Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The ISIS Science Project

Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon reports that ISIS has launched project to develop an improvised surface-to-air missiles, in an effort to counteract increasing coalition airstrikes:

Islamic State terrorists in Syria, assisted by western experts, are trying to develop improvised anti-aircraft missiles following stepped up airstrikes against its forces, according to U.S. officials and reports from the region.

The effort was disclosed by an anti-ISIS social media account that revealed the anti-aircraft arms development Dec. 15 on Twitter.

According to the Twitter user @Raqqa_SL, the new missiles are being developed in a desert area north of Raqqa, the ISIS headquarters. The terrorists have tried linking five bomb detonators and explosives to captured anti-aircraft missiles to enhance their explosive power against aircraft.

The added explosives are linked to walkie-talkies that are used to detonate the additional explosives in an attempt to create a larger fragmentation blast that ISIS hopes will impact bombing aircraft

A spokesman for the Pentagon, Colonel Steve Warren, told the Beacon that U.S. officials are "aware" of the ISIS program, but "have no concerns."

The terror group's efforts to build their own air defense systems tells us several things about their capabilities--and their vulnerabilities to allied air attacks.  

For starters, it's very obvious that ISIS' current anti-aircraft weapons are having no affect on coalition air strikes.  The terrorists captured literally thousands of man-portable surface-to-air missiles (MANPAD SAMs) as they gained territory in Iraq and Syria, along with heavy machine guns (such as the ZU-23, often mounted on trucks) and perhaps radar-guided SAMs once controlled by the Bashir al-Asad's forces.  

But U.S. and allied aircraft are operating with impunity; there has been only one recent report of an aircraft being downed by an air-to-surface weapon in recent months--a Syrian rescue helicopter sent to recover the crew of a Russian SU-24 attack aircraft which was blown out of the sky by a Turkish Air Force F-16.  The Syrian chopper was reportedly downed by an RPG, fired by anti-regime rebels backed by the U.S. government.  

The jihadis and their "experts" clearly believe that a bigger frag pattern will improve their chances of knocking down fixed or rotary wing aircraft--and there's a certain truth behind that theory.  Unfortunately for the bad guys, most of our bombing runs are conducted with precision weapons from medium altitude, at the upper limits of the MANPAD SAM envelope.  As for anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), most of the weapons used by ISIS are optically guided and pose only a marginal threat, at best.

Making matters worse for the terrorists, many of the MANPADs they've captured are older, Russian-built SA-7/14 weapons.  Like other shoulder-fired SAMs, they're battery-operated and when "powered up," the gunner has a very limited window to acquire a target, lock-on and shoot.  If the battery goes dead before the sequence is completed, it must be replaced.  There's no word on the size of ISIS's MANPAD battery stockpile, and the group has no capability to build its own.  

Additionally, MANPAD launchers, missiles and related hardware require periodic maintenance to extend their service lives.  ISIS probably has personnel who can perform rudimentary maintenance, but more complex repairs, servicing and upgrades may prove challenging.  That's why the "viability" of MANPADs controlled by terror or insurgent groups tend to decline over time.  If the maintenance schedule isn't followed, the grip stocks and missiles will cease to function at some point.  ISIS efforts to "build their own" suggests that a growing number of their MANPADs are no longer operational.  

Additionally, coalition pilots are very familiar with the air defense weapons being employed by the terrorists.  Over the years, we've had the opportunity to "study" these systems in great detail and develop effective counter-measures. And thanks to the miracle of modern electronics, self-protection systems on U.S. and coalition aircraft can be quickly reprogrammed to counteract changes in enemy capabilities.  

This is not to say ISIS is completely defenseless against air attack.  They have reportedly captured a small number of advanced MANPADs from Syrian forces, notably the SA-18 and SA-24.  And some of the older systems are very rugged and may actually remain operational long beyond their advertised shelf life.  But the vast majority of those weapons are affected by the maintenance and logistics issues which plague the terror group's air defense efforts.  And, if the group is struggling to keep relatively simple weaponry in service, they have no chance of maintaining radar-guided systems which may have been captured from the Assad regime, including the SA-2 and SA-6.  

In fact, the current ISIS effort is beginning to resemble the infamous Iraqi "science projects" that appeared in the no-fly zones during the 1990s.  Saddam Hussein was determined to defend his airspace and drive Allied fighters from the skies.  But after the first Gulf War, he wasn't willing to risk his dwindling Air Force (except on rare occasions), so the job of challenging the coalition fell to his SAM units.  

Initially, the Iraqis would deploy a radar-guided SAM system into the no-fly zone.  The battery would attempt to engage a U.S. or British fighter and would be promptly destroyed by a High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) or other precision weapon.  

