Running Local

This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

A Light Fickers

Posted by Bob Kohm on September 20, 2013

This has been a week of hopeful words from unexpected sources, words that give succor to the soul but arouse unease in the intellect.

From Pope Francis I we hear words of hope, words that say that the Church has buried itself for far too long in doctrinal small sightedness which has made cynical the flock. A religion founded on the principles so well expounded in the tale of the Samaritan– tolerance for difference, kindness in the face of prejudice, the universality of the human condition and the amelioration of its woes– has submerged itself in fights over the denial of earthly rights and heavenly rewards to people over matters pertaining to their love and its physical expressions. From John Boehner we hear rumblings that the nihilistic campaign being waged by the Tea Party isn’t what is right for America, that being elected to govern does not equate with mothballing the government. From as unlikely a source as the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, we hear words of conciliation and mutual respect in a call to welcome Iran back into the community of nations as a full fledged partner, and end to, as he refers to it, an age of blood feuds.

Three disparate sources, one overarching theme– reconciliation. It is impossible for people of hope not to be at least momentarily inspired by words such as these coming in a time as divisive as the one we now populate. Our minds, those cynicized organs so conditioned by the events of the past quarter century to ignore hope in favor of a darker coalescence of possibilities, for a moment lighten as we glimpse that flickering ember and wonder if it can be kindled into a generator not necessarily of heat but still of  tactile reality. The possibility can’t be denied, if even out of sheer desire for it to be real.

The reasons to think it is not real are, sadly, easy to enumerate. Francis is at the helm of a vast doctrinal bureaucracy heavily invested in the teachings of the previous Pontiff, Benedict, whose march to undo the moderatel influence on the Church of John Paul II and John XXIII became the hallmark of his pontificate.

Like the legendary grey men of the permanent British Civil Service, those doctrinally orthodox Cardinals, Bishops and functionaries understand that they will outlast the temporary leadership of their nominative leader; Benedict’s labors to restock the Curia and its various functional apparatuses with younger men are rewarded in that way. They know that they must publicly toe the line drawn by their Pope, but will they rush to enact his decrees or let them linger under study, under “timely” implementations and half hearted directives to the pastoral network, playing the waiting game in hopes of a new, older direction from the next Pope?

Francis and “His” Curia

I discussed yesterday with an old friend, a man of faith, character and intellect, whether the Pope’s words were actually aimed at the doctrinal staff or rather lower, at the grassroots network of parish priests and the faithful. Upon reflection I believe my friend to be correct, that Francis is trying to do an end run around his governing structure and enact change from the bottom by seeing his message preached from the myriad pulpits, thus forcing the Bishops into acceptance and then the structure all the way back to those supposedly closest to the Pope’s direct control in Rome. It strikes me as a desperate play by Francis, although not a hopeless one– my main hope in it is that he acknowledges that the system is broken and that he cannot fix the damage by decree, but must invest his power in the organizationally powerless and ask them, through faith and numbers, to right what is wrong with the Church.

Mr. Boehner faces a problem similar in theme if different in mechanics. Boehner finds himself the nominal leader of a Republican caucus not only badly divided but acting in a manner that is nearly unprecedented in the leadership structure history of his party, While the Democrats have always been a somewhat fractious coalition, earlier of Northern liberals and Dixiecrat conservatives and later of Blue Dogs, liberals, moderates, fiscal conservative/social liberals and various and sundry other ideologues practicing vaious and sundry different ideologies, the GOP has been a much more rigid, lockstep caucus. In the years since the Eisenhower Administration, with the slight aberration of the Gingrich speakership, the GOP in Congress has existed under the tight control of their Speakers and Minority Leaders with strong and able whipping by the lower leadership. It has reliably supported their core themes (at least in the way they’ve been somewhat misleadingly packaged)– lower taxes, smaller government, fiscal responsibility measures, the curtailment of the social safety net, opposition to abortion and the extension of civil rights, sometimes with the abetment of the fractious Democrats and sometimes without. The “Hastert Rule”, which stated that no bill be brought to the floor unless it met with the approval of the majority of the Caucus, seemed absolute.

The brashness of that lockstep record emboldened the Boehner/Cantor leadership to overplay their hand at the close of the first decade of the new century, legitimizing and deploying the proverbial war elephant of the Tea Party Republicans as a force they hubristically thought they could control and whose dynamism they never fully understood. War elephants, as I’ve written in the past, are funny things from a historic perspective– massive, intimidating juggernauts that can scare the enemy off of the battlefield, yes, but more often than not they proved to be unreliable forces of nature as apt to trample their own lines into dust as they were to scatter an opposing army. The elephantine presence of the Tea Party electees of 2010 has done precisely that to Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor’s leadership in the House and to a slightly lesser extent Mr. McConnell’s leadership in the Senate.

That leads us to the horns of Mr. Boehner’s dilemma this week– a caucus so out of control as to be characterized by its own members as being on a legislative kamikaze mission to hole the hull of our government. Mr Boehner has made a very poor secret of his attempts to rein in the caucus and to get them to focus on governance rather than on the destruction of the same– his sometimes tiresomely bellicose verbiage has moderated to calls for governmental foresight and moderation. Even speaking as someone who shares very little governing philosophy with Mr. Boehner, I respect his desire for moderation and sanity displayed this past week despite the typhoon of immoderation his previous actions have unleashed. I hope that he can somehow restore the genie to the bottle by force of will and backroom deals among the more pragmatic members of his party, but that hope is again, as is the case with Pope Francis’ hope, limited by the empirical evidence before us to the contrary. It is hard to undo a system that is behaving in a manner so optimally that it has subsumed the governors placed to control it.

Last is the letter delivered to the American people and to the world by newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. In a world set reeling by actions coming from the Middle East since the mid 1960s, what words could be more welcome than those calling for a legitimate peace from one of the nations that have so greatly fostered that reeling instability? Rather than suing for peace, President Rouhani asks for something even more intellectually appealing– and end to the “zero sum game” of lingering Cold War thinking, a new compact founded on a return to (or perhaps, truthfully, a novel) respect for the needs of other nations in the pursuit of the “win-win” scenarios that we all know are possible if the principals would moderate their definition of “wins” away from the absolutism of Berlin or the deck of the USS Missouri. An eminently rational appeal from a nation reputed in the West to be the home of irrationality, a land who sacrificed its children in the 1980s as human minesweepers and who has suckled nascent terrorist movements until they were ready to leave the house and wreak havoc internationally has a seductiveness of the mind almost too tantalizing to ignore.

Is this a deliverable promise–  or even premise– from an Iranian President, however? Is it a simple ruse to take advantage of American war weariness to further complicate our effort to deny Iran nuclear weaponry? Is it a truthful statement of Rouhani’s personal desires but ultimately a meaningless gesture as it is the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, in whom all power is really vested by his control of the theocratic infrastructure, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and, especially, the nuclear apparatus?

In Rouhani, again we see the problem of a putative ruler who may have no control over his supposed domain– a rump ruler, a ruler in name only. In the cases of Boehner and Francis I, the issue is those whom they supposedly represent and speak for; in the case of Iran, it is those whom exist on a plane above the public face of the ruler. Same problem, different ladders. Can the conciliatory words of Rouhani, even if they are delivered with sincerity in the man’s heart (an open question), really amount to anything when Khameini’s IRGC and its al-Quds terrorist network are openly waging war in Syria in support of the Assad regime? Is it possible that, like Francis, Rouhani is trying to inspire the Iranian people to see a better path and institute change from below, perchance by a reinstitution of the Green Revolution that we saw in 2009-2010, a revolution that the US didn’t materially support despite our clear interest in doing so? Could Rouhani be seeking US support for its resurgence? A possibility.

We live in a world where institutions are breaking down and a trend towards anarchy is emerging, a problem illustrated, I believe, by this week’s hopeful words. The superficially unifying theme behind them is reconciliation, yes, but perhaps another darker unification emerges upon consideration of them as an interlocked whole rather than as discrete conversations– the recognition by our leaders that their leadership is in jeopardy and with it so too are our societal institutions. Are the leaders calling on the led to, in effect, dispose of the middlemen– the power of the institutions that have gone rogue, the power of the Curia and its apparatus, the Tea Party, the Iranian Supreme Leadership– in an effort to save not only themselves but their societies as they are currently defined? If so, what are the ramifications of these grasps at newly ethereal power?

I’m tempted to see these as the penultimate gestures from leadership– a rational, constructive and coalition based approach to restoration of the societal norms we’ve become accustomed to over the past centuries. Should they fail, the tumult of the ultimate gestures to retain power– gestures we’ve seen throughout history’s darkest times– seem to be likely as the leaders of our institutions all retain executive powers that they will surely try to use to maintain their power.

Are our societies so flawed that we should allow them to go through a period of painful redefinition at the hands of middle men, or should we hope for an enlightened leadership emerging from those who were perhaps responsible for those middle men attaining so much power in the first place? We’ve seen “middle men” take power so many times in so many nations in the personage of the ambitious Colonels, but this is a different scenario; this time it’s not a jumped up military officer looking to take power but maintain the institution, it’s a fundamental dismantling of the institution by the “Colonels” that is sought, perhaps not unlike the tumult of the move from Feudalism to Limited Constitutional Monarchy or Imperialism to Mercantile Democracy.

The world contemplates change subconsciously this week in the guise of hopeful words that hide situations redolent of the loss of faith. A flickering light burns, but whether or not to nourish the ember to fire– and what we feed that fire with– is becoming the central question of our time.

Posted in American Politics, Christianity, CongressCritters, Cultural Phenomena, Economy, Foreign Affairs, History, Iran, Middle East, Religion, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Franciscan Legacy?

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 14, 2013

In the seemingly endless list of Catholic saints and holy people, there is one who has always stood out to me– St. Francis of Assisi, friend of animals, lover of nature, a wealthy man who gave it all up to live a simple life of poverty and service. He irked the Vatican by rejecting the wealth and worldly power of that day’s Church while he aspired and prayed for the ability to spread the peace that is embodied in God and the life of Jesus. Francis railed against the mystification of our personal relationships with God and wanted the people to know God in their own languages rather than in the closed world of the Latin liturgy, an idea that took nearly seven hundred years to come to fruition. He was, to my jaded and strayed Catholic eyes, one of the very few heroes of the Church that got it. St. Francis was a guy who lived a Christ-like life for the simple fact that he saw in simplicity and service the embodiment of Christ’s message and rejected the complexity and wealth that his message had been twisted to justify by the Church and its clergy.

Today the Church met its new leader, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, the first Pontiff to take the name. Over the years I’ve grown skeptical about

Trying on some mighty fancy duds for a disciple of St. Francis...

Trying on some mighty fancy duds for a disciple of St. Francis…

the Church as I’ve applied the lessons of Jesus taught to me as a boy– love, acceptance, peace, respect– and seen the Church and the other Christian sects abandon them in favor of bigotry and stodgy dogmatism. The fact that finally a man has come along bold enough to take the name of Francis and wear it into the very palaces and gilded halls that represent everything that Francis rejected– well, I’m just not sure how to process that. Hypocrisy? Reform? Megalomania? Courage?

I can see a case for any of those attributes and a heck of a lot of others. Bergoglio is a member of the Society of Jesus, an order that delights in intellect and notoriously doesn’t give much thought or regard to what the rest of the Church thinks. He’s the first of his order to be elected Pope as the Jesuits in general eschew the high offices of the Church and the Church in turn had been delighted to keep an order that it never seems quite able to trust away from the keys to the Popemobile. Why now, when the Church is in the throes of so many problems and scandals, would the de facto ban on Jesuits be lifted by the Curia?

Seemingly a man of firsts, Francis is also our first Latin American Pope. Famously hailing from Argentina albeit by way of an Italian heritage, Francis is seen as a change agent by the simple virtue of not being European. I question whether or not this is simple a case of geographic diversity (in the words of my friend Brian Fleischer) or if it is something greater; is geography destiny or meaningless happenstance in this instance? Does he represent substantive change or has the Curia simply added another of its standard issue?

