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February 21, 2003
Notes from the Pentagon

Terror threat
U.S. intelligence officials said the danger of a major attack by al Qaeda remains high. There is, however, a lack of specific information on where or when it will occur.

Terrorists associated with al Qaeda have gathered all the materials needed to carry out a strike with chemical-, biological- or nuclear-related weapons, according to a CIA assessment of the threat.

The intelligence community believes that the major attack will be al Qaeda's first using deadly unconventional weapons, such as nerve gas, anthrax or another toxin. A nuclear-related strike could involve a radiological bomb a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material.

An intelligence report from last year indicated that al Qaeda operatives were sent to the United States without weapons. They were to purchase radioactive material on the U.S. black market and build a bomb. The attack was thwarted by the May arrest of al Qaeda member Abdullah al-Muhajir, who was born Jose Padilla.

"The reporting is that [al Qaeda terrorists] have everything needed for a weapon-of-mass-destruction attack," an intelligence official told us.

The terrorist threat is based on human agent reporting, including from imprisoned al Qaeda members, and other technical intelligence data, the officials said.

President Bush raised the national threat-alert status to Code Orange on Feb. 7. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said the status could be lowered if intelligence indicates the danger has subsided.

Navy, unmanned
Navy headquarters at the Pentagon has sent a message to commanders declaring that a "capability gap exists now and grows" in the fleet's ability to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.

The message, from the Navy's weapons requirements office, said fleet commanders are expressing a "sense of urgency" at the pace at which the Navy is developing unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) to fill the gap as aging P-3 patrol planes are retired.

We obtained a copy of the Feb. 14 memo, which is part of an ongoing dialogue between headquarters and the fleet. It details two emerging systems: the RQ-8A Fire Scout helicopter for the Navy and Marine Corps, and the more high-tech naval unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) to be fielded after 2010.

The Navy will demonstrate the Fire Scout system of air vehicles and a command station on the amphibious docking ship USS Denver in August and fly it at the Fallon, Nev., Naval Air Station next year as part of an experimental program.

The UCAV, which in one prototype resembles the infant son of the B-2 bat-shaped bomber, would give the Navy a surveillance as well as reconnaissance aircraft that could strike enemy air defenses without risking pilots' lives.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has identified unmanned vehicles as a top priority in the "transformation" of the military to better combat future threats. The CIA has used the Predator and its Hellfire missiles in Afghanistan and Yemen to hunt and kill members of al Qaeda. It is likely to be used in Iraq to hunt for the country's leader, Saddam Hussein. The Air Force uses it to find targets.

The Navy message sets out its requirements.

"The Navy is unique in many ways, not the least of which is that our operational platform space is finite (i.e. ship space), and our area of operations is infinite," the document says. "Therefore, a single operating system for 'unmanned systems' is a must. The unwieldy and uniquely stove-piped control stations most UAVs bring will not support the naval concept of operations."

The answer may be the UCAV, but the message warns commanders that building and deploying it will take as much time as fielding the F-18 Hornet. "There is no other system on the horizon for persistent penetrating surveillance or for persistent armed reconnaissance that can address issues such as short time exposure of time-sensitive targets in a hostile air defense environment," the message states.

One of the hottest military items in Washington right now is a set of special language cards for the U.S. Navy SEALs, who are poised for military action in Iraq.

Private contractor Special Readiness Services International, based here and made up of former military trainers, has put together a set of six laminated, 6-inch-by-4-inch cards for Iraq.

The cards contain the insignia for the Iraqi ground, air and naval forces, and outlines of common Iraqi weapons. They also have the Arabic alphabet and numbers, and key phrases designed for what is expected to be a victory over the Iraqi military.

The cards provide a handy reference for soldiers if and when they confront the Iraqis. They include such phrases as "kiffi" for "stop," "ear-fah yaday-ick" for "hands up," and "ma-shee helf" for "walk backwards."

The cards also are expected to be useful for soldiers who come across surrendering Iraqi soldiers. They contain Arabic translations for "Who is the boss?" and "How many others?"

News organizations preparing to send reporters to the front are getting the card sets.

Saudi veto
The lengths to which Saudi Arabia puts restrictions on the U.S. military in the oil kingdom is illustrated in a confidential Air Force report on the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB).

The report refers to "the Saudi manning cap" that keeps the number of personnel at the air base artificially low.

"Complicating our manning challenge is the Saudi restriction on maximum CAOC manning at PSAB, which became an artificial limitation during OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom], preventing deployment of the full complement of people [the commander] would have liked," it said.

The report is particularly critical of the practice of rotating in personnel every 90 days without regard for the experience levels needed to operate CAOC high-tech equipment.

"Every 90 days, they experience a surge of equipment problems and outages, and coincidentally, these problems occur as ... personnel are rotating out at the end of their 90 days, and new untrained personnel replace them."

"There are not enough people authorized or assigned to [the U.S. Central Command Air Force] to man the PSAB CAOC as a warfighting team. [Air Force] rotation policies exacerbate this problem. The ... warriors at the premier USAF CAOC are stretched thin due to lack of well-trained people to carry out the mission a problem that will only get worse if we ramp up in near term to conduct a [major theater war]."

The report recommends that the Air Force establish special CAOC teams designed to fight a major war, such as an invasion of Iraq.

The Prince Sultan CAOC opened in the summer of 2001, just in time to run air operations over Afghanistan. Air Force officials tell us improvements in manning are being made.

Despite finding problems, the team of officers concluded, "It is the best CAOC ever built."

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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