Washington denounces Syrian air strikes on ISIS


By Peter Symonds

28 November 2014

The US has seized on Syrian air force strikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) stronghold of Raqqa to denounce Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and push for his government’s removal. For the past three years, the Obama administration has backed anti-Assad militias in Syria. The main aim of its new Middle Eastern war remains regime-change in Damascus.

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Wednesday said the US was “horrified” by reports that Syrian air strikes the previous day killed scores of civilians. She condemned the Syrian regime’s “continued slaughter of Syria civilians” and “callous disregard for human life,” declaring that “Assad long ago lost all legitimacy to govern.”

According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 95 people were killed in the air strikes on Tuesday, including 52 civilians. A Raqqa activist with the Syrian opposition network—the Local Co-ordination Committees—told the BBC that further deaths were likely because only one hospital was operating normally in the city and “a lot of people [are] dying from their wounds.” Both organisations are aligned with the pro-Western opposition in Syria that is hostile to both Assad and ISIS.

Psaki’s comments are utterly cynical from every standpoint. The Pentagon routinely dismisses evidence of civilian casualties from air strikes by US and allied war planes in Syria and Iraq, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, even in the face of eyewitness statements. It wages its bogus “war on terror” with complete indifference for civilian life.

Earlier, the same Syrian Observatory for Human Rights released figures on Saturday indicating that at least 52 civilians, including 8 children and 5 women, were killed in air attacks by the US-led coalition in Syria. Given the organisation’s political sympathies, this figure is likely to be an under-estimate. Not surprisingly, the US State Department expressed no horror over these casualties.

It is also unclear whether the deaths in Raqqa were solely due to the Syrian air force. American warplanes bombed the city as recently as Monday. A Wall Street Journal report stated: “It wasn’t clear whether the US and its allies had carried out airstrikes in Raqqa on Tuesday. The scale of the casualties and how many were civilians or Islamic State militants was also unclear.” It noted that it was often “hard to distinguish Raqqa locals from the extremists.”

The Raqqa activist told the BBC: “All the markets in the city are closed after the air strikes. There is nobody walking in the streets … They are just afraid because they say in the morning there are regime air strikes and in the evening there are [US-led] coalition air strikes and it’s very, very hard to live under IS [ISIS].”

According to US Central Command figures, its war planes carried out 41 air strikes inside Syria and Iraq from last Friday up until Wednesday, including on Raqqa and the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane. The Voice of America web site reported yesterday that the US recently brought a squadron of A-10 Thunderbolt fighter jets from Afghanistan to Kuwait to carry out low-level bombing raids in Iraq and Syria, as well as six more Reaper drones armed with missiles.

Inside Iraq, US-backed government forces are battling to retain control of the city of Ramadi in the western Anbar province, much of which is already under ISIS control. ISIS militias launched an offensive earlier this week to capture the provincial capital. According to government officials on Wednesday, ISIS fighters advanced to within several hundred metres of governor’s office, before being pushed back. Kurdish peshmerga forces in the northern province of Kirkuk are also involved in heavy fighting to hold off a major ISIS offensive.

Last weekend, US Vice-President Joe Biden visited Turkey to try to patch up frayed relations and enlist greater Turkish support for the war in Iraq and Syria. The Turkish government has pressed the US for a more explicit call for regime-change in Damascus, as well as support for the imposition of a no-fly zone and buffer zone inside Syria. It has also been reluctant to support Kurdish militia holding out in Kobane, due to their affiliation with the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey.

After meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Biden told the media they had agreed not only to roll back ISIS in Syria, but also to “strengthen the Syrian opposition and ensure a transition away from the Assad regime.” The Turkish foreign ministry announced it would collaborate with US forces in training 2,000 “moderate Syrian opposition fighters” at a base in the central Turkish city of Kirsehir. Turkey has also indicated it would be prepared to equip and train national guard units in Iraq to fight against ISIS.

Biden clashed with Erdogan last month when he accused Turkey of encouraging the rise of ISIS in Syria. While Turkey has certainly backed the Syrian opposition militias that have been dominated by right-wing Islamist organisations such as ISIS and the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, it is not alone. The US and its other Middle Eastern allies have been closely involved in training, financing and arming anti-Assad forces. The CIA has maintained a base inside Turkey to assist and arm opposition forces in Syria.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that the CIA was also involved in covertly training anti-Assad fighters at a camp in the Gulf state of Qatar. The desert camp lies inside a military zone guarded by Qatari special forces. The program has been running for a year and reportedly involves small groups of 12 to 20 fighters affiliated with the pro-Western Free Syrian Army (FSA). According to Reuters: “In recent weeks, the Qataris, disappointed by the lack of progress in the fight against Assad, have started to consider training members of the Islamic Front—another Islamist militia.”

