Monday, March 30, 2015

Death by Moonlight

RAF Squadron Leader Peter Hill briefs bomber crews from Number 51 Squadron before the planned mission against Nuremberg, Germany on the evening on 30/31 March 1944.  Hill was among more than 700 crew members lost on the raid, the bloodiest night in Bomber Command history (Imperial War Museum Collection)    

Seventy-one years ago tonight, hundreds of RAF bombers thundered aloft from bases across Great Britain.  Their target was Nuremberg, an industrial city in Bavaria that Hitler once described as "the most important in Germany."  Nuremberg had been the site of huge Nazi Party rallies during the late 1930s, so Bomber Command saw an opportunity to strike both a psychological and economic blow against the Third Reich.

The raid also represented something of a turning point in the RAF's long bombing campaign against Germany.  While the crews that gathered for the mission briefing that night didn't know it, the raid against Nuremberg would be the last salvo in the so-called Battle of Berlin, a series of 16 raids against the German capital and other key targets that began in November 1943.  Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, Bomber Command's determined Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, viewed the campaign as an opportunity to break German resistance, once-and-for-all.  "It will cost us between 400-500 bombers," he observed.  "It will cost Germany the war."

But Harris's calculus proved flawed.  While Bomber Command crews inflicted heavy damage on a number of enemy targets, they did not crush German morale and losses were much higher than expected.  A total of 952 RAF bombers had been lost on earlier raids in the Battle of Berlin (along with more than 7000 aircrew).

If Harris and his planners viewed Nuremberg as a chance to strike deep inside the Reich, crews were more concerned about survival.  Overall, loss rates during the campaign were above the five percent considered "sustainable" and some units suffered high casualty rates. Number 460 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force was essentially "wiped out" during Berlin raids in December 1943 and January 1944, losing a total of 25 aircraft and crews.

Despite this high cost, Bomber Command remained a potent force, capable of generating 800-plane raids against German targets on a near-nightly basis.  And with improved navigational aids like Gee and H2S, accuracy had greatly improved over the early days of the war, when most bombers dropped their bombs miles away from the intended target.  Two of the earlier raids in the campaign (22/23 November and 17 December) were among the most effective of the war, so Harris had reason to believe the Nuremberg mission could be successful as well.  He also realized that Bomber Command's operational focus would shift to France in the months ahead, as preparations for the Normandy invasion shifted into high gear.  Harris clearly wanted the Berlin campaign to end on a high note, and Nuremberg would provide that opportunity.

Unfortunately, Harris and his staff failed to account for several key factors, and hundreds of aircrew would pay with their lives.  First, RAF commanders and intelligence officers had discounted the employment of upward-firing cannons and machine guns on German night fighters.  These devices, nicknamed Schrage Musik (or "crooked music"), allowed them to attack British bombers from below.

Luftwaffe squadrons began deploying Schrage Musik-equipped aircraft about the time of the RAF raid on the Peenemunde missile complex in mid-1943; as the Berlin campaign reached its zenith, almost one-third of Germany's night fighters had been outfitted with up-ward firing cannons.  Bomber losses began to climb; five weeks before the Nuremberg operation, the RAF lost 78 of 823 aircraft dispatched against Leipzig.

A Schrage Musik attack was pure terror; in most cases, crews had no advance warning, just a sudden burst of cannon fire and their bomber exploded, or if they were lucky, it began to fall apart, giving some crew members a chance to bail out.  Freeman Dyson, the eminent British physicist who worked as an operations analyst for Bomber Command, described the failure to recognize the Schrage Musik threat as one of the greatest intelligence debacles of the war.  Making matters worse, Harris had little confidence in his analytical team and never seriously considered tactics and modifications that might have reduced loss rates, such as mixing more Mosquito night fighters into the bomber stream, or removing gun turrets that increased drag, but did little to improve a bomber's defensive capabilities.

Nuremberg's second major failure was in the operational plan.  As crews settled in for their briefing, they were stunned to see a "straight-in" flight route to the target.  After reaching a turn point over the continent, the bomber stream would fly 265 miles on a direct heading to Nuremberg.  No zig-zagging, and the diversionary forces were small.  The Germans quickly surmised the main effort would be directed at Nuremberg and marshaled their defenses accordingly.

And the Luftwaffe had another ally on that fateful night: the weather.  There was a full moon above Germany that evening, and no cloud cover on that long navigation leg to the target.  Contrails from the 70-mile long bomber stream stretched across the sky, making it even easier for enemy fighters to locate their prey.

It was, in the words of a surviving Lancaster tail gunner, "a disaster."  More than 200 German night fighters mauled the formation; dozens of heavy bombers began falling from the skies along the route to Nuremberg, their end marked by a massive explosion, or a fiery plunge to the earth below.  At least 60 RAF bombers were lost during the ingress to their target; another 35 were downed on the way home, and 11 more crashed on British soil.  In one single, bloody mission, the RAF lost more crew members than during the entire Battle of Britain.

And for that heavy price, Bomber Command inflicted little in the way of damage or German casualties.  When the formation arrived over Nuremberg, they found the target obscured by clouds, and many of the surviving bombers dropped miles from their intended target.  More than 100 bombers hit Schweinfurt by mistake (more than 60 miles away).  No significant military targets were hit and total German casualties--military and civilian--were a fraction of the RAF losses.

In hindsight, the lessons seem clear enough.  By the end of March 1944, it was apparent that the Battle of Berlin had not achieved desired results.  Harris should have hedged his bets and cancelled the Nuremberg raid, particularly when weather conditions began to tilt in favor of the defenders.  It is equally obvious that RAF intelligence officers, operations analysts and commanders should have paid more attention to reports of night fighters attacking from below, with upward firing guns.

A better assessment of that threat might have resulted in better counter-measures, saving the lives of thousands of aircrew members.  Freeman Dyson believes that removing ineffective gun turrets might have added another 50 knots of airspeed to a Lancaster or Halifax, meaning that bomber crews would spend less time over enemy territory, and night fighter crews would find it more difficult to intercept a faster foe.     

Unfortunately, the history of warfare is littered with examples of faulty (or disregarded) intelligence information, blended together with a poor operational plan, under less-than-ideal environmental conditions.  All of those elements came together in the skies over Germany, on a moon-lit March night eight decades ago, and hundreds of brave men paid the ultimate price.

ADDENDUM:  The Nuremberg Raid has inspired at least two excellent books, including a very detailed account by noted military historian Martin Middlebrook that was published in 1986 and a newer narrative by John Nichol that appeared two years ago.  Mr. Nichol is a former RAF navigator who was captured by Iraq when his Tornado fighter-bomber was shot down during the first Gulf War.

