Charles J. Hanley–On the Cutting Edge


U.S. airmen from the 332nd Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron repair a F-16 Falcon at Balad Air Base, 50 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq Thursday, June 21, 2007. The Air Force has been quietly building its Iraq presence during the “surge” in U.S. ground troops. (AP Photo/ Maya Alleruzzo)

Charles J. Hanley is a reporter for the Associated Press who’s always sticking his nose where somebody doesn’t want it to be. First time I noticed him was when he did a full report on the components of the Iraq Air War, which nobody else seems to want to discuss. Of course, that story sank like a lead balloon and the next thing I knew Hanley was doing the small college lecture circuit. Now, he seems to have been put on the global warming/climate change detail and sent to Bali to report. And what does he find? That his “friends” in the Pentagon are now keen on using their satellite (star wars?) investments to beam back energy from space. Anything to secure a monopoly, I’d say.

‘Drilling Up’ Into Space for Energy

`Beam Me Down Some Energy’: Giant Pentagon, Tiny Palau Eye Space Solar Power

By CHARLES J. HANLEY AP Special Correspondent

The Associated Press

BALI, Indonesia

While great nations fretted over coal, oil and global warming, one of the smallest at the U.N. climate conference was looking toward the heavens for its energy.

The annual meeting’s corridors can be a sounding board for unlikely “solutions” to climate change from filling the skies with soot to block the sun, to cultivating oceans of seaweed to absorb the atmosphere’s heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

Unlike other ideas, however, one this year had an influential backer, the Pentagon, which is investigating whether space-based solar power beaming energy down from satellites will provide “affordable, clean, safe, reliable, sustainable and expandable energy for mankind.”

Tommy Remengesau Jr. is interested, too. “We’d like to look at it,” said the president of the tiny western Pacific nation of Palau.

The Defense Department this October quietly issued a 75-page study conducted for its National Security Space Office concluding that space power collection of energy by vast arrays of solar panels aboard mammoth satellites offers a potential energy source for global U.S. military operations.

It could be done with today’s technology, experts say. But the prohibitive cost of lifting thousands of tons of equipment into space makes it uneconomical.

That’s where Palau, a scattering of islands and 20,000 islanders, comes in.

In September, American entrepreneur Kevin Reed proposed at the 58th International Astronautical Congress in Hyderabad, India, that Palau’s uninhabited Helen Island would be an ideal spot for a small demonstration project, a 260-foot-diameter “rectifying antenna,” or rectenna, to take in 1 megawatt of power transmitted earthward by a satellite orbiting 300 miles above Earth.

That’s enough electricity to power 1,000 homes, but on that empty island the project would “be intended to show its safety for everywhere else,” Reed said in a telephone interview from California.

Reed said he expects his U.S.-Swiss-German consortium to begin manufacturing the necessary ultralight solar panels within two years, and to attract financial support from manufacturers wanting to show how their technology launch vehicles, satellites, transmission technology could make such a system work. He estimates project costs at $800 million and completion as early as 2012.

At the U.N. climate conference here this month, a Reed partner discussed the idea with the Palauans, who Reed said could benefit from beamed-down energy if the project is expanded to populated areas.

“We are keen on alternative energy,” Palau’s Remengesau said. “And if this is something that can benefit Palau, I’m sure we’d like to look at it.”

Space power has been explored since the 1960s by NASA and the Japanese and European space agencies, based on the fundamental fact that solar energy is eight times more powerful in outer space than it is after passing through Earth’s atmosphere.

The energy captured by space-based photovoltaic arrays would be converted into microwaves for transmission to Earth, where it would be transformed into direct-current electricity.

Low-orbiting satellites, as proposed for Palau, would pass over once every 90 minutes or so, transmitting power to a rectenna for perhaps five minutes, requiring long-term battery storage or immediate use for example, in recharging electric automobiles via built-in rectennas.

