Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Connect the Dots (and Follow the Money)

While the NBA takes a bow for adroitly handling the Donald Sterling fiasco, they might want to take a step back and look at the next steaming pile they're about to step in.

When he announced Sterling's "sentence" this afternoon, newly-installed NBA commissioner Adam Silver emphasized that the Clippers owner is being "banned from the league for life," imposing the NBA equivalent of the nuclear option.  Silver also vowed to lobby Sterling's fellow owners to force him to sell the Clippers, a team he has controlled for more than 30 years.

And here's where it gets interesting.

Clearly, the NBA is in full damage-control mode.  From Mr. Silver's perspective, the best scenario is a quick sale of the club and a formal end to any ties between the NBA and Donald Sterling.  Sensing an opportunity, there will be plenty of individuals--and groups--vying to buy the Clippers.  Despite their long history of losing, the franchise now has legitimate stars in players like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and they play in the nation's second-largest media market.  Forbes puts the value of the Clippers at $500-700 million, quite a return on the $12 million Sterling originally paid for the team.

Who's on the list of potential buyers?  Keep an eye on Guggenheim Partners, the equity firm that provided much of the capital behind the 2012 acquisition of the Los Angeles Dodgers by a group led by NBA icon Magic Johnson.  The former Lakers star put up $50 million of his own money, but much of the $2 billion purchase price was financed by Guggenheim and its principal partners.

According to Fortune, Guggenheim (which was founded in 1999 with $5 billion in seed money) now manages a total of $170 billion for investors.  Rather spectacular growth during one of the worst economic recessions in our history, so the the folks at Guggenheim clearly know something about investing.  Nothing illegal about that, but involvement in the Dodgers deal has attracted the interest of the Securities and Exchange Commission.  Why?  The Los Angeles Times (and other media outlets) report that disgraced junk bond trader--and convicted felon--Michael Milken has upwards of $800 million invested with the firm.

Mr. Milken, who served two years in federal prison for securities and tax fraud in the early 1990s, already has a lifetime ban--from dealing in securities.  He can still manage his own assets, but there have been allegations that Milken may have advised Guggenheim on various deals.  The SEC launched a probe of the Milken-Guggenheim relationship last year.  So far, no evidence of wrong-doing has emerged, but the investigation is apparently continuing.

Despite that, the sale of the Dodgers to the Johnson/Guggenheim group was quickly approved by Major League Baseball.  And given the dynamics of the Clippers situation, the same ownership team could easily--and speedily--acquire the Clippers.  After ridding itself of a vile racist, the NBA may get to do business with a guy who has a real rap sheet.

The fire sale of the Clippers could get very, very interesting.

H/T: isteve.
ADDENDUM:  Media reports this afternoon (Wednesday) suggest that Oprah Winfrey has an interest in buying the team, along with media mogul David Geffen and Oracle founder Larry Ellison.  Both Geffen and Ellison have greater wealth than the former queen of daytime talk, but as a female, minority owner, Ms. Winfrey would be a prohibitive favorite to buy the club. 

Still, that doesn't preclude participation by Guggenheim, or another investment firm.  As exhibited in the launch of her cable network, Oprah doesn't enter a new venture without deep-pocketed partners; most of the start-up costs for OWN were fronted by Discovery Networks, leaving the daytime talk host with relatively less financial exposure.  According to Business Week, Discovery may have lost as much as $300 million on the network (which is now turning a modest profit), while Winfrey's personal losses were put at roughly half that total.   


The Latest Retirement

Someone else in L.A. is out of a job--and we're not talking about Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who has been "banned for life" from the NBA after making racist comments to his 20-something girlfriend who conveniently leaked them to the media.

Instead, we refer to Craig Ferguson, the host of CBS's Late, Late Show since 2005.  During the taping of Monday's show, Mr. Ferguson announced that he will leave the program at the end of this year. 

Ferguson's departure comes only a few weeks after David Letterman unveiled similar plans, announcing his retirement after 30+ years as a late night host for NBC and CBS. 

"CBS and I are not getting divorced, we are consciously uncoupling," Ferguson said. "But we will still spend holidays together and share custody of the fake horse and robot skeleton, both of whom we love very much."

He told the audience it was his decision to leave, adding, "CBS has been fine with me."

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Coming Soon to a Hospital Near You

While President Obama keeps taking victory laps over the latest sign-up totals for his health care program, realists are taking a longer view.  Beyond the questions of how many individuals actually have a policy (and are paying for it), there's the over-arching issue of what happens when the system is fully implemented.

If you want a glimpse of the future, look no further than the Veteran's Administration health care program.

CNN has been doing some terrific reporting on the subject in recent months, and what they've found is stunning to say the least.  In some cases, veterans have waited months for an appointment, or to receive routine proceedures like a colonoscopy.  All too often, the results have been fatal; delays in care have led to the deaths of dozens of veterans across the country, including more than 40 at the Phoenix VA hospital.

"..At least 40 U.S. veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, many of whom were placed on a secret waiting list.

