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June 10, 2010
Notes from the Pentagon

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, recently sent an urgent request to the Pentagon's Joint Staff to speed up deployment of four new light attack aircraft needed by special operations commandos for airstrikes against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The request was stalled after Congress blocked funds for the classified project, code-named Imminent Fury.

"An August 2009 Centcom [request for forces] for four aircraft in support of SOF forces conducting operations against al Qaeda and Taliban senior leadership in Afghanistan was not fulfilled and remains open," Gen. McChrystal stated in a May 20 memorandum to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Click here to view Gen. McChrystal's letter (PDF)

The turboprop aircraft are built on the Brazilian Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano airframe and will be fitted with 250-pound laser-guided bombs and other weapons. They also will carry high-tech intelligence and surveillance gear.

Gen. McChrystal said the planes "will fill this capability gap by leveraging uniquely qualified and experienced aircrew with increased agility of a survivable light attack aircraft integrated with sensors and weapons systems necessary to conduct critical find, fix and finish operations against [al Qaeda] and Taliban networks."

The planes also will support the "critical need" for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in support of surging ground forces in Afghanistan, the four-star general said.

"The immediate deployment of the Imminent Fury team into Afghanistan will validate the concept while simultaneously providing a rapid means to help meet urgent theater demands," Gen. McChrystal said.

According to defense officials, a request to reprogram $44 million in Navy funds to lease four Super Tucanos was made to Congress and turned down in April for reasons that remain unclear.

Suspicion is focused on pork-barrel politics. Specifically, the military was told there was no requirement for the aircraft or that the requirement was not clear, claims that would appear to be contradicted by Gen. McChrystal's letter.

Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who sits on the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, is said to be behind the holdup. According to the defense officials, Mr. Brownback is delaying the funds so that a Kansas-manufactured competitor aircraft, the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6B, which has not been certified for military use, can be further developed and ultimately compete with the Super Tucano. Spokesmen for Mr. Brownback did not return telephone calls or e-mails seeking comment.

Mr. Brownback and Rep. Todd Tiahrt, also a Kansas Republican, wrote to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in November to voice their objections to a Pentagon plan to buy 100 Super Tucanos. They stated that the buy would upset an Air Force review of light attack aircraft. They also stated that a "substantial investment" was made already in the AT-6B.

One Imminent Fury aircraft was already combat-certified in U.S. tests, and similar aircraft are already in use by South American militaries, including in Colombia, where it was proved successful in nighttime bombing raids against communist FARC narco-rebels.

Senior defense officials, including Mr. Gates, are supporting Gen. McChrystal's request, and the Joint Staff is said to be considering how to get the planes to Afghanistan, either by persuading Congress to relent on the $44 million reprogramming or by making a second funding request.

The airplanes are low-cost weapons that mesh closely with the counterinsurgency strategy advocated by U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David H. Petraeus, who has argued that one way insurgents try to wear down their enemy is by exhausting resources. Imminent Fury aircraft cost hundreds of dollars per flight hour to operate, compared with costs of $10,000 to $12,000 per flight hour for the current close air-support jets.

U.S. officials say U.S. and allied security services are investigating a reported terrorist threat to the World Cup soccer match set for this weekend between the U.S. and Britain, although the threat does not appear credible.

The big game will be held Saturday night in the 40,000-seat Royal Bafokeng Stadium, located in Rustenburg, northwest of the South African city of Johannesburg.

"Major international sporting events like the World Cup are things terrorists often pay close attention to," a U.S. official said of threats to the weekend game. "When you've got some seriously bad actors who operate in the region especially in East Africa and Somalia it's only prudent to do all you can to run to ground any threats you hear about."

Officials said there have been no credible terrorist threats to the World Cup tournament, which begins on Friday and extends until July 11.

One report being checked is a May 29 claim on the Debka File website that stated al Qaeda was planning an attack on the U.S.-England match.

U.S. support for World Cup security has included the dispatch of a small team of nuclear technicians with detection gear from the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to South Africa.

The team was part of a joint U.S.-South African nuclear security training program that helped prepare for the soccer tournament, the first hosted by an African nation, to deal with "radiological assistance for emergency response, major public event venue searches, geographic information systems, and medical responses to nuclear and radiological emergencies," according to an NNSA statement.

The team was not one of the secret Nuclear Emergency Support Teams, or NESTs, that are trained to deal with any type of attack using nuclear materials, such as a radiological bomb. A NEST was sent to Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games.

State Department officials told a Senate hearing this week that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist group remains one the world's most dangerous and well-armed threats.

"Hezbollah remains the most technically capable terrorist group in the world and a continued security threat to the United States," Jeffrey T. Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, and Daniel Benjamin, State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr. Feltman and Mr. Benjamin warned in a joint written statement that the Iranian-backed Shiite terrorist group, based mainly in Lebanon, could attack the United States in the future.

"While we recognize that Hezbollah is not directly targeting the United States and U.S. interests today, we are aware that could change if tensions increase with Iran over that country's nuclear program," they said.

They noted that the Obama administration policy is that "it will not deal with or have any contact with the terrorist organization."

Hezbollah is building up its military forces in Lebanon with new weapons, rockets and missiles, many from Iran, Mr. Feltman and Mr. Benjamin said.

The officials provided no new information on Syria's reported transfer of Scud missiles to Hezbollah, noting only that the reports are "deeply troubling" because "these destabilizing developments increase the risks of miscalculation and the possibility of hostilities."

The Pentagon is bolstering Israel's missile defenses to deal with any Hezbollah threats, they testified. U.S. support includes further development of the currently deployed Arrow anti-missile system, the David's Sling defense system for use against short-range rocket and missile threats, and deployment of an X-Band high-powered radar for early warning and interceptor guidance.

One new system being developed by Israel with U.S. support is the Iron Dome short-range missile defense system. Mr. Feltman said the Obama administration announced last month that it is giving Israel $205 million for its plan to rapidly produce and deploy 12 Iron Dome missile batteries. The system will be able to counter Hezbollah and other enemy Katyusha rockets and 155-millimeter artillery shells with a range of up to 43 miles. The system will have day-and-night, all-weather and multiple-target capabilities.

Some Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee abandoned their campaign positions when they voted last month to repeal the ban on gays openly serving in the military.

Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida were considered swing votes. They ended up siding with President Obama, ignoring pleas from the four military service chiefs to hold off on a vote until a study is completed.

Bill Nelson was asked by the Ledger newspaper of Lakeland, Fla., in November 2000 whether he supported the ban, known as "don't ask, don't tell."

"Yes, I do," he answered, according to the newspaper. "I support it because I think it's working."

Ben Nelson, running for the Senate that same year, was critical of the homosexual lifestyle, reports special correspondent Rowan Scarborough.

According to the Daily Nebraskan, Ben Nelson said, "I think homosexuality is not a moral act." He had indicated he would vote to keep the ban, according to news accounts before the committee vote.

But the senator from Nebraska ended up voting for repeal. Afterward, he put out a statement headlined, "Nelson Votes to End Policy Encouraging Lying and Deceit in the U.S. Military."

"I don't believe Nebraskans want to continue a policy that promotes, even forces people to lie and be deceitful. Yet for 17 years, the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy has done exactly that within the U.S. military, where service members are sworn to values of truthfulness and integrity. Congress needs to get out of the way and let the Pentagon move forward," the statement read.

Conservatives say warriors should not be forced to live in intimate confines with open gays and worry that it will hurt combat readiness.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, opposes repeal and may try to filibuster the 2011 defense authorization bill that contains it.

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