Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Next 3 AM Phone Call

***Update/31 March/12:50 EDT***According to The Wall Street Journal (and re-printed at, the U.S. has moved a squadron of F-22 Raptors to a base in Korea, in response to escalating tensions with Pyongyang.  The Journal did not name the installation where the F-22s are operating, but Reuters is reporting the Raptors were deployed to Osan AB, about 30 miles south of Seoul.

Normally based at Langley AFB, VA, the Raptors arrived in January at Kadena AB, Okinawa, as part of a routine, four-month rotation.  While F-22s from Langley (and other installations) have been deploying to the Far East for the past four years, the decision to send them on to Korea is yet another reflection of the current crisis on the peninsula.  Moving the F-22s to South Korea clearly sends a signal to Pyongyang, but it's unclear if other military moves will follow.  When the DPRK captured the USS Pueblo in 1968, the United States deployed scores of aircraft to South Korea (along with other military forces) and many of those assets remained in place until the ship's crew was released.  
It would be easy to dismiss the latest threat from North Korea's Kim Jong-un as an exercise in propaganda, if not downright absurdity.

In a move dutifully reported by Pyongyang's "official" news service (and picked up by media outlets around the world), the North Korean leader signed a directive placing his missile forces on standby, ready to strike U.S. targets on short notice.  The order was approved at the end of an "emergency" meeting of Kim's senior advisers, and photographs of the event featured a large maps of the United States as a backdrop, with Los Angeles, Washington, DC and Austin, Texas featured as apparent targets.

Never mind that no serious military power would engage in such a clumsy public display.  Or that Kim Jong-un looked like someone signing his first auto loan instead of a strike order.  Or the serious doubts that exist regarding the DPRK's ability to actually launch a missile that could actually reach targets as distant as Austin, or  nation's capital.  Indeed, Austin's appearance on the purported strike graphic caused a few chuckles among some analysts.  Maybe Mr. Kim and his generals don't realize the Bergstrom AFB closed down more than a decade ago.  Or maybe the North Korean dictator and his generals don't know that former President George Bush lives in Dallas, not Austin.  Whatever, their reasoning, there are more lucrative targets than the Texas capital, unless you want to disrupt the 2013 UT football season, or next year's SXSW festival.

Still, Kim Jong-un's vow to launch missiles against American targets cannot be rejected out of hand.  If his missile units currently lack the weaponry (and reliability) to strike the CONUS, they have hundreds of short and medium-range missiles--mostly SCUD and NO DONG variants--that can hit our bases in South Korea and Japan.  Reaching Guam, Hawaii or the CONUS would depend on the operational status of the KN-08 long-range missile, seen for the first time at a North Korean military parade in April 2004.  There have been no flight tests of that long-range system, and it's operational status remains questionable.

But that's little consolation for U.S. military personnel at places like Camp Humphreys, Kunsan AB or Osan AB which are within range of scores of North Korean SCUDs.  The same holds true for many of our military installations in Japan, including the airbases at Misawa, Yakota, and Atsugi; the Yokusuka Naval base (home to our only carrier group based in the Far East), along with installations on Okinawa, including Kadena AB and various Marine garrisons.   American forces in those locations routinely train to operate under chemical contamination conditions for extended periods, assuming that North Korea would target our facilities with a barrage of missiles tipped with persistent and non-persistent chemical munitions.  And, at some point, the DPRK will be able to put a nuke on its ballistic missiles--and build one capable of reaching the CONUS--completely changing the threat equation.    

It's simply a matter of time.  Pyongyang has displayed great patience in working towards its goals of obtaining nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems.  And with the United States and its allies doing little to deter their efforts (aside from economic sanctions and the occasional diplomatic protest), there has no reason for North Korea to abandon its WMD program.  Now, with nuclear weapons in the arsenal and an ICBM only a few years (or few months) away, Pyongyang is determined to cross the finish line, knowing that the ability to put a nuke on an American city is a game-changer.

Over the near-term, there is the very real possibility of an accidental showdown between the U.S. and the DPRK.  Consider this scenario: in response to continued sabre-rattling by Kim Jong-un, the USAF is directed to fly additional B-52 missions over South Korea.  As a two-ship "Buff" formation flies well south of the DMZ, they are locked-on by one of the DPRK's aging SA-5 surface-to-air missile sites.  Moments later, a pair of huge GAMMON missiles, with a range of 140 nautical miles, are launched against the B-52s.  One of the missiles exploded close enough to a Buff to damage the aircraft and kill one of the crew members.  The B-52 makes an emergency landing at Kunsan AB, as the incident escalates into an international crisis.

And that's just one of many situations that could initiate a conflict between the United States and North Korea, begging an important question: what comes next?  At this point we don't really know, since President Obama has been largely silent on the North Korean problem in recent weeks, preferring to spend his time on gun control and other domestic issues.  To be fair, new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been talking about the DPRK, as did his predecessor, Leon Panetta.  But there's no substitute for presidential leadership on this pressing problem, since Kim Jong-un's next action will be based (in large measure) on his reading of Barack Obama.

