Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Inside the Wheel Well (Let the Firings Begin)

A C-130J on the ramp at Ramstein AB, Germany.  Two days ago, maintenance crews inspecting a C-130 that had just returned from Africa found the body of an African boy in one of the plane's wheel wells.  Discovery of the stowaway has touched off a major security investigation (U.S. Air Force photo via Air Force Times)   

It's a routine that plays out every day at C-130 bases around the world.  The aircraft lands; aerial port specialists unload the cargo, the aircrew turns the "Herk" over to maintenance personnel before heading off for a debrief and something cold to drink.  The maintainers then settle in for a check of the airlifter and fixing whatever the crew broke during their last mission. 

That's how the post-flight drill began this past Sunday at Ramstein AB, Germany, home to the Air Force's 86th Airlift Wing.  But the maintenance check quickly became a criminal investigation when crew chiefs found the body of a male adolescent in a compartment above the C-130's "rear" landing gear, according to ABC News.

You don't need to be a former Herk crew member or maintainer to spot the obvious mistake in that one; C-103s have a nose gear and two main gear.  What's worse, that description came from Rear Admiral John Kirby, the spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  We're guessing that Admiral Kirby's only experience with Herks has been as a passenger, so we'll give him a pass.  Suffice it say that the young man climbed into one of the main gear wheel wells, then died after the plane became airborne, either from hypoxia and exposure, or being crushed by the retracted gear. 

Admiral Kirby offered his condolences to the adolescent's family, casting it as a tragedy.  Naturally, he didn't want to dwell on the security aspects of the stowaway episode, which has produced a lot of red faces in airlift circles and it ought to prompt a few firings, at various points along the C-130s journey. 

We'll begin in Mali, a reported stopover point for the Germany-based airlifter.  Most Americans know Mali as a desperately-poor country in northwest Africa, but the nation is also home to Al Qaida-linked insurgents who also have ties to Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria.  Air Force transports have been flying in and out of Mali for the past 18 months, in support of French forces who have been battling the insurgents. 

Last week, Fox News reported the 3,000 French troops in the country were being "repositioned," to better deal with the threat.  Given France's long-time dependency on American airlift support (and the itinerary of the C-130), it's quite possible the aircraft and crew might have been used to ferry personnel and supplies to French military positions in Mali.  The transport plane also stopped in Senegal, Chad, Tunisia, and Italy before landing at Ramstein.  Mali was the second stop (after Senegal) on the crew's eight-day deployment. 

At this point, military officials aren't sure where the young man climbed into the wheel well.  The crew did not report any landing gear problems during their trip to Africa and the body could not be seen during a "quick" inspection of the gear and wheel well.  A test on the corpse for communicable diseases proved negative. 

Admiral Kirby (correctly) noted that C-130s are designed to operate from austere locations where security won't be "at the same level" as a main base like Ramstein. 

But that doesn't absolve the crew--and other military personnel--from basic security responsibilities.  Ultimately, it's up to the aircraft commander to ensure that unwanted cargo (and personnel) don't get on the aircraft. 

And sometimes, that's easier said than done.  A C-130 mission like the one that ended at Ramstein is often very busy, with multiple stops at various locations.  Lots of issues to worry about, ranging from diplomatic clearances and limited ATC services, to scheduling changes and, of course, security for the aircraft and crew.

It's worth noting that the Herk with the stowaway was a "J" model, the latest version off the Lockheed line.  The C-130J has vastly updated technology over previous versions, with improved engines; distinctive scimitar props and a digital cockpit.  With more automated features, the airlift version of the J can operate with a smaller crew: two pilots and a loadmaster, compared to the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer and two loadmasters found on earlier models. 

While the newest Herk is a technical marvel, more than a few pilots have complained about the reduced manning, since there is still plenty of work to go around, and two fewer bodies for tasks like pre-flighting (which can be done by the engineer), or updating flight plans (which can be handled by the nav).  That means the pilots have less time for their other tasks, such as aircraft walk-around inspections before flight.

However, security of the aircraft is not left entirely to the cockpit crew.  For a mission into Africa or other hotspots, the flight crew is often complemented by one or two maintenance personnel and a small contingent of Phoenix Raven security specialists.  The "Ravens" (as they're known) provide an "acceptable level of close-in security" for airlifters at locations where there is a known threat, or additional protection may be warranted.  In some instances, Ravens stay with the aircraft during overnight stops. 

Predictably, the Air Force won't say if any Ravens were a part of the C-130 crew that stopped in Mali.  But, given the threat in that part of the world, it's hard to imagine a Herk deploying without additional security.  Phoenix Raven has often been cited as a "model" security program, but among flight crews, opinions about the security specialists are mixed.  We found this 2010 blog posting by a C-130H flight engineer with experience in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan: 

"...The Ravens are diva extraordinaries. They slept every leg, the entire way and ate everything in sight. We had four on board and only two had to spend the night on board one time. At Comores we had a national attempt to get on the aircraft and it was the interpreter with the spec ops guy that stopped him by yelling at him. Then one of the Ravens comes over and guards the door. ARE you SHITTING me? That's why you see us unarmed in the pictures. Our 9's are locked in the gunbox because we have the fire breathing Ravens!!!!! The consensus amongst the crew is we should arm up and leave these boys home."