In fact, one of the funniest video bits I ever saw came from an F-15E that took out an Iraqi SA-3 radar van, using a GBU-15.  The weapon was guided to the target by the WSO in an F-111 or F-15, using the TV picture from the bomb to make corrections.  As the GBU-15 neared its target, the radar van grew bigger and bigger in the field of view.  

Then, at the last moment, a door popped open on the side of the van and a single Iraqi crewman tried to sprint away.  An Air Force general I worked for used the clip in one of his presentations and labeled the unlucky radar tech as the "fastest guy in Iraq."  Our consensus, based on the speed of the GBU-15, warhead size and blast pattern, was that the Iraqi didn't complete his getaway.  Post-war debriefings revealed that Iraqi SAM crews usually left only one guy in the command vehicle and/or radar van if they thought SEAD assets were in the area.  The hapless soul left to "man the fort" was typically the lowest ranking guy in the crew.  

As the Iraqis began to lose more SAMs, they began experimenting with (and deploying) various air defense contraptions that left us scratching our heads.  In some cases, the new "weapon" was an unguided, short-range ballistic missile, modified to fit on a SAM launcher.  Think massive bottle rocket or huge RPG and you've got the idea.  The Iraqis would light off their newest creation (which would miss coalition aircraft by a vast distance), and we'd destroy it.  Over the course of a decade, the cycle repeated itself many, many times.  

It's a fair bet that a number of ISIS SAM "technicians" will meet similar fates in the months ahead.  Indeed, it's rather curious that the terror group is using a Dane and an Chechen to head up their air defense development efforts when there many Iraqis in their ranks, and some were probably involved in the science project days.  If they were lucky enough to survive that debacle, they may not be anxious to press their luck again, even with the promise of virgins and treasures in "paradise."                                       


Monday, December 21, 2015

Down-sized Honors

Memo to airmen: if you want full military honors when you head for that big hangar in the sky, it's best to pass away while on active duty. 

Turns out the service made 21-gun salutes optional for veterans' funerals back in 2013.  Local installations were given the option of providing full military honors--including the three-volley firing--if they had enough money in their budgets.  The new policy (a result of sequestration and funding cuts) reduced the minimum number of airmen in funeral details from seven to two. 

Details from Air Force Times:

"..when the Air Force changed funerary honors in 2013, it left the decision up to unit commanders on whether they could still support a full funeral detail. The 15th Wing [at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii] was able to provide a seven-person detail longer than some other units until, it appears, the money ran out.

In 2013, then-Capt. Erika Yepsen said that tight budgets were at the heart of the decision.

“The Air Force will save more than $1 million in material and travel expenses [because of this decision] alone,” Yepsen said. “Although we don’t have an exact calculation for what we will be saving on military personnel expenses, we will realize a substantial savings.”

Under the new policy, an American flag is folded and presented to the family and "Taps," is played (typically on an electronic bugle), but many Air Force vets will not receive a 21-gun salute.  

Airmen who die while still in uniform (rightly) receive full military honors: a 20-person detail of six pall bearers, eight-person firing party, a bugler, four-person color guard and a detail officer or noncommissioned officer in charge.  Air Force retirees apparently fall somewhere in the middle; if internment is near a military base, there's a better chance their service will be staffed by a seven-member detail and they may receive full military honors, particularly if they retired in the grade of O-6 or higher.  

If you're among the large group of military retirees who choose burial away from a military base--or didn't reach the exalted rank of Colonel--well, you can depart this mortal coil, secure in the knowledge that you helped the Air Force save a cool $1 million a year.  

Thankfully, the down-sized honors program does not apply to burials at Arlington National Cemetery.  And, as far as we can tell, no one has asked the Air Force about the number of retired general officers who were laid to rest without a 21-gun salute.            



Off Course

A B-52 lands on Andersen AB, Guam.  The Air Force is currently investigating a crew deployed to that base for flying within two miles of a Chinese artificial island in the South China Sea ( image).

Sadly, this will come as no surprise...

Tom Rogan of National Review reports the Pentagon has issued an apology, after a U.S. Air Force B-52 flew within two miles of a Chinese-built artificial island in the South China Sea last week.

"...the Pentagon’s response has been equally telling. Instead of broadcasting that America will reject China’s claims in the East China and South China Seas, and instead of asserting that American forces will of course operate in international territory, the Pentagon groveled before China, offering apologies. The [Wall Street] Journal (which first broke the story) reports that the B-52 aircrew is being investigated and that the Pentagon is hinting that “bad weather” led the crew to make a mistake. It’s Scapegoating 101."

He also notes the White House has been silent on the incident.  Rather interesting, since President Obama openly challenged Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea at last month's APEC summit, offering a "commitment to shared security of the region's waters and to freedom of navigation.  Mr. Obama's remarks came only weeks after an America destroyer sailed within 12 miles of another artificial island built by China.   

