Friday, January 31, 2014

A "Culture of Fear"

More bad news for the boys and girls in blue: the cheating scandal among Air Force nuclear missile launch officers at Malmstrom AFB, Montana is growing. 

The Associated Press reports that 90 launch officers--roughly half the number assigned to Malmstrom--have been implicated in the scandal, which involved texting correct answers to a monthly certification exam.  Early reports suggested that a smaller number of missileers had been identified in the cheating scandal, which grew out of a separate drug investigation.

So why were so many launch officers cheating on the exam?  Air Force officials are placing part of the blame on a "culture of fear" among missileers, who worried that their careers would end if they didn't achieve a perfect score.   From the AP account, via Air Force Times:

"...“These tests have taken on, in their eyes, such high importance, that they feel that anything less than 100 could well put their entire career in jeopardy” even though they only need a score of 90 to pass, said [Air Force Secretary Deborah] James. “They have come to believe that these tests are make-it-or-break-it.”

The launch officers didn’t cheat to pass the test, “they cheated because they felt driven to get 100 percent,” she said.

Of the 92 officers implicated so far, as many as 40 were involved directly in the cheating, Wilson said. Others may have known about it but did not report it."

Previous reports on problems in the Air Force nuclear enterprise have indicated other problems, including low morale, frustration and job dissatisfaction.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently ordered a full investigation into the nation's nuclear forces, and Secretary James (along with the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh) recently visited nuclear bases in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. 

If this sounds like a case of bureaucratic deja vu, it should.  After the infamous, unauthorized "transfer" of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from Minot AFB, North Dakota to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana in 2007, the Air Force spent months--and billions of your tax dollars--to fix its nuclear units.  When progress in that effort lagged, the-Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired the Air Force Secretary and the Chief of Staff.  But there have been more problems since the "fix" was completed, and Hagel's directive suggests that he is growing impatient. 

We've outlined permanent fixes for the USAF's nuclear woes in previous posts, and it's anything but rocket science (no pun intended).  Pick the right people, train them to exacting standards, demand full accountability and reward them for outstanding performance.  Individuals who can't measure up should be weeded out of the force as soon as possible.  Sitting in a Minuteman III launch control center with   the keys to unleash nuclear destruction is not a job for slackers, malcontents or whiners. 

To be sure, there are more exciting jobs in the Air Force, and if dissatisfied missileer are looking for something a little less routine, they might consider cross-training.  But they should also remember that the career grass always looks better on the other side of the AFSC fence.  Just ask the security forces officer who (along with his airmen) spends more time in the missile field--in the weather--protecting strategic assets.  Or the supply officer who is responsible for millions of dollars in logistics and personnel, but only gains attention when a needed item is on back-order, or one of his specialists screws up. 

Then, there's the maintenance officer who struggles to ensure that his wrench-benders can keep aging aircraft in service.  Or the intel guy whose analysis is deemed incorrect by everyone from aircrews to the wing commander.  Even pilots aren't immue from duty that doesn't live up to its original billing.  A lot of young men and women who dreamed of strapping on an F-22 now spend their day flying a drone by remote control, convinced that their peers who fly "real" aircraft  will get the promotions and choice assignments. 

Which leads us to another point: why are junior officers so worried about promotion.  Most missile launch crews consist of a junior Captain (who serves as the crew commander) and a lieutenant, who functions as the deputy.  And, it's not unusual to find a First Lieutenant as the MCC and a new "butter bar" as his deputy.  Did we mention that the promotion rate from O-1 to O-2 is around 99%, and more than 95% o all First Lieutenants make Captain, even in missile squadrons.  Put another way: it's a long way from your first or second tour as a launch officer and the first "real" promotion board that considers you for advancement to Major (O-4).  Plenty of time for a young officer to do the "right" things that will get them that gold oak leaf, or make a mistake that will kill their chances.  Flunking one certification test should not be enough to wreck a career. 

As a remider, your humble correspondent was never a launch officer.  But I was an aircrew member for several years, meaning I had to meet certification standards for my position, including periodic written evaluation and at least one check-ride a year.  I also served as an aircrew instructor and flight examiner, meaning that I've also been one of the "black hats" that evaluates crew performance.  In my experience, failures on written exams and check-rides were extremely rare and when there was a failure, the crew member was quickly re-certified after remedial training and another airborne evaluation.  Put another way: I can't remember a single failed check-ride that ended someone's career.

Having said that, I can also empathize with the crew dogs at Malmstrom, Minot and F.E. Warren.  As the Air Force down-sizes (along with the rest of the U.S. military), there will be significant personnel cuts, and junior officers are a prime target, along with first-term airmen and mid-career NCOs.  As a survivor of two reduction-in-force (RIF) exercises in the USAF, I can only say that the best way to avoid the axe is to do a superior job and separate yourself from the rest of the herd.   Obviously, cheating on a certification test is not the way to achieve separation. 

As noted in a recent post, the best way to rebuild the ICBM business is by recruiting (and retaining) better people.  That's why we've suggested that more missileers be drawn from the ranks of prior-service officers who earn their commissions through Air Force Officer Training School.  Many of those individuals have 4-10 years of experience before becoming an officer.  They're more experienced, more mature, and less likely to engage in the idiocy that is now plaguing missile squadrons. 

One thing is certain: the USAF ICBM force needs to get its house in order--and quickly.  Lest they forget, the current commander-in-chief favors slashing the U.S. nuclear asenal, and his Defense Secretary, Mr. Hagel, has publicly advocated the elimination of land-based nuclear missiles.  More screw-ups in places like Minot, Malmstrom and F.E. Warren could provide just enough ammunition to eliminate land-based ICBMs from our strategic inventory, once and for all.  That is truly something to fear.                                      


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Mess Down South

There are at least a couple of "teachable" moments from the winter storm that has paralyzed much of the south. 

First, as is often the case during a weather-related debacle, there are the inevitable claims that "we didn't know it [the storm] was coming.  But that wasn't the case in Atlanta.  Marshall Shepherd, a professor of meterology at the University of Georgia, notes that the National Weather Service issued a winter weather advisory for much of the state--including the metro area--on Monday morning, almost 36 hours before the storm arrived:

"...Watches and Warnings were issued in advance of the snow event and with plenty of time for decisions to be made. Here is text directly from the National Weather Service website on MONDAY at 4:55 am:




455 AM EST MON JAN 27 2014



Early on Tuesday morning well before the crack of dawn (3:39 am to be exact), the National Weather Service issued a Winter Storm Warning with expectations of 1-2 inches of snow. Even for the mountain counties of Georgia, Winter Weather Advisories were issued."   

Someone might ask Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed if they bothered to check the local forecast on Monday or Tuesday.  Ditto for the school superintendents who decided to hold classes with a winter storm heading their way.

And even for those who insist that the NWS warning came later, you can argue there was still enough time to cancel classes in Metro Atlanta (and other areas), preventing kids--and teachers--from being stranded at school.  At mid-day Wednesday, many of those youngsters and educators were still on campus, after a night of sleeping in their classrooms, or on the gymnasium floor.  In some cases, parents walked miles to school to stay with their kids.  There were also stories of teachers trudging through the snow to get medicine for students with serious medical conditions, and restaurants that remained open, providing food to kids stranded on school buses.  

