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.                




Thursday, April 14, 2016

(Not Quite) Ready for Launch

**UPDATE/15 April** U.S. and ROK defense officials report the test of North Korea's intermediate range missile ended in failure.  The missile, believed to be a BM-25 Musudan, exploded shortly after launch.  The South Korean Defense Ministry reported the failure shortly after it was detected, and U.S. Strategic Command confirmed that assessment.

Needless to say, North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-un is probably displeased at this turn of events, so there are probably a few more rocket scientists in the gulag this morning, or anti-aircraft gun crews have some new targets to work with.

But the failure will not deter Pyongyang.  Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia program at the James Martin Non-Proliferation Center in California, told the Washington Post that North Korea will still gain valuable data from the test, figure out what went wrong, and eventually achieve success.  The younger Kim and his ruling clique are merciless, but they are also patient in pursuit of their WMD and ballistic missile goals.


It remains one of the biggest mysteries of the North Korean ballistic missile program.  Since 2010, the DPRK has ocasionally exhibited an intermediate range, road-mobile missile, nicknamed the Musudan. Leaked intelligence reporting also suggests the system (sometimes referred to as the BM-25) has been exported to Iran, giving that country another potential delivery platform for conventional or nuclear warheads.

Still, our knowledge of the Musudan--and its operational status in North Korea and Iran--remains limited, for a simple reason.  The BM-25 has never been flight-tested by Pyongyang or Tehran.  Some analysts believe the missiles displayed by Pyongyang are actually decoys or mock-ups, suggesting that development of the operational system has lagged behind.

But that intel gap may soon be filled.  Pentagon sources tell CBS News and the Associated Press that North Korea is expected to conduct a test launch of the missile, possibly within the next 12 hours:

The missile in question is a Musadan, which is road mobile and has enough range to reach the Aleutians and Guam. It's never been tested before, so this is another step toward being able to threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon. 

Friday, April 15 marks the birthday of Kim Il-sung, the "Great Leader" who rule North Korea from 1948 until his death in 1994. 

Given Pyongyang's penchant for conducting military demonstrations on key historical dates, the Friday launch window is hardly surprising.  It's also clear that the Pentagon's prediction is based on more than Kim Il-Sung's birthdate.  Apparently, our intel systems have detected late-stage launch preparations which suggest the BM-25 will make its first flight in the next day or so.  Those preparations likely involve fueling of the missile; the Musudan (like many older systems) utilizes a liquid fuel; once the tanks have been filled, the missile must remain at the launch site because it lacks the structural strength to be safely transported to another location.  

A fueled BM-25 can remain in that configuration for up to several weeks.  Expectations for a near-term launch may be based on other indications, such as the expected arrival of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (and other VIPs), or the establishment of airspace closure areas near the test site.  That location has not been disclosed by US officials but in the spring of 2013, two Musudans, mounted on their mobile launchers, were observed along the DPRK's east coast, raising speculation about a possible launch.  However, the missiles were eventually removed from that site, and the launch was never conducted.  

The expected Musudan test comes amid escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, and a recent string of provocations by Pyongyang.  North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test earlier this year; launched a long-range missile from the Sohae Space Center in February, and fired an ICBM engine at the same complex last week.  A successful BM-25 launch would be evidence of continued progress in the DPRK's efforts to field missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons against targets in the Far East and the CONUS.  Most experts still believe North Korea lacks the ability to produce a "miniaturized" nuclear warhead that can fit on the Musudan, or longer-range missiles like the KN-08 and KN-14, believed capable of hitting targets in the western United States.  

Mastering that technology is just a matter of time.  Technology sales to Iran help fund development efforts, and North Korea has long-established ties with Pakistan, which have helped it obtain (and advance) nuclear technology.  There are also questions about how much "help" Pyongyang may have received from Russia.  The BM-25 is based on the SS-N-6, an old, Soviet-era SLBM design which was designed to carry three nuclear warheads, and deployed on Yankee I class ballistic missile subs.  Moscow claims that nuclear technology was omitted from the blueprints and other technical data that was sold to Pyongyang.  Given the current level of technical competence in the DPRK, it wouldn't be difficult for North Korean scientists to develop a nuclear version of the Musudan.  
ADDENDUM:  Reporting from South Korean media, including the semi-official Yonhap news agency, indicates the BM-25 being prepped for launch was observed near the port city of Wonsan, on North Korea's east coast.        



Wednesday, April 06, 2016

The Missing Element

Eric Engberg passed away last week at his retirement home in Palmetto, Florida.  The former CBS News correspondent was 74.

