TIME Military

The Pentagon’s Dubious Dogfight

USAF The Pentagon plans to test the A-10, left, against the F-35 in 2018.

Test pitting new F-35 against venerable A-10 comes too late to matter

The good news is the Pentagon is finally pitting its tried-and-true A-10 Warthog against its brand-new F-35 Lightning II to see which one is better when it comes to helping out troops on the ground. The bad news is such testing won’t start for another three years, when the military will be too invested in the F-35 to do much about it.

In other words, the test will come too late to make much difference—for either the grunts on the ground, or the taxpayers footing the $400 billion bill for 2,457 of the planes Lockheed Martin is building for the Air Force, Marines and Navy.

“This is the endgame of a premeditated strategy that has led to this totally absurd situation,” says Chuck Spinney, a retired Pentagon warplane analyst. “It brings into sharp relief the whole way we buy our weapons.”

While some are cheering the aerial duel as a necessary sizing up of the two warplanes the Pentagon is counting on to keep American troops safe on 21st century battlefields, that misses a key point by a mile: the tardy testing highlights the second half of a two-act Pentagon play designed to make the F-35 a fait accompli:

• The opening act began with what’s known in the weapons-building trade as “concurrency”—letting something be designed and produced at the same time. Over the past decade, concurrency allowed production contracts to be spread around the country (45 of 50 states are building parts of the F-35) and, indeed, the world (11 nations are helping the U.S. build the plane). That has given it momentum on Capitol Hill.

• In the closing act, concurrency has delayed testing of the aircraft for years—including against the A-10—ensuring its production no matter what the belated testing might uncover.

Or, as they sometimes say at the Pentagon: too early to tell, too late to stop.

Concurrency’s cost could be seen late Tuesday, when the Pentagon announced a $311 million contract award to Lockheed for “retrofit modification hardware,” a common result of trying to build weapons when their blueprints remain in flux.

The A-10, with its single mission of protecting the grunts on the ground with its fierce 30mm cannon, has long been the favorite of soldiers and Marines who find themselves pinned down by enemy forces. But it’s that very attribute—that the heavily-armored A-10 is dedicated to a single mission—that has made the `hog vulnerable in an increasingly tight budgetary environment. Scrapping it, as the Air Force proposes, would save $4 billion over five years, the service estimates.

The F-35, on the other hand, is a Swiss-army-knife kind of warplane. The Air Force, Marines and Navy all had to compromise to come up with a design they could share. Outfitted to perform several missions—it can fly off aircraft carriers, drop bombs and shoot at other airplanes—it can’t excel at any of them. “The idea that we could produce a committee design that is good for everybody is fundamentally wrong,” declares retired general Merrill McPeak, a fighter pilot who served as Air Force chief of staff as the F-35’s development got underway in the early 1990s.

The Pentagon’s operational testing office issued a grim assessment of the most-costly weapons system in history in its latest annual report earlier this year. “Overall suitability continues to be less than desired by the Services, and relies heavily on contractor support and unacceptable workarounds,” it said, “but has shown some improvement.”

Michael Gilmore, director of the testing office, said last week that his office will send out separate formations of each plane to conduct what the military calls “close air support” missions. Such testing will highlight “capability gaps” between the F-35 and A-10. “It’s really not wise to guess,” he said. “You have to go out and get data and do a thorough and rigorous evaluation.”

That’s the only way, Air Force officials say, to know where to spend more money on the F-35 to make up for any shortcomings it might have compared to the 40-year-old A-10.

TIME Military

Retired Generals Wage Letter War Over Iran Nuclear-Deal Vote

Controversial Heavy Water Plant Nears Completion In Iran
Majid Saeedi / Getty Images The Obama Administration argues Iran's Arak nuclear facility won't be capable of producing fuel for nuclear weapons under the proposed deal.

The Pentagon's new dead-letter office

Last week, nearly 40 retired U.S. generals and admirals urged Congress to endorse the deal the U.S. and five other nations have struck with Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions. “We, the undersigned retired military officers, support the agreement as the most effective means currently available to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” they wrote.

The other side, nearly 200 strong, lobbed a return brass barrage Wednesday. “In our judgment as former senior military officers,” they said, the deal “would threaten the national security and vital interests of the United States and, therefore, should be disapproved by the Congress.”

Sure, brigades of special interests, including arms-control organizations, foreign-policy shops and even rabbis have been urging Congress to vote the pact up or down. But these ex-military officers are different, aren’t they? They spent their careers fretting over national security. Maybe that’s why, if you doubt the deal makes sense, you squirmed over last week’s letter. But you cheered this week’s, with five times as many signatures.

What’s a poor fence-sitting American to think? Not much, according to a sampling of retired general officers. “Having signed neither is about all I wish to say about this sort of thing,” says one former four-star, although he declined to say so on the record. “Those with the most insights and knowledge of the deal,” adds another, also speaking privately, “were not among the signatories.”

