Thursday, June 23, 2016

Correcting History

There is something quite predictable about The New York Times article which presents a new twist on one of the most iconic images in history--Joe Rosenthal's 1945 photograph of Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima.  Here's the lede from reporter Michael S. Schmidt, who has covered military topics for many years, and quite frankly, should know better:

"An internal investigation by the Marine Corps has concluded that for more than 70 years it wrongly identified one of the men in the iconic photograph of the flag being raised over Iwo Jima during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II."

Mr. Schmidt goes on to detail the results of an official inquiry which has determined that Navy Corpsman John Bradley was not one of the flag-raisers in photograph, which was taken atop Mount Suribachi as the battle still raged on 23 February 1945.  The possibility that Bradley was not in the photo was first detailed in an article published by the Omaha World Herald in 2014; a pair of World War II history buffs took a closer look at Rosenthal's epic photo and decided that the figure identified as John Bradley did not match other images taken of him that day.  Those photos, culled by two amateur historians from various archives and published by the Herald, show Bradley wearing "cuffed" uniform pants, while all of the men in the flag-raising photo are wearing trousers without cuffs.  


Joe Rosenthal's famous photo of the Iwo Jima flag raising, with the participants identified.  Prior to a recent USMC inquiry, it was accepted that five Marines and a Navy Corpsman (John Bradley) appeared in the image.  Now, it is believed that the man identified as Bradley was actually a sixth Marine.  

Other clues also emerged.  A photo of Bradley, taken earlier that day, shows him wearing a belt and pouches that don't match those of the man in the Rosenthal photo.  Indeed, the figure identified as John Bradley for eight decades has a pouch with wire cutters dangling from his belt--an item that was not standard issue for Navy Corpsmen.  Over a period of weeks, the two historians, one from Ireland, the other in Omaha, became increasingly convinced that the man believed to be Bradley was actually a Marine named Harold Schultz.   

Needless to say, these claims generated tremendous controversy.  The flag-raising photo won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945; it is the most widely-reproduced image of all time and it became the model for the Marine Corps Memorial in Washington, D.C.  In fact, sculptor Felix de Weldon, who created the massive figures that form the centerpiece of the monument, began working on a maquette for his design when the photo first appeared--years before receiving the actual commission.  The memorial was dedicated in 1954, and remains one of the most popular attractions for visitors to Washington, D.C.

John Bradley's role in the flag-raising was also the focus of a best-selling book (Flags of Our Fathers, written by his son, James), which also became the basis of a Clint Eastwood film, released in 2006.  Until those Marine history buffs began comparing old photographs, the weight of evidence suggested that the elder Bradley was the man who helped raise Old Glory on that February day long ago.

But to their credit, both the Marine Corps and James Bradley were willing to consider the possibility of mistaken identity, stretching over 75 years.  The Corps appointed a panel of experts, led by a retired Lieutenant General, who eventually arrived at the conclusion that the figure in the photograph was PFC Harold Schultz and not the Navy Corpsman.  And last month, James Bradley expressed doubt that his father is one of the men in the Rosenthal photo.  

Which brings us back to the folks at the Times and today's update on the controversy.  For whatever reason, Mr. Schmidt and his editors claim the figure in the photo, the memorial and countless reproductions was "wrongly identified" as John Bradley, hinting at motives that were somehow sinister and conspiratorial. 

A complete telling of the episode casts events in a much different light.  The inaccurate identification of Harold Schultz as John Bradley is the product of the fog of war and the reluctance of many Iwo survivors to talk about the horrors of the campaign, which claimed the lives of more than 6,000 Marines and sailors.  

As any student of the battle knows, there were two flag-raisings on Mount Suribachi that day.  The first was performed by members of a 40-man led by lLt Harold Schrier, who reached the top of the peak around 10:30 am.  John Bradley was a Corpsman assigned to that group and participated in the first flag raising, which was recorded by Marine Corps combat photographer Sergeant Lou Lowery.


A photo taken just moments after the initial flag-raising on Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945.  Navy Corpsman John Bradley is the sixth man from the left, with his right hand on the flagstaff.  The image was taken by Marine Corps combat photographer Sgt Lou Lowery and first appeared in Leatherneck magazine in 1947.    

The second flag-raising, also supervised by Lt Schrier, occurred about two hours later.  By that time, Lowery was heading down from the summit to deliver his film for processing.  He ran into Joe Rosenthal and another Marine photographer, Sergeant Bill Genaust, who was carrying a motion picture camera.  Lowery told them he had recorded the flag raising, but encouraged them to continue up Suribachi, because of the good view from the top of the peak.  The second flag went up shortly after Rosenthal and Genaust arrived.  Rosenthal, on assignment for the AP, shot the moment hurriedly, not really sure of what his Speed Graphic had captured. 

With the battle still raging, Rosenthal didn't have time to record the names of the flag raisers.  But, as the photo gained instant acclaim, there was a clamor to identify the men in that image, led by President Roosevelt, and bring them home.  By the time the search began in earnest, three of the Marines (Mike Strank, Franklin Sousley and Harlan Block) had been killed in action, and John Bradley was recovering from battle wounds.  

Among the survivors, Private Rene Gagnon (who served as a runner during most of the battle) was quickly identified as a flag raiser, and officers leaned heavily on him to identify the rest.  He signed an affidavit naming himself, Strank, Sousley, Bradley, Hank Hansen and Ira Hayes as the men in the photo.  Hansen, he claimed, was the Marine closest to the base of the flag pole--a mistake that was not corrected until Harlan Block's mother saw the image and claimed the man in question was actually her son.  At that point, Gagnon revised his account.  Hansen also died on the island and Hayes was a very reluctant participant in the fanfare that followed. Haunted by his experiences in combat, Hayes died of alcoholism in 1955.  

