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February 5, 2007
Notes from the Pentagon

Night stalkers
One of the ways U.S. forces in Iraq prevent the placement of an improvised explosive device (IED) is to watch the roads. For surveillance, they use several systems, including the slow-moving AC-130 gunship. The aircraft's cannons, machine guns and night-sight capability are the perfect systems for locating and killing IED-placing insurgents.

A video we've seen shows an AC-130 crew spotting two men who converge in their vehicles on a stretch of isolated road in Iraq. The two look around, and then one carries a weapon into a field, methodically walking off into the distance. It would appear he is calibrating how far to place the IED so our soldiers cannot see it, but close enough so the bomb kills them. The man in the second vehicle follows the same procedure.

In the meantime, the gunship's crew is describing what it sees and seeks permission to fire. A voice says, "Smoke 'em." Gunfire hits the first man, then the second. A third emerges from under one of the vehicles and is killed.

Commanders have said the best way to defeat IEDs is to prevent their placement in the first place. IEDs are responsible for 80 percent of Army casualties.

ASAT silence
Sen. Jon Kyl gave a speech to the Heritage Foundation earlier this week and discussed the fallout from China's Jan. 11 anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons test that killed a Chinese weather satellite using a kinetic missile warhead.

The Arizona Republican and veteran of the Senate intelligence committee said the Bush administration has the policy to conduct space defense of U.S. satellites but seems to lack the will.

"The question is whether we have the will to implement it," he said.

"And some recent examples that I'll cite here point to a flagging enthusiasm, I would put it, for space security," Mr. Kyl said. "Look to the administration reaction to the Chinese ASAT test. Since the test was reported, there has been no public statement by the president or any Cabinet official, no mention during the State of the Union speech, no congressional hearings have yet been scheduled, no indication has come out of the Pentagon that the space budget is being in any way revisited. The State Department has provided no specific information about what our diplomats are or are not saying in response to the Chinese provocation."

Mr. Kyl then noted a comment from a State Department spokesman, who questioned what China's "intentions" were in the test.

"Why do we need to hear from the Chinese exactly what their intentions are?" Mr. Kyl asked. "What intention could possibly be behind the test, save for the capability to blow up satellites in space? Would the State Department believe any alternative explanation if it were given to it?"

White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe confirmed that the administration decided on a low-profile response. "We've had Cabinet-level discussions with the Chinese on this that, we think, have been the best course of action," he said.

Israel's Iran worries
A military source tells us the talk among Israeli military officials is how and when to counter Iran's nuclear weapons program, most likely in a pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

The Israelis know that any attack will require overflying U.S.-dominated Iraq, but one solution would be to set up a secret base in another area between Iran and Israel to refuel Israel's bombers.

The Israelis in recent months have purchased large numbers of U.S. precision-guided joint direct attack munitions, or JDAM, kits for their bombs and special bunker-buster explosives that could be used to destroy underground Iranian nuclear facilities.

Our source said the Israelis know that their attack on Iran would be far bloodier and much more difficult than the daring 1981 bombing attack against Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor.

"They will have to strike during the day to make sure they get the technicians and scientists," the source told us.

Also, an anti-nuclear military strike will cause collateral damage because many of the Iranian nuclear facilities are located close to civilian population centers.

At least 13 Iranian nuclear facilities are known and can be located publicly on Google Earth mapping software. They include facilities at Tehran, Natanz, Arak, Lashkar-Abad, Isfahan, Ardekan, Bushehr and Gachin. Most are underground and have advanced air defense missiles for protection.

Key targets: the Natanz nuclear facility, a military plant about 200 miles south of Tehran that is the location of at least one centrifuge cascade that is thought to be where nuclear fuel for weapons is being developed.

The Bushehr nuclear reactor on the Persian Gulf coast also will be a key target, and any bombing there risks killing scores of Russians who are part of construction crews for the reactor facility.

The Bush administration is hardening its position on Iran but is holding Israel in check from attacking. That said, in 1981, the United States had no warning of the Osirak raid until after the F-16s and F-15s were in the air.

Iranian enigma
Our colleague David R. Sands traveled last month with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to Iraq and Afghanistan. He filed this report:

It seems our British cousins are having as much trouble as the Pentagon in trying to figure out the Iranians. Two senior British military officers in the Middle East, briefing reporters traveling with Mr. Gates, painted two very different pictures of Tehran's recent record.

The Royal Navy's Commodore Keith Winstanley, Britain's senior naval commander in the region from Jordan to India and deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition fleet in the Persian Gulf, said there has been no sign of an Iranian reaction in the Gulf to President Bush's decision to dispatch a second carrier strike group to the region, a move widely seen as a warning to Tehran.

"We are not seeing any change in Iranian behavior since the president's announcement," said Commodore Winstanley. "Much of what their naval forces do appears to be defensive in nature.

"If all you do is listen to the rhetoric of [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, you would think the Iranians are very forward-leading militarily, but it's not so. Our everyday interactions with them in the Gulf are actually extremely cordial."

But Maj. Chris Ormond-King, a spokesman for the British military deployment in Basra, southern Iraq's largest city, said Iranian meddling is palpable among the Shi'ite militias there, even if conclusive evidence is difficult to come by.

"We know that Iranian influence is here, even if we can't prove it. It's money, it's technical support, it's equipment. Our gut feeling is that, yes, there is Iranian influence here."

The major added, "It's like when you see a car going down the road. You may not be able to prove it's speeding, but when it gets from one place to another so quickly, you can tell."

  • 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

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