“I’m convinced that 90% of the guys who signed the letter one way or the other don’t have any clue about whether it’s a good or bad deal,” says Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine officer who says he refused requests from both sides to sign their letters. “They sign it because somebody’s asked them to sign it.”

So how would he vote? Zinni says he can’t say, because he hasn’t had the closed-door intelligence briefings offered to lawmakers that he says would answer his two critical questions:

First, how airtight is the inspection regime? The more intrusive the inspections, the better the deal for the U.S. and its negotiating allies.

Secondly, how united are the allies in re-imposing economic sanctions if Iran is found to be cheating? The weaker the prospect of future sanctions, the worse the deal is for Washington.

“Everyone is speculating on worst case or best case,” says Zinni, who oversaw U.S. military dealings with Iran from 1997 to 2000 as chief of U.S. Central Command. “The guys who like the deal are saying `It’ll all work!’,” he says. Among those signing are Marine general James Cartwright (vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, 2007-2011), Marine general Joseph Hoar (chief of Central Command, 1991-1994) and Air Force general Merrill McPeak (Air Force chief of staff, 1990-1994).

“Those who oppose it,” Zinni adds, “are saying `They can cheat here, and here, and there!’” Opponents include Navy admiral Leon Edney (vice chief of naval operations, 1988-1990), Navy admiral Timothy Keating (chief of U.S. Pacific Command, 2007-2009) and Air Force general William Bigert (commander, Pacific Air Forces, 2001-2004)

Their views, Zinni argues, are driven largely by their politics. “It’s basically a Democrat-Republican issue,” he says. Like the lawmakers they are trying to influence, the signers who oppose the deal tend to be conservative. Those supporting it lean liberal (at least for retired military officers). It’s no surprise the generals against the deal outnumber those who support it. Surveys show that conservative military officers handily outnumber their liberal comrades.

“The agreement’s fine, if you think it can work. But if this is a Neville Chamberlain,” Zinni adds, citing the British Prime Minister who signed a peace pact with Adolf Hitler shortly before World War II, “then you’re in a world of shit.”

TIME Military

The Air Force’s $25 Billion Bomber Blunder

Northrop Grumman An artist's rendering of what the Long Range Strike Bomber might look like.

Are these the same people picking targets?

No one knows what the Air Force’s top-secret new bomber will look like. But the service keeps saying it knows how much it’s going to cost. That’s what makes the Air Force’s $25 billion price tag error so disconcerting.

The problem began last year, when the service told Congress the yet-to-be-built Long-Range Strike Bomber would cost $33.1 billion between 2015 and 2025. It recently updated the estimate (from 2016 to 2026) to $58.4 billion—a hike of $25.3 billion, or 76%.

That works out to a swing of $169 for each of the roughly 150 million Americans who file federal tax returns. But, the Air Force acknowledged last week, the latest cost estimate to develop and buy the aircraft over the coming decade is pegged at $41.7 billion. Apparently, the fledgling stealth bomber can elude fiscal reckoning as well as enemy radar.

The pair of multi-billion-dollar snafus—$9 billion too low last year, $17 billion too high this year—is head-spinning. It leads to a simple question: is anyone minding the store?

Calculating the cost and timetable of new weapons is always difficult. Military hardware is constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible (the new bomber, for example, will be “a long-range, air-refuelable, highly survivable aircraft with significant nuclear and conventional stand-off and direct-attack weapons payload,” according to the Air Force). The military hierarchy has strong institutional incentives to lowball costs and tighten schedules despite the state-of-the-art systems under development that challenge both. Lower costs and quicker production make it more likely that a weapon will be bought.

That helps explain why a weapon’s final cost, at the end of a production run, usually bear little resemblance to initial projections (and the inevitable delays drive up costs, which reduce the numbers of aircraft, tanks or ships to be bought, which drives up costs, and so on).

But none of that explains why the Air Force flubbed its numbers for the new bomber. Sure, early cost projections (drafted by an alliance of a military service that wants to buy what’s being built, and by contractors who want to sell it), are squishy.

But the Long-Range Strike Bomber was supposed to be different. Ever since 2011, the Pentagon has been saying the new warplane will cost $550 million a jet (although that estimate uses 2010 dollars, requires buying up to 100 of the new planes, and doesn’t include an estimated $20 billion more in research and development efforts that will be required to build it). In other words, it will cost a lot more than $550 million apiece, and taxpayers will invariably foot the higher bill.

The Long-Range Strike Bomber (it’ll eventually get a nifty name, like the B-3 Stealthstratofortress soon enough) isn’t a run-of-the-mill program. After all, it’s one of the service’s top programs, something the Air Force says is a vital replacement for the aging B-52 and B-2 bomber leg of the nuclear triad, which also includes land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles. A team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin is competing against Northrop Grumman to build it. The service announced last June it expected to select a contractor by this past spring, but that announcement has slipped until fall.

Rebuilding the nation’s nuclear triad is serious business. The cost estimates, contained in annual reports to Congress on how much the nation is modernizing its atomic forces, should have been double-checked, coordinated, scrubbed and double-checked again to ensure their accuracy.