So, what made it imperative to hold school on Tuesday?  For starters, administrators don't like to interrupt the school calendar, especially if it means "make-up days" during spring break, on the weekend, or after the scheduled end of the school year.  There's also the matter of informing school staff, some of whom arrive for work before 5 am. 

But there's a fiscal component as well--and it goes beyond the cost of heating empty buildings, or recalling buses that may have started their routes.  As we've noted in the past, schools make every effort to continue classes until early afternoon, because a significant portion of their funding is tied to the federal school lunch program.  The more kids who are eligible for free or reduced meals, the more money a district collects each year. 

And since the feds keep tabs on the number of students who are fed each day, there is an incentive for schools to remain in session past lunch time.  In some districts, more than 75% of students participate in the lunch program, so keeping them out of the cafeteria for a couple of days could have an impact on the system's finances.  We're not saying that was the primary factor behind yesterday's closing decision, but it is a fiscal reality that schools cannot ignore.

It's also a "use or lose" situation.  If allocated money isn't spent, the district may receive less funding in the future.  Colorado school officials are currently under fire for not spending $700,000 allocated for school lunches in recent years.  The state spends about $175 million a year for school lunches; 97% of that money comes from the federal government.  Flexible spending rules also allow districts to use money tied to the program for other purposes, such as administrative costs. 

Government also plays a role in another teachable moment from yesterday's disaster.  At a press conference this morning in Atlanta, reporters asked Mayor Reed about the "slow response" to the snow emergency, and what he might do differently, if confronted with a similar situation in the future.  Without missing a beat, Reed proposed a "staggered" release plan for schools, government offices and businesses, to prevent the sudden flood of vehicles that created massive gridlock on Atlanta's freeway system.  

A staggered release plan sounds good in theory, but (so far) no one has asked Mayor Reed how you actually implement such a system.  Yes, you can establish a uniform dismissal time for local schools, but how do you tell a private business when they can let their employees go home?  The same holds for local government offices, where such decisions are often left to on-site managers--and rightfully so.  If I'm running the local social services office and most of my employees need to pick-up their kids from school (which are closing early), how can I keep them at work for another couple of hours--and off the road?             

There's a better solution, and it involves training and preparing for "worst case" scenarios; making tough calls before a situation becomes a crisis, and "encouraging" local officials to do the same thing.  Had schools in Georgia and Alabma been closed on Tuesday, much of the chaos that unfolded later in the day could have been easily avoided. 

Atlanta will never have a snowplow fleet that equals Chicago, and it doesn't make much sense to stockpile vast quantities of salt and road treatment chemicals that may be used only twice during a decade.  But leadership at the state and local levels can mitigate winter weather emergencies by being proactive and making the right decision.                     


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ending the Air Force's Nuclear Erosion

Passing through the Philadelphia airport a few nights ago, I skimmed through a copy of "Duty," the recently-released memoir from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  Of course, almost anyone who watches cable news is already familiar with the book's various "bombshells," including President Obama's refusal to support his own strategy in Afghanistan, and admissions from Mr. Obama (and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) that their opposition to the Iraq surge was rooted purely in partisan politics. 

An equally-interesting (but less publicized) episode involved Dr. Gates's handling of nuclear issues in the U.S. Air Force.  Gates had been on the job only a few months when a USAF B-52 accidentally ferried nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from Minot AFB, North Dakota, to Barksdale AFB near Shreveport, Louisiana in late August, 2007.  The nuclear warheads were supposed to be removed before the missiles were transferred to the Louisiana base for retirement and disposal.  Making the debacle even worse, the mistake wasn't detected until after the B-52 ferry aircraft landed at Barksdale.  It was the most serious nuclear security incident in decades, mandating the immediate notification of both the SecDef and President Bush. 

A subsequent investigation revealed serious problems in the Air Force nuclear enterprise, which ultimately led to the firing of the Air Force Chief of Staff (General Mike Moseley) and Michael Wynne, the Secretary of the Air Force.  It was the first time in U.S. history that the senior military and civilian leaders of a service were dismissed at the same time.  In his new book, Gates said the dismissals were prompted (in part) because Air Force leaders didn't seen to understand the gravity of the situation.

Since then, the Air Force has spent billions to fix its nuclear units.  Training standards have been tightened, inspections are conducted on a more frequent basis, and a new organization (Global Strike Command) was organized to oversee strategic bomber and missile units.  But the problems have persisted; there have been failed inspections, security lapses and reports of personnel misconduct, along with occasional dismissals of senior personnel.  Yet, the USAF's nuclear enterprise remains a troubled organization. 

Consider the latest scandal, which erupted last week at Malmstrom AFB, Montana.  Thirty-four missile launch officers were removed from their posts last week, after it was discovered that they cheated on a routine proficiency exam, required to maintain their crew certification.  More from the AP, which has been looking into problems involving the ICBM force for several months:

[Air Force Secretary Deborah] James said she will travel to each of the Air Force’s three nuclear missile bases next week to learn more about conditions within the missile launch force and the more senior officers who manage them. She suggested that the cheating was confined to this single case involving 34 officers, although numerous missile officers have told the AP confidentially that some feel compelled to cut corners on their monthly proficiency tests because of intense pressure to score at the highest levels to advance in the force.

“I want all of you to know that, based on everything I know today, I have great confidence in the security and the effectiveness of our ICBM force,” James said. “And, very importantly, I want you to know that this was a failure of some of our airmen. It was not a failure of the nuclear mission.”

James, who has been in the job only four weeks, said the entire ICBM launch officer force of about 600 will have been retested by the end of the day Thursday.

[Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark] Welsh said he knew of no bigger ICBM cheating scandal or launch officer decertification in the history of the missile force, which began operating in 1959. Last spring the Air Force decertified 17 launch officers at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., for a combination of poor performance and bad attitudes; at the time the Air Force said it was the largest-ever one-time sidelining of launch officers. It later said 19 had been decertified; they were held off the job for two months of retraining.  

There are also widespread reports of poor morale within the ranks of missileers, who sit 24-hour nuclear alerts one or two days a week, at bases in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.  Two-person missile crews (which typically consist of a Captain and a Lieutenant) are entrusted with a "flight" of 10-nuclear tipped Minuteman III ICBMs and must be prepared to launch those weapons, if directed by the national command authority.  When not on alert, missile officers are usually performing "additional duties" at their base, completing required training, or enjoying time off from the job. 

Reportedly, some missileers are upset because they find their assignments "boring" and believe the Air Force--and the nation--have little regard for their work.  In the spirit of disclosure, your humble correspondent must report that he never served as a launch officer, though many of my friends did.  Some of the complaints being voiced today are no different than twenty-five or thirty years ago.

Yes, it's no fun to show up at Malmstrom on a sub-zero January morning and sit through mind-numbing briefings to prepare you for alert.  Then, you and your deputy drive in an ancient crew vehicle up to 90 miles from base to reach the Launch Control Facility, hoping you don't slide off a frozen road or get stranded in a snow storm.  Upon arrival at the LCF, you assume duties from the departing crew and spend the next 24 hours monitoring your missiles; participating in exercises, processing communications traffic, working on your off-duty education and sleeping, occasionally interspersed by a few moments of sheer terror, when it looks like armageddon might actually be at hand. 