Clearly, the B-52 flight was another freedom of navigation mission, and it was hoped that Mr. Obama (and his military advisers) would stand behind the BUFF crew.  But when Beijing lodged a vigorous protest, the bomber crew was left twisting in the wind.  Officially, the White House hasn't responded to the incident and it's a fair bet they won't comment unless they're forced to.  China continues to build new islands at a frantic pace--by one estimate, they have reclaimed over 2,000 acres in the past 18 months, and placed military equipment on some outposts.    

Beijing's goals are quite clear; the new islands extend its military reach into the disputed Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.  China's growing presence in the region poses a direct threat to key shipping routes and energy reserves that lie beneath the ocean's floor.

America's response to this challenge has "evolved" rapidly, to use a favored White House term.  In May, a U.S. Navy P-8 patrol jet flew very close to Fiery Cross Reef, site of another Chinese reclamation project.  The aircraft and its crew received eight different warnings from PRC controllers before departing the area.  A Navy littoral combat ship (LCS) also passed near disputed positions in the Spratlys during the same period.  In both cases, the U.S. said it was exercising its freedom of navigation rights under international law.  Nations may claim a 12-mile territorial limit around natural islands they control, but the same restriction does not apply to artificial atolls.  

In other words, the BUFF crew did nothing wrong by flying near the Chinese-built island, except ruffle some feathers in Beijing.  But that was enough to put the White House and Pentagon in panic mode and they quickly issued the requisite apology. It's a fair bet that American ships and planes won't make another close approach to any of China's artificial islands anytime soon--exactly what Beijing wants.  By applying a little pressure, China forced Team Obama to kowtow, which will only raise more concerns about our willingness to confront the PRC, despite our much-touted military "pivot" to Asia. 

Meanwhile, there are some answered questions about that B-52 mission.  For starters, there's the obvious matter of why the crew is being investigated for flying near an artificial island which cannot claim a territorial limit?  Secondly, it's equally clear this mission was aimed at "showing the flag" near PRC outposts in the South China Sea; what sort of distance was the plane supposed to maintain along its planned route of flight?  

The Pentagon claims that "bad weather" may have caused the plane to go off course, but offered no additional details.  Officials have not released the actual date of the flight, so it's difficult to determine when weather conditions (such as thunderstorms) might have forced the crew to deviate from their planned route.  Likewise, the military has not provided rules of engagement for such missions, although video from earlier flights seems to show aircraft within 12 miles of the artificial islands, and under existing conventions, we could overfly those outposts without violating the law. 

It's also worth noting that B-52's are equipped with GPS and a navigator is part of the five-person flight crew.  So, it's a bit more difficult (at least in theory) for the giant bomber to deviate from its intended flight path.  It is also a fair bet that the navigator on the mission was not a "newbie" fresh from the schoolhouse at Barksdale.  For a sensitive flights like those near disputed islands in the South China Sea, the B-52 detachment on Guam would only assign an experienced crew--someone with hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours in the jet, and possibly qualified as an instructor or flight examiner as well.  
In the interim, the BUFF crew is probably grounded, awaiting their fate as pawns in a geopolitical game.  It would be a damn shame if they were actually punished for doing their job--by the same, feckless political/military hacks who sent them in the first place.               


Sunday, December 20, 2015


A trio of recent, related events that speak volumes about the conflict in Syria; our lack of leadership and (perhaps) an inevitable showdown between the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East.

First comes this disturbing report from Eli Lake and Josh Rogin at Bloomberg: the U.S. has reportedly stopped flying manned air support missions for rebels in a key portion of northern Syria, after Russia deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system to the region:

"Russia’s military operations inside Syria have been expanding in recent weeks, and the latest Russian deployments, made without any advance notice to the U.S., have disrupted the U.S.-led coalition's efforts to support Syrian rebel forces fighting against the Islamic State near the Turkey-Syria border, just west of the Euphrates River, several Obama administration and U.S. defense officials told us. This crucial part of the battlefield, known inside the military as Box 4, is where a number of groups have been fighting the Islamic State for control, until recently with overhead support from U.S. fighter jets. 

But earlier this month, Moscow deployed an SA-17 advanced air defense system near the area and began “painting” U.S. planes, targeting them with radar in what U.S. officials said was a direct and dangerous provocation. The Pentagon halted all manned flights, although U.S. drones are still flying in the area. Russia then began bombing the rebels the U.S. had been supporting. (U.S. manned airstrikes continue elsewhere in Syria.)"