As for John Bradley, he also had no taste for celebrity and was long traumatized by what he witnessed on Iwo.  But he also understood the military, and when directed to take part in the bond drive, the young Corpsman obeyed his orders.  Yet, he also moved to quickly distance himself from the fame accorded to the flag-raisers.  After leaving the Navy, Bradley became a successful funeral director in his home state of Wisconsin, fathered a large family and became a pillar of the community.  

While acknowledging his service in World War II--and participation in the flag-raising--Bradley refused to provide any details.  As recounted in Flags of Our Fathers, John Bradley struggled with the demons of war, weeping in his sleep for many years, and rejecting all media requests for interviews.  Even members of his family knew only the barest details of time in battle.  After Bradley's death in 1994, his widow and children found a Navy Cross in a shoebox in his closet.  John Bradley received the Navy's second highest award for valor on Iwo (for braving withering enemy fire to treat wounded Marines) and never told anyone about it, even his wife of 50 years.  

Likewise, Harold Schultz did his best to bury the past and move on.  Wounded in battle, he returned to the U.S. to recuperate and was discharged from the Marine Corps in the fall of 1945.  He spent the rest of his career working for the Post Office in southern California, living a quiet and humble existence.  Schultz didn't marry until he was 60 and only mentioned the flag-raising once, over the supper table with his wife and step-daughter in 1992.  When his daughter exclaimed "My gosh, Harold, you're a hero," he said "No, I was a Marine."  It was the last time he mentioned the event, although a copy of the Rosenthal photo was among his belongings when Schultz died in 1995.  

The Marine Corps is now updating its records to reflect Schultz's position as one of the flag-raisers.  But why did the mistake persist for so long?  Perhaps the answers can be found in the era that produced such remarkable men.  Both John Bradley and Harold Schultz came from a time when most Americans didn't eagerly seek fame, or to capitalize on their exploits.  Most viewed military service as a necessary  obligation after their country was attacked and they willingly did their job--not necessarily for freedom, democracy or any other lofty ideal, but for their buddies who were serving alongside. 

Raising the flags on the bitterly-contested island was part of a job they had to do.  And when confronted with extraordinary circumstances--namely, being identified as a part of that iconic image and instructed to perform fund-raising and publicity functions that came with the territory--John Bradley reluctantly agreed.  As depicted in his son's book and the Eastwood film, there was enormous pressure to find the men in the photo and leverage that moment to push the nation on towards final victory, particularly in regards to funding the war effort through one last bond drive.  It is very clear that the elder Bradley and Ira Hayes were uncomfortable with their sudden fame and acclaim, and sought to return to a normal life as quickly as possible.  It is also clear that neither tried to profit from the experience; books and films about their lives appeared after their passing.  

The same can be said for Harold Schultz.  He was apparently quite happy to fade into the anonymity of everyday life and saw no need to correct the historical record.  Schultz was likely haunted by the same ghosts that troubled John Bradley, Ira Hayes and the other men who lived through Iwo.  They left too many friends behind to worry about about who might have been in a photo--even if it is one of the most famous images in history.  And if called on to discuss such matters, they did so with great reluctance and the utmost humility.  

That is not to say that historical inaccuracies should not be corrected.  But perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from Harold Schultz, John Bradley and the other men who did their duty on that remote island so many years ago.  It is a lesson in deference and respect, virtues that appear to be fading as quickly as the last men and women from the Greatest Generation.             


Monday, June 20, 2016

God and Airmen at Travis AFB

Returning after an extended break from the blog, I came across this disturbing headline (and accompanying video) at Breitbart:

"Veteran Forcibly Dragged from Air Force Ceremony for Mentioning God."

The video was recorded on 3 April of this year, at a ceremony for Master Sergeant Charles Roberson, who was retiring from active duty after more than 20 years of honorable service.  MSgt Roberson, like many leaving the service, requested a flag-folding as part of the event.  While there is no "official" flag-folding ceremony, it is well-established in military tradition, and there are several narrations which accompany the ritual.

And that's where the controversy at Travis begins.  Sergeant Roberson, like many departing service members, requested a narrative which highlights (in part) our religious heritage and liberties.  Here are a few excerpts:

"The fourth fold represents our weaker nature, for as American citizens trusting in God, it is to Him we turn in times of peace as well as in times of war for His divine guidance."


"The eleventh fold, in the eyes of a Hebrew citizen, represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon and glorifies, in their eyes, the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob.  

The twelfth fold, in the eyes of a Christian citizen, represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost."  

Needless to say, those references didn't sit well with politically-correct Air Force leadership, which issued its a secular version back in 2005.  Religious themes were dumped in favor of "factual information, that shows respect for the flag and expresses our gratitude for those individuals who protect our country, both at home and abroad."

Unfortunately for the USAF's PC Police, many retirees--like MSgt Roberson--preferred the religious narrative and kept using it at their retirement ceremonies.  The vast majority of commanders allowed the choice, figuring (correctly) that the honoree deserved that much, after decades of wearing the nation's uniform and enduring the sacrifices associated with military service. 

But Roberson's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Sovitsky, had other ideas.  As retired Senior Master Sergeant Oscar Rodriguez began reciting the religious-themed flag-folding narrative, at least four of Sovitsky's non-commissioned officers surrounded the narrator and dragged him from the room. Members of Travis's 60th Security Forces Squadron were summoned and Rodriguez was escorted from the base.  

All because a retiring NCO requested a flag-folding narrative that spoke to his religious beliefs.  Let the record show that MSgt Roberson personally invited SMSgt Rodriguez to his retirement ceremony and specifically requested that he render the religious version of the flag-folding narration.  Roberson made his preferences known well in advance, so claims by Air Force p.r. flacks that Rodriguez "disrupted" the ceremony or showed up unannounced are pure bunk.  

