Friday, April 15, 2016

Calling the Air Police

 A Russian SU-24 Fencer roars over the USS Donald Cook earlier this week (US Navy photo via CBS News). 

Many observers were stunned by video and still images of Russian SU-24s buzzing the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea this week.  According to the Navy, SU-24s made low passes over the Arleigh Burke class destroyer on successive days (11 and 12 April) as it operated off the coast of Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave located between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Coast.  During the first encounter on Monday, a pair of SU-24s (Russia's answer to our long-retired F-111) made at least 20 near the American ship, flying within 1,000 yards and at altitudes as low as 100 feet.

The following day, two Russian KA-27 Helix helicopters circled the vessel, apparently taking photographs.  Then, the SU-24s (NATO code name "Fencer) returned, executing dangerously low passes over the Cook, flying a simulated attack profile.  A senior defense official told CBS News the Fencers were so low, their jet exhaust created wakes in the water.     

But members of the Cook crew took the incident in stride.  After all, the Norfolk-based DDG experienced a similar encounter in 2014, while patrolling in the Black Sea.  After returning to port, the ship's skipper affirmed U.S. plans to operate in international waters, a claim that was echoed up the chain of command.  A spokesman at U.S. European Command headquarters criticized the Russians for their "unprofessional" and "aggressive" conduct.

Surprisingly, Secretary of State John Kerry went a step further, claiming the American vessel had the right to shoot down the Russian jets because of their provocative actions.  But Navy officials quickly down-played that possibility, noting the Cook never received electronic indications that the SU-24 crews were preparing to employ weapons against the destroyer. 

And, given the restrictive rules of engagement often employed by the Obama Administration, there are legitimate questions about the commander's authority to engage the SU-24s, given the lack of attack indicators (other than some extraordinarily aggressive flying).  Navy skippers don't want to start World War III--or lose their careers--because of aggressive maneuvering by Russian ships and planes. 

During the Cold War, such behavior was commonplace; Soviet intelligence "trawlers" routinely interfered with U.S. carrier groups, trying to interrupt flight operations.  During one legendary episode off the coast of North Vietnam, a fed-up naval aviator named John Wunche decuded to get even.  Preparing to land in a KA-3 tanker, Commander Wunche got the wave-off from his LSO on the USS Bon Homme Richard and prepared to go around.  Meanwhile, the Russian intel collector--known as an AGI--tried to maneuver in the carrier's path.

Wunche spotted the intel collector dead ahead and in just a few seconds, became a Navy hero.  He leveled his KA-3 at about a hundred feet and opened all the fuel dumps, spraying the Soviet vessel with a generous coat of jet fuel as he thundered overhead.  Wunche roared away as the intelligence trawler slowed to a dead stop, and the carrier passed astern.  The Russians had to shut down all power systems and break out the fire hoses, to prevent an idle arc from igniting the jet fuel and turning their ship into an inferno.

Unfortunately, there wasn't a carrier--or a pilot like John Wunche--on-scene to assist the Donald Cook earlier this week.  But NATO air assets were in the region, and their apparent inactivity remains one of the mysteries of the "buzzing" episode.  For more than a decade, NATO members have maintained an aerial quick reaction force, to protect the airspace of its Baltic members.  At any given time, small detachments of NATO fighter aircraft and support personnel are stationed at bases in Lithuania and Estonia.

In the past, elements of the so-called "Air Policing Force" have responded to Russian provocations.  Earlier this year, NATO admitted that its fighters reacted when Russian aircraft conducted a mock nuclear strike against Sweden in 2013, and Stockholm's air force was caught unprepared.  The air police detachment is controlled through the NATO Combined Air Operations Center at Ramstein AB, Germany.  CAOC personnel have access to a melded, all-source surveillance picture, utilizing air, land, naval and even space centers.  It's a given that the radar picture from the Cook was a part of the display, so NATO knew what the Russians were up to, and tracked them long before they passed near the U.S. vessel.

