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Archive for June, 2009

Iraq: Que Sera Sera

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

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The withdrawal of American troops from Iraqi cities today marks a turning point for the war in Iraq, and leaves me with mixed feelings about the current situation and the war overall.

I see it as a success that the security situation has improved so much that US forces basically aren’t needed to protect the urban populations anyway. Whether it was an arbitrary date or not, it sort of turned out to be an event-driven one — at least in terms of security. I can’t express the pride I feel for the sacrifice and adaptability of the troops who made this success possible.

I remember being at a small outpost on the outskirts of Balad in July of 2003. My photographer colleague and I hired two seats in a convoy of Suburbans heading out of Amman to a hotel in Baghdad, where we based ourselves for six weeks to cover the beginnings of the occupation.

We went on a raid one night out of the small base — which had no electricity, no air conditioning, no refrigeration — with a group from the 4th ID based on intel gained from a short trip into town by the company commander who slipped in with his translator (terp) wearing a dishdash and driving in a captured taxi cab. This was two months after the “mission accomplished” speech and I was amazed at the initiative of the troops there that early on.

I went to Sadr city then too. The fetid stench of sewage and rotten trash wafting into the gritty dust thrown up by the totally unarmored Humvee we were in. Kids threw rocks at us. “That means they like us,” one Soldier told me. “I think.…”

Then there was the victory lap with Marines in southern towns. The Shiite population there was overjoyed with the US victory and the overthrown Saddam. I was in a small camp in Diwaniyah when Udeh and Kuseh Hussein were killed. There was so much celebratory fire, a Marine standing post on a rooftop nearby was injured when a round came down out of the sky and hit him in the leg.

I remember standing on the street corner just outside what was still not yet called the Green Zone (the troops from the 2nd ACR called it the MOAC: mother of all checkpoints) at 9pm waiting for a driver from the AP to pick me and a couple colleagues up after a trip into the field. I didn’t think for one second that something would happen to me at the time.

Then it all changed from hope to despair.

I returned to a very different Iraq in late 2005. For a month I cowered in the back of a Marine Humvee in Ramadi dodging IEDs on nightly patrols and raids. My first night there in early December, a coordinated IED attack maimed several Marines and killed two after they’d dismounted from a 7 ton truck to fix a Humvee disabled by a previous bomb. I went along on the QRF and watched as Marines picked up combat boots filled with severed feet and legs.

In Hit, we were in the boondocks for a month. The desert “ratlines” that funneled suicide bombers into Iraq from Syria. It was tense but quiet, until a group of insurgents tried to overrun the camp I was in guarded by a single platoon of Marines. We joked together that the Iraq war had turned into the war on drugs — every time you grab an insurgent or uncover a (massive) weapons cache, there’s three more that pop up right alongside it (or him). We were never going to win this war, we thought.

And then it all changed. I remember thinking to myself even after the first trip to Iraq that the main problem was the Iraqis themselves. They refused to act. They refused to reject being cooped in someone else’s failing agenda (the islamists). They failed to stand up for themselves and confront the violence that no one wanted. Why weren’t we guilting them into acting?

Then we did. There was a tipping point there. Not sure when, but something showed the community leaders there that throwing their lot in with AQ wasn’t going to get them where they needed to go. The Iraqis didn’t strike me as particularly radical people — they weren’t ripe for the Taliban or the Iranian mullahs. But something clearly convinced local leaders to side with the US and stand up against AQ. Whether it was the severed head of a cousin to Abdul-Satter Abu Risha delivered to his doorstep that did it or what, I don’t know. But something tipped the balance.

Then it was hard fighting and close teaming and tough, thorough training that got the job done. The troops stuck to their guns. They refused to relent. They bit their tongues when they saw the Iraqi forces acting like idiots. They kept cajoling them into the fight. And they did it. As Steve Colbert said: “We won…”

I went back to the new Iraq in early 2008 and I was stunned. I was also bored. One month with combat units there — Marines and Army — and not a single raid. No incoming rockets. Not even a stray AK round from a Friday wedding party. Everything had changed.

And this is where we find ourselves today.

Am I nervous about how this is all going to shake out? Yes. But I’m confident that Iraq has passed the point of no return. I’m confident that they will not revert to the chaos and jihadist mayhem of 2006 and ’07. DO they have “reconciliation?” No. But do we? Do they have a hydrocarbon law yet? No. But can you even conceive of how complex such a law would be? Could you see the US coming up with one? The only states in the region that have them are theocracies or kingdoms. No one voted on those.