A more controversial reference is Brian McKenna's 1991 documentary that bears the same title as this post.  The film looks at the thousands of Canadian crew members who served in Bomber Command during World War II and bore the same sacrifices.  However, a number of Canadian veterans (and their families) have excoriated McKenna's film, claiming it depicts bomber command crews as robots who mindlessly carried out orders to exterminate civilians.  The ombudsman for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which originally aired the film, later determined that the film had serious problems with accuracy, but historians who re-examined military records claimed McKenna's documentary is accurate.           

Various accounts of the Nuremberg raid have touched on a conspiratorial element--a belief that the heavy losses stemmed from an intelligence set-up.  Put another way: some believe that the Germans knew that Nuremberg would be targeted in advance, allowing them to decimate the bomber stream.  According to this theory--which has never been completely substantiated--the location of the main RAF target on 30/31 March was fed to the Germans through a double agent, who was later used to transmit false information about the Normandy invasion.  To establish his credibility, the Allied high command decided to give him accurate information about the Nuremberg raid, a decision that (if it actually occurred) signed the death warrant for scores of aircrew members.

On the other hand, there is compelling evidence that valuable intelligence information--much of it derived from ULTRA intercepts--was withheld from Bomber Command during World War II.  Former RAF Wing Commander John Stubbington's book Kept in the Dark (2010) presents a convincing case that Harris and his staff were denied the best intelligence because of in-fighting within various intelligence organizations and political battles at the highest levels of the Allied high command.        


Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Kingdom's Nukes

By some accounts, the "crowning achievement" of the Obama Administration's foreign policy may be just hours away.

According to Reuters (and other media outlets), the U.S. and key European allies, along with Russia and China, are closing in on a "2 or 3 page agreement" that would form the basis for a nuclear accord with Iran

While negotiators on both sides stress that "success is still uncertain" (and we can only hope that assessment is correct), many observers believe that an agreement will be reached before the 31 March deadline.  In the rush to secure an accord, Secretary of State John Kerry--with the full support of President Obama--has reportedly caved on a number of Iranian demands.  Details from the AP and Fox News:

"Details of the emerging deal include a possible trade-off which would allow Iran to run several hundred centrifuges in a once-top secret, fortified bunker site at Fordo, in exchange for limits on enrichment and nuclear research and development at other sites -- in particular, Iran's main facility at Natanz.
The terms of the agreement have not been confirmed and were shared with The Associated Press by officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.  

According to the AP report, no centrifuges at Fordo would be used to enrich uranium, but would be fed elements like zinc, xenon and germanium for separating out isotopes for medicine, industry or science. 
Initially, the P5+1 partners, which include the U.S., U.K., Russia, France, China and Germany, had wanted all centrifuges stripped away from the Fordo facility. However, under this reported deal, Iranian scientists would be prohibited from working on any nuclear research or development program there, and the number of centrifuges allowed would not be enough to produce the amount of uranium it takes to make a bomb within a year anyway, according to the officials.  

The site also would be subject to international inspections."

But the list of American concessions doesn't end there.  As the Washington Free Beacon reported on Thursday, the U.S. is backing away from "essential" demands that Iran account for its past nuclear activities:

“Once again, in the face of Iran’s intransigence, the U.S. is leading an effort to cave even more toward Iran—this time by whitewashing Tehran’s decades of lying about nuclear weapons work and current lack of cooperation with the [International Atomic Energy Agency],” said one Western source briefed on the talks but who was not permitted to speak on record.

With the White House pressing to finalize a deal, U.S. diplomats have moved further away from their demands that Iran be subjected to oversight over its nuclear infrastructure.

“Instead of ensuring that Iran answers all the outstanding questions about the past and current military dimensions of their nuclear work in order to obtain sanctions relief, the U.S. is now revising down what they need to do,” said the source.  “That is a terrible mistake—if we don’t have a baseline to judge their past work, we can’t tell if they are cheating in the future, and if they won’t answer now, before getting rewarded, why would they come clean in the future?”

Yet, as hard as it is to fathom, the emerging nuclear deal may not represent the ultimate debacle of Mr. Obama's foreign policy.  Amid his long list of failures of Middle East failures--Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan--the worst may be yet to come.  In his rush to conclude a deal with Iran, President Obama and his minions may be triggering a nuclear arms race in the region, something the U.S. has successfully prevented for more than 50 years.

Consider the case of Saudi Arabia.  For decades, the kingdom has relied on U.S. leadership--and our military presence--to maintain stability in the world's most volatile region.  Now, with Washington leading from behind (and busily cutting its military power), the Saudis realize they can no longer count on their long-time ally.  It's a conclusion that other partners in the Middle East have also arrived at, including Egypt, Oman, Qatar, the Emirates and Jordan.  Their dwindling confidence in Mr. Obama is one reason that Egypt launched strikes against ISIS in Libya without notifying the U.S.  And just this week, Saudi forces initiated military operations against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.  There was no consultation with the U.S. before the first air strikes.    

From Riyadh's perspective, there was no reason.  Over the past few months, the Saudis have watched the Obama Administration enter into a de facto with Iran against ISIS in Iraq.  Thousands of Shia fighters and members of Iran's Quds force are now fighting ISIS terrorists across Iraq, raising fears that Tehran (and its proxies) will eventually turn their sights on Saudi Arabia.  These concerns escalated in recent weeks, with the sudden American pull-out from Yemen, and the Houthi triumph.  With Iranian-backed factions near its northern and southern borders, the Saudis feel they have no other option that unilateral military action.

But the House of Saud has greater fears.  The Saudi Royal Family--and their government--has been positively stunned by the "progress" of nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran.  In Riyadh, there is little doubt the expected accord will allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.  And if the kingdom can no longer count on the Americans for protection, then Saudi Arabia will obtain its own nuclear deterrent.

The timeline for this acquisition will be measured in weeks and months--not years.  According to the U.K. Guardian, the Saudis bankrolled up to 60% of the development costs associated with Pakistan's nuclear program.  In return, Islamabad agreed to provide nuclear warheads to Saudi Arabia on short notice.  Not the technology needed to build warheads, but the actual, finished weapons, ready to mount on a suitable delivery platform.

And Riyadh has been busy on that front as well.  Newsweek reported last year that Saudi Arabia bought a "turn-key" ballistic missile system from China (with tacit U.S. approval) in 2003.  The solid-fuel CSS-5 East Wind is a marked improvement over the older DF-3s the Saudis purchased from Beijing in the late 1980s.  Envisioned as a counter-weight to Saddam's growing Scud force, Saudi Arabia elected not to use them during the first Gulf War, when dozens of Iraqi missiles were fired at allied targets in the kingdom.  According to some analysts, the DF-3s were too inaccurate; Saudi leaders feared collateral damage and heavy civilian casualties if the older Chinese missiles had been used in that conflict.

By comparison, the DF-21/CSS-5 is a medium-range system that is much more accurate and could be used against targets like the compounds used by Iranian leaders, or larger military bases.  The U.S. government allowed the sale, after determining the CSS-5s shipped to Saudi Arabia were not nuclear-capable.  But other accounts suggest the newer missiles have been subsequently modified to carry nuclear warheads, weapons that would be (presumably) supplied by Pakistan.