"Seriously, when you fly in the combat zone everyday, you have body armor, your packin' heat. There is no protection except what you bring. You go down and it's all up to you. It would be the scene from Pearl Harbor where they crashed in China and had to defend themselves. I could see a movie in the future. It would have a scene where a 130 went down and the crew was defending the aircraft and a Raven would climb out of the wreckage looking half asleep with a chocolate brownie from an MRE in his mouth."

Bottom line: the stowaway discovered on that C-130 at Ramstein represents a serious security breach.  Heads should roll over this one, beginning with those directly responsible for protecting the aircraft.  And whoever thought it was a good idea to leak this information to the press needs to be disciplined as well.  Various terrorist factions across Africa have discovered just how easy it was to slip on board an American transport aircraft at remote airfields.  Next time that hidden passenger might be a bomb, not an African boy.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Uh Oh

Jonathan Martin of The New York Times sums it up well:

"Democrats were thrilled when John Walsh of Montana was appointed to the United States Senate in February. A decorated veteran of the Iraq war and former adjutant general of his state’s National Guard, Mr. Walsh offered the Democratic Party something it frequently lacks: a seasoned military man.

On the campaign trail this year, Mr. Walsh, 53, has made his military service a main selling point. Still wearing his hair close-cropped, he notes he was targeted for killing by Iraqi militants and says his time in uniform informs his views on a range of issues.

Just one problem, as Mr. Martin reports.  One of the signature accomplishments of Walsh's tenure--his graduation from the prestigious Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania--has been tainted by accusations of plagiarism. 

And we're not talking about a paragraph or two that lacked proper sourcing or attribution. According to the Times, at least 25% of the final paper required for the master's degree--earned by Mr. Walsh at the war college--was appropriated directly from the work of other writers, with no attribution at all.

The school has launched its own investigation, but it probably won't take very long.  Remarkably, the NYT has provided an interactive graphic that illustrates how Walsh lifted entire sections of his paper from other sources; in some cases, changing only a word here or there, and in other instances, copying the work of other authors verbatim.

This isn't the first time Senator Walsh has experienced ethical issues.  After being named his state's Adjutant General, he was denied promotion to flag rank--almost unheard of in the national guard--for encouraging soldiers to join a private group, the National Guard Association, in which he was seeking a leadership post. 

Confronted by the Times outside his Senate office, Walsh said he "didn't do anything wrong," and "didn't recall" copying entire sections of his paper from works published by scholars at Harvard and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

Later, a member of the Senator's campaign staff offered a pair of novel defenses for his plagiarism.  Apparently, he was troubled by the suicide of one of the soldiers he served with in Iraq, an event that occurred "several weeks" before the paper was due.  The same staffer also stated the Senator was suffering from PTSD, a claim Walsh subsequently denied (though he did admit he is currently taking anti-depressant medication).

Perhaps a little context is in order.  Walsh's assignment was only 14 pages in length, so it was not a master's thesis, or even comparable to many of the papers Your Humble Correspondent wrote in grad school. 

I also know a little bit about the senior service schools, having served as an adjunct instructor at the Air War College during my last assignment on active duty.  While the war colleges are a required stop for aspiring generals and admirals, the academic "pace" is anything but brutal. 

The Air War College, for example, was sometimes described as an "Air Force-sponsored golf vacation," given the ample opportunities for recreation during the in-residence course.  And no one really cared; most of the students had come from command and staff billets, working 14-16 hours a day, and they would "graduate" to more important jobs with an even heavier workload.  War college was a respite from that grind and a square to be filled.  

So, it's a little hard to figure why Mr. Walsh found it necessary to plagiarize long stretches of a brief paper.  It's also puzzling that the Army didn't catch it sooner; each student at the war college has their own faculty adviser who guides them through the process and is supposed to review various drafts of a student's final paper.  The Army War College provost told the Times that Walsh's paper will be run through an on-line plagiarism analysis program, and if a violation is found, the school will convene an academic advisory board to determine if it was intentional. 

If found guilty of plagiarism, the war college commandant will determine any final punishment, including revocation of the master's degree and removing Walsh from the list of graduates.  The Army could also recall the Senator to active duty and impose additional sanctions, though such an option is considered highly unlikely.  He retired from the guard in 2012, the same year he was elected Montana's Lieutenant Governor. 

Walsh attended the war college in 2007 and evaluations after graduation affirm the program bolstered his chances for selection as adjutant general.  Put another way: it's hard to imagine Walsh entering that post without attending the war college (emphasis mine).  Most of the slots at Carlisle are reserved for active duty Army officers and those from other services, so most of the guard billets are reserved for students with the ability, political connections (or both) to reach the top of the state chain-of-command, or at the National Guard Bureau.  Walsh's selection for the war college indicates he was very much an up-and-comer in the guard ranks.   