During an exceptionally realistic drill at Whiteman AFB, Missouri (which missile installation back in the 80s), a missile crew commander (MCC) became convinced that an exercise was the "real deal" and nuclear annihilation was only moments away.  Breaking every rule in the book, he called the base command post and directed them to patch him through to his wife, at home.  "Head for the hills, honey, it's World War III," he shouted before hanging up and returning to his pre-launch checklist.  As you might imagine, the frightened spouse called a few of her neighbors and in short order, a small convoy of wives and children were heading for the Ozarks, trying to escape before in-bound Russian ICBMs vaporized Whiteman and the surrounding area.  Needless to say, the "excited" crew commander pulled his last alert that evening.   

As for mission relevance, it's true that the Cold War ended more than 20 years ago.  But the idea that land-based ICBMs are irrelevant is downright preposterous.  If anything, the importance of our nuclear triad (or more correctly, what's left of it) will become even more important in the years to come.  Rogue states like Iran and North Korea will have missiles capable of striking the CONUS by the end of this decade--at the latest--and both China and Russia are modernizing their strategic arsenals.  To counter those threats, the United States needs a flexible, robust nuclear deterrent, including the Minuteman III force. 

Are there better (read: more promotable) jobs for Air Force officers?  Probably.  Are there worse assignments than being a missileer?  Definitely.  It's a lesson that dates back to Day One of OTS, ROTC, or the Academy, when you learn that the satisfaction derived from any assignment is directly proportional to the effort you put into it.  If missileers are upset because they belong to an Air Force run largely by fighter pilots, get in line.  Talk to maintenance officers, logisticians, intel types, security forces, members of the medical corps and you'll hear the same thing.  It comes with the territory. 

And it doesn't excuse cheating on a qualification exam, no matter how long that practice has existed (by some accounts, cheating on the test has been going on in some missile units for decades).  By virtue of their duties, missileers are given enormous responsibilities.  At any given moment, an MCC and his deputy are in charge of more firepower than any general or admiral in history, and they must be willing (with proper notification and verification) to unleash that destructive power, with the knowledge that millions of people will die in the process.  It's not a job for the timid or the faint-of-heart, and conversely, it's not an assignment for a hothead, either. 

For decades, missileers stood their watch and there seemed to be few problems, at least from the outside.  So what has happened to the Air Force nuclear enterprise and the ICBM wings in particular?  As we've observed in previous posts, the service allowed its nuclear forces to atrophy after the Cold War ended.  Missileers were merged into an expanded career field (with space operations officers) and there was a perception that folks with a "pocket rocket" played second fiddle to those who grew up on the "space" side of the house.  And, with the elimination of the Peacekeeper ICBM and Ground-Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCMs) in Europe, there were fewer opportunities for missile officers, and many exited the career field at the first opportunity. 

It's also worth noting that the "organizational rot" (as some have described it) extended well beyond the launch control center.  Nuclear load crews, weapons technicians and security specialists that were once among the elite of the Air Force became viewed as overly-specialized for a service pre-occupied with conventional conflicts.  During the Iraq War, it wasn't uncommon to find a weapons tech from Minot or F.E. Warren deployed as an interrogator or prison guard.  Officer and senior NCOs who had learned nuclear operations under the exacting standards of Strategic Air Command had long since retired and the fighter mafia running the Air Force made sure that SAC joined them in the boneyard.  The decline of training and professional standards that began in the early 1990s became a head-long plunge over the next decade, setting the stage for the Minot debacle and the incidents that followed.

How can the Air Force get its nuclear enterprise back on track?  For starters, how about simplifying (and unifying) the chain of command.  Under the current organizational structure, U.S. Strategic Command would assume operational control of the nation's nuclear forces in a crisis or actual contingency.  The job of training and equipping the Air Force element of those forces rests with Global Strike Command and subordinate units. 

It's a far cry from the day when SAC organized, trained and equipped those forces and if necessary, would take them into nuclear combat.  There is no reason that USSTRATCOM--with the right leadership--cannot play the same, full-time "owner/operator" role once performed by SAC.  Yes, Air Force leadership will howl (because command of STRATCOM rotates with the Navy), but given recent troubles in its nuclear units, can anyone demonstrate that GSC is actually fixing problems and not just another layer of blue-suited bureaucracy? 

On the subject of leadership, it's time for a radical step in that area as well.  Bring General Kevin Chilton out of retirement and put him back in charge of the nation's nuclear forces (again), or make him the next Air Force Chief of Staff.  Before leaving active duty in 2011, General Chilton served as Commander of US Strategic Command, and he understands nuclear issues as well as anyone in the Pentagon, past or present.  More importantly, Chilton is a realist regardng nuclear forces; in a speech to the Air Force Association in 2008, he expressed doubt about the elimination of nuclear forces, a position supported by President Obama and other political leaders.  Chilton also supports modernization of America's nuclear arsenal, a move that is long, long overdue.  If fixing the nuclear enterprise is the most important task facing the Air Force (and it is), there is no man better for the job than General Chilton.

We also need a commander-in-chief who understands that nuclear weapons remain a necessary evil in today's world.  It's a given that President Obama would never support that position, along with the rest of the Democratic Party.  Unfortunately, a few member of the GOP have gone wobbly on that issue as well.  In the rush to cut defense spending, it's difficult to muster support for increased spending on nation's nuclear arsenal, given the size and scope of the required investment.  It's much more convenient to let the enterprise hobble along and hope that the Air Force (which controls most of our nuclear stockpile) can get its act together. 

But problems like the cheating scandal at Malmstrom--on top of previous failures--suggest that a band-aid fix won't work.  The Air Force needs new leadership for its nuclear forces, a streamlined chain-of-command, improved training and full accountability for those who work in the nuclear enterprise.  Despite the problems that have surfaced in recent years, relatively few senior officers have been fired, while dozens of lower-ranking personnel have seen their careers ended.  That's one more thing that needs to change in restoring confidence in the service's nuclear units.
ADDENDUM:  And here's another proposal for fixing some of the troubles facing the Air Force nuclear enterprise.  From what we've heard, much of the grumbling (and disciplinary issues) among launch crews involves junior officers serving their first operational tour.  It's a given that many of these contrarians will leave the service at the first opportunity, creating more turmoil and experience issues in the crew force.

However, many of these problems could be solved by increasing commissioning opportunities for currently-serving NCOs through Officer Training School, with a follow-on assignment as a launch officer.  Most have years already invested in the service; they've worked hard to complete their degree while establishing themselves as exceptional performers, and they'd welcome the opportunity to earn their commission and serve as an officer, even if it means tours in places like Wyoming and North Dakota.  In recent years, Air Force OTS has graduated less than 400 new officers a year, and at least half of those slots are reserved for individuals with no prior military service.  Once upon a time, the missile crew force had a large number of former NCOs who earned their gold bars through OTS and pulled alert without complaining--and without cheating on their cert exams. 

It's time to rebuild the missileer pipeline through OTS.  If nothing else, missile squadron and wing commanders could sleep a bit easier at night, knowing that more of their alert crews are responsible adults who are not trying to arrange a drug deal in their spare time, or waiting for another launch officer to "text" them the answers for this month's cert test.                         



Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Final Flight of Buzz 14

Fifty years ago today, just after midnight eastern time, a B-52D took off from Massachusetts, for the final leg of a journey to its home at Turner AFB near Albany, Georgia.  The giant bomber departed Turner two days earlier, for an airborne nuclear alert mission nicknamed "Chrome Dome." 