While the US claims to distinguish between ISIS and “moderate” anti-Assad fighters, these forces have commonly worked closely together. Arms supplied to the pro-Western FSA have ended up in the hands of Islamist militias. Now amid a groundswell of civilian opposition inside Syria to US air strikes, sections of the FSA are going over to ISIS, according to a Guardian article on Monday. Such defections will only encourage the US to openly declare war on Assad, sooner rather than later, in a bid to stem the tide.



Hanging out with the disgruntled guys who babysit our aging nuclear missiles—and hate every second of it.

Death Wears Bunny Slippers

Illustration by Tavis Coburn

Illustration by Tavis Coburn

Along a lonely state highway on central Montana’s high plains, I approach what looks like a ranch entrance, complete with cattle guard. “The first ace in the hole,” reads a hand-etched cedar plank hanging from tall wooden posts. “In continuous operation for over 50 years.” I drive up the dirt road to a building surrounded by video cameras and a 10-foot-tall, barbed-wire-topped fence stenciled with a poker spade. “It is unlawful to enter this area,” notes a sign on the fence, whose small print cites the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950, a law that once required communist organizations to register with the federal government. “Use of deadly force authorized.”

I’m snapping photos when a young airman appears. “You’re not taking pictures, are you?” he asks nervously.

“Yeah, I am,” I say. “The signs don’t say that I can’t.”

“Well, we might have to confiscate your phone.”

Maybe he should. We’re steps away from the 10th Missile Squadron Alpha Missile Alert Facility, an underground bunker capable of launching several dozen nuclear-tipped Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), with a combined destructive force 1,000 times that of the Hiroshima bomb.

Another airman comes out of the ranch house and asks for my driver’s license. He’s followed by an older guy clad in sneakers, maroon gym shorts, and an air of authority. “I’m not here to cause trouble,” I say, picturing myself in a brig somewhere.

“Just you being here taking photos is causing trouble,” he snaps.

An alarm starts blaring from inside the building. One airman turns to the other. “Hey, there’s something going off in there.”
Six hours earlier, I was driving through Great Falls with a former captain in the Air Force’s 341st Missile Wing. Aaron, as I’ll call him, had recently completed a four-year stint at the Alpha facility. Had President Obama ordered an attack with ICBMs, Aaron could have received a coded message, authenticated it, and been expected to turn a launch key.

Also read: “That Time We Almost Nuked North Carolina“—a timeline of near-misses, mishaps, and scandals from our atomic arsenal.

We kept passing unmarked blue pickup trucks with large tool chests—missile maintenance guys. The Air Force doesn’t like to draw attention to the 150 silos dotting the surrounding countryside, and neither does Great Falls. With about 4,000 residents and civilian workers and a $219 million annual payroll, Malmstrom Air Force Base drives the local economy, but you won’t see any missile-themed bars or restaurants. “We get some people that have no idea that there’s even an Air Force base here,” one active-duty missileer told me.

It’s not just Great Falls practicing selective amnesia. The days of duck-and-cover drills, fallout shelters, and No Nukes protests are fading memories—nowhere more so than in the defense establishment. At a July 2013 forum in Washington, DC, Lt. General James Kowalski, who commands all of the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, said a Russian nuclear attack on the United States was such “a remote possibility” that it was “hardly worth discussing.”

But then Kowalski sounded a disconcerting note that has a growing number of nuclear experts worried. The real nuclear threat for America today, he said, “is an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid.”

Lt. General James Kowalski

Lt. General James Kowalski Air Force

“You can’t screw up once—and that’s the unique danger of these machines,” points out investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, whose recent book, Command and Control, details the Air Force’s stunning secret history of nuclear near-misses, from the accidental release of a hydrogen bomb that would have devastated North Carolina to a Carter-era computer glitch that falsely indicated a shower of incoming Soviet nukes. “In this business, you need a perfect safety record.”

Once the military’s crown jewels, ICBM bases have become “little orphanages that get scraps for dinner.”

