Thursday, July 02, 2015


An F-35 and F-16.  A recently-published summary of a mock dogfight between the two jets has raised questions about the F-35's ability to survive in a within-visual-range battle, but it fails to acknowledge the Lightning II's full range of capabilities.

There's been quite a dust-up this week in the defense media--and companion social media sites--over claims the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has poor maneuverability and may not survive a "close-in" dogfight against more nimble foes.

War is Boring got the ball rolling, with excerpts from a five-page summary from an F-35 test pilot, who (in very blunt terms) described losing engagements against an F-16, during a "within-visual-range" employment test held in January of this year:

"The fateful test took place on Jan. 14, 2015, apparently within the Sea Test Range over the Pacific Ocean near Edwards Air Force Base in California. The single-seat F-35A with the designation “AF-02” — one of the older JSFs in the Air Force — took off alongside a two-seat F-16D Block 40, one of the types of planes the F-35 is supposed to replace.

The two jets would be playing the roles of opposing fighters in a pretend air battle, which the Air Force organized specifically to test out the F-35’s prowess as a close-range dogfighter in an air-to-air tangle involving high “angles of attack,” or AoA, and “aggressive stick/pedal inputs.”


“The evaluation focused on the overall effectiveness of the aircraft in performing various specified maneuvers in a dynamic environment,” the F-35 tester wrote. “This consisted of traditional Basic Fighter Maneuvers in offensive, defensive and neutral setups at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 feet.”

The F-35 was flying “clean,” with no weapons in its bomb bay or under its wings and fuselage. The F-16, by contrast, was hauling two bulky underwing drop tanks, putting the older jet at an aerodynamic disadvantage.

But the JSF’s advantage didn’t actually help in the end. The stealth fighter proved too sluggish to reliably defeat the F-16, even with the F-16 lugging extra fuel tanks. “Even with the limited F-16 target configuration, the F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement,” the pilot reported.

“Insufficient pitch rate.” “Energy deficit to the bandit would increase over time.” “The flying qualities in the blended region (20–26 degrees AoA) were not intuitive or favorable.”

The F-35 jockey tried to target the F-16 with the stealth jet’s 25-millimeter cannon, but the smaller F-16 easily dodged. “Instead of catching the bandit off-guard by rapidly pull aft to achieve lead, the nose rate was slow, allowing him to easily time his jink prior to a gun solution,” the JSF pilot complained.

And when the pilot of the F-16 turned the tables on the F-35, maneuvering to put the stealth plane in his own gunsight, the JSF jockey found he couldn’t maneuver out of the way, owing to a “lack of nose rate.”

Reading that report, you'd logically conclude that the F-35 is, in fact, a $1 trillion turkey; unable to fight its way out of a turning engagement, a fundamental of air combat since World War I pilots began taking potshots at each other with pistols from their cockpits.  

But the account is also highly misleading--another example of JSF critics cherry-picking information to buttress their case.  The F-35 Joint System Program Office (JSPO) responded by noting the blog post failed to mention that the jet used in the engagement was an "early test model, not equipped with production-representative mission systems software, stealth coatings, or sensors "that allow the F-35 to see its enemy long before it knows the F-35 is in the area." The jet was also lacked the missiles and software needed to allow the pilot to target an enemy with his helmet-mounted system.  So, the F-35 was at a disadvantage as well.  

But the real issue here is the cherry-picking of information to place the JSF in the worst possible light. Fact is, every fighter has strengths and weaknesses.  In World War II, for example, Claire Chennault and his Flying Tigers quickly discovered their P-40 Warhawks were no match for the Japanese Zero in a turning fight.  They amassed an impressive kill ratio by adopting tactics that played to the P-40's speed, firepower and rugged construction.  Whenever possible, the Flying Tigers wanted to start the engagement with an altitude advantage over their Japanese opponents, diving through the enemy formation (and picking off as many as possible), then disengaging.  

Elsewhere in the Pacific, Navy pilots flying the Grumman F4F Wildcat employed the famous "Thach Weave" to negate the Zero's advantage in maneuverability.  During the Vietnam War, F-4 Phantom crews were told to avoid turning dogfights against the smaller more agile MiG-17s and MiG-21s.  

With the introduction of fourth-generation fighters (including the F-15 and F-16) the design "trade-offs" of earlier aircraft appeared to be a thing of the past.  Both the Eagle and the Viper had excellent speed, maneuverability and visibility, coupled with excellent radars and weaponry.  At last, it seemed possible to build fighters that excelled in all phases of aerial combat.  Both General Dynamics (which developed the F-16) and McDonnell-Douglas (which designed the Navy's F/A-18) emphasized the ability of their aircraft to go from ground attack to dogfighting with literally the flick of a switch.  