In fairness, it is worth noting that leadership in the 749th Maintenance Squadron (Roberson's outfit) were aware of his request and opposed it from the start.  The estimable John Q. Public blog has been on the story from the start and reports that Roberson's chain of command provided "guidance" on the narrative once Roberson made his preferences known: Rodriguez was not to perform the "unauthorized" flag speech.  MSgt Roberson passed on the directive to the narrator, while making clear his preference for the religious-themed narrative.  According to J.Q.P., Roberson left the final decision to Rodriguez as to whether he would stand and speak during the flag folding.  SMSgt Rodriguez chose to exercise his First Amendment rights, and for his efforts, was unceremoniously dragged from the ceremony and kicked off post.  

Some might argue that the Air Force had a right to eject Rodriguez.  His narrative could be construed as an endorsement of Judaism and Christianity, and it took place on public property, specifically a building at Travis AFB.  Volumes of court rulings would seem to support the USAF, no matter how repugnant its actions were.  

But J.Q.P. raises important counter-arguments that demolish the Air Force's position.  He notes that military chaplains often deliver religious invocations at retirement ceremonies and other official events, often appearing in the same frame as the American flag.  As for the Air Force Instruction (34-1201) that mandates use of the "secular" flag-folding script, the reg doesn't carry the weight of law and "creates an unwarranted limitation" on the ability of service members to draw inspiration from the flag and express it publicly.  Such expressions are not contrary to the maintenance of good order and discipline, so the USAF's position is further eroded.  And, there's the very real possibility that leaders of the 749th issued illegal detention orders when they directed those NCOs to remove Oscar Rodriguez.

And here's the kicker: the flag-folding is not part of the official retirement ceremony, so the Trotskyites in the 749th were attempting to dictate content and participation of a private ritual--requested by the retiree--after the conclusion of events that fall under Air Force purview.  Instead, the "leadership" of the unit (and we use that term advisedly) tried to exert total command influence over the event.  What was supposed to be a fitting send-off for a retiring airman instead became a strong-armed spectacle, thanks to commanders who seem to care only about their P.C. agenda--and not those who serve under them.  

J.Q.P. describes the Travis debacle as more proof of the "moral rot" that is crippling the USAF.  Sadly, we can't disagree.  

In response to media queries, the Air Force says an investigation into the matter is underway.  For those keeping score at home, the probe is being handled by the 60th Security Forces Squadron, the same unit  involved in removing Oscar Rodriguez from Travis after he was ejected from MSgt Roberson's retirement ceremony.            

We're quite sure it will be the very model of impartiality and fairness.  



Monday, May 23, 2016

Idiot of the Week (VA Edition)

It's been far too long since our dubious honor was bestowed and we appeared to have an easy winner in Bill Kristol, the neocon pundit who's been trolling for a third party candidate to run against Trump and Hillary.  So far, he's had no luck in finding anyone who's willing to waste six months (and hundreds of millions of dollars) in a futile bid against the presumptive GOP and Democratic nominees.

To be fair, the contest between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton is a bit like deciding between arsenic and hemlock; the outcome will be grim, perhaps fatal, regardless of your choice.  But the idea of recruiting a candidate who would personally deliver the White House to Hillary Clinton is nothing short of a suicide run.  For that alone, Dr. Kristol would normally be a slam-dunk for Idiot of the Week.

Luckily for him, VA Secretary Robert McDonald jumped into the gap and rightfully claimed the booby prize.  In case you haven't heard, the man charged with fixing our broken veterans' health care system told a Washington breakfast that wait times for medical services really don't matter; it's the experience that "counts:"

More from Sarah Westwood at the Washington Examiner:

[The] Veterans Affairs Secretary on Monday compared the length of time veterans wait to receive health care at the VA to the length of time people wait for rides at Disneyland, and said his agency shouldn't use wait times as a measure of success because Disney doesn't either.

"When you got to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what's important? What's important is, what's your satisfaction with the experience?" McDonald said Monday during a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters. "And what I would like to move to, eventually, is that kind of measure."


McDonald faced questions at the breakfast about the VA's lack of transparency surrounding how long veterans must wait to receive care at VA facilities around the country. The agency has weathered controversy over the past several years due to its struggle to provide timely care for many patients.

The VA secretary said most veterans report being satisfied with their care and argued that the average wait time for a veteran seeking VA treatment is only a matter of days.

He said he did not believe a measure called the "create date," which gauges a veteran's wait time by counting from the day the veteran first requests care, was a "valid measure" of a veteran's VA experience.

Of course, Secretary McDonald is wrong on all counts.  Perhaps he's forgotten why he was hired in the first place: because thousands of veterans spent months--sometimes years--waiting for health care that was never delivered and some of them died in the process.  Meanwhile, legions of VA bureaucrats created phony lists to hide the delays and made it appear that patients were being seen in a timely manner, so they could collect their annual bonuses.  

And things have actually gotten worse since McDonald replaced the equally hapless Eric Shinseki at the VA.  Less than a year ago, the Washington Post reported that wait times for some VA services have actually increased during McDonald's watch, despite the infusion of billions of dollars in new funding.

Making matters worse, the new VA Secretary has made little progress in weeding out the criminals and incompetents who populate the workforce at various veterans hospitals and other facilities around the country.  Testifying before Congress, McDonald claimed to have fired 900 workers, including many with ties to the appointment scandal.  But a closer examination revealed that most were probationary employees who were let go after one year on the job.  The same post investigation found that only 60 VA staffers had been disciplined in connection with the scandal, and most remained on the job.  