Before the scandal broke, Senator Walsh emphasized his military record with Montana voters, enhancing his appeal in a largely conservative state.  Walsh was appointed to the Senate earlier this year after incumbent Max Baucus resigned to become U.S. Ambassador to China.  In recent polls, Walsh has trailed his Republican opponent, and the plagiarism controversy may end his political career.
ADDENDUM:  While Walsh's plagiarism is surprising, so is the Times' interest in the story.  Normally, Democratic politicians get a pass in such matters (paging Joe Biden), but Walsh got the full treatment, including a word-by-word analysis and ambush interview outside his office.  The Senator must be wondering what he did to incur the paper's wrath.       




Sunday, July 20, 2014


One of the vehicles associated with Polyana-D mobile command post, used to direct Russian-made surface-to-air missile units.  The system can be used to link SA-20 brigades with tactical SAMs, including the Buk complex, also known as the SA-11 "Gadfly."  The system might have been used to feed air situation information from a Russian SA-20 unit to rebel SA-11s used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 (Wikipedia photo)       

First came the horror of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17; nearly 300 passengers and crew blasted out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile, almost certainly launched by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.  In the blink of an eye, a Boeing 777 was blown to pieces in a deliberate act, sending bodies and debris raining to earth.

Then came the debacle at the crash scene, "secured" by the same separatist elements who (reportedly) looted cash and credit cards from the wallets and purses of the victims.  They refused to grant access to Ukrainian authorities and international investigators.  The bodies of the dead lay in local fields (and in some cases, the homes of local residents) for two days, before pro-Russian elements began placing some in body bags and moving them to refrigerated rail cars. 

Obviously, the deliberate contamination of crash debris and human remains will make it more difficult to confirm the shoot down of the Malaysian airliner by an SA-11 "Gadfly" missile battery. By controlling the crash scene, the separatists--and their allies in Moscow--can conceal or destroy evidence that would aid in that determination, by removing wreckage, personal effects and even bodies containing fragments from the missile's high-explosive warhead, or produce doctored reports suggesting that explosive debris came from an SA-11 missile belonging to Ukrainian air defense units.

But Moscow's involvement in the downing of Flight 17 may go beyond the provision of the SAM system to separatist elements and training for their missile crews.  The Gadfly transporter-erector-launcher-and-radar (TELAR) which fired on the jetliner was quickly transported back to Russian territory; still images and video posted on social media showed at least two SA-11 TELARs on flatbed trucks leaving eastern Ukraine within 24 hours of the shoot-down; one of the launchers was missing two missiles, suggesting the doomed airliner may have been struck by multiple times.  Use of flatbeds to transport a mobile missile system suggested the separatists--and their Russian allies--were in a hurry to get rid of that crucial piece of evidence.

If the TELAR had been transferred to the rebels--and used to down the jetliner--why was Moscow in such a hurry to get it back?  Why not state that the separatists were acting on their own, and perpetuate the claim that rebel forces stole the SA-11 from a Ukrainian military base they recently seized?  That spin might not get much traction in the world community, but it would play well at home and give Vladimir Putin the plausible deniability he is obviously seeking.  

On the other hand, perhaps that SA-11 TELAR contains more evidence, aside from its missing missile(s). Like all modern SAM systems, the Gadfly is completely automated, with on-board computers that not only operate the TELAR, but also record its operational history.

In fact, the hard drives of that particular fire unit could provide a treasure trove of information, ranging from the time it began operations (in relation to the approaching jet); its location at the time of the engagement; the operational "mode" during the firing sequence--which can range from "manual" to fully automatic, and (perhaps most importantly), the provision of targeting information from outside sources.

Why is that important?  Because the fire unit's on-board radar (nicknamed "Fire Dome" by NATO) is relatively limited at acquiring and identifying potential targets.  The radar's scan is typically limited to a fairly narrow sector, both in azimuth and altitude, and the Fire Dome lacks an organic identification-friendo-or-foe (IFF) capability.  That's why all SA-11 units are equipped with separate acquisition radars (such as the "Tube Arm") which sweep a much larger area; interrogate airborne tracks and assist operators in identifying potential targets.

But there have been no reports of acquisition radars with rebels' SA-11 TELARs that were operating in eastern Ukraine in recent days, and shot down several Ukrainian military aircraft in the run-up to the Flight MH17 disaster.  That suggests the separatists were using their Fire Domes in an autonomous mode--which degrades their operational effectiveness--or they were receiving acquisition information from other sources, perhaps the Russian air defense system.

In the early hours after the Malaysian jet went down, U.S. officials said they weren't sure if the 777 was destroyed by an SA-11 or an SA-20.  The distinction is very important; while the Gadfly is operated by all sides along the Ukraine conflict, the only SA-20s in that region belong to Russian air defense forces.  The initial uncertainty by American intelligence officers suggest that a Russian SA-20 unit was active in the area at the time Flight MH17 fell from the sky.