But even world-beating designs like the F-15, F-16 and the Hornet had their limitations.  The original F-15 was designed strictly for air combat; the jet never gained an air-to-ground capability until the two-seat "Strike Eagle" was introduced in the 1980s.  Newer models of the F/A-18 became heavier (as the Hornet took on more roles performed by jets like the F-14 and EA-6B Prowler), decreasing its range and agility.  

The F-16 experienced a similar evolution, as newer "blocks" gained more capabilities (and weight), making them slightly less nimble that earlier variants.  It is also worth noting that early Viper models had a limited air-to-air capability; the original APG-66 radar on A and B models did not support radar guided missiles.  Later, a few F-16s assigned to the air defense mission in the Air National Guard were modified to carry and employ the AIM-7 Sparrow.  But most F-16s did not gain a beyond-visual-range missile capability until the AIM-120 AMRAAM entered service in the early 1990s--almost 15 years after the Viper joined the Air Force inventory.  

What does this prove?  There are no perfect aircraft, and even the latest designs involve some degree of compromise, which impacts aerial performance.  Consequently, it's important to look at a fighter's full range of capabilities before claiming it cannot survive in aerial combat.  By that standard, the Flying Tigers should have never left the ground, and Jimmy Thach and his fellow Wildcat pilots had no business taking on the legendary A6M Zero.  Instead, they learned to improvise and modify tactics to put themselves in the best possible position, recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of their aircraft, and those flown by their adversaries. 

The F-35 is already undergoing that evolution.  And that's not to say the Joint Strike Fighter is being written off as an expensive, latter-day equivalent of the Wildcat or the P-40.  Indeed, any fair assessment of a fourth or fifth-generation jet must consider its full range of capabilities.  In some respects, the January test put the F-35 in an environment that most Lightning II drivers don't want to be in.  

Like the F-22, the JSF is most effective in the beyond visual range (BVR) environment, using its stealth, networked sensors and long-range missiles to kill the bad guys before it transitions to a visual range fight.  As the F-35 JSPO noted, there have been numerous training missions that pitted a four-ship of JSFs against a similar number of F-15s or F-16s.  The F-35s have won all of those engagements, utilizing their full range of capabilities.  

But don't take my word for it.  Flying against a full-up, fifth generation stealth fighter is tough work, and you're going to lose.  As a USAF aggressor pilot told The Atlantic a few years back, "I saw an F-22 the other day, it was way above me, rocking its wings, just after he called me dead."  The aggressor pilot, trained to mimic the tactics of potential adversaries, never saw or detected the Raptor until after it killed him in the mock engagement.  I heard similar comments from F-15 pilots at Langley AFB, VA, which operated Eagle and Raptors until 2010.  They expressed absolute frustration at flying against the F-22, and said the high point of any joint sortie was when the Raptors headed for home.  

To be fair, no jet is completely invisible, and a number of countries are working on improved sensors to detect stealth aircraft.  And, both Moscow and Beijing are working on their own very low observable aircraft, so we'll have company in the stealth arena in the years ahead.  But we still enjoy an advantage in technology and tactics, which allows us to employ fifth-generation fighters to the full extent of their capabilities.   

If we don't preserve that edge, we will lose the aerial dominance that is essential for our military strategy.  Not all of our future battles will be fought against terrorists with no air arm and minimal air defense capabilities.  That reality dictates more advanced capabilities for our air forces and resisting the temptation to scrap the F-35 and soldier on with upgraded F-15s, F-16s and F/A-18s. 

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Anything But Routine, Redux

Two days ago, former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morrell said there was "nothing routine" about warnings of possible ISIS attacks in the CONUS during the 4th of July weekend.

At the time, we noted it was quite unusual for a former intelligence official to be so blunt in his assessment.  Mr. Morrell (who made the observation on CBS This Morning) went on to say that he "wouldn't be surprised if we're sitting her a week from today talking about an ISIS attack in the United States over the [July 4th] weekend."

Now, we're beginning to see why Morrell offered such a dire prediction.  Shepard Smith of Fox News reported last night the FBI is establishing special command centers in 56 cities around the country, to prepare for possible terrorist attacks during the holiday period.

Not to be outdone, ISIS quickly posted a map, showing the locations of those command facilities.  Twitter and the blogosphere quickly exploded, with some wondering how the terror group could quickly access such sensitive information.  Turns out it wasn't so hard after all; the command centers are located at FBI field offices, except those in Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.  That information is readily available to anyone with internet access.

But there are more signs of mounting fears about a possible weekend attack.  A federal official told Gateway Pundit that FBI agents scheduled for vacations over July 4th have been told to cancel their plans, and report for duty.  The same source also reports that FBI agents are telling family and friends to avoid "official" holiday celebrations.  This mirrors earlier claims that ISIS may target large community gatherings on the 4th, hoping to inflict maximum casualties.