Even more disturbing: not a single VA employee has been faced criminal sanctions for the appointment scandal.  We're not federal prosecutors, but it would appear that creating falsified records to collect a bonus might be grounds for fraud charges, at a minimum.  But then again, no one at the VA seems particularly anxious to punish the guilty.  Lest anyone forget, the agency's inspector general, in an impressive feat of oversight gymnastics, determined in 2014 that excessive wait times "weren't directly responsible" for the deaths of scores of veterans.  Obviously, the long delays for service didn't exactly promote good health, but the IG's contortions bought the agency--and it's new director--a little daylight. 

Two years later, it's apparent that Mr. McDonald is playing out the string and has abandoned any hope at meaningful reform.  Not that the commander-in-chief is pushing him to make things better for those who wore the nation's uniform.  Having weathered the storm, Mr. Obama has long since moved on to other things.  In fact, the VA scandal is a model for all the controversies that have engulfed the Obama Administration, and how they are handled.  Faced with a crisis and/or potential activity, the White House adopts the "right" narrative, feeds it to a compliant media and hunkers down, waiting for the scandal to blow over.  

Indeed, the VA controversy was squarely on the back burner until McDonald opened his mouth this morning.  But don't look for the one-time Proctor & Gamble CEO to lose his current gig.  The President doesn't want to go through the hassle of finding another VA Secretary for the last six months of his term, and so far, we haven't found a single Republican politician who has called for McDonald to resign.  Better to use him as campaign fodder and let the agency keep lurching along.  If the "VA experience" kills a few more vets, no big deal.  The smart boys and girls in D.C. view veterans as a shrinking voting bloc--they're much more concerned about courting the federal employees who work at the VA, a much more reliable constituency for Democrats.  

In a sane world, Robert McDonald would already be on his way out the door.  You'd think that a former Titan of the Business World might have more of a clue about customer service.  Clearly, the stores that sell P&G products--and the consumers who buy them--would never tolerate the kind of "service" that McDonald is providing through the VA.  And for that matter, neither would the folks who run Disney.  Contrary to Mr. McDonald's assertions, the Mouse keeps very close tabs on wait times at its theme parks, because Disney understands that unhappy "guests" are less likely to return and spend more money.  Wait times for various Disney attractions is as close as the internet; you can even download an app and find out how long you'll wait in line for Space Mountain or Cinderella's Castle.  

And we're talking about an amusement park, not a vast health care network whose service level can mean the difference between life and death.  That's one reason why there will never be a smart phone app for wait times at the VA; those are still measured with a calendar and no one at the agency wants to admit that the situation may be worse than before.  Leading that parade is a West Point grad who ought to know better, but sadly, he's just our Idiot of the Week.              




Sunday, May 15, 2016

Wiped Out

Few people realize it, but the U.S. Air Force has been at war for 25 years.  Beginning with Operation Desert Storm in January 1991 and continuing through the current conflict against ISIS, the USAF has been continuously deployed, enduring an exhaustive operations tempo that has taken its toll on aircraft and personnel. 

And, making matters worse, the Air Force is much smaller than it was a quarter-century ago.  Many of the squadrons that took the fight to Saddam have been inactivated; their aircraft now sit in the "Boneyard" at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, baking in the Arizona sun.  Thousands of airmen who flew, maintained or supported those aircraft have moved on as well; the service has trimmed more than 100,000 personnel from its ranks over the past 25 years, and sequestration-mandated cuts have accelerated that trend. 

Now, with on-going operations in the Middle East, a resurgent Russia and growing threats from China and Iran, the Air Force finds itself in an increasingly precarious position.  Some airmen openly question whether their service could carry out missions it performed only five years ago, during the limited air campaign against Libya.  As Fox News reports:

Many of the Airmen reported feeing “burnt out” and “exhausted” due to the current pace of operations, and limited resources to support them. During the visit to Ellsworth earlier this week, Fox News was told only about half of the 28th Bomb Wing’s fleet of bombers can fly. 

“We have only 20 aircraft assigned on station currently. Out of those 20 only nine are flyable,” Pfrommer said.  

“The [B-1] I worked on 20 years ago had 1,000 flight hours on it.  Now we're looking at some of the airplanes out here that are pushing over 10,000 flight hours,” he said.  

"In 10 years, we cut our flying program in half," said Capt. Elizabeth Jarding, a B-1 pilot at Ellsworth who returned home in January following a six-month deployment to the Middle East for the anti-ISIS campaign.  

In fairness, the aircraft at Ellsworth are undergoing a major systems upgrade that required the B-1 to take a break from the war on terror.  The "Bone" (as its known to aircrews and maintainers) will return to the fight, but in the interim, a number of airframes will be grounded as the aircraft acquires new and improved capabilities.  

But it's not just the B-1 fleet that is facing operational problems.  At Shaw AFB, South Carolina, home to the 20th Fighter Wing, mission-capable rates for the assigned F-16CJ squadrons remain abysmally low; of the 79 Vipers at the base, only 42% can actually deploy.  The CJ model is viewed as a critical resource by air planners, since it performs the suppression of air defenses (SEAD) mission.  Obviously, ISIS doesn't have much in the way of AD assets, but in a conflict against a regional power, the F-16CJ would play a vital role.   The problems at Shaw are identical to those at Ellsworth:

That's because they, too, are missing parts. One F-16 squadron that recently returned last month from a deployment to the Middle East had a host of maintenance issues. 

“Our first aircraft downrange this deployment, we were short 41 parts,” Chief Master Sgt. Jamie Jordan said.  To get the parts, the airmen had to take parts from another jet that deployed, leaving one less F-16 to fight ISIS. At one point, Jordan said they were taking parts from three separate aircraft.

When asked about the efficiency of taking parts from expensive fighter jets, Jordan said the costs were not just in dollars: “From a man-hour perspective, it's very labor intensive and it really takes a toll.”

 Overall, the Air Force has 30% fewer airmen, 40% fewer aircraft and 60% fewer fighter squadrons than it did 25 years ago.  The average "age" of a USAF aircraft is 27; many are older than the pilots who fly them and the maintenance troops than maintain them.  