The secret list was part of an elaborate scheme designed by Veterans Affairs managers in Phoenix who were trying to hide that 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans were forced to wait months to see a doctor, according to a recently retired top VA doctor and several high-level sources."
"Internal e-mails obtained by CNN show that top management at the VA hospital in Arizona knew about the practice and even defended it.
Dr. Sam Foote just retired after spending 24 years with the VA system in Phoenix. The veteran doctor told CNN in an exclusive interview that the Phoenix VA works off two lists for patient appointments:
There's an "official" list that's shared with officials in Washington and shows the VA has been providing timely appointments, which Foote calls a sham list. And then there's the real list that's hidden from outsiders, where wait times can last more than a year."
VA rules require that vets receive "timely" care, normally within 14-30 days.  But faced with a giant backlog, the Phoenix VA created a secret appointment list that led veterans to believe they would soon see a doctor.  Instead, many languished on the secret list for up to a year, and when confronted with the scam, officials shredded the evidence, according to Dr. Foote:
"Officials at the VA, Foote says, instructed their staff to not actually make doctor's appointments for veterans within the computer system.
Instead, Foote says, when a veteran comes in seeking an appointment, "they enter information into the computer and do a screen capture hard copy printout. They then do not save what was put into the computer so there's no record that you were ever here," he said."  Dr. Foote estimates that 1,400-1,600 veterans are still on the secret list.
Earlier this year, CNN reporters Scott Bronstein and Drew Griffin found similar problems at VA medical centers in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas.   One of the horror stories they uncovered involved an Army veteran whose experiences with the VA left him battling for his life:
"Barry Coates is one of the veterans who has suffered from a delay in care. Coates was having excruciating pain and rectal bleeding in 2011. For a year the Army veteran went to several VA clinics and hospitals in South Carolina, trying to get help. But the VA's diagnosis was hemorrhoids, and aside from simple pain medication he was told he might need a colonoscopy.
"The problem was getting worse and I was having more pain," Coates said, talking about one specific VA doctor who he saw every few months. "She again examined me and gave me some prescriptions for other things as far as pain and stuff like that and I noticed again she made another comment -- 'may need colonoscopy.'
"Finally about a year after first complaining to his doctors of the pain, Coates got a colonoscopy and doctors discovered a cancerous tumor the size of a baseball.
The now 44-year-old veteran is undergoing chemotherapy in an effort to save his life."
According to CNN, at least 82 veterans across the country have died due to delays in receiving healthcare from the VA. 
Think about that for a moment, then ask yourself: why does Eric Shinseki still have a job?  The Secretary of Veterans Affairs (and former Army Chief of Staff) has been praised for reducing the backlog of claims that have clogged the VA system.  Perhaps he should pay a little more attention to another fundamental issue--ensuring that veterans have access to the health care benefits they've earned. Not surprisingly, Secretary Shinseki has refused to discuss the "secret waiting lists" and other health care delays with CNN. 
Yet, criticism of Shinseki has been muted.  As The New York Times noted last year, the VA Secretary still enjoys support from many veterans groups and key members of Congress.  Will that support now fade, amid these shocking revelations about a failed system that (quite literally) killed more than 80 veterans, or will the secretary remain above the fray?  It's worth noting that the retired general became something of a hero on the left a decade ago, through his criticism of the war in Iraq.  Put another way: would a VA secretary in a Republican administration--without Shinseki's anti-war credentials--survive the recent revelations that have rocked the VA and its leadership.
But the problem goes beyond General Shinseki.  At last report, the director of the Phoenix hospital was still on the job, along with staff members who maintained that "secret" waiting list.  The Washington Free Beacon reports the hospital administrator, Sharon Helman, received a $9,000 bonus for her work last year, in addition to a base salary of $169,000.  In all, senior leadership at the
Phoenix VA medical center received over $700,000 in pay and bonuses last year. 
Perhaps that's not so surprising when you consider that the VA recently "re-hired" a senior administrator who was forced to resign from a post after a DUI crash.  An investigation by WRC-TV in Washington revealed that Jed Fillingim, a VA financial manager, resigned his post in Mississippi in November 2010, five months after a wreck that killed one of his colleagues.  Police reports indicate that Fillingim drank heavily in the hours before the crash, but didn't submit to a blood alcohol test until five hours after the wreck.  No charges were filed in connection with the accident, after police determined that the victim, Amy Wheat, departed the moving vehicle "on her own." 
But in early 2011, Fillingim rejoined the VA in a similar capacity at a facility in Georgia.  So far, the agency hasn't explained why he was re-hired. 
While the VA has been the source of many horror stories through the years, some still insist that its health care system could be a "model" for the rest of us.  Barely two years ago, the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) praised the VA for its "patient-centered" approach to health care.  Wonder if JAMA would consider a follow-up piece and ask the families of those deceased veterans about the "patient-centered care" their loved ones received. 
It's bad enough that our veterans are suffering under this failed system, but the VA's many woes have implications for the rest of us.  Wait until Obamacare is fully implemented.  Fewer doctors and rationed care--almost inevitable under the new system--will produce conditions similar to the VA network, where patients often wait weeks (or even months) to see a doctor. 
And remember: the VA health care network sees just over 8 million patients a year, at 1700 facilities across the country.  Imagine the VA problems in a system that will treat hundreds of millions of Americans every year. 
The "future" of government-run health care is on display at your local VA medical center.  And it might just kill you.     
ADDENDUM:  Sadly, it looks like the VA scandal is revealing even more horror stories about veterans who weren't treated--or received poor care--and the bureaucrats covered it up.  Fox News is reporting that Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman was linked to another cover-up, in her previous job as head of the VA center in Spokane, Washington. 

During a one-year period, from July 2007 to July 2008, at least 22 veterans committed suicide in the area served by the Spokane center, but officials reported only nine suicides at 34 attempts.  The discrepancy between those totals was never fully explained and Helman left the Spokane facility in 2010 to run the VA hospital in Hines, Illinois, the largest in that state.  After her departure, Ms. Helman was praised by Washington state politicians--and the local newspaper--for her "superb leadership."  We couldn't find a single mention of the suicide epidemic, and the glaring disconnect between the VA's totals and the number of veterans who actually took their lives. 

Now, Ms. Helman is facing an even bigger scandal in Phoenix, one that can't be easily "explained away."  It seems rather obvious that Helman's days with the VA are numbered, but it raises more questions about the agency at its promotion practices.  Why was she hustled off to Vines after the suicide reporting scandal in Spokane, then promoted again to run the VA complex in Phoenix? 

It's time for some bureaucratic spring-cleaning at the VA, beginning with Eric Shinseki in D.C.           


