Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Dimmest Bulb in the Senate Firmament















Angered over Burger King's purchase of Tim Horton's (and move to Canada), Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is urging consumers to eat instead at Wendy's--which owned the Canadian donut chain for more than a decade (Fox News photo)  


No one would ever accuse Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown of being the sharpest tool in the Capitol Hill shed. 

Case in point?  Mr. Brown is calling for a boycott of Burger King, after the fast food giant announced plans to buy Tim Horton's, the Canadian donut chain.  Acquiring the Canadian company will allow Burger King to move its corporate headquarters to Montreal, and limit the burden of America's confiscatory, 35% corporate tax rate. 

Senator Brown was in full lather as he urged Americans to stop eating at Burger King and patronize Ohio-based hamburger chains:

"Burger King’s decision to abandon the United States means consumers should turn to Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers or White Castle sliders," Brown said. "Burger King has always said 'Have it Your Way'; well my way is to support two Ohio companies that haven’t abandoned their country or customers." Wendy's is based in Dublin, Ohio, while White Castle is headquartered in Columbus.

As usual, Mr. Brown's grasp of the facts is a bit lacking.  This won't be the first time that Horton's has been owned by an American restaurant chain.  From 1995 until 2006, the Canadian firm was owned by none other than Wendy's.  Top corporate tax rates in the U.S. were above 30% when the merger took place, and it's a fair bet that Wendy's kept some of its profits from Horton's in Canada, just as other corporations have banked their global profits off-shore.  And who can blame them?  Pay a 35% corporate income tax rate in the states, or a combined national/provincial rate of 25% in Canada?  You don't need to be a corporate CFO to figure that one out.    

Of course, all of this is lost on Senator Brown.  He's too busy encouraging consumers to patronize an Ohio-based company that did the same thing with Horton's in the not-too-distant past.  And he neglected to mention that part of the purchase is being funded by Warren Buffet, the mega-billionaire investor (and friend of President Obama), who occasionally lectures Americans on the need to pay more taxes. 

Do the right thing.  Go to Burger King (or Tim Horton's) for lunch and vote for candidates who will roll back our corporate tax rate.       

    

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Hair-Splitting at its Finest

Sadly, this should come as no surprise.

The Veterans' Administration watchdog agency "has been unable to substantiate allegations that 40 veterans may have died because of delays in care at the department's medical center in Phoenix.  That "finding" was contained in a letter from the new VA Secretary, Robert McDonald, to the Office of the Inspector General, acknowledging a soon-to-be-released report on problems at the Phoenix facility.

More from The New York Times:

"A report by the department’s office of inspector general is expected to be released this week that will describe findings from its investigation into Phoenix. Officials from the inspector general’s office have declined to comment on what the report will say.
 
However, a letter sent from the new Veterans Affairs secretary, Robert A. McDonald, to the inspector general responding to the report’s findings states that the investigation was unable to prove a link between the deaths of 40 veterans and delays in care.
 
'It is important to note that while O.I.G.’s case reviews in the report document substantial delays in care, and quality of care concerns, O.I.G. was unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the deaths of these veterans,” says the letter from Mr. McDonald and the interim under secretary for health, Dr. Carolyn M. Clancy."
 
In other words, the VA acknowledges that veterans in the Phoenix area spent months--sometimes years--waiting for an appointment.  And the department knows that some of those vets died while awaiting diagnosis and treatment.  But the bureaucrats in the Office of the Inspector General cannot say definitively that the "absence" of care caused the deaths of dozens of veterans. 
 
Give me a break.  This is governmental parsing at its absolute worst.  Obviously, you can't say that waiting to see a doctor was responsible for someone's death.  And of course, the letter misses the logical assumption: waiting to see a doctor for chronic or even life-threatening conditions doesn't exactly improve your health.  Put another way: the vets died from a variety of different diseases and afflictions while the VA played games with the appointment schedule; the bureaucratic chicanery wasn't the direct cause of death but it was a contributing factor--a major factor. 
 
