Monday, September 26, 2011

U.S. Military is Lean and Mean - and Green

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 26 September 2011.

I, like most people, enjoy green spaces and fresh air and clean water. This is what most people associate with the push for “green” energy sources and energy independence. This push also transcends into a ruggedly mobile energy-independent American fighting force.

While climate change doubters and advocates of the oil and coal industries in Congress continue to block progress on American energy independence for the general population, the U.S military is leading its own charge from the front.

A recently-released report from the independent Pew Project on National Security, Energy, and Climate finds the Department of Defense increased spending on new energy 300% between 2006 and 2009, and it continues to increase. One of the most vocal proponents of creating a force independent of fossil fuels is Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who likes to point out that there were doubters when the Navy switched from sail to coal, from coal to diesel, and diesel to nuclear. They all look rather silly today. The same kind of change is happening now.

After reading the report, it is not hard to understand why the military is so eager to dump oil dependence. “Operational energy costs” — costs for running actual military operations — account for three-quarters of the DoD energy budget.

Some 81% of that is spent on jet fuel. The Air Force is the largest military consumer of oil, but plans to use biofuels in 50% of its U.S. flights by 2016. The Navy successfully built and tested an FA-18 “Green” Hornet fighter jet that performs the same as a regular fighter, but runs on alternative fuel. The Navy and Marine Corps plan to use alternative energy in 50% of their operational platforms by 2020. It is understandable why the “ground-pounders” in the Army and Marines want to cut fuel use when, in 2010, 1 in every 46 convoys in Afghanistan produced a casualty and 80% of supply convoys were transporting fuel.

The other quarter of the DoD’s energy costs goes to fuel its bases in the U.S. and abroad. The Pew report points out that DoD manages 3 times the square footage of the entire Wal Mart corporation. At home, the Army plans by 2020 to convert at least 6 of its massive installations throughout the country to “net zero” energy use — they’ll produce as much of their own energy as they use. In Iraq and Afghanistan, simply insulating buildings has saved 77,000 gallons of fuel daily. The DoD produced or procured already close to 10% of its energy from renewable sources in 2010.

The U.S. military is taking investment in new alternative energy sources very seriously. If there was any doubt as to its dependability or capabilities, you can bet our military leaders would not put our troops at risk. This stuff works for them. If it works for the military, it can work for the rest of us. If only our Congress would just get out of the way.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Good Defense Requires Good Policy, Not Rhetoric

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 16 September 2011.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney recently spoke at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in San Antonio, Texas. As Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the presidential race, Perry immediately began touting his Air Force service and among his first comments was a promise to be a president the troops could respect.

Months before, both Romney and Perry snubbed the VFW’s invitation. Speaking at VFW suddenly became much more interesting to Romney.

Romney's speech was touted as showing a more aggressive candidate. A reference he made in the speech to “career politicians” was seen as a dig at Perry. Most of the speech was taking jabs at President Barack Obama on jobs, government debt, and proposed defense cuts. He minimized the killing of Osama bin Laden, criticized Obama’s “apologetic” speeches, the Afghanistan withdrawal plan, the “muddle” in Libya, and his handling of Syria. Sprinkled between were anecdotes about his admiration for veterans, about visiting wounded troops, and receiving the casket of a soldier at the airport.

As a veteran and member of the VFW, among other vets groups, I cannot help but feel patronized by both candidates' comments.

Perry’s remark about being a commander-in-chief our troops can respect fits into the stereotypical mold of soldiers as swaggering fist-shakers. This is no surprise from Perry who is a swaggering fist-shaker himself. The way to earn the troops’ respect is through good policy decisions that don’t put them in harm’s way unnecessarily or at least not incompetently, as the last swaggering Texas president did. This isn’t 2004.

Romney never served in the military and the best he could offer was opposition to his own party’s proposed defense cuts, as well as promises to modernize military equipment and veterans’ benefits and use his business experience to cut waste in procurement. He greatly admires those who serve, but never enough to sign up. This fact can be overlooked if it is followed up with good policy. Romney’s speech was thick on praise and strong rhetoric, but thin on policy.