The increasing number of Russian air defense systems further complicate an already difficult situation over the skies in Syria, and do nothing to advance the fight against the Islamic State, which has no air force, [CENTCOM spokesman Major Tim] Smith said. He added that Russia could instead be using its influence with the regime to press President Bashar al-Assad to cease attacking civilians. “Unhelpful actions by Russia and the Syrian regime will not stop coalition counter-Daesh operations in Syria, nor will such actions push the coalition away from specific regions in Syria where Daesh is operating,” said Smith.  Smith did not deny the administration officials' characterization of the situation in Box 4. 

Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told us that the U.S. continues to fly manned and unmanned strike missions in the areas of Syria where the Islamic State is active, including strikes Wednesday in the northeastern towns of Manjib and Mara. He also acknowledged that Russia's recent deployment of air defense systems have complicated U.S. air missions there. 

Use of the term "painted" is interesting.  It's a reference to pilots/aircrews receiving indications that their plane is being tracked by enemy radar.  What's unclear is the type of signals U.S. crews received.  Were enemy radars in the search mode, or (more likely) did they "lock on" American aircraft, the last step before missile launch?  Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) gear on modern jets can distinguish between different modes on virtually all types of threat radars--although other emitters can produce spurious emissions that appear as threat radars on detection gear.  That's one reason an accurate electronic order of battle (EOB) is so important--and difficult--to generate, and the fact that most air missions are supported by various types of electronic support measures and/or SIGINT aircraft that can better distinguish between actual threats and similar signals that are non-hostile.  

If our planes were "locked up" by Russian radars, that is an act of war, and our crews (supposedly) have an inherent right-of-self-defense, which (typically) involves jamming a High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) down the throat of the offending SAM radar.  So far, we've refrained from doing that (assuming our planes have been locked on by Russian radars).  When the SAMs and HARMs start flying, we're on the threshold of a major conflict, perhaps World War III.

But strangely enough, arrival of the SA-17 was quickly followed a second major event, departure of USAF F-15s from Incirlik AB in southern Turkey.  On Wednesday, six F-15Cs and six F-15E Strike Eagles returned to RAF Lakenheath, their home base in England.  The jets were deployed last month with great fanfare, to protect NATO aircraft operating over Syria and Turkish airspace against possible Russian incursions.  The dual-role Strike Eagles also struck ground targets in Syria.  Withdrawal of the F-15s occurred only one day after Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited the region; he made no mention of the jets' pending departure during his time at Incirlik.  With the Eagles' departure, the U.S. contingent at the base now consists of 12 A-10 attack jets, but with deployment of the SA-17, those aircraft will not be operating in or around Box 4, which lies west of the Euphrates River, along the Turkish border.  

Tensions in the area have been high since the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian SU-24 Fencer last month.  Removing American jets from that sector will obviously eliminate any possibility of a shoot-down, but it's hardly a show of resolve against Putin's latest move, or in support of rebel forces we're supporting on the ground.  In fact, it seems to offer a new operational template for the Russian dictator; if you want to greatly reduce the U.S. air presence, just send in advanced SAM systems like the SA-17 or the much more capable S-400, which deployed to the Russian base at Latakia last month.  The long-range S-400 can engage multiple targets in the eastern Mediterranean, across northern Syria and over portions of southern Turkey.  Arrival of the S-400 was also a likely factor in the decision to withdraw the F-15s.  

Needless to say, the USAF is not used to this sort of move.  And, it's not like the service is completely unfamiliar with the SA-17 or the S-400.  Suffice it to say, the Air Force has detailed knowledge ofdl both systems, their capabilities and has methods for dealing with both.  That's doesn't mean the USAF is ready to send a squadron of fourth-generation fighters against the S-400 without an extensive support package, but the idea of redeploying assets--in fact of an advanced threat--does not sit well with pilots flying the line, or their superiors.  

But that doesn't mean manned aircraft in the advanced SAM belt are a thing of the past.  F-22 Raptor stealth fighters have operated extensively over Syria in recent months, and there is anecdotal reporting that some of those missions took place within the threat envelopes of Syrian-operated SA-17s.  However, the status of those batteries is unknown, and Syrian air defense units have been embarrassed by the Israeli Air Force on numerous occasions.  Still, the F-22 has become an important force multiplier over Syria, conducting bombing raids, escorting other attack aircraft and providing electronic combat support to allied formations.  But, given the excessive rules of engagement employed by the Obama Administration, it's quite likely the Raptors have been banned from Box 4 as well.  

On the other hand, air commanders clearly recognize they may have to take on the Russians at some point.  That's one reason a recent trilateral exercise at Langley AFB, VA caught our eye.  RAF Typhoons and French Air Force Rafales deployed to the base to train with F-22s.  Specially-equipped T-38s from Langley and F-15Es from Seymour Johnson AFB, NC served as "red air" during the drill, with the Strike Eagles likely playing the role of Russian SU-30/34 Flankers.  The exercise focused on tactics and procedures that would be used in "highly contested" operational environments, which could be used for areas like Box 4 in Syria.  

