Monday, November 24, 2014

The Fall Guy

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is being forced out, after less than two years on the job.  The New York Times (which received the initial leak from the White House), gladly served up administration spin that Mr. Hagel, a former Republican Senator from Nebraska, lacked the required skills to deal with emerging threats.

The officials described Mr. Obama’s decision to remove Mr. Hagel, 68, as a recognition that the threat from the Islamic State would require a different kind of skills than those that Mr. Hagel was brought on to employ. A Republican with military experience who was skeptical about the Iraq war, Mr. Hagel came in to manage the Afghanistan combat withdrawal and the shrinking Pentagon budget in the era of budget sequestration.

But now “the next couple of years will demand a different kind of focus,” one administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He insisted that Mr. Hagel was not fired, saying that the defense secretary initiated discussions about his future two weeks ago with the president, and that the two men mutually agreed that it was time for him to leave.

But Mr. Hagel’s aides had maintained in recent weeks that he expected to serve the full four years as defense secretary. His removal appears to be an effort by the White House to show that it is sensitive to critics who have pointed to stumbles in the government’s early response to several national security issues, including the Ebola crisis and the threat posed by the Islamic State.

To be fair, there is an element of truth in the critique of Chuck Hagel's leadership skills.  He was a lousy choice for SecDef at the very moment our military establishment needed an extraordinary leader.  As we observed during Mr. Hagel's tortured confirmation process in 2013, he was the wrong man for the wrong job at the worst possible time: 

It doesn't take a military genius to understand that DoD desperately needs someone with ideas, exceptional managerial acumen and a road map for America's military forces in the 21st Century.  To date, President Obama hasn't offered much, other than winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which would have occurred regardless of who was in the Oval Office); his strategic focus on the Pacific theater and massive cuts in the defense budget.

The next Secretary of Defense faces huge challenges.  Even without sequestration, the Pentagon is looking at roughly $500 billion in cuts over the next decade, along with cuts in personnel and hardware that will create significant operational obstacles.  Good luck taking on a modernized Chinese military with a force that, on its current trajectory, will be completely hollowed out by the end of Mr. Obama's second term.

And we're being told that Chuck Hagel is the right man to lead the Defense Department at this critical moment.  How rich.  We're not sure if Mr. Hagel ever had a marshal's baton in his knapsack (following Napoleon's famous dictum); at this point, we'd just like to know if he actually has a clue.  


To date, Chuck Hagel is the only former enlisted soldier to be appointed as Secretary of Defense.  As an Army infantryman in Vietnam, Hagel served honorably, receiving two Purple Hearts and the Army Commendation Medal.  But his involvement with the military largely ended when he returned from Vietnam and didn't resume until Hagel entered the U.S. Senate in 1996.  As a member of that body, he developed a friendship with Barack Obama, centered on their skepticism about the war in Iraq.  

And there's the rub: searching for a replacement for Leon Panetta, the commander-in-chief's primary concern was finding someone with the requisite anti-war credentials and not the vision and leadership needed to lead DoD in an environment defined by the emergence of ISIS; China's growing military might, a resurgent Russia, continued military operations in Afghanistan and sequestration-imposed budget cuts.

It doesn't take a general to understand that dwindling resources translates--quickly--into decreased military readiness, a problem compounded by the so-called "procurement holiday" of the 1990s and a decade of war in the Middle East.  In an interview with Charlie Rose last week, Mr. Hagel said senior DoD leaders were openly worried about the situation facing our armed forces (H/T: PJ Tattler):

Hagel re-iterated that to Rose, but also left viewers to wonder about the direction that President Obama is taking the military.

“I am worried about it, I am concerned about it, Chairman Dempsey is, the chiefs are, every leader of this institution,” Hagel said, including Pentagon leadership but leaving both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden’s names out of his list of officials who are worried about the U.S. military’s declining capability. Hagel said that the Congress and the American people need to know what while the U.S. military remains the strongest, best trained and most motivated in the world, its lead is being threatened because of policies being implemented now.

[snip]

In the past couple of years, Hagel has warned that defense budget cuts implemented under President Obama were hurting readiness and capability. The “how smart you are” line may be a veiled shot at President Obama, who basks in a media image that he is a cerebral, professorial president.

Reportedly, the "professor-in-chief" became miffed when Mr. Hagel recently suggested that ineffective policies against ISIS in Syria were actually aiding that country's dictator, Bashir Assad.  The outgoing defense chief has a point, but some would ask if he--and the service chiefs--could have been more forceful in stating their opposition to budget cuts, micro-management of the campaign against ISIS and the President's refusal to acknowledge the threat posed by the terror army until is was almost too late.

And the situation is unlikely to improve under Secretary Hagel's potential successors, Michelle Flournoy, Ashton Carter and Jack Reed.  Ms. Flournoy served in senior defense posts in the Clinton Administration and was Under-Secretary of Defense during Obama's first term; Carter was the Deputy SecDef during the same period and Reed is a longtime Democratic Senator from Rhode Island.  Early speculation suggests Ms. Flournoy has the inside track, which would allow President Obama to appoint the first female Secretary of Defense.  

