Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Keeping Watch

On this--and every--Veteran's Day, there will parades and speeches and expressions of gratitude for those who served and those who still wear the uniform.

But sometimes, the day' s real meaning is reflected in quiet moments, far removed from the official celebration.  Over at FreeRepublic.com, someone posted a remarkable photo that captures the essence of service, sacrifice and gratitude:

It was taken by three years ago by amateur photographer Frank Glick, at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.  Running ahead of schedule on his morning commute, Glick took a detour through the cemetery and spotted the bald eagle, sitting atop a veteran's tomb stone.  He grabbed his camera and captured a timeless reminder of those who gave so much in the cause of freedom. 

Since then, the photo has gone viral, and rightfully so.  Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin wrote a 2011 column about the photographer, and the World War II soldier whose tombstone provided a perch.            

Monday, November 10, 2014

Spies in the Land

It's been a rough week for key members of the terrorist networks in Syria and Iraq.

Last Wednesday, a U.S. airstrike successfully targeted David Drugeon, the French defector who had emerged as one of the leading bomb makers for Khorasan Group, a collection of Al Qaida veterans who are now fighting in Syria.  More from the Long War Journal:

Video surfaced on Facebook late Nov. 5 alleging to show the aftermath of a United States airstrike in Idlib. A number of recent airstrikes, as we now know, were targeting the Khorasan Group, a collection of al Qaeda veterans embedded within the Al Nusrah Front.

US Central Command announced that "US military forces conducted airstrikes last night against five Khorasan Group targets in the vicinity of Sarmada, Syria, using bomber, fighter and remotely piloted aircraft" in a press release yesterday.

"We are still assessing the outcome of the attack, but have initial indications that it resulted in the intended effects by striking terrorists and destroying or severely damaging several Khorasan Group vehicles and buildings assessed to be meeting and staging areas, IED-making facilities and training facilities," the release continued.

Fox News reported that David Drugeon, a French defector to al Qaeda and a master bomb maker, was targeted in the airstrikes. 

"The drone struck a vehicle traveling in Syria's Idlib province that was believed to be carrying Drugeon. The driver of the vehicle is thought to have lost a leg and was expected to die, according to sources with knowledge of the operation. A second person thought to be Drugeon was killed, according to well-placed military sources," Fox News reported.

Drugeon was considered a particularly high-value target due to his advanced skills with explosives.  Intelligence officials claim he had perfected a technique for dipping clothing into explosive material, allowing wearers to pass undetected through airport security checkpoints and other screening measures. 

As the Long War Journal notes, the attack on Drugeon's car was carried out with remarkable precision.  Video from the scene shows the vehicle engulfed in flames, while a building just a few feet away appears untouched.  According to a CENTCOM spokesman, USAF B-1s, F-16s and drones participated in the attack; both the "Bone" and the Viper are capable of dropping the 250-lb Small Diameter Bomb (SDB), which is designed to minimize collateral damage.  A large number of Predator and Reaper UAVs can employ Hellfire missiles, which can also be utilized in urban environments.  So far, the Pentagon hasn't disclosed the weapon used to kill Drugeon.  

Two days later, American airpower targeted a 10-vehicle ISIS convoy in Mosul--carrying an even more important target.  The leader of the terror caliphate, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was among those riding in the convoy, and reportedly wounded in the attack.  A Twitter account belonging to an ISIS spokesman wished al-Baghdadi a "speedy recovery" from his wounds, although that account was difficult to verify.

According to various press accounts and claims by Iraqi officials, the ISIS leader was either seriously wounded in the attack, or not traveling in the convoy.  U.S. officials believe that one of al-Baghdadi's senior aides--who normally travels with him--was killed in the airstrike, increasing the odds that the ISIS kingpin may have been riding in one of the targeted vehicles.
The convoy target reflected poor operational security on the part of ISIS leadership, and suggested they weren't particularly concerned about limited American airstrikes, or intelligence collection capabilities.  That thinking will probably change, especially if rumors about al-Baghdadi prove true.  

