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.