Unfortunately, he may interpret the President's security record as a green light for continued aggression.  Mr. Obama took a pass on the Iranian student revolution, allowing the mullahs to launch a bloody crackdown and retain control.  He's also been quiet on other key global issues, ranging from China's cyber-attacks against American targets, to the civil war in Syria.  Many have equated his caution with kicking the can down the road, hoping that events resolve themselves, minus U.S. leadership.  And when we have become involved (read: Lbya), the results have been "less-than-optimal" to coin a phrase.

Mr. Obama ignores North Korea at his own peril, and that of 32,000 American military personnel stationed on the personnel, along with millions of ROK civilians.  Kim Jong-un feels emboldened and he's about to give our commander-in-chief a three am phone call.  According to his propaganda bureau, the North Korean leader is ready to "settle accounts" with the U.S. and he believes they will be settled on his terms.  And so far, Mr. Obama has given him no reason to think otherwise.              


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Black Eye

The Arc Light Memorial at Andersen AFB, Guam honors all B-52 crew members who died in Southeast Asia, including those killed in Operation Linebacker II, carried out from 18-29 December 1972.  Fifteen B-52s were lost in that campaign.  Last week, the CBS reality show "The Amazing Race" used the wreckage of one of those downed B-52s as a checkpoint during a segment in Vietnam.  (Wikipedia photo)     

For once, we agree with Bob Beckel.

The veteran Democratic operative and panelist on Fox News Channel's "The Five" was outraged over a recent segment on the CBS's reality show, "The Amazing Race."  And rightfully so.  On a swing through Vietnam, someone thought it would be a swell idea to have the contestants pick up a clue in front of the wreckage of a U.S. B-52 bomber, shot down by an SA-2 battery during the war.

From The New York Post:

In the episode, the twisted metal of the downed plane is treated as any other prop, with a bright ‘Amazing Race’ ‘Double-U-Turn’ signed planted in front of it, signifying to contestants the next phase of their scavenger hunt.

The show also had contestants learn a song that was performed for them by children in front of a portrait of North Vietnam communist leader Ho Chi Minh, with subtitled lyrics that included “Vietnam Communist Party is glorious. The light is guiding us to victory.”

“It’s like One Direction,” one contestant said of the performance, referring to the popular boy band.


Apparently few viewers understood the symbolism of that "memorial."  But one Vietnam vet did, and he sent an e-mail to "The Five" co-host Greg Gutfeld, who mentioned it to one of the show's producers. That, in turn, led to a segment on the FNC program, which generated this response from Mr. Beckel:

“I’m so outraged by this I can’t believe it. CBS is idiotic; they’re stupid,” Beckel said. “To have people go to a memorial where Americans died, then you ought to get off the network.”

Why should anyone care? After all, we're talking about a war that most Americans choose to forget--never mind that 58,000 Americans gave their lives in that conflict.  

But for a small group of veterans, the wreckage that served as a prop on a reality show has much greater meaning.  It symbolizes liberation and their long-awaited journey home.  

We refer, of course, to the American POWs who languished for years in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" and other detention campus.  Most were pilots or aircrew members, shot down during missions over Vietnam, beginning in 1964.  John McCain was among that group; so was Admiral James Stockdale, Brigadier General Robbie Risner, and Lieutenant General John Flynn.  All suffered horrible brutality and deprivation at the hands of their captors.  They never lost faith, but at times, freedom must have seemed a distant dream.  

Their hopes were finally raised in December, 1972.  When the North Vietnamese walked away from the Paris Peace Talks (yet again), President Nixon decided to force Hanoi's hand militarily.  He ordered his commanders to prepare a "maximum air effort" against the North.  Unlike earlier, incremental air power campaigns (such as Rolling Thunder), the new offensive, dubbed Linebacker II, would feature large numbers of sorties against a wide range of North Vietnamese targets from the onset.  And most importantly, the new campaign would send waves of B-52s over Hanoi, in the largest American bomber raids since World War II.  

The offensive began on December 18, 1972.  North Vietnam's Soviet-designed air defense network (built around the SA-2 surface-to-air missile system), offered massive resistance.  By some estimates, almost 2 SAMs were launched for every "Buff" sortie, meaning that North Vietnamese crews fired over 200 missiles during some of the nighttime raids. 

Making matters worse, B-52 crews were severely constrained by "top-down" tactics dictated by Strategic Air Command Headquarters in Omaha.  SAC, which "owned" the Air Force's heavy bomber fleet, had been anxious to prove the ability of its warhorse to penetrate sophisticated air defenses and demolish critical targets.  But there were also concerns about potential losses; if too many Buffs went down over North Vietnam, SAC would have difficulty maintaining political support for its bomber force and B-52 losses were irreplaceable, since the Boeing assembly line had been shut down a decade earlier.  