Depending on your perspective, Mr. Engberg was either an accomplished and revered member of the Fourth Estate, or a journalistic hack, the embodiment of what's wrong with today's news media.

Not surprisingly, many of Engberg's peers described him in glowing terms.  Dan Rather, anchor of the CBS Evening News during much of Engberg's career at the network, called him "one of the best TV correspondents of his generation, “tough but fair, and that rarity: a hard-nosed reporter with a sense of humor.”

Mr. Engberg was also praised as an innovator.  During the early 1990s, he created a segment called Reality Check that sought to uncover the real truth behind changes and counter-charges leveled during a presidential campaign.  After the race ended, the segment often targeted government waste and corruption.  Memorable exposes included his report on an $18 million subway built to carry Senators a few hundred yards from their offices to the U.S. Capitol, and an unnoticed change in federal election laws that allowed members of the house to buy radio ads with taxpayer money.

In 1998, Engberg aired his most famous report, presenting compelling evidence that the Vietnam veteran buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns was actually Air Force 1Lt Michael Blassie, who was shot down in 1972.  The segment resulted in the exhumation of his remains, a positive identification, return to his family, and reburial at a national cemetery in St. Louis, not far from his boyhood home.

Obituaries of Mr. Engberg mention the DuPont-Columbia Award he won for the Blassie segment; his willingness to pose tough questions to politicians (and pressing them when they refused to comment) and that distinctive, booming voice.  At one point in his career, Engberg was asked to take a hearing test because the VU needles pegged whenever he recorded a voice-over or stand-up.  "You're not deaf," the audiologist told him, "just loud."

But there's at least one, important element missing from recollections of Mr. Engberg's career.  During the 1996 presidential campaign, he delivered an infamous "Reality Check" on GOP candidate Steve Forbes and his plan for a flat tax.  Ostensibly, it was supposed to reveal the flaws in Mr. Forbes proposal.  But Engberg's segment was nothing more than a hit piece, masquerading as fact-based journalism.  A few days later, his colleague Bernard Goldberg took it apart, in an equally-famous op-ed published by The Wall Street Journal:

He starts out saying: "Steve Forbes pitches his flat-tax scheme as an economic elixir, good for everything that ails us." Sure, the words "scheme" and "elixir" are loaded, conjuring up images of Doctor Feelgood selling worthless junk out of the back of his wagon. But this is nothing more than a prelude--warm-up material to get us into the right frame of mind. 

The report shows Mr. Forbes saying the U.S. economy can grow twice as fast if we remove "obstacles, starting with the tax code." Mr. Forbes may be right or wrong about this, so Mr. Engberg lets us know which it is. "Time out!" he shouts in his signature style. "Economists say nothing like that has ever actually happened."

He then introduces us to William Gale of the Brookings Institution, who says: "It doesn't seem plausible to think that we're going to have a whole new economy or economic Renaissance Age due to tax reform."

CBS News instructs its reporters and producers to identify people in a way that will help the audience understand any political bias they might have. We are told, for example, to identify the Heritage Foundation as "a conservative think tank." I have done this on more than one occasion, myself. It's a good policy.

But where was the identification of the Brookings Institution as "a liberal think tank"? Might that influence Mr. Gale's take on the flat tax? Instead, Mr. Gale was presented to America simply as an expert with no tax ax to grind.


Mr. Engberg concludes his piece à la David Letterman by saying that "Forbes's Number One Wackiest Flat Tax Promise" is the candidate's belief that it would give parents "more time to spend with their children and each other." 

Can you imagine, in your wildest dreams, a network news reporter calling Hillary Clinton's health care plan "wacky"? Can you imagine any editor allowing it? 

You probably remember what happened next.  CBS never reprimanded Mr. Engberg for his thoroughly biased report, and never issued an apology or correction.  In fact, Dan Rather and the suits at CBS News saw nothing wrong with the segment.  Mr. Goldberg, on the other hand, became personna non grata at the network; he vanished from the airwaves and narrowly escaped being fired.  After sensitive negotiations, he was allowed to remain on the payroll until he became eligible for a pension.  Engberg remained a regular contributor to the Evening News until he retired in 2003. 