Convoys of ISIS fighters, usually riding in Toyota pick-up trucks, have been a standard part of the group's operating procedures for many years.  And while that image may be frightening to local villagers or poorly-prepared Iraqi soldiers, they present a both a signature and a target from 20,000 feet.  If al-Baghdadi survives, his future movements will become much more discrete, as will his communications.  
In reality, the Friday air strike in Mosul was more than the product of air supremacy and persistent surveillance by various drone aircraft.  Tracking down--and taking down--terrorist leaders is often the product of months of careful intelligence collection and analysis, used to identify cells, larger networks and the individuals who lead them.  
Shane Harris of The Daily Beast has a new book coming out that details how such techniques were successfully used by the National Security Agency (and its military partners) during the Iraqi surge six years ago.  Here's a brief excerpt that explains the overall concept:

The Iraqi cell phone network was a potential intelligence gold mine. Cell phone contracts were among the first business deals struck in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was driven from power. Wireless was cheaper than wired communications, and cell phones were proliferating. The NSA had access to foreign telecommunications networks through agreements struck with the United States—based carriers that operated them. These companies were paid handsomely—each receiving tens of millions of dollars annually, according to one former company executive—to give the spy agencies privileged access to their networks and the data coursing through them. 

After Bush gave his order, daily strikes in Iraq were being carried about by a hybrid military and intelligence unit that brought together soldiers and spies. Their center of operations was a concrete hangar at the Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad, which had once housed Iraqi fighter jets. Most of the planes here now were unmanned drones. Their pilots worked alongside NSA hackers, FBI cyber forensics investigators, and special operations forces—the military’s elite commando squads. They all broke off into clusters, working with a seamless, almost organic precision. The hackers stole information from the enemy’s electronic devices and passed it to the analysts, who drew up target lists for the troops. As they went off on raids, the drone pilots watched overhead, giving eye-in-the-sky warning to the troops on the ground, thanks to sophisticated cameras and other sensors developed by the CIA. Sometimes the drone pilots themselves made the kill with a missile shot.

When an attack was finished, the troops gathered more intelligence from the site or from the fighters they captured—cell phones, laptop computers, thumb drives, address books, scraps of paper called “pocket litter” that might contain nothing more than a name, a phone number, or a physical or e-mail address. The troops brought the information back to the base and gave it to the analysts, who fed it into their databases and used data-mining software to look for connections to other fighters either in custody or at large. They paid close attention to how the fighters were getting money for their operations, including sources outside Iraq—in Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

As Mr. Harris details, there was another, important element to this operation: offensive cyber ops.  With detailed knowledge of how the terrorists communicated, NSA hackers sometimes sent fake messages to particular Al Qaida operatives, instructing them to meet at a certain location, or plant a bomb at a particular point.  In many cases, the terrorists complied and were captured by U.S. troops, or on other occasions, dispatched by a Hellfire missile.  U.S. cyber warriors also planted malware in the computers and servers used by enemy fighters, gaining detailed information on everything from operational plans, to expense accounts for individual operatives.   

The enterprise illuminated scores of terrorist networks and led directly to their elimination.  And, there is little doubt the same techniques are being used against ISIS.  The fight is more difficult this time around.  Al-Baghdadi has reportedly "absorbed" the lessons of the surge and is determined not to repeat the mistakes made back in 2007 and 2008.  But his near-elimination last Friday suggests he still has some lessons to learn, and that ISIS has underestimated its foes.   

From the terrorists' perspective, the good news is that the U.S. doesn't have a massive ground presence to instantly exploit information developed by the spooks.  The bad news is our collection and analytical capabilities have improved since the days of the surge and we can still pinpoint the bad guys amid all the electronic clutter.  Al-Baghdadi will probably adopt a lower profile in the future; that increases the difficulty of targeting him, but it also degrades his ability to run the ISIS empire.  Put another way: that convoy ride in Mosul was probably his last, figuratively if not literally.  

