leg and hand, and captured him.
This time, Major Day could not escape. He was shuttled among various camps, including the prison that became known as the Hanoi Hilton, and was beaten, starved and threatened with execution. His captors demanded that he reveal escape plans and methods of communication among the prisoners of war as well as information on America’s air war.
In February 1971, he joined with then-Commander Stockdale, the ranking American in the prison camp, and other prisoners in singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” while rifle muzzles were pointed at them by guards who had burst into a prisoners’ forbidden religious service.      

It was Colonel Day and Jim Stockdale, along with John Flynn, Jeremiah Denton and Robbie Risner, who set the example for scores of American airmen imprisoned at the Hanoi Hilton and other North Vietnamese POW camps.  As the war dragged on, there seemed to be little hope for their release--a fact repeatedly underscored by their captors.  Amid the constant routine of beatings, starvation, threats and boredom, Day (and other senior officers) provided exemplary leadership, inspiring others to hold out--and hold on--against the North Vietnamese.

A personal note:  I never had the honor of meeting Bud Day, but I've known several men who spent time with him in the Hanoi Hilton.  They described him with tremendous respect and even a touch of awe. That alone spokes volumes about Colonel Day's character and integrity.  To a man, those who survived the horrors of captivity in North Vietnam are heroes; yet man of them held a special reverence for the Air Force fighter pilot who endured the worst anyone could imagine, never broke, and inspired his comrades to rally against their captors.  Bud Day truly was a hero among heroes.

After his return from Vietnam, Colonel Day received the Medal of Honor (along with Jim Stockdale) from President Ford at a moving White House ceremony.  While Day returned to flying status (and eventually became Vice Commander of an Air Force wing at Eglin AFB, FL), he never reached flag rank.  Passed over for promotion to brigadier general, Day retired from active duty in 1977 and opened a law office near the base (he earned a law degree from the University of South Dakota in the late 1940s), and spent the rest of his life in private practice.

As an attorney, Day handled a wide variety of cases, but he was best known for a class action suit on behalf of thousands of military retirees who were stripped of their medical benefits at age 65 and told to apply for Medicare.  Day won the case in federal district court in 2001, but the judgment against the U.S. government was overturned on appeal a year later.  But Day's tireless efforts eventually prompted Congress to fix the problem by instituting the "Tricare for Life" program, making military retirees eligible for coverage from both plans.

According to the Northwest Florida Daily News, funeral arrangements for Colonel Day are pending, although his burial will likely be at a military cemetary in Pensacola, Florida on Thursday. Hundreds--perhaps thousands--of mourners from the region's large military community are expected to pay their final respects.  It will be interesting to see what sort of "official" delegation the Air Force puts together.  Bud Day was always a straight shooter who managed to ruffle a few feathers; remembering his departure from active duty almost 40 years ago, the Colonel likened many of the service's leaders as "quasi-political" managers.

Calling his description prophetic would be an understatement.  Five decades later, the Air Force's senior officer corps is rife with politicians and yes-men, while warriors like Bud Day are few and far between.

Memo to General Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff: take a day out of your busy schedule and attend Colonel Day's funeral this week.  Many of your airmen have never heard of his courage or tenacity, and your presence would be a wonderful first step in re-focusing the service on the values embodied by George Day.

And while you're at it, get rid of the sensitivity and touchy-feely training.  Take the money being wasted on those programs and buy copies of Colonel Day's memoir (Return With Honor) and Robbie Risner's superb The Passing of the Night.  Then, get those books into the hands of as many junior officers and mid-level NCOs as possible, and introduce them to men of absolute honor, courage and integrity.  I personally guarantee that those books will do more to revive true Air Force principles--and boost morale--than a decade's worth of self-awareness garbage.  Do it as a tribute to Colonel Day and General Risner, but more importantly, do it for a service that desperately needs to hear their message.                      


Monday, July 22, 2013

From (Beneath) the Sea

Earlier this month, Israel destroyed a shipment of advanced anti-ship missiles in the Syrian port of Latakia. The missiles, which had just been received from Russia, posed a serious threat to naval units operating in the eastern Mediterranean, so a strike was ordered by Israeli leaders.