It was the height of the Cold War--less than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis had brought the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust.  The missile crisis (and Russia's growing fleet of ballistic missile submarines) were a grim reminder that the nation's nuclear forces were at risk from a surprise attack, potentially destroying them on the ground before they could retaliate.  

To reduce that threat, the Commander-in-Chief of Strategic Air Command, General Thomas Power, organized airborne alert missions involving long-range bombers, carrying nuclear weapons, and KC-135 tankers that refueled them in mid-air.  These flights were conducted under various programs with such nicknames as "Hard Head," "Head Start," "Round Robin" and of course, "Chrome Dome." 

The mission was non-stop; at any given moment, nuclear bombers were flying sorties over the Mediterranean or the polar regions of northern Canada and Greenland, waiting for the authorization to launch nuclear strikes against Russian or Warsaw Pact targets.  Scheduled refuelings from KC-135s kept them in the air, and the bombers typically carried extra crew members, allowing them to carry out sorties that often lasted more than 24 hours. 

It was a demanding mission, and not without risks.  Three years earlier, a B-52 from Seymour Johnson AFB, NC crashed after it developed a fuel leak and became uncontrollable.  Five members of the crew ejected and survived; three others died.  One of the nuclear bombs that fell to the earth with Buff came dangerously close to detonating.  The Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) officer who responded to the accident later told an interviewer that American came "dangerously close" to having a "Bay of North Carolina" that evening.   

But there were no more airborne alert-related crashes after the North Carolina incident (and a similar incident in California two months later).  SAC began to believe that its run of bad luck was over, and the mission could be conducted safely, with minimal risks to its crews and the public. 

That's why no one was really concerned when the B-52 (callsign: Buzz 14) departed from Westover.  True, the plane had suffered mechanical problems during its Chrome Dome mission, forcing an emergency landing at Moron, Spain.  But after some temporary repairs, the crew flew on to Westover for additional maintenance.  At that point, the original crew had reached the end of their duty period, so a second group, led by Major Thomas McCormick, flew to Westover to ferry the B-52 back to Turner, where it would go back on the flying schedule in a few days. 

The flight was considered routine.  In fact, SAC only needed a partial crew to return the plane to Georgia.  The rest of McCormick's crew consisted on Captain Parker Peedin, the co-pilot; Major Robert Townley, the radar navigator; Major Robert Lee Payner, the navigator and Technical Sergeant Melvin Wooten, the gunner.  Wooten who normally sat in the tail of the B-52D, would fly "up front" with the rest of the crew, occupying the seat normally reserved for the electronic warfare officer (EWO).  All of the men assigned to McCormick's ferry crew were experienced aviators, so there was no reason to believe that the giant bomber wouldn't touch down at Turner--with its nuclear cargo in the bomb-bay--a few hours after leaving Westover. 

But the weather that night was anything but routine.  A major blizzard was barreling out of the Ohio Valley and into the mid-Atlantic region.  Over southeastern Pennsylvania, Buzz 14 encountered severe turbulence.  In contact with the Cleveland Air Traffic Control Center, Major McCormick requested a descent to lower altitude, in hopes of finding smoother air.  It was a futile effort; conditions at 29,000 feet were just as bad, with severe winds buffeting the B-52.  Defense writer David Wood picks up the final moments of Buzz 14 in a 1999 article on the aircraft and its fate: 

"Cleveland cleared Buzz One Four to descend to 29,000 feet, but McCormick three minutes later called back again: "Cleveland, this is, ah, Buzz One Four, we're experi ‑ we've just left three one zero (31,000 feet), we're passing three zero (30,000) and we're still in it."

Only that note of frustration in McCormick's voice - "and we're still in it" - betrayed the chaos that erupted as Buzz One Four slammed into the storm front. Until the indicated airspeed dial became an unreadable blur, it showed the aircraft staggering through 60‑mph vertical and sideways jolts. McCormick worked the throttles, hoping to dampen the wild gyrations as the plane rocketed up and down. His copilot, Mack Peedin, alternately pinned to his seat and yanked above it, wrestled with the control wheel, trying to keep the wings level. McCormick had once flown this very aircraft though moderate turbulence, skimming along the Nebraska prairie on a low‑level practice bombing run. Fireballs of lightning had bounced off its nose and the plane had shaken and rattled. That was bad, but nothing like this. Now, as they fought the airplane, both McCormick and Peedin avoided stabbing the rudder pedals. They knew it would put pressure on their plane's huge tail.

Cleveland: "Buzz One Four, Cleveland, would you say again your remarks, I was talking to Washington on another line."

Buzz One Four: "Ah, Cleveland Center, Buzz One Four, we're climbing back up to three three zero (33,000)."

Cleveland: "Buzz One Four, roger, stand by one."

A minute later, Cleveland Center called back with clearance to return to 33,000 feet.

Buzz One Four's reply was unintelligible, according to the official transcript of the conversation."

Controllers later recalled hearing a series of sounds, including the rush of air, in the last transmission from the B-52.  In a matter of seconds, the storm's fierce winds snapped off the tail of the bomber, including its massive vertical stabilizer, sending plane rolling out of control.  McCormick ordered his crew to bail out. 

It was not the first time that a B-52 had lost its tail section in flight.  Before that night over the mountains of southern Pennsylvania and western Maryland, there had been at least three other crashes involving that catastrophic structual failure; one one year earlier, a B-52 based at Westover went down on low-level training mission over Maine after turbulence caused the plane's tail to snap off; only two of the nine crew members on the Buff survived. 

And just three days before Major McCormick and his crew began their ferry mission, the Air Force conducted an experiment to confirm the B-52s vulnerability to structural failure.  A B-52H was configured for the mission, and a Boeing test pilot was placed behind the controls.  Sure enough, when the test aircraft experienced severe turbulence, the vertical stabilizer snapped off in-flight.  The Boeing pilot was somehow able to control the aircraft and land it; the B-52 was repaired and remained in service for another 46 years. 

It's quite likely that McCormick and his crew were unaware of the test flight--and its confirmation that B-52s could lose their tails in severe turbulence.  They had learned that lesson in howling winds of a blizzard; now, the bomber was lost and their ferry mission quickly became a fight for survival.

Like all Buffs, Buzz 14 had a unique ejection system.  The seats for the pilots, the EWO and the gunner fired upward while ejection seats for the navigator and radar navigator--located below the flight deck--fired downward.  Major McCormick, his co-pilot Captain Peedin and TSgt Wooten, the gunner, all ejected successfully.  Downstairs, for reasons still unclear, Major Townley failed to eject.  His partner, Major Payne, cleared the jet and landed on the ground near Grantsville, Maryland, dazed by alive.  McCormick and Peedin were also in relatively good shape, but Wooten was not as lucky.  Bailing out of the stricken B-52, he struck a part of the aircraft, resulting in deep lacerations to the face and torso. 

On the ground, the pilot and co-pilot took a look at their situation and decided to stay put, using their survival gear to decrease their exposure to the snow, wind and cold.  Wooten and Payne began heading for nearby farmhouses, which offered the promise of warmth and assistance.  They were miles apart and on their own.  

But they never made it; severely injured, Sergeant Wooten crawled only a few yards before he had to stop and died of exposure in the storm.  Major Payne was in better shape but in the darkness, he slid down an embankment into a local creek.  Unable to climb out, he too, succumbed to the elements.  When searchers found his body, he was on his knees in the creek, his head cradled in his arms, snow covering his summer-weight flight suit.  The body of Robert Townley, the radar navigator who was unable to eject, was found in the wreckage of Buzz 14. 