While he remained a pariah at network, Mr. Goldberg enjoyed something of a career renaissance after leaving CBS.  His book that grew out of the op-ed, Bias, topped The New York Times best-seller list for many weeks and he's won multiple Emmys reporting for HBO's Real Sports.  Engberg disappeared into retirement, resurfacing (briefly) last year for a public dust-up with Bill O'Reilly over conditions in Buenos Aires during the Falklands War.  Both reported from there for CBS News; Mr. O'Reilly described riots in the Argentine capital, and claimed that other network staffers "hid in their rooms."  Engberg refuted those assertions, saying the city was "more of an expense account zone."  

Interestingly, O'Reilly's recollections were largely supported by Don Browne, a former NBC bureau chief who went on to become an executive for the network and served as president of Telemundo before retiring in 2011.  Engberg declined an invitation to appear on the air with O'Reilly, but he did make the rounds of other media outlets, repeating claims that the Fox News anchor embellished (or even lied) about his experiences in Buenos Aires.  

Some of Mr. Engberg's obits in the MSM mention his feud with Bill O'Reilly, but I haven't found any that highlight his completely biased "Reality Check" on Steve Forbes.  Hardly surprising; in less than three minutes of airtime, Engberg managed to provide an inadvertent "reality check" on the real state of network news and Goldberg's subsequent critique helped hasten their decline.  Not the sort of legacy that mainstream journalists want to recall in memorializing one of their elders.  
ADDENDUM:  In recounting the Engberg episode, Mr. Goldberg is always careful to note that he missed the segment when it first aired.  The man who spotted the obvious bias in Engberg's piece was Jerry Kelley, a building contractor from Alabama who was a friend of Goldberg's.  "You got too many snippy wise guys doin' the news," Kelley told him, suggesting that Goldberg take a look at the segment. The rest, as they say, is history.  

Bernard Goldberg delivered the eulogy when Mr. Kelley passed away in 2014 at the age of 71.  "Jerry Kelley changed the American culture," he told the mourners, and it's hard to disagree.  

"Jerry knew more about bias and fair play than any of those journalistic “geniuses” did who put that piece of garbage about Forbes on the air back in 1996. And Jerry was a building contractor, not a journalist.  Still, he saw the bias that the CBS News Washington correspondent who reported the Forbes story didn’t; that his producer didn’t; that the senior producer in Washington didn’t; that the top evening news producers at CBS News in New York didn’t; that the president of CBS News didn’t; and that Dan Rather, the anchorman and managing editor of the broadcast, didn’t.        



Friday, April 01, 2016

Fantasy Land

A Russian SS-27 Mod 2 ICBM during a test launch.  Variants of this missile are a cornerstone of Russian's strategic modernization efforts.  

President Obama is holding his fourth--and last--nuclear security summit in Washington.  The good news is Mr. Obama won't be around to hold a fifth exercise in futility; the bad news: we'll have to endure a weekend of fawning news coverage which ignores the most salient fact: the danger posed by nuclear weapons has actually grown on this President's watch.

Evidence of that grim reality can be found around the globe.  We'll start with Russia and Vladimir Putin, who took a pass on the latest Obama confab.  And why not?  As Bill Gertz reports in the Washington Free Beacon, Moscow is busily expanding its nuclear arsenal, adding new missiles to the inventory with more warheads on those weapons:

Russia is doubling the number of its strategic nuclear warheads on new missiles by deploying multiple reentry vehicles that have put Moscow over the limit set by the New START arms treaty, according to Pentagon officials.

A recent intelligence assessment of the Russian strategic warhead buildup shows that the increase is the result of the addition of multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRVs, on recently deployed road-mobile SS-27 and submarine-launched SS-N-32 missiles, said officials familiar with reports of the buildup.

“The Russians are doubling their warhead output,” said one official. “They will be exceeding the New START [arms treaty] levels because of MIRVing these new systems.”

The 2010 treaty requires the United States and Russia to reduce deployed warheads to 1,550 warheads by February 2018.

The United States has cut its warhead stockpiles significantly in recent years. Moscow, however, has increased its numbers of deployed warheads and new weapons.


The State Department revealed in January that Russia currently has exceeded the New START warhead limit by 98 warheads, deploying a total number of 1,648 warheads. The U.S. level currently is below the treaty level at 1,538 warheads.

But we shouldn't worry, according to a spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance.  Blake Narenda told the Free Beacon that the increase in Russia's nuclear inventory is the result of "fluctuations" that come with force modernization.  He also noted the New START treaty does not contain interim limits, and the U.S. still expects Russia to be in compliance by the 2018 deadline.  