Flying in three-ship "cells" (to maximize their mutual jamming capability), the B-52s flew into Hanoi in a single  wave, at the same altitude.  SAC also ordered a long, meandering turn to the west when coming off their targets, which put them into a stiff headwind, reducing ground speed and extending their time in the SAM belt. The egress maneuver also turned their ECM antennas away from the radars they were attempting to jam. 

The heaviest losses occurred in the early phases of the campaign; three B-52s were lost on the first night over Hanoi, and six more (4 "G" models and 2 "D" models) went down on the third night, forever known as "Black Thursday" in the B-52 community.  Overall, SAC lost 15 Buffs during Linebacker II, including the one now used as a memorial in North Vietnam.  A total of 33 B-52 crew members were killed, and an equal number were captured by the North Vietnamese.  Among the six men who flew on the B-52 whose wreckage now forms that memorial, only four survived.  

But the bombers achieved their goals.  North Vietnam suddenly decided to finalize the Paris Peace Accords, wondering what that "madman" Nixon might do next.  Inside the Hanoi Hilton, hundreds of American POWs also noticed a change of heart.  Senator McCain (and others) recall seeing genuine fear on the faces of their guards, who had mocked and taunted their prisoners for years.  With the B-52s roaming over Hanoi, they too, were worried about what might be in the offing. Treatment of the POWs finally began to improve.  

On February 12, 1973, barely six weeks after the last B-52 sortie over North Vietnam, a U.S. C-141 landed in Hanoi to repatriate the first group of American prisoners.  Among the men on that flight was Navy Commander Everett Alvarez, the first pilot taken prisoner by North Vietnam in 1964, and Air Force Technical Sergeant James Cook, a B-52 gunner who suffered two broken legs, a broken back and fractures in his shoulder and arm during the bailout from his stricken aircraft, which was hit by three SA-2s.  When the C-141 landed in the Philippines, Cook saluted the American flag from his stretcher.  

The Homecoming flights continued for almost two months, until the last of 591 POWs were repatriated.  They returned with their honor and courage intact, a tribute to their own indomitable spirit, and to the men who went downtown during Linebacker II.  Many flew B-52s, but they were supported by F-4s, A-7s, F-111s, EB-66s and other tactical aircraft that struck other targets; performed MiG-cap and SAM suppression missions and laid chaff corridors for the B-52s.  Those squadrons suffered their own losses, and  played a critical role in the ultimate success of the operation.  Overall, 43 aircrew members died during Linebacker II, so that their fellow Americans might regain their freedom, and the U.S. could end its experience in Vietnam.  

That's why the wreckage of that Buff matters.  And that's why the producers of a reality show made a terrible choice by making it a way-point in their silly game.  The families of the men who died in that B-52 deserve an apology from the production company and CBS, along with the thousands of other Americans who served in Vietnam.  Don't hold your breath waiting for the producer (Jerry Bruckheimer) or the President of CBS (Les Moonves) to admit they made a mistake.  
ADDENDUM:  On the island of Guam, at Andersen AFB, there is a simple memorial, listing the names of all B-52 crew members who died during Arc Light missions over Southeast Asia, including those who perished in Linebacker II.  If the Amazing Race ever decides to tape a segment on Guam, we hope the folks at Andersen will bar them from the base.                      


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Show of Force

As we noted in a previous post, North Korea has been busy of late, ratcheting up tensions on the Korean Peninsula.  First came Pyongyang's latest nuclear tests; followed by the successful launch of a long-range rocket that put a payload into orbit (the same technology can be used in ICBMs).  And, for good measure, the DPRK's new leader, Kim Jong-un, apparently gave the order to cancel the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, threatened nuclear strikes against the United States, and directed his air force to operate at unprecedented levels in the final phases of the annual Winter Training Cycle (WTC).

While some of Kim's threats are clearly hollow, there are growing signs of concern in U.S. defense circles.  Last week, new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the deployment of 14 additional, land-based missile interceptors at bases in Alaska and California--a move clearly aimed at countering a North Korean missile threat to the United States. Unfortunately, the last of those interceptor missiles won't go on line until 2017, about a year after North Korea has a long-range, nuclear tipped missile capable of hitting the CONUS.

Then, there's this bit of news, courtesy of Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon:

U.S. B-52 bombers carried out simulated nuclear bombing raids on North Korea as part of ongoing U.S.-South Korean military exercises, Pentagon officials said on Monday.
Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters that B-52 bombers from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, conducted a training mission over South Korea March 8 during war games known as Exercise Foal Eagle.
“It’s not any secret that we are in the midst of sending a very strong signal that we have a firm commitment to the alliance with our South Korean allies,” Little said.


Little said the Guam base has been used since 2004 for strategic bomber rotational deployments. “The B-52 Stratofortress can perform a variety of missions including carrying precision-guided conventional or nuclear ordnance,” Little said. “We will continue to fly these training missions as part of our ongoing actions to enhance our strategic posture in the Asia-Pacific region.”
It is unusual for the Pentagon to make such overt statements about the use of strategic nuclear forces in Asia Pacific.
The Foal Eagle maneuvers will highlight both nuclear and conventional capabilities of the B-52s, Little said, adding that the flights were routine.

