The woman nominated by the White House to serve as the next ambassador to Kyrgyzstan predicts Manas Transit Center will be available to the U.S. military for as long as it’s needed. In comments before the U.S. Senate panel considering her confirmation, nominee Pamela Spratlen said:
“While we’ve had our ups and downs with Kyrgyzstan, there have been negotiations over the exact elements of how we would cooperate with Kyrgyzstan to use the transit center, in every instance we’ve been able to come to an agreement with Kyrgyzstan on a way forward,” Spratten told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I think the Kyrgyz authorities clearly understand the importance of a secure and stable Afghanistan. … And I believe that it will be possible for us to continue to rely on the cooperation of the authorities of Kyrgyzstan for the use of the transit center for as long as we need it.”
Here’s a link to coverage of the committee hearing by EurasiaNet.org: click here.
A new report from The Seattle Times indicates Boeing executives, after evaluating Air Force data inadvertently sent to both companies vying for the next generation aerial refueling tanker, are giving up hope of landing the lucrative military contract.
An analyst who favors the Boeing bid, and unnamed congressional sources, say Airbus is likely to get the estimated $35 billion contract based on how the Air Force scored the two aircraft on mission-effectiveness ratings known as IFARA — Integrated Fleet Aerial Refueling Assessment.
The full story, which first appeared in Monday editions of the Times, can be found by here.
The U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Tatiana Gfoeller, is in the international spotlight for her detailed description of a 2008 meeting in Bishkek with a surprisingly candid Prince Andrew and British business representatives in a communique that’s among the thousands of secret diplomatic cables disclosed online this week by the Website Wiki Leaks. It’s a fascinatingly amusing inside glimpse of the intertwined world of politics and business.
But equally interesting, though drawing substantially less attention, is a 2009 cable describing a Feb. 13 meeting in which Gfoeller astutely notes that China Ambassador Zhang Yannian ridiculed by never “categorically” denied assertions that the People’s Republic would give Kyrgyzstan a $3 billion aid package to shut down the U.S. tanker base at Manas. A digital copy of the confidential cable can be found at the link above, but here’s an interesting passage:
After opening pleasantries, the Ambassador mentioned that Kyrgyz officials had told her that China had offered a $3 billion financial package to close Manas Air Base and asked for the Ambassador’s reaction to such an allegation. Visibly flustered, Zhang temporarily lost the ability to speak Russian and began spluttering in Chinese to the silent aide diligently taking notes right behind him. Once he had recovered the power of Russian speech, he inveighed against such a calumny, claiming that such an idea was impossible, China was a staunch opponent of terrorism, and China’s attitude toward Kyrgyzstan’s decision to close Manas was one of “respect and understanding.”
At the time of the meeting, the U.S. military base had been served with an eviction notice, which was later withdrawn after the Pentagon agreed to nearly quadruple the annual rental rate to
$60 million, accompanied with other U.S. aid. Diplomats also had heard that Russia, which also has a military base in Kyrgyzstan, had offered the Kyrgyz a $2 billion financial aid package as well in exchange for expulsion of the U.S. air base.
Zhang, according to the cable, went on to suggest that the eviction notice was little more than a ploy by the Kyrgyz to squeeze more money out of the United States, leading to a somewhat candid exchange:
“This is all about money,” he said. He understood from the Kyrgyz that they needed $150 million. The Ambassador explained that the U.S. does provide $150 million in assistance to Kyrgyzstan each year, including numerous assistance programs. Zhang suggested that the U.S. should scrap its assistance programs. “Just give them $150 million in cash” per year, and “you will have the Base forever.” Very uncharacteristically, the silent young aide then jumped in: “Or maybe you should give them $5 billion and buy both us and the Russians out.” The aide then withered under the Ambassador’s horrified stare.
Jet fuel, essentially the lifeblood of Manas Transit Center, has become a worsening diplomatic problem for the United States.
Kyrgyz government leaders want the Pentagon to scrap its new, $630 million supply contract with Mina Corp., which many believe has ties to ousted Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev and is the subject of a corruption investigation by authorities in Bishkek. A U.S. congressional panel investigating ownership of the company has found no connections to Bakiyev.
The (London) Telegraph published a good wrapup of the standoff in today’s editions, an electonic copy of which can be found here. And late last month, The Washington Post published a lengthy examination of Mina Corp.’s secretive ownership, which includes a retired U.S. intelligence officer from California who owned a hamburger joint in Bishkek before becoming a billionaire fuel supplier. An electronic version of The Washington Post article can be found here.
The new supply contract was announced last week. Terms include a one-year, $315 million agreement for delivery of 96 million gallons of fuel, with an optional one-year extension. The agreement also allows for the use of subcontractors.
Kyrgyzstan’s state-run oil company, in conjunction with a Russian fuel supplier, was among the nine bidders for the contract. Mina Corp. and its sister company, Red Star, have held the fuel delivery contract at Manas since 2003. The U.S. State Department hasn’t commented on Kyrgyz demands to withdraw the supply contract with Mina.