And there may be more "fluctuations" to come.  Moscow is busily deploying more of its modern SS-27 Mod 3 mobile ICBM and its sub-launched equivalent, the SS-N-32.  Russian press reports indicate that each will be armed with up to 10 MIRVs.  The Kremlin is also working on a new rail-based ICBM that will carry up to 12 warheads, and another land-based missile, the SS-X-30, that will be armed with 10-15 warheads.  Naturally, the new systems are much more reliable than the older missiles being replaced, and those multiple MIRVs have improved accuracy, allowing Moscow to pin-point more American targets.  

Meanwhile, the U.S. is making do with 40-year-old Minuteman III ICBMs that will remain in service for at least another 15 years.  To remain within START limits, our land-based missiles are armed with only a single warhead.  The Minuteman III is also silo-based, in known locations the Russians dialed in long ago.  While Moscow has fewer deployed, land-based ICBMs (299 compared to 450 Minuteman IIIs), well over half of Russia's strategic missiles are based on mobile launchers that are extremely difficult to detect and track out of garrison.  Environmental "concerns" in the United States will almost certainly keep our ICBM force in silos for the foreseeable future.   

But Russia's modernization program isn't the only one underway.  The Financial Times reported earlier this week that China is on the verge of deploying its newest ICBM.  The road-mobile DF-41 is the PRC's first long-range missile that is capable of striking targets throughout the United States.  Older missiles, including the DF-31, could only reach the western portions of the CONUS.  

But that will soon change, given recent observations of DF-41 testing.  “Given the number of real reported tests, it is reasonable to speculate the DF-41 will be deployed to PLA Strategic Rocket Force bases in 2016,” said Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington.  And, since Beijing isn't bound by the START accord, it is free to build and deploy as many new missiles as it wants.  It's also worth noting that news about the pending deployment of the DF-41 came as China's President Xi Jinping arrived in Washington for the nuclear summit.  

And not to be outdone, North Korea has moved a step closer towards deployment of an operational ICBM that can hit most of the U.S.  Earlier this week, the Pentagon confirmed that Pyongyang is working on a longer-range version of the KN-08 missile, first unveiled in 2012.  The new variant, designated the KN-14, is believed capable of delivering a nuclear warhead over 6,000 miles, giving it enough range to strike Chicago or Toronto.  

Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center who has studied the two missiles’ Chinese launchers, said Russia has estimated the KN-14 could have a range between 5,000 and 6,200 miles.

“From the far northern corner of North Korea, [6,300-mile] range is sufficient for the KN-14 potentially to reach Chicago and Toronto,” Fisher said.

“It may be a stretch to fulfill North Korea’s recent propaganda video called ‘Last Chance’ depicting a nuclear strike on Washington, D.C.”

Fisher, however, said the rapid development of the KN-14 from the KN-08 indicated Pyongyang could be capable of building even larger missile variants that would have sufficient range to strike Washington.

North Korean missile analyst Scott LaFoy, writing in, said the KN-08 shown in October appears similar to the Russian SS-N-18 submarine-launched ballistic missile.

“It is apparent that North Korea is continually researching and upgrading its ballistic missile designs,” he said, adding that the differences are so significant that the new missile should be given a different designator from the KN-08.

As Kim Jong-un's ICBM program gathers speed, it's a safe bet that efforts to develop a smaller nuclear warhead are continuing apace.  Admiral William Gortney, the outgoing Commander of U.S. Northern Command, told Congress that he believes North Korea is already capable of hitting the United States with a nuclear-capable missile.  And he's not alone in that assessment.  

Obviously, any capabilities the DPRK has in that area are now rudimentary, at best.  But even if Pyongyang has the limited ability to strike the U.S. with nukes, that can change the strategic calculus between Washington and the DPRK.  Having seen Iran's big payoff from its nuclear deal with the United States, Kim Jong-un would like to fashion a similar accord--and he believes rattling the ICBM sabre may the first step in the process.  

But the list of current and emerging nuclear threats doesn't end there.  A few days ago, CNN reported that American officials are increasingly concerned about ISIS's nuclear ambitions:

Raiding the home of a suspected planner of last November’s Paris attacks, Belgian authorities found surveillance video of a top Belgian nuclear scientist. That suspect, part of the same ISIS cell accused of last week’s attacks in Belgium. The shocking discovery turned the heads of counter-terrorism experts who fear that Belgium, with several previous nuclear breaches, could be at risk for terrorists to obtain radiological materials for a so-called dirty bomb.  

There is also possibility that ISIS might obtain a working nuclear device from a country like Pakistan or even North Korea.  Nuclear terrorism is expected to be a prime topic at Mr. Obama's summit in Washington.  