Mr. Gertz is correct; it is highly unusual for the U.S. to openly discuss the possible use of nuclear weapons in the Pacific, or any other region.   For decades, defense officials have preferred more vague statements, acknowledging the American nuclear arsenal, but saying little about how it might be used.

The reasoning behind the change is quite obvious; North Korea's nuclear and missile threats are maturing rapidly and within the next three or four years (at the outside), we will witness the day when Pyongyang has nuclear-tipped missiles on alert, and capable of hitting strategic targets in the United States.  And, with the DPRK making hay about its evolving capabilities, someone in the White House or Pentagon believed it was appropriate to send a little reminder to Pyongyang.

But there's some debate as to whether the "message" is being received.  Years of threats and bluster have given North Korea attention on the world stage; increased food aid for its starving population, and treatment as an "equal" in talks with the U.S. and other regional players.  And, with Iran now a key ally of the DPRK, there less concern about dwindling food supplies and other hazards.  Thanks to its friends in Tehran, the DPRK may withstand the latest economic sanctions more easily.

With U.S. bombers now constantly deployed to the region, the Air Force can repeatedly demonstrate its potential capabilities   Still, it's one thing to fly a practice nuke mission near North Korea and quite another to actually carry out such sorties on a sustained basis.  If past activity pattersn offer any indicator, North Korea may propose some type of goodwill gesture during the coming weeks, making vague offers to "reduce" tensions on the peninsula, in exchange for more talks.

If we don't, there will be more nuclear and missile tests, and new propaganda videos, showing Washington (or some other American city) disappearing in a DPRK nuclear cloud.  It's a type of rope-a-dope strategy that Pyongyang has perfected, creating a perpetual cycle of cheat, retreat and promise that has created the time required to develop nuclear weapons and the required delivery platforms.   Amazingly, even some of those in Washington who have urged diplomacy in the past now see the folly of our policies.  David Ignatius of the Washington Post--hardly a war hawk--recently obsrved that it is time hope for the best and prepare by the worst.

With the recent B-52 flights near North Korea--and plans to deploy more interceptor missiles--it seems that we may be adopting such a strategy.  The question now becomes: is the White Hose willing to sustain such measures, and are we still prepared to go to war over South Korea.  Judging from Pyongyang's recent belligerency, they apparently believe that we won't.  Now, it's up to President Obama and Mr. Hagel to prove that we mean business.  The alternative is further sabre-rattling by North Korea (or worse) and a wider arms race in East Asia.     

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Surge

Kim Jong-un has been engaging in quite a bit of sabre-rattling of late, even by North Korean standards.  In the weeks following Pyongyang's most recent nuclear test, Mr. Kim has cancelled the armistice which ended the Korea War; threatened an ICBM strike against the United States, promised military response to new sanctions against his regime, and cut off the "hot line" that provided limited communication between the two Koreas.

And, for good measure, he personally "supervised" an artillery drill along the DPRK's disputed maritime border with South Korea and North Korea's aging Air Force is setting sortie records under his watch.

The artillery exercise, which occurred in recent days, is particularly troubling, since it was held in the same area where North Korean units shelled a ROK-controlled island in 2010, killing four civilians.  That attack was preceded by a personal visit to the DPRK artillery unit by Kim Jong-un and his late father, Kim Jong-il.  

More on the latest artillery drill from Reuters:
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervised a live artillery drill close to a disputed sea border with South Korea, state news agency KCNA reported on Thursday, in the latest sign of increased tensions between the two Koreas.
KCNA did not specify when the drill took place. The border is seen as the most likely site of any clash between the North, which has stepped up military preparations in response to being sanctioned for its February nuclear test, and South Korea.

Kim praised the artillery units on two islands after watching them hit targets, in what KCNA described as the "biggest hot spots in the southwestern sector of the front," in practice for striking at two South Korean islands.

Meanwhile, ROK intelligence officials report that the North Korean Air Force (NKAF) have flown an "unprecedented" number of sorties in recent days, apparently in response to the annual "Key Resolve" military exercise involving South Korean and U.S. units.

The NKAF sortie count peaked at 700 on Monday, according to a report from the semi-official Yonhap news agency in Seoul.  The surge in flight activity coincided with the first day of Key Resolve, which Pyongyang has long described as preparations for a renewed Korean conflict.

While these events are disturbing, a little perspective is in order.  It's important to remember that the start of Key Resolve comes as North Korea wraps up its annual Winter Training Cycle.  Activity levels among DPRK ground, air, air defense and special forces units normally surge in late March, during the run-up to the national defense drill that (typically) marks the conclusion of the WTC.

