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Stormy U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Iran Nuke Deal

The Administration rolled out its “A Team” of witnesses at the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on July 29th, chaired by Chairman Arizona Republican Senator John McCain. The Hearing addressed national security issues arising from the Iran nuclear pact scheduled by a Congressional vote on or before September 17th under the term of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. Yesterday’s hearing was the last in a series of House and Senate sessions prior to the summer recess  adjournment starting Thursday, July 31st. Congress reconvenes following the Labor Day holiday giving less than 10 days for additional hearings before the vote to either accept or reject the Iran nuclear pact. Public opinion poll taken during the current series of Congressional shows a majority of Americans tilting towards asking Congress to reject the pact. The issue is how many of the undecided 13 Democratic Senators and over 30 Democratic Representatives will decide if a negative vote will be veto proof, given a threat by President Obama.

The panel of witnesses included, Secretary of State John Kerry, Energy Secretary Earnest Moniz, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. While questions naturally arose about the credibility of maintaining a military option, there was a tough grilling of Secretary Kerry and Secretary Moniz by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton on the secret side deals between the UN nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the Islamic Republic of Iran over prior military developments.

DefenseNews reported  the comments of Secretary Carter and Gen. Dempsey on military capabilities:

“It’s important that we have an agreement and it be verifiable, and that we keep doing what we need to do: Defend our friends and allies, remain strong in the Gulf — frequent navigation, ballistic missile defense, all the things that we’re doing, and the agreement doesn’t limit us in any way,” Carter said.

Indeed, “military options remain,” Dempsey said, though a negotiated settlement provides a more “durable” solution, as well as time to work with local partner nations to address Iran’s activities. Dempsey said there are a series of initiatives with Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council to that effect.

Exercising airstrikes to take out Iran’s nuclear capability would disrupt its program by several years, Dempsey said. However analysis suggests it would also provoke Iran to “counter our presence in the region at every opportunity and use these other malign activities they have.”

That led to exchanges with Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Joni Ernst (R-NE). Ernst like Senate panel colleague Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) is a former combat veteran who served in Iraq:

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., characterized Dempsey’s brief opening statement, as a “tepid endorsement” of the accord and “damning disagreement with faint praise,” which Dempsey disputed, saying he agreed with the deal.

His statement was neither “tepid nor enthusiastic, but pragmatic,” Dempsey said. His input in the deal was sought “episodically,” his final recommendation given weeks before negotiations concluded. At least in part, his recommendation was to keep pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missiles and arms trafficking for as long as possible.

Challenged by Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, over the president’s assertion that the US faces a choice between an Iran deal or a resolution by force — which Ernst characterized as “war” — Dempsey said he had not said anything to that effect to the president.

“We have a range of options, and I hope to present them,” Dempsey said. “As long as we agree, military strikes on a sovereign nation are an act of war, but there are things between here and there.”

Sen. Cotton was on top of his game engaging in the most withering  Q&A  with  Secretary Kerry and  Energy Secretary Moniz  about their knowledge or the lack thereof  concerning the so-called secret IAEA side deals on prior  military nuclear developments (PMD).  Late he engaged Gen. Dempsey during a discussion of exhibits to corroborate the lethality of Iranian IEDS used to kill American service personnel in Iraq. Dempsey lent the impression he was less inclined to be a booster of the Iran nuke deal. Cotton is both a veteran of combat in Iraq as a former U.S. Army officer and a Harvard Law School graduate and admitted lawyer

Cotton, like any good prosecutor, secured the facts that bolstered his line of questioning to elicit a response he was seeking for the Committee record. Prior to this Armed Services Hearing, Cotton and Kansas Republican Congressman Mike Pompeo had flown to Vienna to confer with IAEA officials uncovering the alleged secret side deals on investigation of Iranian compliance with prior military developments in their nuclear program (PMD).

schultz i know nothingKerry and Moniz, when queried about whether they had either knowledge of or read the IAEA secret side deals on PMD, adopted what in TV land is the fabled Sergeant Schultz defense from the 1960’s TV WWII Nazi prison camp comedy series, “Hogan’s Heroes” – “I know nothing” They simply fobbed it off saying that someone like Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman may have glanced through these documents. Just indicates that the Administration either elected not to conduct due diligence or used the ploy that those agreements were confidential between the IAEA and Iran, that as Cotton pointed out “the Ayatollah read”.