To be fair, the issue of nuclear proliferation is both complex and multi-faceted.  A threat once defined by Russia's strategic forces now includes everything from Moscow's on-going build-up to terrorists detonating a dirty bomb in an American city.  There isn't a single, magic bullet solution.  

But it is also fair to ask a rather pointed question: how much has been achieved through this series of Obama-hosted summits?  A few countries have agreed to reduce their stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium, but tons of nuclear material remain in more than half a dozen nations.  

But there are also those modernization efforts, underway among many of our potential adversaries. Policy wonks would argue that such concerns fall under the heading of arms control (and dealt with accordingly), but that misses an important point.  Those new missiles in Russia, China, North Korea and (eventually) Iran are aimed--or will be aimed--at the U.S, and tipped with nuclear warheads.  Years of summitry has done nothing to mitigate those threats, yet administration officials say they're ready for a new START with Russia, and they would be willing to sit down with other nations as well. 

Missing from all of this is the best bargaining chip: a strong American nuclear deterrent.  The administration likes to point out that the U.S. has more ICBMs, missile subs and strategic bombers than our enemies, while ignoring the fact that our strategic forces are getting long in the tooth.  Over the next 15 years, Pentagon, the Congress and subsequent administrations must come up with enough money for a new long-range bomber; a replacement of the Ohio-class SSBN fleet and a new ICBM, along with improved warheads and the infrastructure to support them.  

That's a very tall order, but an investment worth making.  The current wave of modernization and proliferation efforts stem (in part) from perceptions of American weakness on the global stage, and Mr. Obama's unwillingness to confront changing threats.  Strengthening our nuclear deterrent will certainly improve our security and our future bargaining position, even at a steep fiscal cost.  It's a much better choice than the current option, based on the pillars of weakening our military and entering dangerous agreements with our adversaries.  Abandoning that fantasy land should be the first step for our next commander-in-chief, but there are grave doubts if any of them are up to the job.                      





Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Yet Again...

In a sense, it was inevitable, but that didn't lessen the shock or grief.

ISIS struck again yesterday, killing at least 31 people in twin suicide attacks against the airport and a subway station in Brussels.   Belgian intelligence and security forces had been on heightened alert for weeks, after one of the terrorists responsible for November's deadly attacks in Paris fled to their country.  Anti-terror units finally caught up with Salah Abdeslam on 18 March, in a raid on a Muslim neighborhood where he had been hiding.  Residents reportedly threw rocks at police after Abdeslam was captured.

The arrest raised new fears about imminent attacks by jihadists, and on Tuesday, those fears came true. Believing that Abdeslam might give authorities information about planned operations, at least one terror cell put their plans in motion, with deadly effect.  At least two suicide bombers detonated their vests just outside the American Airlines counter at the Brussels' Zaventum Airport; the third in a crowded subway car about an hour later.  The carnage was, predictably, horrific.  Along with those who died, more than 250 people were injured, including several Americans.

In the aftermath, the Belgian capital has been placed on a Level Four lockdown, with residents being told to remain indoors and limit cell phone traffic to text messages--among other restrictions.  Meanwhile, authorities focused their initial search on the suspected ISIS bomb maker, Najim Laachraoui, who prepared the vests for the Brussels attacks and last fall's deadly rampage in Paris.  However, sources tell Fox News that Laachraoui was apparently one of the suicide bombers who targeted the airport.

Almost immediately, there were questions about intelligence warnings that went unheeded.  Haaretz reports that the Belgian security services, along with other western intelligence agencies, had "advance and precise" information about the planned strike in Brussels:

The security services knew, with a high degree of certainty, that attacks were planned in the very near future for the airport and, apparently, for the subway as well.

Despite the advance warning, the intelligence and security preparedness in Brussels, where most of the European Union agencies are located, was limited in its scope and insufficient for the severity and immediacy of the alert. 

Sources (read: the Mossad) also tell Haaretz that the attack was planned at ISIS Headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, indicating that the group's senior leaders remain active, despite periodic western airstrikes.  

And unfortunately, the trail of missed--or ignored--intelligence clues began months ago.  Turkey claims it warned Belgium about one of the suicide bombers last summer (emphasis ours).  

Ibrahim El-Bakraoui, a petty criminal born and raised in Brussels and suspected of being the bomber who blew himself up at Zaventem Airport, killing at least 11, was nabbed crossing into Turkey from Syria nine months ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said. Turkish officials said they told their counterparts in Brussels of his likely involvement with ISIS, which has claimed credit for Tuesday’s attacks. 