Monday, April 21, 2014

Your Monday Morning Briefing

Ran across this recent PowerPoint from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, which paints a grim picture of Air Force combat capabilities against more technically-advanced foes.  The study, authored by (Ret) Lieutenant General Dave Deptula and the center's Mark Gunzinger, offers a sobering assessment of where we stand, capability-wise, after the "procurement holiday" of the 1990s and more than a decade of COIN-focused air operations.  A few take-aways:

  • Our fighter and bomber fleets are dwindling and aging rapidly; the "typical" fighter aircraft in the USAF inventory was built--or budgeted for--during the Reagan Administration, and has been in service for 24 years
  • Our average bomber is 38 years old, reflecting continued reliance on the Eisenhower-era B-52, which still forms the backbone of our bomber fleet 
  • The number of aircraft capable of penetrating an advanced air defense network is small, and essentially consists of a handful of B-2s and the 187 F-22 Raptors that were produced before production of that stealth platform was halted a couple of years ago.  Other combat platforms, such as the F-16, F-15C and F-15E, would be unable to operate in a "dense" air defense environment, protected by modern SAMs like the Russian-built SA-20, along with advanced surveillance radars and modern command-and-control systems.
  • While the USAF has more than 11,000 unmanned airframes, most are built for surveillance and virtually none can survive against advanced air defense systems.   
  • Air Force aircraft procurement budgets have hit an historic low, with no signs of reversing that trend over the near term; the service is currently buying about 100 each year, while the Navy is adding 350 new airframes a year and is actually spending more money on aircraft procurement than shipbuilding.  
  • The USAF will need at least 174 of the long-range strike/bomber, LRS-B platforms now under development to provide needed penetration/strike capabilities needed through the middle of this century.  Unfortunately, the first LRS-B won't be operational until the middle of the next decade--at the earliest.
Deptula and Gunzinger also observe that restoring "balance" and capabilities in the combat air forces (CAF) will require more than just "iron on the ramp."  Future platforms--as well as legacy aircraft still in service after 2025 (think B-2s and B-52s) will require a secure combat "cloud," providing "highly-interconnected capabilities to conduct cross-domain, distributed and disaggregated operations over a wide area." 

To be sure, the CSBA presentation was created with two goals in mind: first, reinforce the case for the LRS-B, and secondly, illustrate the precipitious decline in USAF procurement budgets and the erosion in capabilities that has occurred over the last 10 years.  In that sense, the briefing easily achieves its objectives.

But, as an advocacy pitch, the CSBA brief also ignores (or down-plays) some essential elements.  The first of these is cyber.  There isn't a campaign plan on the books--or in development--that doesn't integrate cyber-warfare to some degree, and that "tool" would play a prominent role in any conflict against an advanced adversary.  How much damage could a dedicated cyber campaign inflict on China's air defense network, or the power grid in Iran?  Will it be sufficient to allow less-stealthy platforms to attack targets inside the SAM belt, or even neutralize entire defensive systems and networks.  What impact will those capabilities have on LRS-B procurement? 

Likewise, do we need the new long-range strike and bomber platform if UAVs can be made stealthy and carry larger payloads?  In fairness, the Air Force is looking at manned (and unmanned) options for the LRS-B but there's a significant element in the service that's actively rooting for a man in the cockpit.  But continued advances in UAV technology will make those platforms more survivable and with lower training costs for an unmanned platform, the USAF may be compelled to field LRS-B as a UAV.  That decision will also reduce unit costs, offering the potential for a larger buy, at least in theory. 

To their credit, Deptula and Gunzinger observe that re-vitalizing the CAF is more than an Air Force problem.  The Navy has been steadily buying new F/A-18s for decades, giving its fighter and attack squadrons a more advanced airframe and enhanced mission performance.  But the various Hornet models are not stealth platforms, so much of Navy air would face the serious challenges against modern air defenses, much like the "legacy fighters" still in service with the USAF.  That's one reason the Navy's UCAS program is so vital; against a technically-advanced Asian foe (think: China), penetrating platforms from carriers and bases east of Japan and south of Singapore would have the ability to strike at great distances, from locations less vulnerable to enemy attack. 

Review the whole presentation; it's well worth your time.  And while you're flipping through the slides, note the aircraft that is conspiciously absent from the entire discussion.  We refer, of course, to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the program that is blowing a hole in DoD's procurement process. 

Obviously, the JSF isn't designed for the types of missions described in the PowerPoint, but it is relevant in this regard.  With the F-35 program in trouble, will there be enough money to field a smaller number of JSF airframes for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps (plus foreign customers) while, at the same time, fund develop the LRS-B?  Cost overruns in the F-35 have made many procurement officials leery of another "big" aircraft program, despite the fact that the LRS-B "buy" will represent only a small fraction of the JSF purchase.  Consequently, the biggest threat facing our next generation strike and bomber aircraft may not be a new version of the SA-20, but all that money being funneled into the F-35 program.    


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Scariest Video of the Day

...comes from CNN.  And no, we're not referring to a re-run of Piers Morgan's failed talk show.

The new video, which first appeared on jihadist websites, features a meeting led by Nasir al-Wuhayshi, Al Qaida's number two leader, and the head of its affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula.  In the video, recorded somewhere in Yemen, al-Wuhayshi addresses more than 100 subordinates in the open, seemingly unconcerned about the threat of a U.S. drone strike.

U.S. officials believe the highly produced video is recent. With some fighters faces blurred, there is worry it signals a new round of plotting.
"The U.S. intelligence community should be surprised that such a large group of al Qaeda assembled together, including the leadership, and somehow they didn't notice," said Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst.
There is good reason to worry.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as AQAP, is considered the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate. The CIA and the Pentagon have repeatedly killed AQAP leaders with drone strikes. But the group is now emboldened. 
In the video, al-Wuhayshi tells his followers that "we must eliminate the cross, and the bearer of that cross is America."  AQAP has long sought to carry out attacks against CONUS targets and the group is believed responsible for several attempts, including the failed "underwear bomb" plot on a Delta airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.  
As Mr. Bergen notes, AQAP employs one of the most skilled bomb makers in the world of terrorism, Ibrahim al-Asiri.  He was the reported architect of the underwear bomb and other devices which have escaped detection by security officials.  Al-Asiri does not appear in the video, but remains a key asset for AQAP. 
The fact that AQAP remains interested in attacking the U.S. is hardly news.  The more disturbing aspect is that al-Wuhayshi was able to convene such a large gathering, with little fear of an American drone attack.  In recent years, the U.S. military and the CIA have carried out dozens of drone strikes against AQAP figures in Yemen with notable successes, including the 2011 elimination of the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki
How was AQAP able to avoid detection?  The answer may lie with Edward Snowden and his revelations about NSA surveillance programs.  Those disclosures, which helped the Washington Post and the UK Guardian win a recent Pulitzer Prize, provided a treasure trove of tradecraft information to our adversaries around the globe, including Al Qaida.  The more you know about our collection techniques and capabilities, the easier it becomes to avoid detection. 
In an interview with CNN, Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that recent leaks have affected our intel collection, but couldn't say if we had advance knowledge of the meeting in Yemen. 
The answer to that question is a rather obvious "no."  If we knew that al-Wuhayshi was holding such a large gathering, you'd hope that we could send a couple of Reapers and launch a little "Hellfire" party for that group.  After all, the USAF sustains more than two dozen UAV orbits a day; many of those are in places like Afghanistan and Yemen, and our intel "haul" helps drive their positioning.  Al-Wuhayshi appears very confident--some would say emboldened--in the video.  Believing you've found a way to beat the drone threat would certainly do that. 
We hope the folks at the Post and the Guardian enjoy their Pulitzer--with the understanding that such revelations come at a price.                    