Riyadh certainly has the financial resources and political connections to make it happen.  For years, Chinese technicians have supplied the technical expertise needed to maintain and operate Saudi Arabia's ballistic missile forces.  Many of those experts hare housed in special quarters in the Saudi capital, or King Khalid Military City.  Vehicles carrying Chinese technicians are frequently seen near bases involved with the Saudi missile program.  

Unlike technologically advanced countries that could rapidly build their own nuclear weapons (including Japan and Taiwan), the Saudis must only modify existing deals and call in a few markers.  With Iran on the verge of joining the nuclear club--and the expected treaty paving the way for that capability--Riyadh is taking no chances.  Indeed, there is actually a chance that Saudi Arabia could obtain a rudimentary nuclear capability before Tehran, with a handful of nuclear-tipped CSS-5s (and more to follow).  The same holds true for other nations around the Persian Gulf, who could also buy from Pakistan, or obtain their weapons through the Saudis. 

When word of a U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal is announced in a few days, the White House will describe it as a "breakthrough" and a diplomatic landmark.  It is, of course, nothing of the sort.  And what's worse, that agreement will mark the start of an inevitable nuclear arms race in the Middle East.  And we all know how that will turn out.                   



Sunday, March 22, 2015

Concrete Charlie, R.I.P.

Before he became an All-American football player at Penn and a legend in the NFL, Chuck Bednarik (circle) flew 30 combat missions as a B-24 gunner over Europe during World War II.  

Chuck Bednarik, the Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame center and linebacker, one of the NFL's last "two-way" players and one of the game's legendary tough guys has died.

The team announced that Bednarik passed away Saturday at an assisted living facility in Richland, Pennsylvania at the age of 89, after a brief illness.

Bednarik played his last snap more than 50 years ago, but his reputation as a fearsome competitor remained fresh and vivid for older fans, students of the game and anyone who watched film of number 60 on the gridiron.  Playing in an era that produced some of the NFL's most unforgettable players, Bednarik ranked among the league's best as both a center and a linebacker.

On offense, Bednarik was cat-quick off the ball and a jolting blocker; as a middle linebacker, he often flattened running backs and receivers who were unlucky enough to meet him in the open field.  And he played both positions at a high level throughout his 14-year NFL career; in fact, Bednarik was such an outstanding player that the NFL named him the first-team center on its 50th Anniversary squad, and the Eagles voted him both the starting center and middle linebacker on their 75th Anniversary team in 2007.  He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, his first early of eligibility.  The Eagles retired his number in 1987, a quarter-century after Bednarik's retirement from the game.

While his playing days stretched across three decades, Bednarik is best remembered for two stellar defensive plays in the twilight of his career.  Facing the Green Bay Packers in the 1960 NFL Championship Game, Bednarik was moved to outside linebacker in the closing moments of the game, with the Packers on the verge of scoring the winning touchdown.  The Eagles defensive coaching staff told him to keep an eye on fullback Jim Taylor, who was expected to get the ball.  Knifing through a wall of Green Bay blockers, Bednarik dropped Taylor short of the goal line, then sat on him to keep the Packers from running another play.  When the clock ran out, Bednarik told him "You can get up now, Jim.  This game is over."

A few weeks earlier, in a key match-up with the New York Giants, Bednarik delivered one of the most devastating hits in the history of the game.  Giants star Frank Gifford caught a short pass across the middle and headed for the sidelines, trying to get out of bounds and stop the clock.

He never made it.  Bednarik blindsided Gifford with a high, vicious--though perfectly legal--hit that knocked out the Giants running back and forced him to fumble.  Bednarik pumped his fist in celebration, not realizing, he said, that Gifford was badly injured.  Diagnosed with a "deep brain concussion," Gifford did not return to the game for 18 months.

In some respects, the collision between Bednarik and Gifford represented a similar clash between the "old" NFL and the media-driven league that would soon dominate American sports.  Gifford was a handsome, articulate player who would go on to a long career as a broadcaster.  A product of USC, Gifford made more money off endorsements than Bednarik earned from his contract with the Eagles.

The son of a Czech immigrant who worked as a laborer for Bethlehem Steel, Bednarik was a graduate of Penn, but his working class background and demeanor, made him, in the words of one writer, a "most unlikely Ivy Leaguer."  His biggest contract in the NFL paid $27,000 a year, so Bednarik supplemented his income with an off-season sales job at a cement company, earning him the nickname "Concrete Charlie."

But there was another chapter in Bednarik's life, one that made him even tougher, and it came before his days as an All-American college football player, and stardom in the National Football League.  Like thousands of other young men, Chuck Bednarik came of age in the crucible of World War II, in the flak-filled skies over Europe, as a waist gunner on a B-24 bomber.  From a profile of Bednarik in Sports Illustrated, published in 1993:

"...Thirty times he went through that behind his .50-caliber machine gun. He still has the pieces of paper on which he neatly wrote each target, each date. It started with Berlin on Aug. 27, 1944, and ended with Zwiesel on April 20, 1945. He looks at those names now and remembers the base in England that he flew out of, the wake-ups at four o'clock in the morning, the big breakfasts he ate in case one of them turned out to be his last meal, the rain and fog that made just getting off the ground a dance with death. ''We'd have to scratch missions because our planes kept banging together,'' he says. ''These guys were knocking each other off.'

Bednarik almost bought it himself when his plane, crippled by flak, skidded off the runway on landing and crashed. To escape he kicked out a window and jumped 20 feet to the ground. Then he did what he did after every mission, good or bad. He lit a cigarette and headed for the briefing room, where there was always a bottle on the table. ''I was 18, 19 years old,'' he says, ''and I was drinking that damn whiskey straight.''

The passing of time does nothing to help him forget, because the war comes back to him whenever he looks at the tattoo on his right forearm. It isn't like the CPB monogram that adorns his right biceps, a souvenir from a night on some Army town. The tattoo on his forearm shows a flower blossoming to reveal the word MOTHER. He got it in case his plane was shot down and his arm was all that remained of him to identify." 

Who knows...after 30 missions with the Mighty Eighth, in a job where the odds of surviving a combat tour were about one in three, perhaps the terrors of the gridiron seemed mild in comparison.  Chuck Bednarik was a hero in every sense of that over-used word, and we won't see his likes again.  




Friday, March 20, 2015

Today's Reading Assignment (Fort Hood Edition)

...from clinical psychologist (and retired Army Colonel) Kathy Platoni, a suvivor of the Fort Hood massacre five years ago.  As she writes in The Wall Street Journal, the victims of then-Major Nidal Hassan are still seeking compensation for their injuries, and recognition for their heroism.  Meanwhile, no one has been held accountable for the deliberate oversights and white-washing that put the radicalized Muslim officer in a position to carry out his rampage.  From Dr. Platoni's op-ed:

Hasan’s goal was to kill as many soldiers as possible. He was cold-eyed and systematic. We should have seen him coming.