It was a prime opportunity for the most advanced British and French jets to work with the F-22 and prepare for future joint operations in the Middle East and elsewhere, with the Raptor in the lead.  British Air Chief Sir Andrew Pulford described the exercise as a "fantastic opportunity to get back into that higher end to concentrate on the contested environment that we have not seen… but is now becoming a far more of a concern and far more of a threat to our air forces."

One area of focus during the Langley exercise was communications between Allied aircraft in scenarios where extensive jamming might be present.  The Air Force is currently working on upgrades to the Raptor that will allow it to better share information via Link 16, the NATO standard datalink.  While various fourth-generation fighters can send and receive messages via Link 16, the F-22 can only receive them, since commanders feared that transmissions might give away the jet's position. 

But a fix is in the works; in early 2014, Lockheed demonstrated a low probability of intercept Link 16 capability for the Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, using an exotic waveform developed by L-3 Communications, with a low probability of detection/intercept.  Could the Langley exercise indicate that the technical fix might be ready for operational service?  The USAF and its partners won't say.  But this type of trilateral exercise would be an excellent venue for testing improved Link 16 communications and other measures needed in a high-threat environment.

Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh attended the conclusion of the trilateral exercise, and he emphasized the need to "degrade and dismantle" advanced air defense systems, as a prelude to normal air operations.  Currently, he says, there are 10 nations around the world with air defense networks that pose a serious challenge to U.S./coalition air ops and that number will more than double over the next decade.

The recent drill at Langley underscores the importance of "high-end" operations against state-of-the-art air defense networks, using a variety of assets.  But the decision to pull our assets from Incirlik raises an important question: under what circumstances (if any) would the Obama Administration authorize such operations, particularly against an adversary like Russia?  For now, Vladimir Putin looks at Mr. Obama and sees nothing but weakness.  You can expect more advanced SAM deployments from him in the future, particularly if Putin believes it limit one of our most decisive assets--tactical air power.   







Thursday, December 17, 2015

George Marti, R.I.P.

Tom Taylor Now, the daily newsletter that is required reading for anyone in the radio business--or a reformed broadcaster like yours truly--brings some sad news.  George Marti, a man who truly revolutionized the industry died in his hometown of Cleburne, Texas.  He was 95.

Mr. Marti's name may not be instantly recognizable, but his impact on radio was both profound and long-lasting.  For many years, stations had a "location" problem.  Sending a signal from the studio to the transmitter presented two options.  Either co-locate the studio with the transmitter, or utilize costly (and often unreliable) phone lines to carry programming to the transmitter and antenna.  Operating from the transmitter site was never popular, since it was typically located outside town, or on the top of the highest elevation in the area.  Broadcast sales reps complained about bringing clients to such a remote location, and DJs said it was more difficult for their girlfriends/mistresses/significant others to visit during an air shift.  Not that they were supposed to, but that's another matter.  

Similar problems existed for remote broadcasts.  If a station wanted to air a sports event, concert or some other type of special event, you had to rent phone lines from Ma Bell.  That meant placing a very precise order regarding location and quality.  Simply saying you wanted a line at the (Fill In Name) high school stadium wasn't enough; more than a few veteran broadcasters can tell stories about showing up at the venue and frantically searching for the phone line that was supposed to connect to their broadcast equipment and carry the signal back to the station.  In some cases, the line was still attached to the telephone pole, 20 feet off the ground.  When the phone company tech showed up--usually well after the game began--he'd shrug and remind you to specify a line into the visiting team press box at the stadium.  And since he was working overtime on a union contract, the tech was typically in no hurry to solve your problem.

George Marti largely ended that stranglehold, inventing portable broadcast remote units that transmitted signals from remote locations to the station (or from studio to transmitter), using allocated VHF frequencies.  In fact, his product became so synonymous with remote broadcasting that virtually any unit used for that purpose was referred to as a "Marti," much like Xerox became the term for photocopiers and Coke was the designation for a soft drink.  At one time, an estimated 80% of the world's radio stations used remote equipment or studio-to-transmitter links built by Marti Electronics.  His products were simple, reliable, rugged and built by Americans, back in the days when we still made things.   

But Mr. Marti was more than a highly successful entrepreneur--he was the embodiment of a generation that thrived on hard work, innovation and belief in the American dream.  At 13, Marti's grandmother told him he needed to think about his future.  Fascinated by radio, he decided to become a broadcast engineer and earned his FCC First Class License at age 17.  When the U.S. entered World War II, Marti enlisted in the Marine Corps and was selected for radar school.  He finished first in a class of 120 and spent the rest of the war installing and maintaining communications systems on remote Pacific islands.