In other words, we expect to see a high level of North Korean military activity this time of year.  However, it would be useful to have a few more details on this year's training cycle and how current activity levels compare to previous years.  For example, if NKAF sortie counts have been running below average in January and February, it may suggest that planners were conserving resources for a grand finale.  On the other hand, if flight activity has been running ahead of recent averages throughout the WTC, it could indicate that NKAF training and readiness is improving.  That would be a significant development, since activity levels  for all of Pyongyang's military forces has slowly declined over past training cycles, reflecting shortages of fuel and spare parts.

It's also worth noting that many North Korean sorties are simplistic and of very short duration.  It's not uncommon for a NKAF training mission to consist solely of "pattern work," and many target ranges are located adjacent to airfields.  That certainly saves on fuel and other operating costs, but it does little to enhance the long-range navigation and tactical skills needed to strike targets in the south, or defend DPRK airspace against U.S. and ROK air forces, which enjoy an over-whelming technological superiority in such areas as stealth, precision strike and electronic combat.

Another key indicator of DPRK military strength is what happens in the months that follow.  For more than 20 years, activity by North Korea's armed forces has virtually ceased in the spring and summer months, when many troops are sent to the fields, to raise food for their units.  Without these "agricultural activities," there would be widespread famine in Kim Jong-un's military--which already has first crack at the nation's limited resources.

But with the growing alliance between Pyongyang and Tehran, conditions may not be quite as dire as they once were.  Iran can provide oil for North Korea, along with cash payments for nuclear and missile technology.  This windfall could help fund the increase in military activity which has been evident in recent weeks.      

However, most of the money from Iran has been invested in North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.  Pyongyang's conventional forces are among the world's largest, but their equipment is antiquated and in some cases, well past the end of its service life.  The NKAF, for example, still relies heavily on 1950s and 60s-era aircraft like the MiG-15; MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21.  The "newest" of these airframes are nearly 40 years old, and the Korean War-era MiG-15 (now used as a trainer) has been in service for over 60 years.
ADDENDUM:  Of course, not every threat rom Pyongyang can be classified as bluster.  Thursday, the Obama Administration announced plans to deploy 14 additional ground-based interceptor missiles in Alaska and California.  One official called it a "logical" response to an evolving North Korean threat, an obvious reference to recent missile and nuclear tests by the DPRK, and the pending introduction of a new, road-mobile ICBM capable of reaching the U.S.  

The Last Angel

When Bataan and Corregidor surrendered in the spring of 1942, more than 75,000 Americans were captured by the Japanese.  It remains the largest capitulation of U.S. military forces in our history.  The vast majority of the military personnel who marched into captivity were men, but there 77 female nurses--66 Army and 11 Navy--who where taken prisoner as well.

What they endured over the next three years could be charitably described as hell.  Disease and deprivation were rampant; at Cabanatuan (where most of the male prisoners were detained), thousands died before the camp was finally liberated in early 1945.  The military nurses, held primarily at Santo Tomas prison, fared slightly better, but they still had to contend with severe food shortages; outbreaks of dysentery, scurvy and other illnesses, and maltreatment by Japanese guards.  But they remained true to their calling; throughout their imprisonment, they attended to the 4,000 men, women and children who were captives at Santo Tomas.

They were called the "Angels" of Bataan and Corregidor because they cared for thousands of sick and wounded GIs during the battles that preceded our surrender.  Now, the last of those remarkable women has passed.  Army Lt. Mildred Dalton Manning, a nurse who served in both battles, died last Friday in New Jersey.  She was 98.  From her obituary in The New York Times:

Mrs. Manning — Lt. Mildred Dalton during the war — and her fellow nurses subsisted on one or two bowls of rice a day in the last stages of their imprisonment. She lost all her teeth to lack of nutrition.

“I have been asked many times if we were mistreated or tortured,” she wrote in a remembrance for her files, made available on Saturday by her son, James, who announced her death. “Physically, no. A few people might get their face slapped if they failed to bow to a Japanese guard. Humiliated, yes. We would be awakened at 2 in the morning for head count or searched for contraband.”
“From time to time they would round up a number of men and take them out of camp and they were never heard from again,” she continued. “Our internment was nothing compared to the Bataan Death March and imprisonment our soldiers went through. They were tortured and starved.” 

Mrs. Manning was accurate in that assessment, but her detention was anything but a picnic.  Some female prisoners at Santo Tomas were repeatedly raped by the Japanese, and by the end of their captivity, the nurses were subsisting on less than 1,000 calories a day.  She lost all of her teeth due to malnutrition.

Amazingly, all of the nurses survived their captivity.  After returning to the United States, they were awarded the Bronze Star and given a copy of a congratulatory letter from President Roosevelt.  A few remained in the service, but most returned to civilian life.  On a war bond tour, Mrs. Manning met and married an editor for the Atlanta Constitution.  They later moved to Jacksonville where she worked as a nurse while raising her family.

In an interview decades later, Manning admitted she was still traumatized by her wartime experiences.  For decades, she feared dark places--a reminder of the tunnels on Corregidor, which became makeshift hospitals during the final phase of the battle.  Mrs. Manning also built extra shelves in her home to store more food, fearing she might run out--a reaction that was hardly surprising, given her long years in a Japanese prison, existing on starvation rations.