Here’s an electronic recap of the Manas-related articles published over the past week in The Spokesman-Review’s print editions:
Tuesday (10.19.2010): Front-line support — A look at a typical refueling mission over the rugged battlefields of Afghanistan.
Thursday (10.21.2010): Rebuilding hope — A look at the humanitarian assistance efforts of U.S. military men and women deployed at Manas, many of them Fairchild volunteers.
And, here’s an SR article from 2009 examining Fairchild’s links to creation of the U.S. base at Manas amid an eventually scuttled eviction notice. Among the tidbits: So many Fairchild airmen were deployed at the base that they staged a makeshift Bloomsday run one year; and an unfortunate mishap involving a fiery collision between a KC-135 and a commercial airliner.
Two defense experts stepped up the pressure this week to end the political debate over the next generation aerial refueling tanker, and move forward — even while acknowleding that another round of delays is possible, at least in the short term.
Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research, considers aerial refueling critical to national defense, particularly in the Pacific, and predicts that next month’s expected selection may be delayed yet again by a few more months, calling the fierce competion for the $35 billion contract one of the “longest and most complicated acquisitions ever.” She’s written a white paper called “9 Secrets of the Tanker War,” which examines the decade-long effort to choose a replacement for the KC-135.
It’s an interesting read and some may conclude she favors the EADS bid over the Boeing bid. She insists she’s not taking sides except to point out that when limiting examination only to the needs of the Pacific, which is her primary focus, a tanker that has greater offload capability and longer “linger” times would seem preferable. More on that can be found in a posting at DoD Buzz, along with a potent reader comment thread.
Meanwhile, another defense expert, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman Selp, added his voice to those expressing concern over continued delays, telling reporters Oct. 19 at the National Press Club that aerial refueling is critical to combat commanders:
“I think everyone’s worst nightmare is a KC-135 disappears over the mid-Atlantic,” he said on a Federal News Radio segment about the tanker issue. “How did it go down? Will we ever find out? And is it because of an aging aircraft, and what does that mean about the risks that we have to do with our sons and daughters flying that aircraft. So that urgency is there.”
Having just spent 42 hours or so flying in KC-135s over the past week and a half, including two North Atlantic crossings between Fairchild and RAF Mildenhall, the scenario described by Selp was a bit too close for personal comfort. It’s a route that Fairchild crews fly at least once a week shuttling new equipment and personnel to Kyrgyzstan and back.
Airman 1st Class Travis Carter had been in Baghdad when combat operations dwindled and he found out he’d be redeployed to Kyrgyzstan.
Initially worried about what it would be like, he’s now glad to be at Manas, assigned to the logistics and readiness squadron. He helps oversee the fuel-intake depot, where nearly half a million gallons of fuel is trucked to the base daily before being treated and prepared for aviation use.
“You still have to be aware,” Carter said earlier this week when drawing comparisons between Manas and Baghdad. “But we work with Kyrgyz nationals every day they’re really trustworthy.”
Manas commanders regularly struggle with what they consider flawed perceptions of the U.S. air base’s military role showing up in Russian, Kyrgyz and other predominantly foreign media.
So, Manas is turning inside out the military’s precautionary mindset that all information be guarded on a “need to know” basis, and hoping that a more open and inviting relationship with the supply base’s neighbors will help ease Kyrgyz apprehension about its purpose.
“We call it `a need to share,’” said Col. Dwight Sones, commander of the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing at Manas.
The base has begun actively encouraging Kyrgyz nationals to visit the Transit Center, drawing an estimated 2,000 from the Bishkek area last week for tours, demonstrations and barbecue. Earlier, it hosted several foreign media organizations from as far away as Russia, China, Japan and England.
So far, it’s helped identify at least one contributor to some of the worried speculation: windowless dormitories with separate air conditioning units for each room.
The perception apparently had been that the buildings were being secretly used for something much more important than dormitories because it’s so uncommon in this part of the world to provide such amenities for rank-and-file troops, explained Major John Elolf.
The solution? Elolf made sure that those who were worried about the buildings got a chance to tour them.
Airmen from the 92nd Air Refueling Wing out of Fairchild Air Force Base made a humanitarian visit to the Solnyshko preschool in Vasilievka, Kyrgyzstan, on Monday, Oct 18, 2010. The children received donated winter coat, balloons, stuffed animals and school supplies, as well as the visitors’ attention. Military servicemen and -women from the Manas Transit Center have been volunteering regularly at schools, orphanages and women’s centers in communities near the base.
UPDATE: An electronic version of the article published Thursday in The SR about humanitarian outreach efforts at Manas can be found here: http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2010/oct/21/rebuilding-hope/
Some things are universal.
And now it would seem safe to add “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to that list.
