Archive for October, 2011
Water, Water Everywhere
A U.S. Navy SH-60F Seahawk helicopter carrying U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Kristie Kenney conducts an aerial survey of flooded areas in and around Bangkok on Monday (Oct. 24). A 10-member survey team from the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force assessed the damage to develop a plan for deploying humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
Heavier-than-usual rains during the monsoon season flooded 61 of Thailand’s 77 provinces, affecting 8.2 million people. The deluge, which has killed more than 370 people since July, is threatening to flood parts of Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, with as much as six feet of water in coming days.
The 3rd MEF regularly trains to respond to natural disasters during exercises held on Okinawa, where it is based, and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
Click on the photo to enlarge the image.
To see a photo slide show of the Thai flooding and what the U.S. military is doing to assist the Royal Thai Armed Forces, click here.
To see another slideshow of flood relief efforts, click here.
To view an interactive Google map of the flooded region, click here.
Kenya’s leaders may have committed a strategic blunder by sending troops into neighboring Somalia to eliminate the threat of militant Islamists, some experts say.
Diplomats, former officials and analysts cited in the New York Times say the Kenyan military may not be up to the job that has stymied the United Nations, the United States, Ethiopia the African Union over the last two decades. They also caution that the incursion by hundreds of the East African nation’s troops, assisted by artillery bombardments and air raids is becoming bogged down as seasonal rains turn Somalia’s dirt roads to mud.
Questions about Kenya’s exit strategy have been raised. There is also the threat of reprisal attacks in Kenya by the al Shabab terrorist group and the effect they could have on Kenya’s economy – especially tourism.
Kenya citied recent attacks and kidnappings of European tourists and aid workers as the main reason for the Oct. 12 cross-border invasion. But a spokesman for the government appeared to contradict that Thursday, indicating that Kenya had been planning action against al-Shabab inside Somalia for months, according to the Associated Press. Alfred Mutua said the goal of the Kenyan military operation is to destroy the al-Qaida-linked militant group, within the shortest time possible.
Meanwhile, the Kenyan military says nine al-Shabab fighters were killed and four Kenyan troops wounded Thursday (Oct. 27) in an al-Shabab attack. The group’s leaders have called for attacks inside Kenya. One person was killed and more than 20 wounded in two separate grenade attacks in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, on Monday (Oct. 24.) A Kenyan man arrested for the attacks told a court he was a member of al-Shabab.
Another grenade and machine gun attack Thursday (Oct. 27) on a civilian vehicle near the Kenyan-Somali border left eight people dead, Britain’s The Guardian reported.
Eye in the Sky
Last week’s attack on Turkish military forces by Kurdish militants and the subsequent incursion by Turkish forces into Kurdish areas of Iraq give new impetus to Turkey’s development of an unmanned aerial vehicle, according to Turkish press reports.
Turkey’s first homegrown UAV, the Anka, has had its first successful two-hour test flight and is ready for use, the Turkish newspaper Zaman reported Oct. 25. It is slated to be deployed in 2012.
Anka, which is Turkish for Phoenix, has been in development since 2004 – suffering some setbacks along the way. Zaman said the UAV is important in Turkey’s reignited battle with militant Kurdish separatists – especially because of strained relations with Israel, the previous supplier of Turkey’s UAVs.
After a raid by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party – known by the acronym PKK – into southeastern Turkey left 24 soldiers dead and more than 100 wounded, the Turkish military pounded parts of northern Iraq believed to be hiding PKK fighters with artillery and airstrikes. It was the worst PKK attack in Turkey in nearly two decades.
Turkey previously purchased Israeli Heron UAVs, but maintaining them has been problematic since relations deteriorated between Israel and Turkey. Last year nine Turkish nationals were killed when Israeli commandos raided a flotilla of boats trying to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Turkey demanded an apology and restitution to victims’ families, which Israel refused. Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and trade and military ties between the former regional allies all but collapsed.
Israel’s rapid aid response in the wake of Sunday’s 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Turkey near Van (See map), may help heal the rift.
In the meantime, the Anka’s developers say their UAV, with a wingspan of 56 feet, can fly at a speed of 75 knots, reach an altitude of 30,000 feet and remain in the air for up to 24 hours at a time.