And a perfect record, in a homeland arsenal made up of hundreds of missiles and countless electronic and mechanical systems that have to operate flawlessly—to say nothing of the men and women at the controls—is a very hard thing to achieve. Especially when the rest of the nation seems to have forgotten about the whole thing. “The Air Force has not kept its ICBMs manned or maintained properly,” says Bruce Blair, a former missileer and cofounder of the anti-nuclear group Global Zero. Nuclear bases that were once the military’s crown jewels are now “little orphanages that get scraps for dinner,” he says. And morale is abysmal.

Blair’s organization wants to eliminate nukes, but he argues that while we still have them, it’s imperative that we invest in maintenance, training, and personnel to avoid catastrophe: An accident resulting from human error, he says, may be actually more likely today because the weapons are so unlikely to be used. Without the urgent sense of purpose the Cold War provided, the young men (and a handful of women) who work with the world’s most dangerous weapons are left logging their 24-hour shifts under subpar conditions—with all the dangers that follow.

In August 2013, Air Force commanders investigated two officers in the ICBM program suspected of using ecstasy and amphetamines. A search of the officers’ phones revealed more trouble: They and other missileers were sharing answers for the required monthly exams that test their knowledge of things like security procedures and the proper handling of classified launch codes. Ultimately, 98 missileers were implicated for cheating or failure to report it. Nine officers were stripped of their commands, and Colonel Robert Stanley, the commander of Malmstrom’s missile wing, resigned.

The Air Force claimed the cheating only went as far back as November 2011. Ex-missileers told me it went back decades: “Everybody has cheated on those tests.”

The Air Force claimed the cheating only went as far back as November 2011, but three former missileers told me it was the norm at Malmstrom when they arrived there back in 2007, and that the practice was well established. (Blair told me that cheating was even common when he served at Malmstrom in the mid-1970s.) Missileers would check each other’s tests before turning them in and share codes indicating the correct proportion of multiple-choice answers on a given exam. If the nuclear program’s top brass, who all began their careers as missileers, weren’t aware of it, the men suggested, then they were willfully looking the other way. “You know in Casablanca, when that inspector was ‘absolutely shocked’ that there was gambling at Rick’s? It’s that,” one recently retired missileer told me. “Everybody has cheated on those tests.”

Cheating is just one symptom of what Lt. Colonel Jay Folds, then the commander of the nuclear missile wing at North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base, called “rot” in the atomic force. Last November, Associated Press reporter Robert Burns obtained a RAND study commissioned by the Air Force. It concluded that the typical launch officer was exhausted, cynical, and distracted on the job. ICBM airmen also had high rates of sexual assault, suicide, and spousal and child abuse, and more than double the rates of courts-martial than Air Force personnel as a whole.

The morale problems were well known to Michael Carey, the two-star general who led the program at the time the cheating was revealed. Indeed, he pointed them out to other Americans during an official military cooperation trip to Moscow, before spending the rest of his three-day visit on a drunken bender, repeatedly insulting his Russian military hosts and partying into the wee hours with “suspect” foreign women, according to the Air Force’s inspector general. He later confessed to chatting for most of a night with the hotel’s cigar sales lady, who was asking questions “about physics and optics”—and thinking to himself: “Dude, this doesn’t normally happen.” Carey was stripped of his command in October 2013.

The embarrassments just keep coming. Last week, the Air Force fired two more nuclear commanders, including Col. Carl Jones, the No. 2 officer in the 90th Missile Wing at Wyoming’s Warren Air Force Base, and disciplined a third, for a variety of leadership failures, including the maltreatment of subordinates. In one instance, two missileers were sent to the hospital after exposure to noxious fumes at a control center—they had remained on duty for fear of retaliation by their commander, Lt. Col. Jimmy “Keith” Brown. This week, the Pentagon is expected to release a comprehensive review of the nuclear program that details “serious problems that must be addressed urgently.”

“Their buddies from the B-52s and B-2s tell them all sorts of exciting stories about doing real things in Afghanistan and Iraq. They end up feeling superfluous.”

Stung by the recent bad press, the Air Force has announced pay raises, changes to the proficiency tests, and nearly $400 million in additional spending to increase staffing and update equipment. In the long term, Congress and the administration are debating a trillion-dollar suite of upgrades to the nuclear program, which could include replacing the existing ICBMs and warheads with higher-tech versions.