But at the end of the day it’s been a major triumph for our armed forces. Politicians in the US certainly didn’t help much. The troops stuck to the guns, put their heads down and worked hard to make it a success. They didn’t involve themselves in the debates — there is no debate, right? You execute your orders and you do them decisively. The military did way more than they were trained to do. And they did it without complaint and with amazing skill and aptitude.

I am glad to have witnessed and been a part — in a small way — of this very unpopular war. It’s when the chips are down; when nobody says you’ll win; when all support has faded away where character is found. Those who fought, worked and died there had it. And we should be exceptionally proud of those who will never quite brush all that talcum sand out of their boots ever again.

– Christian

Submarine Numbers at Issue

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

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The U.S. Navy plans to begin constructing two nuclear-propelled attack submarines (SSN) per year beginning next year — Fiscal Year 2010. For the past decade the Congress has authorized SSNs at an average of one a year. However, in response to the Newport News/Northrop Grumman and Electric Boat/General Dynamics shipyards reducing construction costs for submarines of the Virginia (SSN 774) class to $2 billion per submarine in then-year (FY 2005) dollars, the Department of Defense and Congress have approved the doubled construction rate.

Now some in DoD and Congress are having second thoughts about the increased submarine building rate. The reason is primarily money. The cost in today’s dollars for a Virginia–class SSN is closer to $2.5 billion per unit.

The Navy’s annual shipbuilding budget from FY 2002 through 2009 averaged about $10 billion. The FY 2010 budget is about $12 billion. The Navy — which currently has 283 active ships — has a goal of 313 ships. Navy estimates of the shipbuilding funds needed to reach that goal have been steadily increasing over the past few years and is now about $16 billion per annum. However, the Congressional Research Service, General Accountability Office, and other, non-government institutions and individuals, estimate the cost at more than $20 billion per year and possibly as high as $24 billion. And, these numbers do not include the “mission packages” for littoral combat ships (LCS), the planned new class of strategic missile submarines (SSBN), and the proposed ballistic missile defense cruisers (CG(X)).

This analyst believes that with the current financial situation in the United States, the costs of the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts, the Navy and Air Force shortfalls in aircraft, and other factors will make shipbuilding budgets of more than $12 billion highly unlikely; probably less money will be available for that purpose. Will DoD and the Congress — and even the non-nuclear segments of the Navy — permit almost $5 billion per year, i.e., some 40 to possibly 50 percent of the annual shipbuilding budget, to be spent on two attack submarines?

Today the Navy has 53 attack submarines; a building rate of two per year would increase the number to about 60 “boats.” A rate of 1–1/2 annually would mean 45 submarines, while one per year would lead to a 30-submarine force.

The situation is exacerbated as some observers are questioning the role of the attack submarine on the “war on terror” — a component of what DoD calls “irregular warfare.” While SSNs are useful for clandestine surveillance in forward areas, and possibly for tracking North Korean merchant ships, their role in irregular warfare is not clear. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called for a military force structure that is 50 percent focused on conventional warfare, 10 percent focused on irregular warfare, and 40 percent focused on dual-use capabilities. The category — or categories — for attack submarines is not completely clear.

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Farah Hit Shows Need for COIN Plane

Monday, June 29th, 2009

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I know it’s been out for a while, but I thought I’d give the recently released investigation report on the air strikes in Farah province Afghanistan a chop and post the entire report here.

You might remember this was the latest high-profile close air support strike on a village that allegedly killed as many as 140 civilians — but probably killed more like 60 (still a WAY too high number) during a day-long battle in Farah province in May.

I’m not going to get into the whole idea of using CAS in villages against an enemy that may (or may not) be deliberately hiding amongst civilians, the perception versus reality arguments and any doctrinal issues. We can cover that at DoD Buzz and Military​.com, but I have a purely defense tech-related issue I’d like to bring forward for you to consider as an outgrowth of the investigation’s findings.

The report states that there were essentially two rounds of air strikes called in by a Marine Corps Special Operations team which was acting as a QRF for Afghan forces and their “coalition” trainers (it doesn’t say where these trainers were from but they could have been other Marines or Brits) who came into contact with enemy forces around 3pm on May 4 during a patrol intended to secure a small village rumored to have been hassled by foreign Taliban.