In the past, such operations have been assigned to the IAF. With scores of F-15s and F-16s in its arsenal, the Israeli Air Force has more than enough assets to secure the airspace, suppress Syrian air defenses and take out the anti-ship missiles in their storage facility. Indeed, some early reports suggested that an air strike was used to eliminate the latest missile threat.

But more recent accounts suggest that Israel used a much different military option. The London Sunday Times (and other sources) now suggest that the Yakhont P-800 missiles were destroyed by cruise missiles launched by an Israeli submarine, stationed off the Syrian coast (emphasis ours).

If that information proves accurate, it represents a new chapter in the Arab-Israeli conflict. While various nations in the region operate submarines, none had previously demonstrated the ability to fire extended range cruise missiles while submerged. There had long been speculation that Israel gained that ability when it began acquiring its advanced, Dolphin-class diesel-electric boats from Germany; so far, a total of four boats have been delivered and two more are on the way.

While the exact capabilities of Israel's newest subs have not been disclosed, intelligence reporting indicates the boats have at least one firing tubes that are far larger than required for employing torpedoes. That fueled speculation that the new subs would also serve as cruise missile platforms, and that capability may have been confirmed by the Latakia strike.  Intelligence and press reporting indicate that Israel may have tested a submarine version of its Popeye stand-off missile more than a decade ago; that variant reportedly has a range of up to 1,500 miles.  

If Israel can now fire cruise missiles from a stealth platform, that represents a game-changer for the Middle East, and it may signal that a strike against Iran's nuclear program is approaching. While some arm-chair tacticians focus almost exclusively on the air element, many military analysts believe an actual Israeli strike would combine multiple assets, including tactical aircraft, special forces and cruise missiles.

Under that scenario, Dolphin submarines of the Israeli navy would deploy to the Persian Gulf and launch cruise missiles against key targets supporting nuclear facilities, including air defense nodes, logistical sites and command facilities. Many of the cruise missiles would be employed against softer, above-ground facilities (assuming they are not fitted with nuclear warheads); that would allow Israeli fighters to target below-ground nuclear complexes with bunker-busting bombs. Special forces would be used to attack nuclear sites that can't be easily targeted by aircraft or cruise missiles, and remove equipment and material from selected locations, proving Tehran's nuclear intentions once and for all.

Diesel-electric boats are well-suited for operations in the Persian Gulf, and there has been periodic speculation about Israeli obtaining basing rights in places like Azerbaijan, or the Kurdish Region of northern Iraq. That would greatly decrease the distance Israeli forces would have to travel and increase the amount of firepower available for the raid. However, maintaining tactical surprise would be much more difficult, given the number of intelligence assets on the ground in those locations.

Still, an Israeli cruise missile strike against Iran--as part of a larger operation against Tehran's nuclear program--cannot be dismissed. Iran has virtually no defense against a cruise missile attack, and utilizing those weapons in concert with other platforms would wreak havoc in the air defense system, improving Israeli prospects for success, and reducing the threat posed to tactical aircrews. Jerusalem understands the limitations of an "air-only" option; by some estimates, the IAF could dispatch only two dozen fighters for a long-distance raid against Iran (largely due to limited air refueling assets). That automatically limits the number of targets that could be struck, and almost ensures that some elements of the nuclear program will survive. By launching cruise missiles from submarines, Israel can attack a larger target set--or, at a minimum--accomplish tasks that would otherwise be assigned to fighter aircraft or special forces personnel, freeing them for other assignments.

Some experts still believe that an Israeli strike on Iran is not in the offing, for a variety of reasons. We're not so sure; just this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Tehran is getting dangerously close to having enough uranium for its first nuclear weapon, and said Israel will act to prevent that from happening, even if it means going it alone.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Where in the World is Colonel Bristol?


7/19/2013.  In a sudden about-face, the Pentagon has agreed to let Colonel Bristol speak with Congress about last year's attack on our consulate in Benghazi.  DoD relented after Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Congressman Jason Chaffetz complained about the military's reluctance to make Bristol available.  According to the UK Daily Mail, the same Pentagon flack who claimed that Bristol could not be compelled to testify because he was retired is now blaming an administrative error for that statement.  Earlier this week, Marine Corps Times reported that Bristol is on terminal leave, but remains on active duty until 1 August.