At this point, there is no evidence that the airliner was shot down by an SA-20.  And, no intelligence officials in the U.S. or Europe have stated--at least publicly--if there were communications between Russian air defense headquarters and the SA-11 TELARs operated by separatists.  However, that type of interface is very common; in fact, Russia has developed two automated, mobile command posts (the Polyana D-4 and the Senezh) that can integrate the SA-11 into an SA-20 brigade. Both have been in service for a number of years, and their employment is a standard element of Russian SAM operations.  Information from the higher-echelon C2 elements associated with the SA-20 unit is typically transmitted to SA-11 TELARs via landline or datalinks.  Russian units may also issue an air situation broadcast (ASB) over dedicated frequencies for subordinate units.

Needless to say, it would be interesting to know if Polyana or Senezh-associated vehicles (and datalinks) were detected on either side of the border in the days before the shootdown.  Data links are burst transmissions and can be difficult to intercept--let alone decrypt--but the SA-20 comments suggests that our collection systems detected radar and communications activity in the run-up to the destruction of the Malaysia Airlines jet.  And, depending on how long the SA-20 had been operating in that area, analysts might have detected comm patterns between elements of the Russian SAM unit and, possibly, separatist-controlled SA-11 TELARs in eastern Ukraine.

Messages received by the SA-11 fire units would be stored on their computer hard drives--until they are removed and wiped clean.  Obviously, Moscow wants to eliminate any evidence that might link their air defense network to separatist SAM units along the border.

This is not to say that Moscow--or one of its air defense commanders issued an order to down the Malaysian jet.  But there is a high probability of integration and coordination between Russia's SAM units and their rebel counterparts, if (for no other reason) to prevent the separatists from engaging Russian aircraft and drones operating in the border region.

It's also important to note that a number of civilian airliners flew over the battle zone in the days before flight MH17 was destroyed, while rebel forces managed to knock down at least three Ukrainian military aircraft.  The lack of accidental engagements before the Malaysia Airlines incident suggests the rebels were receiving some information on target identification and de-confliction--information that almost certainly came from Russian air defense forces.  Was air situation data missing or flawed when the Malaysian 777 transited the area, or did a rebel commander simply choose to act on his own, without knowing what the target actually was? 

The odds that Moscow ordered the shootdown are virtually nil.  On the other hand, it would be surprising if Russian SAM units were not exchanging information with rebels operating those SA-11s.  It's the type of relationship that Moscow is trying desperately to conceal, particularly if data from the Fire Dome's computers could document the data exchange, down to the most exacting detail.

No wonder the Russians were in such a hurry to take control of those TELARs.          


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Jetliner Down

An export version of the SA-11 "Gadfly" surface-to-air missile system.  The SA-11 is believed responsible for today's shootdown of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 in the border region between Russia and Ukraine.  The system is in service with the military forces of both countries (Wikipedia photo)

***UPDATE/3:42 pm EDT***

U.S. intelligence officials tell The Wall Street Journal that the downed Malaysian jetliner was definitely hit by a surface-to-air missile, though they did not say whether it was fired by Ukrainian forces, or pro-Russian separatists.  There are also questions as to why the Boeing 777 was flying over a war zone; U.S. airliners have been barred from flying over the region for several months.  The U.K. Daily Mail suggests the Malaysian jet may have used the Ukraine route to cut flying time and save fuel.   


A Malaysian airliner with 295 people has reportedly crashed in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border.  The Reuters dispatch says that news of the incident was first reported by Russia's Interfax news agency, citing sources in the aviation industry.

Details of the disaster are still sketchy, but Ukrainian officials claim the airliner was shot down by a Russian-made SA-11 surface-to-air missile, according to updated Reuters reporting:

The aircraft, which other sources said was a Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, came down near the city of Donetsk, stronghold of pro-Russian rebels, Anton Gerashchenko said, adding that it was hit by a ground-to-air missile.

There was no further confirmation of the report, although Ukrainian officials said local residents had found wreckage.

Malaysia Airlines said on its Twitter feed it had lost contact with its flight MH-17 from Amsterdam. "The last known position was over Ukrainian airspace," it said.

Gerashchenko was quoted as saying: "A civilian airliner travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur has just been shot down by a Buk anti-aircraft system ... 280 passengers and 15 crew have been killed."

Interfax-Ukraine quoted another Ukrainian official as saying the plane disappeared from radar when it was flying at 10,000 metres (33,000 feet), a typical cruising altitude for airliners.

The loss of the 777 raises more questions about Moscow's support for pro-Russian rebels in the region.  Separatists fighting the Ukraine government have been equipped with a wide range of military hardware produced in Russia, but lacking the markings typically seen in Russian Army units.  There have also been reports that some of the "rebels" are actually Russian special forces personnel, who were instrumental in supporting the uprising that led the Crimea region to breakaway from Ukraine and rejoin Russia.