While they’re only estimates—and need to mesh only with other estimates—their integrity is key to building support for a program that some believe isn’t worth the cost.

So what happened?

“It occurred in part because of human error,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Monday. “And in part because of process error, meaning a couple of our people got the figures wrong and the process of coordination was not fully carried out in this case.”

Those who erred have been “counseled,” James said. “The key thing is there has been no change in those cost figures.”

In other words, that recent $41.7 billion estimate is rock solid, at least for now. As they say of the nuclear weapons the new bomber is being designed to carry: close enough.

TIME Terrorism

Defeating Terror on a Train: What the U.S. Heroes Proved

Trio's heroics may offer insights into the future of war

What does it tell us that three unarmed men—including a pair of U.S. military personnel—won the latest battle in 21st Century warfare?

The heroics of three California buddies may offer an insight into the evolution of war. No one is arguing that state-on-state warfare has gone the way of the cavalry, but Friday’s clash aboard a train in Belgium should lead to some questions about continuing investments in high-tech, high-cost weapons and counter-terrorism efforts.

The U.S. military increasingly finds itself battling poorly-trained, barely-equipped militants armed with little more than will and ideology. Too often, it seems, will and ideology trump GPS smart bombs and laser-guided missiles fired from fleets of unmanned drones and fifth-generation warplanes.

As Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, National Guard Specialist Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler detailed how they took down Moroccan native Ayoub El Khazzani on Sunday at the U.S. embassy in Paris, the Pentagon issued its daily press release detailing the latest air strikes against targets in the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.

The contrast between futility and utility was bracing. The Pentagon’s target list was the latest in a year-long series of sorties that—despite Pentagon protests to the contrary—shows little signs of progress. In contrast, the train takedown represented a quick victory that won congratulations from around the globe.

“Airman Stone and Specialist Alex Skarlatos are two reasons why—on duty and off—ours is the finest fighting force the world has ever known,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in a statement. “These men are heroes,” added Air Force General Philip Breedlove, the top U.S. military officer in Europe. President Obama telephoned the men to thank them, and French President Francois Hollande presented them with the country’s Legion d’Honneur medal on Monday.

The three were aboard a Paris-bound train packed with more than 500 passengers late Friday when an armed Khazzani stormed into their car, after firing a shot in another carriage. “I turned around and I saw he had what looked to be an AK-47, and it looked like it was jammed or wasn’t working,” Stone said.

“He clearly had no firearms training whatsoever,” said Skarlatos, 22, who has just finished a tour in Afghanistan. “If he knew what he was doing, or even just got lucky…we would have all been in trouble and probably wouldn’t be here today—along with a lot of other people.”

The fumbling proved the undoing of Khazzani, 25. “Alek just hit me on the shoulder and said ‘let’s go’ and ran down, tackled him,” Stone said. “We hit the ground.” Stone, 23, put the attacker in a chokehold, who responded by slashing Stone in the neck and hand with a box-cutter, the same weapon used by the 9/11 hijackers. The three, aided by Briton Chris Norman, ultimately subdued Khazzani. He is now in custody; one of his lawyers says he claims to be a would-be robber, not a terrorist.

Armed with the AK-47, nine clips of ammo, a pistol and the box cutter, Khazzani could have killed dozens of train passengers. More strikingly, he was able to get aboard the train with his arsenal despite appearing on the terrorism warning screens of three countries—Belgium, France and Spain—as a possible risk. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Saturday that Khazzani was believed to have been a member of “the radical Islamic movement.”

The brief battle illustrates a few lessons:

—The hundreds of billions of dollars the West’s militaries and counter-terrorism agencies have spent since 9/11 to combat radical Islam (or radical Islamists masquerading as train robbers) can’t defeat an ideology. So long as a few Islamic leaders incite their followers to attack Western targets—and some do so—no investment can do that.

—If Islamic militants are determined to launch lone wolf attacks that threaten everyone in the West, everyone in the West is on the front lines. The solution isn’t to put undercover soldiers wherever the public gathers, or to arm every civilian. Instead, it simply requires donning a new mindset. Ever since the 9/11 attacks, airline passengers have no longer been willing to give strangers the benefit of the doubt if they appear threatening. Such an attitude will become more common, in more places, so long as such attacks persist. Importantly, as Friday’s outcome shows, attackers are not invincible. “Basically, in times of crisis…do something,” Sadler, 22, said.

—Lone wolves, even operating in packs, generally can’t cause massive death and destruction. While this is no solace to those caught in their sights, it needs to be emphasized to keep things in perspective. The corollary also should not be forgotten: keeping nuclear materials from terrorists is vital.

—A balance needs to be struck between those attacking and those who talk about attacking. Even as the trio conducted their press conference, U.S. and allied warplanes were flying bombing runs against targets in the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. The West will never be able to kill all of those eager to declare their willingness to kill Westerners. Continuing Western attacks against such targets could do more, in the long run, to spur Islamic recruits to launch more attacks. The West, and the greater Islamic community, must do more to wean Muslim fanatics from violence without fanning their fervor.