The FBI and the Defense Department possessed sufficient information, collected over several years, to have detected Hasan’s radicalization. During his training, Hasan routinely and unmistakably violated strict standards by communicating with suspected terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki—email that the FBI intercepted. In 2007 he was required for his residency to give a scholarly psychiatric presentation. Instead he lectured on Islam, stating that nonbelievers should be beheaded and set on fire, and suggested that Muslim-Americans in the military pose a risk of fratricide. In another talk, Hasan justified suicide bombings on grounds that the U.S. is at war with Islam.

Both an instructor and a colleague referred to Hasan as a “ticking time bomb.” But his shocking conduct was ignored. Officer-evaluation reports “sanitized his obsession with violent Islamist extremism into praiseworthy research on counterterrorism,” a 2011 congressional review states. Political correctness, to which the military continues to bow, led many to fear that reporting Hasan would result in career-ending charges of racial or religious discrimination.

It is a gross miscarriage of justice that no one who supervised the shooter—overlooked his behavior and promoted him—has been held accountable. That the massacre is still labeled an incident of workplace violence committed by a disgruntled employee is delusional and contemptible.

Unfortunately, that's what happens when political agendas are allowed to trump reality.  Lest we forget, one of the first comments from General George Casey, the Army Chief of Staff, was a concern that the service's "diversity" might become a casualty of events at Fort Hood.  It was a feckless comment, clearly aimed at his superiors in the Pentagon and the White House; it deeply angered the Fort Hood community and the rest of the Army, struggling to deal with a horrific terrorist attack within the ranks.  But it many ways, Casey's comments set the template for the service's reaction--and it goes a long way towards explaining why Hassan's superiors were never held accountable.  

But then again, when is the last time a senior officer, federal civilian or cabinet-level official was actually held accountable?  Does anyone really think Hillary Clinton will face charges over her willful violation of federal records accountability rules?  And how many generals have avoided courts-martial over misdeeds that would send a lesser man (or woman) to Leavenworth?  

Colonel Platoni and the other victims of the Fort Hood shooting deserve all they are entitled to.  It's a damn shame that their benefits and recognition have been delayed to preserve a carefully-selected political narrative.  But it's hardly surprising.  Remember: many of the same "leaders" who sought to bury the truth at Fort Hood were still on duty when Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died at Benghazi, and officials at the highest levels of government tried to blame it on an "anti-Muslim video," rather than Islamic terrorists.  It's a contemptible pattern that will--ultimately--lead to more attacks, and more dead Americans.   


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Does Mrs. Clinton Have Another "Missing" Form?

Despite the hopes--and fumbling efforts--of Hillary Clinton and her supporters, the e-mail scandal isn't going away anytime soon.

In the latest wrinkle, hapless State Department flack Jen Psaki admitted yesterday that no copy of the Optional Form 109 (OF-109) could be found in Mrs. Clinton's personnel records from her days as Secretary of State.  Known as the "separation form," it is signed by individuals leaving the department (or other federal agencies) and certifies they have turned over all "classified or administratively controlled" materials, as well as all "unclassified documents and papers" relating to official government business.

Ms. Psaki's update came after a week of departmental stonewalling on the separation form issue.  She was quick to point out that Mrs. Clinton's predecessors at State, Condolezza Rice and Colin Powell, didn't sign an OF-109, either.  But there's an obvious difference in how Clinton conducted her electronic communications at State, as compared to Dr. Rice and General Powell.  During her tenure as SecState, Condolezza Rice used standard .gov e-mail accounts, meaning the department had a good handle on her electronic correspondence when she returned to academia.

Colin Powell has also admitted to using a personal e-mail account during his tenure as State.  A spokesman for Powell said most were of a "housekeeping nature" and did not contain any sensitive or classified information.  Mr. Powell did not retain copies of the e-mail and the account he used "has been closed" for a number of years, according to a statement.  Representatives of the former Secretary said Powell will work with the State Department to see if any additional action is required.

Clinton supporters claim that Powell's practices were virtually identical to those of Mrs. Clinton, but there are significant differences.  First, many of the current rules on record keeping were not in effect when Powell served as Secretary of State, and secondly, it has been reported that Powell utilized a personal e-mail from a commercial provider, so back-up copies of his communications could probably be located, if necessary.  Powell never went as far as Hillary, who created her own e-mail domain (, complete with multiple accounts and her own server, located at the Clinton home at Chappaqua, New York.

While much of the controversy remains focused on the "missing" OF-109, and the ultimate disposition of e-mails retained by Mrs. Clinton, there may be another element in this controversy, which could shed more light on her departure from the State Department, and the (apparent) dismissal of standard government security and records disposition requirements.

When Ms. Psaki returns to the State Department podium, reporters would do well to ask about another piece of paper the Standard Form 312, better known as a "Classified Information Non-Disclosure Agreement."  It's a document signed by anyone who has been granted access to classified information, including government employees, military personnel, political appointees, elected officials (and anyone else with a security clearance).  By signing the SF 312, individuals promise to never divulge classified information to other organizations, groups or individuals without determining they have a need for the information and the required clearance.

Additionally, signatories of the SF-312 acknowledge acknowledge that the "unauthorized disclosure, unauthorized retention, or negligent handling of classified information by me could cause damage or irreparable injury to the United States or could be used to advantage by a foreign nation."  They also enter into a binding agreement that requires them to return all classified information upon leaving their position, as detailed in various federal statutes:

"I shall return all classified materials which have, or may come into my possession or for which I am responsible because of such access: (a) upon demand by an authorized representative of the United States Government; (b) upon the conclusion of my employment or other relationship with the Department or Agency that last granted me a security clearance or that provided me access to classified information; or (c) upon the conclusion of my employment or other relationship that requires access to classified information. If I do not return such materials upon request, I understand that this may be a violation of sections 793 and/or 1924, title 18, United States Code, a United States criminal law."    

So, there's clearly an overlap between the records disposition rules outlined on the OF-109, and the return of all classified records, as detailed on the SF-312.  So far, all we have is Mrs. Clinton's assurance than none of her e-mails contained sensitive or classified data, and the admission that roughly half of those communications (said to be of a personal nature) have been deleted.

But there's one more interesting portion of the Standard Form 312, found in the last section of the document, the Security Debriefing Acknowledgement:

"I reaffirm that the provisions of the espionage laws, other federal criminal laws and executive orders applicable to the safeguarding of classified information have been made available to me; that I have returned all classified information in my custody; that I will not communicate or transmit classified information to any unauthorized person or organization; that I will promptly report to the Federal Bureau of Investigation any attempt by an unauthorized person to solicit classified information, and that I (have) (have not) (strike out inappropriate word or words) received a security debriefing."