To be sure, some of these revelations represent a certain degree of posterior-covering by various intelligence services, particularly Turkey's MIT, which plays both sides of the game in Syria.  But it's equally clear that various western agencies were asleep at the switch, overwhelmed, hamstrung by political correctness, or some combination of all three.  

How did the Belgians arrive at this sorry state of affairs?  A little history, from the estimable John Schindler, writing at the New York Observer:  

None of this is new. A quarter century ago, back in the early 1990s, Belgium developed robust clandestine networks of jihadists, heavily of North African origin, dedicated to supporting the Armed Islamic Group (GIA, an early joiner with Osama Bin Laden’s global movement) and its bloody war back in Algeria. Belgian intelligence paid less attention to GIA networks than later seemed warranted because the jihadists were plotting terrorism elsewhere—seldom if ever in Belgium—and Belgian spies knew that GIA “ratlines” in their country were heavily watched, and at times manipulated by Algerian intelligence, which had no interest in blowing up Belgium.

Thus when Belgian-based terrorists caused mayhem in France in the mid-1990s, including a wave of bombings in Paris, Brussels helped French intelligence catch the bad guys but undertook no serious dismantling of jihadist networks in Belgium. Over time this problem metastasized, and with the rise of ISIS in recent years, including hundreds of Belgian citizens going to the Middle East to wage holy war for the Islamic State, the threat has grown exponentially.

The game changer was last November’s horrific attacks in Paris, the bloodiest events on French soil since the Second World War. These turned out to have a significant Belgian footprint, with several of the attackers linked to Molenbeek, a notorious Brussels suburb that’s half-Muslim and known to authorities as a hotbed of radicalism. For the police, Molenbeek has been a no-go area of sorts for years, leaving jihadists free rein to raise funds, collect arms, and plot mayhem elsewhere.


Belgian intelligence has long been short of funds and personnel and above all any political will to do anything substantive about the country’s vast jihadist problem. Belgium’s chronically dysfunctional politics have played a toxic role, as has the general Western European tendency to avert eyes and hope for the best regarding the growing radicalism of whole swathes of young people in the Muslim ghettos that exist in most of their cities now.

Obviously, these problems are not unique to Belgium.  Decades of lax immigration laws; minimal assimilation and cradle-to-grave welfare benefits have created fertile breeding grounds for jihad in western Europe.  At the same time, the burden of expensive social programs meant reduced funding for the military and intelligence services.  

Now, those same organizations are desperately playing catch-up, amid the realization that additional jihadis are on the way--to reinforce those already in place--and carry out more attacks.  The Associated Press reported late today that ISIS has trained up to 400 fighters to execute waves of deadly strikes across the continent.  With European spy agencies and security organizations operating far behind the power curve, the odds of another major strike (over the near term) are decidedly high.  And there's not much they can do about it, except arrest everyone with a link to suspected cells and hope they get lucky.  

In the wake of the massacre in Brussels, some American counter-intel types were shaking their heads about the "poor tradecraft" exhibited by their Belgian counterparts.  That little exercise in self-congratulations is not only delusional, it's hypocritical to boot.  To be fair, there are hundreds of dedicated CIA and FBI agents and analysts who have prevented countless attacks since 9-11.  But those successes must be squared against failures at places like Fort Hood, Chattanooga and most recently in San Bernardino.  In each case, clues were missed and innocent Americans paid with their lives.  

Then again, it's hard for the security and intel agencies to get the resources they need when the commander-in-chief spends barely a minute addressing the Brussels attack, and adjourns to a baseball game with Raul Castro.    

Our real reckoning with ISIS is yet to come. 
ADDENDUM:  The Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Devin Nunes of California, believes the Brussels attack was targeted "to some degree" at Americans.  There is an element of truth in that claim, given the large number of U.S. tourists who pass through the country each year, and the hundreds of military personnel assigned to NATO Headquarters, located 30 miles from Brussels.       



Friday, March 11, 2016

Today's Reading Assignment

..Max Boot, writing on a "cringe-worthy presidency" at Commentary.  A few excerpts:

"I see Obama as another Jesper Berg, the fictional prime minister of Norway in the great TV series “Occupied” (viewable on Netflix), another handsome, intelligent politician who is also transfixed by the threat of global warming and is nonchalant when the Russians start to invade his country in order to seize its oil production. (Berg had tried to shut down the entire oil industry because he thought it contributed to global warming.)