The writings and public statements of the former Bergoglio don’t give me much cause for hope. His reputation is that of strict conservatism in terms of the social issues that dog today’s Church; he is fervently anti-gay, has spoken out against the expanded role of women in the Church and opposes the lifting of celibacy as a requirement of the priesthood. The unorthodoxy of the Jesuits seems lost on him; he was an early and vocal opponent of liberation theology and as the Jesuit Provincial of Argentina was known as a “man who never smiled”. It is said that he alienated many of his fellow SJs by allegedly collaborating with the military junta during the Dirty War, a claim he denies and which I don’t see sufficient evidence to believe or disbelieve at this point. What I do believe is that a man who can state that allowing loving gay parents to adopt and provide a home to orphans is “a form of discrimination against the child” is a man who has been blinded by his dogma.

His record and people’s opinions of him lead to contradictions. The “man who never smiled” is also known as a warm and humorous man. He supposedly sided with an authoritarian regime that robbed Argentina and its people blind but he is revered as a fervent defender of the poor; from what I have read he most assuredly seems to deserve that reverence. He had a palace and chauffeured limousine in Buenos Aires at his disposal by virtue of being the Archbishop, yet he lived in a small apartment, cooked his own meals and used public transportation– unquestionably displaying Franciscan values. He has managed to ascend to the heights of power in Rome while being renowned for being a guy who stayed at home in Buenos Aires, focusing on his pastoral duties and keeping Argentina’s parishes running, its priests ministering to the people.

It is that last idea, that somehow he has become the chosen of the Curia despite his lack of Roman bona fides at a time when there appear to be deep divisions in the body borne of very secular issues– banking, money laundering and plays for power– that worries me. According to some of my readings today, Francis is not known as a guy to rock the boat in the organizations he’s a part of; match that with the allegations that he might have been too accommodating to the brutal Argentine regime during the Dirty War, his advanced age (76) and that his Papacy will therefore be relatively short and I have to wonder if the Curia didn’t select a man they thought they could control or simply ignore. That’s a tricky calculus, creating a man of power and then thinking that he can be broken to the will of his electors. As Pontiff he would seemingly be a man beyond control, although that appearance has in the past been false. Whether Francis has the strength to effectively defy the Curia may actually be the central question of this Papacy.

All Papacies start with more questions than answers, but I think that the Papacy of Francis is uncommon  in the sheer volume and import of the questions presented at the beginning of this road. The Church itself seems primed for change out of necessity. Is Francis doctrinally suited to changing it? Does he even want to? Is he strong enough to effect any change at all, or can he be controlled by the Curia? Is he a cold technocrat or a warm man of the people? Is he a true disciple of Francis of Assisi? Can he maintain that amidst the silks, gold and artworks of the Vatican?

The empirical evidence– the writings and statements Francis– say that he will be another Pope in the Benedict mode, a stodgy conservative who will continue to press for the doctrinal purity of the religion despite the will of the Catholic people for a more relatable and modern faith. On paper he’s a Pope who represents the false diversity of geography, an orthodox prelate who is simply interested in maintaining the status quo.

There’s something there, though; something that as I think more about who he is makes me wonder if the paper Pope might be something more. The man chose to become the first Pope to ever take the name Francis and he has lived a life that at least in some ways echoes that of Francis. There’s cause for hope there; no, not hope that he’ll end the official bigotry against gays, not too much hope that he’ll reverse the Church’s teachings on contraception that have killed so many in Africa. There is hope, though, that he might be the Pope who starts the ball rolling towards “reform” no longer being something that the Vatican is terrified of.  I wonder if he doesn’t represent the tentative progressivism of the early 1960s in America, a time in which desegregation was germinating as policy even as those who backed it still wouldn’t want to sell their home to “those” people.

Does this Francis echo the Prayer of St. Francis as a channel of peace borne of justice and growth? Is he merely a channel of peace in the style of simply getting along with power? Worse, will he be a cause of strife as the Church continues its rudderless flight into scandal and contradiction? I wish I knew; heck, I wish I knew whether to even hope for something good or to accept that we’re going to have more of the same.

Clarity has never been a tangible benefit of Christianity.

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Armistice Abrogated and Nuclear Sabers Rattled, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Dennis Rodman

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 9, 2013

I’ve been asked some questions this week about North Korea’s (DPRK) diplomatic and propaganda moves, so I thought I’d resort to the dread long form response rather than trying to cram it into Facebook posts. RunningLocal, time to dust you off.

As background, Dennis Rodman’s visit to the Hermit Kingdom wasn’t really the most significant happening in North Korea over the past ten days despite what Wolf Blitzer and crew might be saying. Earlier this week, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, started to release a series of highly provocative statements both from his mouth and the mouths of credible proxies in anticipation of and in response to new UN sanctions targeted directly at the leadership class of the DPRK and their ability to maintain their lifestyle and move money around. The sanctions, backed by the DPRK’s sometimes sponsors in Moscow and most importantly Beijing, have to worry Kim beyond his personal comfort; should his top Generals and diplomats feel discomfited for too long without any hope of a restoration of their lifestyle there becomes very little reason for Kim to remain in power– or alive. The rewards of normalization of relations with the Chinese, Russians and Americans would be extraordinarily high for members of a junta who made it happen, a possibility that has never been far from the minds of any of the three members of the Kim ruling dynasty.

Kim Jong-un with his Generals

Kim Jong-un with his Generals

The sanctions have prompted three major avenues of response from the Kim regime. The first and most significant for long term stability on the Korean Peninsula is the renunciation of the 1953 Armistice that suspended the Korean War of 1950-3. My wording here is very deliberate as the Korean War never ended from a diplomatic perspective and indeed is still an active war to this day. No treaty was ever signed; the armistice that was enacted simply indicated that open hostilities were to be suspended. It is under that security regime that the DMZ was established with Panmujom as a communication point between the UN forces, South Korea and North Korea, that US forces acting under the blanket of UN resolutions have provided security in Korea, etc.

With the DPRK now declaring the armistice dead, we have at least rhetorically returned to a state of active and open hostilities between the DPRK and the United Nations and lines of communication between the two belligerents have  been “officially” terminated. The implications for this are largely political– I doubt that even the most hawkish Generals in the ROK military think that the North is going to launch an armored attack across the DMZ (and if they were I suspect that they’d secretly welcome it to an extent). The real implication is that the new sanctions regime has made Kim feel insecure to the extent that he has gone beyond the typical DPRK “We’ll turn the puppet government capital Seoul into a sea of fire and send the Yankee pirates to their watery doom” propaganda and actually made a move that will be very hard to walk back internationally. This is highly atypical for the Kim regime, which in the 60 years since the armistice was signed been masters of provocations and actions that have gone right up to the line (USNS Pueblo, sinking the Cheonan, decades of DMZ pot shots, commando infiltrations, etc) but have always been able to be walked back under the cover of the armistice that the South and the UN wanted to see stay intact.

In that loss of the armistice is the major problem for stability in Northeast Asia and which leads to the second major avenue; there is nothing to indicate that the Kim regime is going to stop those sorts of military provocations, just as there is no indication that the Kim regime understands that by killing the armistice there is now no cover for them in doing so. In fact, there is now every reason to believe that the abandonment of the armistice will directly lead to Kim staging provocations; this week he visited Mudo Island and reviewed its artillery positions, artillery positions which were involved in the infamous 2010 bombardment of Yeonpyong Island. It has also been reported that the DPRK’s navy has sent a large portion of its collection of diesel electric subs out to sea, potentially an indication that Kim will attempt another Cheonan-type incident, in which one of his submarines torpedoed the ROKS Cheonan March of 2010 with the loss of the ship and 46 of her crew.

This is what makes the DPRK regime dangerous– it lacks a fundamental understanding of international affairs and, with the advent of the Kim Jong-un leadership, a new failure to understand where the lines of aggression lie. The events of 2010– the Cheonan and Yeonpyong incidents– were uncharacteristically dangerous moves, which now seem to have been the beginning of Kim Jong-un’s primacy in DPRK affairs. In 2010, Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, was in failing health and was desperately trying to ensure the succession of his third son, Jong-un, to the supreme leadership. As the military is the ultimate arbiter of who holds power in the North, Kim Jong-il had placed control of the military more and more into his son’s hands, ultimately allowing Jong-un to stage the attacks that bookended the year. The ROK, acting under the armistice and the partial security it provided, was slow to react to the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyong artillery strikes and its reactions when they did come amounted largely to hot air; the ROK fired some artillery shells from Yeonpyong into the sea despite threats of general war from the DPRK which amounted to a tense night and little else. This lesson was not lost of Kim Jong-un; he had staged the two boldest DPRK operations since the seizure of the USNS Pueblo and was answered only with threats, bluster and American naval deployments that were ultimately there only to respond to further DPRK provocations, not to teach a lesson over the ones carried out. We took an uninformed and sheltered potential leader and informed him that he could push the envelope further than his father did; we now face the twisted but logical result of that lesson in a Kim Jong-un who has made his habit of staging provocations infinitely more dangerous by removing the major factor that allowed him to get away with them. Just last week the ROK government announced that attacks against ROK positions would be responded to with attacks against the DPRK’s leadership. After the embarrassments of 2010 and now with the abandonment of the armisitice, one wonders if Kim Jong-un has any realization that those are not likely empty threats and that Seoul will respond to a serious provocation not with shells aimed at Yellow Sea fish but with smart bombs aimed at command and control bunkers in Pyongyang. The Korean Peninsula is primed for a monumental mistake that could exceed the blowback of Saddam Hussein’s misread of the international situation in 1990 which led to the 21 year arc of war in Iraq, if not in length then in intensity. The escalation ladder is indeed frightening, with provocations as simple as rifle fire across the former DMZ having the potential to result in conflicts involving superpowers, missiles, WMDs and mass civilian casualties.

That escalation ladder brings to play the third avenue of this affair, Kim’s nuclear saber rattling. Earlier this week Kim and his generals made pronouncements that the United States was “lighting the fuse of a nuclear war”, with threats ranging from nuking Washington to nuking Seoul and various other scenarios ranging from the grossly unlikely to the impossible. As background on the potential DPRK nuclear threat, remember that they have attempted three alleged nuclear tests. The first, in 2006, may not have been a nuclear test at all but rather the detonation of a monumental stack of conventional explosives dolled up to look like a nuclear test; apparently the seismic signature from the blast was somewhat odd in comparison to other nuclear tests. The second test was a fizzle, in which the conventional explosives that initiate the atomic blast went off but the chain reaction failed to run away; the third, carried out this year, achieved an atomic blast although it too may have been incomplete as it was smaller than expected or announced. We are thus left to conclude that while the North may have the ability to detonate an atomic bomb (rather than “nuclear”, the difference being the “atomic” fission bombs which hit Japan in 1945 and the “nuclear” fission-fusion-fission hydrogen bombs of subsequent years) under meticulous test conditions and with months of preparation, they almost certainly do not possess the technology to miniaturize a bomb to act as a missile warhead, nor do they have the ability to launch an ICBM that could hit the United States. Those threats are moot. The DPRK might be able to make a bomb small enough and reliable enough to be delivered by aircraft, but again that threat is largely blunted by the fact that the North would have to get one of its ill maintained aircraft piloted by a poorly trained airman past ROK fighters and SAMs and American fighters and SAMs to strike at Seoul. It’s not impossible, but it’s highly unlikely tactically and also politically, as destroying Seoul would negate the value of the supposed “reunification” the North desires. Nuclear threats from the North, therefore, are currently negligible.

