Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Worst Idea

I recently heard about a Pentagon idea that may well be the most brain dead concept I've heard in recent memory, and that's saying something. The idea is to repurpose existing Minuteman III ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles) to carry conventional payloads. Put simply, they would yank the nuclear warheads and put in a conventional one in its place thus giving the military a pretty accurate intercontinental strike capability. The idea is not new. President G.W. Bush tried several times to insert budgeting to convert Trident SLBMs (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles) to conventional use during his Presidency. Thankfully intelligent people were involved and the plan was killed.

I give the idea a B+ for reusing and recycling equipment but I give it an F- for common sense. Let's take a quick history lesson here shall we? ICBMs can be traced back to the German V-2 built during WWII and launched from continental Europe and targeted for London and other UK areas. After the war both the US and USSR began looking at the technology to supplement their nuclear bomber forces. In 1957 the Soviets launched their first true ICBM, the R-7 and almost two years later the US tested the Atlas D. These missiles were built to deliver nuclear payloads thousands of miles around the world. They were developed continually until the end of the Cold War resulting in missiles capable of reaching from the US or Soviet heartlands to almost any part of the opposition's country.  At the zenith of their development, ICBMs were fitted with MIRV (Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles) payloads that were capable of delivering multiple warheads to independent targets from a single missile. The ICBM concept was also expanded to include SLBMs that could be launched from dedicated submarines anywhere in the world with minimal warning. Nuclear war is what ICBMs were built for. This is what they have represented to the world for the last 50+ years. 

So can anyone tell me why firing off a conventionally tipped ICBM might be a questionable plan? Even with the Cold War officially over for the better part of 20 years, NORAD (North American Air Defense) still operates beneath Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado just like its Russian equivalent certainly does. The entire facility is mounted on massive shock absorbers and designed to be sealed away from the rest of the world in the event of a nuclear attack. And sitting in a room are soldiers who, in addition to monitoring North America airspace in general, also still monitor the world for ICBM launches. Just like the Russians still do. You might be surprised to know that there is absolutely no way to tell the difference between a nuclear and conventional payload from a launch detection display. Unlike a cruise missile, a ballistic missile flies on a very unique trajectory. It launches vertically into the upper stratosphere and is anything but stealthy. You don't exactly need stealth when your opponent only has 15 minutes or less before impact and has minimal interception options once the warhead detaches from the missile itself. The point is that there is no way to disguise or hide an ICBM launch. When it leaves the silo, lights are going to start flashing all over the world and heads of state will be woken. Yes, we could inform Russia beforehand, not to mention the UK, France, Germany, China, Canada and every other major power that it's not a nuke. And we can tell them all that anything launched from Vandenberg AFB is just a conventional ICBM, so don't worry it's all good. But do you really think it's a good idea to use a system that is one misunderstanding or dropped communique away from starting a nuclear exchange?

Sure, there are advantages to the idea. Pop off an ICBM from California and hit a target in the mountains of Afghanistan in about 10 minutes or so with pretty good accuracy. But we already have cruise missiles that can be launched from ships and submarines. B-1B, B-2 Stealth and even the venerable B-52 can carry upwards of 20 cruise missiles virtually around the globe, non-stop with the use of inflight refueling. From launch point, cruise missiles can reach out another 600 + miles and strike with high accuracy. We have unmanned drones that can operate from remote locations and hit targets with precision munitions. Do we really need what the ICBM can give us? I don't think so, because the danger is overwhelming. All it will take is one mistake to potentially kill millions. It comes down to this- yes a conventionally armed ICBM would add a small bit of extra flexibility to the US military arsenal. However, the very real danger of using a weapon that is indeed the iconic symbol of nuclear war far outweighs any fleeting benefits we might gain. This idea is the product of abject stupidity.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Me & Senator McCain

At least a month ago I sent Senator John McCain (R-AZ) an email via his web site about my belief that 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' should be repealed. I sent this to Senator McCain because of his position as Ranking Member on the Senate Armed Services Committee. I was particularly irritated at how he had seemed to reverse his own previous position on the subject. The heart of my email came out of my earlier post on the subject.

Below is the response, complete and unedited, I received today from Senator McCain's office.

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Mr. Erik Prince

Dear Mr. Prince:

Thank you for contacting me regarding the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. I appreciate hearing your views on this controversial issue.

Recently, the Senate Armed Services Committee received testimony from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Service Secretaries on the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, echoing the desire of President Obama to have it repealed by Congress. The committee also heard the personal views of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, several of the combatant commanders, and most recently, the Service Chiefs, who have responsibility for the organization, training, and overall readiness of their forces and for providing their best military advice to the President on matters that might affect their ability to ensure sufficiently trained and ready forces.

