TIME Military

Why the U.S.-Cuba Thaw Doesn’t Mean Guantanamo Bay Is Closing

Guantanamo Bay Cuba
Camp X-Ray was the first detention facility to hold 'enemy combatants' at Guantanamo. Joe Raedle—Getty Images

The U.S. Navy’s historic base—and new terror prison—is unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon

Like Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark, the absence of debate over the fate of the U.S. base at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay since President Barack Obama announced resumed ties between the two nations on Wednesday is striking.

For several reasons, nothing is likely to change, at least not in the near future, even as the U.S. restores its embassy in Havana and Obama nominates an ambassador to occupy it (although some lawmakers plan to oppose the envoy’s confirmation). Obama Administration officials have said reopening of relations between the two nations doesn’t affect the base.

For more than a decade, the 111-year old base—and the more than 130 detainees kept there for their suspected roles in the 9/11 and other terror attacks—have been a white-hot issue among human-rights advocates. Six years ago, Obama signed an order shortly after he was sworn in as President requiring the prison be shut down within a year.

That obviously didn’t happen, for legal, political and diplomatic reasons. There have been calls to shutter the prison and conduct trials of the accused on U.S. soil, something Congress has forbidden. It also has been challenging for the U.S. to find other nations willing to take the detainees.

But even if the prison and the detainees it now holds vanished overnight, it’s doubtful the U.S. would relinquish the base, U.S. military officials say. Cuba has wanted it back since Fidel Castro came to power more than 50 years ago. The U.S. signed a deal in 1903 with the Cuban government—after ousting the Spanish from Cuba in the Spanish-American War—allowing the U.S. to construct a base at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for an annual payment, in gold, now worth about $4,000 (the Cuban government refuses the payment).

Some defense experts, like former Pentagon official Lawrence Korb, think it’s time for the U.S. to abandon Guantanamo and the bad memories it holds. “We should turn Guantanamo back to Cuba in a reasonable period of time,” says Korb, now at the Center for American Progress. “That base is not that critical now, given what’s happening in the world, and Gitmo has caused real difficulties for our global reputation.”

But the U.S. military disagrees, and is unlikely to want to surrender such real estate, perched near the southeast corner of the island. It is seen as especially valuable since the U.S. gave up its Navy base at the Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, a decade ago.

The prior chief of U.S. Southern Command, which overseas Latin America and the Caribbean, made that clear. “Absent a detention facility and even following the eventual demise of the Castro regime,” Air Force General Douglas Fraser told Congress in March 2012, “the strategic capability provided by U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo remains essential for executing national priorities throughout the Caribbean, Latin America and South America.”

With language like that, it’s a safe bet that the U.S. military won’t be lowering its flag over Guantanamo any time soon.

TIME Military

Taking the Crisis Out of ISIS

George H.W. Bush is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.
An F-18 leaves it carrier for a bombing run against ISIS targets. Navy photo / Robert Burck

Pentagon reports some good news from the front

After four months of stalemate in the U.S.-led air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, the U.S. military finally expressed measured optimism Thursday over the course of the campaign.

“We’re seeing initial successes in this fight,” Army Lieut. General James Terry told reporters at the Pentagon. “My assessment is that Daesh has been halted in transitioning to the defense and is attempting to hold what they currently have.”

The Pentagon has begun referring to ISIS—which is also know as ISIL, for the Islamic State in the Levant—as Daesh, after prodding from its allies.

In Arabic, Daesh and ISIL sound alike, although “daesh” literally means “to crush underneath the foot,” Terry said. “Our partners, at least the ones that I work with, ask us to use that, because they feel that if you use ISIL, that you legitimize a self-declared caliphate, and they feel pretty strongly that we should not be doing that.”

ISIS forces still control roughly a third of Iraq and Syria. Regaining major territory in both nations won’t be possible until local ground forces can be assembled and trained to take the fight to the Islamic militants in the major cities they now hold. The launch of any such single counter-offensive is months away, and will take years to drive ISIS from all the cities, Pentagon officials believe.