Along with electronic surveillance, ISIS is also facing a threat from eyes on the ground.  Human intelligence (HUMINT) has never been our strong suit, but we are quite adept at paying money for information.  The Kurds have a decent intel network in northern Iraq, and it's probably being used to spread the intel equivalent of "walking around money," with the promise of a much larger payday for anyone who can lead us to al-Baghdadi and his senior aides.  As he recovers from his wounds, the ISIS leader must be wondering if he was exposed by his cell phone, his computer or even someone inside his organization.     

Late Monday, a Pentagon spokesman said the convoy raid did not target senior-level terrorists, but rather, was aimed at operational commanders.  That suggests we somehow got lucky (assuming al-Baghdadi was present), or the statement was aimed at concealing our ability to identify terror networks and their leaders. 

Friday, November 07, 2014

An Abundance of Caution

**UPDATE//4:05 pm** Medical officials in Charleston now say the C-17 pilot is at "no risk" of having Ebola, based on his lack of contact with "anyone in Liberia."  The Air Force officer has been removed from isolation, though he apparently remains hospitalized with flu-like symptoms.

A point worth repeating: since the beginning of the U.S. military mission to Ebola-ravaged areas of West Africa, we've been told that service members face a very low risk of infection.  Their mission is focused on a variety of support functions, including security, logistics, and the establishment of new treatment centers.  Military personnel are not supposed to come in contact with actual Ebola patients, a line echoed by various officials at the White House and the Pentagon.

And events on the ground seemed to support that claim.  A number of troops (mostly Army and Air Force) have already returned from Liberia, and so far, none have been diagnosed with Ebola.  However, it is worth noting that DoD has mandated a 21-day monitoring period for all personnel returning from West Africa, based on the now-familiar "abundance of caution."

But others--including this blog--have argued that the Ebola mission subjects our service members to unnecessary dangers, given the limited training that most received before deployment--and the inevitability that a solider, sailor, airman or Marine will eventually come in contact with an infected individual, and contract the deadly disease.

That's why today's news out of Charleston, SC, is disturbing.  From WCSC-TV:

A pilot with the 437th Airlift Wing who flew a mission to West Africa on Oct. 23 and began experiencing "flu-like symptoms" this week is being screened for Ebola at the Medical University of South Carolina, according to Joint Base Charleston.

The serviceman, who lives off-base, began experiencing the symptoms on Wednesday, according to Staff Sgt. Anthony Hyatt.

While health officials believe he is an extremely low risk for Ebola, Joint Base Charleston coordinated with the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control to exercise "the appropriate protocols and an abundance of caution," Hyatt said.

The patient recently returned from a three hour stay in Liberia during which time he did not leave the plane, according to Mark Plowden, Communications Director for DHEC. The hospital activated their Ebola protocols after it was contacted Thursday night by DHEC regarding a patient requiring Ebola medical screening.

Other crew members who have traveled in the region are monitored for 21 days, and so far, only the pilot in question has shown any adverse symptoms," Hyatt said.

"The risk of Ebola is extremely low," said Plowden in a statement. "However, MUSC is following protective protocol as a precautionary measure."

At this point, it's quite likely the pilot is suffering from something other than Ebola.  But, given his symptoms (and recent stop-over in Liberia), activation of the protection protocols was required.  

And what if it is Ebola? (God forbid).  That might prompt a re-examination of how the mission is being conducted and supported. 

For starters, the pilot's potential exposure should have been minimal.  Information provided by the Air Force indicates that the pilot never left the flight deck during his three hour-stopover in Liberia on 23 October.  The engines of the C-17 remained running while the aircraft was on the ground and the crew had no contact with Ebola patients.  American personnel who serviced the aircraft and unloaded its cargo self-monitor for Ebola symptoms twice daily, and the airfield where the C-17 transited is under the control of the U.S. military.  

An Air Force spokesman also confirmed that the crew did not consume any food from Liberia while the plane was on the ground, saying there "many layers of separation" to protect the pilot and his fellow crew members.  