But outside experts say none of the changes will address the core of the problem: obsolescence. “There is a morale issue,” says Hans Kristensen, who directs the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project, “that comes down to the fundamental question: How is the ICBM force essential? It’s hard to find that [answer] if you sit in the hole out there. Their buddies from the B-52s and B-2s tell them all sorts of exciting stories about doing real things in Afghanistan and Iraq. They end up feeling superfluous.”

launch switches

A missile commander’s launch switches. National Park Service

Indeed, on my first night in town, over beer and bison burgers, Aaron had introduced me to “Brent,” another recently former missileer who looks more like a surfer now that his military crew cut is all grown out. Brent lost faith in his leaders early on, he told me, when he saw the way they tolerated, if not encouraged, a culture of cheating. He’d resisted the impulse, he said, and his imperfect test scores disqualified him for promotions. But the worst part of the gig, the guys agreed, might be the stultifying tedium of being stuck in a tiny room all day and night waiting for an order you knew would never come. “Any TV marathon you can stumble upon is good,” Brent said. “Even if it’s something you hate. It’s just that ability to zone out and lose time.”


CONTINUED:  http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/11/air-force-missile-wing-minuteman-iii-nuclear-weapons-burnout

Why is the media silent on the continuing shakeup in the Why is the media silent on the continuing shakeup in the US nuclear command??


By Bill Van Auken
8 November 2014

The US mass media and the country’s political officials have shown a remarkable lack of interest in what the Pentagon acknowledged earlier this week was the unprecedented simultaneous firing of two senior commanders at two separate Air Force Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) bases and the administrative disciplining of a third.

Major news outlets, to the extent that they carried the story at all, relied solely on the item prepared by the Associated Press, and for the most part buried even that. The AP got the story by calling the Air Force public information office. No follow-up was done by the New York Times, the Washington Post or any other major newspaper or television network to probe the significance of these disciplinary actions in terms of the extreme state of crisis that has pervaded Washington’s nuclear strike force for well over a year.

Why the silence? By tacit agreement, clearly secrets are being kept about the real state of affairs within a military command whose nuclear war-fighting mission constitutes one of the single greatest threats to the survival of humanity.

The crisis in the US nuclear war command has now been unfolding for over one year, involving the sudden sackings of top commanders and senior officers, as well as the snaring of fully 20 percent of the ICBM missile launch crew members in a cheating scandal and the implication of several others in the use of illegal drugs.

The cases involving the most senior officers are the most startling. Vice Adm. Tim Gardinia, the second-in-command at the US Strategic Command, responsible for formulating nuclear war plans and relaying launch orders, was sacked after he was charged with trying to gamble with $1,500 in fake chips at an Idaho casino.

Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, the commanding officer of the entire US ICBM force, was fired for alleged drunken antics while leading an official delegation to Moscow, including making provocative comments to his Russian counterparts about Syria and Edward Snowden.

In the latest firings, Col. Carl Jones, who was the second in command at the 90th Missile Wing in Wyoming, was fired for behavior that fellow officers described as “shocking,” apparently involving uncontrollable rage and mistreatment of subordinates.

Another fired commander, Lt. Col. Jimmy “Keith” Brown, a missile squadron leader at the ICBM base in North Dakota, was said to have engaged in “unlawful discrimination and harassment,” leading in one reported incident to members of a launch crew being hospitalized after staying at their posts despite exposure to dangerous fumes because of fear they would be punished if they complained.

A third officer, Col. Richard Pagliuco, the commander of the 91st Operations Group, was charged with having “failed to promote and safeguard the morale, wellbeing and welfare of the airmen under his command” and subjected to administrative discipline.

Together, these officers are responsible for hundreds of Minuteman 3 ICBMs, each of which carries a nuclear warhead with 27 times the destructive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, capable of wiping out millions of human beings in a matter of minutes.

That senior missile commanders were simultaneously sacked at two separate bases comprising two-thirds of the US ICBM force was described by a Pentagon spokesman as merely a coincidence.

The series of firings, scandals and incidents, however, suggest two possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive. First, that the US nuclear command is under the control of certified maniacs, the real-life counterparts of the “Dr. Strangelove” character, Gen. Jack D. Ripper, who unilaterally launches a nuclear bomber strike on the Soviet Union on the theory that “war is too important to be left to politicians.”

It is worth recalling that among the recent scandals plaguing the Air Force has been the overwhelming influence of the Christian right at the US Air Force Academy, where a religious ideology embracing the Armageddon has been promoted even as cadets are trained in practical measures for bringing it about.