Later Thursday, the Pentagon’s top spokesman said air strikes over the last month have killed senior ISIS officials. “Since mid-November, targeted coalition airstrikes successfully killed multiple [ISIS] senior and mid-level leaders,” Rear Admiral John Kirby said. The Wall Street Journal reported that three senior leaders had been killed.

“We believe that the loss of these key leaders degrades [ISIS’s] ability to command and control current operations against Iraqi Security Forces, including Kurdish and other local forces in Iraq,” Kirby added in a statement. The U.S. and its allies have conducted 1,361 air strikes since August, with 86% of those carried out by U.S. warplanes (the U.S. has carried out 97% of the strikes in Syria this month, Reuters reports).

The Pentagon statements didn’t occur in a vacuum. Last week, lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed ire at the slow pace of the war against ISIS. “Does the United States have some other strategic plan other than arming these [Syrian] folks that aren’t going to show up till 2016, dropping bombs, that are marginal whether they’ve been successful, and helping with military aid to some of these coalition countries?” Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, asked Brett McGurk, the Obama Administration’s anti-ISIS envoy.

“It was designed,” McGurk said, “to be a long-term program.”

Read next: U.S. Kills 3 ISIS Leaders in Iraq Strikes, Officials Say

TIME National Security

A Contrivance of an Alliance

George H.W. Bush is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.
U.S. Navy warplanes prepare to attack ISIS targets. Navy photo / Robert Burck

The U.S. is largely flying solo when it comes to attacking ISIS

The U.S.-led bombing campaign against Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is complex. A coalition made up of the U.S. and seven allies began bombing ISIS targets in Iraq in August. A month later, the U.S. began bombing targets belonging to the militant group in Syria, along with four allies.

Should the civilized world care that none of the seven U.S. allies bombing ISIS targets in Iraq (Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Netherlands and the United Kingdom) are bombing ISIS in Syria? And that, ipso facto, none of the four U.S. allies bombing targets in Syria (Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) are bombing ISIS targets in Iraq?

Does it matter that the U.S. stands alone when it comes to bombing both?

Perhaps more important is the lopsided nature of the air strikes: since Sept. 23, the allies have accounted for nearly 40% of close air support, interdiction and escort sorties, and 25% of total missions flown. “Many of those sorties that conduct dynamic targeting in support of ground forces require specialized capability, and frequently they do not result in a necessary strike on [ISIS] forces, equipment or facilities,” Gary Boucher, spokesman for the campaign, dubbed Operation Inherent Resolve, said Tuesday.

But the allies have accounted for only 14% of the air strikes. That’s less than one out of every seven. Think of it like a workweek: the U.S. military is working Monday through Saturday; and the allies work Sunday. It works out to an average of two non-U.S. daily air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq, shared among seven nations, and less than one non-U.S. air strike per day among the four countries attacking ISIS targets in Syria.

“The real problem is how few sorties most other countries are flying,” says Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “A 62-country token alliance is only marginally better than the U.S. alone.”

As small as the allies’ contributions may be, there are back-home considerations driving which side of the porous Iraq-Syria border they’re bombing. Many of the nations bombing ISIS in Iraq fought alongside the U.S. there following the 2003 invasion, and don’t want their earlier sacrifices to be in vain. The states bombing inside Syria want to see Syrian President Bashar Assad gone.

The anemic response from the world community suggests the war against various forms of Islamic zealotry is going to get worse before it gets better. Following Monday’s jihadist-inspired bloodshed at an Australian chocolate shop, and Tuesday’s massacre of at least 141 people, nearly all of them schoolchildren, by Islamic militants at a military-run school in Pakistan, it’s past time to ask when the international community is going to come up with a plan to deal with this metastasizing horror.

The right response isn’t necessarily more bombing by more countries. The targets are often elusive and defy military action. But until there’s more buy-in from the rest of the world, Washington’s efforts, military and otherwise, are doomed.

TIME Military

Where the U.S. Army Is Winless

Army v Navy
Army cadets cheer on their football team Saturday in their annual game against Navy. Rob Carr / Getty Images

Pall of football defeats hangs over West Point since 9/11

Thirteen years ago, two months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the U.S. finally had something to celebrate. “We believe the Taliban appears to have abandoned Kabul,” General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, declared on Nov. 13, 2001, a scant 38 days after the U.S. launched its invasion of Afghanistan. The Taliban, who had given sanctuary to those who carried out the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, were on the run.