—Industrial warfare—where nation-states produce tanks, ships and aircraft (as well as youth) in an effort to defeat one another—is ebbing. That’s happening because of U.S. supremacy on the battlefield, and greater economic interdependence among nations. Industrial warfare isn’t going away, but it looks increasingly like terrorism will remain atop the national-security to-do list for the foreseeable future.

—Any deliberate move away from industrial warfare will have powerful opponents, including those who produce the armaments found on the modern battlefield, and those who have spent careers training young warriors how to use them.

Friday’s fight on the high-speed Amsterdam-to-Paris train can be viewed a miniature version of the clash of civilizations that some fear may now be unfolding. If so, Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone stepped up to the plate. “He seemed like he was ready to fight to the end,” Stone said of Khazzani. “So were we.”

Read next: Americans Recount How They Subdued Gunman on French Train

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TIME Military

America: Meet Your First Female Rangers

"2015 08 20 Ranger School class 08-15 Media Engagement Day"
Army photo / Patrick A. Albright Captain Shaye Haver (4th from left) and 1st Lieutenant Kristen Griest (2nd from right) spoke of their Ranger School experience with six of their male comrades at Fort Benning on Thursday.

A pair of young Army officers advance toward the front lines

The Army introduced its first two combat-ready female Rangers to the nation Thursday, and America all but surrendered. After decades of doubts over the wisdom of sending the “weaker sex” to the front lines, 1st Lieutenant Kristen Griest, and Captain Shaye Haver demonstrated a squared-away countenance and can-do attitude that impressed both their new Ranger buddies and commanders.

Eight of the 96 Rangers slated to graduate from the demanding 62-day Ranger School Friday met with reporters at Fort Benning, Ga. The pair of women looked little different from their six male comrades, except for their slightly-longer crew cuts. Both females and males spoke with a low-key grit that blurred the gender lines and signaled what is likely to be a growing role for women on the front lines of the U.S. military.

“We can handle things physically and mentally on the same level as men,” Griest, a military police officer from Orange, Conn., said. “We can deal with the same stresses and training that the men can.”

Haver, an AH-64 Apache helicopter pilot from Copperas Cove, Tex., said whenever she became discouraged while clambering through woods, swamps and mountains, she’d look to her male comrades and gain strength. “The ability to look around at my peers and see that they were sucking just as bad I was kept me going,” she said.

First Female Soldiers To Graduate From Army Ranger School
Ebony Banks / Army via Getty Images1st Lt. Shaye Haver training at the Ranger School last month.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter hailed the pair. “It’s a huge credit for anyone, man or woman, to endure the intense training and curriculum at Ranger School,” he said at the Pentagon, after calling the two to offer his congratulations. “These recent graduates will be leaders of our Army, of our force of the future.”

The men had no complaints. 2nd Lieutenant Zachary Hagner recalled being bone-tired after carrying a 17-pound machine gun for three days. “I went to every single person, just in a line, no order, and they were `No, I’m really tired, too, I’m broken,’” he recalled the men in his squad saying.

His last hope was Griest. “She basically took it away from me,” he said. “Nine guys were like `Well, I’m too broken, I’m too tired.’ She—just as broken and tired—took it from me with almost excitement. I thought she was crazy for that, but maybe she was just motivated.”

Other males agreed. “When we were given resupply and you’re given 2,000 rounds of machine-gun ammo, the last thing you’re caring about is whether or not your Ranger buddy is a man or a woman,” 2nd Lieutenant Michael Janowski said. “Because you’re not carrying all 2,000 rounds by yourself.”

“You’re way too tired and way too hungry to really honestly care,” added Staff Sergeant Michael Calderon. “At the end of the day, everyone was a Ranger.”

Haver said any male/female distinctions evaporated as the course dragged on. “It’s pretty cool that they have accepted us,” she said of her fellow Rangers. “We ourselves came to Ranger School skeptical, with our guards up ready just in case for the haters and the nay-sayers,” but such friction never happened.

Since the Ranger School opened in 1952, 77,000 soldiers have earned the patch, widely seen as an indicator of leadership potential and spur to promotion. Last year, 1,609 of 4,057 men who began the course—40 percent—ended up earning the tab. Only about 3% of Army men are Ranger-qualified. Earning the tab doesn’t guarantee admission to the 75th Ranger Regiment, the Army’s top light-infantry outfit, which is often deployed on the service’s riskiest missions. It simply means they’re eligible for an assignment to lead in that exclusive unit. Pentagon policy currently bans women from serving in direct ground combat slots, which include infantry—like the Rangers—as well as armor, most artillery, and special-operations units.