The other possibility is that the US nuclear war command is being subjected to a deliberate and wholesale restructuring of its personnel for unspecified reasons.

The shakeup has unfolded within a definite and disturbing wider context. In the first instance, President Barack Obama, who came into office vowing to pursue a policy of nuclear disarmament—one of the main things cited in the decision to award him a Nobel Peace Prize after barely 10 months in office—is now presiding over a major buildup of US imperialism’s nuclear arsenal. This includes plans to spend a staggering $355 billion over the next decade and at least $1 trillion over the next 30 years, with the deployment of 12 new nuclear submarines, some 100 nuclear bombers and 400 new land-based ICBMs.

Moreover, this buildup takes place under conditions in which Washington is engaged in steadily escalating provocations against Russia and China, both nuclear-armed powers, even as it embarks on a major new war in the Middle East. The threat of a nuclear Third World War is now greater than it has been for decades.

While the media respects the veil of secrecy imposed over these matters within the military, and there has been no move by either Democratic or Republican politicians to convene congressional hearings on the troubling events in the US nuclear war command, the American people need answers as to what is really going on. The exposure of the immense dangers posed by the explosive growth of American militarism is a vital element in the preparation of a new mass antiwar movement based upon the working class.



The Staggeringly High Number of Muslim Countries the U.S. Has Bombed or Invaded Since 1980

Glenn Greenwald lambasts American hypocrisy when it comes to Islamic violence.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

 As the inevitable two-year campaign for the White House gears up, foreign policy is likely to be a hot topic, particularly within the Republican Party, where hawks like Sen. Ted Cruz (TX) may face off with more restraint-oriented lawmakers like Sen. Rand Paul (KY).

Journalist Glenn Greenwald points to a Washington Post op-ed by Andrew Bacevich laying out the case that our foreign relations with the Muslim world are fraught with too much violence – with Syria being the 14th country we’ve bombed or occupied since 1980:

As America’s efforts to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State militants extent into Syria, Iraq War III has seamlessly morphed into Greater Middle East Battlefield XIV. That is, Syria has become at least the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded or occupied or bombed, and in which American soldiers have killed or been killed. And that’s just since 1980.

Let’s tick them off: Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014-), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-), Bosnia (1995), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002-), Pakistan (2004-) and now Syria. Whew.

Greenwald comments on the statistic by referencing the recent controversies of Sam Harris and Bill Maher attacking Islam as uniquely violent, “Those who sit around in the U.S. or the U.K. endlessly inveighing against the evils of Islam, depicting it as the root of violence and evil (the “ mother lode of bad ideas“), while spending very little time on their own societies’ addictions to violence and aggression, or their own religious and nationalistic drives, have reached the peak of self-blinding tribalism. They really are akin to having a neighbor down the street who constantly murders, steals and pillages, and then spends his spare time flamboyantly denouncing people who live thousands of miles away for their bad acts. Such a person would be regarded as pathologically self-deluded, a term that also describes those political and intellectual factions which replicate that behavior.”

Read Greenwald’s full article here.


Zaid Jilani is the investigative blogger and campaigner for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. He is formerly the senior reporter-blogger for ThinkProgress.


Deadly SpaceShipTwo crash follows explosion of unmanned Antares rocket


By Bryan Dyne
1 November 2014

The suborbital spacecraft VSS Enterprise, a SpaceShipTwo-class rocket, crashed in the Mojave Desert in the US during a test flight Friday, resulting in the death of one crew member and the injury of another.

Earlier this week, an unmanned Antares rocket from the Orbital Sciences Corporation exploded only a few seconds into its flight. Early reports suggest that the first stage of the launch vehicle failed, prompting the range safety officer to initiate an emergency depressurization of the rocket’s fuel tanks, which caused the explosion.

The two space disasters in the span of one week highlight the growing prominence of private companies in space missions.

The SpaceShipTwo is owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and the test flight was being conducted by Virgin Galactic’s partner, Scaled Composites. This was the spacecraft’s first manned flight since January.

There has been no official comment by Virgin Galactic or Scaled Composites on the cause of the crash. Virgin Galactic has so far only said that the craft “suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle.” Eyewitness reports indicate that the vessel exploded just after its engine fired when it was dropped from its mother ship, White Knight Two.

There is speculation that the cause of the explosion was the engine, which was using a new plastic-based fuel that had up to this point only been tested on the ground.