McCormick, the aircraft commander, made his way to safety the following afternoon.  Before heading off to the hospital, he called his wife back at Turner AFB, providing the first indication that some of the crew had survived.  Captain Peedin was located 24 hours later; using his survival raft as an inprovised shelter, Peedin came through the ordeal in relatively good shape.  In fact, when rescuers finally made it to his location, they had to huddle around Peedin's fire and warm up. 

It's worth remembering that much of the actual search and rescue work was conducted by local residents, who began mobilizing when they heard the crash and explosions at the height of the storm.  Later, they erected monuments to the crew members who died, at the locations where their bodies were found. 

What about the nukes?  They also came through the crash in relatively good shape.  An ordnance team from Fort Meade removed them from the site, and little (if any) radiation was released in the crash.  An Associated Press writer who covered the incident remembers taking a train from Baltimore, then slogging his way to the rural crash site.  Tired from his trek through the snow, the reporter took a seat on a large object that was half-buried in the ground, a short distance from the downed jet.  "Where are the nukes?" the AP man asked a SAC officer on the scene.  "You're sitting on one of them," he replied. 

Despite the disaster in western Maryland, Chrome Dome missions continued for another four years until other incidents, off the coast of Spain and at Thule AB, Greenland, generated more negative publicity and brought the airborne alert missions to an end.  By that time, the Air Force had modified the tail sections of most of its B-52 fleet, strengthening bulkheads, reducing the tail's surface area and decreasing chances for an in-flight failure. 

Fifty years after the fatal crash, the final flight of Buzz 14 also serves as a testament to the men who kept the peace during the Cold War.  Ops tempo has become a topic of discussion in military circles in recent years, with fears that multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan would cause physical and psychological problems in personnel who went downrange, time and time again. 

But the warriors of SAC knew something about ops tempo as well.  Along with airborne alert missions, bomber and tanker crews had to pull ground alert at least one week a month, fly their full complement of training sorties and meet all other criteria for maintaining crew qualification--all to the exacting standards of Strategic Air Command.  

Their dedication kept our enemies at bay, but they paid a price.  That's why the residents around Cumberland will hold a ceremony later this year--in better weather--to remember the crew of Buzz 14.                  

Friday, January 10, 2014

Mishap Deja Vu?

An Air Force MC-12 surveillance aircraft, like the one that crashed today in Afghanistan.  Previous crashes and near-catastrophic stall incidents involving the MC-12 have been blamed on limited crew training.  Most pilots flying the MC-12 are drawn from other USAF platforms and fly the aircraft for only a few months (USAF photo via Time magazine)    

For the second time in less than a year, an MC-12 surveillance aircraft has crashed in Afghanistan.  The latest mishap, which occurred earlier today, claimed the lives of three U.S. crew members.  Details from ABC

“International Security Assistance Force service members and one ISAF civilian died following an aircraft mishap in eastern Afghanistan today,” said a statement released by NATO in Afghanistan.

A defense official told ABC News that the incident involved an MC-12 reconnaissance aircraft flying a nighttime mission over eastern Afghanistan.

MC-12′s are Beechcraft propeller aircraft that carry multiple surveillance systems that enable the monitoring of different areas at the same time. The feeds are monitored by technicians who fly in the rear of the small aircraft.

The crash comes on the same day that an ISAF spokesperson confirmed that a Blackhawk helicopter crash in mid-December that killed six soldiers was the result of “enemy action.”   While the Pentagon hasn't released the names of the dead crew members--or their unit of assignment--the aircraft was most likely operated by the U.S. Air Force, which rushed the MC-12 into service to provide more surveillance in Afghanistan.  And that has led to problems, as detailed by Mark Thompson of Time magazine last October.  Mr. Thompson obtained details of the crash report on Independence 08, an MC-12 that went down in Afghanistan last April, killing its four-man crew.  The report highlights some of the hazards associated with taking an "off-the-shelf" aircraft, equipping it for a new mission, and manning the cockpit with pilots from other airframes, who fly the "Liberty" as a temporary duty assignment.    The previous crash, which occurred on 27 April of last year, began as a routine mission:   The plane took off from Kandahar air field at mid-day. After a 30-minute flight 110 miles northeast, the aircraft began tracing a leftward orbit in the sky, using various sensors to seek out a high-value insurgent that soldiers on the ground wanted to get.

It found him — and bad weather — about 10 minutes later. “Looking at scattered and broken 16-170, plus this giant thing we’re flying around going up to about FL240,” one of the back-seaters radioed at 12:34 p.m. Translation: there were scattered clouds beginning at about 16,500 feet above sea level, and a rapidly-rising towering cumulus cloud reaching to 24,000 feet right in front of them. The rugged terrain down below averaged about 6,000 feet above sea level.

The pilot, sitting in the left front seat of the $20 million plane, began climbing to get try to get out of the clouds. He ordered the climb through the plane’s autopilot, which isn’t completely “auto”: the pilot must manually adjust the plane’s power to maintain airspeed during the climb.

“While or just after initiating the climb, the Mishap Pilot continued working an orbit adjustment to better service tracking an active target,” the probe says. Amid the clouds — with no visual clues outside the cockpit as to speed or orientation — 25 seconds passed before the pilot realized that his plane, like The Little Engine That Could, was slowing down as it climbed.


But the aircraft pilot and mission commander--who had spent their careers flying larger aircraft--were already behind the curve:

Eventually the pilot realized what was happening. “A little slow,” he acknowledged. “Correcting.” Too slow, he knew, and the plane could lose the lift that keeps it aloft and begin dropping like a stone.

Even as Independence 08 continued its climb, it had already started down a slippery slope. “From approximately 10 seconds from climb initiation until loss of [communications] feed, the climb rate increases and the airspeed decreases at a rapid rate,” the investigation says. “The Mishap Aircraft airspeed decreased from 150 knots to 116 knots during the final seconds of controlled flight.”

Seven seconds passed before the mission commander, sitting in the right front seat, spoke up. “Alright,” he ordered the pilot, according to a snippet of chatter captured by the cockpit voice recorder detailed in the report, without emotion or punctuation. “Firewall.” That was an order to push the plane’s throttles forward — “through the firewall” — and send more power to the propellers. “Max power, max power.”

This is where Independence 08 entered a perfect aerodynamic storm:

— To avoid the clouds, it was climbing.

— It was already making a left-hand turn, as part of its prescribed orbit.

— To fly the orbit, it was already banked to the left.

— The MC-12W’s props do not spin opposite one another, but in the same direction. Boosting their power tugs the aircraft to the left."

Seconds after calling for max power, the aircraft banked at least 50 degrees to the left, followed shortly by the stall warning horn.  The mission commander took control of the MC-12, but was unable to correct what became a fatal plunge.  Falling more than 15,000 feet--at a speed in excess of 300 mph-- the aircraft struck the ground just 80 seconds after entering its planned climb. 