After the war, he returned to Cleburne and put his first station (KCLE-AM) on the air in 1948.  Marti designed and built his own 250-watt transmitter and audio board in his mother's living room.  He added an FM station a year later and purchased a station in St. Joseph, Missouri in the early 1950s.  Like many station owners, Marti was frustrated over the reliance on the phone company and decided he could do better.  After selling his stations, he began building remote units full-time and quickly added studio-to-transmitter links (STLs) to his product line.  Quickly, the ubiquitous Marti units became the industry standard.  He ran the company for more than 30 years until he sold it to Broadcast Electronics in 1994.

The Marti wasn't a panacea; units had a range limit of 10-15 miles, so events outside that radius still required a phone line.  And, with the advent of the internet and ISDN lines, many remotes are now handled through a laptop.  But for decades, George Marti's remote pickup unit was an essential piece of broadcast equipment and they're still in use at many stations.   

But Mr. Marti was more than a broadcaster, innovator and successful businessman.  He served six terms as the mayor of his hometown and with his late wife, Jo, started the Marti Foundation, which helps low-income youth earn their college degrees.  Thanks to George Marti's generosity, hundreds of Texas students have attended college and launched successful careers of their own.

 For his work, Marti received a number of honors.  The National Association of Broadcasters awarded him its highest engineering honor in 1991; he was a member of the Texas Radio Hall of Fame and was named both Pioneer Broadcaster of the Year by the Texas Association of Broadcasters.  One of Marti's earliest remote units is part of the radio collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

George Marti believed a broadcaster's primary responsibility was to serve the public.  "If you're not helping someone, you're not doing you job," he once observed.  Mr. Marti was also one of the last links to a different era in broadcasting, when the business was populated by visionaries and innovators who were willing to roll the dice on innovative technology and programming.  In today's world of huge radio chains, homogenized, consultant-driven "content" and doing everything on the cheap, it's a fair question to ask if there's any room for the next George Marti.

The list of 2016 inductees for the Radio Hall of Fame has just been announced.  Here's hoping Mr. Marti is among those selected for next year's class.  For heaven's sake, if ESPN's Mike & Mike can make the cut, there ought to be room for someone who truly transformed his industry.                            

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Spinning Up

For Hillary Clinton, November was a pretty good month--arguably the best of her presidential campaign.

It wasn't because she said or did anything particularly noteworthy.  Indeed, Mrs. Clinton's numbers tend to rise when she stays out of the spotlight, and with public--and media--attention focused on the Paris terrorist attacks and the latest comments from Donald Trump, it was easy for her to react and make carefully-considered statements which were (predictably) praised by sympathetic reporters covering her latest run for the White House.

But December may not prove as rosy.  Recent disclosures are breathing new life in a pair of long-standing scandals, creating new problems for Hillary and her campaign.

The first development casts the Benghazi debacle in a new light.  Just-released e-mails indicate that the Defense Department was identifying military forces that could be sent to Libya, to assist American diplomats and security contractors at the besieged consulate and CIA Annex in Benghazi.  The message was sent to Mrs. Clinton's senior aides by Jeremy Bash, chief of staff to then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Details from Fox News:

“I just tried you on the phone but you were all in with S [apparent reference to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton],” reads the email, from Panetta’s chief of staff Jeremy Bash. “After consulting with General Dempsey, General Ham and the Joint Staff, we have identified the forces that could move to Benghazi. They are spinning up as we speak.”

The email was sent out at 7:19 p.m. ET on Sept. 11, 2012, in the early stages of the eight-hour siege that also claimed the lives of Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith and two former Navy SEALs, Ty Woods and Glen Doherty, private CIA contractors who raced to the aid of embattled State Department workers."

Clearly, the timing of Bash's e-mail is critical.  It was sent less than two hours after President Obama received his initial briefing from Panetta and General Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  It suggests that both men began preparing military options immediately after their meeting and were offering them to senior administration officials in the early hours of the attack.  There have long been questions about the lack of an American military response, despite the presence of U.S. forces in the region. 

Portions of the e-mail were redacted, including those which listed available assets.  But a Predator UAV was dispatched to Benghazi and provided video coverage of the battle--video that was transmitted to (and viewed) at the White House, the Pentagon, State Department and other command nodes.  Beyond the drone, the U.S. military also had an F-16 fighter wing at Aviano AB, Italy; ships capable of launching cruise missiles in the Mediterranean, Marine security elements at Rota, Spain, and special forces troops that were training in the Balkans.  It was later revealed that two SOF operators volunteered to accompany a "quick reaction force" that flew from Tripoli to Benghazi on the night of the attack and arrived in time to participate in the final, vicious firefight between security assets and Islamic terrorists.