Obama did not serve in the military either and his relationship with military leaders has been a bit rocky, as the exits of Gen. Jim Jones and Gen. Stanley McChrystal show. However, he has presided over much military success. He has authorized more drone strikes in the last three years against terrorist targets than in President George W. Bush’s eight years in office. Al-Qaeda is weaker than ever. He has executed a relatively calm major drawdown of troops in Iraq and is beginning another in Afghanistan. He has succeeded in legitimately affecting regime change in Libya with international support and without boots on the ground. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is beginning to show signs of cracking as well. And, above all, he got Osama bin Laden.

Our defense policy requires more than just Perry’s re-used rhetoric from the Bush years or Romney’s business eye for the bottom line. It requires good, smart policy that is not going to put our troops into combat without necessity. For Obama, the proof is in the pudding. I can respect that.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sanity Needed In Our Immigration Debate

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 13 September 2011

Every elected official regardless of party agrees we need comprehensive immigration reform and increased border protection. The difference lies in exactly what this means to them. The subject is a multifaceted collection of several issues, with legal migration, border protection, and what to do with illegal immigrants already in America. Our elected leaders on both sides have done an excellent job of making such a muddle of the issue that they have succeeded only in confusing Americans and seem confused themselves.

Partisan politics have gotten in the way. The Dream Act was once heartily supported by many in the GOP, but in their efforts to oppose President Barack Obama at every turn they have turned against it. Many liberals are guilty of falsely pulling the race card in opposition to efforts to strengthen border protections, despite it being an apparent and legitimate security interest. What is needed on this issue, like many others, is a little bit of sanity from both sides, in Washington and outside.

The Dream Act allows people who entered the U.S. illegally who have since learned English and either served in the military or completed a degree to stay in the country, putting them on the path to citizenship. These are the type of immigrants we need in America. It does not offer an open door to millions of new illegal immigrants; it is only for those who are already here and have shown a commitment to becoming socially and economically productive Americans. Illegal immigration is illegal, but it is not unreasonable, and in fact it is beneficial to allow the few that fit within this category to remain. Immigrants who pull themselves up by their bootstraps is part of the American story.

On the other side, strengthening border protection measures and stopping illegal crossings is a legitimate security concern for the U.S. and for any country. A country has a right to know and control who comes and goes from its borders. Increasing border protection isn’t racist or oppressive; it is a genuine national security concern. Besides, concerns about terrorism, drugs, weapons, and violence that straddle our southern border are real. But strengthening our border doesn’t just mean with Mexico; it also means our northern border, sea ports, international airports, and thousands of miles of unguarded coastlines. It also means that we’re going to have to pay for it.

Unless 100% Native American, all our ancestors came here from another country. Most of them came legally, some involuntarily. I’m married to an immigrant and I’ve migrated to other countries for work or school myself. We’ve always followed the rules. It is understandable that others want to come to America for a better life. However, the government has a responsibility to protect the people, citizens or immigrants, who are already here. America is a land of immigrants, but it is also a land of laws that we all need to follow. A little bit of sanity in how we apply them is not too much to ask.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Conservative Myth of National Security Strength

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 12 September 2011.

A man sitting in a cave in a remote corner of the world easily predicted the general thrust of the conservative-led response to a major terror attack on America. Once one knows the general thrust, it becomes easy to develop a plan to respond to the response. Muhammad Ali called it "the rope-a-dope": just when they think they have you where they want you, you have them where you want them.

Our enemy has been engaging us for ten years in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq, with thousands of our soldiers and Afghan and Iraqi civilians dead, and billions of dollars spent. Their most important goal has been to bring terrorism into the lives of average citizens at home in order to affect the political process by creating internal turmoil. Mission accomplished. Since 9/11, conservatives have laboured to build the image that Republicans are strong on security and, conversely, that Democrats are weak.

But the facts show that conservatives have been ineffective and inconsistent on national security policy – and now, their myth is crumbling.