I wonder how this "explanation" will sit with the families of veterans who died awaiting care?  Consider again the case of Thomas Breen, the Navy vet who passed away from cancer while trying to see a doctor at the Phoenix VA:
 
"We had noticed that he started to have bleeding in his urine," said Teddy Barnes-Breen, his son. "So I was like, 'Listen, we gotta get you to the doctor.' "
 
Teddy says his Brooklyn-raised father was so proud of his military service that he would go nowhere but the VA for treatment. On September 28, 2013, with blood in his urine and a history of cancer, Teddy and his wife, Sally, rushed his father to the Phoenix VA emergency room, where he was examined and sent home to wait.
 
"They wrote on his chart that it was urgent," said Sally, her father-in-law's main caretaker. The family has obtained the chart from the VA that clearly states the "urgency" as "one week" for Breen to see a primary care doctor or at least a urologist, for the concerns about the blood in the urine.
 
"And they sent him home," says Teddy, incredulously.
 
Sally and Teddy say Thomas Breen was given an appointment with a rheumatologist to look at his prosthetic leg but was given no appointment for the main reason he went in.
 
No one called from the VA with a primary care appointment. Sally says she and her father-in-law called "numerous times" in an effort to try to get an urgent appointment for him. She says the response they got was less than helpful.
 
"Well, you know, we have other patients that are critical as well," Sally says she was told. "It's a seven-month waiting list. And you're gonna have to have patience."
 
Sally says she kept calling, day after day, from late September to October. She kept up the calls through November. But then she no longer had reason to call.
 
Thomas Breen died on November 30. The death certificate shows that he died from Stage 4 bladder cancer. Months after the initial visit, Sally says she finally did get a call.
 
"They called me December 6. He's dead already." 
 
And, as we subsequently learned, what happened to Mr. Breen was repeated over and over again in the VA medical system.  But now, thanks to investigatory gymnastics by the O.I.G., the department can claim that excessive "wait times" weren't directly responsible for the deaths of scores of veterans. 
 
Why would the VA issue such a convoluted pile of nonsense?  The answer lies in expected litigation; in recent years, the department has paid out millions of dollars in claims to veterans (and their families) because of shoddy or insufficient care.  The appointment scandal will likely cost the agency billions more.  The IG gives VA lawyers some potential wiggle room, though we don't believe that many juries will buy that argument.  However, the report might be enough to limit the size of projected payouts, and perhaps (in the hands of a friendly judge) reverse some cases on appeal. 
 
Readers will also note a rather curious angle to the story's handling by the Times and other media outlets.  So far, I haven't seen any comments from Dr. Sam Foote, the retired Phoenix VA physician who blew the whistle on the department's unconscionable practices, or the families of veterans who died.  In fact, the closest thing you'll find to an admission of guilt by the department was this comment by Assistant VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who was conveniently available for the Times:
 
“I’m relieved that they didn’t attribute deaths to delays in care, but it doesn’t excuse what was happening,” Mr. Gibson said. “It’s still patently clear that the fundamental issue here is that veterans were waiting too long for care, and there was misbehavior masking how long veterans were waiting for care.”  
 
"Misbehavior."  Just like the Fort Hood shooting was an example of "workplace violence," and the IRS scandal was the work of "rogue" agents in a field office.  Then again, the MSM is nevery shy about helping the administration advance its narrative.                           

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Galloping Ghost is Found


















The USS Houston in 1935  (Wikipedia photo)



More than 72 years after the USS Houston went down during a battle with Japanese forces, the Navy has confirmed that underwater wreckage found off the Java coast is that of the World War II cruiser.

Details from the Los Angeles Times:

"In recent months Navy archaeologists worked with Indonesian Navy divers to survey the wreck over the course of 19 underwater searches, said U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Harry Harris.

The Navy History and Heritage Command confirmed that the recorded data is consistent with the identification of the former Houston.

Documented evidence shows the grave site was disturbed, noting that hull rivets and a metal plate were removed from the ship. Both U.S. and Indonesia officials are working to coordinate protection of the historic site, which is also a popular recreational dive location."

Divers also determined that unexploded ordnance had been removed from the wreck.  That may explain why the Navy waited so long to confirm that the final resting place of the Houston, giving divers and EOD teams more time to collect other pieces of ordnance and block access to the ship's magazines.  Senior Navy and Marine officers laid a wreath on the water at the site back in June, memorializing the 700 sailors and Marines who went down with their ship during the Battle of Sunda Strait on February 28, 1942. 