Nineteen days later, in the warm afterglow that followed, Army beat Navy, 26-17, in the annual gridiron classic between the nation’s two oldest military academies. It was the last game they’d play at Philadelphia’s now-gone Veterans Stadium.

It was also the last time Army beat Navy (Navy leads the series with 59 wins, 49 losses, and seven ties).

History repeated itself again Saturday, as Navy beat Army 17-10 in Baltimore in their 115th clash. The sting hurts even more given Army’s pregame hype.

For more than a decade, as Army loss follows Army loss, it has been distressing to see the Black Knights of West Point, N.Y., lose to the Midshipmen of Annapolis, Md. If the Army can’t prevail on the gridiron, the thinking goes, how can it beat the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)? Football, after all, is a game played in the dirt—the Army’s home turf—not in salt water.

The streak has led to stories like this from Duffel Blog, a website dedicated to fake news about the U.S. military, shortly before kickoff:

The Army’s record-breaking 12-game losing streak against the Naval Academy is actually an experiment to build officer resiliency for the military’s next impossible war, according to one senior West Point official. “We’re going to win this time!” U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno is expected to exclaim to a crowd of crestfallen cadets in the locker room of M&T Bank Stadium, unconsciously echoing both William Westmoreland in 1971 and Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel last Friday…“Look at this way,” a leaked document of Gen. Odierno’s prepared remarks reveal. “Even at 0-12, we’ve still beaten Navy more recently than we’ve beaten any of America’s actual enemies!”

Football, with its goal lines, sidelines and referees, has a clarity that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq lack. But few believe that the Army—the service that has done the bulk of the fighting, and dying in both (accounting for 4,955 of 6,828 U.S. military deaths, or 73%)—has achieved victories there.

Since 9/11, 95 graduates of the U.S. Military Academy have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sixteen from the U.S. Naval Academy have made the ultimate sacrifice, including 2nd Lieutenant J.P. Blecksmith, Class of 2003. He caught a pass in the last game the Army won. Blecksmith was following in the footsteps of his father, who served as a Marine in Vietnam. As the Marines fought to retake the Iraqi city of Fallujah on Nov. 11—Veterans Day—2004, a sniper killed him.

Granted, it’s foolish to link wars with games. Football no more resembles war than it resembles life. But the ethos of football—grit, self-sacrifice, playing through pain—isn’t foreign to those on the battlefield.

And the battle continues in Afghanistan. The Taliban once again are stepping up their attacks in and around Kabul, the capital. Early Saturday, a pair of men on a motorbike shot and killed a top Afghan court official, as he walked from his home to his car in a northwestern suburb of Kabul. Late Friday, a bomb killed two U.S. soldiers north of Kabul. A pair of attacks killed six Afghan soldiers and 12 men clearing clearing landmines.

But the U.S., more or less, has decided to pick up its ball and head home. “This month, our combat mission in Afghanistan will be over,” President Barack Obama said in his weekly radio address Saturday. “Our war in Afghanistan is coming to a responsible end.”

It’s a lot easier to define end than it is to define responsible. Check back in a year to see if Army’s other losing streak has come to an end, too.

TIME National Security

Attack on Sony Marks a Dangerous Escalation in Cyber Warfare

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The electronic attack on Sony Pictures marks a sharp escalation in cyber warfare, a senior lawmaker said Friday. Frederick J. Brown—AFP/Getty Images

House intel chief warns that U.S. continues to ignore all-but-certain impending disaster

The recent cyber-attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment marks a sharp escalation in computer warfare and highlights the growing U.S. vulnerability to a cataclysmic attack, the outgoing chairman of the House Intelligence Committee warned Friday.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., says a nation-state is responsible for the attack. The culpable country, he suggested, is most likely North Korea, stung by the company’s new production of The Interview, a movie comedy built around a U.S. plot to assassinate North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

“That was the first [time]—if you take at face value public reports—a nation state decided a retribution act could result in destroying data, bringing down a company,” Rogers said. While he declined to finger North Korea as the culprit, he made it clear he believes it is responsible.