Most studies have focused instead on geostationary satellites, those whose orbit 22,300 miles above the Earth keeps them over a single location, to which they would transmit a continuous flow of power.

The scale of that vision is enormous: One NASA study visualized solar-panel arrays 3 by 6 miles in size, transmitting power to similarly sized rectennas on Earth.

Each such mega-orbiter might produce 5 gigawatts of power, more than twice the output of a Hoover Dam.

But how safe would those beams be?

Patrick Collins of Japan’s Azabu University, who participated in Japanese government studies of space power, said a lower-power beam, because of its breadth, might be no more powerful than the energy emanating from a microwave oven’s door. The beams from giant satellites would likely require precautionary no-go zones for aircraft and people on the ground, he said.

Rising oil costs and fears of global warming will lead more people to look seriously at space power, boosters believe.

“The climate change implications are pretty clear. You can get basically unlimited carbon-free power from this,” said Mark Hopkins, senior vice president of the National Space Society in Washington.

“You just have to find a way to make it cost-effective.”

Advocates say the U.S. and other governments must invest in developing lower-cost space-launch vehicles. “It is imperative that this work for `drilling up’ vs. drilling down for energy security begins immediately,” concludes October’s Pentagon report.

Some seem to hear the call. The European Space Agency has scheduled a conference on space-based solar power for next Feb. 29. Space Island Group, another entrepreneurial U.S. endeavor, reports “very positive” discussions with a European utility and the Indian government about buying future power from satellite systems.

To Robert N. Schock, an expert on future energy with the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, space power doesn’t look like science fiction.

The panel’s 2007 reports didn’t address space power’s potential, Schock explained, because his team’s time horizon didn’t extend beyond 2030. But, he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised at the beginning of the next century to see significant power utilized on Earth from space and maybe sooner.”

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.

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Air Force Quietly Building Iraq Presence

As Ground Troops ‘Surge,’ Air Force Quietly Builds Iraq Presence, Drops 5 Times More Bombs

By CHARLES J. HANLEY AP Special Correspondent

The Associated Press

BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq Jul 14, 2007

Away from the headlines and debate over the “surge” in U.S. ground troops, the Air Force has quietly built up its hardware inside Iraq, sharply stepped up bombing and laid a foundation for a sustained air campaign in support of American and Iraqi forces.

Squadrons of attack planes have been added to the in-country fleet. The air reconnaissance arm has almost doubled since last year. The powerful B1-B bomber has been recalled to action over Iraq.

The escalation worries some about an increase in “collateral damage,” casualties among Iraqi civilians. Air Force generals worry about wear and tear on aging aircraft. But ground commanders clearly like what they see.

“Night before last we had 14 strikes from B-1 bombers. Last night we had 18 strikes by B-1 bombers,” Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said approvingly of air support his 3rd Infantry Division received in a recent offensive south of Baghdad.

Statistics tell the story: Air Force and Navy aircraft dropped 437 bombs and missiles in Iraq in the first six months of 2007, a fivefold increase over the 86 used in the first half of 2006, and three times more than in the second half of 2006, according to Air Force data. In June, bombs dropped at a rate of more than five a day.

Inside spacious, air-conditioned “Kingpin,” a new air traffic control center at this huge Air Force hub 50 miles north of Baghdad, the expanded commitment can be seen on the central display screen: Small points of light represent more than 100 aircraft crisscrossing Iraqi air space at any one time.

The increased air activity has paralleled the reinforcement of U.S. ground troops, beginning in February, to try to suppress the insurgency and sectarian violence in the Baghdad region. Simply keeping those 30,000 additional troops supplied has added to demands on the Air Force.

“We’re the busiest aerial port in DOD (Department of Defense),” said Col. Dave Reynolds, a mission support commander here. Working 12-hour shifts, his cargo handlers are expected to move 140,000 tons of cargo this year, one-third more than in 2006, he said.