During the Bush years, neoconservatives labelled detractors of the wars as unpatriotic and weak, and accused them of forgetting 9/11. A Republican refrain was "fight them over there, not here." The enemy would rather have it that way, too, because it is much easier to fight us on their home turf, in places such as Tora Bora or Sadr City, than for al-Qaida to continually plan terror attacks that take years to put in place and are often discovered at their genesis.

Because of the difficulty in tracking and identifying our foes, much of our effort to engage the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan has consisted of pushing our troops into enemy territory and baiting them into attacking. It has taken us this long to understand that this fight involves much more than just "taking the fight to the enemy"; it means building local institutions, government, infrastructure, economies, trust and public support. It has just as much to do with international development as it does with military action.

Conservative thinking regarding the Middle East and the Arab Spring has been a model of inconsistency. Some called the events a "Muslim Brotherhood nightmare" or blamed the Obama administration's approach for not holding it together (despite homegrown movements and previous decades of inconsistent US policy). Some have called for swifter decisive action, with others against taking any action, even calling it "unconstitutional". Conservative positions on Afghanistan range from supporting withdrawal, to "staying the course"; and on Pakistan, they vary from continued support for the government, to taking diplomatic or even military action against it.

Over the last three years, the US has caught or killed more al-Qaida members and launched more targeted drone attacks against terrorists than in the previous eight years. Muammar Gaddafi has been in America's sights since Ronald Reagan was president and Osama bin Laden was the most wanted man in the world since 9/11. Both were taken down under a Democratic administration – without spending a trillion dollars, sending in thousands of ground troops, or taking a decade to accomplish the task. And these outcomes were achieved with international support and legitimacy.

As campaigning for 2012 ramps up, Republican candidates are divided, with some having been accused of turning into isolationists after supporting withdrawal from Afghanistan and arguing against the successful intervention in Libya. They still claim to be national security champions, despite many championing defence cuts before accepting even small targeted tax increases. Conservatives were willing to support "regime change", boots on the ground in massive numbers in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and their associated costs, with much less legitimacy and international support. Yet they opposed the intervention in Libya despite support from the UN, Nato and the Arab League – and without the need and cost of ground troops. It would seem that the conservative view of when and how military force should be applied is based simply on who occupies the White House.

The proof is in the facts. Ineffective and inconsistent policies, and choosing politics over security, have led to the crumbling of the myth of conservative strength on defence and national security – a myth Republicans had worked so hard to build.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Emergency Services Need Dedicated Communications

This article originally appeared in PolicyMic on 4 September 2011.

Ten years ago, the non-partisan 9/11 Commission, citing difficulties of essential emergency services in communication, recommended that a portion of the communications spectrum be set aside for the exclusive use of public safety services. The problem came up again more recently during Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill. To save lives, the so-called “D Block” needs to be dedicated to first responders so they can communicate effectively during emergencies.

Co-chair of the 9/11 Commission Lee Hamilton recently noted, “the radio spectrum is very valuable property.” The current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plan is to auction off the D Block to wireless providers and use the estimated $4 billion in proceeds to improve the existing broadband slice next to the D Block already used by public safety services. In turn, the FCC plan will require wireless providers to give priority to these services on the D Block during emergencies. But, many public safety officials oppose this plan.

The current spectrum allocation is enough for daily operations, but not enough during serious emergencies where life and death is on the line. They cite the network overload often experienced during major events that prevent emergency services from connecting as people try to communicate with family, friends, and news networks. Public safety services want to control their communications themselves. Wireless providers are divided too, with some supporting the FCC proposal and others supporting the safety services.

Much of the debate in Congress is centered around costs. The FCC claims its plan would cost only half as much as creating a separate network as public services want. Public services claim the extra cost of the standalone network would be worth it for the required dependability, and the cost could be offset by leasing access to private providers when it isn’t in use.

Dependable and controllable communication devices are a necessary part in taking care of emergencies. 9/11 and other disasters since have shown the continued need for a standalone network. Our first responders shouldn’t have to ask private providers for network access. Private providers can lease use of the band when the extra capacity isn’t needed under normal conditions. After all, it is a matter of safety and national security.