1. Defense budget update
The Senate on Wednesday agreed to re-pass the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in order to dodge a technical hurdle that was preventing the House and Senate from meeting to agree on a final version of the bill.
The Senate re-approved the NDAA bill after the House Ways & Means Committee pointed out that the Senate bill contains revenue provisions that are required to originate in the House. Early Wednesday evening, the House approved a resolution, H. Res. 829, that formally sent the bill back to the Senate for this reason.
Moments later, the Senate approved an amended version by voice vote, a move that should allow the House to vote to conference with the Senate on the bill Thursday.
The language in the Senate bill related to new import sanctions against Iran and rebels in the Congo, which affect tariffs and government revenue. The House and Senate agreed to tweak that language in a way that avoids the hurdle, although few details were available beyond that as of Wednesday evening.
The House has tried to vote to conference with the Senate on the NDAA all week, but now should be in a position to do so Thursday. The House-passed NDAA is H.R. 4310.
2. No Medal of Honor Upgrade for Peralta
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will not award fallen Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta the Medal of Honor, deciding new evidence wasn't enough to warrant an upgrade from the nation's second highest valor decoration.
Panetta made his decision after reviewing new evidence in the case, said Joe Kasper, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, who has pushed for the upgrade. The congressman was informed of Panetta's decision by Jeh Johnson, general counsel of the Defense Department, Kasper said.
Peralta, 25, is credited with shielding fellow Marines from a grenade blast in his dying moments during house-to-house fighting in Fallujah, Iraq, on Nov. 15, 2004. The Marine Corps subsequently put him up for the nation's top valor award, the Medal of Honor, but it was denied in 2008 by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, infuriating the Marine's family and Marines across the country.
Gates decided at the time that the evidence in Peralta's case was inconclusive, saying it is unclear whether the Marine made a conscious decision to smother the grenade because he already had been mortally wounded in the head by a ricocheting rifle round. The Navy Department awarded Peralta the Navy Cross instead, and said in his citation that he had "reached out and pulled the grenade to his body" — a selfless, heroic act typically associated exclusively with the Medal of Honor.
Johnson, the Pentagon's top lawyer, raised questions about eyewitness accounts in the case and "indicated that upgrading the award now would require overturning the decision of a previous secretary" while explaining Panetta's decision to Hunter, Kasper said.
3. In Afghanistan, Panetta works out U.S troop plan
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with American commanders in Afghanistan on Wednesday to finish work on options that will be presented to President Barack Obama for keeping a limited American troop presence in the country after 2014.
Mr. Panetta met with Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, whose preliminary recommendations call for 6,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization mission formally concludes in two years.
The Pentagon is under White House pressure to make do with as small a force as possible after 2014. But some military commanders worry about the U.S.'s ability to keep Afghanistan stable and prevent a Taliban and al Qaeda comeback, officials say.
Marine Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the deputy chief of staff in charge of day-to-day U.S. and NATO operations, described a narrow role for American forces after 2014, saying they would focus on providing close combat air support to frontline Afghan troops.
After 2014, Gen. Nicholson said, the U.S. will no longer be responsible for moving Afghan troops by helicopter around the battlefield. The Afghan army, he said, likely will have to get by with a ground medical-evacuation system, in lieu of the current network of nearly 100 U.S. aircraft which crisscross the country, ferrying wounded Afghans to hospitals.
Gen. Nicholson declined to say how big a force would be required to provide air support, as well as to conduct long-term training and counterterrorism missions after 2014.
1. North Korea's rocket launch: How much, why now, and what now?
North Korea successfully launched a long-range rocket carrying a satellite into orbit on Wednesday, and though it didn't carry a warhead, it used technology that violated U.N. Security Council resolutions banning North Korea's ballistic missile program.
The launch was immediately heralded as a triumph for the North Korean people on the country's state-controlled media channels.
"At a time when great yearnings and reverence for Kim Jong Il pervade the whole country, its scientists and technicians brilliantly carried out his behests to launch a scientific and technological satellite in 2012, the year marking the 100th anniversary of President Kim Il Sung," the Korean Central News Agency said in a statement.
Here's a look at the cost, reasons for and China's reaction to the launch:
How much did it cost?
It's true that launching a satellite into space is somewhat of a waste of money for one of the world's poorest countries, but the North Korean government's rocket program is geared toward bolstering its reputation as a military power — both for its own citizens and for its foreign adversaries — rather than improving economic conditions.
South Korea's government estimates that the two rocket launches — Wednesday's and the failed one in April — added up to $600 million. Pyongyang spent an estimated $1.3 billion total on its rocket program this year, which the South Korean government says is enough to buy 4.6 million tons of corn. The government has also invested as much as $3.2 billion in nuclear weapons and missile development over the years, equivalent to three years' supply of food for North Korea's citizens, another South Korean official said.