Still, we don't know all the details of the C-17 deployment.  Airlift crews typically deploy for more than a week at a time, with multiple sorties along the way.  After leaving Liberia, it's quite likely the C-17 stopped at bases in Europe before flying back to the U.S.  In fact, we don't know how much time elapsed between that stopover in Liberia and the C-17's return to Charleston.  Obviously, a longer gap would mean the pilot was exposed to more people in multiple locations, which could create massive public health headaches--if the pilot was somehow exposed to Ebola. 

There's also the matter of the aircraft.  Most likely, the Globemaster III departed again within a day or two of its landing at Charleston--in the hands of another crew.  So far, the Air Force hasn't disclosed where the jet has been since the air crew returned to the U.S.--or what steps would be taken if a crew member was subsequently diagnosed with Ebola.       



Wednesday, November 05, 2014

About Last Night

A couple of observations from last night's GOP blowout:

1)  Everyone--except Ed Gillespie--missed Virginia.  While I'm not a card-carrying member of the political pundit/consultancy class, but I've been to the election rodeo (as a reporter and volunteer) more than a few times.  And like a lot of folks in the Old Dominion, I pronounced Mr. Gillespie's Senate campaign as officially D.O.A. shortly after Labor Day.  At that point, incumbent Democrat Mark Warner and his surrogates had been attacking Gillespie on the airwaves for months, depicting him as an Enron lobbyist (and worse).  He was trailing in the polls by double-digits and his first, sustained wave of TV ads didn't start until September.

So, how did an underfunded--and some would say, lackluster--campaign put Mark Warner into a likely recount?  First, Mr. Gillespie carefully picked his spots.  With less available money than Warner, he entered the Washington, D.C. television market late in the race, but made it count.  When the Redskins appeared on Monday night football, he aired a spot suggesting that the U.S. Senate had better things to do than trying to force a name change on the NFL franchise.  The ad aired only once, but saying it resonated among the throngs of Redskins fans in northern Virginia would be a gross understatement.

Gillespie also ran a largely, upbeat, issues-focused campaign that was designed to appeal to independents.  Exit polling showed the GOP challenger ran only one point behind Warner in that group; in 2008, the Democrat carried that group by 36 points.  Mr. Gillespie, a former RNC chair and Bush Administration official, also benefited from local and national trends.  Obviously, a lot of voters on the fence broke for Republicans in the campaign's final days, and it boosted Gillespie's run in Virginia.  So did a strong performance by Barbara Comstock, who captured the northern Virginia congressional seat held for decades by Frank Wolf, who is retiring.  Democrats still got a lot of votes out of Arlington and Fairfax County--probably giving Warner the narrow lead he now holds. 

But Gillespie far out-performed recent GOP candidates in the D.C. exurbs and Virginia Beach, the largest city in the state.  Early exit data showed Mr. Gillespie with a 10-point advantage in Virginia Beach, which has a huge population of military members and veterans.  Mitt Romney carried the same area by only two points in 2012.   

Trailing by a fraction of a point, Gillespie should request a recount.  His prospects of winning are probably low, given Democrats' amazing ability to manufacture more votes when results are re-tabulated.  But with last night's stunning performance, Gillespie becomes an early favorite in the 2017 Virginia governor's race.  As for Mark Warner, the list of possible Democrat VP nominees in 2016 has grown shorter.  By one name.

2.  Vote for Us--We're the Reason You're Back Home with Mom and DadAfter President Obama's victories in 2008 and 2012, Democrats bragged about their ability to target and mobilize key segments of the electorate, including millenials, gays, unmarried women and minorities.  With America's changing demographics, the Obama coalition was thought to be durable and built-to-last, ensuring Democrats of electoral pluralities for years to come.

So, with control of the Senate hanging in the balance, Democratic strategists went back to the well in 2014, going after so-called "basement grads" who had voted for Obama at least once before.  The group consists of young college grads who came of age during the economic recession that began in 2007.  As their name implies, many have been forced to move back in with their parents because of limited job prospects.

Douglas Belkin of The Wall Street Journal recently detailed Democrats' courting of basement grads:
Politicians, particularly Democrats, are courting these millennials who came of age during the recession, entered college at a time of soaring tuition and find themselves burdened with record student debt and soft job prospects. All too often their paths include a post-college stint living in their parents’ basements. 