But the pair’s graduation is a significant crack in the wall keeping women formally off the battlefield. Griest and Haver, both West Point graduates, find themselves in a limbo created by the Pentagon as it grapples with integrating women ever more deeply into the military’s combat units. It’s basically trying to amass a stockpile of Ranger-tabbed women believing the Pentagon will lift that ban early next year.

One-time Army Ranger and retired three-star general David Barno says women have been waging war alongside their male counterparts since 9/11 and advancing them to the front lines is a no-brainer. “You’ve had women integrated for the first time in American history in units in combat, and have made that work pretty darn well,” he says.

But skeptics of the move to open up combat slots to women say that adding women to front-line units would “erode mission capabilities.” Physical differences will lead to more injuries among frontline female troops, they say. Unit cohesion—the glue that binds soldiers together in battle—will weaken amid sexual dynamics in co-ed front-line units, they add.

“Arguments for or against women in combat should not rely on the experiences of two women alone,” says Elaine Donnelly, whose Center for Military Readiness opposes putting women oin the front lines. “The case for women in direct ground combat still has not been made.”

Some critics suggest standards were eased at the Ranger School, to let women graduate. The Army vehemently denies it. “Nothing should be closed because of gender,” says Ann Dunwoody, who served as the first four-star female general in U.S. history before retiring from the Army in 2012. “But I also firmly believe that the standards should not be lowered to accommodate women.”

Haver and Griest conceded they felt the weight of their historical assignment. “I was thinking of future generations of women,” Griest said. “I would like them to have that opportunity, so I had that pressure on myself.”

Nikayla Shodeen / U.S. ArmyKristen Griest, left, is one of the first two women to graduate from the Army’s Ranger School.

Read next: Female Rangers Should End the Debate About Women in Combat

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TIME Military

Female Army Ranger Grads Are Among Nation’s Top Soldiers, But Can’t Fight

Army / Dacotah Lane This class of would-be Rangers training at Fort Benning, Ga., was the first to include women.

The pair earned an elite warrior designation, but have no place to use it...yet

“What if you gave a war and nobody came?” was the adage uttered amid dwindling public support for the Vietnam War.

This weekend it’ll be replaced with “What if you’re an Army Ranger, but can’t fight?”

That’s because a pair of Army women will graduate Friday from the service’s grueling 62-day Ranger course and earn the prized Ranger tab. That storied black-and-gold patch places them among the nation’s top soldiers (only 3% of their male counterparts have earned it throughout Ranger history). But despite the accomplishment, they’re still barred from direct ground combat, which is the Rangers’ raison d’être.

Earning the tab isn’t a key into the 75th Ranger Regiment, the Army’s top light-infantry outfit, often deployed on the service’s riskiest missions. It simply means they’re eligible for an assignment into that exclusive unit. Pentagon policy currently bans women from serving in direct ground combat slots, which include infantry—like the Rangers—as well as armor, most artillery, and special-operations units.

But the pair’s graduation is a significant crack in the wall keeping women formally off the battlefield. “This is an historic, path-breaking achievement by two exceedingly fit, determined, and professionally competent women who literally `rucked up’ and `walked point’ for their gender,” says one-time Ranger David Petraeus, who went on to wear four stars.

Soldiers who earn the Ranger tab wear it high on their uniforms’ left shoulders for the rest of their careers, though in the past not all male graduates went on to serve as Rangers. Many troops specializing in aviation, intelligence or other career fields will never be able to serve in a Ranger unit, but that tab places them among the Army’s finest warrior-leaders and is seen as a first-class ticket to future promotions.

Ranger School is the Army’s top combat leadership course, and teaches Rangers how to overcome fatigue, hunger, and stress to lead troops during small-unit operations, the very heart of warfare. It’s no Boy Scout camp, according to General David Perkins, the Army’s top trainer. “Most people in the Army don’t go to Ranger School. Most of the males don’t want to go to Ranger School,” he said recently. “Most of the males that do go to Ranger School fail.”

The Columbus Ledger-Inquirer, the local paper near the Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga., identified the women as 1st Lieutenant Kristen Griest, a military police officer from Orange, Conn., and Captain Shaye Haver, an AH-64 Apache helicopter pilot from Copperas Cove, Tex. The two soldiers, both West Point graduates, find themselves in a limbo created by the Pentagon as it grapples with integrating women ever more deeply into the military’s combat units. It’s basically trying to amass a stockpile of Ranger-tabbed women believing the Pentagon will lift that ban early next year.

Responding to a 2013 order from then-defense secretary Leon Panetta that all military jobs should be open to women in 2016, the services have been conducting tests over the past two years to see if women can handle the dirtiest, most demanding ground combat assignments. While the services may, in the coming months, seek to keep some jobs male-only, the final decision will be made by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in January.

"Ranger Course"
Army / Paul SaleThe Army’s first co-ed Ranger course begins training.

Skeptics of the move to open up combat slots to women say that while there is no doubt some women can serve in front-line units, there won’t be enough to achieve a “critical mass” to make them a true part of combat units. They fear unit cohesion—the glue that binds soldiers together in battle—will weaken amid sexual dynamics in co-ed front-line units. Male troops can be ordered into combat—will women face that same requirement? And will they have to register for the draft?