The MarSoc bubbas took control of the CAS when they arrived on scene and talked in an escalation of force strike with four F/A-18Fs which popped flares, did a couple gun runs and eventually dropped some bombs on confirmed Taliban positions that the MarSoc commander observed and confirmed for each strike.

While the direct fire stopped for a while, the enemy was never completely suppressed. But the Hornets were running out of juice, so they had to RTB. In came our Soviet nuclear strike bomber to save the day.

Four hours later, as the Marines and Afghan forces were waiting for a medivac chopper and coming under intermittent fire from a nearby village, a B-1B Lancer called in on station. It dark by then and the B-1 spotted a group of military looking men walking toward the village to reinforce the enemy firing on the Marines and ANA. Of course, this was almost a mile away from the ground force commander, so he had to trust the B-1’s thermals and used “a variety of real-time intelligence resources” which probably means he was listening to a radio scanner and having the jibberish translated to confirm that the group was coming in for the kill.
Farah Province Investigation

Of course they hid in two buildings.

Boom! Three 500 pounders on air burst fuses destroy a mosque and a shrine. No one in the air or on the ground has any idea who’s taking shelter in the mosque and shrine aside from the Talibs.

Then the B-1 sees another group like the first one, tracks it for 20 minutes on the thermals moving toward the Marines’ front line and rallying near another building outside the village. Threat=strike. Boom: two 500 pounders and two 2,000 pounders (which must have looked like a nuclear strike).

More than two hours after the B-1 came on station, and spotting a third group of tactically-moving personnel take shelter and another building, the Lancer drops its last 2,000 pounder, destroying the building and killing everyone inside.

Again, we can debate the policy and tactics of CAS and target ID in another forum, but what this incident tells me is that we absolutely need a counterinsurgency aircraft. The F-18s could ID the targets themselves and get low enough to do strafing runs, etc. But they couldn’t stay very long and had to relinquish control to a strategic bomber sheep-dipped as a tactical support aircraft.

An A-10, or some other COIN aircraft would have done a much better job eliminating the enemy with graduated force and IDing the targets — and staying on station. They can be cheap, easy to field at FOBs and convenient to maintain (especially prop-driven planes). And I got no problem with the armaments either. Give me some Hellfires and a couple chain guns, and I’ll put your Talibs on the ground.

I hope that this incident arms those in the Air Force and Army to advocate for a “back to the future” focus on simpler, long-endurance, stick and rudder with a pair of binos CAS that is critical to keeping the population on our side in a conflict with an economy of force that demands a the careful use of precision airpower.

– Christian

NSA Edges Out Others in Cyber Command Control

Monday, June 29th, 2009

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Last week Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered U.S. Strategic Command (StratCom) to deliver a plan to stand-up a new command to oversee information technology security and attack what would be known as “Cyber Command.” This is in addition to President Obama’s announcement last month that he will establish a new cyber security office at the White House. The historic event took place on Tuesday, June 22nd.

As one could imagine, this is no small task. StratCom has just a little over sixty days to accomplish this mission. The plan to create this new entity operating within the Department of Defense and lead by a 4-star general is due to the Defense Secretary by September 1st. According to Gates’ timeline, Cyber Command is expected to be up and operational by October 1, 2009, and fully functional one year later. An internal memo from Gates to senior Pentagon officials stated that he intends to recommend that Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, the current director of the National Security Agency, take on the role as commander of the Cyber Command with the rank of a four-star general.

What this will actually cost is anyones guess. Current thinking is that the budget to just establish the new command through year’s end could reach as high as $200 million. Longer term, the cost of cyber intelligence, defense and offensive capabilities are estimated to be around $55 billion annually. This will create our offensive cyber forces and capabilities and defend the over 100,000 DoD Networks and 5 million DoD computers against cyber attack. One might say it is just a drop in the bucket of a 2009 DoD budget that topped $515 billion.

The United States is not the only country making this move. The UK defense ministry announced plans to establish an office of cyber attack and defense but gave no hard date when it would be operational. Britain’s GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters, their equivalent of the NSA) seems to be well underway in fully developing their cyber capabilities. In addition, the defense ministry of South Korea has also announced plans to establish a cyber command by 2012.

Internal cooperation is critical for cyber incident investigations and event attribution. As more and more countries establish a focal point for cyber defense, the greater the opportunity to conduct these investigations and accurately identify those behind cyber attacks.