Discovery of the Houston's final resting place solves the final mystery surrounding the legendary ship.  While the cruiser's loss was affirmed shortly after the battle, the exact spot where it went down remained unknown until the recent location and analysis of the wreckage near Java.

Unfortunately, media accounts of the discovery gloss over the history of the USS Houston, and its legacy as a fighting ship.  For members of the World War II generation, the ship was a symbol of determination, heroism and sacrifice against long odds. 

Indeed, for many months after the Houston went down, it was assumed that all hands were lost with the ship.  In fact, almost 300 members of the crew survived the sinking, only to be taken prisoner by the Japanese.  They endured hellish conditions in POW camps immortalized by the book and film "Bridge on the River Kwai."  William Holden's character in the film, Lieutenant Commander Shears, was identified as a survivor from the Houston.  Shears' escape from the POW camp mirrors that of five Houston sailors who managed to reach Allied lines and report that roughly one-third of the crew had survived.  At the end of the war, 291 were repatriated and returned home. 

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the USS Houston was part of the Navy's small Asiatic Fleet.  With most of our capital ships destroyed or heavily damaged in Hawaii, long-standing plans for a decisive surface battle with Japan were scrapped, and the Asiatic Fleet--along with ground and air forces in the region--were on their own.  In late December 1941, Houston was assigned to the Joint American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) naval forces, under Admiral Karel Doorman of the Royal Netherlands Navy.

As the Japanese took Hong Kong and Singapore in rapid succession (and advanced steadily in the Philippines), the situation on Java grew increasingly grim.  On 26 February, with reports of a large invasion force approaching the island, Doorman took his squadron to sea, hoping to intercept and destroy the transports carrying troops and supplies towards Java. 

It was a brave, but futile gambit.  Doorman had no air cover, and he was well aware of what occurred at Pearl Harbor and later, at Singapore, where Japanese aircraft sank the HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse in less than three hours.

On paper, Admiral Doorman appeared to have a strong force: two heavy cruisers (the HMS Exeter and Houston); four light cruisers (the USS Marblehead; the HMNS De Ryter, HMNS Java and HMAS Perth), along with 10 destroyers.  But many of his vessels dated from the First World War, and only one (Exeter) had radar.  Communications between elements of the battle fleet were limited and Japanese jamming only made the problem worse.  Doorman's force was further depleted when Marblehead was damaged in a preliminary engagement, sending her on a 16,000 mile journey to the United States for repairs.

Late on the afternoon of 27 February, the Houston, along with the rest of Doorman's forces, entered battle against a Japanese screening force of four cruisers and 13 destroyers.  The engagement went badly for the Allied naval squadron; attempts to push past the Japanese force were repeatedly rebuffed, at a high cost in ships and sailors.  By the end of the day, only Houston and Perth remained; the two Dutch cruisers had been sunk, taking their captains and Admiral Doorman down with them.  Three other destroyers were also lost.  The Battle of the Java Sea, the largest surface engagement since Jutland, ended in a decisive Japanese victory.

The next evening Houston and Perth were ordered to sail through Sunda Strait to Tjilatap, on the south coast of Java, the first step on a planned journey to Australia.  Intelligence reports indicated no Japanese naval activity in the area, but shortly after entering the Strait, the two cruisers and an accompanying destroyer ran into the main Japanese invasion force.  A furious night action ensured; Perth, suffering multiple hits from torpedoes and gunfire, went down just before midnight.  Houston, surrounded and alone, fought on.  Crews manhandled eight-inch shells to the forward guns from the disabled rear turret and scored multiple hits on several Japanese vessels. 

Houston's luck finally ran out around 12:30 a.m., local time.  The cruiser's brave Captain, Albert Rooks, was killed by a shell burst and the ship--crippled by three torpedoes--slowed to a crawl.  Japanese destroyers moved in and machine-gunned the decks, killing more sailors.  Just before 1 am, the Houston rolled over and sank, her ensign still flying.  Over 300 crew members went into the water before being captured and put in enemy POW camps. 

For his sacrifice, Captain Rooks was awarded the Medal of Honor.  Houston's 59-year-old Chaplain, Commander George Rentz, received the Navy Cross for aiding his wounded shipmates in the water, and giving his life jacket to another sailor. 