The pending female Rangers has generated polarized debates across many military-related websites. Proponents say women have been in combat for decades, and that their ability to attend Ranger School simply recognizes the changing combat realities that have blurred the front lines in warfare. The growing role of women in combat, they maintain, isn’t that much different from the racial integration of the ranks that took place after World War II, or the recent change that allows openly gay troops to serve. Critics insist standards have been eased, often on the sly, to let more women serve in combat roles.

The Ranger course, spread over Army posts in Florida and Georgia, includes arduous assignments in woods, mountains and swamps. It includes many physical requirements, including 49 push-ups, 59 sit-ups, a five mile run in 40 minutes, and six chin-ups; a swim test; a land navigation test; a 12-mile foot march in three hours; several obstacle courses; four days of military mountaineering; three parachute jumps; four air assaults on helicopters; multiple rubber boat movements; and 27 days of mock combat patrols.

“This course has proven that every soldier, regardless of gender, can achieve his or her full potential,” Army Secretary John McHugh said. “We owe soldiers the opportunity to serve successfully in any position where they are qualified and capable.”

Army / Antonio LewisThe Army’s first co-ed Ranger course.
TIME Military

Iraq War Ends for This General, But Not For His Army

DoD / Army Sgt. 1st Class Clydell Kinchen General Ray Odierno talks about Iraq at his farewell press conference.

As service’s top officer retires, he suggests more U.S. ground troops may be needed in Iraq

Ray Odierno retires Friday.

After 39 years, the four-star general is hanging up his uniform after serving as the Army chief of staff, the service’s top officer, since 2011.

It’s a bittersweet goodbye. Nobody knows the highs and lows of the Iraq war better than Odierno, who spent more than five years inside Iraq from 2003 to 2010, including two as the top U.S. commander. His son, an Army captain, lost his left arm to an RPG round in Baghdad.

The hulking 6-foot-6 general was always willing to share his views on the war’s ups and downs with reporters. Early reports were good. Major General Odierno gave an upbeat assessment to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the hunt for Saddam Hussein in late 2003, shortly before his troops found him in a hole in his hometown of Tikrit. The U.S. military had crushed the Iraqi military, and after several years it soothed the sectarian violence among Kurds, Shia and Sunnis.

Such improvements led to the U.S. pullout at the end of 2011, after the Iraqi parliament refused to give U.S. troops legal protection from local prosecution. “I think we’re starting to see it calm down a little bit,” Odierno said of Iraq in 2012.

That, no doubt, was the high point.

The resulting military vacuum, and homegrown political dysfunction, gave the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria an opening it seized a year ago and hasn’t relinquished. Sectarian attacks have returned. On Thursday, ISIS claimed responsibility for a truck bombing in eastern Baghdad that killed at least 59.

“It’s frustrating to look at what has happened inside of Iraq,” Odierno told reporters at a farewell press conference Wednesday. “When people become frustrated, they tend to turn to violence.”

Armed with 20/20 hindsight, negotiating more robustly with Iraqi leaders might have allowed some U.S. troops to remain on Iraqi soil after 2011. “Leaving some soldiers on the ground might have helped a little bit,” Odierno said, “and maybe prevented where we are, now.”

The stalemate between Iraq’s security forces and the ISIS militants who occupy about a third of the country has ground on for more than a year. While about 3,500 U.S. troops have returned to Iraq to train local troops, some in the Pentagon believe it may be time to consider deploying U.S. troops closer to the front lines to suss out intelligence and call in air strikes.

The Iraqis could use such help. On Thursday, doctors in the ISIS-occupied city of Fallujah, 50 miles west of Baghdad, reported that errant bombs from Iraqi warplanes hit a hospital there, killing 20 civilians.

“If we find in the next several months that we’re not making the progress that we have, we should probably absolutely consider embedding some [U.S.] soldiers with [Iraqi troops],” Odierno said. “And see if that would make a difference.”

Odierno’s U.S. Army career is over. But the U.S. war in Iraq continues.

TIME Military

Keeping the World’s Eyes on Iran’s Nuclear Menace

CHAVOSH HOMAVANDI / AFP / Getty Images Iranian students formed a human chain to defend their country's nuclear program in 2013 outside the Fordow Uranium Conversion Facility in the northern part of the country.

Distractions shouldn’t derail the goal of denying Tehran atomic arms

They say close only counts with nuclear weapons. That’s something to keep in mind amid the increasingly rancorous debate over the pending atomic accord the U.S. and five other nations have struck with Iran.

Let’s face it: nuclear weapons are the only true weapon of mass destruction. Next to a nuclear blast, biological, chemical and conventional terror attacks are also-rans.

Seeking limits on nuclear weapons should not be confused with important, but less critical, aspects, like the unsavory aspects of one’s negotiating partner.