Responding to a query from FNC, Pentagon press spokesman Peter Cook was asked if Defense Secretary Ash Carter believed the maintenance and budget issues affecting flying units was widespread.  "No, I don't think so," Mr. Cook replied.  He claims the issue has been discussed "at length" and is being addressed.  

That exchange probably left a lot of Air Force commanders scratching their heads.  If talk equated action, then every squadron in the USAF would have a Fully Mission Capable (FMC) rate approaching 100%.  But the reality is reflected in those numbers at Ellsworth, Shaw and virtually every other Air Force installation.  Aging jets are breaking more frequently; the service doesn't have the money to fully fund its maintenance program, and in some cases, spare parts can't be found because production stopped years ago, or the vendor is no longer in business.  And, at the same time, aircrews and maintainers burned out by non-stop deployments are voting with their feet and leaving the service.  

It's a vicious cycle that is compromising America's dominance in the skies, with damning consequences for future military campaigns.  It's also worth remembering that any solution to this problem will require time and a massive investment of defense dollars.  The timeline from the hollow force of the late 70s to the military juggernaut that smashed Saddam stretched out over 10-15 years.  Even if this administration--and the next one--were truly interested in fixing this problem, the airmen at Ellsworth, Shaw and other bases won't see any relief for years to come.   

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Calling the Air Police, Redux

 A Russian transport is shadowed by an RAF Typhoon of NATO's air policing force near the Baltic coast (UK MoD photo via Sky News)

Recently, we've taken a few shots at NATO's "Air Policing" mission in the Baltics.  And, we think the crews of the USS Donald Cook and USAF RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft would probably agree.  Fighter detachments from the UK and Portugal, which recently assumed the air police mission, were noticeably absent when Russian SU-24 strike fighters buzzed the Cook in the Baltic Sea and SU-27 interceptors did barrel rolls around RC-135s on two different missions off the Baltic coast.

In fairness, we should point out that the primary mission of the air police contingent is to protect NATO's Baltic members, which lack their own air forces.  The Cook and the RC-135s were in international territory when they were harassed by Russian aircraft.  Perhaps NATO commanders determined that RAF Typhoons and F-16s from Portugal were too far away to respond, or they simply didn't want to escalate the incident.  So, the Rivet Joint crews were on their own, as were the men and women manning the Cook.

But we are happy to report that the air police contingent is doing more than sitting on the ramp at their deployment bases in Estonia (where the Typhoons are based) and Lithuania, home for the Portuguese detachment will spend the next four months.  The UK MoD has proudly announced that its fighters conducted intercepts of three Russian transport aircraft in recent days, including an IL-76 Candid, the Russian equivalent of our long-retired C-141.

Interestingly, the Typhoons were scrambled because the Russian aircraft were not transmitting a recognized IFF code.  That's the same excuse Moscow has used for those recent, aggressive intercepts of the RC-135s.  According to an RAF officer, intercepts of those lumbering transports were carried out in textbook fashion.

Well, jolly good, old boy.  Unfortunately, no one has yet answered why the air policing force won't respond to incidents like those involving the Cook and the RC-135s.  While a UK official described the transport flights as "acts of aggression," they pale in comparison to Russian harassment of the U.S. destroyer and aggressive maneuvering in close proximity to RJ aircraft.  Those episodes have the potential for disaster and you'd think the Atlantic alliance would be a little more forceful in its response.  But at least we can keep up with the Candids, Coots and Curls.

At this point, we're guessing the Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians are wondering what it would take to field their own air forces.  NATO's intercept program--which appears to be a bit selective in nature--doesn't inspire confidence.  



"We Could Have Been There"

The Benghazi scandal might have passed quickly from public memory had it not been for the work of two journalists at Fox News, Catherine Herridge and Adam Housley.  Ms. Herridge, who covers the intelligence beat, has generated a number of scoops on the story; she discovered, for example, the 16 August 2012 cable from the U.S. compound in Benghazi to the State Department, describing "imminent danger" to the facility and warning that the consulate could not defend itself against a coordinated attack.  Eventually, it was disclosed that Ambassador Chris Stevens (who died in the attack) sent scores of messages voicing security concerns, but they were ignored by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.    

She also confirmed that the American government was deeply involved in the flow of weapons into Libya, long before opposition forces in that country were "recognized" and the transfer of weaponry was approved.  Ms. Herridge was also among the first to confirm that the intelligence community knew the Benghazi attack was terrorism "within 24 hours," as senior administration officials discussed a media strategy to shift blame on a little-seen internet video which was offensive to Muslims.

Mr. Housley has been working another story angle, reaching out to current/former military personnel who were on the scene, or privy to some of the decision making that occurred on that fateful night in September 2012.  Housley first disclosed that military assets were available to assist American diplomats and security contractors on the ground, including a 40-member special operations team that was participating in an exercise in Croatia.  Had a "go" order been given, the team could have been on the ground in Libya in three to four hours, while the attack was still in progress. Such reporting contradicted another key talking point from the administration which insisted that forces were not available, or could not arrive in time to make a difference.

Now, Mr. Housley is back with more information on the military response.  He interviewed a member of the U.S. Air Force who was stationed at Aviano AB in northern Italy at the time of the Benghazi attack.  The source is identified as a member of "one of the squadrons" at the base; presumably, that's a reference to the 510th or 555th Fighter Squadrons, the F-16 units which form the backbone of the 31st Fighter Wing.

The airman, who asked not be be identified (because he fears potential retribution), described a beehive of activity on the Aviano flightline that night, in preparation for a possible contingency operation:

His squadron got the alert: a “real world mission was going down.”  
The team – at Aviano Air Base in northeastern Italy – raced to the field and was briefed, as planes were armed and prepared to launch. Hundreds of miles away, fellow Americans were under attack in Benghazi.