Each of the military's Service Chiefs has expressed his support for the comprehensive, ten-month policy review of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" that Secretary Gates has directed. However, each has indicated that he is not prepared to support a repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy at this time. Based on their expert testimony, I am urging Congress to await the completion of the Pentagon's policy review in order to give the Service Chiefs the information they have asked for before any attempt is made to change law. I will strongly oppose any attempt to change the current law based on an incomplete and inadequate review of this policy, and I hope that my fellow Senators will also take this approach in the interest of national security.

With respect to the review itself, I have expressed my concerns about its focus and scope. Unfortunately, in his testimony earlier this year to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary Gates described the mandate as "a review of the issues associated with properly implementing a repeal of the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy."The guiding question, as Secretary Gates put it, should be "not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it." This is consistent with President Obama's goals, but it seems to get things backwards: The current Pentagon review should be an objective study of the relevant military issues, not an implementation plan.

The issue that Congress must decide, and the issue the Service Chiefs should be asked to give their best military advice about, is whether the "Don't Ask Don't' Tell" policy should be repealed. We should ask that question to our service personnel and their families at all levels and genuinely consider their views in our debate.Clearly, there are many policy and logistical challenges that would have to be overcome if the law is repealed, but that should not be the primary focus of the ongoing policy review. I will continue to insist that we use the coming months to study not only how to implement a change to the current policy, but also whether and why the men and women of the Armed Forces - the generals, the officers, the NCOs, and the privates - support or oppose such a change. I would then expect the views of the Service Chiefs to incorporate this critically important information.

I am proud of, and thankful for, every American who chooses to put on the uniform of our nation and serve their country, particularly in this time of war. The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is not perfect, but it reflects a compromise achieved with great difficulty that has effectively supported military readiness. However imperfect, the policy has allowed many gay and lesbian Americans to serve their country. I honor their service, I honor their sacrifices, and I honor them. But we should not change the current policy until we are confident - from a military standpoint, with the informed advice of the Service Chiefs - that such a change is consistent with military effectiveness.

Again, thank you again for writing me on this issue. Feel free to contact me in the future on this or any other matter.


John McCain
United States Senator


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Below you will find my response, which I sent via the website earlier today.

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Senator McCain,

I appreciate your reply. I also appreciate that many feel an assessment is needed before any repeal is begun. But I fully agree with Secretary Gates that it's not 'if' it is 'when' the repeal is implemented. I completely disagree with your suggestion that we need to "ask that question to our service personnel and their families at all levels and genuinely consider their views in our debate." At what time in our history has the government of the United States ever polled service members and their families before implementing a necessary change in military policy?That strikes me as a very strange statement. The government decides, the SecDef directs and the Joint Chiefs inform their subordinates what changes are being made. In my 8 years as an Air Force Boom Operator I do not recall a single instance when I was asked what my opinion was of a policy change. My squadron commander informed us of the change along with how it would be implemented and when it would be completed by and it happened. It's called orders.

You say that "the policy has allowed many gay and lesbian Americans to serve their country. I honor their service, I honor their sacrifices, and I honor them." With all due respect Senator, forcing them to hide a significant portion of their lives in a dark corner so that you and a few of their comrades won't be made uncomfortable is hardly what I would term 'Honoring' them. It's more like 'using' them without having to actually give them the same rights as their fellow soldiers.

Here's what it all comes down to, as far as I'm concerned. It is Wrong to make loyal soldiers who are placing their lives on the line every day, live a secret life for no better reason than for the convenience of others. These men and women are American Soldiers, sir, and if you truly honor them and their sacrifice you would step up and do the right thing. Grant them the rights of every other America Soldier. The right to love who they want, within the bounds of military regulations and decorum. For just one moment, Senator, imagine you were unable to let anyone else know who you Loved or wanted to have a relationship with while all around you your comrades could not only date who they wanted but brag about it on a regular basis.

It's a matter of right and wrong. Don't Ask, Don't Tell is and has always been Wrong. It's that simple.

Erik Prince
US Air Force 1988 - 1996
Boom Operator

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Guns, Guns, Guns

As I type this, we are a day from April 19th. This date is significant in several ways. First, it was the date of the first two clashes at Lexington and Concord that lit off the American Revolution.  It's also the anniversary of the fiery conclusion to the 1993 Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, TX. And in 1995 it marked the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh. So why is the date significant this year? Two separate, but equally disturbing Pro-Gun/2nd Amendment rallies are set for the 19th. First up,  the 'Second Amendment March' will be at the Washington Monument on the National Mall. This will be an unarmed gathering, due to D.C. law. The second, calling itself the 'Restore the Constitution' rally will be set at Fort Hunt National Park, just across the Potomac from the capital. This one is planned to be very much an armed demonstration, as VA law allows the open carrying of firearms.