Saul Newton, a 26-year-old Army veteran who left college to join the military, said he was shocked to be billed for his student loans while he was deployed in Afghanistan. “That served as a wake-up call about how unfair the system really is,” he said.


At least half a dozen Democratic House candidates are running TV ads devoted to the issue, as are at least two Democratic senators and two GOP House candidates. Outside groups attacking Republicans also are piling in. During the second week of October, Democrats outspent Republicans on TV ads on education by more than four to one, according to the Cook Political Report and Kantar Media.  

As a political strategy, basement grads were a flop.  There was plenty of polling before the election that suggested that millennials weren't interested, and their turnout would be well below the levels of 2008 and 2012.  Looks like the jobless Obama recovery kept a lot of them at home in election day.  

Placing your electoral hopes on groups that have been hurt your party's economic policies isn't exactly a winning hand.      


Monday, October 27, 2014

More Medevac from the Hot Zone

An Air Force C-17.  The Pentagon plans to acquire airborne isolation chambers which can be loaded onto the transport and airlift up to a dozen troops or aid workers infected with Ebola, to treatment facilities around the world.  (USAF photo via Army Times) 

***UPDATE//28 October//Fox News has obtained a draft State Department memo outlining plans for bringing non-citizens to the U.S. for Ebola treatment--a document the government has tried to disavow. This revelation raises new questions about the actual purpose for those military isolation pods, and who will be evacuated from affected areas.

When the Obama Administration announced plans to send troops to West Africa to battle the Ebola crises, we were told that military personnel would face minimal risks.  They wouldn't be treating actual patients we were assured; instead, the mission would focus on building new treatment centers, training local health care workers and handling related tasks, including logistics and security.

So, if the chances of contracting the deadly disease are low, why is the Pentagon developing its own, portable isolation units that can be loaded into military transports, and remove more infected individuals from the hot zone?

From USA Today, courtesy of Drudge:

As more U.S. troops head to West Africa, the Pentagon is developing portable isolation units that can carry up to 12 Ebola patients for transport on military planes

The Pentagon says it does not expect it will need the units for 3,000 U.S. troops heading to the region to combat the virus because military personnel will not be treating Ebola patients directly. Instead, the troops are focusing on building clinics, training personnel and testing patient blood samples for Ebola.

"We want to be prepared to care for the people we do have there just out of an abundance of caution," Defense Department spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said.


The Pentagon's transportation system will allow the Air Force to use C-17 or C-130 transport planes to carry up to eight patients on stretchers or 12 patients who are able to walk, said Charles Bass, a Defense Department chemical engineer working on the project.

Elzea said the cost of the units couldn't be provided as the final contract for the project is still under negotiation.

Bass, a former Army officer, said the units are key to providing peace of mind to U.S. troops in Africa.
"It's important when you're on deployment that you feel that someone has your back," he said. "(It) adds confidence to the people who are deployed."

Recent evacuation flights of western aid workers and journalists with Ebola have been conducted by Phoenix Air, a private firm that has the only medically-approved means of air transport for patients with the deadly disease.  The company charges $200,000 for each flight, and has conducted a dozen Ebola medevac missions since July, flying westerners from Africa to treatment centers in the U.S. and Europe.  

Why not stick with Phoenix Air?  After all, the risk for deployed personnel is said to below, and the Cartersville, Georgia firm has obvious expertise in the dangerous mission--and a long-standing relationship with DoD.  Among other services, Phoenix Air provides range surveillance, electronic attack and radar/communications jamming to the U.S. Navy and other military clients.  The Pentagon can certainly afford the price tag, and the potential evacuation of military personnel is already covered under an existing contract between the aviation firm and the U.S. State Department.  

Apparently, the Defense Department wants the capability to transport more patients on each flight--if necessary.  The isolation chamber on Phoenix Air's specially-equipped business jet can handle only a single individual, under the care of a doctor and two nurses wearing full protective gear.  As reported by USA Today, chambers that will be fitted into a C-130 or C-17 can accommodate up to 12 ambulatory patients, or eight on stretchers.  