That final paragraph is important, since employees must acknowledge receipt (or non-receipt) of a security briefing, covering all the rules on non-disclosure and return of classified material listed on the form.  Signing the SF-312 is one of the last acts before a person leaves a job that requires access to classified information.  Before departing the State Department for the last time, Mrs. Clinton should have received the required security briefing and it should be documented on the SF-312--the same form she also signed upon entering the job.  

The SF-312 isn't some rare or optional document.  It is part of security clearance folder for anyone who has ever had access to classified information, including former political leaders and cabinet officials.  And, the requirements for protecting and returning classified information are clearly germaine to the current Clinton controversy.  So, where is Hillary's Clinton's SF-312?  There should be a copy on file at the State Department's Special Security Office (SSO), and readily accessible by department officials.

Members of the media--and Congressional investigators--should demand information on the whereabouts of Mrs. Clinton's SF-312.  If it can't be located (like the OF-109), her problems will only get bigger.    

During today's press briefing at State, Ms. Psaki suggested that Mrs. Clinton (and other, former Secretaries of State) were not required to sign the OF-109, because they retain their security clearances to work on their memoirs.  She also stated that signing the OF-109 was part of the process for revoking an individual's security clearance.  But that dog won't hunt, either.  Signing with OF-109 has nothing to do with retaining your clearance; while someone losing their clearance would sign the form, so do former officials and employees who are keeping their clearances, or having them go inactive upon retirement, or moving into a job that doesn't require classified access.  The clear focus of the OF-109 is ensuring former officials turn over official records before they head out the door.

Likewise, individuals with clearances must complete that final section of the SF-312 when they leave a position where they had access to classified information.  The exception, typically, is when the employee or director transfers into a position that requires the same access.  In those situations, the individual is moved "in status" from one organization to another, with their security file passing to the Special Security Office (SSO) at their new employer.

So what job does Mrs. Clinton now occupy that mandates similar access?  High-paid corporate speaker?  Likely Presidential candidate?  If the administration has decided to maintain her access, they should affirm that decision and detail how often Hillary is briefed, and where those presentations occur.  They should also identify the SSO which now controls her security file.  The answers could be quite illuminating.  Out of office, Mrs. Clinton has no compelling need for classified access at this juncture in her career, so there is no reason there shouldn't be a signed SF-312 in her personnel records.  

Back to you, Ms. Psaki. 

Similar thoughts from Shannen Coffin at National Review.            


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What's Wrong With This Picture?

An apparent military phony marches in Selma, AL on the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday."  Photo posted at Military Times Rally Point (registration required)

It was bound to happen.

Take the biggest photo-op of the year, mix in a healthy dose of hubris and opportunism, and voila, you get stolen valor on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

We refer to the photo above, which (ostensibly) shows a retired African-American Lieutenant General, joining the marchers in Selma to commemorate that epic moment in the civil rights movement. 

But there's just a little problem, or should we say problems. 

The odds this gentlemen is actually a retired flag officer are approximately zero, and there's a pretty good chance he never wore the uniform.  That's obvious to anyone who served in the Army (or other branches of the military), who immediately spotted the glaring mistakes with the "general's" dress uniform.

For starters, those are not Army shoulder boards.  Secondly, we don't know of any flag officer in the Army who wears rank insignia on his collar (looks more like a grandee from a small-town police department).  He's also wearing branch insignia on his lapel, something few generals do, unless they are the chief of that particular branch.  His uniform lapels also sport "A.G." (?) insignia instead of the "U.S." that is typically worn.  And the aiguillette on his left shoulder doesn't look like anything we're familiar with.  It's also worth noting that most generals don't wear an aiguillette and among the lower ranks, most are worn on the right shoulder, except for those serving as attaches, or in aide-de-camp billets.  Those aiguillettes are gold, not the mixed-color braid worn by that phony.

If the same guy appeared at the original march, we're guessing he would have been told to leave.  There were plenty of World War II and Korea vets who walked across the Pettus Bridge, and they could spot someone with a jacked-up uniform.  They understood the significance--and danger--of that day, and there would have been no tolerance for a military imposter who would undermine their efforts.

Six decades later, we're guessing no one said a word.  In fact, the fake general probably got VIP treatment from the crowd.  That's one of the by-products of a society that is largely detached from the armed forces.  Most of the people in Selma (or any other American city) couldn't spot an admiral in the Swiss Navy, let alone someone masquerading as an Army flag officer.  And with the courts gutting the federal stolen valor law, there's basically no penalty for anyone that wants to pull off that kind of charade.

And that's a damn shame.  Too many Americans--of all colors--have worn that uniform and died in defense of that country.  They deserve far better than some phony from a military surplus store who freely trades upon their sacrifice.    


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Serenade to the Iron Horse

Above, the HC-130P Iron Horse, tail number #62-1863, begins its final flight to retirement at the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ; below, the same aircraft in its previous configuration as an EC-130E, based at D-M in the 1990s; photo credits: A1C Dillian Bamman (top); CMSgt Ron Hall, Jr (bottom)    


I'm feeling just a little bit older these days, and so are many of my Air Force brothers and sisters.

A friend of ours retired last week, after a 52-year active duty career.

Our comrade was a workhorse of the C-130 fleet, tail number 62-1863.  Last week, the venerable Herk, nicknamed "Iron Horse" made its final flight from Moody AFB, Georgia to Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, becoming the newest resident of the USAF "boneyard," home to hundreds of aircraft that have been removed from operational service.

The flight to Tucson was a homecoming of sorts.  "Iron Horse" was based at Davis-Monthan from 1994-2002, as part of the 42nd Airborne Battlefield Command Control and Communications Squadron, better known as ABCCC.  The base was also where "Iron Horse" picked up its nickname, befitting one of the most durable airframes in a fleet known for its toughness and longevity. 

For a little perspective, consider this: when Iron Horse rolled off the Lockheed assembly line in 1962, John F. Kennedy was in the White House; the Air Force Chief of Staff was Curtis LeMay and The Beatles were almost two years away from their first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show."  The "new" fighter in the USAF inventory, the F-4 Phantom, was still a year away from introduction.

Iron Horse began its combat career in Vietnam, as a "trash hauler" assigned to the 374th Tactical Airlift Wing.  In 1971, the aircraft was transferred to the 7th Airborne Command and Control Squadron (ACCS), which operated from bases in Thailand during the Vietnam War.

Outfitted with a removable crew capsule in its cargo bay, ABCCC aircraft coordinated fire support for friendly forces on the ground, provided communications relay and could even assume the functions of an Air Support Operations Center (ASOC), or prosecute the current ops function for an Air Operations Center (AOC).  With as many as 23 radios available to the mission crew, "Bookshelf" could talk to everyone, making it a valuable C2 platform.