Nuclear weapons, however, are not the biggest threat the North possesses. Seoul, by happenstance of perverse geography, lies within range of the artillery & rocket positions maintained by the People’s Liberation Army just north of the former DMZ. These positions, which could literally reduce sections of Seoul to rubble in a day, consist of devilishly hard to destroy emplacements called HARTs (for Hardened ARTillery), literally tunnels cut into mountains with guns placed on train tracks that can be run out, fire, then be run back in behind huge blast doors and thousands of tons of granite before firing again. They are extremely hard to demolish from the air even with precision weaponry, thus posing an existential threat to the economic, cultural, and population heart of the South. Their employment would likely be the trigger to a hasty, limited invasion of the North by the ROK & US 2nd Infantry to silence them as it is unlikely that they could be taken out sufficiently quickly by any other means.

rodong

A North Korean Rodong missile on its Transporter/Erector/Launcher.

An additional threat that would lead to rapid and devastating escalation would be the employment by the DPRK of its extensive stockpile of chemical or biological weapons, especially should they be targeted on US forces along the former DMZ, in Japan or Guam. The DPRK’s stockpile of ballistic missiles have the demonstrated ability to reach targets in Japan and Guam and their chemical/biological weapons can be mated to them as warheads. The stated policy of the United States, as set by President George Bush in 1991 and never publicly repudiated, is to answer any attack using WMDs against US forces or US territories “in kind” with American WMDs. Therein lies the problem, as the United States, under both internal policy and treaty obligations, possesses no chemical or biological weaponry, leaving only the deadliest leg of the WMD tripod, nuclear weapons, as our “in kind” response. Should the absolute nightmare scenario happen– a large ballistic missile strike against US positions in Japan delivering WMD payloads and resulting in large numbers of Japanese civilian casualties– ever come to pass, the United States would be under possibly unbearable pressure to respond with nuclear weapons against North Korea. Aside from the moral quandry of whether President Obama would order the incineration of Pyongyang, a city brimming with people literally enslaved by the Kim regime, in response, other problems arise with the use of US nuclear weapons against the DPRK. First, any use of US nuclear weapons would doom Seoul to destruction from the aforementioned artillery barrage. Second, the lack of targets in the DPRK is a huge problem. The most rational target for a US nuclear response would be the DPRK’s nuclear research and production center at Yongbyong, north of Pyongyang. The problem with that target is that it is buried under a mountain; to strike it and be assured of destruction, the US would have to use ground penetrating nuclear weapons, one of the dirtiest targeting strategies from a fallout perspective. We would use a series of large nuclear weapons (550kt range) in hardened penetrator cases to literally blast a path into the mountain for a coup de grace nuke to destroy the facility, blasting into the air literally a mountain of highly irradiated materials before we even added the stockpiled nuclear contents of Yongbyong to the plume. Depending on the vagaries of the wind, that fallout plume would not only destroy life in its North Korean footprint but could reach South Korea, China, the Russian naval & population center at Vladivostok, any part of Japan, and the Philippines in potentially lethal amounts. Unacceptable radiation amounts (think Chernobyl’s impact of Finland, etc) could reach as far as Hawaii and Alaska given the “right” conditions. Other targets– Wonsan, the North’s major port, for instance– would leave the Pyongyang moral dilemma of killing hundreds of thousands of civilians to destroy a strategic target, something that for those of us were children of the Cold War seemed at one time to be “acceptable outcomes” but which now, thank god, seems appalling to consider.

In the end, the tea leaves tell both a murky and frightening story. While I don’t foresee general war on the Korean Penninsula due largely to the North’s inability to project armored power even 40 miles south of the former DMZ without massive mechanical breakdowns and destruction from US & ROK air and land forces, I do see a North Korean regime operating on something other than a reality based perspective and with the capacity to stumble into scenarios with grave global consequences. I am particularly disturbed by the huge amount of internally directed propaganda being put out by the Kim regime, readying its people for war in a way not seen since 1950. I believe that there is a very high probability of major North Korean aggressive actions anytime from now through the next six months, with the higher probability being action in the immediate two weeks. I believe that Kim may be irrational enough to believe that he can directly attack US forces, and I have no doubt that he believes he can attack ROK targets with the prospect of only limited and ineffectual retaliation by the Seoul government– a belief that I view to be similarly deluded. I similarly believe that China views these outcomes as disastrous given their fervent desire to see the United States slacken its military commitments to the Pacific Rim and thus facilitate their ambitions to seize the Spratlys, Paracells, and other island groups in the area that they are currently locked in semi-military disputes over with japan, the Philippines, Viet Nam and others. A Chinese backed coup terminating the Kim Dynasty is a foreseeable and very possible outcome, again coming sooner rather than later; Kim Jong-un should understand this given China’s backing of the sanctions resolutions in the UNSC this week. While that should give him pause, it may also drive him to act more quickly and more severely.

In any circumstance, it is inevitable that the United States military forces are on a heightened state of readiness and alert along the entire Pacific Arc. There is little doubt that an modified-Ohio SSGN is on station near the Peninsula, that the 2nd Infantry along the former DMZ is being readied for both offensive and offensive action, that the USAF’s strategic assets are again briefing for B-1 & B-2 missions against Pyongyang and other targets in the North and that the Marine preposition ships are being readied to deploy from Guam to mate up with USMC personnel flown into Korea. There is also little doubt that US Navy anti-ballistic missile ships are being reinforced in waters between Korea & Japan to shoot down missile strikes and that we will shortly hear of an additional Carrier Strike Group heading towards the Western Pacific. With the Chinese Navy staging unrelated provocations throughout the South China Sea, with Japan on edge as a result of those Chinese moves and the threats from North Korea and the Russians just being their lovely, unpredictable Russian selves out of Vladivostok, any increase in tensions and deployments holds organic dangers wholly separated from Pyongyang’s manipulations.

Spring 2013 is destined to be an interesting time.

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We’re Looking In The Wrong Strategic Direction

Posted by Bob Kohm on June 23, 2011

Last night President Barack Obama gave what has been billed as one of the most important speeches of his Administration to discuss the winding down of hostilities in Afghanistan. While this speech was undoubtedly as important as it was purported to be and contained very significant news, the major address of the day on American and global strategic issues was given by Chinese Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Cui Tiankai.

Speaking about recent tensions that have been spurred by the Chinese government over the Spratly and Paracel Island chains in the South China Sea, Mr. Cui  rattled China’s saber by saying, “I believe some countries now are playing with fire… And I hope the U.S. won’t be burned by this fire.” These comments come on the heels of two weeks of comments from the Chinese government instructing the United States to stay out of the South China Sea entirely.

To understand the gravity of this situation it is necessary to have a firm grasp on the background of a conflict that has seemed meaningless for decades but that is now growing into what may become the fulcrum of the United States’ claim to relevance in the Pacific Ocean. The Spratly and Paracel Islands are a collection of minuscule reefs, islets, shoals and rocks in the South China Sea, with the Paracels located off the coast of Da Nang, Vietnam and the Spratlys located off the

Map of the South China Sea, showing China's claims

coast of the Philippines and Malaysia. The Spratlys are located over 635 miles from the nearest Chinese coastline on Hainan Island while the Spratlys lie roughly 185 miles from Hainan and the Vietnamese coast, respectively. Both island groups have multiple claimants– the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the PRC all lay claim to territory in the Spratlys while Vietnam and Taiwan lay claim to the Paracels, which have been administered by the PRC since fighting a minor war with Vietnam over them in the mid-70s.

As is the answer to most questions in Asian strategic puzzle, the importance of the island groups themselves lay in the natural resources they harbor. The Spratlys in particular are thought to be extremely rich in untapped undersea natural gas and oil deposits and both island groups are extremely rich fishing grounds. That was enough to maintain this conflict at the low simmer it has been on for nearly forty years, with ludicrous military bases being built on stilts on islets to small to hold a Boy Scout camp, occupations and counter-occupations of rocks, naval skirmishes and fisheries fights. Money has always been a good enough reason to spur on a conflict, but in the past several months the South China Sea issue has grown tenfold in strategic importance and tension for reasons rooted firmly in the geopolitics of an emergent China and its decision to test what it sees as a weakening America.

As America has become mired in the Afghan and Iraqi campaigns over the preceding decade and seen its economy dive, China has sensed an opportunity to transform its economic power into regional hegemony in East Asia and the Western Pacific. In the early part of the previous decade, China committed to increasing its ability to project power off of its own shores and into the Pacific and Indian Oceans with the creation of a true blue water fleet for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Beijing started building out the Type 054 destroyer program, kicked off several submarine production programs and obtained from Russia and rebuilt the Varyag (now PLAN Shi Lang), an aircraft carrier started during the Cold War for the Soviet Navy and abandoned before completion with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Additionally, China focused on the concept of denying the United States access to the oceans within striking distance of the Chinese mainland itself by investing in advanced ground to sea and air to sea cruise missiles and finally the DF-21 ballistic anti-ship missile, the first system ever built to utilize a land based ballistic missile with a maneuverable conventional warhead  specifically to strike at ships at sea. Interestingly, the Chinese carrier will go to sea for the first time next week to undergo sea trials, almost certainly at the heart of the tensions in the South China Sea.

Coupled to the increase in China’s strategic military capability is an increase in China’s strategic vision. Sorely wounded by then President Bill Clinton’s decision to send two US carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 during a period of high tension between China and Taiwan, China started to evolve a strategy that had as its end goal the replacement of the United States Navy as the preeminent force in the Western Pacific Ocean and the limitation of America’s ability to hem China in with the Japan-Taiwan-Philippines-Guam wall of American allies. China, once divided into “spheres of influence” by the United States and the European powers, would now seek to carve out its own sphere of influence running from the Russian border to the Indian border to Myanmar on the land and which would encompass the entirety of the South China and Yellow Seas. It ultimately foresees “reunification” with Taiwan, economic and military influence over Japan and the Philippines and practical control over the nations of South East Asia. Additionally, China would seek to outflank its major Asian rival, India, by establishing forward naval presence in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Further into the future, China also would seem to be laying the groundwork for an eastward expasnsion, purchasing large blocks of land and coastal facilities on the West Coast of South America as it attempts to control the Pacific Ocean in 2050 in much the way as the United States has controlled it since 1945.

All of this leads us back to the current question, that of the greatly increased tensions over the past several weeks in the South China Sea. The PLAN and the Chinese Maritime Security Ministry have made unprecedented deployments of ships to the South China Sea region and have acted extremely aggressively, bumping and even ramming foreign fishing vessels, menacing Vietnamese and Philippine patrol boats and installations and issuing proclamations of Chinese sovereignty over the entire South China Sea– prompting– in the one funny bit of this whole imbroglio– the Philippine legislature to rename the South China Sea the “West Philippine Sea” to assert their claims.

The United States, of course, does not and will not acknowledge China’s spurious claims to sovereignty over an area of ocean that lies mainly outside of China’s territorial waters and economic exclusion zone under every recognized international charter. Much of the world’s shipping passes through the South China Sea, including almost all of the oil and raw materials that feed Japan’s industrial society and oil shipments from the Gulf States to the United States’ West Coast, compounding the US opposition to any restriction on the right of free passage through open waters.

Here’s is where China’s gamble comes into play. During the pre-War on Terror era, the United States would likely rush carrier strike groups into the South China Sea to stare down the Chinese and put an end to these claims and tensions. Today that is a much more difficult proposition. China holds extensive economic leverage over the United States, which is undoubtedly being exercised behind the scenes in a dual strategy– China issues very public warnings to the United States to stay hands off while it militarily bullies our allies prompting them to look to us to stand up for them, but in private the Chinese are threatening to inflict tremendous damage on the US economy if we move to challenge them. The Philippines are already publicly seeking to invoke provisions of a 1951 calling on the United States to come to its defense in the event of a naval attack, upping the pressure on America to show the flag. China is betting that we will not do that in any meaningful way and thus break the confidence our Pacific allies have in us, forcing them to accept the “reality” that accommodating  China is their only way forward. This is made more important to China by the reaction of the United States to the inter-Korean conflict several months ago over the shelling of Yeonpeyong Island and the near shooting war that broke out over it; China did not anticipate the United States so strongly backing South Korea’s military play and was deeply offended by the revelation that US cruise missile and attack submarines were operating in the Yellow Sea, which China has always declared to be sovereign territorial waters. That particular move, the operation of US submarines in  a sea that China regarded as its own and which bolstered the United States at the expense of China at a time that China felt it had clear advantages over the United States, is a mirror image of the Chinese assertion of sovereignty claims over yet another entire sea as we are seeing today.