So far, there has been no official comment from the bureau.  But the establishment of multiple command centers (over a holiday weekend) and cancelling leave for field agents are highly unusual steps, and more indications that something is in the offing.

To be fair, this may be nothing more than a bluff by ISIS.  If they can keep more Americans at home on Independence Day, the group can claim a major propaganda victory.  On the other hand, ISIS is firmly committed to carrying out more attacks against our homeland, and they would gain even more publicity and support by mounting a successful strike on one of our most important national holidays.

In terms of preparation, creation of so many command centers may be nothing more than an abundance of caution.  Yet, it may also indicate that the feds are way behind the curve in battling this particular threat.  Put another way: the FBI may be establishing multiple command facilities because terror "chatter" and other indicators suggest an attack this weekend is all-but-certain.  But the feds don't have enough specific information to concentrate resources or make preemptive arrests.

And here's another possibility: ISIS is on the verge of a July 4th spectacular, striking multiple CONUS targets at roughly the same time.  That's another reason the FBI would see the need for so many command centers across the country.

If the feds are able to close the intelligence gap and get a better handle on potential attacks, we may see a series of preemptive raids beginning tomorrow and continuing into Friday.  If the raids don't materialize, that would suggest the threat has passed, or federal agencies still can't pinpoint possible targets.

Enjoy your 4th of July.           




Monday, June 29, 2015

Pay No Attention to the Terrorist Behind the Curtain

In case you missed it, there was a rather remarkable exchange today on CBS This Morning.

Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell was a guest; nothing really remarkable about that, since Mr. Morrell now works as a national security analyst for the network.  But his comments about a potential terrorist attack over the 4th of July weekend were enough to give anyone pause.

Mr. Morrell noted that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security recently issued a bulletin warning of a possible strike, and that such advisories are provided on a regular basis.  Still, he said, "there's nothing routine about this particular one for me."

[Morrell] said the FBI and Department of Homeland Security's recent bulletin resonated with him for two reasons. One note for concern, he said, is the large number of people who align themselves with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

"There's been about 50 people in the last 12 months who have been arrested in the United States for being radicalized by ISIS, wanting to go fight there or wanting to conduct an attack here," Morell said.

He's also worried about ISIS' "call to arms" for attacks against the terror group's enemies during Ramadan.

And the terror group's latest proclamation is not an idle threat; last week, operatives tied to the group conducted attacks in Kuwait, Tunisia and France, killing more than 60 people.  The strike in France was aimed at an American-owned company; the massacre on a Tunisian beach targeted western tourists.  Fifteen Britons were among the 38 who died. 

Morrell, like all career spooks, speaks in measured tones.  He is not prone to exaggeration, even in his new role as a network pundit.  And, as former senior CIA official, he has extensive ties in the intelligence community.  While it's doubtful that anyone called him and definitively predicted an attack  over the holiday weekend, Mr. Morrell has probably heard from former colleagues who are expressing serious concerns.   

None of this should come as any surprise.  ISIS-related activity in the United States has increased dramatically.  Along with the arrests cited by Michael Morrell, the FBI announced earlier this year that it is investigating ISIS suspects in "all 50 states."   

With that level of penetration and activity, it's easy to envision an attack during the holiday weekend, by a radicalized "lone wolf," or something more sophisticated.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is saying very little about a possible strike.  During today's press briefing, White House spokesman Josh Ernest said there is "no credible threat" to planned 4th of July celebrations.  

Of course, those events represent a tiny fraction of the daily activities across the nation.  So, you may be (relatively) safe at that picnic, concert or fireworks show, but you might get whacked by a sniper on the drive home, or a suicide bomber inside the big box retailer while shopping for your backyard barbeque.  By focusing on holiday events, Mr. Ernest gives himself (and his bosses) lots of wiggle room.

To be fair, the discussion of potential terrorist strikes places any administration in a difficult position.  Say too much and you tip your hand about intelligence sources/methods, or on-going counter-terrorism operations.  Or, you chase vacationers away from beaches, amusement parks and other tourist meccas on one of the busiest weekends of the year.  But if you say too little, thousands of ordinary may be exposed to unnecessary risks and some of them may die.  

Simply stated, the reassurances of Josh Ernest don't square with the concerns expressed by Michael Morrell.  The next week will determine who was closer to the truth.              




Thursday, June 25, 2015

Rapid Reaction?