Such was the legacy of the "Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast," a ship claimed sunk by the Japanese on multiple occasions before that fateful February night.  It is fitting that the Houston's final resting place has been found, and it can now be preserved as a memorial to a great ship and the brave men who took her to into harm's way.            



Tuesday, August 19, 2014

That Voice
















Don Pardo during an audience warm-up on the set of "Saturday Night Live" in 1979.  NBC photo via Getty images.


Jimmy Fallon said it best: nothing is like the moment when Don Pardo says your name.

And now, that legendary voice has been silenced; Mr. Pardo, the NBC staff announcer whose career literally spanned the history of television--and a wide swath of pop culture--has died at the age of 96.

A spokesman for his family confirmed that Pardo passed away Monday night at his home in Tucson, Arizona.  Mr. Pardo moved to Arizona in 2004, after retiring from his daily duties as a network announcer, though he remained the voice of "Saturday Night Live" through the 2014 season that ended in May. 

For viewers of a certain age, Pardo was best known as the off-camera announcer on the iconic comedy show that first aired in 1975.  But when Lorne Michaels hired him for SNL, Pardo had already been a member of the NBC announcing staff for 31 years, and his resume included such assignments as the Colgate Comedy Hour; Your Show of Shows, All Star Revue, the original Price is Right (alongside Bill Cullen), the network version of Jeopardy! (hosted by Art Fleming), along with dozens of other programs, specials and occasional work in news.  He provided war coverage on NBC radio during his early days at the network and decades after moving to TV, he appeared on-screen for WNBC's "Live at Five," introducing the local anchor team.                       

For whatever reason, Pardo's assignments with NBC News were infrequent; the announcers most associated with the network's nightly newscast were Bill Hanrahan and Howard Reig, while Fred Facey was the long-time voice of the Today show.  But as fate would have it, Don Pardo was in the announcer's booth in the early afternoon on November 22, 1963, when a news editor shoved a bulletin in front of him and told the announcer he would be reading it live--over the network--in a matter of seconds.  No time to review the copy or rehearse.  Just deliver one of the biggest stories of the 20th century to millions of viewers:

"In downtown Dallas, President Kennedy was shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed Mr. Kennedy. She cried, ‘Oh no.’ The motorcade sped on. A photographer said he saw blood on the president’s head. It was believed two shots were fired. Keep tuned to your NBC station for the later news.”

And here is how it sounded; for years, it was believed that no audio copy of the Pardo's bulletin existed.  In those days, NBC didn't have the capability to "go live" from the network newsroom in New York, and didn't begin recording its coverage until Chet Huntley, Frank McGee and Bill Ryan went on the air in a small studio.  Pardo's original report was captured by a viewer who had been experimenting with an audio recorder set up next to his TV and discovered them years later.

The bulletins represent only a brief moment in a storied career, but they not only illustrate Pardo's consummate skill, but the value of having a "live" announcer who could handle anything.  In this era of voice tracking, careful "imaging" and pre-recorded segments, it's hard to believe that each broadcast network once employed as many as two dozen announcers, adept at voicing anything from commercial billboards and promos, to public service announcements and even news bulletins.  Anyone who has ever slaved over a "hot" microphone will tell you that Pardo's "cold read" of the initial update is very impressive. He makes a rare, minor flub in the second bulletin, but it's still an extraordinary performance, under the most difficult conditions.  Compare that to the breaking news segments of today, where anchors often flail and speculate, and Mr. Pardo's work is even more impressive.    

It was that same, authoritative sound that won Pardo his most famous gig.  "Jeopardy" had ended its NBC run as Lorne Michaels was putting together SNL.  He told The New York Times he liked Mr. Pardo for the job as a sort of counterpoint to the wackiness of the show.  “It couldn’t have been a more different culture,” Mr. Michaels said. “But it was perfect for us.”

Pardo remained with the show for 38 of its 39 seasons.  He left SNL in 1980 (along with Michaels and the original "Not Ready for Primetime Players) but the re-tooled program quickly sank in the ratings.  Pardo--who had been replaced by another NBC staffer, Mel Brandt--returned to the announcer's booth in 1982 and remained with the show for the rest of his long career. 