Today's announcement is clearly a step forward, but it is worth noting that officials and military members involved in the Benghazi episode were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements after the incident.  Incidentally, the Daily Mail had little difficulty locating Colonel Bristol at his retirement home in northern Virginia, a task the American media was unable--or unwilling--to perform.


This should come as no surprise. 

The same administration that has lied, obfuscated and stone-walled over the Benghazi scandal is at it again.

Remember Colonel George Bristol?  In recent months, he has emerged as a key figure regarding our military response--or more correctly, the lack of a response--to the terrorist attack on our consulate in Libya last fall.  At the time of that debacle, Colonel Bristol (a career Marine) was serving as Commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara, part of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), headquarted in Stuttgart, Germany. 

In that role, Colonel Bristol had detailed knowledge of special forces assets that might have been employed to assist American diplomats and security contractors who were under attack.  Four U.S. officials, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed.  There was no military response; early reports suggested that we lacked assets in the region at the time the assault began.  When it was revealed that an American SOF team was actually on the ground in Tripoli--with an airplane waiting to fly them to Benghazi--the narrative changed.  Current accounts suggest the team was "held" in Tripoli in case U.S. facilities in that city came under attack.  Various administration officials have also denied claims that the commander of that SOF unit, Lieutenant Colonel S.E. Gibson was told to "stand down" when he volunteered to respond to the situation in Benghazi.

Through it all, the one person we haven't heard from is Colonel Bristol.  When Congressional investigators first learned of his role, they asked DoD about the possibility of Bristol testifying before the House Oversight Committee (and other panels) who are looking into the debacle.  Initially, DoD claimed it could not compel Bristol to testify because he was "retired."  Colonel Bristol left his post at AFRICOM in March of this year, following a change-of-command ceremony.  In his farewell speech, Bristol said an "evil" has taken hold in Africa and it is "up to us to stomp it out."

But it turns out that Bristol isn't retired (not yet).  Marine Corps Times writer Dan Lamothe did a little digging and discovered that Bristol is still on active duty.  Technically, he's on terminal leave, which means he's using accumulated leave and permissive temporary duty (TDY) days to prepare for retirement.  But he doesn't go on the retired list until 1 August. 

That means he's still on active duty.  And that means Bristol's superiors can compel him to testify before Congress.  However, the window for such a directive is closing fast, and the Pentagon shows no urgency in delivering that order to Colonel Bristol.  In fact, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel insisted that Congress had missed an opportunity for his testimony, since no invitation was extended before his "retirement."  From Marine Corps Times:

“Col. Bristol was not invited by Congress to testify before he retired,” said Air Force Maj. Robert Firman, a spokesman with the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “The DoD has cooperated fully with Congress and the Accountability Review Board since the beginning of this investigation, and we will continue to do so.”    

But clearly that's not the case.  Like much of the Benghazi matter, Bristol's status, whereabouts and his sudden departure from the post at AFRICOM are shrouded in mystery.  Consider these developments:

- Colonel Bristol retired from his JTF slot just six months after the consulate attack, and only one year into his command tour.  Most commanders serve a minimum of two years in their posts before moving on.  It is worth noting that Bristol (a former enlisted Marine) was nearing mandatory retirement after 38 years of active-duty service.  But extensions can be granted for individuals in key positions, and the JTF post would qualify for that sort of dispensation.  Additionally, there are legitimate questions as to why the Marine Corps would spend thousands of dollars in permanent change-of-station funds to send a senior Colonel to Europe for only one year.   

- The former joint task force commander has seemingly disappeared after his change-of-command ceremony in Germany a few months back.  Efforts by various media outlets to contact him have proven unsuccessful, and Congressional staffers have had similar luck in trying to track him down.  Did we mention that all military members have a "final" address on their retirement orders, used to determine where the retiree's personal property will be shipped, and establish a final place of residence.  In rare cases, the retiree may use someone else's address; I knew an Air Force Colonel who listed the home of a former Air Force Academy as his retirement address (he was going through a bitter divorce and trying to conceal assets from his wife).  But that is the exception and not the rule; going through proper channels, Congress should be able to gain Bristol's retirement location from the Marine Corps, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS), or both.  