In recent weeks, NATO has been trumpeting the creation of its new "Very High Readiness Joint Task Force," aimed (in part) at deterring future aggression from Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

At first glance, the task force appears to be well-conceived--at least on paper.  Here's a description of the unit (and its capabilities) from a NATO fact sheet:    

"As a part of restructuring the NRF, NATO is also establishing a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) which can deploy within days.  It will be comprised of a multinational brigade (approximately 5,000 troops), with up to five battalions, supported by air, maritime and special forces. Some elements will be ready to move within two to three days.  The force will be available to move at the first warnings and indicators of potential threats, before a crisis begins, to act as a potential deterrent to further escalation.  The rapid arrival of this small but capable military unit would send a very clear message to any potential aggressor: "any attempt to violate the sovereignty of one NATO nation will result in a decisive military engagement with all 28 allied nations”.  The VJTF’s rapid response times are what set it apart from other components of the NATO Response Force.

As Tom Rogan of National Review observes, the devil (once again) is in the military details.  By NATO's own admission, only portions of the VJTF will be able to move within two or three days; the rest will need more time to mobilize and deploy.  

And of course, their movement is contingent on several factors, including the availability of U.S. strategic airlift to move NATO troops to a regional hotspot; a "permissive" air environment that allows $200 million C-17 transports to land, off-load troops and equipment and depart with minimal risk; and the willingness of member nations to provide the funding, troops and training required by the VJTF.  

We'll begin with the airlift requirement.  NATO has long been dependent on the USAF (and its Air Mobility Command) to provide the bulk of the transports and crews needed to more personnel and supplies to the war zone.  That dependence has lessened a bit in recent years, with Great Britain and Canada purchasing four C-17s each, and NATO acquiring three more for its strategic airlift unit, based in Hungary.  However, that pales in comparison to the 222 Globemaster III's in the American inventory and it underscores NATO's continuing reliance on the U.S. to move most of the assets needed to respond to a regional contingency.  

But air planners won't send C-17s into an environment where they are easy pickings for enemy fighters, or face significant threats from ground-based air defense systems.  Protecting the air bridge into a region like the Baltics would require scores of fighter aircraft, with support from AWACS, RC-135s, air tankers, EF-18s and other platforms.  Did we mention that the number of fighter squadrons in the USAF have been reduced by two-thirds over the last 20 years?  Or that many of NATO's smaller members can provide only token support for that type of operation?  Suddenly, the job of getting VJTF personnel and supplies to the Baltics has grown infinitely more complex. 

Additionally, the alliance faces the added challenges of long logistics lines and the complete lack of defensive depth.  While NATO is making a great show of pre-positioning tanks, artillery and other "heavy" weaponry in the Baltic States and Poland, sustaining those weapons--and the troops that operate them--would post a significant supply challenge.  Put another way: the same challenges associated with getting the troops into the region would persist as NATO conducts operations and tries to keep them supplied.  

Meanwhile, the Russians don't have those problems. As Tom Rogan notes, NATO depots near the Estonian capital (Tallinn) are only 130 miles from Russia's western border--and Moscow already has significant military forces in the Kaliningrad exclave (between Lithuania and Poland) and its territory bordering the Baltic States.  That would allow Moscow to rapidly encircle the NATO force, before all elements of the VJTF arrive on the scene.

Some have likened the new task force (and its potential employment in the Baltics) as the latter-day equivalent of the "Fulda Gap" speed bump--forces designed to blunt a Warsaw Pact invasion through that corridor.  But such comparisons are faulty (and that's being charitable).  For starters, we had much more than pre-positioned equipment guarding the Gap, and those front-line units were backed by NATO reserves and vast airpower assets.  Additionally, there was enough strategic depth to ensure that supply lines between the CONUS and Europe would remain open.  And there was always the nuclear option to keep the Soviets at bay--and the willingness to use it.

More than 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the VJTF looks more like a Bridge Too Far, a token force that could be easily over-whelmed at the end of long logistics and communications lines in the Baltics.  Indeed, with Russia's new model for proxy wars on its borders, it's possible that Moscow could use fifth column "volunteers" among the local populace to engage local defense forces and seize NATO assets--before our troops arrive.

This is not to say that Russia is once again a military juggernaut.  Earlier this year, independent Russian analyst Pavel Felgegauer declared that Putin's armed is "unprepared for modern war" against large NATO formations.  But Russian capabilities are improving, and Moscow would enjoy key advantages in any conflict in the Baltics--advantages the VJTF cannot overcome.         


Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Remember the outrage that accompanied last year's scandal at the Veteran's Administration.  Everyone from President Obama was in high dungeon over revelations that dozens of vets died while waiting for appointments at VA medical centers around the country.  Meanwhile, scores of administrators were secretly cooking the books, creating phony lists to make it look like veterans were being seen in a timely manner, to protect their jobs and annual performance bonuses.

At the time, Mr. Obama said such conduct was intolerable:

"When I hear allegations of misconduct, any misconduct -- whether its allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times, or cooking the books - I will not stand for it. Not as commander in chief but also not as an American. None of us should. If these allegations prove to be true it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period."