He hinted at retirement after leaving NBC as a full-time announcer in 2004, but Michaels persuaded him to stick with SNL, flying to New York for the broadcasts, or taping his material from a studio in Arizona.  On the rare occasions when Pardo was unavailable, cast members like Joe Piscopo and Darrell Hammond filled in, mimicking that unmistakable voice.  Reportedly, Hammond's impersonation was so spot-on that it once fooled Pardo's wife. 

Some of Don Pardo's best work is preserved at YouTube, including an extended interivew with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2006.  In that conversation he covers a number of subjects, including his trademark, elongated announcing style that developed during his stint on the original "Price is Right."  In the early days of TV, it took cameras a few seconds to track and focus on the product being described, so Pardo learned to stretch his narration, so it matched what appeared on the screen. 

To this day, Pardo is the only announcer in the television academy's Hall of Fame.  He is certainly deserving of the honor, but there are many other announcers who are worthy of the recognition.  Perhaps the passing of Don Pardo will cause the academy to reconsider the many announcers who were instrumental in the medium's development. 
***
ADDENDUM:  As Mr. Pardo described in the television academy interview, he originally set his sights on being an actor.  But the manager of WJAR radio in Providence, Rhode Island (where Pardo's acting troupe occasionally performed on the air), persuaded him to give announcing a try.  Pardo's wife encouraged him to take the job, though it meant a pay cut from the $58 a week he was making as a machinist. 

With only two years of experience, he joined the network staff in 1944, after auditioning with another Providence-based announcer, Hal Simms.  WJAR was an NBC affiliate, so Pardo auditioned for that network and was hired, while Mr. Simms (who worked for a competing station) was turned down at CBS.  Simms joined the CBS staff a few years later, and spent 41 years with the network, where he was best known as the announcer for the soap opera "The Edge of Night."

Mr. Pardo was, by all accounts, a very unassuming and approachable man, despite his celebrity status.  More than a few aspiring announcers, seeking guidance from a legend in the business, called the NBC switchboard and asked for Don Pardo.  Most were stunned when the operator put them through and they found themselves talking with one of the greats.   And I have yet to see a post or tweet from an SNL performer, writer or production staffer who didn't describe him in gentle and glowing terms. 

He will be missed     

          


      

        

Friday, August 15, 2014

Head Count

There won't be a rescue mission from Iraq's Mount Sinjar afterall. 

Earlier this week, there was talk about a massive evacuation effort, using helicopters, transport aircraft and security forces, to remove tens of thousands of Yazidis and Christians from the mountain range.  Members of the religious minority groups fled there after ISIS overran their villages in northern Iraq and began slaughtering men, women and children who refused to convert to Islam. 

By some accounts, there were as many as 50,000 refugees on the mountain, with little food or water and exposed to a harsh desert environment.  Removing most of them from Mount Sinjar (and into refugee camps) was expected to take weeks, with attacks from ISIS terrorists a very real threat. 

But the scenario changed drastically a couple of days ago, when U.S. military special forces teams made it to the mountain and found a situation that was far less grim.  As Kate Brannen and Gordon Lubold detailed in Foreign Policy

"After inserting a small military reconnaissance team atop the mountain, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said late Wednesday that the situation was no longer as bad as anyone thought. There are now only about 5,000 civilians on the mountain, and they are in "better condition than previously believed," according to Hagel's statement.

For roughly 2,000 of those civilians, mostly from the minority Yazidi religious sect, Mount Sinjar is home and they do not intend to leave. Now it seems the dire situation has improved and that focus is shifting to refugee camps in Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan."  
 
Back in Washington, a lot of people are scratching heads and pointing fingers, wondering how the U.S. intelligence community was so far off its its estimates.  As retired Lieutenant General Dave Deptula, the Air Force's former ISR chief told FP:
 
"It's a bit of a surprise that there was that degree of uncertainty," he said.
 
Drone operators typically feed pictures to intelligence analysts on the ground who could use them to determine roughly how many people are in an area under surveillance -- and, in this case, how many might be leaving. Most ISR aircraft can discern between a couple of thousand people or tens of thousands of people, said Deptula, now the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Arlington, Virginia."
 
"It's pretty straightforward: You survey the region that you're interested in over a period of time, then you count the number of people who are there," he said. "It's not rocket science."
 
According to media reports, the U.S. is currently flying at least 60 sorties a day over Iraq; many of those are conducted by various UAV platforms and virtually all have some sort of real-time intelligence collection capability.  Additionally, U.S. commanders had access to reams of satellite imagery and SIGINT reporting, provided by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) and NSA, respectively. 
 