While the crew of Independence 08 was highly experienced, their proficiency in the MC-12 was limited, as indicated in the mishap report: 

"Both pilots were on their first MC-12W deployment and were inexperienced in their roles on the mishap sortie. Their limited recent experience was compounded by the fact that they had not flown together in the past…Inexperience would have made the Mishap Pilot less familiar with the MC-12W, affecting his visual scan and instrument crosscheck proficiency, and making him more susceptible to task saturation while tracking his first target on his first mission. This delayed detection of the pitch, the decreasing airspeed, and the imminent stall. During spin and spiral recovery, inexperience likely caused him to pull vice relax the yoke, and delayed prompt reduction of power. Finally, it was also the Mishap Mission Commander’s first flight as a newly qualified certifier who was just completing his second month of his first MC-12W deployment. This explains his delayed intervention in both preventing the stall and recovering the Mishap Aircraft. Limited weapon system experience is common with MC-12W combat operations due to the high rate of crews temporarily assigned to the platform. This is a result of known program risks."

Note the verbiage: "known program risks."  In other words, when you take a plane with these flight characteristics--and crew them with pilots who are essentially "passing through"--you run the risk of this type of mishap, where limited experience, coupled with a dicey situation, leads to fatal results.

It is too early to know if similar circumstances contributed to the most recent MC-12 accident in Afghanistan.  But certain "fixes" could be made, to lessen the risk of future crashes; these include:

 First, determine the long-term future of the MC-12 program.  While the USAF largely dominates the ISR mission, it was (reportedly) a reluctant participant in acquiring and operating the Liberty.  Senior officers believed the money spent on the MC-12 could be better invested in other platforms, such as Predator and Reaper UAVs. 

Indeed, there was also a perception that the MC-12 will disappear when our participation in Afghanistan ends.  So, there was little incentive to create a cadre of pilots who would fly the Liberty for most of their career; indeed, many Air Force pilots wanted no part of the MC-12, viewing a long-term assignment as a career killer, especially if they had experience in other airframes.  So, the Air Force hit on the notion of crewing the Liberty with pilots who would fly it for a short time, then return to their original aircraft.      

But the U.S. will retain some involvement in Afghanistan (and other low-intensity conflicts) through the end of this decade, so it makes sense to retain the MC-12.  So, the Air Force must decide whether to retain the Liberty, or....

Give the aircraft--and the mission--to the Army.  That service has been operating C-12 variants for decades, and they have pilots (usually warrant officers) who spend their careers in that airframe, which would ceratinly raise the experience factor.  However, getting the Air Force to surrender their MC-12s may be easier said than done; the USAF owns most of the systems that exploit information collected by the aircraft, and while the service is a reluctant operator of the "Liberty," there are certain operational and budgetary advantages in "owning" the entire mission.   

Before last April's crash, there were at least four other incidents in which MC-12s entered into stalls, resulting in near-catastrophic altitude loss.  Limited crew training played a factor in each of those incidents.  Now, it will be up to investigators to determine if similar factors contributed to the latest crash. 

The Homeless Colonel

Something about this story doesn't add up. 

As you probably know, veterans make up a disproportionate share of the nation's homeless.  In fact, the Veteran's Administration launched an emergency effort a couple of years ago to get them off the street and provide various forms of assistance.  Of course, the VA discovered what other agencies serving the homeless already know: the vast majority of those living on the streets or in shelters are not hard-working Americans who are down on their luck; instead, most have a long history of mental illness and/or drug and alcohol abuse.  For those veterans, solving their housing situation tackling the serious problems that led to them becoming homeless. 

But retired Air Force Colonel Robert Freniere doesn't fit that profile.  According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Freniere, who concluded a 30-year military career in 2006, spends most of his nights in an old minivan, not far from the military academy where his son is a student.  Despite an impressive service resume--and multiple graduate degrees--Freniere has struggled to find work in recent years:

"After his retirement, Freniere said, it took him a year to find work. Like many retired servicemen, he turned to jobs with defense contractors. Twice, the work took him to Afghanistan, he said.

When he came home, he had nowhere to go after separating from his second wife. (In an interview, she said that he does not help her pay the mortgage on their home.)

Freniere said he had not been able to find a contracting job since August 2012. He blames the federal sequestration for squeezing contractors of money and of the confidence to hire people. He has not lasted long at other jobs, as a substitute teacher and an executive in a company writing proposals for government grants.

One of his complaints about the latter job was that it took him too far from his sons - Bobby, enrolled at a community college in Virginia, and Eric, at VFMA.

Eric, 21, plans to follow in his father's military footsteps. "My dad's the most motivated person I've ever met in my whole life, and he's living out of his van," Eric said. "A full colonel with three master's degrees? I don't get it at all - it doesn't make sense to me. If he had a job right now, we'd be fine. We're not fine right now."

Freniere says dyslexia makes focusing on a computer screen difficult. Online applications are so hard for him, he said, that tears well in his eyes as he describes his days at public libraries.

"How many applications can you fill out in a day? And it takes you six or seven hours, and then you don't hear from any of them. You start getting hopeless," he said.

But Freniere said that he had not lost hope, that he returns to tropes he learned back in survival training - "stay calm," "get the job done" - when he needs comfort."

Yet, elements of Colonel Freniere's story are puzzling.  For starters, there's the income issue; as a retired O-6, with 30 years of service, Freniere receives a pension equivalent to 75% of his base pay, somewhere around $8,000 a month.   We'll assume that his ex-wife gets half of his pension, as mandated by federal law.  That still leaves the Colonel with upwards of $4,000 a month to live on.  Sure, southeastern Pennsylvania is a high-cost-of-living area, but studio apartments aren't that expensive.  And there are plenty of extended stay hotels (like this one), which offer a room with utilities, cable TV, free internet and maid service for under $1,500 a month.   Presumably, that would still leave enough for other expenses, such as food and gas for his vehicle. 

Another odd element.  Freniere spent most of his military career as an intelligence officer and an aide to senior officials.  That means he held a TS/SCI clearance, with access to SAR/SAP programs, and tons of leadership and managerial expertise on his resume.  And, his entry into the civilian workforce coincided with one of the largest build-ups in the history of the intelligence community.  More than a decade into the War on Terror, there is still a huge demand for individuals with intel experience and an active security clearance; there are monthly job fairs in the Washington, D.C., area aimed at individuals with that sort of background.  We're guessing that Colonel Freniere has made the rounds of these events; still, it's strange that a government agency or defense contractor wouldn't snap up someone with his background and experience. 

Obviously, no two situations are alike, and everyone's circumstances are unique.  We wish the Colonel the best; no one who spent 30 years in the military should be living in a van, or in a homeless shelter for that matter.  But it sounds strange that someone with his background and experience can't find work, or afford a place to live. 

There are a lot of active duty military members, retirees and dependents who are readers of this blog.  You tell us: are we being too tough on Colonel Freniere, or is there something missing in his story?    

Thursday, January 09, 2014

The War at 50

Tom Fletcher speaks with President Johnson on his front porch in Martin County, Kentucky in 1964.  LBJ used the visit to launch his "War on Poverty."  (Louisville Courier-Journal)

Fifty years into our War on Poverty, National Review has a superb article by one of their best writers, Kevin Williamson.  He paid a recent visit to Appalachia, a region mired in misery and despair decades before Lyndon Johnson sat on Tom Fletcher's front porch and launched his ill-fated crusade to eliminate poverty, once and for all.