Pyongyang has said it had nothing to do with the attack, which destroyed Sony computer files and took the company’s computers offline. The hackers also stole terabytes of embarrassing internal information, some of which has been leaked, including senior executives making racist jokes about President Obama. But North Korea praised the attack as a “righteous deed.”

“I would argue, as a former FBI guy,” Rogers said, “that when a nation state says ‘This group…did this on behalf of the North Korean people because of the Great Leader, and we appreciate it,’ as we would say in the FBI, that is a clue.”

Rogers said the U.S. must beef up its cyber defenses, and warned that the public continuing sense that it has more to fear from the federal National Security Agency than hackers is misplaced. A recent bill that would have given the NSA a bigger role in protecting U.S. computer systems failed to make it through the Senate after passing in the House.

Rogers said there has been a series of smaller attacks that should have awakened the U.S. to the problem:

I thought maybe Target would kind of do it, like `Hey, now we’re finally seeing how sophisticated these folks are. That was an international criminal enterprise using nation-state capability.’ I thought ‘Hey, that’ll be good—now we’ll get their attention.’ People went ‘Nah, whatever—it didn’t cost me any money.’ Then they went to SuperValu, it went to others, now it went to your medical records, it went into your financial records.

Even the attack on Sony didn’t have the impact Rogers believes it should have:

The result of Sony on the public psyche is, ‘Holy mackerel, I want to be a movie producer—those guys make a lot of money.’

Rogers, who is leaving Congress after 14 years to become a talk-radio host, said such nonchalance is dangerous. “Somebody, at some point, is going to decide to flick the switch,” he said. “And when they do, we will have a significant economic catastrophic event.”

TIME Military

Zap Wars: U.S. Navy Successfully Tests Laser Weapon in the Persian Gulf

Service says ray gun can handle multiple threats at 59 cents a shot

For decades, the Pentagon has been saying that laser weapons are just around the corner. Thursday, the U.S. military finally turned that corner.

The Navy announced that it had deployed and fired a laser weapon this fall aboard a warship in the Persian Gulf. During a series of test shots, the laser hit and destroyed targets mounted atop a small boat, blasted a six-foot drone from the sky, and destroyed other moving targets.

“This is the first time in recorded history that a directed energy weapons system has ever deployed on anything,” Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, told reporters at the Pentagon. “A lot of people talk about it—we decided to go do it.”

The Navy’s laser weapon system—LaWS, in sea-service jargon—was fired from the USS Ponce, a one-time amphibious ship that was converted to an “afloat forward staging base” in 2012 and assigned to the 5th Fleet in Bahrain. Firing a laser from the surface of the Persian Gulf is challenging because heat, humidity, dust and salt water can reduce its power.

The Navy spent about $40 million over the past seven years developing LaWS, which actually consists of six commercial welding lasers lashed together and aimed at the same point. It has proven effective at ranges of up to about a mile.

A chief petty officer, sitting inside the ship’s combat information center, directs the solid-state laser with an Xbox-like controller. It generates about 30 kilowatts of destructive power, roughly equal to 40 horsepower. Three times as much power is lost as heat rather than light.

Navy officers say the weapon’s power is adjustable, ranging from distract to disable to destroy. They added it would be ideal for asymmetric threats, including small attack boats (a favorite tactic of Iran, which undoubtedly was paying close attention to the tests off its shore). U.S. Central Command has given the Ponce’s skipper approval to use the laser for self-defense, if needed.

“Light from a laser beam can reach a target almost instantly,” a July congressional report said. “After disabling one target, a laser can be redirected in several seconds to another target. Fast engagement times can be particularly important in situations, such as near-shore operations, where missiles, rockets, artillery shells, and mortars could be fired at Navy ships from relatively close distances.”

But lasers can be disabled by bad weather, and are limited to line-of-sight confrontations. Initially, they’ll complement a warship’s traditional longer-range guns and missiles. The lessons learned from the Ponce tests will be cranked into a new generation of laser weaponry, which the Navy hopes to begin installing on the fleet in the early 2020s.