Former IAEA deputy director Olli Heinonen, who is now a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, provided the answers in a report by Armin Rosen of Business Insider.  Heinonen in an email said:

“According to the IAEA rules and practices such documents could be made available to the members of the IAEA Board”. Heinonen said the IAEA secretariat could not divulge these side agreements to other member states on its own initiative. But there are two ways US diplomats could access them. In one scenario, Iran would agree to divulge the documents: “Iran can make it available by asking to distribute it as an [Information Circular] document to all IAEA member states as they did with the 2007 Work Plan,” Heinonen said, referring to a publicly available agreement between the IAEA and Iran on nuclear safeguards.

US diplomats could also view these side agreements if a member state of the IAEA’s 35-member Board of Governors requests their distribution.

Such a move would stand a decent chance of success: “If a board member asks it and others resist the distribution … this can be overcome by a vote,” Heinonen said. “Simple majority is enough, and no vetoes exist in the IAEA system. The board can also request the whole document to be made public. Such a request could be best done by a country which is not part of the JCPOA process; my favorite is Canada.”

Cotton showed   the witness panel two exhibits graphically portraying the effects of an Iranian developed shaped charge IED that were used to kill 500 American service personnel in Iraq. Gen. Dempsey acknowledged what they were and the devastating effects on Humvees, their occupants and other vehicles. Cotton then asks Kerry for his reaction. While, expressing appropriate sorrow for the loss of American lives, Kerry   told the Senate panel that Quds force commander Qasem Soleimani who developed the shaped charge IEDs would not have sanctions removed.  Reports by both ABC news and the Iranian FARS news agency  have confirmed  that Gen.Soleimani has been confirmed among a list   of Iranian persons and institutions included in an annex to the JCPOA who will have both travel bans and asset restrictions lifted.

Watch this YouTube video of Senator Cotton’s Q&A at the Senate Armed Services Committee:

Senator Tom Cotton’s grilling of Kerry and Moniz revealed their lax conduct of due diligence on the IAEA side deals. They spent too much time being hounded with repeated demands for concessions by Javad Zarif in negotiations in Vienna. Instead, they should have sent aides over to the IAEA headquarters to ask about the side deals to provide a road map on prior military developments of Iran nuclear program. Senator Cotton and Rep. Pompeo did just that. Instead Kerry and the negotiating tea m basically said in so many words, we already know what Iran did, let’s move on and get with the program by approving the Iran nuclear pact. The video of Senator Cotton  Senate  Armed Services Committee Q&A should be widely shared  on social media  to inform  undecided  Congressional Democrats about why the Iran nuclear pact  should be rejected.

Hearing by hearing testimony by the Administration “A Team” on the Iranian nuclear pact demonstrates how bad a deal Kerry and the Obama negotiating team crafted with the experts in playing multi-dimensional chess, the Islamic Regime in Tehran.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.

Obama’s Rules of Engagement Stymie Air War against the Islamic State

Without boots on the ground providing intelligence feed, the U.S. led coalition air war is failing to “deter, let alone degrade” the ISIS.  How else can you explain 7,000 sorties over Syria and Iraq with less than 25% having ‘bomb releases”? That was the key disturbing finding in a Washington Times (WT) article, U.S. bombers hold fire on Islamic State targets amid ground intel blackout.”

 The U.S. conducted 7,319 sorties over Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve in the first four months of 2015. Of those, only 1,859 flights — 25.4 percent — had at least one “weapons release,” according to data provided by United States Air Force Central Command. That means that only about one in every four flights dropped a bomb on an Islamic State target.

There have been reports of frustration by U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine pilots engaged in the ISIS air campaign who have acquired targets and yet been commanded to stand down from attacking them. That has led to criticism of the Administration ISIS air war from Members of Congress, most notably, Sen. John McCain who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee cited in the WT report:

The Arizona Republican said at a hearing this year that missions that don’t drop bombs needlessly put American pilots in danger and that U.S. boots on the ground would produce better intelligence that could lead to more effective bombing missions.

 The level of air sorties in the U.S.-led coalition air war is far below those of Gulf Wars I and II and even the Balkan Air campaigns during the Clinton era.  The question is what is causing this?  Many believe it is the restrictive rules of engagement to spare civilian lives, when ISIS fighters move among columns of civilians, effectively using them as human shields.  Further, some analysts ironically believe that these strict rules of engagement actually contribute to civilian casualties by to ISIS. Perhaps this also reflects the misguided Obama Administration obsession in both avoiding collateral damage and avoiding putting special teams on the ground to provide better target intelligence.

