05 May 2011

The Raid

The nighttime raid carried out by the U.S. Navy's SEAL Team 6 in Abbottabad, Pakistan will be studied for generations as one of the greatest special operations missions in history. By leveraging the massive U.S. intelligence system, mission planners were able to locate the safe house which was being utilized by Bin Laden deep inside Pakistan. Instead of obliterating the target with drones or cruise missiles, the SEAL Team was inserted by helicopter in a direct action operation to either kill or capture the U.S. Public Enemy No. 1.

In a mere 40 minutes, the inserted team was able to complete its mission and egress from the target area despite a mechanical problem with one of their helicopters. That helicopter was reportedly destroyed to deny any technical treasures on board to the Pakistanis who might have been tempted to sell them to their friends in China. As audacious as the raid itself, the act of flying the teams into and out of the target area, apparently undetected and unmolested by Pakistani air defense assets also points to the capability of the pilots and crew that ferried them in and out. Given that President Obama is making an appearance at Fort Campbell, Kentucky to meet and thank the members of SEAL Team 6, one has to wonder if the helicopter unit involved was the U.S. Army's elite 160th SOAR which is based there.

From what can be gleaned from the media reports, this was apparently a relatively small mission with very little room for error. The SEAL Team was brought to the target area in only a few helicopters and possibly without a larger security force on the ground to block any reaction from the local Pakistani garrison. While air assets were probably on call to assist if necessary, the team instead had to rely on completing the mission quickly and exfiltrating with speed before the locals were stirred up enough to try to interfere with the attack. Due to the lead up in intelligence work, the team benefited from the time necessary to study and train within a mock-up of the target house which enabled them to move quickly and decisively towards completion of their mission.

The media story regarding the death of Bin Laden seems to change on a daily basis. He was killed with a weapon, reaching for a weapon or after he surrendered depending upon which story you want to believe. A commentator on Fox News this morning went into a long harangue about why Bin Laden should have been taken alive - all convenient Thursday morning quarterbacking from the comfort of a nice television studio.

Could Bin Laden have surrendered and been executed ? I suppose it's possible. The SEAL team commander may have made the decision based on the fact that he already had one helicopter in trouble and the possibility that they would have to fight their way out through a force of Pakistani military units and unhappy civilians. Why take the risk when you can effectively accomplish the mission at that moment ? It's equally possible that Bin Laden tried to grab a weapon since capture for him would be as unappealing as it would have been for Hitler back in 1945.

The fact that the U.S. violated the airspace of a sovereign nation without (wisely) tipping off the Pakistanis to the plan, points to the amount of resolve necessary to execute the mission, diplomatic consequences be damned. The margin of error was tremendously small- what would have happened if the Pakistanis had reacted faster on the ground ? What if the Pakistani Air Force, which apparently scrambled fighters after the raiders departed, had shot down one of the helicopters ? What if it the entire mission was a dry hole and Bin Laden was not in the house ? What if Bin Laden had been tipped off and prepared an ambush for the U.S. forces ?

I have to give credit to President Obama for giving the go-ahead on a mission that had so many potential ways to go wrong quickly. I would surmise, however, that nearly 10 years of constant war has sharpened the capabilities of the SEAL Team, the various intelligence agencies that were involved, and the helicopter unit that ferried them to such a fine point that the mission was less risky than it would have been before the war.

Did "We" Really Get Bin Laden ?

I spent a couple of days thinking about the recent raid on Osama Bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan. Unlike the paid professional media which needs to spout instantaneous comments on everything which happens in the past 10 minutes, I have the amateur's advantage of actually thinking before I speak or write. I'm going to post a couple of my opinions on the recent events in Pakistan since I have quite a few things to say from different angles.

The raid itself will go down in military annals as one of the most audacious and well-executed operations in history. The reaction of the American public to the death of Bin Laden has been interesting to see- chest thumping jingoism and showings of unity (the "we" in "we got him") which I think are the result of the U.S. fighting a war which really doesn't involve 95 % of the general population.

The reaction of the left and right wings of American politics were as disappointing as they were predictable as each side tried to take credit and out do each other in the political theater. Add to all of this the odd kabuki theater of Bin Laden's funeral at sea, Native Americans being upset over the code name used for him and the questions regarding the pictures of his body, and we have a potent mix of news to comment on.

04 May 2011

Has ET Phoned Home ?

There has been quite a bit of buzz on the Internet about a National Security Agency document which implies that the NSA intercepted, and deciphered, signals from an extraterrestrial source. The fact that the document is located on the NSA's website makes the story a bit more intriguing than the typical UFO stories that we are inundated with on a daily basis. UFO believers have been quick to point to the document as proof that extraterrestrials exist and the government has known about them for decades. Although I believe that the universe is so vast that it is probably teeming with life, I'm not so sure that this document is the bombshell that others make it out to be.

