President Obama‘s European visit this week has strained Air Force heavy-airlift capabilities and obliged the military to hire more foreign contractors to help resupply U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, according to military sources.
The large delegation traveling with the president in Europe required moving several transports, including jumbo C-5s and C-17s, from sorties ferrying supplies to Afghanistan to European bases for the presidential visit, said two military officials familiar with the issue. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid any misunderstanding with White House officials.
The Air Mobility Command, part of the U.S. Transportation Command, was ordered to provide airlift for the president’s entourage of nearly 500 people, including senior officials, staff, support personnel, news reporters and some 200 Secret Service agents for the European visit, which began Tuesday in London.
Airlift for the traveling entourage also was used to move the president’s new heavy-armored limousine and several presidential helicopters used for short transits.
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To make up for the shortfall, the Air Force had to increase the number of Eastern European air transport contractors hired to fly Il-76 and An-124 transport jets into Afghanistan loaded with troop supplies, the two officials said.
The airlift crunch comes at a particularly difficult time, as the military is stepping up deliveries of supplies in advance of a surge of 21,000 U.S. troops.
One official said the problem was not only the vehicles and helicopters that were needed for presidential security, but also the unusually large number of people traveling with the president. The official said U.S. taxpayers are paying twice for airlift, once for Air Force jets that are not available for a war zone and again for foreign contractor aircraft that are.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment. Col. Gregory Julian, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, said he was unaware of a transport shortage but noted that it was not unusual for the military to hire air-transport contractors in such circumstances.
Presidential logistics for such trips involve a complicated military process that involves insuring smooth travel and having backup aircraft ready for use. Such large trips as the current European one generally cost millions of dollars.
Navy Capt. Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman with U.S. Transportation Command, said there was no link between increased contractor airlift in Afghanistan and the aircraft used for presidential travel this week.
“Contractual airlift [IL-76 and AN-124] used to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan is not in any way connected to presidential movement requirements,” he said.
Transportation command “routinely” contracts with U.S. air freight lines that subcontract with companies flying Il-76s and An-124s to move large military vehicles.
“This is simply a ‘best business practice’ that allows us to meet the needs of our warfighters at the best cost for the taxpayer,” he said.
The spokesman also said budgets for Afghanistan and presidential travel come from different accounts. “The taxpayer does indeed pay for strategic lift for our warfighters in Afghanistan, but they also pay for presidential support,” he said. “These missions are distinctly separate and are therefore funded separately.”
Mr. Obama and his group, which includes medical personnel and food specialists, will spend eight days in Europe visiting five nations for the G-20, NATO and European Union summits and side visits to the Czech Republic and Turkey. After the first three days in Britain, the party will travel to Strasbourg, France, and Kehl, Germany, for NATO’s 60th anniversary summit before traveling to Prague on April 5 and then to Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey on April 6.
Capt. Aandahl would not say how many transports were used to move the presidential group, nor provide costs.
So long GWOT
The U.S. government is playing down the Obama administration’s decision to do away with the term “global war on terrorism,” known for the past eight years by the acronym GW0T.
A survey of several departments and agencies shows that the term “global war on terrorism,” while not specifically banned, is in disfavor due to the new administration’s decision not to label counterterrorism efforts a war.
A White House official said the terminology change is less about semantics and more about the focus of the Obama administration, “keeping America safe.”
A military official close to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said budget guidance from the White House recommended ending use of GWOT for budget documents. Instead, the favored term will be “overseas contingency operations.”
Adm. Mullen for the past two years avoided using the term and has encouraged others not to use it, the official said.
An FBI official also said there is no ban on using the term GWOT within the main domestic counterterrorism agency.
“The administration has stopped using the phrase, and I think that speaks for itself,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters en route to Europe earlier this week. “I haven’t gotten any directive about using it or not using it. It’s just not being used.”
A Pentagon spokesman referred to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ response Sunday to a question about war terminology. Mr. Gates did not answer directly but suggested that dropping the term was part of a “broader kind of strategy” and noted that “people [are] looking for differences where there are none.”
A CIA spokesman pointed to recent comments by CIA Director Leon Panetta, who, like Mr. Gates, sidestepped directly answering a question about the terminology change. “Well, there’s no question this is a war,” Mr. Panetta said. “We are engaged in a war in which, you know, when our men and women are at risk and are being killed on the battlefield and when there are those who threaten to come here and kill Americans, there’s no question in my mind that we are facing the terrorists, and we are facing a threat to this country that requires we do everything possible to try to protect our safety….”
A counterterrorism official explained that jettisoning the term “war on terror” is more rhetorical than political.
“The people fighting against al Qaeda and its sympathizers understand both the nature of that fight and the nature of the enemy. It is not a war against a tactic. It is a war against terrorists who want to attack our country,” the official said.
The Air Force has ruled out the possibility that a burning Russian rocket booster re-entering the atmosphere was the cause of the bright light in the sky seen recently along the East Coast.
The Joint Space Operations Center, known as “JSPOC,” which monitors man-made objects in space, concluded that a Soyuz rocket body that some experts thought was the cause actually came through the atmosphere near the Philippine Sea.
“The JSPOC is not aware of any phenomena that would explain the events near Virginia,” Stefan T. Bocchino, a spokesman for the 30th Space Wing, told Inside the Ring.
The Air Force will not say whether a meteor caused the light show and booms Sunday night, viewed and heard by people from southern Virginia through northern Maryland.
“We do not track natural phenomena, so we really can’t speculate what it was,” Mr. Bocchino said.
He was the man President George W. Bush tapped to run Iraq in those highly chaotic post-invasion days when a deadly insurgency was taking hold.
Special correspondent Rowan Scarborough recently caught up with L. Paul Bremer III, the former ambassador and aide to former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger who nows does consulting and sits on a Catholic Charities board.
The topic: the troop surge that even Mr. Obama, who opposed it and said it would not work. Mr. Obama later called it a surprising success.
“I have always been optimistic about the long run in Iraq, and I continue to be,” Mr. Bremer said. “I think the success of the surge has made a very important difference and allowed the provincial elections to go off actually very well, considering. It brings the Sunnis back into the political process, which was important. They made a strategic mistake by not participating in the election in ‘05. And now I am glad to see the president show flexibility and obviously following the guidance of his military guys on the withdrawal. We just have to be steady, and I think they’re going to make it.”
Mr. Bremer was lambasted by some in Congress during his 14-month reign. Democrats, in particular, criticized his decisions to abolish the Iraq army and flood the country with sequestered Iraqi oil cash, huge amounts of which went missing.
Today, Mr. Bremer defends those decisions. He points out that early on he recognized a need for more American troops to quell the violence but was rebuffed by the Pentagon and White House.
“I was one who called for more troops and a coherent counterinsurgency strategy right from the start, even before I went to Iraq,” Mr. Bremer said. “I was pleased when the president finally decided to do that at the end of 2006. The reason I’m optimistic in the long run about Iraq is because, if you look at it, particularly if you compare it to Afghanistan, this is a country which has a highly educated population, urbanized. About 75 percent of the people live in towns. They have a tradition of a well-educated middle class. They’ve obviously got wealth, both in oil and water. There’s no reason, because they are proud of their history, why the Iraqis can’t make a success of it. It turned out to be harder than we thought it was going to be, and it certainly took longer to get the right strategy in place.”
Asked what was done right in 2003-04, Mr. Bremer said, “I think the most important political measure we helped with was the constitution. And, indeed, the constitution has basically bounded the political life of Iraq since we left.”