If the use of an SA-11 is confirmed--and it is tied to the rebels--it would confirm that the Russian government is providing sophisticated military hardware to its allies in Ukraine.  The SA-11 (nicknamed "Gadfly" by NATO) is a medium-range surface-to-air missile system that has been in service for more than 30 years.  It is more than capable of intercepting aircraft at low and medium altitude that are transiting through the disputed border region between Russia and Ukraine.

But the SA-11 is also in service with the Ukrainian military, and Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency quickly reported that Kiev deployed a Buk battery in the Donetsk region on Wednesday. Russian officials also claimed that the Malaysian 777 crashed 35 miles from the border, which would (presumably) put it outside the range of any Russian SA-11 battery in that area.  But a Reuters correspondent who arrived at the crash site said it is only 25 miles from the border, within range of SA-11s operated by the Russian military and pro-Moscow separatists.

Kiev has recently accused Moscow of taking a more active role in the conflict, accusing the Russian military of shooting down a Ukrainian SU-25 jet on Thursday--an accusation that Russia denied.  The leader of pro-Russian forces in the region claimed that his group shot down an Ukrainian AN-24 transport before the loss of the 777 was reported.  An AP reporter in the region reported seeing SA-11 equipment in the past 24 hours, not far from where the Malaysian jetliner went down.  But Fox News military analyst Ralph Peters said he "doubted" that Moscow has provided the system to rebel forces, and suggested the missle unit responsible for the shoot down belongs to Russia, and is "perched" along the Ukraine border.

While both sides are casting blame on each other, it should be easy to determine who shot down the Malaysian airliner.  The National Security Agency (NSA) and its partners can detect radar emissions around the globe, and they should be able to pinpoint the location of "Tube Arm" acquistion and "Fire Dome" tracking radars that were active in the area just before the shootdown.

The shootdown will probably be described as an accident, and it wouldn't be the first time a SAM system has destroyed a civilian airliner in the region.  In October 2001, a Ukrainian SA-5 battery shot down a Russian TU-154 over the Black Sea, killing 77 passengers and crew.  The incident occurred during a military exercise.  And barely a month ago, pro-Russian elements downed a Ukrainian IL-76 transport near Luhansk, less than 100 miles from Donetsk.  The June crash was attributed to an "anti-aircraft missile," though it was never specified if rebels used a shoulder-fired SAM, or a more advanced system like the SA-11.  

Modern air defense systems--including the Gadfly--are highly automated.  The firing unit, better known as a TELAR (Transporter, Erector, Launcher and Radar) can automatically detect, prioritize and fire missiles against targets within range.  In its "automatic" mode, the only operator input required is to approve the missile launch against targets selected by the fire control computer, or by higher-echelon air defense commanders, operating the TELAR by remote control.  Such capabilities make the SA-11 very dangerous in the hands of marginally trained crews or rebel forces, which can let the system do the work, with little regard for what is being targeted.                       

Today's crash came barely four months after another Malaysia Airlines 777 disappeared on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.  That aircraft has never been found, despite an intensive search that covered territory from the Vietnamese coast to the eastern Indian Ocean.

Monday, July 14, 2014

What Came Next

As noted in our previous post, Israel's ability to shoot down Palestinian rockets has created some problems for Hamas.  With their ability to inflict damage and death on Israeli targets diminishing rapidly, the terror master-minds are looking for new ways to overcome the IDF and carry out successful attacks. 

So, Hamas decided to send up a drone, perhaps similar to the one recently shown below on Al Aqsa TV:

Video of purported Hamas drone, from Al Aqsa TV, via NBC News and The Blaze

You can probably guess what happened next.  There was an Israeli Patriot battery in the area, which quickly detected the drone.  Powerful radar, 100-G missile, no problem.  Within seconds, a missile was on its way, and the Hamas Air Force was no more.  
The Israelis are still looking for wreckage of the drone, which was reportedly unarmed.  Hamas says it has dispatched UAVs for a variety of "special missions" over Israel, but there is no evidence to support those claims.  
Apparently, the terror group hasn't learned one of the cardinal rule of drone operations; simply stated, UAVs work best in a "permissive" air defense environment, where you don't have to worry about an advanced surface-to-air missile system blowing your UAV out of the sky.  Incidentally, Israel's Iron Dome system is also capable of intercepting drones at low and medium altitude, so the life expectancy for any Hamas UAS is probably measured in seconds.  
Still, the UAV threat from terrorist groups cannot be dismissed.  With the proliferation of drone technology, small, pilotless aircraft can be assembled, launched and controlled by a small team of technicians, or in some cases, a single person.  They can carry rockets, small missiles, bombs and even WMD payloads, making them a useful terror weapon for targeted strikes, particularly against soft targets. 
The shootdown also provides a lesson for advanced military powers, including the United States.  Our ability to sustain UAV operations--even against lesser foes--is hardly assured.  We lost more than a dozen drones over Serbia in 1999, against a well-trained (but antiquated) air defense system built around aging SA-2 and SA-3 radar-guided SAMs, along with lots of MANPADs and AAA.  Of course, that's one of the advantages of UAVs; you can build them in large numbers, expecting to lose some and still have enough to cover the target.  
Against a more advanced foe (think: China), the problem would be much more serious.  Beijing has spent billions on advanced SAMs over the last 15 years, along with state-of-the-art radars and battle management systems.  A few years ago, the retiring commander of the Air Combat Command, General Ron Keys, told a defense audience that China's ability to take out our UAVs would be limited "only by their ability to reload their SAM launchers."  
A slightly sobering thought for a nation that has become dependent on total battlespace surveillance and dozens of daily UAV orbits.      