So, why were the RAF Typhoons and Portuguese F-16s (currently assigned to the air policing mission) never vectored to assist the ?USS Donald Cook?  Or if they were, why did controllers keep them away from the Fencers that were buzzing the ship?  The SU-24 is not an air-to-air platform; it's designed to attack targets low and fast and only carries short-range IR missiles for self-defense.  Scrambling the Typhoons and/or the F-16s might have persuaded the Russians to head for home--and demonstrated a bit more resolve from the Atlantic alliance.

But the Russians have learned that NATO doesn't match aggression with aggression.  So, the Fencers (and other elements of Putin's air force) will return.  When the first arrow in your quiver is the sharply-worded diplomatic protest, this type of problem tends to persist.                




Thursday, April 14, 2016

(Not Quite) Ready for Launch

**UPDATE/15 April** U.S. and ROK defense officials report the test of North Korea's intermediate range missile ended in failure.  The missile, believed to be a BM-25 Musudan, exploded shortly after launch.  The South Korean Defense Ministry reported the failure shortly after it was detected, and U.S. Strategic Command confirmed that assessment.

Needless to say, North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-un is probably displeased at this turn of events, so there are probably a few more rocket scientists in the gulag this morning, or anti-aircraft gun crews have some new targets to work with.

But the failure will not deter Pyongyang.  Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia program at the James Martin Non-Proliferation Center in California, told the Washington Post that North Korea will still gain valuable data from the test, figure out what went wrong, and eventually achieve success.  The younger Kim and his ruling clique are merciless, but they are also patient in pursuit of their WMD and ballistic missile goals.


It remains one of the biggest mysteries of the North Korean ballistic missile program.  Since 2010, the DPRK has ocasionally exhibited an intermediate range, road-mobile missile, nicknamed the Musudan. Leaked intelligence reporting also suggests the system (sometimes referred to as the BM-25) has been exported to Iran, giving that country another potential delivery platform for conventional or nuclear warheads.

Still, our knowledge of the Musudan--and its operational status in North Korea and Iran--remains limited, for a simple reason.  The BM-25 has never been flight-tested by Pyongyang or Tehran.  Some analysts believe the missiles displayed by Pyongyang are actually decoys or mock-ups, suggesting that development of the operational system has lagged behind.

But that intel gap may soon be filled.  Pentagon sources tell CBS News and the Associated Press that North Korea is expected to conduct a test launch of the missile, possibly within the next 12 hours:

The missile in question is a Musadan, which is road mobile and has enough range to reach the Aleutians and Guam. It's never been tested before, so this is another step toward being able to threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon. 

Friday, April 15 marks the birthday of Kim Il-sung, the "Great Leader" who rule North Korea from 1948 until his death in 1994. 

Given Pyongyang's penchant for conducting military demonstrations on key historical dates, the Friday launch window is hardly surprising.  It's also clear that the Pentagon's prediction is based on more than Kim Il-Sung's birthdate.  Apparently, our intel systems have detected late-stage launch preparations which suggest the BM-25 will make its first flight in the next day or so.  Those preparations likely involve fueling of the missile; the Musudan (like many older systems) utilizes a liquid fuel; once the tanks have been filled, the missile must remain at the launch site because it lacks the structural strength to be safely transported to another location.  

A fueled BM-25 can remain in that configuration for up to several weeks.  Expectations for a near-term launch may be based on other indications, such as the expected arrival of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (and other VIPs), or the establishment of airspace closure areas near the test site.  That location has not been disclosed by US officials but in the spring of 2013, two Musudans, mounted on their mobile launchers, were observed along the DPRK's east coast, raising speculation about a possible launch.  However, the missiles were eventually removed from that site, and the launch was never conducted.  

The expected Musudan test comes amid escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, and a recent string of provocations by Pyongyang.  North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test earlier this year; launched a long-range missile from the Sohae Space Center in February, and fired an ICBM engine at the same complex last week.  A successful BM-25 launch would be evidence of continued progress in the DPRK's efforts to field missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons against targets in the Far East and the CONUS.  Most experts still believe North Korea lacks the ability to produce a "miniaturized" nuclear warhead that can fit on the Musudan, or longer-range missiles like the KN-08 and KN-14, believed capable of hitting targets in the western United States.  