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Israel Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel. Source: Times of Israel.

Perhaps, the Central Command planners and air war commanders might best heed Israeli Air Force Commander Major General Eshel who was cited in a Defense News article saying:

“We have an offensive capability that is unprecedented and extremely significant which we’ve been developing over years and are now able to implement.

“In small wars, it’s a very significant challenge for us to reduce collateral damage on the other side when the enemy is using all he has to elevate the damage we’re forced to inflict on him,” Eshel said.

“First of all, it’s a moral challenge. … It sounds like a slogan, but we are constantly thinking, planning and operating with this challenge in mind.”

The demonstration of that approach was what  occurred in Operation Defensive Edge against the Hamas rocket and terror tunnel war threatening Israel when the IAF F-16’s flew missions in attacks against urban targets with precision guided 1 ton bombs within 250 meters of IDF troops.  The key is precision strikes based on precise intelligence.

Note these debates about the Pentagon handling of the ISIS air war campaign in the WT article:

Former US Navy Helicopter Pilot, Cmdr. Harmer:

Without ground forces, argues Cmdr. Christopher Harmer, a retired Navy helicopter pilot, U.S. airmen are essentially flying half-blind and, as a result, are returning to base with their bombs still in the bay.

“As long as the body politic or president or whoever is making decisions absolutely refuses to put American air controllers on ground, essentially pilots are flying with one eye closed,” Cmdr. Harmer said. “It’s almost impossible for pilots to designate between [Islamic State] fighters and coalition fighters.”

Cmdr. Harmer, who now serves as a senior naval analyst with the Middle East Security Project at the Institute for the Study for War, said airstrikes can hit big, static targets such as bridges, runways and tanks without on-the-ground guidance. But to be effective in hitting moving targets such as enemy troops in a firefight, U.S. pilots need American joint terminal attack controllers to give specific directions from the ground to guide their missiles precisely.

Fewer targets of opportunity says CENTCOM:

Col. Pat Ryder, spokesman for U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), told reporters Friday that while pilots can often place bombs on targets “within minutes,” it’s very important to be very precise and exercise tactical discipline to protect civilian populations.

“We’re dealing with a hybrid adversary who often hides among the population,” he said. “It’s more important for us to accurately target the enemy with a high degree of precision in order to minimize civilian casualties than it is to strike with such speed or force that would risk disenfranchising the very population we’re there to protect.”

Richard Brennan of RAND Corporation has a more pragmatic assessment:

But to make things work without a ground force and employing only air power, the rules of engagement must change, argues Richard Brennan, a senior political scientist at RAND Corp.

Mr. Brennan said the Islamic State, in adapting and responding to U.S. airstrikes, has started to intermingle its fighters with civilians to frustrate U.S. attacks from the air.

In an effort to protect civilian lives, the strict rules of engagement are doing the opposite by giving the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, the opportunity to kill civilians, he said.

“Even though the United States isn’t doing the killing, by its inability to use force in all but the cases where they’re sure of not having collateral damage, we’re ceding the advantage to ISIS in many situations,” Mr. Brennan said.

Looks to us that CENTCOM needs to whistle up a session with IAF General Eshel to understand how the Israelis do precision hits against Hamas in heavily urbanized Gaza City and Hezbollah Syrian missile and weapons transfers.  Both Cmdr. Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War and Brennan of the RAND Corporation are correct about the stringent rules for engagement in the air war against. They are generating more collateral civilian casualties.  Something that didn’t dawn on the Metternichean Munchkins in the Obama National Security Council who call the shots over Pentagon objections.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.

The Growing Missile Threat to Israel

Dr. Ronen Bergman, intelligence and military columnist for Israeli daily Yediot Ahronoth confirmed, Wall Street Journal reports that Syria and Iran’s Qod’s Force may have successfully disassembled and  transferred  to Hezbollah 12 Russian Yakhont anti- ship cruise missiles. See New York Times article, “Hezbollah Moving Long-Range Missiles From Syria to Lebanon, an Analyst Says”.