Of course, it actually depends on your definition of tolerance.  His feckless VA Secretary, retired Army General Eric Shinseki, was left moldering in the post for almost two months, as details of the long (and deadly) wait times emerged.  Various media organizations--led by CNN--also discovered that the VA had known about such practices for years, but did nothing to stop them.  Administrators kept submitting phony documentation claiming that vets received health care within prescribed time lines--and kept collecting their bonuses.  Meanwhile, more than 40 veterans died awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital alone--a stunning revelation that proved to be the tip of the proverbial ice berg.  Corrupt practices in Arizona were duplicated at virtually every VA facility around the nation, with the same deadly results.

After Shinseki finally stepped down, President Obama turned to Robert McDonald, the former CEO of Proctor and Gamble.  Mr. McDonald was given a mandate to reform the VA and as Job #1, fix the appointment problem, once and for all.  McDonald, who knows a little about marketing from his days at P&G, said all the right things before Congress and the media, and headlined some carefully-staged events to convey an image of "change."

But, like so many things associated with the Obama Administration, reform at the VA has proven illusory.  As Mr. McDonald ends his first year on the job, the number of veterans awaiting care at the agency's clinics and hospitals has actually increased.  From the Washington Post

One year after an explosive Veterans Affairs scandal sparked national outrage, the number of veterans on wait lists to be treated for everything from Hepatitis C to post-traumatic stress is 50 percent higher than at the same time last year, according to VA data.

VA’s leadership attributed the growing wait times to soaring demand from veterans for medical services, brought on by the opening of new centers and a combination of aging Vietnam veterans seeking care, the return of younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and the exploding demand for new and costly treatments for Hepatitis C.

Ahead of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs budget hearing scheduled for Thursday, VA leaders also warned that they are facing a $2.6 billion budget shortfall. They said they may have to start a hiring freeze or furloughs unless funding is reallocated for the federal government’s second-largest department.

The VA says the continued backlog can be partly blamed on an increase in the number of veterans using the system.  So far this year, the agency has logged 2.7 million more appointments than in 2014, and has increased its capacity to handle an additional seven million patients a year.  Those increases are roughly double what the VA anticipated.  

To provide more care, the VA has also been on a hiring binge, adding thousands of new doctors, nurses and other staffers.  But the waiting lists continue to swell, despite the infusion of new personnel and $15 billion in additional funding the VA received last year.  

And yet, the agency recently notified Congress that it is now facing a $2.6 billion dollar shortfall, unless funds are re-allocated.  

One reason for the budget crunch (according to the agency) is the billions allocated for a new program that allows vets to receive care at private health care facilities if they're facing an extended wait time at the VA, or the agency doesn't provide the type of service they need.  But the "choice card" has proven less-popular than anticipated--in part because the VA has done little to promote it, and secondly, because the agency takes months to reimburse veterans for their out-of-pocket expenses under the program.  

None of this is surprising.  While there are thousands of physicians, nurses and other VA personnel who provide exceptional service to veterans, the agency's leadership culture is rotten to the core.  Facing genuine competition to their system, VA senior management (and their friends in Congress) made sure the choice cards would be a flop, keeping vets in the failing system.   And, if the VA can illustrate increased patient demand (and improvements in delivering service), they can extract more budget money from Congress, and keep the bonuses/other perks to which they've grown accustomed.

Earlier this year, Secretary McDonald went on a p.r. offensive, claiming his reform efforts were taking hold.  As proof, he reported that 900 VA employees had been fired, including 60 with direct ties to the appointment scandal.  But as the Washington Post discovered, McDonald's figures were greatly distorted, and presented completely out-of-context.  A VA spokesman later admitted
that the agency had only proposed disciplinary action against the 60 workers connected to the scandal.  Most of those employees are still on the job.  As for the 900 forced out at the agency, Polifact learned that more than half were probationary employees, who were terminated at the end of their first year on the job. 

In others words, the overwhelming majority of VA employees involved in the appointment scandal are still on the federal payroll, and most will remain there until they die, retire, or move on to something more lucrative.  And that "house-cleaning" cited by Mr. McDonald?  It involved less than one percent of the VA's 340,000 personnel.  

Just one more reason the agency will never change.  And our veterans will pay the price for its incompetence and bureaucratic lethargy. 




Thursday, June 18, 2015

Today's Reading Assignment

Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., at Breaking Defense, on a recent, impressive feat by the Navy's SM-6 missile.  In a test earlier this month at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the advanced surface-to-air missile knocked down a supersonic target that was launched beyond the range of its own sensors; the SM-6 had to rely on datafeeds from remote sensors that could track the target.