U.S. Marines prepare for a training exercise on the flight deck of the USS New Orleans in the Pacific Ocean. The Marines are assigned to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, (MEU) Maritime Raid Force. The helicopters are Boeing CH-46E Sea Knight helos, which can carry 14 Marines 151 miles for an air assault.
The New Orleans (LPD 18) is part of the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group, which includes the USS Makin Island (LHD 8), the Navy’s newest amphibious assault ship and the USS Pearl Harbor (LSD 52), an amphibious dock landing ship. When this photo was taken (Oct. 10) the Ready Group was on a 12-day certification exercise off the southern California in preparation for a future deployment.
To see a slideshow of the exercise and duties sailors and Marines performed at sea, click here.
Peace in the Basque Country Still Uncertain
While the demise of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi sparks headlines around the world, another development on the international terrorism front is largely being overlooked: in Europe, the militant Basque separatist group, ETA, has announced it is ending its decades-long campaign of bombings, shootings and kidnappings to win independence.
The group, founded in 1959, called for “direct dialogue” with Spanish and French officials, the New York Times and other news outlets reported.
The Basque country, which straddles the border between northwest Spain and southwest France, includes the cities of Bilbao and Pamplona in Spain and Bayonne in France.
ETA, which stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna — “Basque Homeland and Freedom,” in the Basque language — has mounted a violent campaign against officials and police in both countries since the 1960s. Targets have also included journalists, academics, businessmen, railroads and a nuclear plant under construction. More than 800 people have been killed and thousands injured in Spain alone by ETA attacks.
ETA has declared, and then broken, ceasefires four times before. The group has been labeled a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States.
An international group of peacemakers that included former United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan met in Spain’s Basque country last week and issued a communique Oct. 17 calling for an end to “the last armed confrontation in Europe.” On Oct. 20 ETA issued a statement and a video (viewable on the website of Britain’s Guardian newspaper) declaring “definitive cessation of its armed activity.” The Spanish government welcomed the ETA proclamation but several thorny issues have yet to be addressed. ETA did not say it was disarming, and it is expected to seek the release of hundreds of Basque prisoners being held in Spain, France and elsewhere.
The military dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975, banned the Basque language and other cultural activities in the region. In 1979, Spain granted its part of Basque country a degree of autonomy.
Little and Lethal
The U.S. military has secretly deployed small, portable, kamikaze unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) to Afghanistan for use against Taliban insurgents, Bloomberg News reported this week.
The little, lethal UAV is known as Switchblade. It weighs less than six pounds, can be carried in a soldier’s backpack and is launched from a mortar-like tube. Once airborne, Switchblade, manufactured by AeroVironmentc Inc., sends back color video imagery and GPS (global positioning system) coordinates which the soldier can view on a hand-held ground controller. It’s the same controller that operates AeroVironment’s other small unmanned air systems (SUAS) like the hand-launched Raven. The 24-inch-long Switchblade is battery-powered and can stay aloft — at around 500 feet — for between five and 10 minutes.
But what makes Switchblade unique is the ability to transition from a low-flying reconnaissance drone to small bomb with the flick of a switch by the soldier operating the ground controller. It can then be aimed at a nearby — but out of sight — target such as an un-armored vehicle or small enemy group on a rooftop or in a shallow cave. When detonated, it acts like a flying shotgun blast, an Army official told Bloomberg. But the small, controlled explosion cuts down on the risk of harming nearby non-combatants and bystanders, according to AeroVironment. The soldier on the ground can also call off the attack even after the switch to flying bomb is made, AeroVironment says.
The Army secretly deployed the attack UAV to Afghanistan last year and plans to order more and deploy them where needed, according to the Bloomberg report.
For it’s part, AeroVironment announced in September that it had received a $4.9 million contract from the Army’s Close Combat Weapons Systems office. “The award is for rapid fielding of this capability to deployed combat forces,” AeroVironment said in a press release, which did not specify where Switchblade would be deployed.
While some follow-on news accounts herald Switchblade as a “new weapon,” your 4GWAR editor first wrote about Switchblade in a posting at Defense Technology International’s ARES on Defense blog last year.
Here’s an AeroVironment promotional video of how the Switchblade could be used on TIME’s website.