How will this play out? There are several possibilities– it seems almost inevitable that China, which is issuing point blank warnings to all other claimants of the islands to get out of its way, will wind up in a minor naval skirmish with the Vietnamese in the coming days and weeks. If it sees no dire reactions to that, it will challenge a Filipino ship to really test the resolve of the United States. All along it will continue to publicly warn and attempt to embarrass the United States over this issue with the intent of eventually putting us in a position where we either have to deploy a carrier strike group and a host of subs back to the South China Sea with the threat of massive Chinese disruptions to our economy or put our tail between our legs and show our Pacific allies that they have to obey Beijing. Expect to see in the news over the coming weeks an increase in cyberattacks against the American government and financial systems coming from China to further push the message to the White House and Congress and continued increases in naval tensions in the South China Sea.

China, historically long in thought and slow to act, believes it has reached a point where action is wise. It knows that the period for this action is limited– the American economy will recover over the coming five years and the US debt spending regime of the past several Presidencies will be more limited, so the period of magnified Chinese influence will ebb back to more balanced levels. It is for this reason that I believe that we will see China continue to very aggressively press this claim, even at the risk of a minor Chinese economic disruption caused by damaging the American and global markets or even at the risk of a limited engagement with the US Navy if it believes that the PLAN can gain the strategic advantage.

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Saudi Intervention in Bahrain Presages Widespread Economic and Security Disruptions

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 14, 2011

Reports have emerged already from reliable sources (such as Stratfor) that Saudi forces may have already entered Bahrain in support of the besieged government and that Omani forces will enter today as well.

I cannot emphasize enough how important this development could be for America and the world– please do not discount this development because the media is not reporting on it adequately due to the news overload from Japan and Libya; frankly I suspect that this is happening right now in part because of the saturation of the news cycle as Saudi intervention has been rumoured to be ready to go for three weeks now.

Why is this so important? There are two major reasons. First, Saudi and GCC military intervention tells us that there is the real possibility of the Shi’a rebellion succeeding, a major problem as it is being financially and politically backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and representing the long feared first action of Iran on the Western side of the Gulf. As Stratfor points out, Saudi and Omani intervention becomes a very apparent threat to an Iran that is feeling particularly belligerent these days. I would add to that that while Iran cannot really project any land power across the Gulf, it is not without reason to suspect that they might try overt air or naval action or, much more likely, might wage a large scale, thinly covert terrorist wave campaign sponsored by the IRGC and targeted at Saudi and Omani ol targets as well as against the US 5th Fleet which is based in Bahrian. America is economically vulnerable right now and a crippling strike on oil distribution or production facilities or even the renewal of something like the “Tanker War” of the 1980s, the mining of the Straits or even the announced “closing” of the Straits would be a direct attack on our economy; if gas is already heading to $4 based on Libya, what would it go to if the Persian Gulf oil flow was interdicted, and what would $7-10 gas do to our economy? It’s got to be a seductive idea to the Ayatollahs– flexing Iranian muscle against the Saudis to possibly establish an Iranian puppet connected to the Kingdom by a causeway while damaging the Americans and making a long term rise in oil prices inevitable. America’s options will be limited– we can’t afford a general war with Iran and doing anything meaningful to Iran will further exacerbate the oil crisis, we’d be limited to tactical actions like going after Iranian naval assets.

Second, Saudi intervention to put down one of the “popular” revolts sweeping the region makes the possibility of internal instability in the Kingdom much more possible than it appears to be right now. I don’t really need to go into the huge global repercussions of internal strife in the Kingdom which threatens or limits production and distribution.

Should either of these situations come to pass– and one happening makes the other much more likely to happen as well in a cascade– other actors will come into play, notably Venezuela. Chavez will be unable to resist the chance to further screw the US by messing with his own oil production to exacerbate our difficulties at a time when his fortunes are starting to fade. Japan is totally reliant on the Gulf for its oil and is obviously already in a chaotic state and in a little reported (in the West) but very active confrontation with China over the Spratly Islands, which has flared badly over the last six weeks– what impact could there be on that situation, even moreso because of the petroleum/natural gas reserves suspected to exist there?

If I’m right, this intervention could be the start of a bad spiral extending globally over the coming months. It might present dramatically over the next few days or it could unfold slowly over the next few weeks, but be assured that there will be very negative ramifications of a Saudi/GCC intervention in Bahrain.

Posted in American Politics, Events, Foreign Affairs, Iran, Islamists, Middle East, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Firing Starts and a Twist Emerges

Posted by Bob Kohm on December 20, 2010

Twitter lit up at about 12.10EST with reports of artillery fire being heard near Yeonpyeong Island (now confirmed by the RoK media), and almost simultaneously the news broke that Kim has told New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson that he will agree to ship nuclear fuel rods outside of the country thus limiting North Korea’s ability to reprocess the uranium and build more nukes.

In the large post this afternoon I mentioned that Kim would try and do what he always does– go charging to the brink and then try and pull back. At this point it will be very interesting to see what he does– he has obviously applied one break with the concession to Richardson, but if he fires on Yeonpyeong and/or other targets the RoK & US governments will not likely be swayed by that concession as there have been too many instances of the North making and then failing to live up to precisely this kind of concession.

If Kim does not fire on Yeonpyeong the tea leaves will be analyzed and reanalyzed by every Asia watcher going. What would it mean? It could mean that Kim was told flat out by Beijing that firing would cost him his regime and his life. It could mean that the power struggle within the North Korean government has reached a conclusion. It could simply be weakness in the resolve of the DPRK government, which will end the Kim regime once and for all. His military might be on the brink of rebelling, understanding the suicidal nature of initiating a war.

Of course, he still may fire. This RoK live fire is expected to go on for two hours. The DPRK response, if it is coming, will come within three after that by my estimate.

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And So It Begins

Posted by Bob Kohm on December 19, 2010

Hold tight– several Korean sources and even CNN (hey, welcome to the party, American MSM!) are now reporting that residents of Yeonpyeong and several nearby islands have been ordered to take shelter immediately, signalling that firing will begin within the hour. Initial reports say that during a pre-exercise drill by the RoK forces a North Korean battery opened up and fired 30 rounds of artillery into the waters near Yeonpyeong.

As I said on Facebook the other day… if you pray for peace, now would be an outstanding time to do so.

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North Korean Deploys Additional Firepower to Disputed Zone

Posted by Bob Kohm on December 19, 2010

Chosun Ilbo is reporting tonight that the North Koreans have moved 240mm and 120mm Multiple Launch Rocket units to the West Coast just north of Yeonpyeong Island, have opened the camouflaged doors of several coastal artillery HARTs and have moved up SAMs and MiG-23 interceptors to forward bases in addition to moving Silkworm anti-ship missiles to firing positions on the coast.+

The possible good news is that these moves, which the North knows are visible to satellite reconnaissance, are all directed towards Yeonpyeong Island and not Seoul or other RoK targets. This may signal that the North is planning to limit its retaliatory action to destroying Yeonpyeong. That may seem an odd signal– hey, we’re going to blow the shit out of a hunk of your territory but only that one piece– but it may well be intended to forestall a more intense escalation ladder. Whether or not that will matter to the RoK is an open question tonight.

The same outlet is now reporting that the South Koreans have deployed six US made M270 MLRS units to Yeonpyeong along with another battery of K-9 howitzers to return fire if it comes. The M270 is the MLRS that you may be familiar with from the Gulf War– the tracjed vehicle with the boxy launcher on back that swivels. I’m trying to find out if we’ve sold the South any of the more advanced guided rockets, if they have the sub-munition variants (think “cluster bombs”) or if they have the single HE warhead unguided rockets.

UPDATE: The South does indeed possess ATACAMS guided missiles for the M270s with a range of over 100 miles and a variety of warheads.

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Korean Conflict Imminent

Posted by Bob Kohm on December 19, 2010

I’m going to resurrect the blog for the next few days to chronicle what I suspect will be the outbreak of open hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, continuing my commentary from RotoJunkie.com

As the situation stands on Sunday afternoon in the US and overnight in Korea, the skies over Pyongyang and the DMZ have cleared and all indications are that the South Koreans will carry through their promised live fire exercise on Yeonpyeong Island in the morning.

The UN Security Council emergency session, taking place  today at the behest of the Russians to try and stop the RoK artillery exercise and defuse tensions, will amount to nothing as the Americans are not on board. Politically South Korea (henceforth the RoK) can not draw down from these exercises as the government almost fell over the lack of response to the North’s shelling of civilian targets on Yeonpyeong on 23 November.

The Background

Taking a look back at the origins of this crisis and to give a general primer on the strategic situation on the Peninsula, the immediate roots of this crisis lie in two acts of North Korean aggression, the sinking of the corvette Cheonan on 26 March 2010 and the aforementioned shelling of Yeonpyeong. Military aggression from the North  (the DPRK) is not a new phenomenon; over the years they have fired across the DMZ too many times to count, have been caught landing commandos via mini-sub inside the RoK’s borders, have shot down reconnaissance planes and famously took captive the USS Pueblo back in the late ’60s. This year’s events, however, have reflected a departure from the norms of DPRK aggression both in terms of scale and targeting.

The Cheonan was most likely sunk by a DPRK mini-sub not far from Yeonpyeong near the holy disputed “Northern Limit Line” in the Yellow Sea, a maritime boundary separating RoK water from DPRK water somewhat arbitrarily drawn by US General Mark Clark at the end of the 1950-3 Korean Conflict. Sinking this ship with its large crew marked a decided and especially provocative escalation in the types of attacks the North was willing to perpetrate. The subsequent shelling of Yeonpyeong represented the first intentional targeting of civilians and civilian areas since the 1953 Armistice and has had a huge impact on the South Korean public’s outlook on intra-Korean relations.

The South’s response to both incidents, and particularly the Cheonan, was perceived both internally and abroad as being somewhat feeble. After the sinking, the South made some nasty declarations about protecting its own, went to the UN with proof of the North sinking the ship after raising it from the floor of the Yellow Sea, held a few naval demonstrations and largely nothing more despite the high death toll aboard the stricken vessel. The response to Yeonpyeong was little better at first– increased caterwauling about the North cutting it out, threats of retaliation “next time” and very showy tours and exercises on the island. The South Korean population had had enough of that behavior, however, and as a result the RoK’s Defense Minister was sacked by the government of President Lee. Shortly after– and hugely against the wishes of the Chinese– a large scale naval exercise was held with the US Navy in the Yellow Sea, which China considers to be off limits to the major navies of the world. The point was made that the United States would stand behind its RoK alliance by inserting the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group (CSG) into the Yellow Sea and revealing that our most advanced attack submarine, the USS Jimmy Carter, had already been operating in the Yellow Sea before the Yeonpyeong strike occurred. That was followed by US-Japanese exercises off of the East Coast of North Korea, some uncharacteristically tough talk from President Lee both at home and abroad, and ultimately the scheduling of the current artillery live fire exercise.