Still, the last surviving "Angel of Corregidor counted herself among the fortunate. "I came out so much better than many of my friends," she told the Atlanta Journal Constitution in 2001.  "I have never been bitter and I have always known that if I could survive that, I could survive anything."
ADDENDUM: Mrs. Manning's story was among those told in the book "We Band of Angels," by Elizabeth Norman.  Published 12 years ago, it's an excellent account of the nurses who served on Bataan and Corregidor.  According to the Times, Ms. Norman is preparing a revised version of the paperback edition with a new chapter on Mrs. Manning, the last of the angels from a dark chapter in our military history.                

Saturday, March 09, 2013

The Death of Tuition Assistance, Redux

We called it almost eighteen months ago, and it looks like our prediction is coming true.  This week, both the Marine Corps and the Army announced an immediate halt to the tuition assistance (TA) program for active duty personnel, members of the Army National Guard and reservists.  The cessation of benefits--which was blamed on sequestration--eliminates tuition payments for off-duty education programs.

Under the now-halted program, Marines and soldiers received up to $4,500 a year for voluntary education programs.  Tuition assistance paid 100% of tuition costs, up to $750 a course, with benefits being capped at the annual limit.  As of this writing, members of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Air Force are still receiving $4,500 annually in tuition assistance, while sailors receive $4,000 a year.  There has been wide speculation that the other services will also halt their TA programs in the coming days, in an effort to save money.

Sadly, the demise of TA was all-but-inevitable.  From our post on October 19, 2011:

The end of the U.S. military's tuition assistance program may be at hand. Yesterday, the Marine Corps announced that annual benefits will be cut, from a maximum of $4500 a year, to $3500.

Additionally, the Corps is reducing payments per credit hour to $175 for undergraduate courses and $225 for graduate programs. However, the "real" TA cap for the majority of Marines will be only $875 per year, based on "analysis" that shows most participants take only 5-6 credit hours annually.

Changes in the Marine Corps TA program were made retroactive to 1 October. While the other services have not announced similar cuts, all are watching the USMC experiment and may unveil their own reductions in the coming months.

Currently, the Pentagon spends over $600 million a year on tuition assistance, which provides money for active-duty military members (along with guardsmen and reservists) to attend off-duty college classes. The program's price tag has more than doubled over the past decade, after the military raised the payment rate from 75% for each class, to 100%, with a cap of $750 per course.

There are signs that more cuts may be in the offing. Earlier this year, the Pentagon's chief of voluntary education, Carolyn Baker, said the current TA program is "unsustainable." Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has described TA as a "poor recruiting and retention tool," advocating a 90% reduction in the program. More recently, a Colorado Congressman asked DoD to consider a return to the 75% payment rate, which was in effect for decades. There is growing consensus in Congress (and the Pentagon) that TA must be cut, as the military faces hundreds of billions in budget cuts.

Attempts to cut the program in 2011 touched off a furor in the ranks, and the benefits were quickly restored.  This time around, there has been virtually no outcry; with Navy carrier groups unable to deploy due to a lack of money--and the services reducing their ranks by more than 200,00p personnel, it's difficult to justify a $600 million expenditure for off-duty education.  

But, as we observed seventeen months ago, this particular cut is exceedingly short-sighted.  Fact it, Tuition Assistance delivers exceptional bang-for-the-defense-buck, in comparison to other military education programs.  With service members taking classes while in uniform (typically on-line, during their off-duty hours), the military benefits from the knowledge and expertise they gain.  I recently met with an Air Force Colonel who earned his PhD through off-duty education.  He told me the knowledge he gained in that program contributed directly to a pair of major studies that have had far-reaching consequences, both at home and in the war zone.  

And it's not just senior officers who benefit.  A supply sergeant who completes his bachelor's in logistics becomes a better manager of military inventory.  Ditto for the security forces specialist who finishes her bachelor's in justice studies, or the budget analyst who earns a bachelor's or graduate degree in accounting.  In an era of the "strategic corporal," the importance of off-duty education for enlisted members has never been more important.  

But what about all that money?  For starters, the annual expenditure for tuition assistance represents about five percent of the yearly outlay for the Post 9-11 GI Bill.  If a solider, sailor, airman, Marine or "Coastie," flunks a course under the TA program, they must reimburse the government.  By comparison, the GI Bill pays for failing grades, although institutions are supposed to pay closer attention to vets in that program who are struggling academically.  And education gained through TA-financed courses directly benefits the armed forces while few GI Bill participants return to the military after earning their degree.  

It's also worth noting that a degree earned with TA is cheaper than one financed by the GI Bill.  Let's use the example of two Air Force Senior Airmen (E-4s).  At the four-year point, one elects to remain in service and complete his degree using TA; the other decides to separate and become a full-time student under the GI Bill.  Both have 60 hours of credit on their transcript, based on their Air Force education and training, and college courses they completed while on active duty.  

