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Inside the Ring

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

New airspace for drones

The Pentagon is studying how to expand the use of highly effective combat drone aircraft from the Middle East and Southwest Asia to other commands, including Pacific Command and Africa Command.

A special task force at the Joint Chiefs of Staff is conducting the assessment in anticipation that the concentrated use of armed and surveillance remotely piloted aircraft, namely Predators and Reapers, in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq will decline in the coming months as U.S. forces draw down from those theaters, according to a Pentagon official.

Two commands likely to get more drones are the Pacific Command and Africa Command, the official said. The Pacific Command is building up its forces in the face of China's large-scale military buildup. Pacom also must deal with continuing tensions caused by North Korean military provocation.

Africa Command, too, is in need of drones after its rise to prominence during the recent Libya operations in support of anti-regime rebels.

Other commands interested in drone systems are the European Command and the Southern Command, which is focused on Central and South America.

Currently, the drones are key weapons for finding and killing al Qaeda members and other terrorists in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, including Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon is building up its Predator and Reaper drone forces from 53 aircraft deployed this year to 65 in 2015, when it plans to have 33 Predators and 32 Reapers in use, backed with a force of up to 12,000 people. Funding for drones will be $4.8 billion this year, about the same as last year.

Air Force Col. James F. Sculerati, chief of intelligence system requirements at the U.S. Special Operations Command, on Wednesday told a conference on military drones that more drones in the future will be deployed with special operations forces.

"The tongue-in-cheek answer to what happens to all of those aircraft or all of those CAPs [combat air patrols] once Iraq and Afghanistan come back down from Tampa, we've got the answer: We're going to take them over, we're going to employ them some place," Col. Sculerati told a conference hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Col. Sculerati said special ops drone missions will include more missions at night and in difficult weather. "The desert has been a very kind environment, the weather is favorable, the terrain is favorable," he said.

"We already do a lot of work at night. We are going to do more work in weather, we are going to do more work in difficult terrain. We need vehicles that are capable of flying in darkness, in all weather."

Israel's military option

Israel's military does not know the location of all of Iran's nuclear facilities, some of which U.S. officials say were built underground to harden them against bombing and others located in populated areas to deter attacks that could kill civilians.

Details of Israel's assessment of the Iranian nuclear program were outlined in a State Department cable from 2005 made public April 8 by the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks.

"Despite frustrations with diplomatic efforts, Israeli officials are understandably reluctant to discuss possible military options," the cable said, quoting then-Israeli Defense Forces Deputy Chief of Staff Dani Haloutz as telling U.S. Embassy officials "we don't want to go there."

The reason for Israeli reluctance is that knocking out Iran's nuclear facilities will be far more difficult than Israel's successful 1981 airstrike on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, the cable said.

"A senior military intelligence official told the embassy that the [government of Israel] does not know where all of the targets are located and said that any attack would only delay, not end, the Iranian program," the cable said.

Israeli officials also said that potential Iranian nuclear target sites are "well-dispersed throughout the country, with several located in built-up civilian areas," the cable said.

Additionally, the distance to Iranian targets and the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq and the Persian Gulf "raise additional complications," the cable said.

"An Israeli assault would necessitate prior coordination with coalition forces in Iraq, ... leaving the USG open to retaliation throughout the Islamic world, especially in Iraq," the cable said.

"In addition, the [government of Israel] is acutely aware of Iran's ability to retaliate, both militarily and through attacks by its regional surrogates."

China protests report

A recently disclosed State Department cable reveals the sometimes difficult job of being a Communist bureaucrat in China.

Zheng Zeguang, director general of the North American and Oceanian Affairs for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, lamented the task of issuing an annual protest over the Department of Defense's 2009 annual report to Congress on China's military by complaining the report upsets ties and was unfairly promoting the threat posed by Beijing's growing military.

According to the cable, which was released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, Mr. Zheng, "reading unenthusiastically from prepared remarks, ... formally protested to the [acting deputy chief of mission] DoD's annual report to Congress on China's military power."

The Chinese bureaucrat, a former No. 2 official at China's embassy in Washington, is well-known among State Department and Pentagon officials as one of China's key "barbarian handlers" - the term used to describe government and Communist Party officials charged with what the Chinese consider the odious and unappealing task of dealing with foreigners.

According to the cable from Beijing, Mr. Zheng revealed he was not really upset about the report but was just following orders.

"Last year I did this with your predecessor after the 2008 report was released, and now I get to do it again," he was quoted in the cable as saying.

The cable also noted that, in setting up the meeting, Mr. Zheng told a U.S. official "we have to do this, let's just get it out of the way so it will not be an issue when we are working on our leaders' meeting."

China's government, using former U.S. military officials, has lobbied successive administrations and Congress to kill the annual report in order not to offend China. Last year, the report's title was changed by adding "security developments" in an apparent effort to soften its impact.

Mr. Zheng likely will soon be repeating the task of protesting the report, as the 2011 Pentagon report, already overdue to Congress, will be released again shortly, likely triggering a new round of Chinese ire.

A second cable revealed Mr. Zheng again issuing a protest in May 2009 to express China's "firm opposition" to the presence of the U.S. Navy survey ship Victorious in international waters that China claims as its exclusive economic zone.

However, instead of meeting in his Foreign Ministry office, Mr. Zheng met U.S. officials at a coffee shop in Beijing.

He was protesting public statements by the Pentagon over China's harassment of the Victorious in the Yellow Sea in May 2009, when Chinese ships made threatening passes close to the survey ship.

Afghan novel

Photojournalist John Cantlie has written a novel illustrated with more than 100 up-close-and-personal photographs of U.S. troops fighting the war in Afghanistan.

The book's title, "River City," is derived from the term used by the Marine Corps to describe the blackout of communications put in place on combat outposts after a Marine makes the ultimate sacrifice.

" 'River City' tells the story of the war in Afghanistan as it is today," Mr. Cantlie told Inside the Ring.

Mr. Cantlie spent five months on the front line in Afghanistan documenting the conflict through the eyes of U.S. combat troops, "from the beautiful but deadly mountains of the Pech Valley in the east, to the sprawling red deserts of Helmand in the south," he said.

The novel is unique for its 150 full-color images that illustrate the story.

Eli Lake contributed to this report.

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