- The good Colonel is spending a lot of time on terminal leave.  While it's not uncommon for retiring service members to spend 30 or 60 days in that status before retirement, Bristol will be in that category for for 122 days--a full, four months.  To accumulate that much leave time, Colonel Bristol had to carry over the year-to-year "max" (75 days); utilize all leave accumulated during the current fiscal year (25 days) and take three weeks of permissive TDY, which is allowed in conjunction with permanent change-of-station moves.  Not entirely unheard of; many military members try to "bank" as much leave as possible in conjunction with their retirement.  Colonel Bristol did one helluva job in maximizing leave in the months before retirement--and covering his tracks.  So far, no one can find the mysterious Colonel, who had a long career in special ops, and is credited with developing the Marine Corps' current martial arts training program.  

Obviously, DoD is in no mood to help Congress locate Colonel Bristol.  But we've also got to wonder if our legislators are really serious about the task.  Given the various databases and resources outlined above, finding George Bristol should be a relatively simple process.  Yet, members of the House and Senate seem no closer to securing his testimony than they were a few months ago.   Obviously, Congressional Democrats are concerned about what Bristol might say; in his former position, Colonel Bristol was almost certainly involved in the high-level consultations on the evening of September 11, 2012, and the ultimate rejection of a military response.  But we're also starting to wonder about members of the GOP.  They deserve great credit for pursuing the truth on Benghazi; so why aren't they being more aggressive in pursuing the testimony of the senior special ops officer for the Africa region, on a night when such assets were available--and desperately needed--but never used.             


Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Few More Amateurs, Please

One of the arguments against citizen-journalists is that we lack the "training" and "experience" to get the story right.

After yesterday's little snafu at KTVU in Oakland, it looks like we could use a few more amateurs in the newsroom.

Along with its Bay Area competitors, KTVU has been relentlessly covering the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 for the past week. So, when someone called the newsroom and offered up the names of the cockpit crew, folks in the newsroom thought they had a real exclusive, since the pilots have not been publicly identified.

Having worked as a print and broadcast reporter, I understand the pressures associated with breaking news and trying to scoop the competition. But it's not enough to be fast, you've also got to be accurate, or at least that's what I learned in J-school 30+ years ago.

So, with that in mind, look at the full-screen graphic that KTVU offered as part of its report. What are the odds that these are the actual names of the pilots? And, what are the odds that someone was trying to "prank" KTVU?

If you chose the latter option, give KTVU a call, because they're going to looking for a new reporter, producer, executive producer, news director and anyone else associated with this debacle. Breaking news or not, it is simply mind-numbing to consider that such an obvious prank made it on the air, during KTVU's noon newscast. To it's credit, the station quickly apologized, and claimed it had "confirmed" the information with the National Transportation Safety Board. Riiigggghhhtttt....

Either the NTSB is completely clueless, or they wanted to see just how far Channel 2 was willing to go with its little exclusive.

We should also note that KTVU isn't exactly a podunk operation. The station is the Fox affiliate for the San Francisco area, and it's owned by Cox, one of the largest media companies in the United States. For years, Channel 2 has dominated local news ratings in the mornings and in prime time, and the station has been honored on multiple occasions for outstanding journalism, most recently with three Edward R. Murrow Awards, announced this past April.

If the CBS News legend were still alive, he might ask the station to give those awards back. KTVU isn't a place that typically hires rookie reporters or producers. We're guessing that the "team" that put those inaccurate--and offensive--names on the air has decades of collective experience. Yet, they were successfully pranked by someone who knows a little about the news business, and the furious scramble to be first. Feed the assignment desk, a reporter, or a producer, an "exclusive"--even if it's an obvious prank--and watch the fun begin.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, KTVU not only "broke" those fictitious crew names on the air, but on its website and through social media as well. In the length of time required to compose a tweet, someone at Channel 2 could have easily placed another call to someone at the NTSB and verified that "Capt Sum Ting Wong" was not in command of the ill-fated flight. For the record, the NTSB also claims that it never provided the initial confirmation to KTVU, and for once, we'll side with the feds.