This despite the IAF five attacks conducted against Syria facilities and supply trains in 2013 using advanced missiles fired on targets from Lebanese airspace. The IAF attacks reported to have destroyed a shipment of  advanced mobile air defense  Russian SA-17’s in January 2013, Iranian Fateh-110 surface to surface missiles in May and  a shipment of  Russian Yakhont missiles in July. Further, according to the New York Times account, Bergman said:

Hezbollah, which is also Lebanon’s strongest political party, has a network of bases that were built inside Syria, near the border with Lebanon, to give the group strategic depth and to store the missiles, Mr. Bergman said. But with a nearly three-year insurgency threatening President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, an ally of Hezbollah, keeping the missiles in Syria is no longer as secure, Mr. Bergman said.

The missiles being moved, he said, include Scud D’s, shorter-range Scud C’s, medium-range Fateh rockets that were made in Iran, Fajr rockets and antiaircraft weapons that are fired from the shoulder.

Bergman also noted the comments of former Mossad head, Meir Dagan about Hezbollah bases in Syria during the Second Lebanon War in 2006:

 Meir Dagan, advised the government not to start an attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon without first hitting the militia’s bases in Syria, which were built on the strategy that Israel would not dare to strike Syria. The bases were believed to contain much of Hezbollah’s long-range missile capability,

The Wall Street Journal report,  “Hezbollah Upgrades Missile Threat to Israel” noted the potential game changer on Israel’s strategy to counter this missile threat on its doorstep:

Hezbollah already has around 100,000 rockets, according to Israeli intelligence estimates, but those are primarily unguided weapons that are less accurate. Its longer-range rockets are spread across Lebanon, meaning Israel’s next air campaign—should one come—would have to be broad, Israeli officials have told their U.S. counterparts, according to American officials in the meetings.

Hezbollah’s possession of guided-missile systems would make such an air campaign far riskier.

Current and former U.S. officials say Iran’s elite Quds Force has been directly overseeing the shipments to Hezbollah warehouses in Syria. These officials say some of the guided missiles would allow Hezbollah to defend its strongholds in Lebanon, including Beirut, and attack Israeli planes and ground targets from regime-controlled territory in Syria.

Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system can intercept and destroy short-range rockets. Its Arrow missile-defense system can intercept the sort of long-range ballistic missiles Iran possesses. A third system the Israelis are developing to deal with mid range guided missiles, called David’s Sling, won’t be operational until 2015 at the earliest.

                                 Arrow Anti-Missile System

Coincidentally, Israel completed another successful test of the  Arrow III anti-Missile system over the Mediterranean today. The Arrow III is a joint development of Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) and Boeing. According to a Defense News, article,  “US-Israel Arrow-3 Marks Milestone Test”, “ IAI also provides the Super Green Pine fire control radar, while Elbit’s Tadiran provides the system’s battle management control center.” Defense News  further reported:

The US-Israel Arrow-3 upper tier intercepting missile passed another developmental milestone with a successful exo-atmospheric maneuvering flight after launch over the Mediterranean Sea on Friday.

In a joint statement, Israel’s Defense Ministry and the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency said the Arrow-3 “successfully launched and flew an exo-atmospheric trajectory through space, according to the test plan.”

The fly-out of the two-stage, hit-to-kill missile marked the second in a series of developmental milestones aimed at readying the system for a full-up intercept test in early 2015. It follows a successful maiden flight in February 2013.

Planned for initial fielding in late 2015 or early 2016, Arrow-3 is designed as Israel’s first line of defense against emerging threats from Iran. Supported by the samefire control radar and battle management systems developed for Israel’s operational Arrow-2, the smaller and much more agile Arrow-3 aims to destroy advanced, maneuvering, unconventionally tipped Shahab-class missiles in space before they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.

Hezbollah with upwards of  80,000 rockets and missiles would be a formidable threat for Israel to reduce to assure that its rocket and missile  defense umbrella can safeguard its population should it elect to undertake a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. This is presuming no final agreement is reached with Iran under the current P5+1 interim agreement.  Moreover, a recently introduced bi-partisan US Senate bill, the Nuclear  Weapons Free Iran Act directed at prodding  Iran to reach an agreement  may be posed for action when Congress returns from its holiday recess. Given Iran’s addition of so-called hard liners to the Islamic regime’s negotiating team, the prospects for achievement of a definitive agreement  quickly seized upon by Obama Administration could be illusory.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.