No Chutes

Debris from a USAF KC-135 that crashed in Kyrgyzstan last May.  The accident destroyed the aircraft, based at McConnell AFB, Kansas and claimed the lives of three airmen from Fairchild AFB, Washington (AP photo via Fox News) 

Eleven months ago, an Air Force KC-135 tanker crashed shortly after takeoff from Manas, Kyrgyzstan, killing the three crew members onboard.  The accident was blamed on a faulty flight control system and limited pilot experience.  Investigators determined that control system problems caused the Stratotanker to continuously "Dutch roll," pitching back and forth as increased yaw creates more lift on one wing than the other.  The roll continues until increased drag pulls the wing back to a neutral position, then is repeated on the other. 

In most cases, this type of problem can be corrected by shutting down the flight control system and using the jet's ailerons to regain stable flight.  Instead, the crew of the doomed tanker, callsign Shell 77, kept using their rudder--and inputs on the flight control system.  That made the rolling even worse; finally, the prolonged rolling caused the KC-135's tail to snap off, sending the tanker into steep dive towards the earth.  The Air Force accident investigation board also concluded that the aircraft--with 175,000 pounds of fuel on board--exploded before it hit the ground. 

There was one more factor that sealed the crew's fate.  As detailed in the current issue of Time,  reports, there were no parachutes aboard the tanker.  They were removed from the KC-135 fleet in 2008 as a cost-saving measure.  Defense reporter Mark Thompson included a quote from the Air Force news article that announced their elimination:

"By design, parachutes slow things down. Crew members forced to evacuate in-flight aircraft with parachutes, for example, have much gentler impacts with the ground than those without chutes. But the only thing being slowed by parachutes aboard KC-135 Stratotankers, Air Force leaders recently decided, was the mission. So they got rid of them. Removing parachutes from military aircraft may sound peculiar, but KC-135s are not like other aircraft. They seldom have mishaps, and the likelihood a KC-135 crew member would ever need to use a parachute is extremely low."

That may sound heartless, but there is a certain amount of logic behind that decision.  The KC-135 has an excellent safety record, and the number of controlled bail-outs from that platform is infinitely small.  To his credit, Mr. Thompson managed to track down a former navigator, Joseph Heywood, who parachuted from his tanker--45 years ago.  In that instance, the KC-135 was running out of fuel and the instructor pilot at the controls ordered the other crew members to prepare for bail out.  With the engines out and the jet (apparently) moments from a crash, Heywood and three other crew members hit the silk.  The IP managed to land the jet at K.I. Sawyer AFB on Michigan's upper peninsula. 

"I'd rather have a small chance than no chance at all," Mr. Heywood told Time.

But that raises a salient question: how much of a chance did the crew of Shell 77 really have?  The aircraft commander, Captain Mark Voss and his co-pilot, Captain Victoria Pickney, were fighting to control the KC-135.  Their boom operator, Technical Sergeant Herman Mackey III, played no role in flying the aircraft, but he was probably busy trying to secure any loose equipment in the cockpit or cargo compartment.  In other words, the crew was very much engaged in trying to save the aircraft and likely continued those efforts until they lost consciousness.  Even if parachutes had been available, it's hard to say if the crew would have decided to jump--or had enough time to escape from the aircraft.  

That's because the process of leaving the aircraft involves more than just strapping on a chute, opening the crew door and jumping out.  The last bit of flight data information from Shell 77 indicated the tanker was at 20,000 feet.  At that altitude, you'll need oxygen.  There's a bottle in your parachute pack, but you need to connect it to your helmet's oxygen tube and face mask before bailout. 

And, did we mention that KC-135 crews stow their helmets during the mission, since they're typically not required in a pressurized aircraft that doesn't perform acrobatic or violent maneuvers?  Under those circumstances, crew members would need a few moments to don their helmets and chute packs and connect the oxygen supply before dumping cabin pressure and opening the crew door.  That process would have been even more difficult on an aircraft that was in a continuous Dutch roll.

It's also worth noting that the crew's window for action was extremely limited.  The entire flight lasted 11 minutes; as the rolling increased, so did pressure on the tanker's tail section.  When it separated from the rest of the airframe--putting the jet into a steep dive--bail-out would have been impossible, even for crew members who were wearing parachutes.       

The real culprits in the Kyrgyzstan crash (as described in the Time article) were crew training and experience.  At the time of the crash, Captain Voss had been an aircraft commander for less than two months; the co-pilot, Captain Pickney, had recently returned to flying duty after the birth of her first child.  TSgt Mackey had over 3,000 hours in the KC-135, but had spent four years in a non-flying job before re qualifying as a boom operator.  Why was such a relatively inexperienced crew flying together?  Was it a matter of scheduling, or is there a lack of experience among KC-135 crews?  So far, the Air Force hasn't answered those questions, at least publicly.  

Making matters worse, KC-135 crews receive no training in dealing with potential dutch roll problems.  Prior to the Kyrgyzstan disaster, KC-135 simulators were not programmed to give pilots that type of scenario, and practicing that maneuver in actual flight was forbidden.  The accident investigation board also determined that procedural information in the tanker's flight manuals was poorly organized, compounding the difficulty in diagnosing--and correcting--the flight control problem. 