– Kevin Coleman

Troubled Seas Ahead

Friday, June 26th, 2009

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Courtesy the Heritage Foundation, via Greg McNeal at The Tank.

I’ll try to stay off my soapbox, but two points are worth mentioning. First, as noted by McNeal, is that the primary function of the federal government is to provide for the common defense — not health care, green initiatives (readers: please don’t try to combine global warming projections into security, as some are wont to do. It’s lame) and corporate bailouts.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the fact that our powerful military exists to prevent a war as much as it exists to win a war. Si vis pacem, para bellum, if you will. One can argue that our strategic nuclear deterrent accomplishes this well enough, but I’m not convinced. I’d rather spend 5%-6% of our GDP on ensuring we never have to suffer through another WWI or WWII. One can argue Vietnam, Iraq, et al… but neither of those conflicts came close to the cost of the major theater level wars — both in lives and treasure lost.
Back in the day, people ridiculed Reagan’s “Peace through strength.” When December 1991 rolled around, no one was laughing.
–John Noonan

A Look at How Tough the Afghan Fight will be

Friday, June 26th, 2009

I really respect Getty Images’ John Moore and one of his packages from his last trip to Afghanistan struck me as we are considering Gen. McChrystal’s decision to avoid fighting in populated areas.

From John’s images and commentary, we can see that on the ground, this attempt at sterilization will be very difficult and throw ambiguity into the fight for coalition troops.

There may just be some areas where the hearts and minds approach just won’t work ever.

– Christian

…and for the Taliban too…

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Amazing footage from an Apache recently released. Notice the concern for collateral damage…

The last heat signatures are US forces cleaning up after the hit. Notice the second to last Taliban blowing himself up.

– Christian

Brits Getting new Armor

Friday, June 26th, 2009

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The British military announced today it has begun fielding an updated version of its Mk7 helmet and Osprey body armor.

The new Osprey Assault Vest is supposed to have the same ballistic capabilities of the current Osprey but with less weight and better, closer fit. I have no first-hand insight into this armor, but from the pics that are drifting around the web on this, it doesn’t look any more comfortable than the current Brit bullet busters.

The MOD did say the armor takes advantage of a new ballistic plate that is thinner and lighter than current ones — clearly a system using more improved Dyneema or Spectra. Also the vest borrows from its Yank counterparts in adding MOLLE webbing to attach pouches and other gear directly to the vest. But just from the look of it, the vest doesn’t look like much of an improvement in fit. Kinda like when the Corps fielded its “Modular Tactical Vest” that looked like a Rube Goldberg patchwork of bad ideas (and turned out to be widely unpopular).

On the other hand, the Brits look like they’re finally taking a radical departure from their spaghetti bowl helmets and getting a little more 21st Century on their new Mk7. The new helmet features a better cut that allows for headphones, NVGs and keeps its coverage even in a prone aiming position. There’s also an updated and more comfortable harness system to keep the lid on the noggin.

Again, haven’t seen any of this first hand. But you know me and my obsession with armor developments, so I thought I’d bring it to your attention. If anyone has any insight into these systems, please comment here or send me an email.

The UK plans to field about 10,000 of the new ensembles.

(Gouge: GW)

– Christian

Worried Murtha Checking MV-22

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

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A retired Marine who also happens to be one of the most powerful defense lawmakers, Rep. Jack Murtha, has begun raising questions about the future of the Osprey MV-22 The chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee said that he plans to go down to Camp Lejeune in the next few weeks to do a reality check. Thats where Im going to find out what the hell is happening, the ever-blunt Murtha said.

The military tends to give you nothing but optimistic portrayals, he added. They have been telling me the V-22 was doing fine. Well, not so much, as was made clear at yesterdays hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The Osprey does face severe maintenance problems, Murtha said, adding that they are to be expected in the early stages of an aircrafts deployment.

While he said its just too early to know just what to do about the aircraft, Murtha also made pretty clear that he does not think it necessary to shut down production of the MV-22, as his colleague, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said yesterday. At this point we are committed and we have to go forward with the V-22, he said.

Meanwhile, the Marines began their counterattack designed to rescue the hostage MV-22. I spoke for about an hour this afternoon with Lt. Col. Rob Freeland, an Osprey pilot with about 1,000 hours on the plane.