Four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, died in the attacks.

In the months following the 2012 disaster, Mr. Panetta said that "time and distance" prevented the military from deploying assets which might have blunted the terrorist strike, and (possibly) saved the lives of U.S. personnel who died that night.  But the newly-obtained e-mail indicates that Pentagon planners had options for getting assets to the scene, but those plans were rejected. 

According to FNC, Bash's e-mail was sent to four of Clinton's senior aides: then-deputy chief of staff Jacob Sullivan, Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Thomas Nides. 

A spokesman for the Congressional Select Committee on Benghazi told Fox that the panel has an unredacted copy of the e-mail, along with the response from Mr. Sullivan.  The committee hopes to release its final report on the matter in the coming months. 

In the interim, the message raises new questions about that fateful night in September 2012, and U.S. government's response.  Mr. Bash's e-mail to Clinton's staff suggests the Pentagon was looking to the State Department for coordination or approval of the military plans.  At this point, no one outside the participants--or the Select Committee--knows how Clinton's team responded.  However, given the late (and limited) response that unfolded, it seems doubtful that neither the Secretary nor her staff were clamoring for military intervention.

It also renews the debate about decision-making at the highest levels of American government--while U.S. diplomats and security contractors were under attack in Benghazi.  President Obama's whereabouts on that evening remain unknown; after the initial briefing from Panetta and General Dempsey, he was essentially AWOL for the next 15 hours, until he boarded Air Force One the next morning for a campaign fund-raising event in Nevada.

Mrs. Clinton was traveling abroad when terrorists struck the consulate and CIA Annex in Benghazi, but she had access to secure communications and was clearly aware of the developing situation.  Did the Secretary of State tell military forces to "stand down" as the attack escalated, or was that decision made by someone else--whoever was calling the shots in the White House situation room?  At best, the woman who wants to be the next President appears to be completely out of touch--as her personnel faced death.  At worst, she was willfully negligent; ignoring requests for added security in the months leading up to the attack, and absent when the assault unfolded.  Her actions (or lack thereof) provide another opportunity for GOP candidates in an election cycle dominated by national security issues.

Meanwhile, the inquiry into Hillary's "home brew" e-mail system is far from over, and it promises to create additional headaches for Mrs. Clinton.  According to Ed Henry of Fox News, FBI Director James Comey has suggested that his agency has seized State Department computers, in addition to Mrs. Clinton's server.  That would suggest the bureau is looking at specific individuals who may have transferred classified information to the former secretary's private network, or downloaded sensitive data from that system using department computers.  It is also likely that investigators are matching that activity with sessions on Secret and Top Secret/SCI level networks, where the classified material originated.

For a mere mortal, such disclosures would start the countdown clock to indictment, but Mrs. Clinton may not be in jeopardy--at least, not yet.  For starters, her friends in the MSM have essentially forgotten the e-mail scandal, and Donald Trump is sucking all the political oxygen out of the room.  Secondly, the decision to prosecute still rests with Attorney General Loretta Lynch and there's a very good chance she will opt against charging Hillary, no matter how strong the FBI case proves to be.

Still, these disclosures prove that Benghazi and e-mail scandals are far from over.  And just in time for primary season, too.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

The Right Stuff (Military Promotion Edition)

Fresh from their overhaul of the military retirement system, Congress and the Administration have set their sights on how the armed forces promote and retain personnel.

That alone should be cause for alarm.  As we pointed out a few months ago, the new 401K-type system (which will allow participation by all who serve) has a few glaring problems:

"...To receive a full pension, most military retirees would have to wait until age 62--roughly 20 years after many leave the service.  Former service members who want their money sooner could take a lump sum payout when they leave the military (a bad idea for almost any retiree), or take a smaller annuity payout over a longer period, beginning with their retirement from the military.

To "sweeten" the deal, the new system would offer a small "bonus" at the 12-year point, equaling 2-3 months of basic pay for service members.  That would supposedly persuade military personnel to re-enlist and serve another eight years (or longer), ensuring that the armed forces retain experienced leaders and allowing them to keep building adding to their 403b-style nest egg.

But you don't need to be a personnel officer to understand that "bonus" will become separation pay for many service members.  As the military continues to downsize, the 12-year mark is a convenient point to get rid of "excess" personnel, saving the government millions in matching contributions to the retirement plan, along with reduced training costs and all other expenses related to keeping someone in uniform.  For thousands of future E-5s, E-6s and O-3s, their 12-year bonus will come with a pink slip.