Burned Out

An article in The New York Times confirms what many in Air Force and military aviation circles have know for years: the relentless tempo of UAV operations around the world is forcing many pilots and sensor operators out of the service. 

In fact, manning problems have been come so severe the service has been forced to reduce the number of daily "orbits" from 65 to 60--despite increased demands for surveillance and targeting that have come with the rise of ISIS.

Air Force officials said that this year they would lose more drone pilots, who are worn down by the unique stresses of their work, than they can train.

“We’re at an inflection point right now,” said Col. James Cluff, the commander of the Air Force’s 432nd Wing, which runs the drone operations from this desert outpost about 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The cut in flights is an abrupt shift for the Air Force. Drone missions increased tenfold in the last decade, relentlessly pushing the operators in an effort to meet the insatiable demand for streaming video of insurgent activities in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones, including Somalia, Libya and now Syria.

The reduction could also create problems for the C.I.A., which has used Air Force pilots to conduct drone missile attacks on terrorism suspects in Pakistan and Yemen, government officials said. And the slowdown comes just as military advances by the Islamic State have placed a new premium on aerial surveillance and counterattacks.

At one point, the service hoped to increase the number of orbits to 70, but Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently signed off on the decrease, realizing the system was "at the breaking point."  

Part of the problem is timing.  About 1,200 pilots assigned to the drone program are at the end of their service commitments, and most are planning to leave.  At the same time, the training pipeline for UAV pilots can only produce about half that number in a given year, and that program has been constrained, as instructors were pulled back to operational units, to support the growing number of daily orbits. 

The distinction is important; while the Times refers to each mission as a "flight," that terminology isn't quite correct.  The USAF prefers "orbit," which refers to UAV coverage over a designated area within a 24-hour period.  Depending on mission requirements and payload, a Predator or Reaper can remain on station for anywhere from 14-40 hours. 

Meanwhile, the two-person crew, operating the UAV remotely, can spend up to 12 hours on-duty--and that doesn't include the intelligence team located at one of Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) sites that support every drone mission.  Predator orbits require a minimum of seven intel specialists; missions with Reapers or MQ-4 Global Hawk require even more--up to 37 in the case of the latter system.  The intel crew typically covers a 12-hour shift as well, so a 24-hour Predator mission would require a minimum of two pilots, two sensor operators and at least 14 intel specialists.  A Global Hawk mission (often lasting 40 hours or longer), would require eight times as many support personnel.  Many of those crews have reached the breaking point as well.

Internal DoD and Air Force studies have found drone pilots and the intel personnel that support their mission are not immune to the stresses of combat, even if they are participating across vast distances by remote control.  One assessment found that UAV pilots experience PTSD at roughly the same rate as their colleagues who fly over the battlefield.  Fears of causing collateral damage raise stress levels even higher, and some drone crews (and support teams) find it difficult to "switch off" the job when they step away from their computer console. 

I was fortunate enough to gain a tour of a DCGS facility a few years ago, at the height of the surge in Iraq.  A senior NCO confided to me that he was concerned about some of the intel specialists who were on duty that afternoon.  Just a few days earlier, they had provided flight following for an Army convoy that was hit with an IED attack.  The NCO told me that the "Army unit took casualties," but wouldn't elaborate.  The look on the faces of his item team suggested they were still dealing with the stresses of that earlier mission.  Making matter more difficult, the intel specialists were typically in contact (by satellite radio) with the units they supported, and had to listen to the chaos that unfolded after the attack.

To help UAV operators and support personnel deal with such issues, the Air Force has organized mental health teams, consisting of chaplains and psychologists, who are available to meet with pilots, sensor operators and intel specialists "where they work," instead of waiting for them to show up at the base hospital's mental health clinic.  That's an appropriate (and valuable) step, but it doesn't address the underlying manning issues that are creating much of the stress and job dissatisfaction in the USAF's drone community.

And those problems won't be fixed by the current approach.  The training pipeline can produce so many pilots and sensor operators each year and with officers who fly UAVs leaving the service at three times the rate of other pilots, well you get the picture.  Reducing operations will also help a bit, but combatant commanders won't allow the number of orbits to dip much below the 60-a-day figure.  Conversely, with the ISIS threat growing, there will be renewed pressure to increase the number of missions and provide the surveillance commanders say they need.

The Air Force might be able to fix the manning issue by re-thinking its policies on who gets to fly its UAVs.  Currently, those operators are a combination of officers specifically trained to fly drones and pilots pulled from the cockpits of other aircraft.  The sensor operators (along with most members of the intel team) are enlisted personnel. 