As Mr. Thompson reports, the Air Force has made changes in the wake of last year's crash, but there are no plans to put parachutes back on KC-135s.  And that's probably the right choice.  The crew of Shell 77 were the first to lose their lives since the chutes were removed in 2008.  During that period, the 50-year-old Stratotanker fleet has flown thousand of sorties, transferred millions of pounds of fuel to receiver aircraft around the world, and there was no need for parachutes, until that brief, terrible moment over Kyrgyzstan last spring.  And given the circumstances that led to the crash, there is no clear evidence that the crew would been able to bail out, even if parachutes had been aboard. 

In an era when a single aircraft often costs more than $100 million, safety devices--like parachutes--seem like a very cheap investment.  But life support items must be continuously inspected and repaired, a process that requires significant manpower.  Would you rather have more life support technicians checking and fixing parachutes on KC-135s (that almost certainly will not be used), or working on platforms where ejection or bailing out is much more likely? 

That's the reality that drives the hard choices like the one made back in 2008.  There wasn't a single military leader involved in that decision who didn't understand that someday--under various flight scenarios--a tanker crew might face a bail-out situation.  It was a decision driven by the numbers, ranging from life support personnel costs to the odds of a KC-135 crew having to use their parachutes.  The resulting calculus determined that taking the chutes off the tankers was an acceptable risk. 

Obviously, it was an imperfect decision, but facing the same set of numbers, it's a choice the Air Force would likely make again.  That doesn't mitigate the loss of three brave airmen, and the suffering their families still endure.  It's the harsh reality of military aviation in the days of aging aircraft and limited resources.
ADDENDUM:  As a former aircrew member, this issue is personal.  My crew experience was aboard an Air Force platform that had parachutes, but as we used to joke, they were there to provide some sort of psychological assurance, rather than save our lives.  Our mission crew worked in a computerized capsule in the back of a specially-modified C-130.  With a full crew (including Army liaisons) you could have up to 15 people in a relatively small space.  Bailing out was a veritable kabuki dance that involved (a) Getting out of your seat; (b) Donning your chutes and helmets, and connecting your oxygen supply; (c) lining up in the narrow aisle between the consoles; (d) de-pressurizing the aircraft; (e) opening the capsule door, (f) opening the paratroop door, and (g) bailing out.  By the time that process was complete, we reasoned, the plane would either crash, or we could make an emergency landing. 

Additionally, jumping out of a Herk is a lot easier than a KC-135/707 airframe.  If you depart through the tanker's crew door (near the cockpit), there's a chance you'll hit the wing, get sucked into one of the inboard engines, or bounce along the bottom of the aircraft at better than 300 kts.  A better choice would be the over-wing hatches or the hatch just forward of the boom compartment (on the right side of the aircraft).  But getting to those locations means leaving the cockpit which may be difficult in an emergency. 

Finally, Mr. Thompson didn't provide the full details of that 1969 tanker bail-out over Michigan.  On a message board for the 46th Air Refueling Squadron, Joe Heywood, the navigator involved in that episode, provides a much better account of what prompted four members of the crew to leave the aircraft.  Call it gross buffoonery by an instructor pilot, and read the rest for yourself.  Apparently, the bail out removed just enough human weight for the KC-135 to land just short of the runway, with surprisingly little damage.  Mr. Heywood's jump took place at very low altitude, and the crew was directed to prepare for bailout.  So they were in position and ready to go--very different circumstances from those over Kyrgyzstan last May.  In case you're wondering, Heywood and his comrades represent four of only six people who have successfully bailed out of a KC-135. 

At last report, the famous "gliding pig" of the tanker fleet, tail number 61-0313, was still in service, with the 916th Air Refueling Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina.                                                

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

One More Thing

Of this much we're certain: avowed (and former KKK leader) F. Glenn Miller will be convicted on murder charges in connection with Sunday's shooting rampage in Overland Park, Kansas.  And, unless he cops a plea deal, Miller will almost certainly receive the death penalty.  So, assuming that God doesn't intervene, Miller will receive final justice in about 10-12 years, sometime around his 86th birthday.

We can only hope.  Given his vile existence (and the barbarity of his crimes), Miller deserves a long stretch on death row before his date with the "hot shot," even if they have to wheel him to the death chamber.  Miller deserves nothing less for opening fire at a rest home and community center, killing three people.  A vicious anti-Semite, Miller thought he was targeting Jews at the two facilities.  As it turned out, all of Miller's victims were Christians; a 69-year-old family care physician and his 14-year-old grandson (who were attending a singing competition), and a 53-year-old woman who had gone to visit her mother at the Village Shalom retirement center.  All innocent victims of an evil man.

Clearly, capital punishment was tailor-made for someone like Miller.  But there's one more sanction that officials should pursue: once convicted, strip Miller of his military pension.

Sad to report, but F. Glenn Miller retired from the U.S. Army as a Master Sergeant (E-8) back in 1979.  Various reports indicate that Miller spent 20 years on active duty, most of them as a Green Beret.  However, we've found no confirmation that Miller was ever a member of special forces and the Army has released no information on his military service.  The Southern Poverty Law Center claims that Miller was forced to put in his retirement papers because of racist activities while in uniform. 

But the SPLC has long claimed that the armed forces are infested with white supremacists, klan members and other hate-mongers (while ignoring the activities of Islamists and gang-bangers in the ranks).  So, it's not surprising that the group was quick to highlight Miller's military ties. 

On the other hand, it is disturbing to think that a convicted felon like Glenn Miller may be collecting a federal retirement check.  Miller was found guilty on criminal contempt charges in North Carolina during the 1980s, but was granted bond while the conviction was appealed.  Miller subsequently disappeared and was later re-arrested on weapons charges.  He served three years in federal prison, receiving a reduced sentence for agreeing to testify against 14 other white supremacists.  Miller later worked as a truck driver and his activities in recent years have largely consisted of penning and disseminating racist literature. 