The reason for the RoK’s repeated timidity in the face of DPRK aggression lies just over 30 miles north of Seoul. Emplaced along the DMZ are over one hundred North Korean 170mm “Koksan” artillery pieces capable of putting direct fire on any target in Seoul in addition to as many as several dozen 240mm Multiple Rocket Launch Systems capable of putting artillery rockets into Seoul, as well. These weapons are located in hardened postions called HARTs (Hardened ARTillery) and would be somewhat difficult to destroy before they managed to fire several volleys. It is that capability, along with the very large reserve of SCUD-variant, LUNA-M, NK-02 and FROG artillery missiles further north that have dialed down the RoK’s will to retaliate in the past– they have an awful lot to lose by escalating a crisis with Pyongyang. How much?  Many authorities foresee up to one million casualties in Seoul in the first two hours from full artillery bombardment by the North using only conventional warheads. I don’t agree that casualties on that scale would occur as the US & RoK would silence or disrupt many of those those guns and launchers within less than an hour, but it would still be a disastrous occurrence. Apparently the South Koreans have overcome that fear this time around, however, as it is the normally dovish population that is driving the calls for retaliation.

With that brief history in hand it is easy to see that the situation on the Peninsula has moved in a new direction as 2010 has played itself out. As mentioned earlier, the RoK is not in a political position in which it can stop the scheduled exercise in the face of North Korean threats– and North Korean threats have been dire. This week alone the DPRK has threatened to attack not only Yeonpyeong but also, depending on the speaker, two, three, or more other sites, to hit US assets in Japan with missile fire, to use its nuclear weapons, or to take on the US Navy. Much of this rhetoric is being driven by succession planning within the DPRK, as the reign of Kim Jong Il draws to an end and he tries to hand power to his son, Kim Jong Un, against the will of some factions of the military and possibly the regime in Beijing, the North’s most important supporter. Kim Jong Un is seen as a weak pretender by many, just as his father was when he took the reins of power from his father, Kim Il Sung. It seems evident that the Kims are ratcheting up tensions with the hope of stopping them at the tipping point to show that Kim Jong Un is not only ready to command but is essential to the continued existence of the Stalinist regime. Their ability to stop them, however, seems to be predicated on the RoK acting as it always has and refusing to escalate military tensions and the United States not rocking the boat. Today this seems a  highly flawed premise.

The Coming (?) Storm

Ever since the joint naval maneuvers in the Yellow Sea, the United States Navy has been putting more and more assets into play in the Western Pacific. Last weekend the Navy surged an incredible nine nuclear attack submarines to sea in a 72 hour period, and this week two more have set out putting an extraordinary 67% of our nuclear attack subs at sea. Joining them are as many as three (and my money is on all three) of the most powerful undersea combatants ever built, the Ohio-class cruise missile subs (SSGNs). These boats are a rare glimpse into what the US military can do when it works with a good idea and stays within budget to recycle assets instead of giving General Dynamics carte blanche to spend taxpayer money. Each of these boats are a converted Trident submarine that has had its ballistic missile launch systems removed and replaced by 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles optimized for land attack. In addition, the boats are specialized intelligence and special ops platforms, with lockout chamber and mini-craft to covertly deliver SEAL teams to the beach and all manner of electronic intelligence gathering capabilities.

On the surface things get no better for the North Koreans. At the conclusion of its joint exercises with the Japanese, the George Washington CSG returned to its home port of Yokosuka, Japan with the announcement that it would be in port through the holidays and New Year. Earlier this week the Washington CSG returned to the sea with no prior announcement. The CSG is comprised of the carrier and its air wing, a Ticonderoga class AEGIS cruiser, an Arleigh Burke class AEGIS destroyer, a nuclear attack sub and attached frigates for anti-submarine (ASW) defense. It is the basic building block of American power projection and each of our ten CSGs outpower the entire navies of most other countries. The presence of the USS Essex Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) is confirmed in the Yellow Sea and consists of the Essex, a “baby” carrier loaded with USMC AV-8b Harrier strike fighters, Sea Cobra attack helicopters and various troop transport & ASW choppers along with an USMC Expeditionary Group, consisting of a reinforced battalion of Marines with full equipment along with the same cruiser, destroyer, frigate and submarine assets of the CSG.

Potentially coming into play will be the USS Carl Vinson CSG, currently underway in the Pacific (more on them in a bit) and the USS Ronald Reagan CSG, also in the Pacific and coming off of its pre-deployment trials. The USS Boxer ESG is also in the Pacific and may be moving towards Korea already. The prospect of the combined striking power of three CSGs and two ESGs along with the Ohio SSGNs and the various Improved Los Angeles and Seawolf attack subs is, in a word, massive.

Not to be left out is the US Air Force, which has been known to deploy its B2 Spirit stealth bombers to Andersen AFB in Guam and which would play an important role in a US strategic campaign against the DPRK. Coupled with B1 Lancers and B52 Stratofortresses, the strategic assets of the USAF will come into play early in the game if escalation becomes inevitable. The US also maintains large numbers of  tactical fighters and fighter-bombers in South Korea and Japan that would round out our air supremacy package with the Korean F-15s and Navy F-18s.

The Koreans feature a formidable military designed precisely to strike quickly and deep into the DPRK with American backing. Their Air Force is first rate, featuring many modern US aircraft types such as F-15 and -16 variants along with older F-4 & F-5s and their Army features superb tanks (unlikely to be used here) and ample supplies of attack helicopters. Training across Korean Forces is superb and their Special Operations Forces are amongst the world’s elite.

In addition to US & RoK forces, the Japanese, who have grown very concerned with the unstable nuclear armed regime occupying a portion of the peninsula historically known by the sobriquet “The Dagger Pointed at the Heart of Japan”, have put a large portion of their formidable naval assets to sea in the past two weeks in response to the growing tensions.

The Deadly Wildcard

In the face of so much opposition it would seem that the North should back down, but there has been growing evidence over the past few years that coupled with the attitude that the RoK is “too soft” to withstand attacks on Seoul and thus will never attack the North, is the reliance on the North’s fledgling nuclear weapons program to stop the US from moving against them. Having often both heard and expressed the idea that having a nuclear weapon makes you too dangerous for the United States to ever take on, the Kim regime has poured a high percentage of its scarce resources into developing, with assistance from Pakistan and Iran, nuclear weapons and delivery systems for them.

North Korea’s history of testing their nukes is a bit spotty, to say the least. Their first  declared test, in Ocotber of 2006, may or may not have been an actual nuclear detonation at all but a staged event with massed conventional explosives.  Even if it was a nuclear test, it would have been regarded as a “fizzle”– meaning that a self sustaining nuclear chain reaction was not maintained long enough to extract the maximum potential of the blast. They seem to have done better in 2009, setting off a blast that was roughly the equivalent of the Nagasaki atomic bomb. They have been frantically working on a third test, with news comign out this week that they’ve dug a 500 foot pit to conduct it in.

If we assume a small stockpile of dodgy nuclear weapons in North Korea’s hands, the next questions become “Can they deliver them?” and “Under what circumstances?”. Neither is easy to answer. The North has launched several variants of the SCUD (locally called the Nodong) series of missiles of Iraq fame with great success; these missiles have greater ranges, higher payloads and in some cases better accuracy than the ones Saddam Hussein fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia in the First Gulf War. They have certainly been outfitted with chemical warheads and likely biologicals in addition to high explosive conventionals (unlike Iraq, the DPRK WMD programs are well documented), and Kim has claimed that they’ve been fitted with nuclear warheads as well. That is unconfirmed. The Koreans have also built the longer range Taepodong-1 and Rodong-1 missiles, capable of hitting Japan and the US bases in that nation and again claimed by Kim to be nuclear armed. The Taepodong-2, which has been tested but has never flown successfully, is a true ICBM made to take a nuclear warhead to America’s West Coast with all cities from Anchorage to San Diego and all of Hawaii theoretically in range. An attempt in 2009 to launch one of these as a satellite booster failed when the second and third stages, with the payload, fell into the Pacific.

If it chose to, there is little doubt that the North could at least make a credible attempt to put a nuclear weapon on Seoul or any other RoK location and could very possibly make a credible attempt to hit Tokyo or American bases at Yokosuka or Okinawa and perhaps even Guam with nuclear weapons.  The immediate result of that would likely be the total destruction of North Korea’s ability to make war and, depending on targets hit, the population of North Korea could well be targeted as well. North Korea’s nuclear program is centered at Yongbyong and at a select few other locations, all heavily hardened to the extent of being built into and under mountains. They would be almost impossible to destroy with any conventional weaponry currently known to exist and would necessitate the use of American nuclear weapons to destroy. Fortunately the regime is more afraid of losing control of its weapons than it is of the US taking them out, so they are kept at a very few sites and not spread all over the place. Unfortunately those sites, being buried, would require in my opinion the employment of multiple penetrating and ground-bursting US weapons, the absolute dirtiest employment of nuclear arms from a fallout standpoint. South Korea, Tokyo, the major naval base and population center at Vladivostok in Russia and areas of China could all be in the fallout pattern at the caprice of the winds.

What situations could produce a nuclear exchange? With Kim that crystal ball is very hard to read given his instability and history of making good on threats. Just this week his regime has threatened to hit targets within and without the RoK with nuclear weapons and the Japanese are notably rattled by that; it is thought that US ballistic missile defense ships are likely on station between Japan and Korea as well as at Okinawa and Guam. How would Kim react to Pyongyang being bombed, as it possibly will be if the North hits the RoK tonight? What if the South mobilized and signaled an impending invasion (they haven’t at this point)? How will Kim react to American air power coming out of Japan? There are rumours of a North Korean nuclear torpedo and nuclear seabed mines– would they dare to try to employ them against a United States Navy CSG or ESG?

There are no great answers to what is clearly the greatest question of fighting the North Koreans.

If it became apparent that an all out war was going to begin in Korea involving ground forces, be aware that most authorities agree that American doctrine for fighting the Soviets throughout the Cold War was to employ tactical nuclear weapons not only first but immediately, and my supposition is that doctrine would apply to North Korea as well to prevent them from getting a shot off at Seoul or Tokyo and killing millions. You can bet that there are one or more likely more than one Ohio-class nuclear missile subs (SSBNs) off the Korean Coast this afternoon set to fire depressed trajectory missiles that would arrive on target in under ten minutes.

Conclusions

It is highly likely that at least limited artillery exchanges and air strikes will be carried out over the next 8-24 hours in Korea in response to the live fire exercise at Yeonpyeong Island. Once the first shot is fired, it will be difficult and may prove to be impossible to stop escalations over the following 72 hours, which could see severe civilian casualties in and around the RoK’s national capital area. DPRK doctrine has always heavily relied upon special forces raids and over the years many DPRK special forces cells have been uncovered in the South; the possibility for terrorist style attacks on civilian and government targets throughout the South and possibly in the Japanese home islands certainly exists. It is my belief that the United States will not be involved in the first stage of retaliatory strikes against the North outside of air defense missions unless US forces are previously targeted or heavy civilian casualties occur, but US intelligence and aerial recon elements along with Special Forces (most likely SEALs) are almost certainly already being used and are in place in North Korean territory. If a second or third round of retaliatory strikes happen, it is certain in my opinion that US forces will become actively embroiled in the fighting, largely from the sea and air. I do not anticipate in any case a 1950-style invasion of the South; the DPRK ‘s tanks are so mechanically poor that they likely couldn’t cover the distance without massive mechanical support that they don’t have available. It is also the onset of winter in Korea, meaning harsh conditions but rivers that have not yet frozen solid enough for the North to use them. The possibility of a last minute coup or one that occurs early in an exchange is also not to be discounted– the Chinese and Russians want no part of a war to be fought on their doorstep and they both hold sway with factions within the DPRK government and military. Russia and China have both deployed troops to their respective borders with North Korea and can be assumed to be at a heightened state of military readiness; while their engagement in the fighting is extremely unlikely, it cannot be forgotten that China has been here before and that neither China nor Russia would look kindly on an American ally having a border so close to so many vital Chinese and Russians national security locales and assets. If fighting does come, it will most likely largely consist of air strikes and artillery duels at the outset followed by heightened air and naval engagements and the potential usage of any class of WMDs by the North if Pyongyang starts taking appreciable damage and the regime looks as if it might fall. That stage could be reached at any point after the first DPRK artillery shell falls or specal ops raid occurs and it is that unpredictability that makes this the geopolitically terrifying scenario that it is.