"There were people everywhere,” said the witness, who was on the ground that night but wished to remain anonymous. “That flight line was full of people, and we were all ready to go” to Benghazi. 

Only they were waiting for the order. It never came.


he said, that a team was ready to go that night to help protect Americans under fire in Benghazi – an account that runs counter to multiple official reports, including from a House committee, a timeline provided by the military and the controversial State Department Accountability Review Board investigation, which concluded the interagency response to Benghazi was “timely and appropriate.”

The source said: "I definitely believe that our aircraft could have taken off and gotten there in a timely manner, maybe three hours at the most, in order to at least stop that second mortar attack … and basically save lives that day."

The source also refuted claims that an airstrike against terrorists attacking US personnel in Benghazi was "unfeasible" due to the lack of air refueling tankers.  Aviano is just over 1,000 miles from the Libyan city; even with two external fuel tanks, F-16s from the Italian base would need to stop enroute and refuel.  The most logical destination is NAS Sigonella, Sicily, 600 miles from Aviano.  If Sigonella is equipped for "hot pit" refueling (with aircraft engines running), the process would be expedited.  Without that capability, the F-16s would be forced to shut down their engine and refueling would take a bit longer.  

By some estimates, a small element of F-16s could have reached Benghazi within three and a half to four hours after departure from Aviano--including the fuel stop at Sigonella.  That would put the Vipers overhead before the attack on the CIA annex, where Glen Doherty and Ty Woods were killed.  Most analysts believe a low-level, afterburner pass by the F-16s would send the terrorists scurrying and could have prevented the assault on the annex.  

Still, there are a number of details missing from the Fox report.  Was a recall issued by the 31st Fighter Wing commander for personnel to report to base and begin preparations?  When was the recall received?  How many F-16s were readied for possible launch on a Benghazi mission?  What was the planned munitions load?  Did pilots actually receive a briefing for the mission, either in the squadron or in the cockpit? Was Sigonella notified to provide refueling support for a possible strike in Libya?  More details about these elements would provide a better idea about the level of preparation at Aviano on the night of September 11, 2012.  

But this latest account is important, for a couple of reasons.  First, it contradicts administration claims that military options were considered and quickly rejected, due to time and distance considerations.  The airman who spoke with Adam Housley indicates the 31st Fighter Wing was leaning forward as events in Libya unfolded and could have launched a strike package, had the order been given.  

Secondly, the story affirms that a number of other military commands were involved that night.  The senior officer responsible for our forces in Libya that night was General Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).  As luck would have it, General Ham was in Washington that evening and coordinated with his Germany-based staff from the Pentagon. 

It has been widely reported that General Ham quickly proposed a military response for Benghazi, but was rebuffed by administration officials.  Exactly who vetoed the plan remains unclear; President Obama's whereabouts on the night of 11 September 2012 remain unknown.  He received an initial brief from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and JCS Chairman General Martin Dempsey around 5:30 pm and was incommunicado until departing for a campaign trip to Nevada the following morning.  

While the president took a powder, other officials were on the job.  Secretary Panetta's chief of staff sent an e-mail to four senior Hillary Clinton aides that evening, announcing that DoD had identified assets which could be dispatched to Benghazi and they were "spinning up."  That claim certainly jibes with the activity at Aviano that night.

The F-16s at that base were being readied to support AFRICOM.  But they are a part of U.S. Air Forces in Europe (headquartered at Ramstein AB, Germany) and 3rd Air Force, also based at Ramstein.  Getting the 31st Wing ready for a possible mission would require the concurrence of all the air commands supporting AFRICOM.  But, to our knowledge, there has been no formal query about the roles played by Lt Gen Craig Franklin (3rd Air Force Commander, now retired); General Phillip Breedlove (USAFE Commander at the time and later served as the leader of EUCOM before retiring two weeks ago).  None of these officers have testified before the Congressional Committee on Benghazi, and it's unclear if they have been interviewed as a part of the investigation.  Ditto for Brigadier General Scott Zobrist, who was Commander of the 31st Fighter Wing in the fall of 2012, and (presumably) supervised the preparations referenced in the Fox report.  General Zobrist recently received his second star and a new assignment as Deputy Commander for the Air Component for CENTCOM. 

Responding to these latest claims about possible military action at Benghazi, Congressman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina said it was "deeply troubling there are individuals who would like to share their stories, but have not because they are afraid of retaliation from their superiors."  Mr. Gowdy, Chairman of the Select Committee looking into the Benghzi debacle, also criticized the Obama Administration for "stonewalling" on certain witness requests.  

But Mr. Gowdy and his fellow Republicans bear certain responsibilities as well.  As we've noted in the past, his investigators have demonstrated a certain tardiness in tracking down witnesses like the airman from Aviano, or a special forces operator who was also interviewed by Mr. Housely.  The special ops vet expressed "frustration" at watching events unfold and realizing that nothing would be done to assist Americans at the consulate, or the CIA annex.  

If a reporter from Fox News can locate these individuals, you'd think Congressional investigators could do the same.  It's not like General Zobrist is in the witness protection program, and with a little more digging, they can find the grunts who were preparing for a possible military response.  




Wednesday, May 04, 2016


Our friends in Western Europe can sleep well; NATO's air forces are on guard, and ready to defend the alliance against potential airliner threats.

For the second time in less than a week, NATO fighters scrambled to intercept a commercial jetliner that lost radio contact in European skies.  In the latest incident (which occurred yesterday), a pair of RAF Typhoons escorted an Air France jet traveling from Paris to Newcastle after it developed a radio problem.  The British jets triggered at least two sonic booms across northern England as they rushed to intercept the commercial flight.