Such weapons are safer than traditional shells and missiles, which are crammed with explosives and propellant. They’re considerably cheaper, too: the energy required to fire the Ponce’s laser costs 59 cents a shot, compared to a shell or missile, which can cost $1 million or more.

Read next: U.S. Closes Bagram Prison in Afghanistan

TIME Terrorism

Handicapping the SEAL Raid to Rescue Luke Somers in Yemen

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A V-22 lifts off from the USS Makin Island near Yemen in October 2014, just as SEALs did early Saturday in their effort to rescue U.S. hostage Luke Somers. Lawrence Davis—U.S. Navy

The best troops and technology also need some luck

When Navy SEALs sought Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan three years ago, no one really cared if he ended up dead or alive. When SEALs flew into southern Yemen early Saturday to rescue American captive Luke Somers, they only succeeded in rescuing his body.

The sad outcome only highlights the challenges associated with two kinds of war: getting bad guys is a lot easier than getting good guys.

It’s like the Star Wars missile-defense shield writ small. In the raid to kill or capture bin Laden, the U.S. could crash one of its two choppers inside his walled compound and still declare victory. When playing offense, you can afford to break a lot of furniture along the way and still achieve success. But when you want to spring a captive to freedom, everything — intelligence, reconnaissance, weather, allies, and hardware, not to mention the troops themselves — has to work perfectly to accomplish the mission.

Think of it as drawing to an inside straight. Repeatedly.

Despite a reputation burnished by bin Laden’s banishment, such missions are never slam dunks. U.S. troops tried to rescue Somers in a Nov. 25 raid, but he had been moved days earlier. They’d tried to rescue American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff inside Syria in July, before the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria beheaded them. Linda Norgrove, a Scottish aid worker, died in a U.S. rescue attempt in Afghanistan in 2010.

Plainly, trying to rescue hostages being held by suicidal zealots is a dicey proposition. The Internet lit up Sunday with debate over the merits of the mission. “Sharp contrast: @cnn calls Yemen op ‘failed msn’ repeatedly; @foxandfriends calls op ‘rescue attempt’ & praises it,” tweeted Phil Carter, an Army veteran of Iraq who is now at the Center for a New American Security.

That, of course, is the current, binary, cable-TV way. In reality, it was both: a praiseworthy rescue mission that failed. It’s too bad that such nuance is beyond the realm of much public discourse these days.

Part of the challenge is the U.S. refusal to negotiate with kidnappers of Americans, as some European nations do. The U.S. government has long maintained that paying ransom only heightens the chance that more Americans will be seized. But the refusal to negotiate increases the chance of U.S. captives being executed, which ratchets up pressure for the U.S. to launch rescue missions, however slim their chances of succeeding.

Following Somers’ death, President Barack Obama told the nation to expect more such efforts: “As this and previous hostage rescue operations demonstrate, the United States will spare no effort to use all of its military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to bring Americans home safely, wherever they are located.”

As Americans are learning, there is little to be gained by waiting, when dealing with al Qaeda and its carbon copies replicating along the ancient arc of crisis. “Earlier this week, a video released by his terrorist captors announced that Luke would be killed within 72 hours,” Obama said in Saturday’s statement. “Other information also indicated that Luke’s life was in imminent danger. Based on this assessment, and as soon as there was reliable intelligence and an operational plan, I authorized a rescue attempt.”

Bottom line: the U.S. and its military had only a small window to try to rescue their fellow citizen. “They were going to kill this American hostage anyway,” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN on Sunday.

So a raiding party, 40 SEAL Team 6 commandos and their associates, left the USS Makin Island off the Yemeni coast early Saturday local time on V-22 tilt-rotors. They landed near their objective amid rough terrain and began, as stealthily as possible, approaching their goal. Pentagon officials say they had come within 100 yards of Somers when something — it may have been a barking dog — alerted the militants guarding Somers and South African teacher Pierre Korkie. Reconnaissance revealed that once the jihadists knew they were under attack, a firefight broke out. One of the captors went inside a building, where he shot and mortally wounded the two men.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel detailed the complex nature of such an operation, shortly after it ended, while on a visit to Afghanistan:

A rescue mission for a hostage is a very complicated matter. It consists of intelligence that we must have tremendous confirmation or the best we can get on, even before an operation is considered. Intelligence is aware of where that hostage is, who is holding that hostage, where, all the dimensions of security around that hostage. The next piece of that is the operational plan itself, which is very complicated. Many parts, moving parts, all at one time.