Iron Horse served with the 7th ACCS during its final days in Southeast Asia, then moved (briefly) with the unit to Clark AB in the Philippines and on to Keesler AFB, Mississippi.  The squadron arrived at Keesler in 1975 and spent almost 20 years on the Gulf Coast before moving--a final time--to Davis-Monthan in 1994.

That final relocation came during a long-term unit rotation to Aviano AB, Italy (in support of the Bosnia operation) and shorter deployments to Puerto Rico (for the 1994 invasion of Haiti) and Saudi Arabia, when Saddam was again threatening to invade Kuwait.  Your humble correspondent was a part of that excitement; I remember returning from Aviano on a Friday; the moving van showed up the following Tuesday to move us to Tucson and a week after signing in at D-M, I was on my way to Dhahran, part of the advance team for Saudi Arabia.

Through it all, Iron Horse (and the rest of the ABCCC fleet soldiered on), logging innumerable sorties and thousands of flying hours.  The unit and its aircraft participated in virtually every major contingency from Vietnam through the first Persian Gulf War, along with countless exercises and other deployments.  ABCCC finally received a new "computerized" capsule during the Gulf War, replacing the original version that dated from the 1960s.

In that earlier version, the mission crew used their comm capabilities and manually-updated displays to keep track on what was going on in the air and on the ground.  Old hands regaled newer personnel with "horror stories" of someone walking from the lavatory (located in the very back of the capsule) and brushing up against the display of a weapons controller or the intel team, and sending most of their sticky-back symbols tumbling to the floor.  There was a moment of panic (and a lot of scrambling) to restore the display and a few choice words from the offending party--usually a member of the flight deck crew.  

There were lighter moments as well.  During my time in the squadron, a certain battlestaff director (the equivalent of a mission crew commander on AWACS) became enraged when he found only one piece of friend chicken in his box lunch.  Convinced that the dining facility "had it in for him," the director instructed his radio team to work a phone patch to the flight kitchen at Aviano, where the mission originated.  The Tech Sergeant who answered the phone listened to the Lieutenant Colonel's tirade for about three seconds, then hung up.  Now fully enraged, the battlestaff director ordered a second phone patch, this time to the services squadron commander.  The unit commander wasn't particularly interested in that missing piece of chicken, either, and he hung up as well.  You can guess the rest; for the remainder of the deployment, that crew got "box nasties" that lived up to that description.

I flew my share of missions on Iron Horse and it was a superb aircraft, thanks to the maintenance crews that kept it flying.  For a mission over Bosnia, we typically launched before sunrise, ensuring we'd be on station before the first flights of F-16s, A-10s, F/A-18s and Harriers checked in.  That meant a very early rise and an early brief, but no one complained, realizing the maintainers had been out there for hours by the time we arrived.

On one occasion, my crew received an even earlier-than-usual wake-up call.  At that point in the deployment, there was concern that aircraft flying nighttime missions over Bosnia might be downed by Serbian SA-6 missiles.  So, the ABCCC crew assigned to fly the next day's mission pulled alert the night before, ready to scramble (and serve as the airborne search-and-rescue mission commander), if required.  Our alert quarters consisted of portable buildings in an aircraft shelter, just off the end of the runway.  Our "sleep" was punctuated by constant rumbles and roars, from the next pair of F/A-18s or F-16s heading out to enforce the no-fly zone over Bosnia.

I had just nodded off on this particular morning when someone from the ops desk began banging on the door, notifying us that we were being scrambled.  We threw on our flight suits and boots and stumbled to the briefing room, anxious to find out what had transpired and what our tasking would be.  "Stand-by," we were told.  So, our crew wait. And waited. And waited.

After more than an hour, someone from the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Vicenza, Italy called and explained it was all a mistake.  The on-duty CAOC Director (an Italian Air Force Colonel) had been directed to scramble an AC-130 gunship from Brindisi.  Unfortunately, the good Colonel wasn't familiar with the USAF's many Herk variants and called the EC-130 at Aviano.  By the time the confusion ended, it was time for us to get ready for the morning mission, so that duty day was even longer than usual.         

With the move to Arizona, the unit was re-designated the 42nd ACCS, but the aircraft and the mission remained the same.  But there were always questions about the squadron's future; wags suggested the move to D-M was aimed at easing retirement of the unit and its aircraft.  When that fateful moment arrived, they joked, the planes could simply be towed the boneyard, instead of flying them from Mississippi.  The Army, Marine Corps and the Special Ops community loved the squadron and its capabilities, but the platform was ultimately doomed in an Air Force run by fighter pilots.

The axe finally fell in 2002, just as the U.S. was entering conflicts that were tailor-made for ABCCC.  The 42nd ACCS was inactivated in September of that year, and most of the aircraft made that short trip to the boneyard, but Iron Horse survived.  Air Force Special Ops Command (AFSOC) needed more HC-130Ps to refuel its helos, and launched a program to convert some of the EC-130Es into tankers.

Ultimately, Iron Horse was the only airframe that made the transition.  With production of the C-130J in full swing, AFSOC decided it was more cost efficient to buy new aircraft than covert older Herks nearing the end of their service life.  Iron Horse would up with the 71st Rescue Squadron at Moody and continued to deploy until 2009.  By the end of its career, the aircraft had logged 27,533 flying hours, more than any other C-130 in the current Air Force inventory.

Farewell to a great airplane--and and old friend.          



Thursday, March 05, 2015

Hillary's E-mail Problem

The final act in David Petraeus's fall from grace played out yesterday, when the retired four-star general agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of removing and retaining classified material without authorization.

General Petraeus, the hero of the successful U.S. troop surge in Iraq in 2007-08, was accused of providing notebooks to Paula Broadwell, an Army Reserve officer who had an affair with Petraeus while writing a book about him.  Some of the so-called "black books" contained classified information, and Petraeus lied to investigators when they asked if he had supplied material to Major Broadwell, author of All In: the Education of David Petraeus.

As The New York Times observes, the plea deal spares General Petraeus the humiliation of a public trial and allows him to get on with his new, lucrative career as a government consultant, educator and partner in a major equity firm.  But if he had any political ambitions, those are (presumably) gone; the affair and conviction would be more than enough to hound him from any race.

We're about to find out if Hillary Clinton has a similar problem.  It was revealed earlier this week that Mrs. Clinton never used her official, government e-mail account while serving as Secretary of State.  Instead, she created her own e-mail domain, with a server located in her Chappaqua, New York home.   The Times reported Monday that Mrs. Clinton used her private account to conduct official business, raising serious questions about security and her compliance with the Federal Records Act.

As for the "security" of Hillary's e-mails, that train left the station a long time ago.  The infamous hacker Gucifer, now cooling his heels in a Romanian jail, first disclosed existence of the back channel system when he hacked into the e-mail account of Sidney Blumenthal, the long-time aide and confidant to the former Secretary of State.  While rooting around in Mr. Blumenthal's e-mails, he found a series of messages sent to Mrs. Clinton.  Many contained intelligence information, apparently gathered from Blumenthal's various contacts.  In some instances, he cautioned, the summaries contained "extremely sensitive" information, drawn form sources close to various foreign groups and governments.  Details of the e-mails were published at The Smoking Gun, but the information did not include Mrs. Clinton's responses.