Mastering that technology is just a matter of time.  Technology sales to Iran help fund development efforts, and North Korea has long-established ties with Pakistan, which have helped it obtain (and advance) nuclear technology.  There are also questions about how much "help" Pyongyang may have received from Russia.  The BM-25 is based on the SS-N-6, an old, Soviet-era SLBM design which was designed to carry three nuclear warheads, and deployed on Yankee I class ballistic missile subs.  Moscow claims that nuclear technology was omitted from the blueprints and other technical data that was sold to Pyongyang.  Given the current level of technical competence in the DPRK, it wouldn't be difficult for North Korean scientists to develop a nuclear version of the Musudan.  
ADDENDUM:  Reporting from South Korean media, including the semi-official Yonhap news agency, indicates the BM-25 being prepped for launch was observed near the port city of Wonsan, on North Korea's east coast.        



Wednesday, April 06, 2016

The Missing Element

Eric Engberg passed away last week at his retirement home in Palmetto, Florida.  The former CBS News correspondent was 74.

Depending on your perspective, Mr. Engberg was either an accomplished and revered member of the Fourth Estate, or a journalistic hack, the embodiment of what's wrong with today's news media.

Not surprisingly, many of Engberg's peers described him in glowing terms.  Dan Rather, anchor of the CBS Evening News during much of Engberg's career at the network, called him "one of the best TV correspondents of his generation, “tough but fair, and that rarity: a hard-nosed reporter with a sense of humor.”

Mr. Engberg was also praised as an innovator.  During the early 1990s, he created a segment called Reality Check that sought to uncover the real truth behind changes and counter-charges leveled during a presidential campaign.  After the race ended, the segment often targeted government waste and corruption.  Memorable exposes included his report on an $18 million subway built to carry Senators a few hundred yards from their offices to the U.S. Capitol, and an unnoticed change in federal election laws that allowed members of the house to buy radio ads with taxpayer money.

In 1998, Engberg aired his most famous report, presenting compelling evidence that the Vietnam veteran buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns was actually Air Force 1Lt Michael Blassie, who was shot down in 1972.  The segment resulted in the exhumation of his remains, a positive identification, return to his family, and reburial at a national cemetery in St. Louis, not far from his boyhood home.

Obituaries of Mr. Engberg mention the DuPont-Columbia Award he won for the Blassie segment; his willingness to pose tough questions to politicians (and pressing them when they refused to comment) and that distinctive, booming voice.  At one point in his career, Engberg was asked to take a hearing test because the VU needles pegged whenever he recorded a voice-over or stand-up.  "You're not deaf," the audiologist told him, "just loud."

But there's at least one, important element missing from recollections of Mr. Engberg's career.  During the 1996 presidential campaign, he delivered an infamous "Reality Check" on GOP candidate Steve Forbes and his plan for a flat tax.  Ostensibly, it was supposed to reveal the flaws in Mr. Forbes proposal.  But Engberg's segment was nothing more than a hit piece, masquerading as fact-based journalism.  A few days later, his colleague Bernard Goldberg took it apart, in an equally-famous op-ed published by The Wall Street Journal:

He starts out saying: "Steve Forbes pitches his flat-tax scheme as an economic elixir, good for everything that ails us." Sure, the words "scheme" and "elixir" are loaded, conjuring up images of Doctor Feelgood selling worthless junk out of the back of his wagon. But this is nothing more than a prelude--warm-up material to get us into the right frame of mind. 

The report shows Mr. Forbes saying the U.S. economy can grow twice as fast if we remove "obstacles, starting with the tax code." Mr. Forbes may be right or wrong about this, so Mr. Engberg lets us know which it is. "Time out!" he shouts in his signature style. "Economists say nothing like that has ever actually happened."

He then introduces us to William Gale of the Brookings Institution, who says: "It doesn't seem plausible to think that we're going to have a whole new economy or economic Renaissance Age due to tax reform."

CBS News instructs its reporters and producers to identify people in a way that will help the audience understand any political bias they might have. We are told, for example, to identify the Heritage Foundation as "a conservative think tank." I have done this on more than one occasion, myself. It's a good policy.