When it comes to stopping Russia, Obama adopts a defeatist mindset.  “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do,” he told Goldberg, and then proceeded to offer one of his trademark straw man arguments: “Now, if there is somebody in this town that would claim that we would consider going to war with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, they should speak up and be very clear about it.”

It’s a good thing that Ronald Reagan didn’t have this mindset. Otherwise he would never have provided arms to the mujahideen. Instead, he would have taken the attitude that because Afghanistan is next to the Soviet Union, Moscow is destined to dominate there unless the United States was willing to go to war with the USSR. Of course, Reagan didn’t take that attitude and his active support for the Afghan resistance helped to bring down the Soviet empire. 

Mr. Boot also notes Obama's proclivity for transferring blame on others.  He now refers to Libya as a "s--- storm," and holds British Prime Minister David Cameron largely responsible.  Never mind that Obama, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were eager to topple Qadhafi, with little regard for what might come next.  

The article is actually a critique of a piece that appeared in The Atlantic, where Obama defends his foreign policy decisions, in a series of conversations with Jeffrey Goldberg.  The interviews occurred over several years; it's very clear that Mr. Obama and his national security team wanted to give a front-row seat to a friendly writer, and the long piece goes out of its way to balance criticism of the president's disastrous policy decisions.  But throughout the Goldberg article, the tenents of the "Obama Doctrine" are painfully evident: the strawmen arguments; his failure to recognize serious threats (i.e., ISIS), his willingness to blame problems on someone else, and his refusal to get tough with rogue regimes around the globe. 

But most disturbing is Obama's resolute insistence that he has made the right choices.  To be fair, it's difficult to get any commander-in-chief (current or former) to admit a mistake, but Mr. Obama truly believes he is the smartest guy in the room, promulgating a national security "vision" that will make the nation more secure, while allowing Iran to get the bomb; failing to develop a coherent strategy for dealing with ISIS and his refusal to confront adversaries who truly threaten our global interests and our way of life.  

And there's more than a touch or irony in that.  At one point, Obama admits gushing admiration for President George H.W. Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, for adeptly handling a series of international crises during their watch, including Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and the fall of communism.  

Of course, Mr. Obama--predictably--fails to recognize the difference between Bush #41 and his own administration.  The elder Bush never ran from a global challenge and wasn't afraid to use overwhelming military force in support of U.S. policy aims.  Likewise, he worked hard to build and maintain relationships with key U.S. allies.  Bush #41 would never trade relations with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States to gain a reckless nuclear deal with Iran, and he certainly wouldn't sell out Israel because of a personal tiff with the sitting prime minister.  

To be fair, Mr. Bush's foreign policy was hardly perfect; Chinese leaders were welcomed and toasted just weeks after Tinanmen Square.  But given our current amateur who has presided over debacle upon debacle over the past seven years, recollections of a competent national security team are enough to provoke nostalgia.                                  

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Across the DMZ

ROK Navy units train near Pohang during the annual Foal Eagle exercise, which began yesterday (AFP image via the Washington Post)

U.S. and South Korean forces have launched their annual spring exercises, triggering the usual round of bluster and threats from Pyongyang.

The field portion of the allied drills, nicknamed "Foal Eagle," began on Monday and will continue for up to eight weeks.  According to the Washington Post, early elements of the exercise rehearsed precision strikes against key targets in the DPRK:

"The exercises will revolve around a wartime plan, OPLAN 5015, adopted by South Korea and the United States last year. The plan has not been made public but, according to reports in the South Korean media, includes a contingency for surgical strikes against the North’s nuclear weapons and missile facilities, as well as “decapitation” raids to take out North Korea’s leaders. The JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported that Kim Jong Un would be among them. 

The joint forces will also run through their new “4D” operational plan, which details the allies’ preemptive military operations to detect, disrupt, destroy and defend against North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal, the Yonhap News Agency reported. “The focus of the exercises will be on hitting North Korea’s key facilities precisely,” a military official told the wire service."

Nothing particularly revealing about those disclosures; as nuclear weapons become an increasingly important asset for Kim Jong-un, it's logical that the U.S. and South Korea would develop plans aimed at mitigating that threat.  The same calculus applies to Pyongyang's large missile force, capable of targeting all of South Korea, Japan and even the western portion of the CONUS.  Analysts are divided as to whether North Korea can put a nuclear warhead on its missiles, but even in a "best case" scenario (from an American perspective) acquisition of that capability is no more than a few years away.  