Today's gaffe on Channel 2 is just another reminder of the deplorable state of American journalism. Accuracy and multiple-sourcing on stories has been replaced by single sources (usually anonymous), often of dubious credibility. It will be interesting to see if the original source can ever be confirmed. In the meantime, perhaps Howard Stern will tell his followers to go easy on KTVU, and maybe Homer Simpson can convince Bart to stop calling the station's assignment desk, while Channel 2 tries to salvage a bit of its professional image.
ADDENDUM:  If it's any consolation to the crew at KTVU, here's another sterling example of media idiots on parade.  In its coverage of the George Zimmerman verdict, USA Today quotes one Howie Felterbush, who was in the crowd outside the courthouse, offering his support for the defendant.  Here's the pull-quote, courtesy of Deadspin:


Sunday, July 07, 2013

The Grounding

While the world media has been focused on yesterday's crash landing of an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 at San Francisco International Airport, the following aviation-related announcement caught our eye; from Reuters, via Yahoo News:

An Israeli F16 warplane crashed at sea on Sunday due to an engine malfunction and Israel subsequently grounded all its F15 and F16 combat aircraft pending a review of the incident, a military spokesman said.

The pilot and navigator on board managed to safely bail out of the U.S.-made plane and a military rescue unit came to evacuate them by helicopter, the spokesman and Israeli media reports said.

"An F16 combat aircraft crashed earlier today in the sea after the engine malfunctioned," the spokesman said. He added that the air force commander had decided to "ground all F16 and F15 planes until circumstances of the incident are reviewed." 
Israel's decision strikes us as a bit odd, for a couple of reasons.  First, operating a single-en gine fighter (like the F-16) carries certain hazards, including limited options when the powerplant quits working.  We know an Air Force F-16 driver that managed to "dead stick" a Viper into Kunsan AB, Korea, back in the early 1990s, from a distance of almost 20 miles.  That pilot had the good fortune to be at high altitude (20,000) when his GE engine gave up the ghost, giving him enough time and speed to make flawless emergency landing without power.  For his efforts, he received an Air Medal, one of the few awarded in peace time.   

But for most Viper pilots, the sudden loss of your engine usually leaves two choices: get it on the ground--and fast--or grab the handles and eject.  We know another F-16 pilot who had to bail out from an older "A" model in the late 80s, just moments after takeoff.  He later told us: "I knew it was time to get out when I saw the flames go shooting past the cockpit."  That particular pilot got two "swings" in his chute before he touched down, just off the end of the runway.   Based on limited evidence, it sounds like the two-person crew of the IAF F-16 had a similar choice.  When their engine failed off the Gaza coast, they had no choice but to eject, since Israeli warplanes don't "divert" to Palestinian airports.    

Needless to say, the IAF has lots of experience in F-16 operations and losses of aircraft (and pilots) in the past has not resulted in the grounding of the entire fleet, as well as their F-15 squadrons (which utilize the same type of Pratt & Whitney engine.  Wide-scale stand downs typically occur in response to a catastrophic failure, such as the cracked longeron that caused a Missouri Air National Guard F-15 to break apart in-flight five years ago.  That accident prompted the grounding of all F-15s around the world, until their longerons--a critical component that helps hold the aircraft together--could be inspected.  We've never heard of an engine issue forcing a fleet-wide grounding, particularly when you consider that the Pratt & Whitney and GE engines used in various F-16 models have outstanding reliability and safety records.    

It's also a bit strange that the IAF would ground the two aircraft responsible for the much of its offensive and defensive capabilities.  With scores of Eagles and Vipers on the ground, it's practically an invitation to Israel's foes to mount some sort of aerial action, ranging from a UAV mission (like the one staged by Iran and Hizballah a few months ago), to an actual air strike by Iranian assets, or the Syrian Air Force.    

And that brings us to another possibility: is today's crash being used as some sort of deception plan?  As we've noted in the past, the Israelis are masters at tactical and strategic deception; virtually every major military operation in the history of the Jewish state has been preceded by some sort of deception operation.  Before the 1967 war, for example, Israeli TV showed footage of soldiers on holiday, enjoying a trip to the beach, while preparations for the lightning strike against their Arab foes were underway.  The IAF also conducted "feint" operations for weeks before that conflict, flying up to the edge of Egyptian airspace before turning back.  The flights became so routine that the Egyptian Air Force stopped responding to them.  On the first day of the war, the Israelis simply didn't turn back, and destroyed the EAF on the ground.    