This much is certain: the military option won't save the government any money.  At an estimated operating cost of $23,000 per flying hour, a round-trip C-17 flight between the east coast and West Africa will run the taxpayers $414,000--and that doesn't include the cost of the isolation chamber, or the medical crew required for the mission. 

To be fair, creating the Air Force medevac option makes a certain degree of sense.  With the Ebola crises expected to worsen in the most-affected areas, requirements for airlifting western aid workers and military personnel may increase beyond the capabilities of Phoenix Air.  If saving your life requires transport to a hospital in the United States or Europe, the arrival of a specially-equipped Hercules or Globemaster III would be a welcome sight, indeed.  

On the other hand, the Pentagon's crash program to develop this capability raises new questions about the situation in West Africa, and the threat being faced by our military personnel.  DoD would not invest the time and money to build airborne isolation chambers--and train crews for the Ebola medevac mission--if there was no need for the expanded capability.  This may be nothing more than preparing for a worst-case scenario, but (given the government's track record on Ebola so far), developing these mission "assets" is hardly reassuring when it comes to the potential spread of the disease, and our service members becoming infected.
ADDENDUM:  While the U.S. government refuses to implement mandatory isolation requirements for travelers coming from West Africa, it's a different story for our military.  CBS News reports that 11 soldiers who just returned from Liberia--including the commander of U.S. Army in Africa--have been placed in isolation for 21 days at Vicenza, Italy.  The Pentagon calls it "enhanced monitoring" and it will apparently be standard policy for all military members returning from the Ebola mission.                                             


Thursday, October 23, 2014

View from the Turret

A knocked-out Sherman tank, somewhere in France in 1944.  The hole in the front was made by a German 88mm shell that passed through the tank and blew out the back (photo from worldoftanks.com)

Readers of this blog know that your humble correspondent is hardly a cinema maven; I can count my trips to the theater over the last five years on one hand, with at least one finger left over.  Most of those movies were selected by Mrs. Spook, or involved one of the grandkids, so the odds of finding me at the local multiplex--for a movie I actually want to see--are pretty slim.

However, I'll probably make an exception for Fury, the Brad Pitt World War II film that debuted last weekend.  Fury is the story of an American tank crew, in the closing days of that conflict.  Pitt plays Staff Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier, the commander of an M-4 Sherman tank.  Collier and his crew have been together since the North Africa campaign and have never suffered a single casualty.  With Nazi Germany tottering on the brink of defeat, the crew entertains the faint hope they may actually survive the war, and they look to Collier to lead them through.

But of course, duty calls.  Their tank, nicknamed Fury, is part of a Sherman platoon sent to hold a vital intersection behind enemy lines.  The unit encounters a German Tiger tank, which destroys the other Shermans while Fury is disabled by a land mine.  Despite the fact that 300 enemy infantrymen are approaching their position, Collier refuses to abandon the mission, and sets about plotting an ambush, leading to the film's climactic scenes.

Borrowing a narrative device from countless other war films, director David Ayer inserts a "new" soldier into Collier's tight-knit crew, creating the usual friction between the veterans and the rookie.  Fury's newcomer is Private Norman Ellison (played by Logan Lerman).  Ellison is a former clerk, pressed into service as an assistant driver when his predecessor is killed in battle.  As his first duty, Ellison must remove the dead man's body from the tank. 

From what I've heard, Ayer's film is both bloody and raw, and that's a fairly apt description of tank warfare in World War II.  As we've noted in previous posts, Allied tank losses during the drive from Normandy to Germany were horrendous. 

My father's old outfit, the 3rd Armored Division, came ashore less than two weeks after D-Day, with a complement of 232 tanks, virtually all of them Shermans.  By the time the Nazis surrendered 11 months later, the division had lost more than 700 M-4, a cumulative loss rate of more than 600%.  Losses among tank crews were equally high; at the start of the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944), U.S. armored units were so short of tank crews that infantry replacements were pressed into service as tankers.  Some were sent into battle against experienced German units with only eight hours of training, and most had never been inside a tank before their one-day orientation session.  So, there is clearly a precedent for soldiers from other branches being trained for armored duty and sent into battle with virtually no preparation. 