Despite the initial emphasis on precision strike, much of the training conducted Foal Eagle and Key Resolve--the companion command post drill--is defensive in nature, aimed at reacting to a potential attack by the DPRK.  

Predictably, the North Korean propaganda machine treats the annual allied exercises as a prelude to an invasion.  Monday's official reaction from Pyongyang was particularly bellicose, accusing Washington and Seoul of planning a "beheading operation," aimed at removing Kim Jong-un and his regime. 

Of course, there was a certain, bitter irony in that decapitation claim.  In January 1968, North Korean commandos slipped through the DMZ and headed to Seoul, planning to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee at the Blue House, his official residence.  Along the way, the DPRK team captured four South Korean civilians, who stumbled across their camp.  Instead of killing their captives, the commandos gave them a long lecture on the benefits of communism, releasing them with a warning not to tell the authorities.  The ROK civilians--all members of the same family--made a beeline for the nearest police station, prompting South Korea and U.S. forces to begin a massive search for the infiltrators.  

Despite a heavy security presence, the commando team still managed to make their way to Seoul and got within 100 yards of the Blue House before being detected.  A massive firefight ensued, and the North Koreans scattered.  Only two members of the group, dubbed Unit 124, survived.  One was captured by ROK soldiers; was later pardoned and became a Presbyterian minister; the other officer made it back to North Korea and was eventually promoted to general.  The daughter of the ROK leader targeted by the commandos is now President of South Korea.  

Fifteen years later, Pyongyang tried again, targeting ROK President Chun Doo-hwan, during an official visit to Burma.  Chun was scheduled because his motorcade was running behind, but three members of the South Korea cabinet died when DPRK agents detonated bombs at the shrine the ROK president was scheduled to visit. Even in recent years, concerns about potential decapitation plots from Pyongyang prompt ROK security officials to dispatch multiple aircraft and vehicles for a presidential visit, with the chief executive choosing his transportation at literally the last moment.  

Beyond the ever-present assassination threats, ROK leaders must also worry about North Korea's nuclear arsenal.  Pyongyang conducted its latest underground nuclear test in January, and just last week, Kim Jong-un ordered his military to "be ready to use nuclear weapons at any time," given the "gangster-like" sanctions imposed after its most recent round of sabre-rattling, including the nuclear test.  At this point, no one is really sure how many nuclear devices Kim has, or how he could actually deliver them.  But given the density of South Korea's population--more than 12 million live in Seoul--and proximity to the DPRK, threats about creating "lakes of fire" below the DMZ must be taken seriously.  

Which brings us to another matter, one that is usually ignored during the annual rhetoric games that accompany allied exercises in South Korea.  While media outlets on the peninsula (and elsewhere) dutifully print Pyongyang's claim that Foal Eagle is simply the run-up to an invasion, they ignore that fact that North Korea is conducting its own drills, on a scale far larger than the U.S.-ROK exercise.  

It's a yearly event called the Winter Training Cycle or WTC.  From late November until the end of March, the DPRK conducts its most important military training of the year.  Beginning with small unit drills, the WTC steadily builds through the winter months and concludes with a national-level exercise in mid-to-late March.  In some years, Pyongyang likes to punctuate the nationwide drill with a special event highlighting North Korean military power.  Last fall, some analysts speculated that Kim Jong-un might conduct a nuclear test to cap the WTC, but that event was held in January.  That has generated new concerns about some other "capstone" event in the coming weeks, but there are no firm indicators that it will occur, or what it might be. 

This much is certain: during the winter months, the real military action in Korea takes place north of the 38th parallel.  And the same pundits and media types who worry about how Foal Eagle will be viewed in Pyongyang ignore the importance of the WTC.  True, the overall level of North Korean military activity during the winter months has declined over the past 20 years, reflecting the economic problems that affect the Hermit Kingdom.  But the WTC remains the most important military event of this--or any other year--in the DPRK and what's going on beyond the DMZ is our best barometer of North Korean capabilities and intent.  
ADDENDUM:  As we've noted in the past, DPRK military training drops off dramatically with the arrival of spring, when most units are assigned to "agricultural activities."  Put another way, if the military doesn't devote time and resources to growing its own food, they will go hungry in the winter.  If Kim Jong-un wants to send a military message to Seoul and Washington (beyond an artillery attack on a ROK-controlled island or another missile launch) his window of opportunity is closing rapidly.  And, given Pyongyang's displeasure over the latest round of sanctions, it's a fair bet that the current WTC may end with a bang, rather than a whimper.