Six decades later, Mr. Williamson found that little has changed.  A few excerpts:

"If you go looking for the catastrophe that laid this area low, you’ll eventually discover a terrifying story: Nothing happened. It’s not like this was a company town in which the business around which life was organized went toes-up. Booneville and Owsley County were never economic powerhouses. They were sustained for a time in part by a nearby Midsouth plant, which manufactured consumer electronics such as steam irons and toaster ovens, as well as industrial supplies such as refrigerator parts. A former employee estimates that a majority of Owsley County households owed part of their income to Midsouth at one time or another, until a mishap in the sanding room put an end to that: “Those shavings are just like coal dust,” he says. “It will go right up if it gets a spark.” Operations were consolidated in a different facility, a familiar refrain here — a local branch of the health department consolidated operations in a different town, along with the energy company and others. But Owsley County was poor before, during, and after that period. Coal mining was for years a bulwark against utter economic ruination, but regulation, a lengthy permitting process, and other factors both economic and geological pushed what remains of the region’s coal business away toward other communities. After they spend a winter or two driving an hour or two each way over icy twists of unforgiving mountain asphalt, many locals working in the coal business decide it is easier to move to where the work is, leaving Owsley County, where unemployment already is 150 percent of the national average, a little more desperate and collectively jobless than before. 
A few locals drive two hours — on a good day, more on others — to report for work in the Toyota factory at Georgetown, Ky., which means driving all the way through the Daniel Boone National Forest and through the city of Lexington to reach the suburbs on the far side. As with the coal miners traveling past Hazard or even farther, eventually many of those Toyota workers decide that the suburbs of Lexington are about as far as they want to go. The employed and upwardly mobile leave, taking their children, their capital, and their habits with them, clean clear of the Big White Ghetto, while the unemployed, the dependent, and the addicted are once again left behind.

"We worked before," the former Midsouth man says, "We'd work again."

And for those left behind, the raft of LBJ's social programs keeps them afloat, but little more.  Supplementing government checks means cashing in on those benefits--quite literally:

"It works like this: Once a month, the debit-card accounts of those receiving what we still call food stamps are credited with a few hundred dollars — about $500 for a family of four, on average — which are immediately converted into a unit of exchange, in this case cases of soda. On the day when accounts are credited, local establishments accepting EBT cards — and all across the Big White Ghetto, “We Accept Food Stamps” is the new 'E pluribus unum'--are swamped with locals using their public benefits to buy cases and cases--reports put the number at 30 to 40 cases for some buyers--of soda.  Those cases of soda then go on to another retailer, who buys them at 50 cents on the dollars, in effect laundering those $500 in monthy benefits to $250 in cash--a considerably worse rate they your typical organized crime money launderer offers--or else they go into the local black-market economy, where they can be used as currency in such ventures as the dealing of unauthorized prescripton painkillers--by "pillbillies" as they are known at sympathetic establishements in Florida. 

A woman who is intimately familiar with the local drug economy suggests the exchange reate between sexual favors and cases of pop--some dealers will accept either--is about 1:1, meaning the value of a woman in the local prescription drug economy is about $12.99, at local Wal-Mart prices. 

Read the whole thing: it's first class journalism that aptly summarizes why the War on Poverty was doomed to fail, almost from the moment LBJ sat on Tom Fletcher's front porch. Programs that eliminate the need for entry-level work; make two-parent families superfluous and measure education outcome in the number of school lunches served do nothing more than create a permanent underclass--and a very reliable voting bloc. 

One more thing: as you might expect, the media generally lost interest in Mr. Fletcher after the President's visit in 1964, but Allen Breed of the Associated Press tracked him down 30 years later.  Fletcher reported that his last "regular" employement ended in 1969, after completing a federal training program and suffering a broken leg.  At the time of the interview, Mr. Fletcher was getting by on a $284-a-month disability check.  His second wife had been sentenced to prison two years earlier, for poisoning two of their young children with overdoses of Darvon, a powerful pain-killer (Tom Fletcher was exonerated in the matter).

Asked why he had never been able to break out of poverty, Mr. Fletcher told the AP "I don't know."  

But the rest of us do.  And our collective refusal to confront with those realities are one reason the U.S. has spent $1 trillion fighting poverty and has damn little to show for it.            


Wednesday, January 08, 2014


Amid the hubub over former SecDef Robert Gates's new memoir--and disclosures that Hillary and Barack Obama staked out national security positions based purely on political concerns--comes this rather surprising announcement from the Pentagon::

"The U.S. is sending an additional Army combat force of 800 soldiers to South Korea with tanks and armored troop carriers.

A brief Pentagon announcement said the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment from the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, will deploy to two locations in South Korea on Feb. 1.

A Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Steve Warren, said the increase in troop strength and firepower had been in the planning stages for more than a year and is part of a "rebalance" of U.S. military power toward the Asia-Pacific region.

According to the military, the battalion will spend the next year in South Korea, reinforcing the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, which has been stationed there for decades.  The deployment will allow soldiers to train alongside their American and ROK counterparts, in terrain they would defend against a North Korean invasion of the south.

The announcement is surprising for several of reasons; first, it came with no advance notice.  Army officials revealed the news with very little fanfare, and there were no advance leaks that the deployment was coming--something that's fairly rare in this age of social media and 24-hour cable news. 

Secondly, the timetable for this move is fairly quick for what is (technically) a non-combat deployment.  The first elements of the battalion will begin moving to Korea in only three weeks, and it is expected that all troops--along with their amored vehicles and support equipment--will be in place by late March.  Residents of Killeen, Texas, the community adjacent to Fort Hood, can expect to see a lot of C-17 and charter flights out of the local airport (which serves military and civilian traffic) in the weeks to come.

Thirdly, the deployment comes amid renewed tensions on the Korean Peninsula.  A few weeks back, a senior ROK official postulated that chances for a North Korean provocation would remain very "high" until the early spring, a period that coincides with the peak of the Winter Training Cycle, the period when military activity in the DPRK reaches its annual peak.  So far this winter, most of the attention in Korea has been focused on Kim Jong-un's "purge" of senior party leaders, and the latest round of "basketball diplomacy" with Dennis Rodman. 

But the sudden move of the calvary unit to Korea suggests that something else may be afoot.  Has training surged during this WTC?  Are there indications that the new DPRK tyrant is preparing to make good on past threats against South Korea?  The WTC has been an annual event for more than 50 years, yet it has rarely prompted deployment of U.S. ground forces, except during times of escalating tensions, such as the winter of 1968, when North Korea seized the spy ship USS Pueblo and detained the crew for nearly a year.

And, while the forces sent to Korea during the Pueblo crisis eventually returned home, it looks like the new deployment will become a long-term commitment.  When the 1/12th returns to Fort Hood in early 2015, their tanks, IFVs and other equipment will remain behind, to be used by other units that will pick up the rotation in the future.

With the war in Afghanistan winding down, the Army has more flexibility for deployments like the one starting in Korea.  The mission also allows the service to claim a (slightly) greater role in the U.S. strategic pivot to Asia, which is based largely on air and sea power.  Rotating battalions to Korea reminds political leaders that land units are also a key part of the Asia equation, and could provide a case against future cuts in troop strength.

It should be noted that the 1/12 is not the first stateside unit to deploy to Korea.  The 4th Squadron, 6th Calvary regiment deployed to the peninsula next fall and like the Fort Hood unit, they will leave their equipment in place, indicating that deployment will also become a permanent rotation.  In fact, the Army views Korea as an ideal location for training and experimentation in the years ahead.  The service recently concluded a field test of MRAP vehicles in Korea and decided that "standard" armored vehicles (such as the M1 Abrams tank and the M2 Bradley fighting vehicle) were better suited for Korea's rugged terrain.  The latest deployment will add about 40 tanks and 40 IFVs to the U.S. Army arsenal in South Korea.