In some respects, Fury is probably overdue, since it's the only World War II film of recent memory that takes audiences inside the tank.  I've read that the replica used for interior shots was only slightly larger than that of an actual Sherman, so viewers may gain an appreciation of the claustrophobic conditions that tankers operated under.

They should also get a sense of the daunting odds faced by Sherman crews on the battlefield.  At the time of its introduction in 1942, the M-4 could easily match German tanks on the battlefields of North Africa.  Two years later, the Sherman was at a distinct disadvantage against the larger Panther IV and Tiger I/II tanks operated by enemy Panzer units.  Equipped with a deadly 88mm main gun, the Tiger totally outclassed earlier model Shermans (which carried a 75mm gun) and it was superior to later M-4 variants, which featured a 76mm main gun.  Ironically, most Panthers also carried a 75mm main gun, but with a longer barrel and more powerful powder charge, the German gun had a much higher muzzle velocity, enabling it to easily penetrate the Sherman's rather thin armor.  

How did we win the war with an inferior tank?  It was combination of factors, including Allied dominance in the air; our remarkable ability to produce--and repair--tanks, and of course, the courage and determination of the men who crewed those Shermans.

By the time U.S., British and Canadian armored columns broke out of Normandy and began their charge across western Europe, the Luftwaffe had virtually disappeared from the skies of France, Belgium and the Netherlands.  Most of Germany's remaining fighters were reserved for defending the homeland against huge raids by American and British bombers.  Meanwhile, U.S. P-47s, P-38s, P-51s and RAF Typhoons roamed over the countryside, decimating Nazi armored formations.

The Allies also benefited from the genius of American war production.  While Germany's Panther IV and Tiger tanks were technical marvels, they were also difficult to produce.  The Third Reich built only 8,000 of both, and the total Tiger output was less than 2,000.  Meanwhile, the U.S. built almost 50,000 Shermans, more than enough to equip our own forces and other Allied nations as well.

For all of its faults, the M-4 was also much more reliable and easier to fix.  Shermans that suffered moderate damage were usually towed to a maintenance unit, quickly repaired and returned to service.  My father was the NCO in charge of a platoon of tank retrievers in the 3rd Armored Division.  During their time in combat, they pulled a lot of damaged tanks to the repair point, and if a crew wasn't available, they were trained to drive them back to the armored unit that needed a replacement.

My father, who turns 99 in a few days, has never been shy about sharing his experiences in the Army, from his days as a peacetime draftee at Camp Polk, to his time in Germany after the war ended.  But he rarely speaks about the process of repairing knocked-out tanks; that's because maintenance personnel had the unenviable task of cleaning out the inside and removing any remains that might have escaped the medics or the casualty collection teams.  Once the clean-up was completed, one of the first orders of business was to repaint the tank's interior; the odor from fresh paint tended to obscure the smell of burned equipment and flesh that sometimes lingered inside.

Dad always speaks of the tankers with a great deal of respect, even recounting an incident when a Sherman crew picked a fight with some of his men.  He understood the odds they faced--and the fact that many never made it home.  That's why I believe Fury is worth a look; as World War II fades further into the mists of history, the film gives us another glimpse of the men who fought and died for each other, and saved the world in the process.
ADDENDUM:  Some less-than-flattering reviews from a U.S. Army officer and the eminent British military historian Max Hastings.                                                     

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Slightly Off Target

 A Rhode Island ANG C-130J performs an airdrop demo during an airshow (Matt Hintsa photo at Flickriver.com.

The Air Force is taking a bit of heat, for a (slightly) errant airdrop to Kurdish forces defending the Syrian town of Kobani.  In recent days, the Kurds have been on the advance against ISIS, taking back more of the city, which is located along the Turkish border.  But, with friendly forces running short on arms, ammunition and medicine supplies, the USAF dispatched three C-130 transports, which dropped 27 bundles of supplies.