The pilot killed in the SpaceShipTwo crash is the fourth fatality from the SpaceShipTwo program. Three others were killed in a 2007 explosion of an unattached rocket engine using the old rubber-based fuel. An investigation found that the three were standing too close to the rocket motor, in violation of safety regulations.

SpaceShipTwo vehicles, first revealed to the public in 2009, were designed to be the first space tourism vessels. After being carried to a launch altitude of 15 kilometers, it uses a booster to ascend to 110 kilometers. This is 10 kilometers above the Kármán line, which is the formal definition of space. It stays at that altitude for only a few minutes, during which time the passengers would experience free fall and view the surface of Earth against the black of space. There are currently more than 700 individuals who have deposited the requisite $200,000-250,000 to reserve a seat on a Virgin Galactic flight.

The Antares rocket, in contrast, was being operated by a company contracted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a US government agency that relies heavily on private corporations. The rocket that exploded was on a mission to resupply the International Space Station.

The first-stage rockets used by Antares are refurbished Soviet NK-33 engines. Each one is a 40-year-old piece of equipment that was sold for $1.1 million each to Aerojet, a company that works alongside Orbital Sciences to launch the rockets.

Being cheap is the only reason the NK-33 rockets are used. While innovative at the time, they are now far behind modern technology. There is also only a limited supply of the rockets in existence, meaning that unless Orbital can overcome the legal hurdles of using the old Soviet designs to make new rockets, the Antares family has a limited number of launches.

Furthermore, not only do Antares rockets require old Soviet hardware, Orbital currently uses Russian and Ukrainian labor to maintain and refurbish the rockets. Since the company does not have the expertise needed and would rather not use the more expensive workers from NASA, large sections of the first-stage work of the Antares are contracted out to the Ukrainian Yuzhnoye Design Bureau.

Orbital Sciences is not the only private company to use Russian-built rockets to power their machines. The Atlas V of the United Launch Alliance uses a single RD-180 engine as its first-stage engine. Significantly, one of the main uses of the Atlas family of rockets is to put US military satellites into orbit. In response to rising tensions between the US and Russia over the US-backed coup in Ukraine, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin declared in May that, “Russia will ban the United States from using Russian-made rocket engines for military launches.”

While the causes of the two disasters this week are still under investigation, both involve private companies operating on the basis of the profit motive, with a consequent interest in cutting costs.

While NASA has always relied heavily on contractors, and in particular military contractors, the increasing privatization of spaceflight accelerated in the 1990s and particularly in the 2000s. It has been continued under the Obama administration, which cancelled the Constellation program and shut down the shuttle program. Any manned missions launched by NASA will be asteroid missions, which are slated to begin in 2025 at the earliest. Manned flights to Mars have been sequestered indefinitely.

Not only has privatization led to cost cutting, but the basic purpose of space flight has shifted from scientific endeavors to space tourism and similar operations. To date, no fundamentally new technologies have been developed by Virgin Galactic. The “hybrid” motor’s primary advantage is cheapness, and it has yet to be reliably and regularly operated.

Moreover, the vehicle only ever reaches 13 percent of the velocity required to get to orbit, and thus is not developing a technology that is applicable to actually staying in space. Given that such altitudes were reached in an earlier period by figures such as Auguste Piccard and Joseph Kittinger, who did tests for cosmic rays and high-altitude parachutes respectively, there is no new science being done. Given the high price tag for rides, moreover, the “space” plane is only accessible to the very wealthy.

Other companies such as Boeing and SpaceX are also looking into private manned spaceflight, but their programs are less developed than Virgin Galactic.



Why Bombing ISIS Is Futile

If we had not supported so many brutal men in the Middle East, would things have turned out differently?

Is there a “Plan B” in Barack Obama’s brain? Or in David Cameron’s, for that matter? I mean, we’re vaguely told that air strikes against the ferocious “Islamic State” may go on for “a long time”. But how long is “long”? Are we just going to go on killing Arabs and bombing and bombing and bombing until, well, until we go on bombing? What happens if our Kurdish and non-existent “moderate” Syrian fighters – described by Vice-President Joe Biden last week as largely “shopkeepers” – don’t overthrow the monstrous “Islamic State”? Then I suppose we are going to bomb and bomb and bomb again. As a Lebanese colleague of mine asked in an article last week, what is Obama going to do next? Has he thought of that?