UPDATE: Disabled French kidnap victim dies in Somali hands. (See below)
U.S. officials say a small contingent of combat-equipped troops have been sent to the Central African nation of Uganda to assist in the elimination of the violent renegade rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Meanwhile, Kenya – which lies to the east of Uganda – has sent several hundred troops across its eastern border into neighboring Somalia to subdue the radical Islamist group, al Shabab.
Central Africa Terror
President Barack Obama notified congressional leaders Oct. 14 that he was sending advisers to Uganda help officials there and in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan defeat the LRA and its leader, Joseph Kony. Along with three of his aides, Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Voice of America reported.
“For more than two decades, the LRA has murdered, raped and kidnapped tens of thousands of men, women and children in Central Africa,” Obama said in his notification letter to Congress. He added that a law passed by Congress and signed by him in 2010, “expressed support for increased comprehensive U.S. Efforts to help mitigate and eliminate the threat posed by the LRA to civilians and regional stability.
The 4GWAR Blog reported on the depredations and atrocities of the LRA (April 15, 2010) detailed in a Human Rights Watch report. A senior Defense Department official said Oct. 14 that the U.S. has provided $33 million in support for the Ugandan military’s counter-LRA efforts since 2008. The U.S. Is also supplying logistical support, non-lethal equipment, training and intelligence gathering assistance to other militaries in the region fighting the LRA.
Obama made clear that the 100 or so troops, while armed for combat, would not engage the LRA — unless attacked.
Some military and diplomatic analysts wondered why Obama was committing any U.S. resources to Central Africa while still enmeshed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some politicians, like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had serious misgivings, but U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, and a staunch supporter of many African assistance programs, praised the move — although he did not mention Obama in his press statement.
At the Kenya-Somalia Border
According to Kenyan security officials, the New York Times reported, Kenyan soldiers crossed into Somalia on Sunday (Oct. 16) in armored trucks and tanks, backed by helicopters which bombed and strafed al Shabab positions.
The government in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, blamed al Shabab for a series of kidnappings of Westerners from Kenyan territory. Some analysts say the kidnappings are the work of Somali pirates, not Islamist militants.
A British tourist was killed and his wife was abducted last month at a resort, 500 kilometers southeast of Nairobi. On Oct. 1, a 66-year-old disabled French woman, was kidnapped from a house on nearby Manda Island by gunmen, according to Bloomberg. And aid workers employed by the medical assistance group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) were kidnapped near a refugee camp in northeastern Kenya by a group of armed men from Somalia on Oct. 13.
The French woman, Marie Dedieu, has died, according to French officials. The exact circumstances of her death are not yet known, the BBC reported, but France’s Foreign Ministry speculates her kidnappers may have withheld “the medication we sent her,” Britain’s Press Association reported. Ms. Dedieu, who used a wheelchair and suffered from cancer and heart problems, was taken from her beachfront home on an island off Kenya’s coast.
In all, three European women remain in Somali kidnappers’ hands: the British woman, Judith Tebbut, and two Spanish aid workers for Doctors Without Borders, who were seized at a refugee camp near the Kenya-Somalia border.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports, Somalis fleeing war and famine have poured across the border this year and Kenya now reluctantly hosts 590,000 Somali refugees.
Last year, al Shabab claimed responsibility for several bombings in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, that killed scores of soccer fans who has gathered to watch the World Cup on television in pubs and other public venues. Those attacks were reportedly in reprisal for the thousands of African Union peacekeeping troops from Uganda and Burundi.
The group denies responsibility for the spate of kidnappings along the Kenyan border and has vowed to seek revenge against Kenya – in the form of suicide bombings – for the incursion into Somalia, the Associated Press reported.
Sea of Mud
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Patrick Reynolds fights racing water while holding on to a tow strap attached to an Afghan army vehicle stuck in the Lurah River in Afghanistan’s Shinkai district. Reynolds is a squad leader assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul.
Provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) were created to help the Afghan and Iraqi people develop the infrastructure necessary to succeed when the violence and conflict stop. PRTs are integral part of the long-term strategy to shift responsibility for security, governance, and economics to the local populace.
To see how Staff Sgt. Reynolds got into this mess and how he got out of it, click here for a Defense Department photo essay.
Congressman Asks ‘Why So Few?’
In an Oct. 4 letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, blames “onerous and intimidating” procedures for the sparse number of service members who have received the nation’s highest military award for bravery, POLITICO reports.