Posted in China, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence (and lack thereof), Korea, Nuclear Weapons, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Problem With War Elephants

Posted by Bob Kohm on September 15, 2010

War elephants enjoyed a short vogue in the military history of the Mediterranean World , most famously in Hannibal’s Crossing. The very smell of the snorting, thrashing mountains of military might scared the hell out of even seasoned battle horses and caused outright panic amongst tightly ordered battle-lines from Sicily to Persia. Elephants held the potential to be a tremendously powerful weapon in an era where victory depended on maintaining a common front, but for all its power it had a major problem. The problem with the war elephant was that it was a danger to everyone on the field, not just the army putatively controlling it– war elephants released on the battlefield were as likely to inspire panic or trample holes through friendly lines as they were those of the enemy.

Ring a bell?

The GOP, party of the elephant, has for the past two years deployed to political battlefields its own snorting, thrashing mountain of militancy and might– the Tea Party. With the end of the 2008 campaign, it became clear that there was an undercurrent of serious dismay in American politics that the newly out of power GOP needed to tap into in order to regain political traction. After an orgy of disparagement against then-Governor Palin by the RNC regulars, it similarly became apparent that Ms. Palin had an uncommon staying power on the battlefield and that she would not be easy to corral. The logical thought was to energize and, more importantly, weaponize that staying power by connecting it to the undercurrent of anti-government feeling that was already present. The Republican War Elephants had been enlisted.

When the 2009 Congressional Session broke for its traditional summer recess, the GOP released its war elephants onto the battlefield. Across the nation the usually dull array of town hall meetings were set and held in home districts, but with one difference this year– they would be discussing an extremely expensive health care bill that had been demagogued by Sarah Palin and others in the newly emerging Tea Party movement as “socialist” and “unAmerican”. Into this fray were spurred the elephants, trampling headlong into town hall meetings nationwide, shouting down the speakers, panicking the supporters of the plan and the general populace with bellows of “Death Panels”. While the elephants were upon the field no order could be maintained, no line could hold. It was impossible to refute them for the sheer fact that their energy and their volume drowned out any response either in the meetings or in the media.

At the time, the war elephant looked the perfect weapon for the RNC. They made the mistake that so many generals from the Persian Wars to the Punic Wars had made before them– they thought that they could control their elephants. As we’ve come to see, they were wrong.

The 2010 midterm elections are the most critical battlefield the GOP has fought upon in more than a decade, facing the prospect of continued Democratic rule for the next six years if they fail to make an inroad into the President’s party’s control of the House & Senate. It is a year where a disciplined assault on the Democrats should produce large scale wins for the Republicans and, indeed, it appeared that the GOP was on course to precisely that goal in the spring. Bad things started happening, though– first in isolated incidents in places like Nevada, but then more frequently in spots the nation over. The war elephants of the Tea Party continued to break loose upon battlefields where their use was never intended and the panic they spread reached far beyond the Democrats in the lines and struck deep into the heart of the GOP establishment. Over the past few days we’ve seen Republicans all but abandon their hopes for a Senate takeover with the elephantine demonstrations of the Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint endorsed O’Donnell campaign in Delaware, culminating in the destruction of the GOPs party line in last night’s primary. New York GOP stalwart Rick Lazio was trampled into paste by Carl Paladino in the Gubernatorial Primary. In New Hampshire and even more chaotic battle of the elephants has broken out, with Jim DeMint backed Ovide Lamontagne still looking as though he might defeat Sarah Palin backed Kelly Ayotte in a case of elephants crashing into each other and giving the Democrat, Rep. Paul Hodes, bolstered hopes of picking up the retiring and oh so establishment Judd Gregg’s seat. With Sharon Angle off in the deserts of Nevada explaining why Social Security should be dismantled and Rand Paul continuing to be a gaffe factory (albeit a poll leading one) in Kentucky, the unpredictability and, more importantly, uncontrollability of these elephants unleashed by the GOP may prove once again why uncontrollable beasts are so dangerous to bring onto the battlefield; they are the embodiment of the law of unintended consequences.

Posted in American History, American Politics, Cultural Phenomena | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Fighting the Next War, Part II

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 25, 2009

The F-22, which the Air Force has alleged to be the fighter that could not be shot down, has been destroyed on the ground by the American Congress, two days before the news broke that the F-35– the Joint Strike Fighter– is at least two years behind schedule and won’t enter the production phase until at least 2016.

It’s been a bad week for the Air Force.

Where does this leave American air power as we head into the second and third decades of the century? Not in a particularly good place in the short term but, if the Air Force brass can get their heads around it, in a very good position for the mid to long term.

In the first part of this article I touched upon the F-22 suffering from many problems, the most critical of which was timing. Not only was the insanely expensive F-22 up for review during a financial crisis, but at a time in which unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) have been constantly in the news for their outsized role in the Afghan theater of the war. Every week we see stories of Reaper or Predator strikes against targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan and hear the virtues of this style of aerial combat– extremely long loiter times, no American pilots in danger or captured in sketchy places in the event of a shootdown, reasonably stealthy… and relatively cheap. If these drones work so well in the air-to-ground role, what can they do for air supremacy?

The idea of taking the human pilot out of the cockpit holds several advantages, not the least of which is taking the risk of dead American pilots off the table. From an aircraft design standpoint, removing the pilot, cockpit controls, life support system and ejection seat is a dream for the weight savings, allowing greater loiter time, greater deliverable payload and overall cost savings.

In modern fighters, the pilot is always the weakest link; fighters can pull far more Gs than the pilot can tolerate without losing consciousness. While it is true that could make UCAVs incredible dogfighters, that isn’t nearly as important in modern aerial warfare as is the fact that the higher G load the aircraft can handle, the better chance it has of avoiding  advanced SAMs You also eliminate the problem of limited mission duration by taking fatigue, food, and discomfort out of the equation. From a mission planning standpoint you can take greater risks; although these planes will be expensive, they will also be more disposable as you aren’t losing pilots when you lose airframes. It’s politically a lot easier to send a fleet of robots against a highly defended target than it is to send someone’s kids to do the job.

There are significant downsides to UCAVs in the air supremacy role; the control systems would be extremely complex, especially if any autonomy is expected. Active control systems are potentially subject to interference and jamming, and the technology to actively control these aircraft in the split-second environment of aerial combat may not even be possible due to broadcast lag time, demanding the aforementioned complex autonomy. When you take humans out of the loop, you also have the problem of the computer choosing incorrectly and destroying the wrong targets or making other mistakes. The “creepiness factor” of robots killing humans is going to inspire a Russian, Chinese and Iranian campaign amongst lesser developed nations to outlaw these things, and it is undeniably going to gain traction as America will likely be the only ones deploying autonomous systems like this for several years.

The biggest problem facing the move to UCAVs, though, isn’t technological– it’s oh so very human. The biggest obstacle is the revulsion with which UCAVs are viewed by the Air Force, which of course is run primarily by fighter pilots whose entire identities are invested in the fact that they have piloted high performance jets. Ever have a conversation with a fighter pilot? They talk about flying a fighter the way a 17 year old boy talks about sex– it’s the ultra-idealized, be all and end all of human existence. They cannot, for the most part, conceive of, first, a computer doign their job in the cockpit and second, of not spreading their profession to a next generation of fighter pilots. That’s a problem when these men and women are the ones who need to set strategic and tactical policy for the Air Force and as well as making the research and procurement decisions about future aircraft.

The Air Force has run up against a wall every bit as imposing as the limits of a human to withstand Gs– the potential of the next generation of planes has outstripped the costs that Americans are willing to pay for them. A plane that can cruise at supersonic speeds rather than only sprint at them, that can engage a dozen targets simultaneously while being nearly invisible to radar, that can maneuver like no plane before it– those are the features of the F-22. So is the $361,000,000 price tag per plane, for a plane that is designed to operate in units measured in multiples of 12. The next plane up, the F-35 JSF, is rumored to be significantly less capable int he air-to-air role than advertised and is getting very expensive itself; if its primary role is to be that of an air-to-ground attack plane with a secondary air-to-air capacity, then one has to question the wisdom of buyign it when UCAV technology has already been demonstrated to handle that role very well.

This week we’ve heard the Air Force make the argument that to deny the F-22 is to fight the last war rather than the next as the F-22, while useless in Afghanistan could be a huge difference maker in a more symmetrical war against a major power. The reality may well be that procuring the F-22 and F-35 may indeed be the move rooted in the last war, as technology has eclipsed the need for the human pilot in the cockpit; the Air Force may finally, unwillingly, be dragged into that realization by the White House quaterbacked drive that ended the F-22′s procurement cycle.

Posted in American Politics, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Pursuit of Happiness, Michael Vick Style

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 24, 2009

The question of just what the NFL should do with Michael Vick has been hotly pursued in many places lately, not the least of which is my favorite forum website.

One of the fundamental issues I take with those who favor Vick’s being allowed back into the NFL is the concept that Michael Vick has paid his debt to society and thus should be able to pursue reinstatement to the Commissioner. Perhaps I should restate that– I don’t have an issue with Vick having paid his societal debt or asking to be reinstated; I have an issue with the assumption that he should be granted the object of his pursuit simply for having asked after having served his time in Federal prison. Roger Goodell appears this morning to be leaning towards forsaking that duty and allowing Vick back into the league with a short suspension to be serve dat the start of the 2009 season if he signs a contract. It’s a poor decision, if it comes to pass.

Many, many people have pursued a playing career and have failed, from walk-on tryout dreamers to insufficiently talented college players to ultra-talented losers like Art Schlister. Although they failed to succeed in their pursuit for disparate reasons, they all shared one commonality– the NFL rejected them. That’s the major danger in pursuing a career in playing football– there’s only one source of good jobs in the field, and if you do something to make yourself unattractive to that entity, you will fail to make a living playing football.

For an industry as image conscious as professional sports, profiting from the intentional infliction of cruelty upon animals is not something likely to endear you to your single source employer.

Let’s take this out of the realm of the NFL for a moment to illustrate the sole employer problem. Let’s make Mr. Vick an intelligence officer in the employ of the CIA, instead, and have him arrested for the same crime, running and hosting a dog fighting operation. Would the CIA immediately hire him back as he had served his time, paid his debt to society, and asked sweetly to be rehired? The answer, obviously, is of course not. That’s a bit of a problem for Mr. Vick, as the CIA is an intelligence organ of the sole major employer in his field– the government– and the government, for various reasons, is not going to give Mr. Vick another job in his field of expertise no matter how sweetly he asks as he is a felon and could do significant damage to the employer if they took him back. This is almost precisely the same situation he potentially faces in football– he is constrained to seeking work with a limited number of franchises, all under the direct control of a central authority that may well deem Mr. Vick to be deleterious to its image. In short, he could very well be screwed.

Sadly (ahem) for Vick, there’s no other employer to really pursue this career path with.

Second chances are all well and good, but to assume that Vick is owed one or that the NFL should mindlessly take it on the chin to offer him one is a bit naive. There is a real cost to the NFL for letting Vick back in after his conviction on animal cruelty charges; whichever team hires Vick, if any one did, would be subject to protests, potential boycotts, and the continuing bad press both for the club and the league of having to put up with that sort of thing.