The 1969 children’s classic by Eric Carle became an instant hit with a roomful of Kyrgyz preschoolers this week, read to them by Tech Sgt. Trish Newton and translated into Russian and native Kyrgyz by an Air Force interpreter and the preschool’s principal.
At one point in the story, as the caterpillar ate through a bunch of strawberries after chomping through other fruits and vegetables four days in a row, a young boy laughed and began talking rapidly. Others in the classroom began laughing, too.
The interpreter explained that the boy was amused that something so small could eat so much and still be so hungry.
Later, of course, the youngsters reacted with soft “oooohs” of approval as the story ends and – SPOILER ALERT – the caterpillar emerges from its cocoon as a beautiful butterfly.
Newton was among a handful of Manas volunteers journeying to the Solnyshko preschool in a small impoverished village about 20 miles from the air base to deliver winter coats and blankets donated by Spokane-area families and churches. The coat-and-blanket drive was organized by KHQ TV. The donated supplies were flown to Kyrgyzstan aboard a Fairchild-based KC-135 deployed to Manas last week.
Military servicemen and women have been volunteering regularly at schools, orphanages and women’s centers in communities near the base as part of an outreach effort.
(Watch for a full story and photo package about this week’s humanitarian mission in an upcoming edition of The SR and, of course, at spokesman.com.)
Stars and Stripes today rolled out a Page One examination of America’s aging KC-135 fleet, questioning whether two wars have put too much strain on aircraft designed in the 1950s and facing replacement delays because of mishaps, scandal and politics.
It’s a good overall read, and includes interesting insights from a broad range of observers. The story focuses on the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall in England, though many of the sentiments expressed are similar to those I heard during the past few days at Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan, where about a dozen Fairchild tankers are deployed.
Just in case you missed the hyperlink above, here it is again: http://www.stripes.com/news/taxed-by-wars-aging-air-tankers-suffer-fleet-fatigue-1.122207
There’s a saying among KC-135 crews that goes something like, “You can’t kick ass without tanker gas.” It’s a not-so-subtle way of reminding hotshot fighter jocks that the range and versatility of their sleek, high-powered strike jets — particularly when fully armed — would be much more limited without the extra fuel delivered in mid air day and night by the Air Force’s massive aerial tanker fleet.
But those ever-present tankers would have nothing to deliver if it weren’t for P-O-L, the link in the supply chain that stands for “Petroleum, Oil and Lubricants.”
Manas Transit Center’s bladder farm can hold nearly 4 million gallons of fuel, most of it aviation grade. Deliveries arrive from Bishkek around the clock, keeping the 20 bladders filled, each of which can hold 200,000 gallons. It takes four to five tarmac fuel trucks to prepare a KC-135R Stratotanker for each refueling mission.
“We’re the largest expeditionary bladder farm” in the U.S. Defense Department, said Master Sgt. Christina Scampatilla, who runs the fueling facility.
About 120 members of the Iowa National Guard, part of an advance crew for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, waited patiently in lines Sunday outside of a Manas supply tent, where they filed in based on body size to be issued body armor.
The group was expected to board a plane for Afghanistan by Monday, making preparations for when the 3,100-member bridgade joins them at Bagram. On a supply base that moves, on average, 1,200 troops a day, the guardsmen stood out for a couple of reasons. They were noticeably more focused while in line for the supply tent, reorganizing themselves quickly into new lines after being advised of a change in procedure, and appeared to be a bit older, on average, than many of the troop clusters found throughout Manas.
“We figure that about 60 percent (of the brigade) has been deployed before,” said Major Mike Wunn. It’s believed to be the largest unit call up of the Iowa National Guard since World War II.
Two F/A-18E Super Hornets from the decorated U.S. Navy attack squadron VFA 105, commonly known as the “Gunslingers,” were among the half dozen fighter jets refueled Saturday above Afghanistan by a Fairchild-based KC-135 tanker and crew on deployment in Kyrgyzstan.
The carrier-based strike fighters rely on the aerial tanker’s wing-mounted refueling hoses rather than the tail boom that most aircraft use for air-to-air fuel deliveries. The fighter jet’s fuel nozzle is located on the nose of the aircraft, which pilots must guide into the hose and keep their speed and course matched up with the KC-135R Stratotanker until the delivery is complete.
The squadron’s jets are easy to spot because its nickname is emblazoned in capital letters across the strike fighters’ massive drop tanks.
The Gunslingers have racked up a number of history-making accomplishments, including first fighter squadron led by a female, Cmdr. Sara Joyner, who also has become the first woman to lead an entire carrier air wing. The squadron is based aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, which has been launching combat sorties in support of U.S. and Coalition forces serving in Afghanistan since this summer.
An SR photo slideshow from the refueling sortie can be found here: http://www.spokesman.com/picture-stories/over-afghanistan/
An electronic version of The SR article published Tuesday about the Manas refueling mission can be found here: http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2010/oct/19/front-line-support/