After Alan Henning’s beheading, the gorge rises at the thought of even discussing such things. But distance sometimes creates distorting mirrors, none so more than when it involves the distance between the Middle East and Washington, London, Paris and, I suppose, Canberra. In Beirut, I’ve been surveying the Arab television and press – and it’s interesting to see the gulf that divides what the Arabs see and hear, and what the West sees and hears. The gruesome detail is essential here to understand how Arabs have already grown used to jihadi barbarity. They have seen full video clips of the execution of Iraqis – if shot in the back of the head, they have come to realise, a victim’s blood pours from the front of his face – and they have seen video clips of Syrian soldiers not only beheaded but their heads then barbecued and carried through villages on sticks.

Understandably, Alan Henning’s murder didn’t get much coverage in the Middle East, although television did show his murder video – which Western television did not. But it didn’t make many front pages. Mostly the fighting between jihadis and Kurds at Ein al-Arab (Kobane) and the festival for the Muslim Eid – and the Haj in Saudi Arabia – dominated news coverage. In general, the Arab world was as uninterested in Henning’s murder as we have been, for example, in the car bomb that killed 50 Syrian children in Homs last week. Had they been British children, of course…

But I’m struck by friends who’ve asked me why we are really carrying out air strikes when we won’t put soldiers on the ground. They have noted how the families of American hostages – fruitlessly seeking mercy for their loved ones – keep repeating that they cannot make Obama do what they want him to do. Yet, don’t we claim that our democratic governments can be influenced by individuals, that they do what we want?

And watching David Cameron on my Beirut television last week, I asked myself why it was really necessary for the RAF to bomb the “Islamic State”. He knows very well that our four – or is it two? – clapped-out Tornadoes are not going to make the slightest difference to any assault on jihadi forces. Indeed, he was prepared to delay RAF strikes until the Scottish referendum was over. If so, why did he not defer them altogether to save British lives?

But it was obvious at the Tory party conference that Cameron’s greatest threat came not from a man in Mosul called Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, but from a man in Bromley called Nigel Farage. Thus he waffled on about how Britain would “hunt down and bring to justice” Henning’s killers and do “everything we can to defeat this organisation in the region and at home”, using “all the assets we have to find these [remaining] hostages”. By “all the assets”, he must mean ground troops – because the RAF is already being used – and this we are not, I think, going to do. “British troops held hostage by Islamic State” is not a headline he wants to read. Thus I fear we are going to do nothing except bomb. And bomb. And bomb. Farage can’t beat that.

Like all Western leaders faced with a crisis in the Middle East, Cameron does not want to deal with it – or explore why it happened. He wants to know how to respond to it politically or, preferably, militarily. Our refusal to broadcast the “Islamic State” beheading videos is understandable – absolutely in the case of the actual murders – but by preventing Brits from actually seeing these horrors, the Government avoids having to respond to the public’s reaction: either a call for more air strikes or to demand their annulment.

This secrecy means the hostages do not exist in our imagination; they only emerge from the mist into the horrible desert sunlight when that grisly video arrives. In the region itself, hostages become public property at once, relatives giving interviews and demanding action from their governments. As I write, the families of 21 captured Lebanese soldiers faced with beheading are blocking the main Damascus- Beirut highway. A Qatari envoy has arrived to help (presumably with lots of cash).

Perhaps we need to reframe our understanding of the “Islamic State”. British Muslim leaders have said, quite rightly, that Muslims show mercy, and that the “Islamic State” is a perversion of Islam. I suspect and fear that they are wrong. Not because Islam is not merciful, but because the “Islamic State” has nothing at all to do with Islam. It is more a cult of nihilism. Their fighters have been brutalised – remember that they have endured, many of them, Saddam’s cruelty, our sanctions, Western invasion and occupation and air strikes under Saddam and now air strikes again. These people just don’t believe in justice any more. They have erased it from their minds.

If we had not supported so many brutal men in the Middle East, would things have turned out differently? Probably. If we had supported justice – I hesitate to suggest putting a certain man on trial for war crimes – would there have been a different reaction in the Middle East? In the Syrian war, they say that 200,000 have died; in Gaza more than 2,000. But in Iraq, we suspect half a million died. And whose fault was that?

The “Islamic State” are the real or spiritual children of all this. Now we face an exclusive form of nihilism, a cult as merciless as it is morbid. And we bomb and we bomb and we bomb. And then?