So, how did the spooks get it wrong?  Or did they get it wrong? 
 
For starters, there are challenges associated with counting refugees in moutainous terrain.  Seeking shelter from extreme temperatures, individuals move into caves, tents and under rocky outcroppings.  So, depending on the time of day, the headcount may vary, as more refugees move into places that drones and satellites can't observe.  However, that problem is somewhat mitigated by staging drone flights at various hours of the day (and night), allowing analysts to observe the refugee population around the clock. 
 
There's also the issue of how much imagery commanders were getting and the types of products received.  Electro-optical imagery from a Predator or Reaper is often described as a "soda-straw view;" good resolution, but it only covers a relatively small area.  Pull back to a wider view, and you lose detail.  Satellites cover a much wider area, but analysts need to zoom in on particular targets and analyze those images to provide the detail required by decision-makers.  And since Mount Sinjar is actually a mountain range, you would need scores of images, electronically "stitched together" to render a comprehensive view of the refugees and their locations. 
 
A better question might be this: did our intel systems capture the exodus from the mountain?  Kurdish and Yazidi officials insist that as many as 40,000 people fled to the area to escape ISIS.  In the days before U.S. SOF teams arrived, thousands of refugees apparently decided to seek other safe havens, making a 25-mile journey across the Syrian border, before crossing back into Iraq's Kurdistan region.  If our drones and satellites detected that migration--and they almost certainly did--it raises another possibility: American officials deliberately withheld the information (to prevent the terrorists from launching full-scale attacks on the refugees), while highlighting the humanitarian crisis on Mount Sinjar.  If that was the case, that bit of disinformation may have saved thousands of lives. 
 
But before anyone at the White House or the Pentagon takes a victory lap, there is another issue to consider: why did thousands of refugees decide to leave the mountain and embark on a dangerous, over-land trek to a refugee camp?  For most it was a matter of necessity; you can't live indefinitely on a mountain with just the clothes on your back, and the triple-digit temperatures of late summer will soon be replaced by freezing cold in the fall and winter.  There were also problems with distribution of food and water dropped by USAF transports and other aircraft.  Put another way: long-term survival prospects on the mountain were decidedly slim. 
 
At the geopolitical level, the exodus was also a no-confidence vote in the U.S. and its allies.  Many of the refugees had been on Mount Sinjar for days before the arrival of humanitarian aid--and the start of airstrikes against ISIS targets in the region.  We may never know the number of Yazidis, Christians and Kurds who perished on their journey to the mountain, or died on its slopes.  We can also surmise that many might have waited for a U.S. evacuation operation, if they felt any genuine assurance that one was on the way. 
 
But the refugees saw how long it took the United States to respond to the crisis and knew it might be many days before everyone was evacuated.  So, when our limited airstrikes rolled back ISIS, many of those on Mount Sinjar attempted to walk to safety, rather than waiting on a western helicotper or vehicle convoy.  Such is the state of American credibility in the Middle East--even among those who look to us for support. 
 
One final note: the same images that provide a refugee "head count" can also detect individuals who have died, or the graves where they are buried.  Curiously, official briefings on the Mount Sinjar crisis--and resulting media coverage--have largely avoided the body count issue.  Maybe they'll say the spooks missed that one, too.                         
 
  
 
    

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Today's Reading Assignment

"Why America Still Needs Nukes," by Evan Moore of the Foreign Policy Initiative, writing at Real Clear Defense: 

"In a highly anticipated report, a bipartisan group of former civilian and military leaders recently concluded that U.S. security could face grave dangers if Washington fails to quickly reverse a decade’s worth of deep cuts to defense spending. Known as the National Defense Panel (NDP), they urge immediate and sustained investments to improve the readiness, capacity, and capability not only of America’s conventional forces, but also of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
 
Amid Russia’s violations of a key nuclear arms control pact, and China’s efforts to grow the size and scope of its nuclear arsenal, it’s critical that policymakers and lawmakers act on the NDP panel’s recommendations, especially on America’s offensive and defensive strategic forces."
 