Last week, passengers on a British Airways jet over Hungary were surprised when a pair of JAS-39 Gripen fighters appeared alongside their aircraft.  The Gripens, which serve as front-line interceptors for the Hungarian Air Force, were dispatched after controllers lost contact with the Boeing 777, enroute from Dubai to Heathrow Airport in London.  Both airliners landed safely, and aside from a few nervous passengers, no further problems were reported.

Post 9-11, intercepting a jetliner that loses its transponder or doesn't respond to ATC communications has become standard practice--and rightfully so.  But these incidents also highlight an apparent dichotomy in dealing with airborne threats, both potential and real.

While NATO was quick to react to those non-responsive jetliners, it's air assets were noticeably absent during Russia's recent harassment of a Navy destroyer and RC-135 reconnaissance jets operating in the Baltic Region.  Last week, Russian SU-27 fighters flew dangerously close to an RC-135 on a routine collection mission over the Baltic; the pilot capped his intercept with a barrel roll around the lumbering recce jet, a move the U.S. described as "dangerous" and "unprofessional."  It was the second time in less than a month that a Russian fighter conducted that maneuver while shadowing an RC-135.

While the U.S. has vigorously protested these incidents (you can almost hear the laughter from the Kremlin), we've been less aggressive in taking steps to protect our assets in the region.  Specifically, there is still no evidence that NATO's vaunted Baltic "Air Policing" force was ever scrambled in support of the RC-135 missions, or to assist the USS Donald Cook, the destroyer that endured dozens of dangerously low passes from Russian SU-24 attack jets in early April.

As we've noted previously, the air policing mission was implemented when the Baltic states--Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia--joined NATO more than a decade ago.  With no air forces of their own, the Baltic countries rely on rotating packages of aircraft, pilots and ground crews to provide some semblance of air defense protection against Russian incursions.  Currently, the air policing mission is being handled by six RAF Typhoons and four F-16s from Portugal's Air Force.  The UK dispatched two additional Typhoons to the region after the recent incidents involving U.S. assets.

Of course, these detachments are little more than a token force which could offer modest resistance if Vladimir Putin decided one day to retake one--or all--of the Baltic countries.  But they could be effective in chasing off Russian fighters that are harassing other NATO assets.  The Typhoon, for example, is an advanced, fourth-generation fighter that is more than a match for the Flankers and Fencers that have been buzzing US ships and aircraft.  But an aircraft like the Typhoon isn't much good if it's sitting on the ground while, not far away, a Flanker is closing to within 25 feet of an RC-135, endangering the lives of all crew members involved.

And, it's not that NATO was unaware of these episodes.  Senior officers watched them unfold at the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Ramstein AB, Germany, which has melded situational displays of all activity in the alliance's northern tier.  Yet, as far as we can discern, no scramble order was given; the sailors on the Cook and the crews of those RC-135s were on their own.

That's not to say NATO's "air police" are purely a ground-bound force.  Earlier this year, it was disclosed that alliance fighters in the Baltic scrambled back on the night of March 29, 2013, when a pair of Russian TU-22 Backfire bombers (escorted by four SU-27s) flew a simulated nuclear strike profile against Sweden.  Stockholm was caught completely surprised by the move; the Swedish Air Force apparently had no aircraft, pilots or crews on ground alert, so a pair of Danish Air Force F-16s, assigned to the air policing mission, intercepted the Russian package as it flew over the Baltic.

Curiously, we can't find a single instance where the media--particularly the so-called "defense press"--has bothered to ask about the rules of engagement for the air police mission, and the criteria used for scrambling those assets.  Sending the F-16s up in support of Sweden made sense, but leaving them on the ground while Russian fighters harass U.S. aircraft and ships left many observers shaking their heads.

These latest provocations from Moscow came as NATO prepared to welcome a new Supreme Allied Commander.  U.S. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti assumed the post yesterday, replacing Air Force General Philip Breedlove, who is retiring.  Before relinquishing his final command, General Breedlove sat for an interview with Stars and Stripes, advocating that U.S. forces in Europe (along with the rest of NATO), get back into the business of war planning.

Breedlove said more work needs to be done to lift EUCOM out of its post-Cold War mindset, which resulted in "building partner capacity," military parlance for training missions. EUCOM is a "mere fraction" of what it was a generation ago, a downsizing that occurred when the U.S. was trying to make a partner out of Russia.

"We changed EUCOM based on that paradigm," Breedlove said.

Reorienting EUCOM into a warfighting headquarters likely would demand more resources, more troops and new contingency plans to conduct combat operations within Europe.

But re-orienting NATO and its American component towards warfighting won't be easy--or cheap.  Only a handful of alliance members spend more than 2% of their GDP on defense, and most have made major cuts in their armed forces over the last 15 years.  Restoring even a portion of those capabilities will require herculean efforts, and there are no guarantees that our European allies will make those investments.  

Meanwhile, President Obama is proposing a significant increase in defense spending in Europe, and the U.S. is deploying additional assets in the region.  A squadron of F-22 Raptors from Tyndall AFB, Florida began a month-long rotation to the UK in April.  While deployed, small numbers of Raptors have paid visits to bases in eastern Europe, including a brief stopover in Lithuania last week. A squadron of A-10s from Moody AFB, Georgia recently began a six-month rotation to the region and the U.S. is supporting a NATO proposal to maintain four infantry battalions in the Baltics and Poland, to further deter Russian aggression.  

Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin isn't really impressed by these recent demonstrations of resolve.  He knows the Baltic states have no hope of defending themselves without NATO assistance, and the alliance currently lacks the resources (and some would say resolve) to protect its most vulnerable members against the sort of asymmetrical conflict that Moscow waged against Georgia and has been conducting against the Ukraine.  