Ordinarily, that federal conviction 20 years ago should have been enough to strip Miller of his military pension.  But the justice system is notoriously reluctant to take that step.  Consider the case of former Congressman (and retired Navy officer) Randy "Duke" Cunningham.  No one would describe him as a racist, but he did go to prison on corruption charges, convicted of taking millions of dollars in bribes and illegal gifts.  Cunningham received both his Congressional and military pensions while behind bars.  At one point in 2007, CNN reported that 20 former members of Congress (and senior government officials) were collecting federal pension checks while incarcerated.

In fact, it's almost impossible to strip a convicted military retiree or government bureaucrat of their pension, unless they're convicted of treason or other charges relating to national security.  And even then, the lines sometimes blur.  When FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen was sentenced to life in prison for espionage in 2002, his wife was allowed to keep the "survivor's portion" of his FBI pension.  For lesser criminals, federal laws mandate even mandate the restoration of full disability benefits after their release. 

So, it's a pretty good bet that F. Glenn Miller kept collecting his check during his previous stay in the big house, and he'll keep getting paid while he awaits trial for murder.  His crimes are horrific; the fact that he will collect a military pension while in prison are an insult to Miller's victims and taxpayers.

The Social Security Administration, never known for being a model of efficiency, suspends benefits for anyone who is incarcerated more than 30 days.  Their system is far from perfect, but the reasoning behind it is perfectly sound, and it should be extended to other federal payment programs.  Once convicted, there is no reason that someone like F. Glenn Miller should continue to receive a monthly check from the U.S. government.  Return it to the treasury, or give it to the families of his victims.  The current system, which all-but-guarantees payment until he draws his last breath, is simply outrageous.                


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Still Unexplained

Call us skeptical, but we're having a hard time buying the Army's "explanation" of last week's deadly shooting at Fort Hood.

According to Fox News, service officials have concluded that Specialist Ivan Lopez "snapped" after his leave request was denied, and not because of some on-going mental problem.  

The Army announced its findings a short time ago, after agents from its Criminal Investigation Division concluded interviews with more than 1,000 people connected to Lopez or affected by the shooting rampage, which left four people dead and 16 wounded.

A final report on the tragedy is still weeks away, and it will hopefully shed more light on the terrible tragedy at Fort Hood, the second mass shooting at the post in less than five years.  More information would be welcome because (to date), the military has not provided sufficient details on key elements of the case, including:

-  The gunman's mental health.  In the hours after the shooting, various media outlets--citing Army and law enforcement sources--reported that Lopez was undergoing treatment for various psychological issues, and was taking medications for his condition.  The commanding general of Fort Hood, Lieutenant General Mark Milley, said Lopez was being evaluated for post-traumatic stress at the time of the shooting, but a final diagnosis had not been made.  Clearly, the shooter's mental state (and his medication regimen) would have a major influence on his actions.

-   His Status in the Warrior Transition Brigade.  Specialist Lopez was assigned to a unit that provides "provide personalized support to wounded, ill and injured Soldiers who require at least six months of rehabilitative care and complex medical management."  Yet, no one has outlined his duties within the unit; Lopez was a former infantryman who had recently cross-trained as a truck driver.  Was he a staff member in the WTB, or a patient in the transition program?  And if Lopez was in that latter category, what type of medical or rehabilitative care was he receiving--and for what conditions?  General Milley has stated that Lopez was not transitioning out of the military, but if he was being treated through the transition brigade, his condition was serious enough for long-term care.  

-   Those Requests for Leave.  Various sources indicate that Lopez was upset after the death of his mother, when the Army (initially) denied him leave to attend the funeral.  His commander subsequently gave Lopez a 24-hour pass, and he finally arrived in Puerto Rico five days after his mother's death.  Other accounts indicate that that Lopez made another leave request in the hours just before the shooting and it was denied, sending him over the edge.
     As we suggested in our previous post, something about this version of events doesn't pass the Aggie test. DoD Instruction 1327.06 mandates that commanders must allow emergency leave, even if military members don't have enough days accrued to cover the planned absence.  Assuming Lopez had a "zero" balance in his leave account at the time his mother passed, his commanding officer could have granted up to 30 days away from duty.  The fact that Specialist Lopez received only a 24-hour pass suggests he might have been restricted to base for some sort of disciplinary infraction, or doctors did not consider him well enough to travel.  That ruling would have almost certainly been based on psychological issues, since there are no reports of Lopez being hospitalized or treated for physical conditions during that period.  Simply stated, the Army still hasn't explained why Lopez didn't receive his leave requests, and the circumstances surrounding that final rejection that may have triggered his rampage.

-    His Transfer to Foot Hood.  Specialist Lopez arrived at Fort Hood in February of this year, after spending almost four years at Fort Bliss near El Paso.  Retired Army Major General James "Spider" Marks told CNN last week that we has surprised that Lopez was allowed to move to Fort Hood, suggesting he should have remained at his old post for "continuity of care."  To date, the Army hasn't explained how Lopez's initial diagnosis, medication and treatment meshed with his training for a new job.  In most cases, treatment for a serious physical illness or psychological condition would be enough for the deferment or cancellation of the training slot.

With any situation of this type, there is a demand for immediate answers and the inevitable rush to judgment.  The Army clearly believes that Ivan Lopez was a soldier who suddenly went off the deep end, motivated (in part) by disagreements over recent leave requests.  That allows them to tidy up the investigation process and get on with the business of helping the victims and resuming the mission at Fort Hood.  

And the explanation may be just that simple.  But the factors listed above represent unanswered questions about the case and until those are addressed publicly, we may never know what really led to last Wednesday's mass shooting.  Would continuity of care at Fort Bliss have made a difference?  Why were commanders reluctant to grant leave to Lopez, even at a time of great personal loss?  Were there discipline or medical issues that limited his ability to get leave?  Without answers to these questions (and others), we're left with an "official" explanation that seems a bit hurried and a little too pat. 


Saturday, April 05, 2014

Buh-bye Dave

When Elvis died in 1977, one show business wag called it a "good career move," noting that a performer who had become irrelevant (or worse) in his latter years would enjoy a new surge in popularity.  Sure enough, The King's records began selling again and thousands of fans flocked to his home in Memphis, making Elvis far richer in death than he ever was alive.  More than 35 years after his death, Elvis's is worth an estimated $350 million--or more.      

