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Daily Column
US Papers Mon: The Pentagon's Languages, Lasers
Military falls short on foreign languages, but reports big plans for lasers.
By DANIEL W. SMITH 09/22/2008 01:55 AM ET
It’s a very light day on Iraq-related news, with nothing filed at all from Iraq, and only some reports on U.S. military programs, an op-ed, and some letters to the editor.

Military Matters
Will Bardenwerper of the New York Times reports that, although three years ago, the Defense Department set out to increase sharply the number of military personnel who speak strategically important languages, progress has been slow, and the military has not determined how to reach its goal — or what exactly that goal is. Because not enough soldiers speak foreign languages, the military has had to rely on more than 10,000 civilian contract linguists, many local Afghans and Iraqis of widely differing abilities. “Having a soldier who speaks Arabic is a huge asset,” says Capt. Eric Nelson, whose 120-man infantry company has only 11 Iraqi interpreters. He added “A patrol with a good interpreter is 10 times as valuable as one with a lousy one.”
John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel who is co-author of the Army’s new counterinsurgency field manual, said in an interview that the military had been moving too slowly, and he questioned the military’s assertion that language needs were difficult to assess since they were subject to changing global security conditions. He said the military by now should “have a pretty good idea of what countries we’re fighting in.”

The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus reports that the Senate has embraced last year's Defense Science Board conclusion that directed-energy weapons -- such as high-, medium- and low-power lasers -- hold great potential and should be developed as soon as possible. However, the Senate Armed Services Committee, in its report on the fiscal 2009 authorization bill, asked about the progress of lasers. "Years of investment have not resulted in any current operational high-energy laser capability," the committee noted in its report. The science board said that research on laser systems was valuable, and that "future gunships could provide extended precision lethality and sensing." Last month, the Army awarded Boeing $36 million to continue development of a high-energy laser mounted on a truck that could hit overhead targets such as rockets, artillery, and mortars, but deployment is not expected until 2016 at best.

The Senate committee was critical of the "airborne laser" program, a first-generation missile defense system. It held back $30 million from next year's budget and said funds for a second version would not be authorized until the first shoot-down test from a 747 aircraft is conducted at the end of 2009. More information is needed to determine whether the system "could eventually provide a militarily useful, operationally effective and affordable missile defense capability," the panel's report said. Past Defense Science Board studies have had impact. A 2004 report recommended a "Manhattan Project" approach to take "available and emerging technologies . . . to identify objects or people of interest from surveillance data and to verify a specific individual's identification." It suggested that "biometrics, tags, object recognition and identification tokens" be harnessed with sensors and databases "to overcome the shortcomings of conventional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems."
Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland writes an op-ed entitled ”Bush’s War Triple Play”, in which he speaks about how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and also rising tensions in Pakistan could affect the popularity of President Bush, and of the two leading presidential hopefuls.
A war that can be won is a valuable asset for a presidential candidate. It spreads hope and wards off vote-numbing despair on the campaign trail. For Barack Obama, the winnable war is Afghanistan. John McCain makes the same claim for Iraq. Each candidate arrives at his differing assessment through political calculation as much as battlefield analysis. That is inevitable in modern politics. Each engages in relentless image projection -- that is, make-believe -- on conflicts he does not yet control as he fights toward Election Day.
Hoagland ends with the looming specter of future Pakistan problems, on the heels of the recent deadly hotel bombing in Islamabad.

There are four letters to the editor of the Wall Street Journal in response to William McGurn's "Generals Behaving Badly", which was featured in last week’s Journal, and which dealt with the behavior of U.S. military leaders in the ongoing discussion of the events that led to the “surge”. Some agree with him, some disagree. (not the most important news to round up, but it’s a slow day)

Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, no Iraq coverage.


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