How would the current grounding fit into a deception plan?  Many major air operations are preceded by a maintenance stand down, giving maintenance crews enough time to prepare a maximum nuber of jets for combat.  If key F-15I and F-16I units suddenly stopped flying, foreign intelligence services would instantly lock onto that development as a possible sign of an impending Israeli strike.  But with all IAF F-15 and F-16 squadrons on the ground, it will be easier for the IAF to mask potential raid preparations.    

One more thought: in all likelihood, the F-16 that crashed today is still at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.  It's difficult to see how the IAF could determine the exact cause of engine failure so quickly--and deduce that today's problem could affect all front-line fighters.  All modern air forces lose jets to engine failure on a regular basis; such mishaps are rarely enough to warrant the grounding of the entire fleet, even when the powerplants have a history of problems.  But today's mishap does give the IAF a valid reason to put their jets on the ground and get ready for whatever lies ahead.    

In closing, we offer this final tidbit: the coming days represent a period of extremely low lunar illumination in Iran--ideal conditions for a night attack against Tehran's nuclear facilities.  Yes, it's quite a stretch from an Israeli F-16 crash to a potential strike against Iran.  But today's crash in the Mediterranean does give the IAF a rather convenient excuse to put a lot of planes on the ground--for preventive maintenance and inspections--at just the right time.             

Saturday, July 06, 2013

The Man Who Almost Lost the War

Major General Daniel Sickles.  The most famous--some would say notorious--political general of the Civil War, Sickles's actions on the battlefield contributed to the stunning Union defeat at Chancellorsville, and he almost lost Gettysburg as well (Library of Congress photo via the Civil War Trust) .    

This week marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the epic clash that set the final course of the Civil War, even though months of bitter and bloody fighting would follow. After Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee and his storied Army of Northern Virginia could no longer threaten wide swaths of northern territory with all-out invasion, setting the stage for a decisive victory that force the Union to negotiate a peace with the Confederacy. And after Gettysburg, the rest of the war would be waged almost entirely on southern soil, through costly campaigns of attrition and logistics that Lee could not afford to fight, let alone win.

That is the essence of Gettysburg, the turning point of the war in the east. After a string of defeats, managed by incompetent generals, the Army of the Potomac finally beat Lee and forced him to retreat south, giving Union forces a desperately-needed shot of confidence. There would be more mistakes and bungles after Gettysburg, but for the army in blue, the road from that Pennsylvania rail hub inevitably led to Appomattox and final victory.

Still, Gettysburg' s sesquicentennial raises inevitable questions that haunt historians--and generals--for centuries that follow? What if Lee's best corps commander, Stonewall Jackson, had not been killed at Chancellorsville a few months earlier? Would his natural aggressiveness and prescient sense of the battlefield have led to the Confederates' capturing the key high ground at Gettysburg on Day One or Day Two? Under that scenario, Gettysburg would have likely ended in a Union disaster, with Lee's victorious forces taking Harrisburg and parading through Philadelphia within a week.

But Jackson's potential impact on the battle is only one of the "what if's" still being debated by historians and strategists. Suppose Lee had been in better health and relied less on his staff, which often delivered incomplete or inaccurate information for his decision-making. Or, what if Abraham Lincoln tarried and left General "Fighting Joe" Hooker in command of the Army of the Potomac for a few more days, instead of replacing him with George Gordon Meade? Bold as a planner but often timid in the field, it's hard to imagine Hooker getting the best of Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg. And for that matter, what if Jeb Stuart's Confederate cavalry had been properly positioned during the campaign? They spent much of the run-up to Gettysburg on the "backside" of Lee's Army, denying him a key reconnaissance asset and badly-needed intelligence.

Still, the ultimate "what if" from Gettysburg may rest not at the army level, but instead, with a single Union corps commander who almost lost the battle--and the war--single-handedly. We refer to Major General Dan Sickles, the Tammany Hall politician who used his connections to wrangle a commission at the outset of the war, a move aimed at restoring his public image after being acquitted on murder charges!