So far, the service has resisted the idea of training non-commissioned officers to fly drones, but operational demands may force a review of that policy.  Given the limits of the current training pipeline, the USAF will never produce enough officer drone pilots to fill all available slots, meaning those who do qualify will be worked to the point of exhaustion and burn-out.  The cycle will repeat itself as groups of officers reach the end of the active duty service commitment and leave the service.  Many experts believe the problem will be exacerbated as more employment opportunities arise in the civilian UAV sector, which is experiencing tremendous growth.

If the Air Force is serious about solving manning problems within its drone community, they might follow the Army's lead and utilize NCOs as UAV pilots.  The Air Force had "flying sergeants" in its early days, but the last NCO pilot retired from active duty in 1958.  A few years later, the service also eliminated its warrant officer program, eliminating another source of potential pilots.

Meanwhile, the Army made warrants the backbone of its helicopter squadrons; most of the aviators flying Blackhawks, Apaches are warrant officers, who spend most of their career in the cockpit.  It's the type of arrangement that many Air Force pilots would prefer, since their Army warrant officer counterparts can focus on flying, and don't have to worry about becoming well-rounded and filling staff billets.

But the USAF believes that pilots should be officers who are college graduates, with a well-rounded background and the ability to (eventually) compete for command and senior officer assignments.  It's the mindset that's been around since the days of Hap Arnold, commander of the Air Air Forces in World War II, who tried to mandate that all pilots have a college degree.  He relented after learning that the U.S. didn't produce enough qualified college grads (in those days) to meet the AAF's requirements during a world war.   After the conflict ended, the independent USAF began implementing the education and commissioning requirements, which remain in effect until this day.

It's time for a paradigm shift.  The Air Force can keep fighting the current, losing manpower battle, or open up drone pilot positions to new talent pools.  Getting rid of Warrant Officers was one of the dumbest ideas in USAF history.  Maybe it's time for them to make a comeback, as the rank for NCOs who complete training as UAV pilots.  Model their careers on the path followed by Army warrants flying helicopters and the Air Force might be able to increase the number of daily orbits.

Reviving the warrant ranks would also prove beneficial for retention of intel specialists in the DCGS and other technically-oriented career fields.  Reward years of service (and professional expertise) by creating a cadre of warrants who can serve in billets that require that level of competence.  It's worked extremely well for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.  No reason the USAF shouldn't join its sister services in the 21st Century.                                     




Monday, June 08, 2015

At Least They Didn't Puke

The Navy's Blue Angels occasionally put a local reporter in the backseat of one of their F/A-18s and take them up for a spin.  They're called "media rides" and they usually generate very favorable coverage and publicity for the military.

Recently, the Navy flight demonstration team was in the Quad Cities area, and reporter Christie Nicks of WTVO/WQRF went along for the ride.  Apparently, she forgot that part of the pre-flight briefing about keeping your body against the seat/headrest, and doing a "strain" maneuver when G-forces start to increase.  The result?  One unconscious reporter in the back seat.

If it's any consolation to Ms. Nicks, she's not the only journalist to black out during a media ride.  Fox and Friends meteorologist Maria Molina passed out during her Blue Angels flight in March of 2014 and Steve Beatty of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution lost consciousness three times during a backseat ride with the Blues.

During my military career, I was lucky enough to get back-seat rides in both the F-15 and F-16; if you're not used to pulling Gs, lose situational awareness and forget about your strain maneuver, you will pass out, even with a minimal G-load.  I remember sitting in the rear seat of an F-15D, conducting BFM against AT-38s.  Sweating buckets and doing my best strain, I was doing my best to fight off a gray-out.  Meanwhile, the IP up front was leaning forward and looking around, no problem at all as he maintained visual on one of the AT-38s.  The G meter was somewhere between 5 and 6.  Experience, practice and conditioning make a big difference.   

In fairness, I was wearing a G-suit during my flights, which certainly helps you maintain consciousness. Navy and Marine Corps pilots who fly with the Blues do not wear a G-suit, and I'm not sure if their passengers wear one, either.  If you're a civilian and not used to the effects of gravitational forces, it would be very tough to climb into an F/A-18 and remain conscious if you're not wearing a G-suit.

At least they didn't puke--as far as I can tell.  Orientation flight etiquette says if you leave your lunch in the back seat, you've got to clean it up.  I somehow managed to avoid that embarrassment as well.             


The Mother Lode

Take a look at this: it's the Standard Form 86, also known as the Questionnaire for National Security Positions.  Anyone who has ever held a security clearance knows it well; it must be completed by anyone seeking a clearance, or updating one that is already active.

At 127 pages (including instructions), the SF 86 is voluminous, asking applicants to describe virtually all aspects of their lives: where they have lived; employment history, friends and associates, military service, schools attended, foreign travel, financial interests, foreign contacts and drug and alcohol abuse (to name a few).  All must be listed on the form, creating a road map for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).  Not only did the organization create the form, it is responsible for 95% of all federal background investigations, covering 100 different federal agencies.  When someone applying for a clearance completes the SF 86, a copy goes to their current or prospective employer, while another goes to OPM.

