Return to

January 4, 2002
Notes from the Pentagon

Failed DF-31 test
China's military yesterday carried out an unsuccessful launch test of a re-entry vehicle for its newest long-range missile, the Dong Feng-31, according to U.S. officials.

The test was monitored from the missile and space launch center in central China to its planned impact at the remote Lop Nur test range in northwestern China. The launch took place at 7:15 p.m. Chinese time yesterday (7:15 a.m. EST).

It is not known what data the Chinese military obtained from the test of the new re-entry vehicle, the last stage of a long-range missile, because the booster blew up in midflight, the officials said.

"It got off the ground, but there was a midflight explosion," said one official. "They were testing a re-entry vehicle and used a space launcher [as the booster]. Obviously, this was a setback for them."

The DF-31 is a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile in the late stages of development. The weapon is believed to contain U.S. missile technology and warhead secrets obtained through illegal technology transfer and espionage.

The Justice Department is still investigating two U.S. satellite makers, Loral and Hughes, on suspicion of illegally providing sensitive U.S. missile technology for China's Long March space launcher. It could not be learned if the booster used in yesterday's re-entry vehicle was a Long March rocket. The DF-31 has been successfully flight-tested several times and is part of China's aggressive strategic nuclear-modernization program. The missile has a range of up to 6,000 miles, and a longer-range variant, the DF-41, also is being developed.

The missile test comes at a time of heightened tension between India and Pakistan, China's ally. In the past, Beijing has used missile tests to send political signals to foes.

Container flight
U.S. intelligence officials said they have obtained evidence that al Qaeda terrorists fled Afghanistan by sea.

A recent search of a foreign freighter by the U.S. Navy revealed that a group of al Qaeda fighters had been hiding inside a shipping container, officials told us. Inside the container, searchers found materials and equipment linked to the terrorist group, but not the terrorists themselves. The group apparently escaped from the large metal container a short time before the ship was searched.

The discovery prompted an increase in surveillance of ships, as well as Afghan trucks carrying shipping containers bound for Pakistani ports.

Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Staff, told reporters Wednesday that U.S. forces in Southwest Asia have probed "hundreds" of ships. "We have done permissive boardings [but] we've not come up with anybody that we're looking for," Adm. Stufflebeem said.

When ship crews cooperate with U.S. searchers "the information we're getting prevents us from having to go aboard the ship," he said. "The pressure is constant. It's not going to change," Adm. Stufflebeem said.

Al Qaeda, led by ex-Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, has access to scores of tramp freighters operated by business fronts for the terrorist group.

Bin Laden is suspected by the Bush administration of having masterminded the September 11 terrorist attacks that resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 people. The current whereabouts of the al Qaeda leader are not known by administration officials. Some believe he escaped from Afghanistan into neighboring Pakistan. Other officials say that he is probably lying dead somewhere in a cave complex in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan.

Green Berets' mail
It seems the president, secretary of defense and other members of the National Command Authority (NCA) are getting quick access to daily situation reports from Green Berets in Afghanistan.

Normally such reports go to superiors at Fort Bragg, N.C., where they are edited before being forwarded to Washington. But the age of instant satellite communication means everybody gets to read the reports at the same time.

One Special Forces soldier said an unedited report, or "SitRep," made it from an "A Team" on the ground to the NCA the next day. "I mean the entire NCA, and it was a thing of beauty," the soldier says. "If I ever get a chance to bring it to you, you would cry."

An officer here in the United States said, "My impression is that it was 'a thing of beauty' because for probably the first time, NCA (Bush, Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice) get to find out what a deployed team is actually doing, accomplishing, and what they're up against."

Green Berets helped turn the tide in Afghanistan in late October. U.S. teams embedded themselves within anti-Taliban forces and advised them on how to fight while designating targets for U.S. fighters and heavy bombers.

We reported last week that some Green Berets in Afghanistan believe the Pentagon must address equipment and training shortfalls. There were not enough of a certain type of lightweight hand-held radios for each team member. They also say there is insufficient training devoted to direct fire.

One American commando said: "It is time for Special Forces' soldiers to stop picking up pine cones, doing post-admin support, and teaching ROTC. It is time they focused all their efforts for the battles of the future and are as prepared as the Ranger [units] and our friends at [Delta Force] for the rigors they will face in those future conflicts. It is time they get the new gear at the same time the Ranger [units] and others. It is time we truly act like a total [special operations forces] team and stop the infighting in [Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla.]."

Batten hatches
Commanders of the Navy's Pacific and Atlantic fleets have sent a message to supervisors warning them not to disclose future ship movements.

The Dec. 31 message is part of a broader effort by the Pentagon to discourage the release of information during the Bush administration's open-ended war against terrorism. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld frequently has warned personnel not to have unauthorized conversations with reporters. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz sent out a memo reiterating the same message.

In the Navy message, Adm. Robert J. Natter in Norfolk and Adm. Thomas B. Fargo in Honolulu list the types of operations that should not be discussed publicly.

For example, the memo lists as "sensitive" information given 48 hours in advance concerning the arrival or departure of individual units to and from U.S. ports. "While disclosure prior to this time may be necessary to support maintenance, logistics and public affairs, this disclosure shall be kept to the minimum required for coordination of vessel arrival/departure," the message says. Also listed as "sensitive" is "the current location of submarines, ships and aircraft carriers in a particular port anywhere in the world."

The admirals conclude: "The fact remains that the vast majority of information we deal with on a daily basis is unclassified... . This unclassified information should still be considered sensitive and for official use only. It is in these areas that personnel are being asked to be more vigilant in assessing their role in the disclosure of such information. Certainly there is information we must share to do our jobs, but we must exercise sound judgment and, when in doubt, ask the chain of command for guidance."

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

  • Inside the Ring Archives
    1999 Columns
    2000 Columns
    2001 Columns
    Return to