The greatest impact of the “air surge” has come in close air support for Army and Marine operations.

Early this year, with little fanfare, the Air Force sent a squadron of A-10 “Warthog” attack planes a dozen or more aircraft to be based at Al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq. At the same time it added a squadron of F-16C Fighting Falcons here at Balad. Although some had flown missions over Iraq from elsewhere in the region, the additions doubled to 50 or more the number of workhorse fighter-bomber jets available at bases inside the country, closer to the action.

The reinforcement involved more than numbers. The new F-16Cs were the first of the advanced “Block 50” version to fly in Iraq, an aircraft whose technology includes a cockpit helmet that enables the pilot to aim his weapons at a target simply by turning his head and looking at it.

The Navy has contributed by stationing a second aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, and the reintroduction of B1-Bs has added a close-at-hand “platform” capable of carrying 24 tons of bombs.

Those big bombers were moved last year from distant Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to an undisclosed base in the Persian Gulf. Since February, with the ground offensive, they have gone on Iraq bombing runs for the first time since the 2003 invasion.

As chronicled in the Air Force’s daily summaries, more and more pilots are getting the “cleared hot” clearance for bombing runs, usually with 500-pound bombs. In recent Army operations north of Baghdad, for example, Air Force planes have struck “factories” for makeshift bombs, weapons caches uncovered by ground troops and, in one instance, “several houses insurgents were using as fire positions.”

Iraq Body Count, a London-based, anti-war research group that monitors Iraqi war deaths, says the step-up in air attacks appears to have been accompanied by an increase in Iraqi civilian casualties from air strikes. Based on media reports, it counts a recent average of 50 such deaths per month.

The Air Force itself does not maintain such data.

The demand for air support is heavy. On one recent day, at a briefing attended by a reporter, it was noted that 48 requests for air support were filled, but 16 went unmet.

“There are times when the Army wishes we had more jets,” said F-16C pilot Lt. Col. Steve Williams, commander of the 13th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, a component of Balad’s 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.

In addition, the Air Force is performing more “ISR” work in Iraq intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “We have probably come close to doubling our ISR platforms the past 12 months,” said Col. Gary Crowder, a deputy air operations chief for the Central Command.

Those proliferating reconnaissance platforms include Predator drones, high-flying U2s and AWACS, the technology-packed airborne warning and control aircraft, three of which returned to the Persian Gulf in April after three years’ absence.

The F-16Cs and other attack planes also do surveillance work with their targeting cameras, keeping watch on convoy routes, for example. By Oct. 1, Crowder said, all squadrons will have “ROVER” capability, able to download real-time aerial video to the laptop computers of troops on the ground showing them, in effect, what’s around the next corner.

“They love it. It’s like having a security camera wherever you want it,” said Col. Joe Guastella, the Air Force’s regional operations chief.

Air Force engineers, meanwhile, are improving this centrally located home base, which supports some 10,000 air operations per week.

The weaker of Balad’s two 11,000-foot runways was reinforced for five to seven years’ more hard use. The engineers next will build concrete “overruns” at the runways’ ends. Balad’s strategic ramp, the concrete parking lot for its biggest planes, was expanded last fall. The air traffic control system is to be upgraded again with the latest technology.

“We’d like to get it to be a field like Langley, if you will,” said mission support chief Reynolds, referring to the Air Force showcase base in Virginia.

The Air Force has flown over Iraq for many years, having enforced “no-fly zones” with the Navy in 1991-2003, banning Iraqi aircraft from northern and southern areas of this country. Today, too, it takes a long view: Many expect the Army to draw down its Iraq forces by 2009, but the Air Force is planning for a continued conflict in which it supports Iraqi troops.

“Until we can determine that the Iraqis have got their air force to sufficient capability, I think the coalition will be here to support that effort,” Lt. Gen. Gary North, overall regional air commander, said in an interview. The new Iraqi air force thus far fields only a handful of transports and reconnaissance aircraft no attack planes.