Boom! for US arms-makers as war on IS brings in billions

Wall St cheers as US bombs are used to blow up US-made equipment that will all need replacing

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:25 ON Tue 7 Oct 2014
It looks like it is going to be a good year for America’s arms industry after all.

Things were looking bleak – at least by the standards of the US war machine – until Jihadi John and his cohorts started chopping off heads in the name of the Islamic State and over-running nation states blessed with oil supplies.

Barak Obama came to office as the “no more war” president and although his definition of war seems to exclude death by drone or special forces he has brought home most of the forces that had been fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This has had a dire effect on the production lines and bank accounts of what President Eisenhower so presciently named back in 1961 the Military-Industrial Complex. Share prices flattened on Wall Street, and blue-collar workers assembling the Humvees and smart bombs of contemporary combat were the first to lose their jobs as demand fell.

In Washington, Congress has been preparing a Pentagon appropriations bill of just $58.6 billion – that is $20 billion down on this year’s budget, and a huge hit on the fortunes of those who reap the profits of war.

But the boom is back in the nick of time.

The campaign to “degrade” Islamic State fighters from the air – already being deemed a failure, but we won’t go there – is calculated to have cost $1 billion so far, and that’s only the start of it.

Just three days after Washington took the war to Syria a fortnight ago, the Pentagon signed a $251 million dollar contract with Raytheon Co to replace the 47 cruise missiles fired in the opening barrage. This week came news that Apache helicopters (manufactured by Boeing) armed with Hellfire missiles (Lockheed Martin) have been thrown into the fray outside Baghdad.

Which is why Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel is hard at work negotiating with Congress for a return of a good chunk of the very same $20 billion his Pentagon was negotiating to cut.

“We’re going to require additional funding from Congress as we go forward,” Hagel said at a news conference on 26 September. “We’re working now with appropriate committees on how we go forward with authorisations and funding.”

The Washington think-tank The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has estimated that the air campaign alone will cost around $3.8 billion a year at the current level of intensity, all of it being met by the US taxpayer.

“There are plenty of reasons to think that defence spending is going to be on the rise again,” Wayne Plucker, an aerospace analyst with research firm Frost & Sullivan, told the Los Angeles Times. “Defence companies are not being harmed by the current situation, I can tell you that much.”

Although Obama has restricted his war on IS to bombardment, there is no reason for manufacturers of ground weapons to despair. IS has stolen most of its equipment from the Iraqi Army, which abandoned billions of dollars’ worth of kit.

So the Tomahawks and smart bombs are blowing up Humvees and American-made armoured personnel carriers, artillery pieces and tanks, all of which will have to be replaced for the next Iraqi or other army to fail in its purpose.

Even more encouraging, business-wise, is that the Arab “allies” with whom Obama has gone to war are also using up stocks of American arms. The LA Times reports that Boeing has already sold 262,000 guidance kits which turn bombs into “smart bombs” to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, at $25,000 each.

The “privatisation” of war has spread the profits far beyond the makers of ships and planes and bombs. Obama’s sending thousands of private-contractors back to Iraq to help secure “American interests” as well as arm and train the proxy armies taking on the Assad regime and IS in Syria is seasonal good cheer to such companies as Halliburton.

Halliburton became a household name as the largest of the “privatised” contractors to emerge with coffers bulging from the wreckage of Iraq. It had been run by President Dubya Bush’s vice-president Dick Cheney before he left, putting his shares in trust, to run the “neo-con” project and the Iraq War.

According to a March 2013 report by the International Business Times, Halliburton had made $39.5 billion from the Iraq War by the time it was “ended” by Obama, and is still busy there now. Cheney held $39 million in Halliburton stock options when he quit the company in 2000 to take up office, and has been selling them off since retiring.

Is it a co-incidence that Obama declares his war on IS as the mid-term elections loom? Not entirely. The Democrats face a tough fight hanging on to their Senate majority, and further losses in the House of Representatives already in Republican hands.

The Military-Industrial Complex is unrivalled for the distribution of “pork”. That is one reason why military costs are so high: spreading the pork from the public purse to constituencies all over the country has always been more important than efficient concentrations of production. It is the congressman’s job to bring home the bacon, and there are dozens of relieved Democrats going home to face the November polls with fat contracts for subsidiaries of big corporations in their pockets.

The shares of the biggest hogs at the trough – Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics – have all been climbing back to record highs, and all of them are outpacing the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index. Wall Street cheers. ·