[snip]
 
In particular, the NDP report emphasizes that America’s offensive and defensive strategic forces “continue to play an essential role in deterring potential adversaries and reassuring U.S. allies and partners around the world.” The report adds that our nuclear arsenal plays “a unique and crucial role”—not only as the “credible guarantor” of the sovereignty of the United States and our allies, but also as “a cornerstone” in “broader U.S. defense strategy.”
 
Moreover, the NDP concludes that “[n]uclear force modernization is essential,” given the U.S. nuclear arsenal’s “looming obsolescence.” The report added that “America’s nuclear arsenal will need life extension programs and some modernization if its deterrent value is to be preserved.” For instance, the growth of more sophisticated air defense systems around the world will put America’s B-2 bomber, a stealthy long-range aircraft that can carry both nuclear and conventional weapons, “increasingly at risk” in the middle of the next decade. The NDP panel urges the United States to field a new bomber that can sneak into heavily-defended airspace and deliver “a broad array of operationally useful payloads,” including nuclear payloads."

While Mr. Moore presents a very cogent analysis, there is nothing particularly new or revealing in his column. It's simply another reminder that nuclear weapons are an important part of America's security strategy, yet our land and sea-based strategic forces continue to atrophy at an alarming rate.  Equally disturbing, virtually everyone with a modicum of nuclear expertise recognizes the problem, yet no one (beyond a few senior military officers and policy wonks) have articulated a clear plan for fixing the problem.  Then, there's the matter of paying for tens of billions of dollars in required nuclear upgrades, against a backdrop of austere defense budgets. 

And, assuming the modernization effort actually gains momentum, there's the obstacle sitting in the Oval Office.  President Obama openly dreams of the day when nuclear weapons can be completely eliminated, so it's a safe bet that he would never support major upgrades to our strategic arsenal.  Mr. Obama won't be leaving the White House for another 2 1/2 years, so any serious effort at modernization wouldn't begin until the latter half of this decade. 

In the interim, Russia and China are continuing efforts to update their nuclear forces.  Moscow's newest ICBM, variants of the SS-27 series, have been deployed in silo and road-mobile versions.  China is also improving its land-based missiles and building new ballistic missile subs that, for the first time, can target the U.S. from waters close to the Chinese mainland.  To be sure, Beijing's fledgling SSBN fleet is not a match for our remaining Ohio-class boats, and the new Russian missiles have been deployed in relatively small numbers.  But in an era of MIRV technology and greatly improved missile accuracy, you don't need large numbers of missiles to hold our nation at risk.  Even rogue states like North Korea and Iran will soon have a rudimentary capability to launch nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

Readers will also note we haven't touched other elements of the strategic debate, such as missile defense and anti-satellite systems.  Our adversaries are making strides in those areas as well, posing further dangers to our national security.  Meanwhile, the smart boys and girls at the NSC and the Pentagon are trying to determine the "right" number of bombs that should be dropped on a terrorist army in Iraq.  If we can't figure that one out, prospects for strategic force modernization are decidedly dim. 
***
ADDENDUM:  The Obama Administration's one real effort at nuclear reform (other than slashing our arsenal) has been aimed at improving morale and career prospects among Air Force missile launch officers.  That effort was prompted by a cheating scandal at Malmstrom AFB, Montana that resulted in dozens of officers being temporarily decertified for nuclear duty.  As we noted earlier this year, cheating among certification exams by missileers was one more sign of endemic rot in the nation's nuclear enterprise.  It will take more than incentives for launch officers to get our strategic forces back on track--assuming that any of our "leaders" are up to that challenge. 

Don't hold your breath.                  
         
 
   

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

More to the Story



















An RC-135 Rivet Joint SIGINT aircraft in flight.  An encounter between a U.K.-based RC-135 and Russian fighters last month forced the USAF crew to divert into Swedish airspace  (USAF photo via the U.S. Naval Institute). 



Call it a hunch, but there may be more than meets the eye in last month's encounter between an Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft and Russian fighters.

It was recently revealed that a Rivet Joint SIGINT platform darted into Swedish airspace to escape a Russian SU-27 Flanker sent up to intercept it.  The incident occurred over the Baltic, just one day after Russian separatists shot down a Malaysian jetliner over eastern Ukraine.  