It’s a safe bet that no one is more bitterly disappointed at the outcome, other than the men’s families, than those who carried it out. Their angst could only be compounded when the relief organization that employed Korkie said that his captors had planned to free him Sunday, the day after his murder, in a negotiated release.

The intelligence the SEALs had — harvested by satellites, drones and eavesdropping gear — was amazing. The rest of their hardware, from ship to shore and back again, apparently worked flawlessly.

But sometimes the best commandos and machines in the world lack the luck that is always a vital ingredient for such an assignment. That missing element shouldn’t detract from what they were trying to accomplish, and how close they came.

Read next: U.S. Hostage Killed During Failed Rescue Attempt in Yemen

TIME Terrorism

U.S. Hostage Killed During Failed Rescue Attempt in Yemen

Luke Somers killed in failed rescue attempt
A file photograph made available Dec. 4 shows Luke Somers, a 33-year-old British born US journalist who was kidnapped by al-Qaeda's Yemen affiliate and was reportedly killed in failed rescue attempt. Yahya Arhab—EPA

Al Qaeda captors had threatened to kill him

U.S. hostage Luke Somers, held by an al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen for more than a year, was killed late Friday amid a U.S. rescue mission.

“There were compelling reasons to believe Mr. Somers’ life was in imminent danger,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said. “Both Mr. Somers and a second non-U.S. citizen hostage were murdered by the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula terrorists during the course of the operation.” The second victim was South African teacher Pierre Korkie.

President Obama issued a statement saying he’d authorized the rescue attempt after the terrorists holding him “announced Luke would be killed within 72 hours” on Wednesday.

“I’m looking for any help that can get me out of this situation,” Somers said in a video posted by his captors on YouTube the same day. “I’m certain that my life is in danger. So as I sit here now, I ask if there’s anything that can be done, please let it be done.”

The rescue raid, conducted by U.S. Special Forces, was the second acknowledged attempt to rescue Somers. Following the first attempt Nov. 25, Somers’ captors had said he would kill him if certain “well known” actions were not taken, and warned a second rescue attempt would lead to his death.

Hagel gave few additional details about the mission, other than to say it took place in central Yemen, “in partnership” with the Yemeni government.

Lucy Somers, Luke’s sister, told the Associated Press that the FBI told her of her brother’s fate. “We ask that all of Luke’s family members be allowed to mourn in peace,” she said.

Before the failed raid, the White House denied any suggestion that it had delayed the original rescue attempt to debate its risks. One hostage rescued in that mission said Somers had been moved from the initial raid site shortly before the rescue attempt took place.

Somers, a 33-year old freelance reporter, had been kidnapped in the Yemeni capital of Sana 15 months ago.

Hagel said “several” AQAP terrorists were killed in Friday’s effort. Seven of them were killed in the first raid.

TIME Military

Missing In Action: Hagel Skips His Replacement’s Announcement

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President Obama congratulates Ashton Carter after announcing his intention to nominate him to be the next defense secretary Friday. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP / Getty Images

His absence from White House ceremony highlights transition woes

Army Sergeant Chuck Hagel knew how to toss a hand grenade when he served in Vietnam in 1968. Friday he made clear he still knows how to do it, declining to attend the White House nomination announcement of his successor, Ashton Carter, after the Administration had let it be known he’d be there.

It’s the latest in a string of snafus that has marred the transition between President Obama’s third and fourth Defense secretaries.

In a nation engaged in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, such theatrics might be viewed by outsiders as mere distraction. But inside the Pentagon—and in ruling circles around the world—such drama is often seen as a national-security team fumbling the ball. If they can’t handle a handoff, the thinking goes, how can they run a war?