Sunday, July 13, 2014

Game Changer

An Israeli Iron Dome battery fires against a Palestinian missile attack on 9 July 2014 (Associated Press photo). 

Almost one week into the latest fighting between Israel and Hamas, a single statistic underscores the nature of this conflict.  So far, more than 150 Palestinians have died in Israeli air and missile attacks against military targets, while no Israelis have been killed by the hundreds of rockets fired from Gaza (and southern Lebanon) into the Jewish state.

Obviously, Israel enjoys a huge military advantage over Hamas; complete air dominance, a fleet of UAVs, real-time intelligence capabilities and tremendous firepower allow the IDF to strike terrorist targets with precision.  Meanwhile, the Palestinians keep hoping that one of their rockets will land in a populated area and kill Israeli civilians, adding to the psychological toll in Sderot, Ashkelon, Beersheba and other communities that have been frequently targeted over the past fourteen years.

But the ability of terrorist rockets to inflict significant damage and casualties against Israel appears to be diminishing, thanks to the Iron Dome missile defense system.  Over the past seven days, Hamas and other terror factions have launched upwards of 400 rockets against Israeli territory; Iron Dome has intercepted more than 70 deemed to be a threat against populated areas, a success rate of more than 90%.

Some are calling the system a "game changer."  From the Associated Press:

Newspapers have already crowned the U.S.-funded system as the star of the campaign. The front page of Yediot Ahronot carried the headline "Golden Dome," with a huge spread of the system in action. The paper's top military columnist, Alex Fishman, wrote that the Iron Dome has "changed the face of the battle."
"If not for the Iron Dome system, the entire military would have already been stuck in the Gaza Strip. It is already possible to reflect on the main lesson of Operation Protective Edge: we must not stop investing in the Iron Dome system," he wrote.


Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired military general and current director general of Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs, said that Gaza's Hamas rulers and other militants have acquired longer, more powerful weapons in the past two years, but Israel had not been idle either. He said improvements to Iron Dome have allowed it to hold off on a ground operation while the home front was protected.
"It gives us much more room to maneuver. ... Now we have the ability to hold our breath for some time," he said. "And I'm sure that Hamas is feeling frustrated with this situation because after launching hundreds of rockets, they haven't managed to get Israeli casualties."
Israeli officials warn that no defensive system is fool-proof; on 20 August 2011, barely six months after it was first deployed, an Iron Dome battery near Be'er Sheva engaged a volley of seven rockets fired from Gaza; six were intercepted or ignored, as no threat to populated areas.  Unfortunately, the seventh rocket landed in a residential area of Be'er Sheva and killed an Israeli man. 
But Iron Dome has clearly matured as a system.  With upgrades to tracking radars, the battle management system and interceptor missiles, Iron Dome is much more effective than it was three years ago, and Israeli casualty totals seem to bear that out.  During the last "rocket intifada" (2012), Israel suffered six deaths through the first week of fighting.  This time around, there have been no fatalities and the few reported injuries have not been directly related to rocket fire.  In one instance, and elderly woman was hurt as she descended the steps into a bomb shelter.   Another injury was described as a "panic attack" as warning sirens sounded. 
At an estimated cost of $20,000 per intercept, operating the Iron Dome isn't cheap--and that's on top of initial R&D costs and the bill for deploying the first two batteries.  The U.S. has invested at least $900 million in the system since 2011, and agreed to cover the costs for fielding the next eight batteries, some of which are now in service.  
With an overall success rate of at least 80%, Iron Dome is the most effective anti-missile system currently on the market.  But some have questioned those numbers; Professor Theodore Postol of MIT believes the number of truly successful intercepts (defined as those which destroy the rocket warhead) may be only five percent, and perhaps a bit lower.  Postol, a long-time critic of missile defense, based his analysis on reviews of intercept data, damage reports and interviews with police officials in areas where rockets landed during the 2012 intifada.
Yet, the amount of damage inflicted from the latest round of Palestinian rockets has been surprisingly low, suggesting that a number of warheads may have been destroyed by Iron Dome.  That would mean that Postol's assessment is flawed and (at a minimum) may fail to account for recent upgrades to the system.
For Israeli leaders and ordinary citizens, Iron Dome is worth its proverbial weight in gold.  So far, the system's ability to knock down terrorists has alleviated the need for a potentially bloody ground incursion into Gaza, allowing Israel to to utilize airpower--and precision weapons--to eliminate Hamas rocket crews and senior leaders of the terror group.  
The Israeli Air Force has used small diameter bombs (SDBs) extensively in the conflict, as evidenced by the relatively small explosions observed inside Gaza.  Israel purchased thousands of the weapons from the U.S. and has developed its own version of the weapon, dubbed the Spice 250.  One variant of Spice allows images of intended targets to be uploaded into the weapon's memory; when its on-board camera matches a building with the recorded image, the small bomb maneuvers its way to the target.  Small diameter bombs allow precise targeting, while minimizing collateral damage in an urban environment.  
On the other side, deployment of the Iron Dome has create a quandary for Hamas.  Rocket barrages that once brought Israeli life to a halt are now little more than an inconvenience.  Rocket teams may try to focus on areas believed to have less protection from the Iron Dome, but that means more targets in less populated areas, with fewer opportunities to inflict damage and casualties.  They may also try larger volleys in concentrated areas, in an effort to overwhelm the defensive system, but that means more rocket crews will be exposed.  And with Israeli UAVs constantly circling over Gaza--and Apache gunships criss-crossing through the same airspace--the Palestinians may lose even more fighters, along with storage sites where the rockets are concealed.
Along with possible changes in rocket tactics, Hamas may step up its use of anti-tank missiles against Israeli military and civilian vehicles traveling near the Gaza border.  An IDF patrol was targeted near Be'er Sheva in the early hours of the latest conflict, and four other soldiers were wounded during a similar attack in 2012. The same weapons have also been used against Israeli school buses.  However, such attacks are veritable pin pricks compared to the destruction rained down by the IAF on Palestinian military targets in Gaza.  
With their "best" weapons largely neutralized by Iron Dome, Hamas and other terror groups will fall back on the time-tested tactics of using civilians as human shields, then criticizing the Israelis for targeting the innocent. But even that measure is having less success; western leaders have been phoning Prime Minister Netanyahu to offer their support, and Israel has been urging civilians to leave areas that may be targeted--even making "roof knock" phone calls to residents in buildings that are in the cross-hairs.  
Earlier today, thousands of Palestinians were sighted leaving northern Gaza, suggesting that the Israeli message may be achieving desired results.  That, in turn, will make it even easier for the IDF to locate the militants and take them out.    