The airman who stays in uniform enrolls in a regionally-accredited, private, non-profit university that accepts all of his existing credits and offers a significant tuition discount.  With institution offering a significant tuition break, the Air Force pays $675 a course, up to his annual limit.  The cost of books and lab fees is not covered by tuition assistance, so the airman pays those out of pocket.  Working steadily, Airman A completes the remaining requirements for his degree by the end of his second enlistment.  Cost to the taxpayers? Just over $40,000.  

Meanwhile, his counterpart leaves the Air Force and enrolls at a local state university.  But because the former service member hasn't established residency in that state, he pays significantly higher tuition for the first year.  Additionally, the university won't accept all the academic credits earned through military training and education, so the airman loses 20 hours of credit in the transfer process.  Luckily, the GI Bill covers his educational expenses and pays him a $1500-a-month housing allowance.  So, about the same time his former colleague finishes his on-line degree, our ex-airman-turned-full-time student walks across the stage to receive his degree.  Total cost under the GI Bill? More than $100,000.  

You should also remember that our second airman would be the exception among current recipients of the GI Bill.  Statistics from the Veterans Administration and the Labor Department indicate that about one-in-five separating service members become full-time students.  But less than 10% remain in school long enough to finish their degree.  In fact, the one-year dropout rate among vets enrolled as full-time students is more than 80%.   So, much of the $15 billion now budgeted for the GI Bill is being wasted.  

But there is a great reluctance to cut that program, given the GI Bill's storied reputation in American History.  But that ignores a few inconvenient facts; first, the number of vets who used their benefits under previous versions of the GI Bill was relatively small; vets who gravitated to college were serious about their studies and largely committed to finishing their academic course.  Today, vets have been told that college is the "only" option for those who want to succeed and many have been victimized by for-profit schools that view students as a tool for enhancing share-holder value, or public universities that are unprepared and ill-equipped for the veterans who are entering their classroom.  

That's one reason that tuition assistance should be expanded, not reduced.  Consider again the example of the U.S. Air Force, the branch that has (historically) emphasized off-duty education for personnel of all ranks.  Today, more than 50% of his senior non-commissioned officers (E-7 through E-9) have at least an associate's degree; almost 25% have a bachelor's degree and five percent have their master's.  Virtually all of those degrees were earned through voluntary education, utilizing tuition assistance.  The benefit to the Air Force--and the rest of DoD--is almost incalculable. 

If Uncle Sam wants to improve his military education programs--and save money--here are a few ideas.  First, covert the regionally-accredited Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) into a community college serving all of DoD. Founded 40 years ago, the regionally-accredited CCAF was a game-changer in military education; it awards credit for military training and education, and confers scores of different associate's degrees based on various Air Force specialties.  Much of the credit is based on an airman's military training and education, so the "cost" is already built into the service's system for training personnel for various tasks.  A number of civilian institutions accept most (or all) of the credits awarded by CCAF, so the typical airman has a distinct advantage in working towards his or her bachelor's degree.  

It's that type of sensible solution that would make military voluntary ed more efficient and accessible.  But unfortunately, there are a number of obstacles in the way.  First, the Air Force wouldn't surrender CCAF to DoD, though a plan is in the works to let members of other services (who earn credits at USAF-run technical schools) complete their associate's through the Air Force institution.  Secondly, with sequestration fever at full tilt, there is little consideration about what is being cut from the defense budget, and it's long-term consequences.  Just keep hacking away until you meet the desired numbers.  

Finally, any attempt to preserve/expand TA will be pitted against another political sacred cow, the GI Bill.  Cut that program, and you'll be accused of targeting the nation's veterans--a label no politician wants.  Of course, it's perfectly fine to raise TRICARE co-pays for armed forces families and force thousands of mid-career military out of the service, with no pension and virtually no benefits.  That's okay, because our military forces represent less than one percent of our population.  On the other hand, various versions of the GI Bill serve a much larger constituency.   

And there's no reason that program has to be killed--just reformed.  An ideal program would blend voluntary education on active duty, with the GI Bill serving as a degree or training program completion program after separation.  The savings would be significant, and more importantly, our military personnel and veterans would still have ample opportunities to finish their education, benefiting themselves and the nation they served.   

Instead, TA will die a quiet death in the next budget, and the public will be stuck with a GI Bill program that has become bloated, wasteful and its not delivering on its promise--to veterans or taxpayers.
In the interest of full disclosure, your humble correspondent is an executive for a private, non-profit university that is active in the military market.  Most of our armed forces students and veterans and many use the GI Bill to fund their education.  Our graduation rate for military students--active-duty, dependents, veterans--is significantly above the national average.   

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Standing With Rand

It began as a single senator, filibustering against the President's CIA nominee.  By the time it ended, it had become a movement that, according to some, represents the future of the Republican party and perhaps the nation.