First of all, the document in question was allegedly published in the NSA's Technical Journal. Many government agencies publish these types of documents, both classified and unclassified, to share information within their confines and with other external agencies. The document refers to an earlier volume of the Technical Journal, which is not shown, and herein may be the answer to the question. It is entirely possible that the code in question was merely an exercise or contest put out by the agency for its code breakers to solve, perhaps on the page after the one announcing who was bringing potato salad to the next agency picnic. For those that see this as implausible, take a look at the code sculpture that has been a focus of interest at the CIA's headquarters since 1988.

The Royal Wedding - Tribal Style

Here is a report from the island of Tanna (part of the nation of Vanuatu in the Pacific) which relates that the Yaohannen tribe will soon be celebrating the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Nothing too odd about that, I admit, but the strange part of the story is that the tribe actually worships William's grandfather, Prince Philip, as a deity. Apparently the tribe has been anxiously awaiting his promised return to their island for the past 30 years.

03 May 2011

A Day at the Ball Yard

I've recently come to the conclusion that I'm getting old. I turned 44 years old in March and am starting to see the symptoms that I am basically at the mid point of my life- creaking knees in the morning, an ever expanding waist line and, most surprisingly, a new affinity for baseball.

When I was kid growing up I occasionally went to a Pirates game with my dad and was usually bored silly by the second inning. While my dad would watch games on television, and listen to them on the radio while working in the garage or the back yard, my attention span was limited to asking what the score was and then moving on to something more interesting. Even during the glory days of the 1970's when the Pirates won two World Series, my commitment to the team never went beyond collecting the occasional baseball card. I just couldn't see the fun in watching a game on a sunny day when you could be playing baseball or run-down with your buddies in the neighborhood.

Over the past couple of years, a strange thing started to happen. It began gradually as I tuned in to watch entire games on the television and listen to them on the radio in the car. While I usually went to only one or two Pirate games a year, my attendance suddenly skyrocketed to three or four games despite the fact that the team was working hard on an 18 year losing streak of record proportions. I concluded something had indeed gone horribly wrong as I caught myself checking game box scores on a daily basis and worrying about the performance of individual players.

My first game this year was a couple of weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon. I took this picture from my seats (I invested in a 5 game package this year) looking down the first base line. No, this picture was not taken long before or after the game, it was taken in the sixth inning. Note the preponderance of empty seats vs. the scattered attendees (there were around 4,000 people at the game so the stadium was about 10 % full.) The game was against the Washington Nationals (we lost, of course) and in all fairness to the Pirates it was Easter Sunday so that could have affected attendance a bit.

Despite the loss, it was a nice afternoon out and it occurred to me that I really have never had a bad experience at a Pirates game. The fans were mostly comprised of families, nobody was drunk and out of control and the Nationals fans in attendance were at worst politely ignored. Contrasting this to the "Mad Max" atmosphere at Steelers games and the beer fueled youth at Penguins games only made me appreciate it more. A teenager caught a foul popped into our section and then promptly walked down the steps to hand it to a little kid sitting with his parents. Along with the 6 or so other people in my part of the stadium, we gave him a polite round of applause for a very classy move.

Perhaps this was the key to my new found love of baseball- I am simply getting old and crotchety and completely intolerant of the drunken escapades witnessed at other sporting events. Sitting in PNC Park watching the Pirates lose on a Spring afternoon was far more appealing to me than freezing my ass off in Heinz Field and watching the Steelers win. I closed my eyes for a moment of Buddhist mindfulness and enjoyed the moment- the birds singing, the crack of the bat and braying of the men selling beer and popcorn. I think I've found a home for the next 40 years.

02 May 2011

It's the End of the World as Far as They Know It

I was recently motoring on Interstate 70 south of Pittsburgh when I noticed a group of RV's heading towards me in the opposite lane. They were festooned with graphics stating that the world was going to end on May 21st, 2011. A little bit of internet research pointed me to the website of an organization known as ebiblefellowship. Through a convoluted system of mathematics and bible study, these people believe that we all have less than three weeks to live.

I love eschatology- the numerous theories throughout history regarding the end of the world, the failure of these theories to come true and the aftermath when they don't. The human need to try to pin a date on the end of existence holds endless fascination for me and I have to admit I really like these ebible people- no parsing of words or pussyfooting around here, they are predicting a date certain which beats the 2012 crowd by a full nineteen months. They are so certain that we are going to be vaporized that they even helpfully end their organizations calendar on the 20th with their final appearance in Philadelphia, PA (one can only hope that if the world ends, it starts in Philadelphia.)

While reading the group's website, I asked my wife if she knew the world was going to end in less than three weeks and what we should do. She said we should take a trip to Europe. Hmmm, I wasn't expecting that one. I don't know if the world is going to end in three weeks, three days or three million years. Frankly, I don't care. I only hope that if May 21st peacefully passes into May 22nd, the followers of this group don't do something stupid to themselves. Better to just say they forgot to carry the three and they were off by a few thousand years.