First, a little background: Rivet Joint aircraft have been collecting various forms of electronic intelligence outside Russian airspace for decades, and they are routinely intercepted by air defense fighters.  RC-135 flight paths are highly predictable, and so are the intercept points, to some degree. Collectively, they form an aerial ballet that plays out on a regular basis in the skies above the eastern Pacific; the Black Sea, the White Sea and the Baltic, among other locations.

Missions over the Baltic present special challenges; the RC-135 is supposed to remain in international airspace as it approaches Russian territory, avoiding the air defense zones of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Finland, the Baltic States and, of course, Russia.  While the National Security Agency has agreements with all allied nations in the region (and some outside NATO), none of those countries want to be directly involved in the Rivet Joint missions, to avoid complicating relations with Moscow.

Suffice it to say, RC-135 crews are very cognizant of international borders, airspace boundaries and other demarcation lines along the Baltic and do their best to avoid them.  Of course, there are some exceptions, including exercises with NATO partners, or special orbits implemented in response to specific events.  Earlier this year, for example, the U.S. began staging RJ missions over Romania, in response to Russian-backed aggression in the Crimea.

That's why it was surprising the USAF SIGINT aircraft entered Swedish airspace in response to the Russian intercept attempt.  The Pentagon has released few details on the incident, only acknowledging that the RC-135 entered Sweden's airspace and that future transits would be coordinated more closely.

According to a report from Voice of America, officials at U.S. European Command said the intelligence platform was "incorrectly" directed towards Swedish airspace as it tried to avoid the approaching Russian jets.

Two points worth remembering: first, each Rivet Joint "cockpit crew" includes not one, but two navigators, for the expressed purpose of keeping the aircraft on course and out of hostile airspace.  Many RJ navigators are highly experienced, with significant flight time in other platforms before transitioning to the RC-135.

Experience levels are typically even higher among the "back end" crew, comprised of linguists and other intelligence specialists, who are a part of the USAF Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency (the front enders belong to Air Combat Command).  As part of their mission, the intelligence crew--along with onboard electronic warfare officers--collect against designated targets AND monitor the response of adversary air defenses.  If the reaction proves highly unusual or provocative, the mission is aborted, just as it was last month.  Criteria for mission termination due to threat reaction vary from theater to theater; not surprisingly, the lowest threshold for that type of abort is associated with missions flown against North Korea.  Given Pyongyang's unpredictability--and past attacks against reconnaissance aircraft--RJ crews are instructed to cease collection and bug out with very little provocation from the DPRK.

Termination criteria for missions against Russia are a bit higher; in other words, it takes more consequential posturing, actions or statements to prompt mission termination against Russian targets.  One reason?   Historically, Russian intercepts conducted over international waters have been predictable and professional, so it's rare for an RC-135 mission to be aborted because of a Russian reaction that appears out-of-the-ordinary.

It's also worth noting that the RJ crew is not alone in gauging adversary response to the collection mission. Whenever an RC-135 is on a "real-world" mission, it is in direct communication with SIGINT nodes on the ground that provide "flight following" support.  The decision to divert through Swedish airspace was likely made in concert with authorities on the ground, and likely in response to unusual behavior on the part of the Russians.

Essentially, there are two explanations for last month's encounter over the Baltic.  First, there's the chance that the crew (along with support elements on the ground) made a terrible call in their interpretation of Russian intentions and grossly over-reacted.  The odds of that scenario are extremely slim, given the experience of the flight and mission crews, and SIGINT support elements assigned to the mission.

A more likely explanation is that Russia decided to play tough on the day after the MH 17 shoot down, displaying actions that forced the RJ crew to terminate their mission and take the extraordinary step of diverting into Swedish airspace.  Unwilling to ruffle Russian feathers any further, the administration seems to be blaming the incident on crew judgment and inappropriate guidance.  The men and women who fly RC-135s aren't perfect, but in our experience, they are exceptionally professional.  The odds of a "mistake chain" like the one described are extremely slim.  On the other hand, if your RC-135 is locked on by
***
ADDENDUM:  Violations of Swedish airspace occur on a regular basis; and sometimes, the offending aircraft belong to--you guessed it--the Russians.

Additionally, a spokesman at EUCOM says the RJ crew--and support elements on the ground--followed "all appropriate procedures" during the incident.  That statement offers more support for the theory that Russian pilots (or their commanders) may have been planning something something confrontational or even deadly in the skies off the Baltic coast.