He made it very clear that the Marines are doing everything they can to bring down maintenance costs. The GAO report presented at yesterdays hearing claimed the current cost per flight hour of the MV-22 today is over $11,000more than double the target estimate and 140 percent higher than the cost for the CH-46E. Freeland said the flying hour cost for the B model the plane that is flying in combat is closer to $9,700 and will come down over the next two to four years as the Marines implement a range of engineering change orders and craft a maintenance contract.

Among the engineering changes the Marines have recently made to save money, Freeland listed infrared suppressor panels. We used to replace those at $110,000 a piece. Thats because we didnt expect them to break, he said. Now the service is repairing them for $10,000 per unit. In addition, they have developed $10,000 repair procedures for flaperons that they used to replace $280,000 a pop. And Coanda valves will be repaired for $5,000 instead of replacing them for $27,000.

We know we are on a path that will get us there, to lower maintenance costs, he said. The performance based maintenance contract currently being negotiated will lead to the longest lasting and most substantial savings over time, he predicted. Due to be signed in 2010, that contract should start showing substantial savings after three years.

Read the rest of this story and others at DoD Buzz.

– Colin Clark

Reporter’s Notebook: Murtha Speaks

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

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As you all well know, I’ve been dogging Rep. John Murtha, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee, pretty hard ever since his fly-off-the-handle accusation of murder by a squad of Marines in Haditha back in mid-2006.

Well, I nervously attended a roundtable interview this morning in DC with Murtha and a group of the country’s top defense writers — figuring I might get the cold shoulder from the Democratic Bull. But I was surprised to find that he was remarkably candid, brewing with news and even friendly. A far cry from the confrontational chairman I’d peppered with questions in the past.

He said a lot of stuff on defense tech issues — info we’re going to build into longer stories in the coming hours — but what I thought I’d do is give you all a data dump of the basics of what he said…a sort of tear out of the pages of my reporter’s notebook, if you will:

Tanker — Murtha said he was strongly in favor of a split buy because he thought no matter who “wins” a recompete, there will be yet another protest that will delay the fielding and hamper global reach efforts. He wants a production throughput of three planes per month which he says even with the split buy, will save money in the long run because of the near crushing maintenance costs of keeping the KC-135s aloft. Murtha had just met with DefSec Gates the previous day, and though Gates has said publicly he’s against a split buy, Murtha said “I don’t know that he’s against it” hinting that the White House might be driving that argument and Gates might have some flexibility on the issue.

Raptor — Lots here. First, Murtha is against the shut down of the F-22 line for what he says are purely national security issues. He says he’s going to try and find $3.2 billion (my notes said $20B but i re-listened to the recording and he said $3.2B — not sure why I wrote $20B) to build 20 more next year and has asked Gates to provide him with some national security threat estimates that would justify NOT buying more Raptors. Murtha says he’s concerned about a rising China competing for energy resources in the coming years and noted that “World War II started because we cut off Japan’s energy supply” (though I gather some historians would object to that characterization). Murtha said he’s 50/50 on whether he can get the money for more F-22s, but he said “Lockheed has given up” on getting the extra orders.

Also, Murtha touched on the issue of an export version of the F-22 — principally to Japan who says only the F-22 can meet its range and speed requirements for a new interceptor. Murtha said Sen. Daniel Inouye is working with Japan to come up with the cash needed to “de-militarize” the F-22 (to remove the secret gadgets and gizmos from the US version) which he estimates will be around $300 million. Murtha thinks that’s way too optimistic and that gutting the F-22 for export will cost more along the lines of $1 billion.

Murtha said he’s worried about the high cost of maintaining the Raptor as well — that it might be difficult to bring that cost under control and will contribute to major sticker shock among lawmakers (and a White House) who are looking for money to spend elsewhere.

F-35 — Murtha said he was just as worried about the long term costs of the F-35 and the delays in production and technological maturity with that program as he is with the travails of the F-22. He said that even though the JSF is a priority for the Obama administration, his committee may not give them the requested money for 2010. “I’m for the F-35. I’m for buying the F-35. But I’m not necessarily for buying it this year.“

EFV — Murtha was stunned when his staff learned that the EFV had an aluminum underbody that would be warm butter to a mine or IED when ashore. He told the commandant that the EFV program was “on the bubble” and that he’d better get control of it and make good on the billions invested in the program already. Murtha talked to Gates about the EFV as well at his meeting the previous day and revealed that Gates has his critical eye on the program as well. “This has been going on for 25 years, this research, and it’s expensive as hell. You can’t keep spending money on research and then come to us and say you’re just going to cancel the program. That’s just not acceptable.”

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