Since the decoration was created during the Civil War, there have been 3,458 recipients. During World War II (1941-1945) 467 medals of honor were awarded. There were 136 recipients during the Korean War (1950-1953) and 248 individuals were decorated for actions between the years 1963 and 1973 during the Vietnam War (1959-1975). But only 10 individuals serving in Iraq and Afghanistan were awarded the Medal of Honor – all but three of them posthumously, POLITICO noted.
Hunter, who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan as a Marine Corps officer, wants the Defense Department to conduct a comprehensive review of hundreds of cases where, he says, the Medal of Honor appeared to be well-deserved but a different medal was awarded.
SHAKO is an occasional 4GWAR posting on military history, traditions and culture. For the uninitiated, a shako is the tall, billed headgear worn by many armies from the Napoleonic era to about the time of the American Civil War. It remains a part of the dress or parade uniform of several military organizations like the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York.
Why TSA Has to Search You There
A Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up a U.S. airliner with a bomb hidden in his underwear on Christmas Day 2009 has pleaded guilty to federal terrorism charges today (Oct. 12) – the second day of his trial –according to news reports.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 25, pleaded guilty to all eight charges against him including conspiracy to commit terrorism and attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, according to the Associated Press, the Detroit Free-Press, Reuters, AFP and other news outlets.
Abdulmutallab was a passenger aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit from Amsterdam when the bomb he ignited failed to explode and passengers and crew subdued him and extinguished the blaze. He was the only one burned — literally and figuratively. Federal prosecutors said Abdulmutallab, the son of a Nigerian banker who warned U.S. officials that his son may have become radicalized, was influenced by fiery U.S.-born jihadist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a U.S. drone-fired missile in Yemen recently.
Abdulmutallab’s failed bombing attempt led to stricter – and controversial – passenger screening measures at U.S. airports. Because he successfully got his explosive device through airport security in Amsterdam and Nigeria, U.S. officials speeded up their deployment of whole body scanners that revealed what was beneath passengers’ clothes — including the passenger.
Civil liberties groups decried the screening technology as an invasion of privacy. The American Civil Liberties Union described it as a “virtual strip search.” Some conservative politicians and parents of small children were equally unhappy with the alternative to the full body screening: a rigorous physical pat-down by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners. In recent months there have been several internet videos of crying children and unhappy parents at the airport security checkpoint.
TSA is a unit of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. To counter the criticism and ease passengers’ concerns, the machines were altered to show a cartoon-like image of the human subject rather than an X-ray-like picture. The TSA agent who sees the image in a different area can’t see the person being screened nor can agents at the checkpoint see the person’s body image.
The 7th Degree of Separation
Your 4GWAR editor was subjected to just such a pat-down recently at the Kansas City International Airport on our way home from the University of Kansas journalism school’s 2001 Military Journalist Experience program at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Leonard Wood.
After removing shoes and belt, emptying pockets of keys and coins, and taking our laptop out of its case, we stood before the image screener feet spread apart and arms raised when we realized our sunglasses were still atop our ahead. We stepped back to the baggage screening conveyor belt to toss them in the bin with our keys and money. Unfortunately we did this just as the unseen TSA employee snapped the picture.
Our last minute sudden move was apparently seen as an evasive action and raised a red flag. No bells or whistles went off but TSA didn’t let us pick up our property and go, either. Instead we were led off to the side where a very polite male TSA employee wearing rubber gloves (like doctors and dentists use) informed us we were going to be patted down. The experience was a cross between being fitted for trousers at the tailor and that well-known medical test to check for a hernia (‘Cough.’) Yes, “junk” was touched, but in a very efficient and professional way. The TSA officer explained what he was doing, noted he was wearing gloves and that he was using only the backs of his hands to search for contraband. He also announced in advance when the search was moving to another part of the body
When he felt an object in our pants pocket he asked us to remove it (a wad of receipts and a boarding pass documentation). Another object he asked us to remove from still another pants pocket was a bunched up, well-used hanky that we wanted to spare fellow travelers from seeing (it was ragweed season in the Heartland).
“Guess this isn’t your favorite part of the job,” we commented to the TSA officer. “Something like that,” he replied dryly. He thanked us for our cooperation. We thanked him and his co-workers for keeping us safe.
And thank you, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for making all this necessary.