Yes, the NFL, MLB, and other leagues have in the past allowed criminals back into their sports despite the cost to the league. In some cases that is warranted, in others it has shown a sorry lack of convictions by the various commissioners and leagues. While people who have committed worse crimes– domestic abuse, assaults, even manslaughter or vehicular homicides– have been allowed back in, that should serve as no guide in this case nor, indeed, in any case. Each situation must be base don the the individual circumstances and potential for damage to the overall entity, not just on the severity of the initial crime. Like it or not, morally wrong or not, what Vick did excites negative public opinion much more than a domestic abuse or drug charge does and that must be a consideration in the NFL’s decision on Vick.

Were I in the Commissioner’s chair, I would view this solely through the prism of business, and that means that damage control is my primary concern. In light of that, there is no way I could countenance the reinstatement of Mr. Vick, societal debt paid or not, and subject the brand identity of the NFL to the damage that allowing this felon back into the league would entail; the duty to protect the brand’s already marred image far outweighs in my mind the questionable compassion of allowing Vick to resume a playing career in the league.

Posted in Cultural Phenomena, NFL | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Fighting the Next War, Part One

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 21, 2009

America has a nasty habit when it comes to maintaining our military– we fight, throw all of our economic and industrial might into the battle… and then destroy the military created the day after the armistice is signed.  The ugliness of this cycle has, of course, become greatly magnified during the era of industrial-technological warfare; with the drawdown post-World War I setting us up for WW II, the post-WW II drawdown enabling the North Koreans to launch their war in 1950 and push the Americans all the way to Pusan within roughly 5 weeks. Drawdowns occurred even in the Cold War settings that followed Korea and Viet Nam, always returning America to a dramatically weakened strategic position than it was in during the war.

The reasons for this are clear– in a democratic society war fatigue runs high and the will of the people to be reminded of war after the fact is low, leading to demands for a “peace dividend” and for tremendously reduced military spending. This is, of course, a sensible response– unbridled military spending during peace time can be ruinous, but in the course of American history we have traditionally overcompensated for this sentiment and cut back to the point of fundamental weakness with relation to our global responsibilities.

As the most active portion of the ill conceived and strategically unsuccessful “War on Terror” comes to a close with the shuttering of the Iraq Theater, war fatigue is running particularly high at the same time America deals with a financial crisis that makes spending on military systems particularly painful. The situation is further complicated by the traditional dual impetus to reduce military capacity coming at a time of transitional technology, in which robotic systems seem nearly ready to displace traditional man-in-front systems.

Into this maelstrom flies the F-22 Raptor, a tremendously advanced aircraft with no clear role in the current war and a pricetag that represents the cost of ten to fourteen F-15s, the current American fighter in the air superiority role that the F-22 seeks to fill.

The Obama Administration’s stance on the F-22 is clear– we don’t want this thing. The Congress is divided between fiscal responsibility and the fact that suppliers for the F-22 project have been strategically salted throughout the most important Congressional Districts in the nation, making the vote tough for key Congressmen and Senators. The Air Force sees the design potential of the aircraft and wants many, many more. The other three services see the Raptor as the usual platinum plated Air Force toy– good only for air-to-air combat and useless in the close air support role that has been so incredibly vital to the Marines & Army in this and the past several wars. They may have a point– since 1991 and Operation Desert Shield/Storm, through Somalia and Kosovo and the WoT, the US Air Force has made fewer than 25 air-to-air kills against jets of an enemy air force, all of them in 1991 in the air war phase of Desert Storm. In that same time, over 10,000 missions have been flown against targets on the ground.

Oddly enough, that disparity makes, for both sides, the most militarily compelling argument over the F-22. The President, the members of the DoD not wearing blue suits, and the budget conscious can point to the scarcity of air-to-air combat and make the seemingly rock solid case that an incredibly expensive air superiority fighter is unneeded; the Air Force can conversely claim that we have fallen into the trap of falling the last war rather than preparing for the next against a more symmetric adversary against whom the F-22 would be a key to American victory over China, Russia or (in a stretch) Iran. “Fighting the last war” is a phrase loaded with meaning to military planners and historians, an indictment of the thinking that what worked last time will prevail next. The Maginot Line is an oft-cited example of fighting the last war; the French built a huge line of fixed positions that mimicked the trench system of the First World War in the hope that it would secure France from Germany; Germany on the other hand had prepared for the next war by developing mobile operations featuring tanks and trucks that easily outflanked the Maginot Line. It’s a damning accusation.

Later today the Congress will issue an up or down vote on continued funding for the F-22, and the vote counters are hard at work trying to figure out the balance between self interest, military necessity, financial prudence and technological advance. Running Local will be back after the vote with Part Two of the story.

Posted in American Politics, Obama Positions, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Is the Sky Our New Limit?

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 17, 2009

I was at our pool club the other day when I heard a man of about 40 say those immortal words to an unruly child– “Back when I was a kid, we wouldn’t have dreamed of disobeying our parents!”. After my kids and his were out of earshot, I conspiratorially mentioned to him that back in my day I wouldn’t have dreamed of obeying my parents if I thought there was any chance of getting away with it, giving us both a chuckle at being the newest members of the I’ve Become My Father Club.

We often get lost and wallow in nostalgia when things aren’t quite the way we want them to be in the present; it’s probably our most commonly used emotional crutch and one we’ve all been indoctrinated in by the universal “back in my day…” musings of our forebears. Generally the facts don’t hold true to the sentiments– things weren’t really so peachy under Reagan or Kennedy or Roosevelt or Wilson when you get right down to it, no more or less so than they are in whatever present their names and eras were invoked.

There is at least one realm, however, where I can’t escape the belief that things were oh so much better in the early 60′s, and that is the sense of man’s unlimited potential. Watch this video and tell me if you can recapture that spirit right now if you lived through these events, or if you can even imagine it if , like me, you didn’t.

Billions of words have been spilt upon the 60′s, of course, and so I’ll limit mine to remarking how amazing the changes embodied in those 10 years were, from the unbridled hope and dreams of the early years to the tumult and despair of the ending years.

Space exploration seems the perfect metaphor for the dialing back of our dreams that happened during those years. The Kennedy proclamation that we were going to do the extremely difficult, that we were going to the moon within the decade, is the kind of proclamation that today would be immediately obliterated under the weight of words from the blogosphere, from the media and from the Congress. The discussion of going to Mars hasn’t captured the popular imagination– in fact, it isn’t something that most kids would even know was on the table.

The problem seems to be that we’ve become enamored of the incremental rather than the revolutionary. Kennedy proposed something that skipped so many steps as to be breathtaking– he didn’t get lost in the ephemera of cost benefit analysis or the reality of the many steps between the speech and the landing– he boldly declared an endgame and demanded a  process that would get us there rather than implementing a process that could someday find its way beyond our gravitational pull. In this instance Kennedy wasn’t a man invested in escaping the bonds of gravity, he was  a man who simply didn’t care to be bound.

Since July 20, 1969 we have been gripped by what we think of as reality but which might be more reasonably classified as a miasma of doubt. The day that Armstrong and Aldrin stepped upon the fine powder of a world beyond Terra was the day that an instantly fossilized footprint was laid in the lunar sand, not the day that our first bold steps towards the galaxy were laid. They were the high water mark of an era of hope which receded with the liftoff of the LEM back to the lunar orbiter, an era which, to be fair, had ended years before Apollo 11 ever lifted off. In the resounding roar of the engines of that Saturn V were the echoes of the post war ear of dreams, sounding across the Florida swamps and triggering not the vague stirrings of nostalgia for a distantly remembered past but the desperate grasp for one tantalizingly just out of reach, a ledge grabbed for an instant after the teeter became the fall.

The fall ended in a vat of goo that softened the landing but has clung to us and restrained our reach. The space program sank into the sludge that the rest of our country was submerged in as lunar landings became passe and the next great adventure, Skylab, never really became anything but a punchline. What started to pass for leaps forward weren’t manned strides out into the solar system but hobbled paces like the robotic probes and then the Space Shuttle. Each of those could have been important steps if they were indeed steps towards a goal, but in truth they weren’t. As dramatic as reaching out and landing on Mars for the first time could have been, Viking was an anti-climax– a robot that took a few pictures and died, fulfilling its limited design specs. Even the Space Shuttle was an anti-climax, literally a space truck that delivered satellite cargo into low orbit and landed to be refit for its next cargo delivery. At least it looked like a space ship, to an extent. It couldn’t go to the moon, it couldn’t take us to Mars, but at least it wasn’t just a conical tin can atop a rocket. It was something but, honestly, was never a huge reach. It led to the construction of a failed orbital station that has proven to be not even the modest next step it was supposed to be, a breakthrough-possible lab and perhaps construction station for extra-terran missions, but rather an expensive, orbiting Edsel that holds a very few people in orbit for a few months at a time.

To my mind the one bright spot, the one glimpse in my lifetime of the possibility of man as embodied by the reach into the sky beyond our own, was Hubble. Hubble allowed us not so much to dream as to wonder why we suddenly weren’t, a glimpse into the heavens and perhaps literally into Heaven, a Heaven of unsuspected and unimagined delicacy and grace where even the greatest celestial furnaces burning with a heat beyond the imagination of Dante were objects of breathtaking beauty. Hubble made us ask once more what was out there and reawakened in some of us a desire to find out, even if that quest led beyond our lifespan and into a dreamed future. It literally made the nebulous tangible.

Perhaps as important was the fact that we were able to service and improve Hubble over the years, demonstrating that space wasn’t outside of human reach but was in fact a place we could work, a realm in which we could do what we as humans fundamentally do– manipulate our environment. Four times we reached out to service and improve Hubble, recognizing the fundamental worth to mankind of dreams. Our waking eyes saw the costs and limits of space, but in the never-ending night of orbital space our dream continued to project its images into our lives.

That we had to debate the mission that extended the life of Hubble earlier this spring epitomizes the battle between those two existences, that of our budget conscious day and our limitless night. The bright lights of night won out, with caution and pessimism thrown to the wind and the mission, one of extraordinary difficulty and more than what some considered acceptable risk, executed perfectly. That the mission happened proves that the dreams live and that their value has won a column in the often seemingly heartless spreadsheet of our existence.

We have not overcome our incremental and limited existence, either in space or in our national life. The replacement for the Shuttle is a return to the conical tin can atop the rocket, a huge disappointment for most who love space and see a role for man in it, but one which may yet surprise and take us to a place where we touch the dream instead of merely glimpsing it on the fringes of consciousness. Private space travel seems to be becoming a reality, even if the suborbital flights of the Rutans of the world are a return to the days of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd. It must be recalled that we went from Kitty Hawk to space in a span of 58 years; who knows how little time it might take the visionaries of the private sector to catch and exceed the realities of NASA, the ESA, the Russians and the other governmental space players even starting from the notional point of the 1961 push into space.

I refuse to consider the sky our new limit. I can only hope that others will, too.

Posted in American History, Cultural Phenomena, History, Space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Painted Painted Painted, Painted… White?

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 16, 2009

The Rolling Stones saw a red door and wanted to paint it black. Steven Chu, US Energy Secretary and Nobel prize winner, saw a black roof and he wants to paint it white.

Either way it’s no colour anymore.

While Jagger’s nihilistic anthem grew to become one of the theme songs of the Vietnam War, Chu’s hopeful musing may grow to become a touchstone of the greening of America. You see, Steven Chu is smarter than you, me… well, pretty much everyone this side of Steven Hawking, and sometimes it takes genius to perceive and promote the obvious. We all know that dark colors absorb heat– it’s why we wear white in the summer– yet we seem to have forgotten that when we made our rooftops and roads black or other dark colors.

Duh.

In a speech a couple of weeks ago, Chu pointed out that if (admittedly unrealistically) we all painted our roofs and roads white the carbon impact would be the same as removing all the world’s cars for eleven years. No cap and trade gyrations, no 17,000 page House Bills alleging to set a roadmap to saving the environment whole similarly saving ExxonMobil’s shareholders any undue pain, no laws enforcing the use of hu-manure in our landscaping to limit nitrogen fertilizer production. Just white paint, leading to a 10-20% reduction in electricity bills in a standard building while also killing off the “heat island” effect that those of us who live in large cities know all too well and reflecting solar radiation back into space, leading to an overall atmospheric cooling.

