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February 25, 2010
Notes from the Pentagon

Taiwan air defense
The Defense Intelligence Agency is getting ready to deliver bad news to Obama administration policy officials opposed to selling F-16 jets to Taiwan: The island's air force needs upgrading.

"Taiwan's F-5 fighters have reached the end of their operational service life, and while the indigenously produced FCK-1 Indigenous Defense Fighter is a large component of Taiwan's active fighter force, it lacks the capability for sustained sorties," the DIA stated in a Jan. 21 assessment.

The assessment was done in preparation for a response to questions posed by members of Congress, probably on the status of Taiwan's request to buy an additional 66 F-16s before the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, closes the production line.

Click here to view the DIA assessment

The new F-16s were not included in the $6.4 billion arms package announced recently. That sale triggered Chinese government anger, including a partial cutoff of U.S.-China military exchanges and threats from a Chinese general to punish the United States by selling off some Chinese-held Treasury debt. The White House, according to defense officials, fears a further sale of F-16s would compound Beijing's anger.

Taiwan has requested the additional jets since 2006, mainly to replace its aging F-5s. According to a senior Taiwanese defense official who favors the new F-16 sale, the F-5s caused the deaths of 10 pilots during training flight crashes in the past several years.

With the White House pressing for job creation, many Taiwan watchers are wondering why the new F-16 sale, which would produce new jobs and generate $3.1 billion for the defense sector, has not been approved.

"This version of the DIA report makes no mention of the [People's Liberation Army] threat, which is approaching 600 fourth-generation fighters and attack aircraft, versus about 300 for Taiwan," said Richard Fisher, a Chinese military specialist with the International Strategy Assessment Center.

"By the end of this decade, PLA fifth-generation fighters are expected [to be deployed], meaning that Taiwan really needs a wholesale upgrade of its fighter fleet, and the United States had better start implementing now if we are going to stay true to the Taiwan Relations Act."

A White House spokesman referred questions to the Pentagon and a spokesman there had no immediate comment.

A DIA spokesman said the assessment made public is a draft and that a final version will be forthcoming.

The DIA report said Taiwan's 56 French-made Mirage 200-5 aircraft have advanced technology but "require frequent, expensive maintenance that adversely affects their operational readiness state."

That leaves Taiwan's 146 F-16 fighters, purchased in the 1990s, as the bulk of its air force. "Taiwan may consider seeking upgrades to some capabilities" for its F-16s, the report said, such as improved avionics, survivability features and unspecified "combat effectiveness" upgrades.

"Taiwan recognizes that it needs a sustainable replacement for obsolete and problematic aircraft platforms," the report stated. "In addition to pursuing a replacement airframe, Taiwan is also examining an upgrade to its existing F-16 A/B aircraft and its IDF aircraft."

The DIA assessment did not provide details on the growing Chinese military threat across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, but stated that China has deployed increasingly sophisticated ballistic and cruise missiles, along with advanced fighters and helicopters.

The unclassified report, first disclosed by Defense News, said the threat "has diminished Taiwan's ability to deny [China's] efforts to attain air superiority in a conflict."

Kabul threats
U.S. military officials say the number of threats of suicide-bombing attacks inside the Afghan capital of Kabul has increased in recent weeks, raising new fears that the Taliban will seek to attack with deadly bombs as U.S. and allied forces are moving to oust the Taliban from southern Helmand province.

The New York Times reported last week that recent Taliban suicide attacks have failed to cause mass casualties, noting that suicide bombers conducted 17 suicide bombings from Jan. 24 to Feb. 14 but failed to kill any U.S. or allied troops.

A military spokesman in Afghanistan dismissed reports of an influx in suicide bombers. "There is a never-ending stream of threats in and around Kabul," said Army Col. Wayne Shanks, noting that the threat reporting was "nothing new or unusual."

Too busy
Two of the military's four-star generals closest to the ongoing wars were asked this past week to weigh in on the political issue of lifting the ban on gays in the military.

They, like the four military service chiefs, are somewhat cool to the idea of ending the 1993 ban on open homosexuals in the ranks, due to concerns about the possible effect on combat unit cohesion in the ranks.

Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, was in Washington for consultations. He made an appearance at the Pentagon press room on Monday where reporters asked him repeatedly if he supported President Obama's plan to end the prohibition.

"Well, again, I'll be honest with you, I really haven't had a lot of time to think through it," a somewhat exasperated Gen. Odierno said several times in response to questions.

"What's interesting to me, the comment I make all the time is, as we've gone through this 'don't ask, don't tell,' to me it's become a nonissue as we've moved forward. I haven't seen any issue. That doesn't mean it's right. All I'm saying is, as I've implemented this war now for seven years, we've been able to get forces out there [that] are ready and prepared to conduct operations."

Gen. Odierno added that "my opinion is everyone should be allowed to serve, as long as we're still able to fight our wars and we're able to have forces that are capable of doing whatever we're asked to do."

Adm. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs chairman, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, enthusiastically have endorsed removing the ban, and as they stated in recent congressional testimony, they do not know what impact it would have on readiness. They have ordered a yearlong, high-level study to answer that question.

Another combatant commander, Gen. David Petraeus, who is overall in charge of troops in the Middle East and the Afghanistan-Pakistan war theater, referred to that study when asked about the gay ban on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

"I served in fact in combat with individuals who were gay and who were lesbian in combat situations and, frankly, you know, over time you said, 'Hey, how's, how's this guy's shooting?' Or 'How is her analysis,' or what have you. But we'll see," Gen. Petraeus said.

"Again, that's the importance of this review that will be conducted. I think it is hugely important that we have the answers for the questions that they'll be asking in a very methodical way, something we've not done before because of the emotion and the sensitivity of this issue."

The military's long-standing ban was signed into law by President Clinton in 1993. The law led to the policy called "don't ask, don't tell," which allows gays to serve as long as they keep their sexuality private.

Women on subs
A former Navy submariner is raising concerns about the Pentagon's plan to deploy women on submarines, something experienced submariners say is one of the military's most difficult operating environments since all privacy goes out the porthole, or in this case, the torpedo tube.

Richard J. Douglas, a machinist's mate on an Atlantic Fleet attack submarine during the 1970s, told Inside the Ring that the idea that all-male crews on submarines is sexist is "bunk."

"In the first place, all submarine sailors know that the first casualty of submarine duty is personal privacy," he said.

"There is no point in spending the time and effort to create separate 'boy-girl' facilities in a shipboard environment that is implacably hostile to all forms of modesty and privacy."

Also, setting up separate male and female sleeping quarters won't work because "round-the-clock operations at sea make privacy and quiet, even in sleeping quarters, a fragile notion."

"In fact, setting aside space exclusively for women on a submarine will have the effect of robbing men of space which, but for the arrival of their female shipmates, would be available to them," he said.

As a former enlisted submariner, Mr. Douglas said the burden of trying to integrate women on submarines will hit the junior enlisted crew hardest. They will be least able to defend themselves from the anticipated "gender politics," he said.

Junior enlisted submariners are required to do difficult physical labor in the very cramped space of a submarine for months at a time.

"A Lexington Line subway car in New York at its most jam-packed does not even remotely approximate months of close quarters living on a submerged submarine," he said. "The notion that women can be introduced into this environment without drastically changing fundamental shipboard dynamics, crew morale, operational and family readiness, and the women themselves is astonishing."

Qaeda heartbeat
Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, recently was asked whether Yemen is becoming the new major safe haven for al Qaeda.

"I would still say that the FATA is the beating heart of al Qaeda," he told a group of defense reporters Jan. 21, referring to Pakistan's lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

However, both are closely linked "because we know that there's communications, there's strategic guidance, there's advice and all the rest coming from the FATA," he said.

"There are closer ties between [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen] and the FATA than between al Qaeda senior leadership and any other of the affiliates," he said.

Al Qaeda senior leaders are under tremendous pressure in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region but the Yemen-based affiliate "has not been under the same kind of pressure until very recently," Mr. Benjamin said.

Still, Yemen-based al Qaeda has made "a quantum leap to being the affiliate that wants to carry out attacks against the United States and its allies which the other affiliates have not done," he said.

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