“It’s pretty evident that the single greatest threat to the region was their getting the nuclear weapon,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday. “So we focused on getting rid of the nuclear weapon. Nothing, however, has been diminished in our ability to push back against them on their arms trafficking, their support for terror, their proxies that they send in to other countries, the things that happen in their support for Assad, their messing around with the Iraqi Shia.”

This is where the debate over the wisdom of the proposed Iranian accord has foundered. Instead of focusing on the physics—what is the best way to keep nuclear weapons out of the mullahs’ hands—the increasingly bitter fight in Washington is being derailed by opponents of the deal who cite Iran’s support for Hezbollah, and its oft-stated desire to destroy Israel, as justification for their opposition. That’s akin to arguing that the thug who knifed you in the past shouldn’t be deterred from trying to get a gun.

“A vote for this deal means more money for Iranian terrorism,” warns Robert Bartlett, a former U.S. Army sergeant. He was seriously wounded in Iraq in 2005, apparently by an Iranian explosively-formed penetrator, a sophisticated roadside bomb that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq. “What do you think they are going to do when they get more money?” he asks in a video from the newly-formed Veterans Against the Deal.

One can’t help but acknowledge Bartlett’s point. Yet the Iran deal isn’t about doing Iran a favor. It’s about doing what is best for the U.S. and the other five nations on its side.

There are weaknesses in the proposed pact. It allows Iran to remain a nuclear-threshold state, and scraps sanctions that frees funding that could fund mayhem. President Obama has over-played his hand by arguing that those opposed to the deal are pushing for another U.S.-led war in the religious tinderbox that is the greater Middle East.

But that’s all underbrush. The proposal strips nearly all of Iran’s nuclear-development program naked. It would give Washington and the rest of the world far more knowledge about Tehran’s nuclear schemes than it has today, and inspection regimes to keep an eye on them for at least a decade. The pact’s secondary flaws are no reason to derail the primary goal of denying Iran a nuclear weapon.

TIME Military

Drumbeats of Possible War With Iran Grow Louder

Senate Armed Services Hearing on Iran/JCPOA
Samuel Corum—Anadolu Agency / Getty Images Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and General Martin Dempsey defend the Iran deal at Wednesday’s Senate hearing.

Senate hearing highlights growing skepticism over wisdom of nuclear deal

You could almost see the U.S. and Iran drawing slowly closer to war Wednesday, as dubious lawmakers, including a pair of Republican senators seeking their party’s presidential nomination, grilled top Obama Administration officials over the pending nuclear deal with Tehran.

The reason is pretty simple: there appears to be a growing push among lawmakers, and their constituents, against the recent agreement hammered out by the U.S. and four other nations to restrain Iran’s push toward nuclear weapons (a CNN poll out Tuesday says 52% of Americans oppose the pact).

If the deal falls apart, Administration witnesses warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran would have a fast track toward a nuclear arsenal. If the mullahs try to take advantage of that opening—something expected by U.S. intelligence—all signs suggest the U.S. will go to war to thwart their atomic ambitions.

Language from both the Administration and senators made clear there’s a hair-trigger mentality when it comes to Iran. But how much of that was bluster, designed to win over the other side regarding the deal’s merit, was difficult to plumb. What was clear is how complicated the polarized U.S. debate over the deal has made winning Washington’s approval.

Testifying for the Administration were Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

Carter said the Pentagon is “continuing to advance our military capabilities that provide all options…should Iran walk away from its commitments under this deal.” He added, with a bit of martial swagger, that any Iranian aggression would trigger “an overwhelming array of forces into the region, leveraging our most advanced capabilities, married with sophisticated munitions that put no target out of reach.”

Translation: “advance capabilities” means the U.S. Air Force’s B-2 bomber, the only airplane that can carry “sophisticated munitions that put no target out of reach”—the 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator, specifically designed to burrow into Iranian mountains and destroy nuclear-production facilities.

Two of the most startling questions put to the witnesses by deal doubters came from senators seeking the GOP presidential nomination. Opposition to the deal makes them look pro-military and pro-Israel (which opposes the deal), as well as anti-Obama—a political hat trick for those seeking to appeal to Republican primary voters.

Lindsey Graham’s question came like a bolt out of the blue. “Could we win a war with Iran?” the South Carolinian asked Carter. “Who wins the war between us and Iran? Who wins? Do you have any doubt who wins?”

“No,” Carter responded. “The United States wins the war.” Neither he nor Graham explained how the U.S. might win in Iran, after it has failed to win in Afghanistan and Iraq since invading those two nations more than a decade ago.

Top Administration Officials Testify To Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing On Military Balance In Mid East
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images“Could we win a war with Iran?” asks Senator Lindsey Graham, alongside Senator Ted Cruz.

Ted Cruz of Texas lobbed an electromagnetic-pulse weapon into the middle of the three-hour hearing. “Do you agree that an EMP detonated by Iran in the atmosphere could kill tens of millions of Americans?” he asked Moniz. EMP weapons have become a bugaboo in certain conservative circles over concern that a high-altitude nuclear explosion over the U.S. could fry much of the nation’s electronics. Moniz conceded an EMP could be “a very potent weapon.”