Perhaps Hagel felt that putting him on stage Friday alongside the President and Carter would only have highlighted the problem. Pentagon officials said Hagel didn’t want to shift attention from Carter’s debut alongside the President.

But the President dragged Hagel into the announcement, anyway. “A year ago, when Ash Carter completed his tenure as deputy secretary of defense, Secretary Hagel took to the podium in Ash’s farewell ceremony and looked out at the audience of our civilian and military leaders, and he said, ‘I’ve known Ash Carter for many years. All of us here today have benefited from Ash’s hard work, his friendship, from his inspiration, from his leadership.’ And Chuck then went on to express his gratitude to his partner for ‘what Ash has done for this country and will continue to do in many ways.’”

“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” Obama added.

Hagel actually may have turned gun shy following his Thursday press conference at the Pentagon, where he rolled out the Defense Department’s latest sexual-assault report. After working for a year to reduce sexual assaults in the military—and actually having some good news to share on the subject—reporters only asked him about his impending departure, and the reasons for it.

Both Hagel and Obama have stressed that each felt it was simply time for a change. But White House officials made clear they were unhappy with his performance, which has driven Hagel loyalists bonkers. “This was a mutual decision based on the discussions that we had,” Hagel said Thursday of their discussions. “I don’t think there’s ever one overriding or defining decision in situations like this, unless there’s some obvious issue, and there wasn’t between either one of us.”

Yet Hagel put Obama in a tough spot by submitting his resignation Nov. 24, as soon as it became clear he had lost the President’s confidence. That put the White House in the awkward spot of hailing Hagel’s impending departure amid wartime without his replacement standing alongside.

So perhaps it was only fitting 11 days later—after background investigations into Carter finally wrapped up—that Hagel was the missing man this time around.

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel releases the latest Pentagon sexual-assault report Thursday. DoD Photo / Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt
TIME Military

The Warplane That Will Not Die

Aircraft Carrier
A U.S. Navy pilot readies his F-4 aboard the carrier USS Constellation in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam war Vietnam. Terry Fincher / Getty Images

The Iranians reportedly attack ISIS targets in Iraq with U.S.-built 'Mad Men'-era F-4s

Think of it as the return of the Phantom.

Fly boys of a certain age perked up with reports Thursday that F-4 Phantom II’s belonging to the Iranian air force — or what’s left of it — have attacked targets belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in recent days.

The strikes, confirmed by U.S. officials (but denied by Tehran), took place northeast of Baghdad in eastern Iraq. Conveniently, the U.S. military, which is also conducting air strikes against ISIS targets, has been confining its bombing runs to the western part of the country.

If true, the Iranian attacks represent a return to the spotlight for the McDonnell Douglas F-4. The plane was originally designed for the Navy, which flew it first in 1960. It last flew for the U.S. military, specifically for the Air Force, in 1996 (it also was the only aircraft flown by both services’ airshow outfits, the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds).

The two-seat fighter-bomber was the backbone of U.S. air power in the 1970s and ’80s before being replaced by Air Force F-15s and F-16s, and Navy F-14s and F-18s. Capable of flying more than twice the speed of sound, the F-4 could carry nine tons of bombs and missiles. It is the last plane to carry pilots who became “aces” by shooting down five enemy aircraft each over Vietnam.

The U.S. built 5,200 F-4s and sold many of them to 11 nations. Iran bought 225 in the ’60s and ’70s under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in 1979’s Islamic revolution. But the mullahs kept his jets (along with the 79 F-14 Tomcats the shah had also purchased).

Nearly all the surviving F-4s have been retired for decades at the Pentagon’s boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. But some have gotten a second lease on life as targets for more modern warplanes. Over the past 16 years, more than 300 have been converted into QF-4 aerial targets. They can be flown both with and without pilots, and are used to train air crews to detect aircraft with radar and other technologies.

These repurposed QF-4s have flown more than 16,000 manned and 600 unmanned training missions. About 250 of the unmanned missions have ended with Air Force pilots actually shooting the QF-4s out of the sky.

There are only 39 QF-4s still flying. But not to worry: they’re being replaced with QF-16s.

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