Likewise, David Letterman's retirement announcement, delivered Thursday during the taping of his TV show, is an equally smart decision.  While there is no reason to believe that Letterman will soon join the ranks of the dearly departed, his decision allows the talk show host to leave CBS on his terms, and avoid being pushed out down the road.

Of course, there was no talk of such matters as Mr. Letterman began his victory lap, which will end sometime in 2015.  Officially, CBS President Les Moonves has stated that Letterman could remain with "The Late Show" as long as he wants.  But when the host asked for only a brief extension of his current contract, there were signs that Letterman would soon retire.  Equally important, CBS was more than happy to give him only the requested extension; there was no serious effort to persuade Letterman to sign a longer deal, which would keep him in the host chair past his 70th birthday.  That move suggested the network was glad to let its late-night star depart on his own terms.

You'll never get a CBS executive to admit it--at least publicly--but the network is acutely aware of its position in the 11:30 time slot.  While CBS has dominated prime time ratings for more than a decade, and many of its affiliates do well in the late local news wars, Letterman has been under-performing in late night for years.  What was the difference between Jay Leno and David Letterman, you ask?  More than a million viewers a night (most of them in the coveted 25-54 demographic) and literally tens of millions of dollars a year in advertising revenue.

In fact, Letterman has been mired in third place for much of the last decade, trailing Leno and ABC's Nightline.  Adding insult to injury, Letterman has been trailing Jay's replacement (Jimmy Fallon) by an even larger margin, and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC is virtually tied with the CBS host.  (Kimmel's talk show swapped time slots with Nightline more than a year ago, with ABC sensing an opportunity to make in-roads at 11:30, particularly among younger viewers).  Roughly 2.6 million viewers watch Kimmel every night, compared to 2.7 million for Letterman.  Jimmy Fallon has been averaging about 4 million viewers since he took over the Tonight Show in February.

Readers will note that Letterman's ratings woes are rarely mentioned by the press and if they do make the final edit, they are tucked away towards the end of the article, or broadcast piece.  That's because Dave has always been a media darling, receiving kid-glove treatment by the media, even at the lowest points in his career.

We refer, of course, to the host's 2009 admission that he had engaged in affairs with at least two young women on his staff.  There was little talk about a powerful TV host using his own version of the show business casting couch, and virtually no mention that Dave made his confession barely six months after marrying long-time girlfriend Regina Lasko, the mother of his child.

In fact, Letterman was depicted as something of a victim, since the boyfriend of one the staffers tried to blackmail the host over the affair.  That forced Letterman to go to the police and publicly admit his trysts, just as the news became public.  Fortunately for him, the scandal broke at the same time as Tiger Woods' serial philandering entered the media cycle.  Letterman's dalliances with female members of his staff--did someone say sexual harassment?---were quickly forgotten, as Woods became the scandal du jour.  This side of the Kennedy clan, not many celebrities would get that kind of "special" treatment from the press.

Dave also enjoyed a close relationship with the CBS brass, despite the fact that his low ratings cost the network a fortune in advertising revenue.  Mr. Moonves was effusive in his praise of the retiring host:

For 21 years, David Letterman has graced our network’s air in late night with wit, gravitas and brilliance unique in the history of our medium. During that time, Dave has given television audiences thousands of hours of comedic entertainment, the sharpest interviews in late night, and brilliant moments of candor and perspective around national events. He’s also managed to keep many celebrities, politicians and executives on their toes – including me. There is only one David Letterman. His greatness will always be remembered here, and he will certainly sit among the pantheon of this business. On a personal note, it’s been a privilege to get to know Dave and to enjoy a terrific relationship. It’s going to be tough to say goodbye. Fortunately, we won’t have to do that for another year or so. Until then, we look forward to celebrating Dave’s remarkable show and incredible talents.” 

That was quite a contrast from Letterman's NBC days, when he fought running battles with the suits.  In fact, one reason that Leno wound up with the Tonight Show is because of his better relations with network executives, though some still believed that Letterman was the better choice.  When NBC asked for a favor--like introducing the network's fall schedule, or cutting a promo for a local station, Leno always volunteered, while Dave often balked.                

At CBS, Letterman alienated a more important constituency--large segments of his audience.  The host seemed to relish going after conservatives, stating that Vice President Dick Cheney was "reluctant" to go after Osama bin Laden, because the terrorist leader was supposedly hiding in Saudi Arabia, and that might upset the ruling family.  He also made tasteless attacks on Sarah Palin's daughter and during the most recent presidential campaign, chided Mitt Romney for his wealth.  There was no small amount of irony in that, since many estimates place Letterman's personal fortune (somewhere north of $400 million) well above that of the former GOP candidate.

To be fair, other late night hosts are decidedly liberal as well, but unlike Letterman, Jay Leno could interview conservatives without being mean or snarky.  During the final weeks, he scored some of his highest ratings with an appearance by former President George W. Bush, who presented Leno with an oil portrait, painted by Mr. Bush.  And just last week, Jimmy Fallon (doing his impression of Vladimir Putin) did a very funny bit with former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.  Letterman preferred to play to his viewers in Manhattan and on the west coast, and he paid the price, ratings-wise. Much of middle America had abandoned Letterman long before he announced his retirement.

Most observers believe the departing host will all-but-disappear in retirement, much like his idol, Johnny Carson.  Perhaps that's just as well; the evolution of David Letterman has been a once-brilliant talent morphing into a cranky, condescending old man who was loved by the media, the most powerful executives at CBS, and very few others.  More importantly, his successful career will always have an asterisk as well--the heir apparent who never got the Tonight Show.  And deservedly so.              


Thursday, April 03, 2014

Another Case of Passing the Buck?

At this point, there is much we don't know about the motives of Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, who gunned down 16 of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood yesterday, killing three of them before taking his own life.