Rotating units to Korea will also allow the the service to add more combat punch to existing brigade combat teams (BCTs) in 2 ID, which currently have only two battalions per brigade.  The Army is currently in the process of reducing the number of brigades, but preserving some maneuver battalions by adding them to remaining BCTs.  Three of the four brigade combat teams assigned to 2 ID are based at Fort Lewis, Washington, so the rotations will give commanders more assets that are immediately available, should Kim Jong-un decide to attack across the DMZ.    
That's why this latest deployment strikes us as more than a bit curious.  Sure, the Army has plenty of budgetary and force structure reasons for rotating units to Korea, but the announcement--and the actual deployment--could have been delayed for several months, if not a year.  There is little doubt the Korean peninsula has become less stable over the past 18 months, and that trend is evident elsewhere in northeast Asia, where China and Japan are bickering over disputed islands, while Beijing flexes its growing military muscle.  In that sort of environment, it makes a lot of sense to add a couple of battalions to our ground forces in South Korea, just in case.                

Monday, January 06, 2014

Today's Reading Assignment

...from George Leef, writing at "More College Does Not Beget More Economic Prosperity"  As Mr. Leef reminds us, the national obsession with sending millions of young people to the academy has resulted in a glut of grads--with marginal degrees--that don't meet the needs of a changing economy.  A few sample paragraphs:

People who have high intelligence and ambition often earn college and advanced degrees. Sometimes that formal education is important in their later success, but many say that their education had very little to do with it. Conversely, some extremely successful people dropped out of college or never attended at all. And as those ridiculous Occupy Wall Street protests taught us, huge numbers of college graduates are unemployed or employed only in jobs that don’t call for anything more than basic trainability.

Conclusion: Having a college education is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for personal success. Many people prosper without college, and many who have B.A. degrees or higher nevertheless struggle in low-paying jobs, often saddled with high student loan debts.

What that means for nations is that it isn’t possible to generate economic progress just by “investing” in education. More seat time, credits and degrees don’t automatically translate into more productive people.

No offense to Mr. Leef, but this is common sense stuff.  Unfortunately, America's educational priorities are so far out of whack we need this sort of column to remind us of our folly.  By one estimate, there are at least 600,000 high-paying manufacturing jobs in this country that go unfilled because companies can't find individuals with the right skills to fill them.  TV host Mike Rowe, who has become a crusader for the skilled trades and technical education, recently told an interviewer that the average age of "people that make stuff" in America is 58.  Most will be retiring over the next decade.  Where their replacements will come from is anyone's guess.

One reason is that young people are inbued with the notion that college is the only road to success--and it certainly can be.  But it can also provide a path enormous debt and an "education" that has no relevance in today's workplace. 

Something to think about as Susie and Johnny head back to the university to finish that degree in art history or gender studies.          

Flying Towards a Waterfall

While there has been much coverage--and debate--regarding sequestration's impact on the U.S. military, there is another crisis that has received far less attention, yet the long-term consequences are equally serious. 

We refer to the looming shutdown of production lines for various American military aircraft.  With domestic production runs nearing their end (and dwindling foreign exports), a number of plants that have produced fighter jets and other planes will be shuttered in the years ahead, resulting in the loss of thousands of good-paying jobs and key elements of our defense-industrial base.  Richard Aboulafia describes the problem in Aviation Week:

Remember the Last Supper? This wave of 1990s defense company mergers was intended to solve the industry's post-Cold War overcapacity problem. If overcapacity is measured in corporate names or headquarters staff, then mission accomplished. Unfortunately, overcapacity is best measured in factories and programs, and aside from Grumman's F-14 and Northrop's B-2, no active military aircraft lines were terminated in the 1990s. Whether through reinvention or exports, most lines stayed alive.

Yet the past few months have seen stark harbingers of looming pain. In September, right after Boeing delivered the 223rd and final U.S. Air Force C-17, the company announced the line would close in 2015. A month later, South Korea rejected the Boeing F-15 for its F-X 3 competition, dooming the proposed Silent Eagle variant and probably killing the line after the last of Saudi Arabia's current order is delivered in 2018.

In December, the Boeing F/A-18E/F lost the Brazilian FX-2 competition, one of several key international defeats. A pre-solicitation announcement for 36 additional Super Hornets in fiscal 2015, placed by the Navy at the website in October, was withdrawn several days later, probably under pressure from the Defense Department. The last Super Hornet is scheduled to be delivered in 2016, and Boeing said it must decide this March whether it will preserve the line with company funding.

As a result, Mr. Aboulafia writes, there will be only two dedicated, secure fixed-wing military aircraft production lines by the end of this decade.  Both will belong to Lockheed-Martin, which has long-term contracts to build the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for the U.S. military and various foreign buyers, along with the C-130J, the latest version of the venerable, tactical airlifter that first flew in the 1950s.

And there's very little in the pipeline, once current programs peter out.  The Air Force's new tanker, the KC-46, is a military version of the Boeing 767 and will be assembled alongside commercial jets.  Ditto for the Navy's P-8 patrol aircraft, which is based on the 737 airframe.  A new trainer aircraft for the USAF is expected to be based on a commercial design, and production of the next-generation strike-bomber aircraft won't begin until 2025 at the earliest. 

In the interim, factories that have been building F-15s, F-16s, F/A-18s and various other military jets will be shuttered; the machining equipment will be sold for scrap, and many of the skilled workers will head off for retirement.  So, if the United States ever decides to build military aircraft in sufficient numbers again, it will be a much more difficult--and expensive--process. 

Of course, some of the cuts were inevitable.  But others reflect the feckless spending and procurement philosophies adopted by the Obama Administration and Congress in recent years.  Veering from one budget crises to the next, the smart guys in the White House, the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill have elected to hack the military budget at every opportunity, while forgoing needed cuts in entitlement programs.

The results of this "strategy" are predictable and dangerous.  With C-17 production winding down, Boeing plans to shut down the assembly dedicated to that strategic airlifter.  Never mind the strategic "pivot" to Asia, and the increased need for long-range airlift.  It's the same type of thinking that halted F-22 production at less than 200 aircraft (and denied exports to Japan and Australia), just as adversaries like China and Russia are developing their own, fifth-generation stealth fighters. 

Some would argue that the era of manned combat aircraft has passed, and future conflicts will be dominated by UAVs.  There's an element of truth in that assessment, but it's also worth remembering that manned, low-observable aircraft are more survivable in high-threat combat scenarios than drones.  General Ron Keys, the former commander of the USAF's Air Combat Command noted a few years ago that "China's ability to shoot down our UAVs is limited only by their ability to re-load their SAM launchers."  Moreover, the "combat drones" that will supplant (or replace) manned aircraft are still years away from operational service and with an eroding industrial base, our ability to produce those UAVs will also be impacted. 

Years ago, wags predicted that with rising procurement costs and declining production capabilities, the U.S. tactical fighter inventory (at the middle of the 21st century) would consist of a single aircraft, shared by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.  The jet will be state-of-the-art, but it will be so expensive that no service will be able to operate it more than a few days each year, and with the prohibitive cost of replacement, no pilot--or commander--will be brave enough to actually fly it. 

Sadly, that "day" is much closer than we realize.  Evaporating capabilities to build military aircraft don't exactly lower unit costs.