Unfortunately, one of the bundles drifted away from the drop zone and wound up in the hands of ISIS terrorists.  From the Daily Beast:

"An ISIS-associated YouTube account posted a new video online Tuesday entitled, “Weapons and munitions dropped by American planes and landed in the areas controlled by the Islamic State in Kobani.” The video was also posted on the Twitter account of “a3maq news,” which acts as an unofficial media arm of ISIS. The outfit has previously posted videos of ISIS fighters firing American made Howitzer cannons and seizing marijuana fields in Syria."

The two-minute video begins with footage of the bundle, still attached to its parachute, lying in an open area in ISIS-controlled territory near Kobani.  The rest of the video shows ISIS fighters opening boxes from the bundle, showing what appears to be hand grenades and RPG rounds.  

While the off-target supply bundle gave ISIS a minor propaganda coup, it also highlighted a grim reality for the terrorists.  When the U.S. musters the willpower, we have the ability to drop tons of supplies to the Kurds, and successfully deliver 95% of that aid to friendly forces, even in a semi-urban environment.  And there is virtually nothing ISIS can do to stop it, aside from praying that more bundles to blow off-course, and the Obama Administration will continue its lackadaisical prosecution of the Syria campaign.  A sudden flurry of airstrikes late last week put the terrorists on the defensive and allowed the Kurds to re-take lost territory; the supply effort gave them another boost.  Unfortunately, there is no assurance the U.S. will sustain that level of effort.  

From a tactical perspective, there may be some debate as to how the bundles were delivered.  Obviously, the C-130 is ideally suited for the mission; Herks have been conducting airdrops in all types of environments for more than 50 years, and their crews are well-practiced in the art.  The Air Force will only say that the mission took about three hours to complete, and only a handful of aircraft wre involved. 

Interestingly, the Air Force has not revealed the C-130 model that conducted the mission over Kobani.  In recent years, the service has been purchasing the advanced "J" model which offers a number of upgrades over previous variants, including more powerful Rolls-Royce turboprop engines, distinctive, six-blade Dowty propellers, all-digital avionics, and reduced crew requirements.  

The airlift version of the C-130J has only a three-person crew (pilot, co-pilot and loadmaster), compared to the five-member flight crew found on earlier transport variants.  Thanks to improvements in navigation gear and systems control, the J-model eliminates the navigator and flight engineer positions found on E/H models, though some special mission platforms still maintain the navigator, now referred to as a "combat systems officer."  

Navigators played a critical role in airdrops conducted by older C-130s; they were responsible for keeping the aircraft on its desired track and on-time, ensuring that supply bundles or paratroopers were "dropped" at exactly the right moment.  The nav's presence allowed the pilots to concentrate on flying the aircraft, while the engineer kept an eye on the Herk's systems (and maintained visual look-out).  In the cargo bay, loadmasters performed the tricky ballet of getting the supply pallets (or airborne troops) safely out of the aircraft.

With elimination of the nav/CSO position on J-model airlifters, the navigation, timing and look-out duties fall on the pilots, while a single loadmaster is responsible for cargo in the back.  On most airdrop missions, a second loadmaster is assigned, but it's still quite a change from the larger crews on H-model airlifters, and more than a few in the Herk community view the nav..err, CSO, as a necessity for airdrop missions.  

While the Air Force has been buying J models for more than a decade, it still operates a number of older E/H models, particularly among guard and reserve units that are integrated into the total force.  So, it's quite possible that the airdrop was conducted by an earlier-model C-130s, with a full crews.  It's also worth noting that airdrops are also subject to factors that are beyond the crew's control, such as a sudden shift in the winds, or a parachute failure.   

Getting 26 of 27 bundles into relatively small drop zones is pretty darn good, so the mission was definitely a success.  Our real problem is persistence; the Kurds can always use more close air support, along with weapons and ammunition for their troops on the ground.  We have the means to get it to them.  The only thing lacking is the political will.