However, the Army has reported that Lopez was under treatment for depression, anxiety and other psychological issues at the time of his rampage.  We have also learned that Specialist Lopez spent four months in Iraq in 2011, but apparently never saw combat.  He spent years in the Puerto Rico National Guard before serving on active duty, first on a year-long tour in the Sinai desert in 2010, and later in the Middle East.  More recently, he was assigned as an infantryman at Fort Bliss, Texas before cross-training as a truck driver late last year.  Lopez was reassigned to Fort Hood just two months ago.

The latest mass shootings come less than five years after then-Major Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, opened fire on a crowd of soliders and civilians at a Fort Bliss mobility processing facility in November 2009.  Hasan, who had become an Islamic terrorist, killed 13 people before being captured.  He was court-martialed last year and sentenced to death.

As investigators later learned, signs of Hasan's radicalization were ignored by superiors, fearful of offending an officer of Arab descent during this era of political correctness.  Missing--or ignoring--indications of terrorist leanings or mental illness have become a recurring theme in mass shootings on military bases over the past 20 years.

Consider the most recent example: just last September, a 34-year-old former naval reservist, Aaron Alexis (who still worked as a contractor on military bases), opened fire inside a building at the Washington Navy Yard, killing 13 individuals and wounding a dozen more before being killed by police.  A subsequent probe revealed that Alexis had a long history of disturbing behavior that should have barred him from enlisting and receiving a security clearance.  From USA Today:

". by the time Alexis enlisted in the Navy in 2007, he'd already piled up a troubling and documented history of run-ins with police and neighbors and debts that he never repaid, according to the Navy's investigation.

For example, he dropped out of DeVry University in 2004, making only partial payments on several student loans. While living in Seattle, he received six traffic tickets but paid for only one before enlisting. Seattle police arrested him for shooting out the tires on a construction worker's vehicle. He told police the worker had "disrespected him," leading to a "blackout fueled by anger." Charges were dropped. Two years later, police in Bellevue, Wash., named him "an involved person" though not arrested after neighbors complained about tires being slashed on five vehicles.

In 2007, Alexis reported to Navy recruiters "no criminal activity and no indebtedness." That assurance was enough for recruiters who did not run a records check on him, the report says. An FBI report on him showed the Seattle arrest, but since there was "no adverse adjudication," Alexis was deemed "suitable for enlistment."

His problems persisted after he joined the Navy. There was an arrest and jailed in 2008 for disorderly conduct in Georgia when he broke furniture at a night club. The Navy disciplined him for being absent without leave, and the disorderly conduct charge was dismissed. A year later, the Navy disciplined him for drunken behavior and tried to kick him out. In 2010, Fort Worth police arrested him for shooting a gun at his apartment but dropped the charges."

While Alexis's superiors in the Navy Reserve were clearly aware of some of these incidents, they never suspended his security clearance, or initiated proceedings to separate him from the service.  Had they taken those steps, Alexis would have never gained access to the Navy Yard, and his victims might still be alive.

Elements of the Lopez rampage also raise questions about his suitability for service, and if commanders missed (or ignored) warning signs.  For example, Lopez had served in the Army--both on active duty and in the national guard--for almost 10 years, yet he never advanced beyond the rank of Specialist (E-4).  Were there behavior or performance issues in his past that prevented his advancement, and might have fueled his rage against other soldiers?  The Army is now looking into that matter.

Likewise, the New York Daily News reports that Lopez was "enraged" when the Army initially refused to let him attend his mother's funeral two months ago.  Normally, approval of "emergency leave" requests are virtually automatic.  The Army's reluctance to let Lopez travel to the funeral is another indicator of possible discipline or medical problems.  Eventually, the service allowed him to travel to Puerto Rico for the funeral, but gave Lopez only a 24-hour pass.  In most cases, service members are allowed to take days--or even weeks--of leave to be with their family under such circumstances.

Another unexplained event is Lopez's transfer from Fort Bliss to Fort Hood earlier this year.  At his new base, Lopez was a member of the Warrior Transition Brigade, comprised of soldiers who are exiting the service.  So far, the Army hasn't said if the specialist's psychiatric problems were serious enough for him to be discharged, though his assignment suggests he would be leaving the service in the near future.  It has been reported that Lopez sought help for his problems after arriving at Fort Hood; if there were any past signs of trouble, why didn't the process begin at Bliss and why wasn't he assigned to the transition battalion at that installation?

We also haven't heard the reason behind Lopez's MOS change from infantryman to transporter.  Many soldiers are given the chance to cross-train during their careers, but the Army hasn't said if Lopez's job switch was voluntary or involuntary.  Most of his victims were assigned to a transportation battalion and a medical unit, suggesting (perhaps) that Lopez was unhappy with his job, co-workers, treatment he was receiving--or all the above.

Authorities may conclude it was impossible to discern the shooter's intentions and prevent the latest tragedy at Fort Hood.  But if history is any judge, it may be revealed that signs were overlooked or deliberately ignored by the chain-of-command.  The military, like any bureaucracy, sometimes has a tendency to take the path of least resistance when dealing with problem children.  That's how one unit's bad egg winds up with another organization, and the can gets kicked down the road.

Lest we forget, 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the horrific shooting at Fairchild AFB, Washington that provided a textbook example of these tendencies.  We've written on several occasions about a deeply disturbed airman named Dean Mellberg who had a long history of mental illness before joining the military and exhibited signs of trouble during basic training in 1992.  Mellberg's military training instructor referred him to mental health officials at Lackland AFB; they recommended an immediate discharge, but they were over-ruled by a commander who felt the airman deserved a "second chance."

Over the next two years, Mellberg displayed other warning signs, but kept getting passed through the system.  At one point, his commander decided to ship him out to another base, dumping his problem on someone else.  Eventually, Mellberg was diagnosed with a severe mental illness and discharged at Cannon AFB, New Mexico.  But they failed to warn his old installation (Fairchild) that the former airman might be dangerous.

On the afternoon of 20 June 1994, Mellberg arrived back at the base and went on a shooting spree, killing five people in the base hospital.  Only the brave actions (and incredible marksmanship) of a security policemen ended Mellberg's rampage.  Of course, the entire, terrible episode might have been prevented if various individuals in the Air Force chain had done their jobs in the first place.   

It would be an even greater tragedy if we learn that Ivan Lopez followed a path similar to Dean Mellberg.