This doesn't mean a Russian invasion of Estonia is imminent.  Putin prefers to play all the cards in his hand, so we can expect more veiled threats and intimidation against NATO's eastern frontier, along with additional harassment incidents, aimed at depicting the Atlantic Alliance as a paper tiger.  He will also take advantage of the influx of Middle Eastern refugees, which have forced many NATO countries to focus security efforts internally.  Putin is betting that nations like Germany, France, Belgium, Italy and the UK won't spend the money required to deal with a rising terror threat and beef up their armed forces to counter his expansionist agenda. 

The Russian leader also understands that NATO's weakness begins in Washington, D.C.  Mr. Obama's feckless policy in Syria opened the door for Putin, and he is seizing the opportunity in the Middle East and Europe.  Media reports indicate that Obama and Putin held one of their periodic phone calls last month, just days after one of the harassment incidents.  Mr. Obama never raised the issue in his conversation with his Russian counterpart.  It doesn't take an expert to understand that Putin viewed that rectitude as a green light for more adventurism.  

No wonder the "air police" are nowhere to be found when a Flanker jock barrel rolls around an RC-135, or a pair of Fencers repeatedly buzz a US destroyer in international waters.  Decades of defense cuts, coupled with the failure to recognize a resurgent Russia and weakness among key alliance members have put NATO in quite a hole.  And there are few indications that NATO is serious about climbing out.  





Friday, April 15, 2016

Calling the Air Police

 A Russian SU-24 Fencer roars over the USS Donald Cook earlier this week (US Navy photo via CBS News). 

Many observers were stunned by video and still images of Russian SU-24s buzzing the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea this week.  According to the Navy, SU-24s made low passes over the Arleigh Burke class destroyer on successive days (11 and 12 April) as it operated off the coast of Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave located between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Coast.  During the first encounter on Monday, a pair of SU-24s (Russia's answer to our long-retired F-111) made at least 20 near the American ship, flying within 1,000 yards and at altitudes as low as 100 feet.

The following day, two Russian KA-27 Helix helicopters circled the vessel, apparently taking photographs.  Then, the SU-24s (NATO code name "Fencer) returned, executing dangerously low passes over the Cook, flying a simulated attack profile.  A senior defense official told CBS News the Fencers were so low, their jet exhaust created wakes in the water.     

But members of the Cook crew took the incident in stride.  After all, the Norfolk-based DDG experienced a similar encounter in 2014, while patrolling in the Black Sea.  After returning to port, the ship's skipper affirmed U.S. plans to operate in international waters, a claim that was echoed up the chain of command.  A spokesman at U.S. European Command headquarters criticized the Russians for their "unprofessional" and "aggressive" conduct.

Surprisingly, Secretary of State John Kerry went a step further, claiming the American vessel had the right to shoot down the Russian jets because of their provocative actions.  But Navy officials quickly down-played that possibility, noting the Cook never received electronic indications that the SU-24 crews were preparing to employ weapons against the destroyer. 

And, given the restrictive rules of engagement often employed by the Obama Administration, there are legitimate questions about the commander's authority to engage the SU-24s, given the lack of attack indicators (other than some extraordinarily aggressive flying).  Navy skippers don't want to start World War III--or lose their careers--because of aggressive maneuvering by Russian ships and planes. 

During the Cold War, such behavior was commonplace; Soviet intelligence "trawlers" routinely interfered with U.S. carrier groups, trying to interrupt flight operations.  During one legendary episode off the coast of North Vietnam, a fed-up naval aviator named John Wunche decuded to get even.  Preparing to land in a KA-3 tanker, Commander Wunche got the wave-off from his LSO on the USS Bon Homme Richard and prepared to go around.  Meanwhile, the Russian intel collector--known as an AGI--tried to maneuver in the carrier's path.

Wunche spotted the intel collector dead ahead and in just a few seconds, became a Navy hero.  He leveled his KA-3 at about a hundred feet and opened all the fuel dumps, spraying the Soviet vessel with a generous coat of jet fuel as he thundered overhead.  Wunche roared away as the intelligence trawler slowed to a dead stop, and the carrier passed astern.  The Russians had to shut down all power systems and break out the fire hoses, to prevent an idle arc from igniting the jet fuel and turning their ship into an inferno.

Unfortunately, there wasn't a carrier--or a pilot like John Wunche--on-scene to assist the Donald Cook earlier this week.  But NATO air assets were in the region, and their apparent inactivity remains one of the mysteries of the "buzzing" episode.  For more than a decade, NATO members have maintained an aerial quick reaction force, to protect the airspace of its Baltic members.  At any given time, small detachments of NATO fighter aircraft and support personnel are stationed at bases in Lithuania and Estonia.

In the past, elements of the so-called "Air Policing Force" have responded to Russian provocations.  Earlier this year, NATO admitted that its fighters reacted when Russian aircraft conducted a mock nuclear strike against Sweden in 2013, and Stockholm's air force was caught unprepared.  The air police detachment is controlled through the NATO Combined Air Operations Center at Ramstein AB, Germany.  CAOC personnel have access to a melded, all-source surveillance picture, utilizing air, land, naval and even space centers.  It's a given that the radar picture from the Cook was a part of the display, so NATO knew what the Russians were up to, and tracked them long before they passed near the U.S. vessel.

So, why were the RAF Typhoons and Portuguese F-16s (currently assigned to the air policing mission) never vectored to assist the ?USS Donald Cook?  Or if they were, why did controllers keep them away from the Fencers that were buzzing the ship?  The SU-24 is not an air-to-air platform; it's designed to attack targets low and fast and only carries short-range IR missiles for self-defense.  Scrambling the Typhoons and/or the F-16s might have persuaded the Russians to head for home--and demonstrated a bit more resolve from the Atlantic alliance.

But the Russians have learned that NATO doesn't match aggression with aggression.  So, the Fencers (and other elements of Putin's air force) will return.  When the first arrow in your quiver is the sharply-worded diplomatic protest, this type of problem tends to persist.