The actual cost might have been lower, however, because North Korean workers make very little — usually about $50 to $100 per month.
Analysts initially thought the launch could be delayed for 10 days or more because of "technical issues," so the success of the launch came as a bit of a surprise. In April, a similar attempt failed miserably.
Why did it happen now?
Writing in CNN, Benjamin Habib, a politics lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, offers three theories:
1) A plea for attention: Between changes in leadership in China, South Korea and North Korea itself, a "December rocket launch sends a strong signal from Pyongyang to its regional interlocutors to ensure that North Korea does not get overlooked amid the bureaucratic maelstrom that usually follows changes in government."
2) Propaganda: "A successful rocket launch would also represent a sterling commemoration of the first anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death on December 17, much as the unsuccessful April launch was intended for propaganda purposes as a celebration of Kim Il Sung's centenary."
3) Upping the ante with its neighbors: "In the past year South Korea has announced its deployment of cruise missiles with a range of 1,000 kilometers, capable of hitting targets anywhere in North Korea, along with tactical ballistic missiles and drones with a range of 300 kilometers. It's no stretch to interpret North Korea's rocket launch in terms of a classic arms race, as a missile test in response to its adversary's upgraded missile systems."
How did China react?
China is a rare North Korea ally, but even they expressed "regret" over the launch.
"We express regret at the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's launch in spite of the extensive concerns of the international community," said foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei, using North Korea's formal name.
This is the first major foreign-policy issue that newly chosen Chinese leader Xi Jinping has faced, but some China experts say China's North Korea policy won't change much under Xi's leadership unless Kim's regime delves further into its missile program, such as developing nuclear-armed missiles.
However, the launch could further strain relations between China and North Korea, which have been cooling recently.
"The relationship between China and North Korea seems fairly bad at the moment," one western diplomat told the South China Morning Post. "North Korea seems not to pay any attention to China's advice."
Could North Korea threaten the United States with this technology?
Probably not yet. As The Washington Post's Chico Harlan reported, most analysts think North Korea isn't capable of "miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to mount on a long-range missile."
Additionally, "if this is considered relatively successful, that also does not prove they have a reliable system that will work time after time," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.
And North Korea's track record doesn't show that they could reliably reproduce the same launch and send a missile to a predictable distance.
2. U.S. calls on Russia to renew weapons pact
President Obama called on Russia on Monday to renew a two-decade-old nuclear disarmament program that Moscow has threatened to cancel as the two sides try to figure out the future of a rocky relationship now that elections in both countries are behind them.
Russia declared this fall that it would not renew the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which has helped rid the former Soviet Union of thousands of nuclear weapons since the end of the cold war. But in a speech, Mr. Obama chose to interpret the Russian statements as a negotiating position to change the program rather than halt it altogether.
Whether Russia is willing to do that remains unclear. Even if it is, Moscow has suggested that it would link the renewal of the program to concessions by the United States on its plans to deploy a missile defense system in Europe intended to defend against Iranian aggression. Mr. Obama was overheard telling his Russian counterpart this year that "after my election I have more flexibility" on missile defense, prompting Republicans to accuse him of plotting to sell out the system.
Mr. Obama made no mention of missile defense on Monday, but in reaching out to Moscow he seemed to be taking the opening step in a postelection dance in which the two countries will re-evaluate their ties. His effort to reset the relationship after a rupture over the Georgia war of 2008 succeeded for a time in stabilizing ties, but the atmosphere has cooled noticeably since Vladimir V. Putin returned to the presidency this year.
In recent months, Russia ordered the United States Agency for International Development to leave and enacted laws focused on nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign financing. As a result, the National Democratic Institute, an American-financed organization that promotes democracy, moved to Lithuania last month, and its counterpart, the International Republican Institute, is likely to follow.
The announcement in October that Russia would not renew the Nunn-Lugar program when it expires in the spring underscored how sour relations had become. Through all the ups and downs over the past 20 years, Nunn-Lugar had always been largely immune to the political tides, in part because Russia saw that having American money and help in slimming down its nuclear arsenal was in its own interest.
Since it began, Nunn-Lugar has helped to deactivate 7,600 nuclear warheads and destroy or eliminate 900 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 500 missile silos, 680 submarine-launched ballistic missiles and 900 nuclear air-to-surface missiles. But the program still envisioned getting rid of hundreds more weapons to meet goals for 2017.
3. POW/MIA Update
• SOLDIER MISSING FROM KOREAN WAR IDENTIFIED
On October 24, 2012 the remains of a U.S. serviceman, missing from the Korean War, were identified and returned to his family for burial with full military honors.