North also echoed a common theme in today’s Air Force: Some of the U.S. planes are too old. Some of his KC-135 air-refueling tankers date from 1956. Heavy use in Iraq and Afghanistan is cracking the wings of some A-10s, the Air Force says.

“We are burning these airplanes out,” North said. “Our A-10s and our F-16s are rapidly becoming legacy systems.”

If the equipment is under strain, it doesn’t appear the personnel are.

The Air Force’s four-month Iraq tours and extensive use of volunteer pilots from the Reserve and National Guard contrast sharply with an Army whose 15-month tours are sapping energy and morale.

In the Air Force, Iraq duty can even be cut to two months. Lt. Col. Bob Mortensen’s 457th Fighter Squadron F-16Cs from Fort Worth, Texas managed it by working a deal with another Reserve unit to share one four-month rotation.

How much longer can these flyers answer the call?

“As many times as we’re asked,” Mortensen said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press

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Robot Air Attack Squadron Bound for Iraq

AP ENTERPRISE: Robot Air Attack Squadron Bound for Iraq; ‘Reaper’ Packs Bombs, Missiles

By CHARLES J. HANLEY AP Special Correspondent

The Associated Press

BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq, July 15, 2007

The airplane is the size of a jet fighter, powered by a turboprop engine, able to fly at 300 mph and reach 50,000 feet. It’s outfitted with infrared, laser and radar targeting, and with a ton and a half of guided bombs and missiles.

The Reaper is loaded, but there’s no one on board. Its pilot, as it bombs targets in Iraq, will sit at a video console 7,000 miles away in Nevada.

The arrival of these outsized U.S. “hunter-killer” drones, in aviation history’s first robot attack squadron, will be a watershed moment even in an Iraq that has seen too many innovative ways to hunt and kill.

That moment, one the Air Force will likely low-key, is expected “soon,” says the regional U.S. air commander. How soon? “We’re still working that,” Lt. Gen. Gary North said in an interview.

The Reaper’s first combat deployment is expected in Afghanistan, and senior Air Force officers estimate it will land in Iraq sometime between this fall and next spring. They look forward to it.

“With more Reapers, I could send manned airplanes home,” North said.

The Associated Press has learned that the Air Force is building a 400,000-square-foot expansion of the concrete ramp area now used for Predator drones here at Balad, the biggest U.S. air base in Iraq, 50 miles north of Baghdad. That new staging area could be turned over to Reapers.

It’s another sign that the Air Force is planning for an extended stay in Iraq, supporting Iraqi government forces in any continuing conflict, even if U.S. ground troops are drawn down in the coming years.

The estimated two dozen or more unmanned MQ-1 Predators now doing surveillance over Iraq, as the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, have become mainstays of the U.S. war effort, offering round-the-clock airborne “eyes” watching over road convoys, tracking nighttime insurgent movements via infrared sensors, and occasionally unleashing one of their two Hellfire missiles on a target.

From about 36,000 flying hours in 2005, the Predators are expected to log 66,000 hours this year over Iraq and Afghanistan.

The MQ-9 Reaper, when compared with the 1995-vintage Predator, represents a major evolution of the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV.

At five tons gross weight, the Reaper is four times heavier than the Predator. Its size 36 feet long, with a 66-foot wingspan is comparable to the profile of the Air Force’s workhorse A-10 attack plane. It can fly twice as fast and twice as high as the Predator. Most significantly, it carries many more weapons.

While the Predator is armed with two Hellfire missiles, the Reaper can carry 14 of the air-to-ground weapons or four Hellfires and two 500-pound bombs.

“It’s not a recon squadron,” Col. Joe Guasella, operations chief for the Central Command’s air component, said of the Reapers. “It’s an attack squadron, with a lot more kinetic ability.”

“Kinetic” Pentagon argot for destructive power is what the Air Force had in mind when it christened its newest robot plane with a name associated with death.