Of the three, only Senator Reed has served in uniform; after graduating from West Point, he was an active-duty officer from 1971-1979 and remained in the Army Reserve until 1991.  Describing him as a doctrinaire liberal would be an understatement.  

At this point, it probably doesn't matter who serves as SecDef; Mr. Obama shows no inclination to change his national security policies, and the outlook for defense spending is equally grim.  Perhaps the real question is who will be nominated for the job in 2017, as part of the next administration.  That individual--whomever it might be--will face a near-impossible job.            

 
      

       

               


 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Deadline Time

While the media waits for word from the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, a much more important deadline is looming.

We refer to the Monday deadline for reaching an agreement on Iran's nuclear program.  At this point, the Obama Administration appears determined to reach any sort of deal, regardless of how bad it might be.  Writing at National Review, Fred Fleitz warns that any prospective accord may represent little more than a complete capitulation to Tehran:

Many in Congress — both Democrats and Republicans — are coming to the realization that the nuclear talks amount to a dangerous U.S. sellout to Tehran. But few of them realize how far this sellout has gone.

The reported American concessions to Tehran represent a stunning reversal of years of U.S. policy and include implicitly recognizing Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium, allowing Iran to operate 6,000 uranium centrifuges, and dropping longtime Western demands that Iran halt construction of the Arak heavy-water reactor, which will be a source of plutonium when completed. Iran also will not be forced to give up its large stockpile of reactor-grade uranium that currently could be used to make at least eight nuclear weapons if further enriched to weapons-grade.

[snip]

Based on the enormous concessions offered by the United States last fall to get Iran to the negotiating table, further U.S. concessions made during this year’s talks, Iran’s failure to cooperate with the IAEA, and its cheating on the interim agreement, many members of Congress from both sides of the aisle believe that any nuclear agreement struck with Iran will be weak and unverifiable and will do little or nothing to stop Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons.

Mr. Fleitz, a veteran intelligence officer, believes the White House's desperation for any sort of nuclear deal reflects bleak assessments on two fronts.  First, there's the realization that Mr. Obama has allowed the world to become a much more dangerous place on his watch, and needs some sort of "accomplishment" to counter-balance a legion of blunders.  A nuclear deal with Iran would (supposedly) represent a rare, foreign policy triumph.  

Secondly, there appears to be a growing consensus among administration officials--and policy wonks who share their world view--that a nuclear Iran is inevitable, and containment represents the best policy.  Those dangerous beliefs, Mr. Fleitz observes, were recently articulated in op-ed pieces by a pair of liberal pundits, Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution and Paul Pillar, a faculty member at Georgetown University.  Both are former CIA officers who argue that the threat from a nuclear Iran has been "over-hyped," and can actually be contained, similar to the strategy used for decades against the former Soviet Union.  

Both Pollack and Pillar believe it is unlikely that Iran would share nuclear technology--or finished weapons--with other rogue states and terrorist groups.  They also claim it would take Iran decades to match Israel's nuclear arsenal, while Jerusalem could easily add to its stockpile and is currently deploying more delivery platforms, including submarines capable of firing cruise missiles.  

There are obvious dangers in this line of thinking (and we use that term advisedly).  It's a given that Tehran has a much different world view than the Soviet leaders who paraded their weapons through Red Square, but thought very carefully about using them.  Iran remains committed to becoming the regional hegemon of the Middle East, and its generally agreed that Tehran would employ nuclear weapons more quickly against such adversaries as Israel--or U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf.  

And, having used terrorist proxies to fight its foes for more than 30 years, why should anyone doubt Iran's willingness to share nuclear technology with them, particularly when the U.S. has a long history of casting a blind eye towards enablers of nuclear ambition (think Pakistan).  Beyond that, Tehran may also believe it has the Obama Administration over a proverbial barrel.  In exchange for its "assistance" with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the mullahs probably expect even more flexibility from Washington on the nuclear issues.

At this point, it's still unclear if a deal will be reached by the Monday deadline.  But regardless of when an agreement is struck, it will be--almost assuredly--a terrible bargain, one that will likely codify Iranian gains, and put Tehran even closer to getting the bomb.  That, in turn, will trigger an even wider arms race in the Persian Gulf, as erstwhile American allies scramble to defend themselves, believing that Washington is no longer a reliable partner.  

That will be one of the lasting legacies of Barack Obama.  As for Republicans, they certainly talk a good game, but offer little in the way of an alternative.  Readers will note that GOP members of Congress left town this afternoon for their Thanksgiving break, saying almost nothing about Monday's deadline and what Mr. Obma is about to do.                                    


   

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Keeping Watch

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

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


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

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

Spies in the Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 07, 2014

An Abundance of Caution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

               

             

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

About Last Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

                     

Monday, October 27, 2014

More Medevac from the Hot Zone














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

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

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

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

From USA Today, courtesy of Drudge:

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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