But where was the identification of the Brookings Institution as "a liberal think tank"? Might that influence Mr. Gale's take on the flat tax? Instead, Mr. Gale was presented to America simply as an expert with no tax ax to grind.


Mr. Engberg concludes his piece à la David Letterman by saying that "Forbes's Number One Wackiest Flat Tax Promise" is the candidate's belief that it would give parents "more time to spend with their children and each other." 

Can you imagine, in your wildest dreams, a network news reporter calling Hillary Clinton's health care plan "wacky"? Can you imagine any editor allowing it? 

You probably remember what happened next.  CBS never reprimanded Mr. Engberg for his thoroughly biased report, and never issued an apology or correction.  In fact, Dan Rather and the suits at CBS News saw nothing wrong with the segment.  Mr. Goldberg, on the other hand, became personna non grata at the network; he vanished from the airwaves and narrowly escaped being fired.  After sensitive negotiations, he was allowed to remain on the payroll until he became eligible for a pension.  Engberg remained a regular contributor to the Evening News until he retired in 2003. 

While he remained a pariah at network, Mr. Goldberg enjoyed something of a career renaissance after leaving CBS.  His book that grew out of the op-ed, Bias, topped The New York Times best-seller list for many weeks and he's won multiple Emmys reporting for HBO's Real Sports.  Engberg disappeared into retirement, resurfacing (briefly) last year for a public dust-up with Bill O'Reilly over conditions in Buenos Aires during the Falklands War.  Both reported from there for CBS News; Mr. O'Reilly described riots in the Argentine capital, and claimed that other network staffers "hid in their rooms."  Engberg refuted those assertions, saying the city was "more of an expense account zone."  

Interestingly, O'Reilly's recollections were largely supported by Don Browne, a former NBC bureau chief who went on to become an executive for the network and served as president of Telemundo before retiring in 2011.  Engberg declined an invitation to appear on the air with O'Reilly, but he did make the rounds of other media outlets, repeating claims that the Fox News anchor embellished (or even lied) about his experiences in Buenos Aires.  

Some of Mr. Engberg's obits in the MSM mention his feud with Bill O'Reilly, but I haven't found any that highlight his completely biased "Reality Check" on Steve Forbes.  Hardly surprising; in less than three minutes of airtime, Engberg managed to provide an inadvertent "reality check" on the real state of network news and Goldberg's subsequent critique helped hasten their decline.  Not the sort of legacy that mainstream journalists want to recall in memorializing one of their elders.  
ADDENDUM:  In recounting the Engberg episode, Mr. Goldberg is always careful to note that he missed the segment when it first aired.  The man who spotted the obvious bias in Engberg's piece was Jerry Kelley, a building contractor from Alabama who was a friend of Goldberg's.  "You got too many snippy wise guys doin' the news," Kelley told him, suggesting that Goldberg take a look at the segment. The rest, as they say, is history.  

Bernard Goldberg delivered the eulogy when Mr. Kelley passed away in 2014 at the age of 71.  "Jerry Kelley changed the American culture," he told the mourners, and it's hard to disagree.  

"Jerry knew more about bias and fair play than any of those journalistic “geniuses” did who put that piece of garbage about Forbes on the air back in 1996. And Jerry was a building contractor, not a journalist.  Still, he saw the bias that the CBS News Washington correspondent who reported the Forbes story didn’t; that his producer didn’t; that the senior producer in Washington didn’t; that the top evening news producers at CBS News in New York didn’t; that the president of CBS News didn’t; and that Dan Rather, the anchorman and managing editor of the broadcast, didn’t.        



Friday, April 01, 2016

Fantasy Land

A Russian SS-27 Mod 2 ICBM during a test launch.  Variants of this missile are a cornerstone of Russian's strategic modernization efforts.  

President Obama is holding his fourth--and last--nuclear security summit in Washington.  The good news is Mr. Obama won't be around to hold a fifth exercise in futility; the bad news: we'll have to endure a weekend of fawning news coverage which ignores the most salient fact: the danger posed by nuclear weapons has actually grown on this President's watch.