And that's why last week's data breach at the agency--reportedly conducted by Chinese hackers--represents such a grave threat to national security.  Never before has a U.S. adversary obtained so much information about so many people in positions with access to classified information.  It's Christmas morning for a spymaster; need to recruit American "insiders" who might be willing to pass on sensitive information?  Just convert the OPM security clearance files into a searchable database; in very short order Chinese intelligence will have the names, addresses and other contact information of potential turncoats who might be willing to betray their country for financial gain, ideology or other reasons.

Looking for someone with family ties to a foreign power, say the PRC?  It's on the SF 86.  Hoping to recruit someone with an existing clearance who is burdened by a mountain of debt?  You can glean that information from the OPM files as well.  Searching for a potential spy who is working on a specific program at a designated federal agency or defense contractor?  You can start identifying potential candidates by comparing their reported information to other data associated with the program.

And this should come as no surprise: the OPM breach was a disaster waiting to happen, according to a recent report in The New York Times:

The inspector general at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which keeps the records and security-clearance information for millions of current and retired federal employees, issued a report in November that essentially described the agency’s computer security system as a Chinese hacker’s dream.

By the time the report was published, Chinese hackers had already downloaded tens of thousands of files on sensitive security clearances and were preparing for a much broader attack that obtained detailed personal information on at least 4 million current and former government employees. The agency is still struggling to patch vulnerabilities.

A number of Obama administration officials painted a picture of a government office struggling to catch up, with the Chinese ahead at every step.

OPM did not possess an inventory of all the computer servers and devices with access to its networks. It did not require anyone accessing information from the outside to use the kind of basic authentication techniques that most Americans use for online banking. It did not regularly scan for vulnerabilities in the system and found that 11 of the 47 computer systems that were supposed to be certified as safe for use last year were not “operating with a valid authorization.”

The problems were so severe for two systems that hosted the databases used by the Federal Investigative Service — which does background investigations for officials and contractors who are issued security clearances — that the inspector general argued for temporarily shutting them down because the security flaws “could potentially have national security implications.”

Despite these alarm bells, the OPM soldiered on with its vulnerable systems, and the Chinese took full advantage.  The NYT reports that PRC-based hackers first targeted the security clearance information database last summer; when that effort proved successful, they mounted a second, much larger attack in December, but the scope of the penetration was not discovered until April.   

Now in damage control mode, the Office of Personnel Management is promising to implement a two-step encryption system and is offering free credit monitoring to current and former federal employees that may be affected by the breach.  Of course, that's tantamount to fixing the broken barn door after the horse is already gone.  While some of the personal information stolen in the attack will wind up with identity thieves (providing cover for the PRC government), most the the data will remain with China's intelligence services, for use in future recruitment operations.  

Ultimately, the number of spy cases rooted in the OPM breach will be relatively small--in comparison to the amount of information that was compromised.  Not that Beijing is really concerned; given the opportunity to case a wide net, they took it, realizing OPM's security failures were providing a broad view of who has access to the nation's secrets, and who among those individuals might become a potential asset.  

One more prediction: no one at OPM will lose their jobs over this debacle.  The director might be reassigned, but the rank-and-file bureaucrats will remain with the agency, sustaining the same level of unsatisfactory performance.  This follows the example of recent personnel actions at TSA, where the agency director was moved to another post after it was learned that security personnel missed 95% of all weapons and explosives being "smuggled" onto planes in training exercises.  

Until federal incompetents are fired--and stripped of pensions and other benefits--disasters like those at OPM and TSA will continue.  As we've noted before, there is virtually no accountability in the federal system.  Managers and executives engage in behavior that is negligent or criminal and most receive nothing more than early retirement and a fat government pension.  

More disturbingly, the Obama Administration has developed a neat trick to explain away virtually any bureaucratic snafu.  Whatever the problem, whether its an AMTRAK train that crashes at 106 mph (on a curve rated for 50), or a sensitive computer network with less security than, the problem isn't the engineer or the managers in charge; it's a lack of spending on infrastructure.  If we had only allocated more millions--or billions--the accident or security breach would have been prevented.

Rubbish.  At OPM, AMTRAK or any other federal agency, it's up to management to set priorities and fund them.  Apparently, the vulnerability of OPM's personnel databases was an open secret, yet no one was in a hurry to fix the problem.  The agency kept grinding along, and we'll assume that managers kept collecting the bonuses.  After all, it's the federal way.  And when China's Ministry of State Security (MSS) recruits a high-ranking American to give away our crown jewels, no one will bother to connect it to OPM, and the utter ineptitude that opened the door.