By Gordon Lubold
A KC-135 military jet has crashed this morning. An Air Force tanker aircraft crashed in northern Kyrgyzstan today, with a crew of three. The plane and crew, assigned to the Transit Center at Manas near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, had taken off from Manas Friday and crashed soon after. Manas is used routinely as a logistics hub for getting troops and materiel into and out of Afghanistan. The crash comes on the heels of a cargo jet that nosedived into the ground after taking off from Bagram air base. Investigators are still sifting through the cause of the crash of that jet, a civilian cargo plane. But a Pentagon official told Situation Report that there was no indication that plane had been shot down by insurgents on the ground.
Hagel holds close an informal group of adjunct advisers. Not long after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived at the Pentagon, he asked aides to convene a meeting of top veterans and military organizations as well as other defense-focused non-profit groups A few weeks later, on March 21, a group of individuals from 26 different organizations assembled in the Pentagon's E-Ring for a two-day roundtable for briefings Hagel and other officials regarding military operations, the defense budget and sequestration. They also discussed personnel issues like sexual assault prevention, tuition assistance, military community and family policy programs, and suicide prevention and military health system programs. That was the beginning of what is a growing relationship between Hagel, his staff, and a number of these outside groups. Now that informal advisory group has become the go-to for Hagel and his aides. It is convened regularly, typically by conference call. Since February, there have been nine such phone calls or meetings.
Hagel will confront a lot of "people issues." Although the group is weighted heavily toward veterans organizations, like the VFW and IAVA -- a reflection of Hagel's interest in veterans issues -- it also includes military support organizations, like the Air Force Association or the Navy or Marine Corps leagues. Topics of the conference calls, sometimes coordinated at the last minute before a major announcement, run the gamut from the Defense of Marriage Act to the presence of carriers in the CENTCOM region to Hagel's meeting with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. "He's not doing this because he is a nice guy, but I think he knows that on his watch there will be and he will have to resolve a lot of people-related issues," one regular participant who asked not to be identified told Situation Report. "To his credit, he wants to engage a variety of veterans and military support organizations.... He is grounding himself in the right way." The group learns how the secretary is thinking, and the secretary and his staff use the feedback they receive privately to see how an issue may play in public. Participants who spoke to Situation Report say such a group can help the secretary avoid the kind of sand trap that the controversial drone medal landed in under then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's watch. "It gives us a heads-up," Drew Davis, a retired Marine two-star who now serves as the executive director of the Reserve Officers Association. The group had been first organized under then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, but has been invigorated by the number of times Hagel has called on it. Davis participated in the March 21 meeting after Hagel first arrived and a number of the subsequent conference calls since. "It makes the [military support organizations and the veterans service organizations] actually feel like they are more connected to the decision-making process rather than just have their advocacy happen up on the Hill," he told Situation Report. "Having it at the secretary level is something that is new and great. It makes us feel as if we actually have input."
Vegas rules. The individuals are asked to keep the content of the discussions private, but unlike former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who demanded his own uniformed officers sign non-disclosure agreements on budgetary and other issues, the group abides by a gentleman's agreement not to talk publicly about the deliberations in the room or on the calls. One participant says the discussions so far have not been heated but not without their disagreements. "It's been very cordial, but there have been discussions where it's not all of one mind and one view."
Top aides coordinate the meetings. Pentagon press secretary George Little and acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright were directed to set up the first meeting; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Community and Community Outreach Rene Bardorf and Little now organize the sessions on an as-needed basis. Key players also include Lt. Gen. Curtis "Scap" Scaparrotti, director of the Joint Staff, and Mike McCord, deputy comptroller, who gets involved in budget-related issues in particular.
This is the kind of thing such meetings produce: The discussions the group had about the controversial Distinguished Warfare Medal contributed to Hagel's decision on the matter. Some members told Hagel the idea of the drone medal was "insane" and that it should be downgraded; others spoke of the importance of recognizing an emerging type of warfare. In the end, Hagel eliminated it altogether. Then AMVETS, which is represented in the group, posted a story on their site heralding the decision: "AmVets applauds Secretary Hagel's Medal Decision." (That story here.) Members of the group who spoke with Situation Report give credit to Hagel for this kind of outreach. But their independence is still important, and group members don't see this as a way to be co-opted by Hagel or his staff, either. "I'm not drinking his Kool-Aid," said one.
Who's in Hagel's inner (outer) circle? Representatives from more than 25 groups attended the March 21 meeting at the Pentagon, and a dozen or more of them participate in some of the many conference calls Hagel or his staff have directed. The groups include: The Air Force Association, the Association of the United States Army, the Marine Corps League, the Military Officers Association of America, the Navy League, the Reserve Officers Association, the American Legion, AMVETS, Armed Services YMCW, Blue Star Families, Disabled American Veterans, Fisher House, the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association, the Military Child Education Coalition, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the National Guard Association of the United States, the National Military Family Association, Operation Homefront, Student Veterans of America, Transition Assistance Program for Survivors, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Hiring our Heroes Program, the USO, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and the Wounded Warrior Project.
Welcome to Friday's edition of Situation Report. Sign up for Situation Report here or just e-mail us. And always, if you have a report, piece of news, or a tidbit you want teased, send it to us early for maximum tease. If we can get it in, we will. And help us fill our candy dish: news of the military weird, strange trends, personnel comings-and-goings, and military stories of success or excess.