Army Cpl. Joseph W. Fontenot, 20, of Maurepas, La., will be buried Oct. 27 in Whitehall, La. In February 1951, Fontenot was assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division when he was captured by enemy forces near Saemal, South Korea. He reportedly died in June 1951, while in captivity at Camp 1 near Changsong, North Korea.
In 1954, United Nations and Communist Forces exchanged the remains of war dead in what came to be called "Operation Glory." Among the remains that were turned over at that time were remains of servicemen who had died in Camp 1. All of the remains recovered in Operation Glory were turned over to the Army Central Identification Unit for analysis. Those which were unable to be identified with the technology at that time were interred as unknowns at the NationalMemorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.
In 2010, analysts from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) re-examined the case records and determined that advances in technology could likely aid in the identification of the unknown remains as one of seven possible soldiers. Once the remains were exhumed, scientists from JPAC used circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools, including dental records and radiographs, to identify Fontenot.
Today, more than 7,900 Americans remain unaccounted-for from the Korean War. Identifications continue to be made from the remains that were returned to the United States, using forensic and DNA technology.
• SOLDIER KIA DURING VIETNAM WAR IDENTIFIED
On October 26, 2012 the remains of a U.S. serviceman, killed in action during the Vietnam War, were identified and returned to his family for burial with full military honors.
Army Maj. James L. Whited, 42, of Norman, Okla., will be buried Nov. 2, in his hometown. On Nov. 19, 1966, Whited was the co-pilot of an OV-1A Mohawk aircraft that crashed while conducting a daytime reconnaissance mission over Attapu Province, Laos. Nearby
U.S. aircrews reported seeing the wing of Whited's aircraft hit a tree during a climb to avoid a nearby ridgeline. No parachutes were seen exiting the aircraft. Heavy enemy presence in the area prevented recovery efforts.
From 1993 to 2009, joint U.S./Lao People's Democratic Republic (L.P.D.R.) teams, led by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), inteviewed multiple witnesses, and conducted several investigations and excavations of the crash site in Attapu Province. The teams located human remains, military equipment, and aircraft wreckage of an OV-1A, which correlated with the last known location of Whited's aircraft.
To identify the remains, scientists from JPAC analyzed circumstantial evidence and used forensic identification tools, such as dental comparisons.
Today, the U.S. government continues to work closely with the governments of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to recover Americans lost during the Vietnam War.
Military Review Boards
This week, our Military Review Boards staff assisted 21 former service members with new, upcoming and pending petitions prepare their case for review by the Military Discharge Review Boards and Boards for Correction of Military Records. Case development included: 20 phone calls, 19 emails, 2 correspondences, 2 service officer inquiries.
One of our success stories for this week was a former Marine Corps Lance Corporal, now 37 years of age, separated Under Other Than Honorable Conditions (UOTHC) in May 2001 following 6 years and 6 months of total active duty and reserve service due to failure to participate in the Marine Corps Reserve.
This former Marine's record of service was marred by missing a total of 34 drills and receiving 8 Retention Warnings.
The Applicant contended personal circumstances mitigated his failure to attend drills and provided credible testimony as well as documentation that, when examined along with the record, supports his contention.
The Naval Discharge Review Boards (NDRB) review of the Applicant's record showed that had attended drills without incident for approximately four years before his wife disappeared, leaving him as the sole caregiver for three young children, ages one, two, and three. His work schedule and financial challenges, along with his responsibilities to his children, made it extremely difficult to attend drill that was 180 miles away. The Applicant promptly notified his command to make them aware of his situation and attempted on numerous occasions to work out a plan to deal with his issues and remain a satisfactory drilling Marine reservist. His command provided no assistance and told him to attend drill or be in an unauthorized absence status. He was subsequently absent for approximately 34 drills. The Applicant's wife eventually returned and promptly returned to his unit to make up for the time he had missed. After having made up approximately 30 of his 34 missed drills over several weeks, he was told by his staff non-commissioned officers (SNCO) that his separation package had finally been processed, and there was nothing the command could do to keep him in the Marine Corps despite his efforts to make up the lost time and to honor his commitment to the Marine Corps. The Applicant was subsequently separated with an UOTHC characterization of service. The Board noted severe failures in leadership at the SNCO and officer levels in handling this former member's situation. The command had numerous avenues at their disposal to assist this young Marine who had no misconduct, had attended drills without incident for four years, was a good performer that had fallen on hard times and failed to do so.
The NDRB voted unanimously for full relief with a change the Character of Service to Honorable and the Narrative Reason for Separation to Secretarial Authority.
Director, National Security / Foreign Relations Division