We refer, of course, to Senator Rand Paul's 13-hour performance on the floor of the Senate, railing against the Obama Administration's policy that would allow the domestic use of drones to eliminate perceived threats.  While Attorney General Eric Holder has stated there are no plans to use killer UAVs on American soil, recently disclosed documents indicate that the White House clearly believes it has that right.

And that scenario may not be as implausible as some believe.  As we've noted in this blog, the use of drones by civilian law enforcement--at the federal, state and local levels--is growing rapidly.  Organizations like Customs and Border Protection already use UAVs to monitor traffic along our border with Mexico, and on several occasions, they've "loaned"  out the surveillance capability to other police agencies.  As Kimberly Dvorak of the Washington Guardian reported last December:

Far from the killing fields of Afghanistan, a Predator drone was summoned into action last year to spy on a North Dakota farmer who allegedly refused to return a half dozen of his neighbor's cows that had strayed onto his pastures.

The farmer had become engaged in a standoff with the Grand Forks police SWAT team and the sheriff's department. So the local authorities decided to call on their friends at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to deploy a multimillion dollar, unarmed drone to surveil the farmer and his family.

The little-noticed August 2011 incident at the Lakota, N.D., ranch, which ended peacefully, was a watershed moment for Americans: it was one of the first known times an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) owned by the U.S. government was used against civilians for local police work.

Since then, the Washington Guardian has confirmed, DHS and its Customs and Border Protection agency have deployed drones -- originally bought to guard America's borders -- to assist local law enforcement and other federal agencies on several occasions.

The practice is raising questions inside and outside government about whether federal officials may be creating an ad-hoc, loan-a-drone program without formal rules for engagement, privacy protection or taxpayer reimbursements. The drones used by CPB can cost between $15 million and $34 million each to buy, and have hourly operational costs as well.

In addition, DHS recently began distributing $4 million in grants to help local law enforcement buy its own, smaller versions of drones, opening a new market for politically connected drone makers as the wars overseas shrink. 

While many of the law enforcement drones are smaller than the Predators operated by DHS, some can light armaments, along with sensor packages.  Now, consider a tactical situation like the recent shootout involving former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner.  Holed up in a cabin in the California mountains, Dorner shot two sheriff's deputies (one fatally) before the building caught fire and he killed himself.

Suppose for a moment that local police agencies or the California Highway Patrol had an armed drone over Dorner's hideout.  Would they consider dropping a munition on the cabin instead of sending in a SWAT team, knowing the suspect was heavily armed and capable of taking the lives of more officers if they stormed the building?  Under those circumstances, it wouldn't be hard to pull the trigger, letting the cops serve as judge, jury and executioner.

And that's the very reason Senator Paul took to the Senate floor yesterday.  The Obama Administration's policy has put us on a very slippery slope, no matter how unlikely a domestic drone strike might be.  Few would object to blowing up a known cop killer, but once you start down that path, who makes the decision on which "threats" will live, and who will die.  It's an issue that requires clarification, but so far, the White House has been noticeably quiet, save Mr. Holder's recent comments.

Their silence is understandable to some degree; in a post-9 11 environment, no chief executive wants to paint himself in a corner regarding homeland security.  But claiming you have the right to employ drone strikes in the United States isn't a policy, it's a legal opinion.  As UAVs enter service with more police agencies, it's a good idea to develop some protocols and boundaries for their use.

As for Senator Paul, his crusade strikes us as incomplete.  We haven't found a full transcript of his remarks, but there doesn't seem to be any mention of the more pressing threat posed by police UAVs.  Lest we forget, the primary mission of such platforms is surveillance.  With the ability to mount almost any type of sensor package on those platforms--and transmit the information almost anywhere--it raises serious questions about what the drones will be monitoring, and who can access that information.

Consider this statistic: on any given day, the U.S. Air Force operates more than two dozen drone orbits around the world (at the peak of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number was about 36).  Collectively, the amount of information collected annually by these missions is measured in terabytes (emphasis ours).  This data is linked to various intelligence nodes around the world, where it is stored on secure computer networks, and reviewed again and again.

How will local law enforcement determine who (and what) is monitored, and what will happen to all that information gathered by their UAVs.  So far, details on that aspect of the operation have been virtually non-existent, and that should be troubling to anyone concerned about their right to privacy.

Senator Paul's concerns are well-founded, even though your chances of being killed by a domestic drone are exceedingly remote.  On the other hand, there is a very good chance that your home,  your car, or your activities may fall under the gaze of a police drone in the near future.  Couple that  various data-mining techniques and systems like Stingray (which can locate any cell phone, as long as it's turned on), and you've got handy tools for an authoritarian regime, if not a police state.

Maybe its time for another filibuster, Senator Paul.
ADDENDUM:  Last September, a team of researchers at the Heritage Foundation offered some principles for drone operations in the United States.  Mr. Paul and his allies should consider introducing them as a bill.  The ability of technology to outpace existing laws--particularly in regard to the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments--cannot be overstated.