Obviously, if a lone hacker was able to uncover Mrs. Clinton's e-mail domain, it wouldn't be very hard for the intelligence services of Russia, China and other U.S. adversaries to access her messages as well.  And it raises legitimate questions about the type of information the former secretary of state was sending via unsecure e-mail.

That's because federal officials--heck, anyone with a security clearance, system access and "need-to-know" are required to use secure e-mail networks to transmit classified information.  Technically, Mrs. Clinton was supposed to have at least three government e-mail accounts, on the NIPRNET (which is used for sensitive, but unclassified information); SIPRNET (for information classified as "Secret") and JWICS, which handles material classified as Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI).

Apparently, Clinton never bothered with establishing a SIPRNET or JWICS account, which should be been standard practice from her first day on the job.  So far, no one from Hillary's camp has explained why she saw no need for a classified e-mail account.  Needless to say, even NIPRNET is more secure than Mrs. Clinton's home-based server.                 

The rationale for her "approach," is readily apparent.  By utilizing her own e-mail system, Hillary hoped to avoid federal rules covering e-mails, letters and other correspondence from senior officials, which are considered public records and supposed to be retained for potential use by congressional committees, historians and members of the media.  Current regulations make some exceptions for classified and sensitive information.

But Mrs. Clinton and her aides made no effort to preserve the e-mails during her time in office.  In fact, aides to the former secretary of state didn't turn the first batch of her e-mails--55,000 pages of material--until two months ago, almost two years after she left office.  A former director of litigation for the National Archives said it was "almost inconceivable" that an agency would allow its cabinet-level head officer to rely on a private e-mail account to conduct official government business.

A spokesman for Hillary Clinton told the Times she has been complying with the "letter and spirit of the rules."

But then again, the Clintons have always viewed "the rules" as something that applies to other people, or subject to their interpretation.  Hillary clearly knew what she was doing when the private e-mail system installed, and calculated that most of her messages would never see the light of day.

Of course, that was before hackers got into Blumenthal's e-mail account (highlighting Mrs. Clinton's back channel network) and before Benghazi, which sent Congressional investigators looking for her correspondence.  Now, the real question is what she sent through that private account.  The odds she didn't transmit classified information are decidedly slim; at Foggy Bottom, secret and even TS/SCI data are part of assessments and cables reviewed by the SecState every day.  And if their only e-mail account is on a unsecure server, there's a very good chance that classified material will be found in messages already turned over, and those being sought by Congress and watchdog groups.

There is a certain irony to all of this.  While serving as Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton forced the resignation of the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, retired Air Force Major General Scott Gration.  An audit of his management in Nairobi cited a number of problems, including the use of a private e-mail account to conduct government business.  Gration, who persuaded a number of retired generals and admirals to endorse Barack Obama in 2008, had served as ambassador for only one year when the audit was conducted.

Almost three years after Gration stepped down, his former boss is now under scrutiny.  And, with most of her e-mails still outside the State Department's control, there's a good chance that many will disappear, if they haven't already.  Mrs. Clinton's IT firm can claim a hard drive crash or some other malfunction that wiped away thousands of messages--and unlike the IRS--there may not be a back-up system that can be easily identified (or subpoenaed).

That's not to say that Hillary is home free.  Some of the e-mails recently turned over to Judicial Watch (in response to an FOIA lawsuit), confirm Mrs. Clinton knew early on that the attack on our consulate in Benghazi was a terrorist strike and not the product of an anti-Muslim video.  Many of the messages were sent by Clinton aides, using government e-mail systems.  It will be interesting to see how that traffic compares to messages sent through Hillary's private network at the same time. 

This we know: much of the early information on Benghazi was based on State Department communications, social media postings (by the terrorists involved) and signals intercepts by the National Security Agency.  As we've noted in the past, an attack on an American diplomatic facility would meet the criteria for CRITICOMM intelligence reporting by NSA, know in the past as a FLASH CRITIC.  Those intercepts are supposed to be on the President's desk within 10 minutes of the event.  Someone on Congressman Gowdy's staff might want to compare CRITICOMM reporting from that night with the information circulating in Mrs. Clinton's unsecure e-mail system.                        

What happens if classified information turns up in those e-mails?  Will Mrs. Clinton face the same charges as General Petraeus?  Don't hold your breath.  After all, the rules are for the little people.

While Clinton defenders try to spin this latest scandal, a lot of Democratic party activists are getting nervous.  Quoting The New Republic (hardly a right-wing publication), Mrs. Clinton has committed a lot of "unforced errors" during the run-up to her expected presidential bid.  For someone who was considered an "inevitable" nominee just weeks ago, Hillary suddenly looks very vulnerable.  When a former Democratic governor of Maryland (Martin O'Malley) takes a pass on a Senate race he could have won in a walk--and is working on his own presidential campaign--Mrs. Clinton is facing serious trouble, indeed.


Sunday, March 01, 2015

The Hollow Shoot-Down Threat

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads to Washington--and his speech to a joint session of Congress--the charges and recriminations between the U.S. and Israel are flying fast and furious.  It's no secret the Obama Administration is furious about Mr. Netanyahu's accepting the invitation to address Congress (which was extended by House Speaker John Boehner, without White House approval).  Likewise, the Israelis are upset over Mr. Obama's determination to reach a nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that will (by most accounts) be a very bad deal for everyone except Tehran, putting the entire Middle East and eventually, the world, at grave risk from an Iranian regime with nuclear weapons.

So, it's no surprise that both Washington and Jerusalem are trying to undercut each other in the run-up to Mr. Netanyahu's address on 3 March.  On Friday, senior administration officials made themselves available for a session with reporters, attempting to refute the Israeli leader's planned critique, claiming that Netanyahu has failed to present a "feasible alternative" to the American plan for containing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

From The New York Times:

"...senior administration officials contended that even an imperfect agreement that kept Iran’s nuclear efforts frozen for an extended period was preferable to a breakdown in talks that could allow the leadership in Tehran unfettered ability to produce enriched uranium and plutonium.

“The alternative to not having a deal is losing inspections,” said one senior official, who would not be quoted by name under conditions that the administration set for the briefing, “and an Iran ever closer to having the fissile material to manufacture a weapon.”

And if that doesn't work, there's always the option of presenting Mr. Netanyahu as a hot-head, anxious to ignite a regional conflict that would engulf Israel, Iran, various Arab countries and even the United States.  