Evidence of that grim reality can be found around the globe.  We'll start with Russia and Vladimir Putin, who took a pass on the latest Obama confab.  And why not?  As Bill Gertz reports in the Washington Free Beacon, Moscow is busily expanding its nuclear arsenal, adding new missiles to the inventory with more warheads on those weapons:

Russia is doubling the number of its strategic nuclear warheads on new missiles by deploying multiple reentry vehicles that have put Moscow over the limit set by the New START arms treaty, according to Pentagon officials.

A recent intelligence assessment of the Russian strategic warhead buildup shows that the increase is the result of the addition of multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRVs, on recently deployed road-mobile SS-27 and submarine-launched SS-N-32 missiles, said officials familiar with reports of the buildup.

“The Russians are doubling their warhead output,” said one official. “They will be exceeding the New START [arms treaty] levels because of MIRVing these new systems.”

The 2010 treaty requires the United States and Russia to reduce deployed warheads to 1,550 warheads by February 2018.

The United States has cut its warhead stockpiles significantly in recent years. Moscow, however, has increased its numbers of deployed warheads and new weapons.


The State Department revealed in January that Russia currently has exceeded the New START warhead limit by 98 warheads, deploying a total number of 1,648 warheads. The U.S. level currently is below the treaty level at 1,538 warheads.

But we shouldn't worry, according to a spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance.  Blake Narenda told the Free Beacon that the increase in Russia's nuclear inventory is the result of "fluctuations" that come with force modernization.  He also noted the New START treaty does not contain interim limits, and the U.S. still expects Russia to be in compliance by the 2018 deadline.  

And there may be more "fluctuations" to come.  Moscow is busily deploying more of its modern SS-27 Mod 3 mobile ICBM and its sub-launched equivalent, the SS-N-32.  Russian press reports indicate that each will be armed with up to 10 MIRVs.  The Kremlin is also working on a new rail-based ICBM that will carry up to 12 warheads, and another land-based missile, the SS-X-30, that will be armed with 10-15 warheads.  Naturally, the new systems are much more reliable than the older missiles being replaced, and those multiple MIRVs have improved accuracy, allowing Moscow to pin-point more American targets.  

Meanwhile, the U.S. is making do with 40-year-old Minuteman III ICBMs that will remain in service for at least another 15 years.  To remain within START limits, our land-based missiles are armed with only a single warhead.  The Minuteman III is also silo-based, in known locations the Russians dialed in long ago.  While Moscow has fewer deployed, land-based ICBMs (299 compared to 450 Minuteman IIIs), well over half of Russia's strategic missiles are based on mobile launchers that are extremely difficult to detect and track out of garrison.  Environmental "concerns" in the United States will almost certainly keep our ICBM force in silos for the foreseeable future.   

But Russia's modernization program isn't the only one underway.  The Financial Times reported earlier this week that China is on the verge of deploying its newest ICBM.  The road-mobile DF-41 is the PRC's first long-range missile that is capable of striking targets throughout the United States.  Older missiles, including the DF-31, could only reach the western portions of the CONUS.  

But that will soon change, given recent observations of DF-41 testing.  “Given the number of real reported tests, it is reasonable to speculate the DF-41 will be deployed to PLA Strategic Rocket Force bases in 2016,” said Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington.  And, since Beijing isn't bound by the START accord, it is free to build and deploy as many new missiles as it wants.  It's also worth noting that news about the pending deployment of the DF-41 came as China's President Xi Jinping arrived in Washington for the nuclear summit.  

And not to be outdone, North Korea has moved a step closer towards deployment of an operational ICBM that can hit most of the U.S.  Earlier this week, the Pentagon confirmed that Pyongyang is working on a longer-range version of the KN-08 missile, first unveiled in 2012.  The new variant, designated the KN-14, is believed capable of delivering a nuclear warhead over 6,000 miles, giving it enough range to strike Chicago or Toronto.  

Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center who has studied the two missiles’ Chinese launchers, said Russia has estimated the KN-14 could have a range between 5,000 and 6,200 miles.