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

At the Birth

Dewey Phillips at the WHBQ microphone in the early 1950s.  The legendary Memphis DJ was the first to play an Elvis record on the air (photo courtesy StreamingOldies.com)

Sixty years ago this week, a Memphis disc jockey named Dewey Phillips cued up his turntable and took a chance on an unknown singer.  And in an instant, the world changed.

The artist, of course, was a local boy named Elvis Presley.  The song was his version of "That's All Right (Mama)," recorded just three days earlier at Sun Records, located a few blocks from WHBQ's studios in the Chisca Hotel.  Immediately, the station's phone lines were jammed with requests for "Daddy-O Dewey" to play it again.  Phillips was happy to comply; by various accounts, he played the record seven times in a row, and at least 12 times during his show.  Within a week, Sun had 6,000 advance orders for the record and the King of Rock and Roll was on his way.

Seven decades later, the story of Elvis Presley's discovery has become firmly entrenched in the pop culture pantheon.  Even casual fans know that a young Elvis, working as a truck driver in Memphis, walked into the Memphis Recording Service in July 1953, and paid $3.98 to record two songs.  It's a common misperception that Elvis made the recordings on his lunch hour, and they were intended as a birthday gift to his mother.  In fact, her birthday was in April and Presley's first visit to the recording service occurred on a Saturday.

The recording service--and Sun Records--were owned by a former DJ named Sam Phillips (no relation to Dewey) who was looking for "a white man who could sing the blues," or more correctly, someone who could fuse the strains of blues, gospel, country and rockabilly that echoed through the city.  Phillips, who had recorded Ike Turner's "Rocket 88"--considered by many to be one of the first rock-and-roll records--believed a singer with those abilities could make him "a million bucks." 

It was Sam Phillips's assistant, Marion Keisker, who handled Elvis's first recordings and brought him to her boss's attention.  Almost a year passed before Phillips arranged an audition, at the home of local guitarist Scotty Moore, on July 4, 1954.  Nothing came from that session, but Moore and  bassist Bill Black, who also provided accompaniment, agreed with Phillips that a stint in the recording studio might prove useful.  They gathered the following evening at Sun, but that session seemed to be a bust; after multiple, unsatisfactory takes on Bing Crosby's "Harbor Lights," and a country ballad, Phillips called for a break. 

Then, it happened, as recounted in Sam Phillips obituary in The New York Times from 2003:

"Presley picked up a guitar and started fooling around. He began playing an old blues song by Arthur Crudup called ''That's All Right.'' Except Presley wasn't playing the blues. The rhythm was fast and his voice was almost euphoric. There were no drums, so Mr. Black slapped his bass to keep time, while Mr. Moore's guitar leaped in and out of the melody line.

Mr. Phillips asked what they were doing, and the musicians said they didn't know.

''Well, back it up, try to find a place to start, and do it again,'' Mr. Phillips said."