“The name Reaper captures the lethal nature of this new weapon system,” Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Air Force chief of staff, said in announcing the name last September.

General Atomics of San Diego has built at least nine of the MQ-9s thus far, at a cost of $69 million per set of four aircraft, with ground equipment.

The Air Force’s 432nd Wing, a UAV unit formally established on May 1, is to eventually fly 60 Reapers and 160 Predators. The numbers to be assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan will be classified.

The Reaper is expected to be flown as the Predator is by a two-member team of pilot and sensor operator who work at computer control stations and video screens that display what the UAV “sees.” Teams at Balad, housed in a hangar beside the runways, perform the takeoffs and landings, and similar teams at Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base, linked to the aircraft via satellite, take over for the long hours of overflying the Iraqi landscape.

American ground troops, equipped with laptops that can download real-time video from UAVs overhead, “want more and more of it,” said Maj. Chris Snodgrass, the Predator squadron commander here.

The Reaper’s speed will help. “Our problem is speed,” Snodgrass said of the 140-mph Predator. “If there are troops in contact, we may not get there fast enough. The Reaper will be faster and fly farther.”

The new robot plane is expected to be able to stay aloft for 14 hours fully armed, watching an area and waiting for targets to emerge.

“It’s going to bring us flexibility, range, speed and persistence,” said regional commander North, “such that I will be able to work lots of areas for a long, long time.”

The British also are impressed with the Reaper, and are buying three for deployment in Afghanistan later this year. The Royal Air Force version will stick to the “recon” mission, however no weapons on board.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press

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Iraq Pullout Would Face Many Unknowns

Years in Planning, U.S. Withdrawal From Iraq Would Still Face Long List of Uncertainties

By CHARLES J. HANLEY AP Special Correspondent

July 21, 2007 (AP)

From crating up the bombs and bullets, to shrink-wrapping the helicopters, to counting up the endless tiers of port-a-potties, the pullout of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, when it inevitably comes, will rank as the longest-planned withdrawal ever.

Despite the years of preparation, the Pentagon’s painstaking planners just as inevitably will be challenged by the unknowables of a country at war, the vagaries of politics, the harshness of terrain and climate.

“Coming out of any theater of operations is tough,” says retired Lt. Gen. Gus Pagonis. But packing to go home from that distant desert presents special problems, as simple as finding the water to wash down your grungy gear, says this man who oversaw the homecoming from the last desert war, in 1991.

Air Force Col. Jeffrey Mintzlaff, who will be deeply involved in this one as what he calls a “synchronizer” of troop flights home, said “a lot of variables” complicate the picture.

“Is it a permissive environment? Hostile? Non-hostile? How much actually comes back?” asked Mintzlaff, chief contingency planner for the U.S. Transportation Command.

Efforts by Democrats to schedule that homecoming, and to wrap it up by next spring, were stymied in the U.S. Senate last week. But political momentum is pushing Washington toward a significant Iraq pullout by 2009.

Plans for it have been on the drawing boards since before the March 2003 U.S. invasion, when it was envisioned that 150,000 troops would be drawn down to 30,000 by that fall.

Similar numbers are on the boards today. In addition to 160,000 troops, however, the U.S. presence in Iraq has ballooned over four years to include more than 180,000 civilians employed under U.S. government contracts at least 21,000 Americans, 43,000 other foreigners and 118,000 Iraqis and has spread to small “cities” on fortified bases across Iraq.

“The easiest thing is getting the troops out,” Pagonis said. “The biggest problem is going to be the equipment all that ammo and equipment.”

Many of the Air Force’s 514 C-130 transport planes, carrying 92 passengers each, and 150 C-17s, with 102 passengers, are expected to ferry withdrawing troops to Kuwait, to be picked up by chartered commercial jetliners for flights home, Mintzlaff said. Many U.S. civilians and other foreigners are expected to leave the same way.