There's also the "bite" of that retirement deduction for junior enlisted personnel, who aren't exactly looking for tax shelters.  Retired Air Force Colonel Talbot Vivian did an excellent job summarizing that problem in a letter to Air Force magazine (subscription required):

[Consider] the example of an Air Force Staff Sergeant (E-5), stationed in the CONUS, with a stay-at-home spouse.  Before taxes, the Sergeant's base pay is $2,951.40; when you add in their allowing for housing ($889.20) and subsistence, their gross pay rises to $4,202.52.  But if the airmen and his/her family live in older-style, federally-owned base quarters, they lose the housing allowance and when you deduct that (and federal taxes), the E-5s take-home pay is about $2,952.15 a month, or just over $35,000 a year.

From that modest salary, the government will deduct $147.57 for the Sergeant's contribution to the new retirement plan.  Meanwhile, the NCO will be paying more to feed his family, since the compensation commission has recommended eliminating commissary subsidies.  That means military families will pay the same prices for groceries as their civilian counterparts; the SSgt in Colonel Vivian's example will be paying roughly $1,037.50 a month for groceries, leaving him or her with $1,767.07 in spendable income to cover all other expenses.  

Meanwhile, there are continuing concerns that the military healthcare system for retirees and dependents (TRICARE) will eventually be phased out, in favor of Obamacare.  If that happens, the E-5 in Colonel Vivian's example will have the added burden of paying monthly premiums and higher deductibles--making it even more difficult to save for retirement.  

So, there are plenty of reasons to worry about tinkering with the promotion system.  To be fair, some of the participants who testified before Congress today were saying the right thing.  They suggested the long-standing "up or out" model should be replaced by a system that would let skilled officers and NCOs remain in service longer, even if they're not promoted.  

In some situations, that makes eminent sense.  Years ago, I had the opportunity to fly with an RAF AWACS crew out of Aviano, Italy.  The British version had fewer controller consoles (and a smaller crew) that E-3s assigned to the USAF and NATO AWACS fleets, but because experience levels were so high among the RAF crews, there was no drop-off in capabilities.  

I remember chatting with the surveillance officer who (at that point) had 25 years of active-duty service.  He had worked his way up through the enlisted ranks, gaining experience in ground-based control radars and NATO AWACS before the RAF acquired their own E-3s.  He would never rise above the rank of Squadron Leader (O-3), but he was quite content--and very good at his job.  As I recall, he planned to keep "flying the line" until he reached the 30-year mark.  It would be extremely difficult for someone in the U.S. military to serve that long as a junior officer--unless they were commissioned at the 20-year point.  Given the selection rates these days for OTS/OCS, the odds of that happening are very slim.  

According to Air Force Times, one former official believes that each career group should create its own structure for promotion and advancement.  Under that model, officers in specialties which require high levels of physical skill and fitness (say, infantry or special ops) might be eligible to advance at an earlier age, while those in more "sedentary" career fields, such as logistics, might have a longer promotion window.  There was also more talk about potential breaks in service, giving individuals a chance to participate in a fellowship, or even take a sabbatical.  

The danger, of course, is a fragmented promotion and development system that becomes almost unusable.  Perhaps the best advice in today's hearing came from retired Admiral Gary Roughead, the former Chief of Naval Operations.  He noted that sabbaticals and similar opportunities in the corporate world and academia are suitable only in specific circumstances, and do little to reform the personnel system.  

Meanwhile, there's a rather large elephant in the hearing room--one that is always avoided at any cost.  The issue is diversity/political correctness and it's impact on today's military.  Consider this "close hold" memo on the desired composition of a recent Air Force promotion board, uncovered by Tony Carr, the retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel (and former squadron commander) who now runs the essential John Q. Public blog:  

The e-mail, as Carr reminds us, follows "diversity" and "inclusion" directives implemented earlier this year by Air Force Secretary Deborah James.  As many predicted at the time, Secretary James' guidance would inevitably lead to gender and race quotas, ultimately threatening the quality of the force.  

And if that's not bad enough, the Air Force Chief of Staff has admitted the service's manning levels are nearing collapse.  During a discussion at the Atlantic Council yesterday, General Mark Welsh said current manning levels are at 82-85% in most mission areas.  Many career field managers consider manning levels below 90% as critical, and some career fields (including crew chief and avionics specialist) are as low as 75-80%.  

General Welsh blamed the decreased manning levels on force cutbacks and requirements to create a 35,000-member ISR enterprise during the same period.  But, as Colonel Carr reminds us, Welsh is the same Chief of Staff who approved plans to "jam" the reduction of 19,000 personnel into a single year (2014).  Now, General Welsh (and the rest of the service) must live with the consequences of those decisions, as Tony Carr reminds us.  And there's no relief in sight.  

But hey, at least we'll look diverse and inclusive as an over-burdened Air Force nears implosion.