It seems so easy that it can’t really work, right? Yet there exists a large and ever growing body of research that Chu drew on in his comments that shows that not only do white roofs work, but they work better than initial estimates ever dreamed they could.

This dichotomy, the exquisitely simple answer for the dauntingly complex problem, is something that Americans are loathe to accept. We all complain about the complexity of life, the unneeded red tape of bureaucracy, the burying of common sense under layer upon layer of sophistry, yet when a simple idea comes along that can make a real impact we are conditioned to laugh it off or at the very best give it a shrugged, “Huh, that’s interesting… but what’s the catch?”. That, to me, is one of the most interesting challenges we Americans face as a society, this reverence for simplicity and common sense but our out of hand rejection of it when it appears.

It emerges so many times, just in the energy debate and in forms from the everyday to the grandiose. We are falling over ourselves to buy impractical and unsafe miniaturized cars in an effort to reduce carbon footprint… yet we won’t take a train or bus to get to work. We want vehicles that use less fuel, but instead of insisting upon real research into petroleum-free cars and trucks we have stalled out on this hybrid vehicle temporization which allows us to feel good about the direction we’re going in while actually stalling the progress towards the destination. A friend of this blog has for years been saying that what we need is an energy “Manhattan Project”, bringing together the best minds in a crash program to actually make an impact on energy problems… yet we spend even more money than that would take in uncoordinated fits and starts in a million directions that aren’t mutually supporting.

I won’t bother you with yet another call for a return to common sense– we’ve heard it a million times from some of the the least sensible people out there and we ignore it every time, perhaps because we have heard it a million times from some of the least sensible people out there. What I will do, though, is ask you to share with someone else (or with the comments section of this entry… hint hint) at least one of those dumb ideas you’ve had, the one that you say, “Nah, that couldn’t be right” but that keeps popping into your head. Forget how geekish it sounds, that it could be (hell, probably is) fundamentally flawed in some way, whatever. A Nobel Laureate is pimping the wonderfully non-complex idea of painting our rooftops white and using light colored cement for roads because it would make a huge difference in energy usage; can your ideas be much simpler or more obvious than that?

We laugh off so many ideas that seem unworkable because they aren’t nearly complex enough to mesh with our incredibly complex society; perhaps it is time to stop laughing and paint it white.

Posted in American Politics, Environment, Obama Cabinet | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Killing the Assassination Story

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 14, 2009

Something isn’t right in Langley, on the Hill, or in the newsrooms. Amidst the sturm und drang of the latest CIA-Congressional blowup over no-oversight covert ops the story has started to emerge that the program in question was centered on hit teams finding and then taking out al Qaeda leaders in the Middle East and South Asia. That’s all very dramatic… but is it all that believable?

Hit teams and assassination programs are the stuff of spy novels and Tom Cruise movies, but drones are the stuff of this war and that’s the major problem I’m having with the “revelation” that the entire imbroglio is over an assassination plot. What would make Dick Cheney order the CIA to withhold information from what at the time the order was given was a galvanized, Republican Congress when the groundwork was already being laid for the not terribly covert Predator program, which was acknowledged to be operational in 2002 but which may have been in action even before that?

To my mind, nothing. Yes, Dick Cheney did some fairly stupid stuff with connection to the intelligence community– Valerie Plame, anyone?– and him ordering the CIA to withold information from the Congress isn’t that far a bridge to cross in terms of believability, of course. Still, to issue that order almost immediately after 9-11, when you could’ve gotten a Republican Congress (or a Democratic one, for that matter) to stay quiet about, oh, a massive program of snatching suspects from both friendly and hostile nations, spiriting them away to foreign nations to be tortured into giving up information and then dumping them in Cuba– that doesn’t add up, even with Dick Cheney’s penchant for bloody mindedness.

This strikes me as an attempted deception– someone picked a spy novel premise that seemed to them like something the public would suck up while being just appalled enough to say, “Oh that CIA, they’ve done it again!” It’s damage control 101– when you are going to get tagged with something you really don’t want to be tagged with, admit to something embarrassing– people stop looking because they themselves can’t stand to be publicly embarrassed and can’t understand that you would willingly embarrass yourself to dodge the greater bullet. People look away when they see something embarrassing, and that’s precisely what the CIA wants to have happen here– they want us to look away.

In the end I have no idea what this program was, if Congress or even the President know what it is at this point, if it involved assassination or something else, or if Cheney even ordered it covered up. It could be a huge issue borne of post- 9/11 excess or it could be a tempest in a teapot conjured up in the Speaker’s office to draw attention away from some of Nancy’s recent foibles. I am confident, however, that this wasn’t all about some silly plot to set up hit teams to pursue al Qaeda leaders and hide them from the Congress. Hit teams to go after Saudi Royals funding al Qaeda?

Now that would be a story worthy of hiding from Congress.

Posted in Afghanistan, American Politics, CongressCritters, Intelligence (and lack thereof) | Leave a Comment »

Minor League Night

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 14, 2009

I am an unabashed lover of Minor League baseball, the “lower” the league the better. Last night I went to the Carolina League game between our local Potomac Nationals and the Lynchburg Hillcats with my two sons and a good friend who brought his son & daughter.

The differences between the full blown Major League experience and going to a minors game is the difference between spending a week at Disney World and happening upon a summertime Firemen’s Carnival out in the country, and I mean that in the best possible way. Every year I trek to a fair number of Major League games, be they in Washington or Baltimore or New York, and I love going to them, but they’re a production. The seats usually coast between $30 and $75, you get bowled over with $25 parking charges and confronted with Epcot-esque diversions and distractions. Baseball, which is to my mind the game that most benefits from an intimate setting, is being played on a magnificent field that seems to be miles away and is being ignored by 35,000 of the 45,000 people in attendance at the game. Sure you can get into it if you’re determined to in the way that I usually am and there’s few things better than a playoff game in a Major League park, but still, there’s just so much laid on top of the experience that finding the essence of the game, the idyll, is a task.

Last night, on the other hand, we enjoyed Dollar Night with the Potomac Nats in a “stadium” made out of aluminum bleachers and wooden walls adorned with the kind of cheesy advertising that only a Southern minor league park can bring you. Every Monday home game fro the P-Nats offers $1 general admission tickets that are at a distance from the field that would cost you $575 at Yankee Stadium and $1 grilled hotdogs– how do you beat that? The game experience itself is what baseball should be about– tons of kids rooting earnestly for “their” team, even if they don’t know who all the players are, chasing down foul balls and getting autographs from the players who willingly make themselves available to sign any ball, bat, program or napkin offered to them. The players run out every grounder, they dive for every out of reach ball; for the most part they’re job applicants rather than acknowledged gods of sport and their aspiration is emblazoned on their uniforms along with the team name.

Somehow it’s the antithesis of what Major League baseball has made itself into– it is pure. It’s an American experience from before the days of Walmart and The Olive Garden, and those are becoming so rare. One of the things I love about goign to these games is meeting the people around me and listening to their conversations. The Dads spend the game explaining the finer points of the double paly to young kids who don’t get it but sit in rapt attention, the Moms make jokes about the Dads, the kids just take it all in between bites of hot dogs and gulps of sugary drinks while dreaming of being on the field themselves. Between innings you get some of the cheesiest, silliest promotions– kids racing the mascot around the bases for a bobblehead prize, tricycle races, bowling with plastic balls down the first base line and, of course, the two staples of Minor League enticements– kids run the bases after the game and the Friday Night Fireworks.

It’s just right. It’s basbeall without commitment to a “huge” night, both financially and logistically. It’s baseball that a non-baseball fan can enjoy– heck, it’s something to do for a few bucks on a warm night, it’s silliness and laughs and bad for you food and some of the best people watching around. If you love the game, it’s a chance to see some great baseball played up close by guys who may just be on the cover of Sports Illustrated in a few years.

Go to a Minor League game. Trust me on this one; you’ll find out what the magic of baseball has always been about.

Posted in Baseball, Cultural Phenomena, Events | 3 Comments »

Mermaids and Centaurs and Minotaurs, Oh My!

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 14, 2009

Sam Brownback (R-KS) is, has been, and always will be one of my favorite Senators. Aside from a name evocative of a juvenile underwear joke, Brownback is so conservative and moreover so consistently goofy about his conservatism that he makes even serious DC conservatives cringe in amused horror. To understand how Brownback is seen by intelligent people in DC, you have to view him as the Republican Yogi Berra– you sit there just waiting for him to open his mouth because as soon as his lips start moving you’re going to hear something unbelievable. Today, though, we have a Brownbackian gem of staggering proportions.

Senator Brownback’s conservative Christianity has moved him to enter a bill which specifically defends us from the horror– horror– of mermaids.

Senator Brownback has never seen a crusade against science and technology that he couldn’t get behind, from space exploration to genetic manipulation of seeds to, and this is key to today’s mirth, stem cell research. While many principled conservatives have issues with embryonic stem cell research based on their opposition to anything even remotely tinged by abortion or even in vitro fertilization, Senator Brownback has picked a doozy here– he’s going on the record opposing stem cell research because it might be used to create human-animal hybrids… like mermaids.

Of course, his trail on this particular bit of inanity (insanity…?) was blazed by another guy who is getting a reputation for being a bit, uhm, outside the box, Bobby Jindal. Jindal jammed a similar anti-Mermaid bill through the Louisiana legislature earlier this year, making sure that the Bayous of Louisiana would never give rise to the dreaded manigator.

The scariest thing about this kind of legislation isn’t the time wasting aspect of it– I mean, really, Senators, nothing better to do while the economy is in a shambles?– it’s the fact that it will be viewed as a logical and needed step by many of Brownback’s, shall we say, less worldly constituents. That the good people of Kansas (and Lousiana…) see anti-Mermaid legislation as a cornerstone of keeping America a god fearing and holy land is a sad point amongst the undeniable humour of Brownback’s latest crusade.

Posted in American Politics, CongressCritters, Cultural Phenomena | 1 Comment »

Using the Media

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 13, 2009

CNN has the breathless story– the Franklin Park Zoo, Boston’s only zoo, will have to euthanize its animals due to budget cuts made by Governor Deval Patrick. The horror!

This is far from the best media manipulation I’ve ever seen, but it is the most bald-faced I’ve seen in a while. The background story is that the Franklin Park Zoo was originally granted $6,500,000 in the Massachussetts budget for the upcoming year, which Governor Patrick slashed to $2,500,000 due to the ongoing economic crisis. Far from being singled out, the cuts to the payments to the zoo are accompanied by state budget cuts to services for children and families, elder services, education, agriculture, environmental protection, almost $200,000,000 in cuts to health care services, etc.

Enter Joyce Lineham, wife of ZOONewEngland CEO John Lineham, who works in PR. Suddenly we don’t have a budget crisis, we have Governor Patrick personally sticking the syringe of deadly chemicals into the gorilla’s butt. The budget shortfall for the notoriously in the red zoo wasn’t a reason to do some extra fundraising or improve business practices, it was now a reason to close the zoo and kill the animals that couldn’t find other homes.

Patrick successfully called the bluff, and ZOONewEngland released a statement on Saturday saying that they misspoke and that what they meant was that the state would have to care for the animals… rather than ZOONewEngland holding them hostage with a gun to their head.

Bad budget times bring out the worst in many agencies and enterprises reliant on state funding, but this one is about the worst manipulation I’ve ever seen, targeted as it was not at the Governor so much as at parents who have been explaining to their children all weekend long that the Governor isn’t going to kill their favorite monkey or lion.

I would expect the Linehams to be seeking new employment within the next 12 months, and for the Franklin Park Zoo to continue to receive visitors for decades to come.

Posted in American Politics | Leave a Comment »

 
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