Ultimately, the session yielded two songs, "That's All Right," and Elvis's uptempo version of "Blue Moon of Kentucky," by Bill Monroe.  Having found his new sound, Sam Phillips needed to get it on the air, and the logical venue was WHBQ's Red, Hot and Blue program and Dewey Phillips.

The Memphis DJ was another Memphis original, in the same vein as Elvis and Sam Phillips.  After seeing combat as an Army infantryman in World War II, Dewey Phillips found work as the record department manager at a local five-and-dime.  He comanderred the store's public address system and provided his own patter between records played during the noon hour.  Large crowds began gathering for the daily show, and WHBQ put him on the airwaves in 1949. 

His evening program was an immediate hit, and the station soon had a waiting list for sponsors.  Dewey Phillips had an uncanny knack for knowing what his listeners wanted to hear, and he played it all: blues, gospel, country rockabilly, interspersed with his own unique commentary, including ad-libbed commercials.  Touting Falstaff beer, he said "if you can't drink it, freeze it and eat it." 

It's worth noting that Dewey Phillips was showcasing the musical roots of rock-and-roll two years before Alan Freed supposedly "discovered it" in Cleveland, and he pioneered a free-form music format almost two decades before Tom Donahue tried it in San Francisco.  More importantly, he was one of the first southern DJs to break other racial barriers by featuring music from black artists on his program.  By today's standards that may sound like a minor accomplishment, but in a segregated southern city (like Memphis in the 1940s), it was revolutionary. 

In response to the first airing of "That's All Right (Mama), Phillips managed to track down Elvis and interviewed him over the phone.  Knowing that his listeners were curious if Presley was white or black, Phillips found a clever way to provide the answer, without being offensive.  He simply asked Elvis what high school he attended.  When Presley replied "Humes" the audience knew he was white because that school was reserved for whites in the city's segregated system. 

As Elvis rocketed to fame, the career of Dewey Phillips took off as well.  His radio show remained one of the most popular in Memphis, and he eventually got his own television program on WHBQ-TV.  Phillips also became a confidante of Elvis, accompanying him to Hollywood in 1957, as Presley launched his movie career. 

But Dewey Phillips's star began to fade as Elvis became an international icon.  He had a falling out with Presley (and his new record company, RCA), by playing an advance copy of a new recording before its release date.  WHBQ-TV moved his show from late afternoons to late night (to make room for American Bandstand) and later cancelled the program, after one of Phillip's cohorts groped a cardboard cut-out of Jayne Mansfield on the air.  He was dropped from the radio station in 1958, as WHBQ's corporate owners (RKO General) moved to a Top 40 format.  Phillips chafed at the confines of a limited playlist and RKO had no tolerance for his antics, despite years of high ratings and sold-out sponsorships. 

Over the next decade, Phillips worked at other stations in and around Memphis, never lasting long.  He also battled addictions to alcohol and drugs, a problem that partially resulted from two near-fatal car crashes in the early 1950s.  His wife eventually left him and Dewey Phillips was working off the air--as a call screener for a Memphis station--when he died from heart failure on September 28, 1968.  He was 42 years old. 

The anniversary of Elvis's first radio appearance has focused new attention on Dewey Phillips as well, though he was never completely forgotten.  The lead character in the Broadway musical Memphis (Huey Calhoun) is clearly based on Phillips, and he was inducted posthumously into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.  For whatever reason, he has never been selected for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while Alan Freed was one of the original inductees. Many would argue that Phillips and other pioneering DJs (such as John Richbourg and Hoss Allen of WLAC in Nashville) were more influential, and their induction in Cleveland is long overdue.  And don't get us started on why the hall of fame is in Ohio, and not Memphis, where Sam Phillips ushered in the rock era on that July evening in 1954.  
ADDENDUM:  As described in various accounts of Elvis's early career, Sam Phillips understood the importance of WHBQ, Red Hot and Blue and its host.  But, as a former DJ, the Sun Records impressario also realized that Dewey Phillips's nighttime audience was largely confined to the city of Memphis.  With reduced power after sunset--and a directional signal--WHBQ's signal barely reached the city limits.  That apparently motivated someone at Sun (probably Marion Keisker) to send a copy of Elvis's first single to WREC, which had a better signal and reached more of the Mid-South region. 

In those days, WREC played "standards," songs from Sinatra, Crosby and the rest of the Great American Songbook.  Elvis and his original sound was clearly outside the WREC playlist, but Sam Phillips or Ms. Keisker thought it was worth a shot.  After all, Sam Phillips had been a popular DJ at the station before starting his recording company. 

Elvis's first record landed in the hands of WREC program director Fred Cook, who doubled as the morning man.  Legend has it that Cook played it on the air for a few seconds, then pulled it, telling someone in the studio "that's the worst s--t I've ever heard," and predicting that Elvis had no future. 

Mr. Cook, who passed away in 2008, went on to a long and successful career as a radio and TV personality in Memphis.  But he also be remembered as the man who took a pass on Elvis Presley.