Much of the session was less about nuclear physics than political theater. Republicans spent much of the session detailing Tehran’s “malign” activities, ranging from sponsoring terrorism to threatening to destroy Israel. The Administration’s witnesses acknowledged Iran’s perfidy. But they argued that the deal, which the U.S., Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia struck with Iran after years of negotiations, is the surest way to delay, if not derail, Iran’s nuclear quest.

TIME Military

U.S. Prepares to Fly Deeper into Syrian Civil War

Operation Northern Watch Enforces No-Fly Zone
Air Force / Getty Images A U.S. Air Force F-16 leaves a Turkish base in 2002 for a mission over Iraq. Soon they are likely to be flying similar assignments over Syria.

ISIS is the target, but U.S. pilots could also be at risk

The U.S. flew “no-fly zones” over northern and southern Iraq for more than a decade before the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. U.S. warplanes kept Iraqi aircraft out of the sky, and targeted Iraqi air-defense systems that threatened to shoot. Now, along with neighboring Turkey, the U.S. is planning to launch something similar over a stretch of northern Syria.

Eliminating Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria along a strip of the Syrian-Turkish border is the key goal, opening up a safe haven for tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by the country’s four-year-old civil war that has killed more than 200,000. Whether the move hastens the ouster of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad—or leads to the shootdown and possible capture or death of an American pilot—remains unknowable.

Institute for the Study of WarThe striped section of the map is the proposed “no-ISIS zone.”

U.S. officials stressed Monday that Washington and Ankara are planning to step up bombing of ISIS targets on the ground, and not create a formal no-fly zone, which would bar Syrian warplanes from bombing runs. “It’s not a no-fly zone—it’s a bombing campaign,” says retired Marine general Anthony Zinni, who oversaw the Iraqi no-fly zones as chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000. He doesn’t think such a bombing campaign will have much effect. “We see how well a year of bombing has worked in Iraq,” where ISIS remains in control of much of the western part of the nation.

The chance of clashes between Syria and U.S. and Turkish aircraft will be more likely once details of the new zone are hammered out and stepped-up U.S.-Turkish attacks on ISIS targets begin. “I think they’ll tell the Syrians to just stay out of the air space,” Zinni says of U.S. and Turkish commanders. “They’ll issue a demarche: ‘If you shoot any air defense weapons at us, we’ll nail you.’ That’s what we did to the Iraqis.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday that the Syrians aren’t challenging U.S. warplanes. “There is no opposition in the air when coalition aircraft are flying in that part of Syria,” he said. “The Assad regime is not challenging us; [ISIS] doesn’t have airplanes … they’re not being shot at.”

But that’s hardly a guarantee. U.S. commanders will ensure their flight crew fly high and well clear of any known Syrian air-defense threats to minimize the chance of a U.S. pilot being shot down and—in the worst case—falling into ISIS’s hands and murdered. But accidents and snafus can occasionally happen. “We never even had a plane scratched,” Zinni says of the more than 200,000 U.S. flights in the Iraqi no-fly zones from 1992 to 2003. “It was absolutely remarkable.” (Unfortunately, this record was marred by the 1994 shootdown of two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters, killing all 26 aboard, by a pair of U.S. Air Force F-15s.)

Conflicting loyalties and priorities complicate the more aggressive campaign. Last week, after a suicide bombing blamed on ISIS killed 30 in a Turkish border town, Turkey began flying air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria, and gave the U.S. long-sought permission to launch air strikes from Turkish bases. Turkey, a NATO ally, is growing increasingly concerned with ISIS on its doorstep, the growing refugee problem, and military successes by its Kurdish minority, some elements of which are seeking their own state.

Kurdish forces control most of the Syrian-Turkish frontier, and the Turkish government views them as a threat much like ISIS. Ankara is also more interested in toppling Assad than battling ISIS. “If there is one person who is responsible for all these terrorist crimes and humanitarian tragedies in Syria, it is Assad’s approach, using chemical weapons, barrel bombs against civilians,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told CNN. His government has called for a NATO meeting Tuesday to discuss the ISIS fight.

U.S. and Turkish air power are expected to be used to reinforce Syrian rebels on the ground who are battling ISIS, creating a 68-mile “no-ISIS zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border. “Moderate forces like the Free Syrian Army will be strengthened…so they can take control of areas freed from [ISIS], air cover will be provided,” Davutoglu told Turkey’s A Haber television news channel.. “It would be impossible for them to take control of the area without it.”

U.S. officials have been complaining since the Pentagon began bombing ISIS targets a year ago of a dearth of reliable partners on the ground, in both Iraq and Syria. ISIS drove the U.S.-trained Iraqi army out of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, a year ago, and the U.S. has trained only about 60 Syrian rebels to fight ISIS’s 30,000-strong force.

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