I'm very much aware that firearms are something Americans feel a strong attachment to. That's fine and that's legal. I have no overwhelming desire to outlaw them, but that doesn't mean I'm happy with hundreds of armed citizens protesting at the doorstep of the Capital. If there is one type of gathering I'd rather not see armed it's a protest aimed at the government. It's not a good precedent to set. I don't even understand what they are protesting. I don't recall any recent legislation that assaulted gun ownership. In fact, there have been some dubious ones that are quite Pro gun, such as allowing train passengers to check luggage containing firearms, allowing guns to be carried in National Parks and the most bizarre of all carrying them in bars. There's nothing that makes me feel safer than a drunk with a Beretta! But setting aside the issue of shoot-outs over dart game disputes, what, exactly are they protesting?

I've lost a lot of my patience with this group of people. While I recognize their right to own firearms, the whole concept seems to have an almost religious quality about it that scares the hell out of me. It's not that some citizens want to own guns. It's the way many are struck with awe and reverence when the subject of the Second Amendment arises. Look, it's a 9mm semi-automatic pistol . . . not the True Cross! It doesn't take much to get the NRA crowd howling at the moon.  All you have to do is merely suggest that maybe, perhaps it should be more complicated to buy a gun than fill a prescription and devout gun owners will go up in flames. Do they really want to go back to some idealized wild west situation where everyone walks around with a Desert Eagle on their hip or an AR-15 slung over their shoulder? Will that make them feel safer, and if so, what are they so afraid of?

Based on some of the rhetoric coming out of the organizers and speakers at these two marches, it's fear of the Government. Daniel Almond, who organized the armed rally on the VA side of the Potomac, is determined to protect the Second Amendment, yet has no problem ignoring inconvenient bits of the Constitution like national elections. Almond explains, "I'm not really here to try and court majority opinion and win 51% support for my cause...even if that were necessary." In a truly surreal twist of logic he sees the Second Amendment as hedge against the "tyranny of the majority." I guess a government duly elected by the majority is 'tyranny'.  At least when you're the one in the minority. Kind of like being a fair weather patriot, isn't it? Democracy is great . . . unless your candidate loses. It's not even like the nation has been turned upside down either. Income taxes are at their lowest point in over a decade. The President just hosted the largest gathering of world leaders by a US President since FDR to discuss and take steps towards securing nuclear material. And legislation is going into effect that will stop health insurance companies from denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions thus opening the door for millions to finally be able to obtain insurance coverage. Contrary to what the NRA, self serving politicians, and the Mayan calendar might tell you, the world is not coming to an end.

The problem is not with most gun owners, but with this fringy element that sees their guns as a source of power and stability when the rest of the world is changing way too fast. This kind of thinking slots cleanly into the militia mentality, hence the re-emergence of militias after more than a decade of decline. These groups wrap themselves in the flag and claim to be arming to take back America. But who are they taking it back from? Are they talking about the 53% of Americans who voted for Obama? Am I the only person who wonders where these rallies were when the Bush Administration was tapping phones without warrants and expanding the power of the Executive branch? They seem to have a very flexible idea of what is intrusive. Warrant-less wiretaps are just to keep us safe, but changes to health insurance regulations are a 'Socialist Agenda' requiring armed insurrection? It's time to just call it like it is, these groups are really no different than one of these religious extremist groups. They are convinced that they are the only ones who see the truth about some nebulous evil in the world and they are willing to arm themselves and possibly even kill to get their way. It's domestic terrorism, though we prefer not to call it that. It's much more acceptable to use the term 'terrorist' to refer to someone from outside. Someone, not 'us'. But it was certainly pure and simple terrorism on April 19th, 1995 when 168 civilian men, women and children were murdered because Tim McVeigh thought the Federal Government was out of control. Seems like a very bad day to choose for an anti-government/Pro-gun march.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Repeal of Intelligence

There are those for and those against the recently passed healthcare reform bill (HCR). That would be true of any legislation of course, but what makes this time so . . . interesting is that the side that lost is in the midst of a PR campaign that is virtually pointless in real terms. Well two prongs of the same campaign. First is the battle cry, which began before the final House vote when it was clear that HCR would pass, to "Repeal and Replace" the bill. Second, which started shortly after the final vote, that the law was unconstitutional and State Attorneys General would sue the Federal Government to overturn it.