ICYMI (we did): Chuck Yeager, fighter ace, first person to break the sound barrier, first to fly faster than Mach II and fisherman, on the Tweeters recently: "I was asked my opinion about the F-35. It's a waste of money. Far too expensive. Give me an F-15 E"
Hagel acknowledges that arming the opposition in Syria is an option. At a joint presser with U.K. Defense Secretary Philip Hammond yesterday, Hagel cautiously acknowledged the administration is considering arming rebels in Syria. He has become the newsmaker on Syria: At the end of his swing through the Middle East, he was the first administration official to acknowledge publicly the limited use of chemical weapons there. Yesterday, he was the first administration official to say publicly that the White House was considering arming the rebels.
Hagel: "Well, first, as to your question regarding rethinking options."
CNN's Barbara Starr: "Rethinking arming the rebels, sir."
Hagel: "Arming the rebels. That's an option. That's an option. I think Secretary Hammond framed it rather clearly when he talked about what is the objective for both our countries, certainly the United States. Stopping the violence; stability in the region, and a transitioning -- helping be part of that transitioning Syria to a democracy. Now, those are objectives. You're always, any country, any power, any international coalition in partnership is going to continue to look at options, how best to accomplish those objectives. This is not a static situation. A lot of players are involved. And so we must continue to look at options and present those options based on all contingencies, with the focus that we all have, I think, in the international community to achieve the objectives the best way we can. So we're constantly evaluating. I think the president noted it a couple of days ago in his press conference, talking about rethinking options. Of course we do."
Starr: "So you are rethinking -- the administration is rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels?"
Starr: "And may I ask why? What has changed in your mind? And does this put you respectfully at odds with the U.S. military, General Dempsey, who said it's not a good idea in his view? Why are you rethinking arming the rebels?"
Hagel: "You look at and rethink all options. It doesn't mean you do or you will. These are options that must be considered with partners, with the international community, what is possible, what can help accomplish these objectives. We have a responsibility -- and I think General Dempsey would say the same thing -- to continue to evaluate options. It doesn't mean that the -- the president has decided on anything. But..."
Starr: "Are you in favor of arming the rebels now?"
Hagel: "I'm in favor of exploring options and see what the is -- is the best option in coordination with our international partners.
Starr: "Have you come to a conclusion yet?"
Full transcript, here.
New and improved: the Pentagon, meanwhile, is boosting its bunker buster bomb, to combat Iran. The WSJ's Adam Entous and Julian Barnes report this morning that the U.S. military has redesigned its biggest "bunker buster" bomb with new features that will enable it to "destroy Iran's most heavily fortified and defended nuclear site," saying it will show Israel the U.S. has the ability to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb if diplomacy fails - and also that Israel's military can't do it on its own. "Several times in recent weeks, American officials, seeking to demonstrate U.S. capabilities, showed Israeli military and civilian leaders secret Air Force video of an earlier version of the bomb hitting its target in high-altitude testing, and explained what had been done to improve it, according to diplomats who were present. In the video, the weapon can be seen penetrating the ground within inches of its target, followed by a large underground detonation, according to people who have seen the footage."
Politics, vetting and other problems are preventing the administration from filling key posts at the Pentagon and at State. The NYT today writes about why the Obama administration seems to have so many issues filling key jobs across government, including the Pentagon and State. It's a problem that is causing widespread frustration. The White House in part blames Congress, and Congress, for its part? Well, it blames the White House.
"But members of Congress and a number of agency officials say the bottleneck is at the White House, where nominees remain unannounced as the legal and personnel offices conduct time-consuming background checks aimed at discovering the slightest potential problem that could hold up a confirmation. People who have gone through the vetting in Mr. Obama's White House describe a grueling process, lasting weeks or months, in which lawyers and political operatives search for anything that might hint at scandal."
Situation Report wrote on this issue April 25.
The Cable's Josh Rogin wrote on this issue April 2.
The E-Ring's Kevin Baron sat down with Hammond. Hammond spoke with Baron about the U.K.'s defense priorities and challenges amid shrinking military budgets. Hammond also discussed the threats along NATO's Middle Eastern and North African boundaries, and its role in collective security post Afghanistan. Baron: "In 2010, nearly 20 percent of the British army was still in Germany, manning heavy armor against a Cold War threat from the Soviet Union. Today, the United Kingdom wants to build a more affordable, yet shared defense. That requires Hammond to convince European NATO partners to do more while convincing the Pentagon to treat its allies more as partners in collective security, rather than as add-ons to its missions." A full transcript of their conversation, here.
Speaking of the British - Defense News reports today that Andrew Tyler, the British Defense Ministry's former procurement chief, has just landed at Northrop Grumman as the chief executive of the company's U.K. and European operations. "Tyler moves to Northrop Grumman from energy company Siemens' Marine Current Turbines unit, but he is best known here as the chief operating officer of MoD's Defence Equipment & Support organization," the paper writes.
- Danger Room: Pentagon warns North Korea could become a hacker haven.
- Military Times: DOD report: North Korea moving toward nuke missile.
- CBS: U.S. to North Korea: release American prisoner.
- South China Morning Post: Ex-PLA soldier and lover jailed for theft, laundering.
- AP: China emerging as new force in drone warfare, say analysts.
- Duffel Blog: SM Chandler: You know what? Screw it, everyone's going to wear three reflective belts at all times.
- The Atlantic: Why America gets a B+ in counterterrorism.
- Battleland: 1000. The number of flights flown by the AF's oldest F-22.
- BBC: Little international support for arming Syria rebels.
- Reuters: Taking sides in Syria a harder choice for Israel.
- WaPo (blog): Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria to resign.