Imagine Bill Clinton's libido in the body of a 19th century politician who viewed a civil war as a golden opportunity to reinvent himself. That was Dan Sickles, a man once described by Harper's Weekly as "loved more sincerely and hated more heartily than any other man of his day." As a military leader, he was (arguably) the most incompetent general in a conflict that was filled with them. During his brief time in uniform, he almost managed to lose the war not once, but twice, yet survived his transgressions and lived into a ripe old age, shaping popular history to emphasize his "accomplishments" (while minimizing his own, disastrous mistakes), and lobbying--successfully--to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, 32 years after the war ended.

Born to an upper-middle-class family in New York (his father was a politician and patent lawyer), Dan Sickles learned the printing business before becoming an attorney and running (successfully) for the state legislature. Controversy and scandal quickly became hallmarks his career; Sickles was censured by the New York legislature for escorting a known prostitute into its chambers. Undeterred, he later took her to England and presented her to Queen Victoria, introducing her under the surname of one of his political rivals.

Sickles sent the working girl home after his wife arrived in Europe, where he was serving as secretary of the U.S. Embassy in London. Naturally, the marriage had been scandalous; Sickles married his wife a few years earlier, when she was only 15 or 16 and he was 33. Returning to America in 1855, Sickles was elected to Congress as a Democrat. He remained a notorious womanizer but when his wife strayed, Sickles confronted her lover, Phillip Baton Key II, the District Attorney of Washington, D.C. and shot him dead (Key was unarmed). Sickles promptly surrendered to authorities, hired a high-priced legal team and beat the murder rap with a claim of temporary insanity--the first time that defense had been successfully used in an American court.

When the Civil War began, Sickles saw an opportunity for rehabilitation. He raised four regiments of volunteers in his native New York, and was appointed a Colonel in one of those units. Using his political connections, Sickles continued to rise in the ranks, and was promoted to Brigadier General in September 1861. Given his reputation--and complete lack of military experience--there was hesitation in Washington about giving Sickles flag rank and greater responsibilities; in fact, Congress initially refused to confirm his commission, forcing their former colleague to temporarily relinquish his command.

But once again, Sickles' political ties paid off; he was not only restored to the rank of brigadier general, but President Lincoln nominated him for a second star in late 1862, and his good friend Joe Hooker--by then Commander of the Army of the Potomac--gave him command of III Corps a few months later. At the time, Sickles was the only corps commander in the Union Army who was not a West Point graduate. And while Sickles had proved competent leading a brigade at Seven Pines and the Seven Days engagements, he was clearly unprepared to lead a division, let alone an entire corps. His ineptitude would have near-cataclysmic consequences for the Union in the months that followed.

At the Battle of Chancellorsville, fought in early May 1863, Sickles was assigned to hold the center of the Union lines while Hooker attempted a risky, double envelopment of Lee’s forces. On May 2, advance elements of his III Corps observed large numbers of Confederate troops marching parallel to his lines. Sickles assumed the Rebels were retreating, but it was actually General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Corps marching around the Union flank, executing one of the most audacious (and successful) attacks of the war.

Assuming he could easily overtake and defeat the “retreating” Confederates, Sickles opened a wide salient in the Union lines, leaving his forces vulnerable to attacks from both sides, and isolating XI Corps. Lee and his commanders quickly took advantage of Hooker—and Sickles’s—mistakes, routing a Union force that was more than twice their size. Not surprisingly, Sickles’ effusive after-action report makes no mention of his errors, and he worked diligently to ensure that other summaries hewed close to his version of events.

General Hooker was relieved as Commander of the Army of the Potomac in late June 1863, literally on the eve of Gettysburg. Lee was already on the move, and the new Union commander, General George Meade, had no time to make changes among subordinates, or his headquarters staff. Given the opportunity, Meade would have almost certainly replaced Dan Sickles. While everyone agreed that the former politician was fearless on the battlefield, his poor judgment (and lack of military training) created the potential for catastrophe in combat

Making matters worse, Meade and Sickles openly detested each other; the III Corps commander had been a close associate of the departed Hooker (and believed that Meade played a role in his dismissal). From his perspective, Meade viewed Sickles as an amateur, more concerned about burnishing his “record” than following orders. Sickles, for his part, used his connections with the media to denigrate Meade at every opportunity, knowing that his new superior despised the press, and rarely defended himself in the papers.