“From the far northern corner of North Korea, [6,300-mile] range is sufficient for the KN-14 potentially to reach Chicago and Toronto,” Fisher said.

“It may be a stretch to fulfill North Korea’s recent propaganda video called ‘Last Chance’ depicting a nuclear strike on Washington, D.C.”

Fisher, however, said the rapid development of the KN-14 from the KN-08 indicated Pyongyang could be capable of building even larger missile variants that would have sufficient range to strike Washington.

North Korean missile analyst Scott LaFoy, writing in, said the KN-08 shown in October appears similar to the Russian SS-N-18 submarine-launched ballistic missile.

“It is apparent that North Korea is continually researching and upgrading its ballistic missile designs,” he said, adding that the differences are so significant that the new missile should be given a different designator from the KN-08.

As Kim Jong-un's ICBM program gathers speed, it's a safe bet that efforts to develop a smaller nuclear warhead are continuing apace.  Admiral William Gortney, the outgoing Commander of U.S. Northern Command, told Congress that he believes North Korea is already capable of hitting the United States with a nuclear-capable missile.  And he's not alone in that assessment.  

Obviously, any capabilities the DPRK has in that area are now rudimentary, at best.  But even if Pyongyang has the limited ability to strike the U.S. with nukes, that can change the strategic calculus between Washington and the DPRK.  Having seen Iran's big payoff from its nuclear deal with the United States, Kim Jong-un would like to fashion a similar accord--and he believes rattling the ICBM sabre may the first step in the process.  

But the list of current and emerging nuclear threats doesn't end there.  A few days ago, CNN reported that American officials are increasingly concerned about ISIS's nuclear ambitions:

Raiding the home of a suspected planner of last November’s Paris attacks, Belgian authorities found surveillance video of a top Belgian nuclear scientist. That suspect, part of the same ISIS cell accused of last week’s attacks in Belgium. The shocking discovery turned the heads of counter-terrorism experts who fear that Belgium, with several previous nuclear breaches, could be at risk for terrorists to obtain radiological materials for a so-called dirty bomb.  

There is also possibility that ISIS might obtain a working nuclear device from a country like Pakistan or even North Korea.  Nuclear terrorism is expected to be a prime topic at Mr. Obama's summit in Washington.  

To be fair, the issue of nuclear proliferation is both complex and multi-faceted.  A threat once defined by Russia's strategic forces now includes everything from Moscow's on-going build-up to terrorists detonating a dirty bomb in an American city.  There isn't a single, magic bullet solution.  

But it is also fair to ask a rather pointed question: how much has been achieved through this series of Obama-hosted summits?  A few countries have agreed to reduce their stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium, but tons of nuclear material remain in more than half a dozen nations.  

But there are also those modernization efforts, underway among many of our potential adversaries. Policy wonks would argue that such concerns fall under the heading of arms control (and dealt with accordingly), but that misses an important point.  Those new missiles in Russia, China, North Korea and (eventually) Iran are aimed--or will be aimed--at the U.S, and tipped with nuclear warheads.  Years of summitry has done nothing to mitigate those threats, yet administration officials say they're ready for a new START with Russia, and they would be willing to sit down with other nations as well. 

Missing from all of this is the best bargaining chip: a strong American nuclear deterrent.  The administration likes to point out that the U.S. has more ICBMs, missile subs and strategic bombers than our enemies, while ignoring the fact that our strategic forces are getting long in the tooth.  Over the next 15 years, Pentagon, the Congress and subsequent administrations must come up with enough money for a new long-range bomber; a replacement of the Ohio-class SSBN fleet and a new ICBM, along with improved warheads and the infrastructure to support them.  

That's a very tall order, but an investment worth making.  The current wave of modernization and proliferation efforts stem (in part) from perceptions of American weakness on the global stage, and Mr. Obama's unwillingness to confront changing threats.  Strengthening our nuclear deterrent will certainly improve our security and our future bargaining position, even at a steep fiscal cost.  It's a much better choice than the current option, based on the pillars of weakening our military and entering dangerous agreements with our adversaries.  Abandoning that fantasy land should be the first step for our next commander-in-chief, but there are grave doubts if any of them are up to the job.