To underscore that possibility, a rather interesting--albeit implausible--story has been making the rounds in recent hours.  According to a Palestinian news agency, citing a Kuwaiti newspaper, President Obama supposedly thwarted an Israeli attack against Iran's nuclear facilities in 2014, vowing to shoot down IAF jets before they could reach their targets. The U.S. supposedly learned of the attack plans from an Israeli cabinet minister, who relayed the information to Secretary of State John Kerry.  The Secretary, of course, notified the commander-in-chief, allowing Mr. Obama to deliver his ultimatum.  

Needless to say, this account is somewhat dubious--and that's being charitable.  Hard to imagine that an obscure Kuwaiti paper would get such a scoop, although it's possible a senior U.S. diplomat in that country--or someone from Kerry's staff--decided to plant the story with that publication.  That creates a certain degree of plausible deniability that wouldn't be associated with a report in a pro-Obama American publication like the Times or the Washington Post.  

On the other hand, using a Kuwaiti paper does ensure the message will reach a significant Middle Eastern (read: Muslim) audience, which the administration is clearly trying to reach.   "Getting tough" with the Israelis always plays well in certain quarters, although if recent media reports are accurate, a number of Arab regimes would welcome an Israeli raid on Iran's nuclear facilities.  More than two years ago, Israel was said to be working with Saudi Arabia on a plan that would allow the IAF to use the kingdom's airspace for a raid against Iran.  While those reports were never fully confirmed, some military accounts suggest that Israeli warplanes used Saudi airspace to strike Iraq's nuclear facility in 1981.

As for Mr. Obama's vow to down IAF jets before they could reach Iran, that is little more than a hollow threat, for a variety of reasons.   First, there are the matters of basing, geography and routing.  Flying across Iraq offers a direct flight path to Iran, saving both time and fuel.  But the Iraqi Air Force has only a handful of F-16s (and qualified pilots), and it is clearly no match for the IAF.  

Of course, U.S. airpower remains a dominant force in the region, with USAF fighters based at various locations (including Qatar) and at least one aircraft carrier always deployed to the Persian Gulf.  American combat aircraft are supported by AWACS, airborne early warning and intelligence-collection aircraft, allowing U.S. commanders to maintain a comprehensive air picture that spans an area from Afghanistan to the Levant.  

But the availability of these assets does not guarantee that we could detect--let alone intercept--an Israeli strike package heading to Iran.  As we've detailed in the past, the IAF could employ a number of deceptive measures and/or basing options that would prevent detection of their plans, or delay it long enough that the U.S. could not respond.  

We'll start with the marshaling of Israeli air assets and their launch.  It's no secret where IAF F-15s and F-16s are based, and the same holds true for KC-707 tankers (which would provide in-flight refueling), search-and-rescue platforms and other support aircraft.  U.S. intelligence assets monitor these installations on a daily basis and monitor flight activity.  

How would the IAF conceal the launch of their strike package?  By simply staging a large-scale exercise, with dozens of aircraft launching, recovering and conducting training activity over a period of several days.  Against that backdrop, it would be difficult to pick out dedicated strike aircraft, which could "arm-up" in their shelters, launch and head to a range area over the Mediterranean, before switching off their transponders and turning towards Iran.  

Israel's mastery of tactical deception is matched by their knowledge of U.S. intelligence assets and collection patterns.  The start of any strike against Iran would--likely--coincide with gaps in American satellite coverage and periods when airborne assets (such as the RC-135 and EP-3) are not present.  Those factors would decrease our chances for early detection of an IAF long-range strike against Iran.

As we've noted in the past, one of the greatest limitations faced by the IAF is their limited number of air refueling assets.  With only seven KC-707s in the Israeli inventory (and no more than 4-5 dedicated to the Iran mission), the size of the strike package is limited by the number of fighter aircraft that could be supported by the tankers.  Various estimates put the number of F-15s and F-16s at somewhere between 24 and 42.  However, not all of those aircraft will be putting bombs on target; at least some of the Eagles will be assigned to offensive counter-air missions, performing fighter sweeps ahead of the strikers, to ensure that hostile fighters do not interfere with strike aircraft.

But Israel may have other options that would preclude a round-robin, non-stop bombing mission.  Some sources suggest that Saudi Arabia might be willing to let the IAF utilize some of its installations as a post-strike refueling stop.  That would reduce tanker support requirements and allow the Israelis to dispatch more attack aircraft, but there are no assurances such a deal has been reached, and cooperation with Jerusalem would come at a high cost for the Saudi government.  Still, given the alternative (a nuclear-armed Iran), Riyadh may decide the risk is worth taking.

Another--and more likely--forward basing option is located north of Iran, in Azerbaijan.  Relations between Jerusalem and Baku have grown close in recent years; Israel is a key customer for Azeri oil exports and the IDF has helped Azerbaijan upgrade its military forces and provides critical intelligence information on Iran.  The Baku government has long been suspicious of Tehran, accusing the Iranians of trying to inflame Azerbaijan's Shia majority, who live under one of the few remaining secular governments in the Islamic world.  Almost three years ago, we noted the growing relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan, and most experts agreed that Baku would have no problem with Israel using its bases to support a strike against Iran, provided the IAF presence was limited and not widely publicized.

How important is forward basing for a potential Israeli strike?  According to one study, the availability of Azeri bases would allow strike aircraft to top off in Israeli airspace, fly to the target and land at fields south of Baku.  That would not only reduce the tanker "profile" for the mission, it would also allow the KC-707s to focus on supporting the F-15s, which would need more fuel, particularly if they are engaged by Iranian jets, or those from another Air Force.

And how do you get the strike package from Israel to Iran without being detected?  One scenario frequently discussed by intelligence analysts is assigning commercial call-signs and IFF squawks to the tankers, and sending them along established air routes.  Strike aircraft would fly in close formation with the KC-707 (a technique known as "resolution cell") so the radar return appears as a single, large aircraft.

Using a combination of these measures, the IAF is more than capable of getting a strike package off the ground, across one thousand miles of hostile territory and into Iranian airspace--without U.S. detection.  At that point, President Obama would be faced with an array of unappealing choices, including the prospect of sending American fighters (and their pilots) into a combat environment to "deter" the Israelis.  Not only would we likely lose aircraft and crews, the effort would be classified as the U.S. going to the defense of an arch-enemy, against one of its oldest and closest allies.  Not only is that strategically stupid, it would also represent Mr. Obama's political death warrant.

If the IAF uses forward bases in Saudi Arabia or Azerbaijan, we would be confronted with equally difficult choices.  Do you enter the airspace of other allies to confront or engage the Israelis?  Or, if we decide to punish either country for supporting an Israeli strike against Iran, the regional consequences would be devastating, with a further erosion of American prestige and credibility.

Suffice it to say, Mr. Obama's promise to "shoot down" Israeli war planes heading for Iran was like much of his bluster, unsupported by ground truth and rooted more in rhetoric than reality.  More importantly, virtually everyone who would be impacted by an Israeli strike knows that Obama's vow is just another empty threat, another sign of America's grand retreat on the world stage.