Then comes the tough part, the Air Force colonel said: “Identifying disposition of all the equipment.”

Those “cities” from al-Asad Air Base in the west, population 17,000, to the Anaconda base farther east, with 25,000 hold more than the thousands of tanks, other armored vehicles, artillery pieces and Humvees assigned to combat units. They’re also home to airfields laden with high-tech gear, complexes of offices filled with computers, furniture and air conditioners, systems of generators and water plants, PXs full of merchandise, gyms packed with equipment, big prefab latrines and ranks of small portable toilets, even Burger Kings and Subway sandwich shops.

“What stays? What goes? And if it goes, where does it go?” asked Mintzlaff.

When it goes, most will go by sea. But it won’t be a simple matter of tagging, packing and loading.

Ever since U.S. authorities found plague-infected rats in cargo returning from the Vietnam War, the decontamination process has been demanding: water blasting of equipment, treatment with insecticide and rodenticide, inspections, certifications.

“I can’t overemphasize how difficult it is to meet U.S. Agriculture Department standards,” said Pagonis, whose 22nd Support Command supplied, fueled, transported and finally sent home the half-million U.S. troops of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-91.

Water, in that desert, is key. Pagonis tells the story of a young sergeant in 1991 who hit on a solution, deploying the Army’s “reverse osmosis” technology, which produces drinking water, to purify and recycle the waste water from washdowns.

The list of special needs and problems is long. Port areas must be “sterilized.” Helicopters must be shrink-wrapped for an otherwise corrosive sea journey. Huge amounts of hazardous munitions 300,000 tons were shipped home in 1991 must be safely handled.

Pagonis’s 6,000 “close-out” specialists took a mere eight months to empty the desert of its U.S. stockpile. Troops in 1991 flew out at a rate of 5,000 a day. In Vietnam, where the U.S. military handed over thousands of tons of weaponry and equipment to the South Vietnamese as it departed, the Army drew down its forces from 190,000 to under 33,000 over 12 months in 1971-72.

How long would an Iraq pullout take?

“Six months is what is talked about around here,” Mintzlaff said from Scott Air Force Base, Ill. Others estimate as few as four or as many as 18 months would be needed. Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks of withdrawing one combat brigade per month, pointing to a two-year plan. But Pagonis said that “once a withdrawal is decided on, they will want to do it expeditiously,” whichever party is in charge in Washington.

Vital questions remain unanswered. First, how big a U.S. force will be left behind to support an unready Iraqi army fighting an insurgency?

The Iraqis lack attack planes, good airlift capacity, a strong military supply system, medical facilities and other support elements. Thousands of U.S. military trainers and advisers will likely remain. Some in Washington speak also of leaving up to 20,000 U.S. combat troops.

But perhaps the biggest question on planners’ minds is a more immediate one: Will it be a “fighting withdrawal”? Will some in Iraq’s wide array of armed groups attack the hundreds of convoys needed to move U.S. equipment south?

Beyond that, other issues arise: What will be done with more than 21,000 Iraqi detainees in U.S. hands? What about an estimated 150,000 tons of old Iraqi munitions slated for U.S. demolition? Can Iraqi security forces safeguard scores of U.S. installations turned over to them, or will looters descend on what’s left? Will the Americans help relocate tens of thousands of potentially endangered Iraqis who worked for them? What will happen to Iraq a day after withdrawal?

An Army War College analysis sketched out a bleak scenario for that day after.

“From the moment a timetable is announced,” wrote authors W. Andrew Terrill and Conrad C. Crane, many Iraqis who cooperated with the Americans will begin calculating where to find protection in the future whether with Sunni Muslim insurgents or Shiite militias.

“The Iraqi institutions that have been put in place may crumble under such conditions or dissolve into sectarian factions,” they concluded, “and the lives and funds sacrificed to rebuild Iraq will not be redeemed.”

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.