As to the first prong of the Republican response to HCR passage, you have got to be kidding me. It doesn't take a constitutional scholar, in fact most eighth graders are up to the task, to realize that it takes two thirds majorities in BOTH houses of Congress to override the inevitable Presidential veto. Keeping in mind that Republicans don't even have close to a simple majority, much less two thirds. Even if you accept the assumption that Republicans may gain seats in the mid term elections, it would take a truly historic turnover to give them veto proof majorities. How historic? They would need a net gain of 26 seats in the 100 member Senate and 112 seats in the House. If the vote was held today, that would still be almost impossible. By the time November rolls around and HCR is starting to take affect kids will no longer be subject to insurance rejection from "pre-existing conditions", Medicare recipients will have gotten drug benefit refund checks and not one person will have been sentenced to die by a "Death Panel". They may gain some seats, but I don't think they're likely to gain the majority in either House much less the landslides needed to "Repeal & Replace".

Then we have the litigation angle. I think we are now up to 13 states who are filing lawsuits or have filed them against the Federal government. Again I'm no law expert, but seems telling that only 13 Republican Attorneys General are going in on this. Even some lawyers who say they don't support the bill are admitting that there really isn't a legal case for scrapping the law. In fact, when the University of Washington tried to put together a debate between legal experts on the legality of HCR, they couldn't find anyone to champion the unconstitutionality of the bill. And in another wild dust-up in Georgia, we have a State legislature and Governor talking about impeaching the GA Attorney General for not joining the madness. Attorney General Thurbert Baker, after investigating the legality of such a suit at the Governor's request, wrote the Governor to say:

"Based upon my understanding of the current Act, I am unaware of any constitutional infirmities and do not think it would be prudent, legally or fiscally, to pursue such litigation. I must therefore respectfully decline your request." He continued, "In short, this litigation is likely to fail and will consume significant amounts of taxpayers' hard-earned money in the process." (The full letter is available here

Speaking of tax payer's money, the Attorney General of Virginia, Kenneth Cuccinelli, actually put out a statement in response to cost concerns for his litigation against the HCR bill:

"The court filing fee for the case of Commonwealth v. Kathleen Sebelius in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia was $350.  There has been no additional cost above this amount, as the litigation is being handled entirely by the attorney general’s staff." (Full press release here)

The $350 is simply the charge for filing the paperwork with the court. Really, that's it? So I take it that the entire AG staff has agreed to do all work on this case on their own time and using none of the AG office's resources? Is that what he's claiming? Because if not, then, forgive my directness but, he's lying. Every moment one of the AG staff spends on this useless piece of litigation is time they are being paid by the VA taxpayers and time they are not working on other business. Every piece of paper used or Kilobyte of data sent while online is using AG resources that are paid for by the VA taxpayers. That adds up to way more that $350, even just for the initial filing.

Now are these guys really too stupid to know that all this is pointless? Of course not. They are well aware that they have a snowball's chance in hell of repealing this law as long as Obama sits in the Oval Office. They are also well aware that litigation is almost certainly a waste of time as well. So why are they wasting time and money on it? Actually I just answered my own question, at least in part. Money. There is a nice bit of anger still frothing out there and every riled up citizen is a potential source of campaign cash. The longer they can keep that outrage humming along, the more cash they can raise. Guess this is their idea of 'fiscal conservatism'. Spend thousands and thousands of dollars of our money so the GOP can make theirs. Guess they have to refill the RNC coffers emptied for 'Office Supplies' from Congressional Liquors and 'Entertainment Expenses' at the Voyeur erotic nightclub in CA. Not to mention the Hawaii based convention. Now that's what I call fiscally responsible!

I think what most amazes me about all of this is that the conservative base doesn't seem to care. They are lied to and they are unfazed. They are callously used to  perpetuate misinformation and disrupt any rational discussion of the issues at hand and they keep smiling and waving signs. Conservative corporations and political action committees hijack their demonstrations and they don't mind. The same politicians who voted consistently to enact huge unpaid for tax cuts during the Bush years are now billing themselves as the last bastions of fiscal restraint, yet their supporters don't care. I can fully understand policy concerns and differences. I can understand frustration at the current Administration. What I can't fathom is how so many are willfully blind to the utter lack of respect they receive from the conservative luminaries they support. The rational conservative base should demand more than what they are getting from people like John Boehner and Michelle Bachman who only exist to perpetuate themselves and their friends, whatever the cost to the nation.