Gettysburg was not a “planned” engagement; the collision of Confederate and Federal forces outside the small Pennsylvania town, coupled with key terrain, determined that the battle would be fought there. As Meade formulated his strategy, he ordered Sickles and III Corps to anchor the left end of the Union lines along key terrain including Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top. On the morning of 2 July, Meade sent his son and aide, Captain George Meade, to ensure that Sickles had followed instructions. But General Sickles refused to talk with the younger Meade; eventually, he traveled to the commander’s headquarters and asked for help in positioning III Corps. Meade didn’t have time to inspect Sickle’s positions, but he sent his artillery chief to assist the Corps commander.

Returning to his unit, Sickles told the artillery commander that he wanted to move III Corps roughly ½ mile forward of the line ordered by General Meade Sickles believed the shift would put his troops in better defensive terrain, but it created tremendous headaches for Meade, and once again, left key elements of the Union Army badly exposed:

The primary disadvantage of Sickles’ position was that the Third Corps was too far in advance of Meade’s army to receive support. Meade’s reinforcements had to cover ½ mile of open ground and Sickles negated Meade’s interior lines. The essentially straight line along Cemetery Ridge, which Meade intended Sickles to occupy, was approximately 1,600 yards in length. Sickles’s Third Corps had roughly 10,675 effectives and he would later claim that he lacked sufficient strength to man Meade’s front. Yet the new position covered a front that was nearly twice as long; approximately 3,500 yards. Despite his efforts to refuse them, his flanks were in the air.

One of the biggest criticisms directed at Sickles was that by moving forward he abandoned Little Round Top--- viewed by many as the key to the Union left because it was the highest defensible point in the immediate vicinity. Not a problem for Sickles because over the next 50 years he would repeatedly lie and say that he did occupy Little Round Top and supervised the placement of reinforcements up there.

By the time Meade became aware of Sickles’s move, Rebel artillery was already bombarding Union lines. It was too late for III Corps to return to its original position. General Meade was left with no choice but to reinforce Sickles’s line. As the Confederate attack unfolded, III Corps was pushed back with heavy losses and by late afternoon, Rebel forces (under the leadership of Lieutenant General James Longstreet) occupied most of Sickles’s modified position. However, III Corps elongated lines forced Longstreet to spread his forces over a wider front, slowing his assault. As darkness fell, Meade still occupied Cemetery Ridge, denying Longstreet—and Lee—the opportunity to win the battle on that day.

As for Sickles, he was wounded by a stray cannon ball around 6:30 pm, while attempting to rally his disintegrating forces. He was carried to the rear on a stretcher, puffing on a cigar and waving to his men. Sickles’s mangled right leg was amputated later that evening, and it soon became a key element of his self-proclaimed heroics. He donated the limb to the Army’s medical museum (where it remains on display to this day) and arranged quick transit back to Washington, where General Sickles received dozens of visitors and promulgated his own version of what happened at Gettysburg.

Sickles’s wound proved to be a blessing in disguise for the Union. It ended his career as field commander, though he later served as Military Governor of South Carolina before leaving the Army as a Major General. The rest of Dan Sickles life was just as colorful—and controversial—as his military career. After his wife died, Sickles became part of the U.S. diplomatic mission to Spain. In that role, he maintained his hard-drinking and womanizing lifestyle. According to some accounts, he fathered children with a deposed Spanish queen, and later married a noblewoman in Madrid. However, she quickly discovered that Sickles was a rogue and lived apart from him for most of the next 30 years.

Returning home once again, Sickles was elected permanent head of the New York state commission charged with raising money for civil war monuments and placing them on various battlefields. The former general remained in that post for years, until $28,000 turned up missing, and officials threatened to prosecute Sickles for embezzlement. Along the way, Sickles also blew through a $7 million fortune from his father, and won re-election to Congress. During his final terms in the House, Sickles focused most of his attention on preserving the Gettysburg battlefield. Once asked why there was no statue honoring him at Gettysburg, Sickles replied that the “entire battlefield” was his monument. He was also awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1897, for his supposed heroism at Gettysburg.

Predictably, even Dan Sickle’s passing was steeped in controversy. He died in 1914, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, beneath a surprisingly modest headstone. But members of his family insisted that Sickles wanted to be buried at Gettysburg and they’ve spent the past century lobbying the government—unsuccessfully—to move him from Arlington to the battlefield in Pennsylvania.